A short time in a long country

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South America » Chile » Santiago Region » Santiago
October 29th 2005
Published: November 20th 2005
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Shrowded in morning mist. Apparently it clears up by the afternoon.
At the border between Tacna and Arica, we drove the couple of kilometres to the Chilean border post. There, we had our bags searched again, just as at the Peruvian side, but this time they had x-ray machines and this was a sign of what was to come: Chile is very much more advanced and wealthy than Peru.

We had to put our clocks forward by two hours! I’ve never had to do that at a land border before.

I got to Arica and was in the situation of getting used to another country and another currency again. I intitially thought the exchange rate was twice what it was so was shocked to find Chile so expensive. Turns out it was only half as expensive. It’s still cheaper than the UK, but very much dearer than Peru. Still, it only cost GBP20 for a 26 hour bus journey down the Panamericana to the capital Santiago. And this is what I did, even though the second day would be my birthday!

I had an hour or so to kill in Arica, so I took a taxi to the beach. It was the only chance I had to dip my hand in the Pacific in South America and I didn’t want to pass it up. Arica is a beach resort and in the summer is full of tourists from all over Chile. Still, it’s not that great a place.

My Pullman bus left the bus station a little late. We were passing through the Atacama desert. Supposedly, this is the driest desert in the world, and it certainly looked it. Everywhere was dust and there was next to no vegetation. It was like a mucky sand pit. As the bus left, the staff came round to collect our passports. Didn’t find out why until we got to the border between “Region I” and “Region II” where we had another customs check. I’ve never been to a customs check within a country before. They must be very worried about drugs coming down from Peru.

There were hardly any tourists on my bus and I think I may have been the only British person. We must be off the Gringo Trail.

I’ve been finding it very hard to understand people. Chileans have a completely different accent from the Andean countries and at first I wondered if they were actually
Stopping at a custom post...Stopping at a custom post...Stopping at a custom post...

...within a country! Crossing from "Region I" to "Region II".
speaking Spanish! They seem to miss out a lot of letters. For example, where an Ecuadorian would say "Es las tres y media", a Chilean will say "E' la' tre´y media". I'm beginning to understand what it must be like for foreigners when they come to Scotland and try to speak english to the locals! Still, I'm getting used to it.

We get meals on the bus and the staff are very attentive. Better than Peruvian busses, that’s for sure!

The Panamericana doesn’t hug the coast. Instead, it goes inland for quite long stretches and there are some sizable ranges of hills in northern Chile. On the side of the road, I could see hypermarkets (“Lider”). That’s something I haven’t seen for a long time.

Night fell, we kept on driving. Eventually, we bedded down and I slept surprisingly well. When we awoke, I was amazed to see that we were still in the desert! Just this time, there was more scrub. Chile is long! It’s the “longest” country in the world from North-South. It’s the rough equivalent of a country that stretches from London to Lagos.

Immediately, I can see that people here look different.

Modern, western-looking city. I can see La Paz would like to look like this, but it has a long way to go.
Unlike the Andean countries, there are hardly any indigenous people left in Chile, most of them being exterminated or out-bred by immigrants. Here, people have a lighter skin tone. Actually, there were quite a lot of immigrants from Northern Europe. In fact, one of the heroes of Chilean independence rejoiced in the fantastic name of Bernardo O'Higgins (he was the son of an Irishman). So consequently, seeing Spanish-style Christian crosses by the side of the road doesn’t look so out of place. The place definitely has a more Hispanic feel.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that there is loads more English language music on the radio. This was quite rare in the Andes. I’m feeling culture shock from arriving in a more developed place. I could very easily be in Spain, Southern France or Italy.

When we finally got Santiago, I checked into what has to be one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at: The "Happy House Hostel". It’s in a “bohemian” area called Barrio Brasil. The bars are full of men with beards and women with scarves. I spent the whole time in Chile adjusting to the western-ness of the place. A good stepping stone for New
Typical Chilean sandwichTypical Chilean sandwichTypical Chilean sandwich

Massive sandwich: "Churrasco con Palta" containing steak and avocado.

I slept well in my bed but when I awoke, realised I’d lost my camera! Turned out it was in the internet café I’d been in the previous evening, but had to wait till the evening to find out. Really got to get a handle on all this losing stuff! I was extremely lucky to get my camera back. Incidentally, with the camera were written postcards so if you got a postcard from me from South America, it was also lucky I found my camera!

Santiago is a very nice city and I had quite a relaxing time there. I had a personal reason for visiting as my former MSc supervisor, Jose, is from Chile and lived in Santiago before having to leave the country in a hurry in 1975.

I didn’t enter into sightseeing with the same earnest as before as I was feeling tired from the journey and just fancied relaxing for a while. However, I did visit the Museo de Arte Preocolombio: very interesting and with exhibits from all over South America, not just Chile; and later the National Museum which spookily stopped at the storming of President Allende’s palace in 1974 and
"Old England Toffee""Old England Toffee""Old England Toffee"

Something wrong with the picture they chose???
contained nothing at all about the vile Pinochet regime which continues to divide the country with its legacy. There is also an Art Gallery which had a Worhol exhibition.

On my last day, I took the cable car to the top of Cerro San Cristobel which gives a good view over the city. Santiago sits in large plain surrounded by very high mountains and I got a good perspective of this. When I was there, I tried the local delicacy of “Mote con huesillos”. This is a weird drink containing solid wheat and a dried peach. It looked like a specimen from a medical school, but tasted nice. Chileans have a very sweet tooth. If you get fruit juices here, they have sugar added. Guess it’s a bit like the UK, but totally different from the fantastic natural juices you get in Ecuador.

They are celebrating Hallowe’en in Santiago! I was amazed to see this as there is no connection with Europe or the USA and we are so obviously going into Spring. Turns out, there is a local festival of the dead at this time of year, where people remember their ancestors and now people see fit to have carved pumpkins and witches costumes with it. Bizarre.

One evening, I had dinner in the “Viking Theme” Restarurant in Barrio Brasil. I wouldn’t normally mention a particular meal in this blog, but this place has to be seen to be believed! It’s run by the same company that have a “Nautical Theme” restaurant that takes up the whole side of a block. I suppose if you’re going to have a tacky theme restaurant, you may as well go all the way and make it really tacky. The nautical one does this in spades and have filled every available space with stuff! We wandered in to have a look around rather than eat and the waiters were completely non-fussed. If you go to Santiago, do go and look. We decided to eat in the Viking restaurant instead. The service was snooty but it was still a memorable experience.

Some shops in Santiago seem to operate on the old Soviet system where when you’ve chosen your goods, you get given a ticket. You then go to a kiosk to pay and return with another ticket to pick up your goods. Even for a bottle of water!


Modern City.
only had two and a half days in Santiago, which was enough to get a flavour of the place. I’d love to spend more time in Chile. There are loads of vineyards nearby and of course down south you have the amazing Lake District. I think Jose was upset that I didn’t spend more time here, but the truth is, I didn’t have time and basically I chose to spend a couple of days in Santiago rather than see the Colca Canyon in Peru. I have no regrets about that though.

I love the Chilean flag! It’s like an abstract version of the US flag and has bold colours. Definitely more aesthetically pleasing than the stripy flags of the Andean countries. I now know that it’s similar to the Texan flag and apparently some Texans are upset that Chile has copied them. The fact that Chile has been using it for longer than Texas doesn’t seem to matter....

Got to the airport in good time and managed to get a window seat for my 14 hour flight to Auckland. Didn’t see anything on the flight as it was night of course, but made the journey more comfortable. I’d
"Mote con Huesillos""Mote con Huesillos""Mote con Huesillos"

Unique chilean delicacy. View from Cerro San Cristobel of Santiago in background.
heard horror stories about LAN Chile, but the plane was really comfortable and there was a good amount of legroom. Really good AV system at my seat and spent a lot of time listening to Western music which I’d not heard much of for last six weeks. Looking forward to my trip to New Zealand!


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