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Teaching and Traveling – Chile

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About my Trip to Chile

One of my favorite countries to teach about is Chile due to its unique shape and size. Chile’s shape is largely due to the natural boundaries created by the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. When Chile received its independence in 1818, the country consisted of only the middle third. It wasn’t until the late 1880s, that Chile conquered the northern portion of its present-day country during the War of the Pacific. Add that to the southern portion that was taken from indigenous peoples, and Chile gets its current shape.

Chile has three very unique areas: the Atacama Desert region in the north, the Santiago region in the center, and the Patagonia region in the south. One additional area worth noting is Easter Island, which was annexed in 1888. For this trip, I chose to focus my travels on the Santiago region and the Atacama Desert region. I went on this trip in August, which was the South American winter. As a result, I chose not to visit Patagonia.

Chile Top Page


Education, Politics, and Protests

Santiago, the capital city of Chile, is one of the largest cities in Latin America and home to around one-third of Chile’s population. One of the things I enjoy teaching about Chile is politics. In 1970, the economy of Chile was struggling. People were poor, and less than 1% of the people controlled the wealth. As a result, the Chilean people elected communist Salvador Allende as president. It was the first time that a communist had ever been elected. Allende was never fully able to implement Communism as the US assisted the Chilean military with their overthrow of Allende.

After the overthrow of Allende, Augusto Pinochet took over and ruled as a dictator. Pinochet did many terrible things, but one of the worst was dismantling public education. To remove any aspects of socialism, Pinochet forced free-market policies, which included the privatization of healthcare and education.

Salvador Allende-The First Ever Elected Communist

During my visit to Santiago, I wanted to learn more about the educational issues that Chileans still face today as a result of Pinochet’s policies. It didn’t take long as my second day in Santiago I ran into a group protesting the Chilean education policies. Through my broken Spanish, I learned that Chile has three types of schools: public, subsidized private schools, and private schools. The people were protesting because the public schools were extremely poor quality. Poor quality schools directly lead to lower scores on university entrance exams. As a result, students who attend public schools have fewer college opportunities and end up working low paying jobs. Throughout the protest, protesters were chanting something in Spanish. All I could understand was the name “Pinochet,” and the word “Educacion.” I would later learn that they were chanting “Down with Pinochet education.”

It was certainly interesting to get to watch a large protest. The protest was government-sanctioned and ended in front of La Moneda, which is the official seat of the President of Chile. That morning, I had no idea that the protest was even taking place. I had set out to take pictures of La Moneda Palace and was surprised to see hundreds of police officers and military personnel lining the streets. After some research on my phone, I realized that there was a protest scheduled, and it was government approved. I must note that anytime I visit a foreign country, I typically stay clear of people protesting. This particular protest was a special circumstance as it was a topic that I was incredibly interested in.

Following the protest, I was finally able to get some pictures of La Moneda.  La Moneda is important in my teaching as it is the seat of the Chilean president.  Despite having political issues during the time of Allende and Pinochet, Chile was ahead of the rest of the world in one particular area.  In 2006, Chile elected Michelle Bachelet as president. Bachelet became one of the first elected female heads of state in the world. Despite initially only serving one term, Bachelet was elected a second time in 2014. 

La Moneda


One issue that Santiago faces is pollution. The problem is worsened due to the Andes Mountains. When the winds blow inward from the Pacific Ocean, towards the Andes Mountains, pollution becomes trapped with nowhere to go. During my visit to Santiago, I wanted to see first hand how the Andes trap the pollution. I had read that the best way to see this visual is to go to the top of the Gran Torre, Latin America’s tallest building.

The Gran Torre, also known as the Costanera Center, is 62 stories tall and the second tallest building in all of Latin America. At the top of the Gran Torre, is an observation deck that provides a panoramic view of the entire Santiago Metro Area. Looking to the east, the Andes Mountains come into view. During my visit, I could easily see the pollution and smog trapped against the Andes.

The Atacama Desert

After spending a few days in Santiago and going to the Pacific Ocean resort towns of Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar, I flew to the town of Calama. From Calama, I took a two-hour transfer by car to the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama. This town acts as the gateway to the Atacama Desert, which is one of the driest places in the world.

The Atacama is extremely dry due to the rain-shadow effect caused by the Andes Mountains. Add this to the cold ocean currents of the Pacific Ocean, which cause permanent high pressure, and the Atacama becomes one of the driest places on Earth. The only place that is drier than the Atacama is the Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

Death/Mars Valley

During my visit to the Atacama Desert, I took multiple tours. My first tour would take me to the dry area known as Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). The original and correct name of this region is Valle de la Marte (Mars Valley). Over the years, the name became lost in translation and is often referred to as “Death Valley.”

Death/Mars valley is full of red rocks that look similar to the surface of Mars. As this is part of one of the driest places on Earth, there is no permanent water. As I toured Death/Mars Valley, I was able to take many spectacular pictures for my Atacama Desert presentation. Some highlights included, “Coyote Rock,” multiple dunes and the salt flats. My students especially enjoy seeing the picture of me standing on Coyote Rock. According to our tour guide, this rock gets its name because it is where Wile E. Coyote would stand to drop something on the Roadrunner. Before I walked out onto Coyote Rock for my picture, I was assured by our guide that it was safe and that no one had ever fallen off the rock.

Atacama Lagoons

My second tour took me up into the higher elevations of the Atacama. At these elevations, there is slightly more water, which creates a series of lagoons. These lagoons are fed by groundwater that flows through the faults.

The three most visited lagoons are the Chaxa Lagoon, Miscanti Lagoon, and Miñiques Lagoon. These lagoons are often referred to as the “Altiplano Lagunas” in Spanish. During my visit, the lagoons were frozen. The high elevations of the Atacama get quite cold. If it was summer, the lagoons would be filled with salty water.

The first Lagoon I visited was the Chaxa Lagoon, which is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Located on the Salar de Atacama, the largest Salt Flat in Chile, the Chaxa Lagoon is home to a huge flock or flamboyance of Flamingos. The water of the Chaxa Lagoon is salty, and there are no fish in the lagoon, so the flamingos feed on brine shrimp. It is the carotene in the brine shrimp which gives the flamingos their pink color.

Recently, there has been a lot of publicity surrounding both the Chaxa Lagoon and the Salar de Atacama due to the mining of lithium. As the world turns towards electric and hybrid cars, added with an increased cell phone and computer use, lithium is now more valuable than ever. While lithium mining is great for Chile’s economy, it has created a devastating environmental disaster. Mining the lithium has led to additional water shortages, destroyed the jagged salt flats, and pushed the endangered James Flamingo to the brink of extinction. These issues are occurring because the only way to mine lithium is to evaporate the water and then extract the brine from deep underground. Statistics vary, but it is believed that every ton of lithium comes at a cost of evaporating 500,000 gallons of water.

I have my students read an article about this topic and then come up with an opinion on whether they believe that the environmental cost of “going green” is worth it or not. I present both sides of the argument equally and do not interject my opinion until after they have shared their opinion. Last year, one student found pictures online of a flock of white flamingos. Apparently, since my visit, the harvesting of lithium has caused a change in the brine shrimp. As a result, some of the flamingos’ colors have changed to white.

Chaxa Lagoon
Lake Miscanti
Miñiques Lagoon

Tour Troubles

The next day, I visited the Piedras Rojas (Red Rocks) and then the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons. It would be an interesting trip as the back wheels fell off our van. Apparently, the van had been serviced in Calama the night before, and the mechanic had forgotten to tighten the lugnuts. If it was not for the skillful driving of our driver, I would likely not be here today. It would take hours for help to arrive, and although I was able to see the Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons, I did not feel like I was able to fully experience them.

Things would get worse the next day, as the same tour group forgot to pick me up for my tour of the El Tatio Geysir. This was my final day in the Atacama, and it was disappointing to miss out on so many of the sights I wanted to see. I use this as an example in my travel club of how things sometimes don’t work out the way that they were planned. In the end, I still had a successful trip to Chile and feel so fortunate that I was able to share this first-hand experience with my students.

Piedras Rojas
Piedras Rojas
The Broken Cosmo Andino Van
Our Broken Van