Return to Chile

Published: February 15th 2010
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Crossing the Andes
Having loved Patagonian Chile so much, I decided to return to the country to explore the central and northern regions. In retrospect this logic was flawed as the south is so different to the rest of the country. Where the south had wonderful landscapes and great beers, the north has uninspiring towns and cities and Crystal/Escudo drinking hordes.

Nevertheless the trip started well with the lake and road trip across the Andes. This is how Che and Alberto crossed into Chile in The Motorcycle Diaries although the beautiful isolation of that scene was tempered by the hordes of tourists on my trip. We drove from Bariloche to Puerto Pañuelo, bordering the Nahuel Huapi Lake where we boarded the Victoria Andina catamaran to sail along the lake to Puerto Blest. The sun shone through grey clouds as we sailed along, making for a beautiful though chilly trip. A short bus trip then took us to Peurto Alegre where we boarded the Ciudad de la Fé for a short ride on Lake Frias to Peurto Frias. Here we passed through Argentine customs before boarding another bus to drive to Puella in the Perez Rosales National Park, officially crossing the border along the way. The scenery in the National Park is beautiful, but although we stopped for 2 hours for lunch, there was no way to walk around without being attacked by swarms of bees.

After lunch, we walked to the harbour on Lake Todos los Santos for the final boat ride to Petrohue on the Lagos Andinos. There were potential views of volcanoes on this section but it had clouded over by now which was disappointing (as was the boat's refusal to accept Argentine pesos to purchase a beer for the trip). Arriving in Petrohue we then visited the Saltos de Petrohue, an interesting series of little waterfalls with the Osorno Volcano in the background. Then the final drive alongside Lake Llanquihue took us to Puerto Varas, the final destination. The whole trip took about 12 hours and despite the touristy nature of it and the overcast conditions in the afternoon, it was a journey well worth doing and certainly one of the more unique border crossings I've done.

I spent the next day in Puerto Varas, which meant that by 10am I was struggling for things to do. It's quite a sweet town though, on the shores of Lake Llanquihue with the Osorno and Calbuco volcanos in the distance, reminiscent of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. But if you're not climbing a volcano (wasn't in the mood) there ain't a whole lot to do besides walking along the shore or lying on the beach. There were some very good restaurants in town though including the "Cork" bar (which we could have used in Ushuaia) and some great new artesanal beers - Colonos and Szot as well as a Torres del Paine to complete my Austral beer label collection. On checking out of the hostel, the receptionist was aghast that I had only spent one night in the "best town in Chile". I assumed she was just being parochial but after visiting Santiago and La Serena, she might have been onto something.

I travelled the 1000km north to Santiago on an overnight bus, following the Pan-American Highway. Although I chose the cheaper bus option, it was still luxurious - the bus system here is excellent (I guess with no trains it needs to be). Arrived to a hot, big, noisy city, squeezed into the sweltering metro to get to the hostel only to find I couldn't check in for another 4 hours - not impressed (the staff at La Chimba were on the whole pretty useless). I had been expecting big things of Santiago, not sure why, but found it disappointing. For a capital city of a relatively wealthy country with a Spanish colonial heritage I thought it would have a historical and attractive core, like the Mexican colonial towns writ large. But save for a handful of buildings around the main plaza there was very little - instead lots of high rise buildings and endless fairly tacky commercial streets. There is a very nice hill park in the centre, Cerro Santa Lucia, which you can hike up for panoramic views of the city. The postcard view of Santiago, a city under the Andean peaks, was shrouded in smog though, meaning you could barely see the mountains. Even if they were visible, the cityscape of high rise towers in the foreground wouldn't have made for the most attractive vista.

I was staying in the Barrio Bellavista, just north of the river (well, fast moving stream of brown sludge would be more accurate). Bellavista is a sweet area though, home to numerous restaurants, bars and clubs in attractive historical buildings. In the evenings the pavements are filled with locals drinking litre bottles of Escudo or Cristal beer on the plastic tables and chairs of the street bars. The area could do with some renovation though, with lots of historical buildings just crumbling away. One area money has clearly been spent on is the Patio Bellavista, a series of courtyards with expensive bars, restaurants and shops but this has ended up mostly devoid of character and atmosphere.

After three long days in the capital it was time to head to the coast and to Chile's urban gem, the UNESCO world heritage site of Valparaiso. At first glance, the noise, choking traffic and endless tacky commercial streets were reminiscent of Santiago. But in the hills that rise above the bay, Valpo has charm and character in abundance. The steep hills are packed with houses, many brightly coloured especially in the Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Alegre areas. Connecting them with downtown are Valpo's famous ascensors - old funicular elevators at angles of up to 50 degrees. I had to get one as soon as I arrived to reach my hostel and it was a thrilling experience, again reminding me of the scene in The Motorcycle Diaries. The next two days were spent exploring the hills, riding up and down the ascensors. Like Venice and Dubrovnik, it's not the specific attractions that are important but just wandering the streets and exploring the neighbourhoods.

The first day I couldn't help wondering why downtown Valparaiso couldn't be made a bit more pleasant for local and tourist alike, like by making some of the plazas pedestrianised and available for more restaurants and cafe bars. But part of Valpo's charm is its rough edges which adds to its bohemian nature and made it a home for poets like Pablo Neruda. It's undeniably a very romantic city, but only if your idea of romantic is closer to The Pogues than Westlife. Valpo is very much a working city, with a busy port, naval base and is the site of the national congress so that despite its attractions it isn't overly burdened with tourists.

La Serena
My ultimate destination in Chile was San Pedro de Atacama, in the deserts of the far north. The 25 hour bus journey didn't appeal though so I broke the trip up by staying in La Serena for a couple of nights, which was not to be the best travel decision I've ever made. La Serena, Chile's second oldest city, is a pleasant enough town but has little in the way of interest. Finding no dorms on hostelworld, I "splurged" on a private room at Aji Verde hostel, which at least gave me a comfortable nights sleep and a chance to empty my bag and re-organise. There's a number of options for day tours from La Serena. I chose to do a night visit to the Mamalluca Observatory for some stargazing - the clear nature of the skies in this region makes it the home of numerous observatories. Unfortunately the so-called "bilingual" tour involved the guide speaking Spanish the whole way there to the all-but-one Spanish speaking group. We did have an English-speaking guide at the observatory but our tour obviously didn't include all the features promised. Nevertheless the guide was interesting and we got some good views through the telescopes (despite it being a near full moon), including Mars, Saturn and its rings, Sirius, Beetlegeuse (sp?) and several other clusters and nebulae. Also saw the Southern Cross for the first time and he explained how it's used to provide a constant reference for the southern hemisphere in the absence of Polaris.

I was due to go on an Elqui Valley tour the next day but skipped it due to the lack of sleep from the observatory and the poor nature of the trip from the tour company (Elqui Valley Tours). Of course they refused to pay back the deposit I paid despite giving a completely misleading description of the observatory tour. I also had the worst meal of my life (no exaggeration and including Cuba) at the Rapsodia restaurant - a vile concoction they had the cheek to call a pizza. So next time you're in La Serena, avoid Elqui Valleys Tours and the Rapsodia restaurant. Actually, to keep it simple, next time you arrive in La Serena just turn around and get a ticket out of there.

San Pedro de Atacama
An overnight bus journey took me to the oasis town of San Pedro in the Atacama desert. On arrival, I spent about 45 minutes wandering around the dusty desert town trying to find my hostel which I eventually found right on the edge of the settlement. It's a sweet place though run by a very nice family. Next job was to find a bus to Argentina, but unfortunately there were no seats for a week! While San Pedro is a nice town, there's no way I could survive the desert heat for seven days. Eventually I found a private option at over twice the price that was leaving in two days, a day earlier than I planned but had no choice but to book it. Having changed all my accomodation bookings, they then informed me the next day that it was delayed by 24 hours as they didn't have sufficient passenegers (this despite being told I got the last ticket), so had to re-jig everything again. So annoying and typical of my trip in Chile.

San Pedro is a great little town, more like a village really, unlike anywhere else I visited in Chile. Streams from the nearby mountains create an oasis in the desert that San Pedro was built on but the desert is still very much prevalent in the intense heat and dusty streets. The village is built around the main plaza, a series of white-washed adobe buildings including the main church and several trees allowing shade from the sun. In the surrounding streets are an endless number of tour operators offering trips to the surrounding attractions as well as several good restaurants and bars. In short it's a bit of a tourist town, but more for backpackers than big tour groups.

On Sunday I did a tour of the Moon Valley which was pretty good. We initially went to Death Valley, where we did a short trek followed by running down the sand dunes. After a visit to a mirador overlooking the salt mountains we entered the Moon Valley Park, did another short trek through the salt rocks (built from crystallised salt covered with clay and sand) before climbing to a viewpoint for sunset. The sunset was amazing, cloudy enough for some spectacular colour formations, with the dramatic landscapes of the moon valley providing a perfect backdrop. The only disappointment, as is often the case with tours like this, is that we had to rush back only 15 minutes after sunset rather than appreciate the full effect until dark.

The following extra day in San Pedro was spent in full chill out mode, doing absolutely nothing except hanging out in the hostel and town and spending the remaining Chilean pesos. The day turned out to be a local religious feast day which is taken very seriously here. There were about eight different groups of brass bands and associated dancers which gathered in the main plaza after dark to perform. They all chose a section of the square and performed simultaneously, meaning it was an absolute cacophany of noise for about an hour, each group competing to be the loudest and to attract the most spectators. The dancers were dressed in outlandish costumes, ranging from gaudy dancing clothes to indigenous dress and animal costumes, and their routines and stamina were very impressive. A nice way to finish a mixed trip to Chile.

I feel like I've been quite critical of Chile so let's finish on a high note. The range and quality of beers in this country is excellent, one of the best I've seen and always an important determinant when rating countries. Like most places, there are a few very popular and very average beers, in this case Cristal and Escudo especially, but also a great range of cervezas artesanales (artesan beers) produced locally but widely available. My favourite was the Austral range from Punta Arenas for both the taste and I guess the association with Patagonia and Torres. Their beers were the default lager (ok), the excellent Calafate, Patagonan Pale Ale (ridiculously pronounced palay alay!), Yagan Dark Ale and a special edition called Torres del Paine itself. Other notable ranges included the German influenced (and rather unfortunately titled) Kunstmann beer from Valdivia near Peurto Varas and Del Peurto from Valparaiso, the latter only spoiled by the fact that I first tried it while watching Liverpool's woeful game against Wolves. Aside from the beers itself, the artesanales producers make excellent labels which act as great momentos of the trip (when they're pliable to coming off the bottle). So gracias Chile y Salud!

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