Dogs in Arica
Just the first of many many dogs in Chile
Some countries come on gently, even surreptitiously. You cross the border and for a while you wonder whether there are really differences from the place you just left. But then you start to notice that there is less rubbish around, house design has changed, there is more or less poverty, the roads are better or the landscape has changed. Not so with Chile. You cross the northern border and pretty quickly you might begin to wonder whether you have suddenly switched continents rather than just countries.
I should be careful not to be misleading here. There is no criticism of Peru or any other South American country. Peru, where we came in from, is an interesting and pretty well organised South American country with some of the most beautiful country you will find anywhere in the world. Chile, on the other hand, could be a European country with South American overtones. The roads are generally well maintained, litter and waste is not too apparent, bathrooms work as they are intended and you routinely receive your change without having to ask. Of course, all of this costs. Chile is expensive compared to the other countries we have been travelling through lately.
There is no actual border town at this crossing. Taca is in Peru. Arica is in Chile. They are 65 km apart and, in between the two are the respective border posts. Taca was once taken by the Chileans but is now fiercely Peruvian. Of course, Peruvians will tell you that the whole lot is really part of Greater Peru.
The deal is that you arrive at the bus terminal in Taca and there are taxi drivers. There were desks inside where it looked like we could organise a ride but they directed us outside to where the drivers were camped. The driver at the head of the apparently organised queue negotiates a deal. A standard price per person but we couldn't get him to budge on his position that our 4 bags meant we had to pay for 5 people. But the vehicle was very different. No more Hyundai Getz or equivalent. This was a Ford of a decent size for our trip down the highway. And the costs were different. No more pretty cheap Peruvian prices. The driver was good though. He assisted us, whether we needed it or not, through the immigration and customs systems,
San Pedro de Atacama
Street between the Square and the church
probably largely to ensure that it occurred as quickly as possible so that he would be able to pick up another fare. San Pedro de Atacama
Twenty seven hours on buses, in taxis – and waiting for a couple of hours at the Calama bus terminal with the toilets locked up for most of the time – is not normally the best lead up for any town but we liked San Pedro de Atacama at first sight. The hostel – Sonchek Casa de Huespedes – was a little quirky, comfortable and well appointed and, most importantly, the first cafe we struck served excellent coffee. We did gasp a little when we paid over $A20 for a couple of cups of coffee and a couple of albeit very nice and large omelettes. Welcome to a tourist town in Chile.
After the great coffee, the cost and the beautiful clean desert environment, you start to notice another major feature of this town: the number of 'Joes' about. (Note: A 'Joe' – short for Joe Cool – is a person of either or any gender, who adopts forms of dress, behaviour and attitude seen, by them, to be the epitome
of 'cool'. I am probably showing by my use of the word 'cool' that I haven't kept up very well with the proper way to describe this condition but I think you will understand.) Joes were everywhere. San Pedro de Atacama has more tourist and tour agencies per head of population than any town I have seen and most have a Joe or two in attendance. Restaurants, bike hire places, all seem to have a couple.
The plan here was to see the Lunar and Death Valleys here and to see some of the Salt Desert. We didn't want to spend too much time in the desert. We intend to do that sort of thing in Bolivia a little later. So we searched the town and, after a bit of checking, found one run by a nice sort of bloke – not a Joe by any stretch – who had the quaint notion that tourists might want to actually understand how this very interesting environment has developed and how it all fits together. Of course, he wanted a little more money than some of the others but there you go. And so did we. On this occasion the LP
Old tree in Square
San Pedro de Atacama
recommendation was useful.
CosmoAndino ran a very good tour. Out to the Marte Valley Valley (misreported by a journalist who talked to the old German priest who did a lot of the archaelogical work here as the Muerte/Death Valley rather than the Marte, or Mars Valley). Mars is a name more appropriate to the place than Death but tourists find Death more attractive, as I suppose you would. A short walk along the rim and then down a massive sand dune – bringing back memories of the walking down similar dunes in Sudan and Namibia. One little girl, about 6 or 7 years old had a wonderful time racing down with ever increasing steps and then diving head first down. She was able to slide up to 10 metres before she would pull up and do it again. The rest of us were not so fearless.
A walk through one of the canyons of the Valley of the Moon was interesting, listening to the salt cracking as the sun cooled, examining gypsum that had been formed into crystal and observing all of the exhortations that we shouldn't take any samples (she couldn't find a good one that was
Hostal Sonchek, San Pedro de Atacama
small enough). Sunset on the Andes was photographed from a spot with a panoramic view of the sun going down over the Cordillera de Domeyko and the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Chain). The Cordillera de la Sal is a mountain chain formed by the horizontal accumulation of thin layers of material – sand, clay, gypsum and salt – which were subsequently destroyed by movements in the earth's crust. It doesn't rain often here, average of 14 mm per year, and, when it does, it tends to come in a rush. The resultant erosion of the salt provides some bizarre and occasionally beautiful formations.
Clearly they can't depend on rainfall here but the water is actually pretty good. It comes off the Andes but is filtered through the lava flows so by the time it gets into the San Pedro area it is highly mineralised. In San Pedro it is apparently drawn from about 6 metres. People worry about the level of mineralisation. The archaelogists can identify people who have always lived around San Pedro by the build up of particular minerals in their teeth and bones. These days they use osmosis to filter the water and this
Atacama Salt Basin
The volcanoes in the background are some of the 153 in the area
probably removes most of the mineralisation as well as any organic stuff. Valparaiso
Tur Bus run a pretty comfortable semi-cama bus from here to Valparaiso. We left at 1300h and climbed off at almost 1300h the next day. They found the on switch for the air con and, while it wasn't exactly cold, it was a reasonable temperature and humidity for most of the trip. During the afternoon and night we stopped just once for 30 minutes for dinner and, other than that, no getting off until Valparaiso. Watched a couple of movies, one – Salt – twice in case you didn't pick up the Spanish sub titles the first time, and the other forgettable. Most of the afternoon and night we were in desert or very rough country but on straight roads so reasonable travelling
Valparaiso is an interesting city with an interesting history much recommended by other travellers. Unfortunately, the hostel we had booked in Cerro Concepcion through booking.com turned out to be pretty dodgy. This was not a first but it is still unusual. To be fair it was under renovation but there was no water anywhere when we arrived, rooms and bedrooms were
Brown desert and blue sky
pretty dirty and very basic plus the bloke in charge was pretty dozy. We might have stayed if we were to pay less than $20 per night but, at more than double that price, it wasn't feeling particularly good. Around the corner and down the road we found the Nomades Hostal, a more expensive but much nicer place, professionally run and worth a bit more money.
Downtown is probably very busy and lively during the week but has little to recommend it during the weekend. The real action is in the areas of the city up the hills. Walking around there, and with lungs tuned in the altitudes of Peru this wasn't too bad, is a joy. Quirky streets, colourful houses, graffiti of fine quality and murals everywhere. The 'Ascensors' are lifts that, for a small charge, take you up or down the worst part of the hills. They are heritage listed and, while not flash, possibly typify Valparaiso. It is a city that keeps and nurtures the good bits but, in what seems to me to be a pretty effective, if somewhat haphazard, sort of way. Pablo Neruda – the Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet – spoke of
The quick way down
Into the Valley of Death
Valparaiso as being like a woman who hadn't got around to combing her hair and couldn't work out what to wear. An apt description which comes to mind frequently as you walk around. It would be a good place to live. Santiago
You could also live pretty easily, if not with so much stimulation, in Santiago. This is really a big, bustling, pretty safe and easy city. Transport infrastructure seems reasonable although the underground is said to be very busy at all times. We were on it in the mid afternoon and it was bedlam. The road system seems to work pretty well provided you can get onto a freeway but, overall, in our experience it works well.
We had decided to spend a week in Santiago, not because we needed big city time but because we figured it could be a little tedious trying to move around the country during the Easter Week. Our apartment was modern and reasonably well appointed, although it had no internet and the TV had no cable.
The other major reason for visiting Santiago was that it was within easy distance of the Maipo Valley, the prime wine production region
That's Pat in the front
of Chile. I am not sure whether visiting wineries is like this all over South America but it is all a little organised here. Not at all like South Africa or parts of Australia where you roll up to a small winery, get to taste some of their wines, make a selection of some to buy and roll on. As far as we can tell it is all about tours here. If you organise one from town then it will cost around $60 per head. You get to be bussed to the winery – one winery – you get a guided walk around and then taste 3 wines. Some cheese and bicuits round out the occasion.
A rental car seemed to us more sensible than hopping on a bus. Luckily, we had an ideal driver. Adam is not one to avoid alcohol but, for some reason that is clearly not genetic, he can't drink more than one glass of wine without getting a massive headache. Such a sad condition but there is always a silver lining. He also needed to have some experience in driving a car on the wrong side of the road before he picks up a
Moonrise over the Andes
From the Valley of the Moon
car in Barcelona.
Being more into tasting, even drinking, wine than in touring wineries and not needing to buy too many bottles, we decided to concentrate on one. Concha y Toro is the biggest and flashest winery in Chile. They make Casillero del Diablo wines, mainly reds – cabernet, merlot, shiraz and malbec – but we also tasted a very nice sauvignon blanc. Carmenere is the local grape, pretty close to cabernet. The tour was good and, although in Spanish, we did receive good information from a well informed guide. They do have tours in English but we didn't feel like hanging around for a couple of hours for the next English one. Far and away the best wine we tasted was a 2008 cabernet sauvignon, Marques de casa Concha, but we enjoyed most of the wines we sampled.
The shop, surprisingly given the prices everywhere else, was not too bad. We could quite easily have filled a small truck but we really don't need to carry wine in our backpacks – or not too much anyway. So we made difficult decisions and came out with roughly what we might be able to consume in our time in
Sunset on the Andes
again, from Valley of the Moon
Santiago, plus one or two.
Our plan was to get out of Santiago on the Monday or Tuesday after Easter. Adam and Klaire needed a bus to Chiloe and were able to find one but we had decided to head further south to Punta Arenas initially and then on to Ushuaia in Argentina. The weather in these parts gets cool and damp pretty quickly so we figured we should get there as soon as possible. From Santiago to Punta Arenas is over 3,000 km by road. The options were a flight for 4 hours, buses for 36 hours or a combination of long rides in buses and then to try to get the Navimag from Puerta Montt to Puerta Natales with another long bus to Punta Arenas. The latter was very interesting but would take too long for us at this time of the year. We decided to go by air but couldn't find a flight during the week after Easter. The only option was the last 2 seats on a plane early on Easter Saturday so off we went.
We haven't really decided where we will go next. We will miss Torres del Paine and probably the
Lakes District - so these will have to be a Comeback List inclusion - but with the weather becoming increasingly wintry and with some speed, it may be sensible to start moving back towards slightly warmer climes.
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