Published: May 4th 2012May 4th 2012
I'm currently in the driest desert in the world, having not seen a tree or a cloud for over two days. I arrived in San Pedro yesterday, after a 30 hour bus journey from Santiago. I woke up at 3.30am this morning to see the nearby Geysers at sunrise and I'm now killing time before visiting the famous Valle de la Luna this evening. I'll then take an overnight bus to Arica before taking another bus over the border to La Paz tomorrow morning. It's fair to say I've picked up the pace a little.
This is largely my own fault. At the time I wrote my last blog I had a careful plan mapped out which would allow me to see Santiago, nearby Valparaiso and Mendoza, before heading up to San Pedro de Atacama and then into Bolivia to meet Andrew in La Paz. This hasn't quite worked out as well as expected - this is, after all, South America. The last week has seen cancelled buses, long border waits and a very annoyingly placed public holiday.
I arrived into Santiago from Pukon and went straight to my hostel. Having arrived at just past 7am, there was no
room ready but, after seeing my fall asleep in the hostel lobby, the receptionist and maid took pity on me and my room was prepared. I then had a quick nap and set out to find somewhere to get my iPhone, which had broken on the Torres del Paine trek, repaired. After four weeks of confused looks in small Patagonian villages this ended up being fairly easy.
A few people had told me that Santiago was not a place to stop for too long, but overall the city is fairly likeable. It feels like a slightly quieter, smaller and safer Buenos Aires. It's situated just next to beautful snow-capped mountains but this is more of a curse than a blessing, as the city is covered in thick smog. After taking the cable car up the Cerro San Cristobal to enjoy the famous view and seeing abolutely nothing, I began to doubt the mountains even existed.
I spent a couple of nights in Santiago before going to nearby Valparaiso to meet up with Josh, my old travel buddy in Brazil. If Santiago lacks a little bit of character, Valparaiso almost has too much. A maze of colourful and disordered
hilltop streets situated around a run-down port, it looks somewhere between a quaint English seaside town and a Brazilian favela. It's Chile's cultural capital, filled with amazing street art, musicians, bohemian culture, excellent bars and old ferniculars that take you to the pretty hilltop areas. It's also a little bit rough-around-the-edges, at times bordering on downright ugly.
I briefly caught up with Josh, who was also in a rush to meet some friends up north and then spent a few days enjoying Valparaiso's artistic and laid-back ambience. I could have stayed longer, but I had a strict plan to follow so I booked a bus over the border to Mendoza, Argentina's wine capital.
I arrived at the station to find the bus hadn't turned up and wouldn't be going because the border (which is situated in the middle of the Andes) was closed due to bad weather. Not to worry - I spent an extra day in the Valparaiso area, visiting the nearby upmarket beach city of Vina del Mar, and even getting some sun. The next day I tried again and, although we made it this time, it took the best part of 13 hours, five of
which were spent stationary at the freezing cold border while the border police casually dealt with two day's backlog.
Mendoza was worth the effort: a beautiful city located just next to the Andes and responsible for 70% of Argentina's wine. I headed over to the legendary Mr Hugo's - a bike rental shop owned by an eccentric old man who has become almost iconic amongst backpackers. Unfortunately, it being a bank holiday, all that was left was a tandem so myself and Dan, a guy I met on the bus from Valparaiso, had to ride together all day while local teenagers heckled us. Despite this we had a great day visiting vineyards, a wine museum and olive groves.
Having lost a day, I decided to go back to Santiago and then take a bus straight to San Pedro. The arrival in Santiago proved to be a bit of a disaster. After spending a good hour waiting outside the bus terminal in the cold I was informed that, due to the bank holiday, there were no seats left on any bus to San Pedro until the next evening. The aforementioned bank holiday also meant there was no underground until
8.30am, so I had a few more nice hours in the bus terminal.
Needless to say I was not in a great mood. Having rushed out of Mendoza to have time in San Pedro, I was now having to spent the best part of two days in a city which, despite being fairly nice, had been covered more than adequately on my first visit. And everything was shut. I went back to the previous hostel, tried the sleeping in reception trick again (not successful this time), and then rang Andrew to let him know that, unfortunately, I was going to be a bit late. It proved to be a bit of a recharge, an opportunity to check the bank balance (ouch), ring home and finish a book. Fortunately Halifax decided to cancel my card for the third time on this trip, so I killed a nice hour and half speaking to them on the phone. On the bright side, the weather turned so I was able to both wear my shorts and finally see those mountains.
I arrived in San Pedro and booked a bus to Arica for tonight. Only one day in this place is a bit tragic - it is stunning. This morning I took a tour out onto the altiplano where I saw the stunning night sky (there is no moisture in the air here making it the best place in the world to view stars) and some huge geysers at dawn (only -8 degrees, apparently a mild morning).
Luckily I have managed to see a lot in one manic day and the things I've missed (salt lakes and lagunas) are meant to be much more impressive in Bolivia, just north of here and where Andrew and I will no doubt go after meeting in La Paz. I'm now off on a tour of the Valle de la Luna, which I've been ASSURED will be back in time for my bus tonight. No doubt a funny story for the next entry.