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Published: March 22nd 2008
Close up of the Moon
Taken at the Mamalluca Observatory near Vicuna.
After a fantastic week on Easter Island, it was back to the mainland and the bright lights of Santiago. It was nice to return to a proper bed and hot showers after seven days of camping. Ruth's parents had come out to visit us for two weeks and had arrived by the time we were back in the capital so we lost no time in going to the hotel to meet up with them. We had been in Santiago for a few days before Easter Island, but had left proper exploration of the city until now. I know Santiago isn't everyone's favourite place, but it made a great impression on us. There's much more life here than other Chilean cities, and you could easily spent a week or two here taking in the cities sights. We stayed in Hotel Vegas, a lovely hotel in possibly the nicest street in the city, Calle Londres. I think Vegas was a step up from our usual hotel/hostel in South America, and over the next two weeks we lived like kings, eating in some great restaurants and staying in nice hotels.
The first place we went to see was Cerro Santo Lucia, the hilltop
The highest mountain oustide the Himalayas, Aconcagua is almost 7000 metres high
where Pedro de Valdivia founded the city in 1540; nowadays it's a very popular spot as the views are so good - when there's no smog that is! Santiago has quite a problem with smog, caused both by geography and pollution. Nevertheless, the hilltop is a great place from which to take in this vast city, and if you're lucky enough to visit on a smog less day you can see the Andes. There were even better views from Cerro San Cristobal, the landmark hill in the city, at 880 metres above sea level. It would have been quite a walk to the top but we settled for the quicker ascensor from Bellavista. At the top is an open air auditorium for mass (I think the Pope celebrated mass here in 1987) and a religious statue, from where you have super views of the city and its surroundings.
My favourite Santiago site was just below Cerro San Cristobal, in a quiet street in Bellavista. Here you can visit one of the three former homes of Pablo Nerudu, the famous Chilean poet. I must admit I had never read a line of his poetry before visiting the house, and all
Pizza, wine and pisco in La Serena
A lovely take away meal in La Serena with Ruth's parents
I knew about him really was from the film "Il Postino", but after a fascinating tour of the house we knew him a lot better. He was an eccentric character, an almost impulsive collector, and a very sociable man. Our guide was a fountain of knowledge and related many interesting anecdotes which brought Neruda alive for us. Though he was very defensive of Neruda when we asked any questions that might have been critical of the great man - e.g. was it not a bit hypocritical for a committed Communist to own three houses? - but I guess it's understandable given how political Neruda was and given the political situation of Chile in the last years of his life.
Neruda was heavily involved in Chilean politics and was a close friend of the Socialist President, Salvador Allende. Hence it was no surprise that the military men came to "visit" his house following the coup. Neruda passed away shortly after the takeover, but that didn't stop them destroying most of his possessions. Among the items burned or destroyed were priceless paintings by Picasso and other artists as well as much of Neruda's valuable book collection. Even the Nazis recognised the
Ailbhe, Ruth & Mark in Cafe Central, Santiago
value of looted art! It does make you wonder what sort of people were involved in this takeover. Our guide simply said "These were Chilean military men".
When we were returning from dinner that evening we got quite a surprise when we bumped into Mark & Ailbhe, whom we had met before on Easter Island. It's not the first time in South America that we've accidentally bumped into travellers we've met before but I didn't expect it to happen so soon, especially in a city of 5 million people. So we arranged to meet them for more UNO and drinks later. As we sat down to UNO there was a demonstration going on nearby, outside a house on Calle Londres which apparently had been a place of detention and torture during the Pinochet years. During the military years over 3000 Chileans died and over 27000 disappeared. From the outside it just looked like a normal house and had we not been there that evening we probably would never have realized A small group of people were sitting around watching a guy give a speech about the building and showing a projector movie. I think many Chileans want to ignore
Pablo Neruda's house, in the Bellavista district of Santiago.
the problems of the past and move on, but it's important that the atrocities of the past are not forgotten.
Well, that's enough politics. Before leaving Santiago we took a day trip from Santiago to Valparaiso though I think I enjoyed this day less than Ruth and her parents as when we arrived there I started showing the first signs of food poisoning. It was strange as I'd been in Chile for over a month and a half and was well used to the food. That's the first time "Montezuma's Revenge" has struck me in South America and I had to take it easy for the next few days. I stayed in all the next day as I was still feeling dodgy. Mark & Ailbhe called over to watch the Ireland rugby game, and normally watching Ireland with two fellow Irish people there would have been plenty of alcohol involved but I could barely manage water that day!
A 7 hour bus journey the day after food poisoning is probably not the wisest idea, but it all went smoothly. We left Santiago and went north on the Pan American to La Serena. La Serena is the capital of
Santiago from Cerro San Cristobal
One of the best views over Santiago is from the summit of Cerro San Cristobal, approx 880 m above sea level.
Region III of Chile, a region that contains some of the clearest skies not only in Chile but anywhere in the world. It rarely rains here and there are something like 320 clear nights a year. These clear skies combined with the nearby mountains makes the area around La Serena perfect for astronomy and many of the world's most important observatories are located here. A couple of these cater exclusively for tourists and it was one of these we visited. We booked a tour in La Serena to visit Mamalluco observatory, located an hour away in Vicuna. The bus picked us up at 8, then we got another surprise when Mark & Ailbhe hopped on. We knew they were in La Serena but not that they were on this tour!
We arrived at the observatory at about 11pm, the final drive up was quite spooky as the driver switched of his lights so as not to affect the views of the sky for the people already there. We were then given an excellent tour of the night skies by a guide who seemed to be a complete expert on his subject. He had a very cool torch that allowed
The beautiful Elqui Valley has some of the finest scenery in Chile. Skies are always clear, it hardly ever rains and it seems like an idyllic place to live.
him to point a beam almost at the stars, and he took us through the most important constellations, planets and stars. The skies were so clear that we could see plenty with the naked eye but we also got to look through the telescopes for close up views of some of the stars in the Southern Cross and Orion's Belt. We next had a chance to look through an even larger telescope which he trained on Mars and then Saturn - the view of Saturn's rings was fantastic. At the end of the night the moon was in view and he took each of our digital cameras, held it to the telescope and took a close up picture of the moon. Very impressive!
We didn't get to bed till 3am but there was no rest the next day as we returned to Vicuna to visit the town and see a Pisco factory. At least by day we could appreciate the lovely scenery of the Elqui Valley on the road to Vicuna. Vicuna was a nice town too, and we had a good lunch near the main square before getting down to the main business of the day at the
Bernardo O' Higgins
Practically every Chilean town has a street named after the first President, and many places honour him with a statue. This one is on the main square in La Serena.
Capel pisco factory. We were given our own personal tour in English with Daniela, a student from La Serena University. I've been on quite a few wine/cognac/beer tours over the years and while they are all usually interesting, it's the tasting that's the most important part. Nevertheless, we did learn a few interesting facts. One was that Capel produces 40 million bottles of Pisco a year, 95% of which is for the domestic market. Given the population of Chile is 15 million that works out at quite a lot per person! And Capel isn't the only company! Furthermore, I believe beer sells even more than Pisco in Chile. The tasting was a little disappointing. She showed us the 15 or so different bottles that Capel produces and then allowed us taste only one each. I think we might have bought more had we tasted more!
I was very impressed by the Elqui Valley and was sorry we couldn't stay longer to see more of the off the beaten path places. Hoever, time was limited so we retraced our steps from La Serena, returned to Santiago for a day then crossed the Andes to Mendoza. This is one of the
Church in Andacullo
Andacullo is a small village in the Elqui Valley, best known for its nearby observatory. The village attracts many pilgrims who come to see the statue of the virgin, officially recognised by the Vatican as a miracle performer.
busiest and slowest crossings between Chile & Argentina so our 7 hour bus journey became 10 thanks to the border delays. However, the scenery near the border was very impressive so there are worse places to be stuck for a few hours! The crossing is near Puente del Inca, which lies at the foot of Cerro Aconcagua, the highest peak in the world outside the Himalayas.
We spent the next few days in and around Mendoza. It was nice to be back in Argentina again and we had a lovely hotel on the main square. We went on a day tour of the vineyards around Mendoza, which included stops at two vineyards, an olive factory, and a church. Mendoza produces something like 80 % of Argentina's wine, but I think both Ruth and I preferred the smaller vineyards and the wines up in Cafayate. Nevertheless, Mendoza was a lovely place and we had a relaxing few days there with Ruth's parents. Our hotel had a pool and I don't think I've ever felt so relaxed in South America as I did in those few days. After two fun weeks seeing some of the highlights of Argentina and Chile we
went our separate ways. Ruth's parents continued to Buenos Aires while we backtracked, crossed the Andes again, returned to Santiago and reluctantly said goodbye to fine dining and nice hotels!!
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