From Desert to Downtown

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November 2nd 2016
Published: November 2nd 2016
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It's 'Hola!' for a final time today, as we bid farewell to South America, after an incredible four weeks here. From the lush Uruguayan countryside to the barren Atacama desert, we have come to love the place; particularly Chile, which with its sheer contrasts we both agreed is probably the most beautiful country either of us have visited.

No more were these differences more apparent than en route from chilly Punta Arenas in the far South, to the gritty copper mining city of Calama, which sits in the Atacama desert, just inside the Tropic of Capricorn. Dramatic glacial landscapes gradually gave way to green rolling hills and then to bone dry desert as we flew north, nothing else better highlighting the sheer length of the country, which spans 4300 km from top to bottom. Further stretching these contrasts, the Atacama is the driest non-polar region on earth, with rainfall averaging a sober 10mm per year in most parts, with some places never having registered a single drop of rainfall since records began!

On arrival in Calama we transferred an hour south east to San Pedro de Atacama, a once quaint village that has since been morphed into a tourist cash cow. The adobe architecture of the place is interesting, with largely single storey structures built with mud, wood or bamboo, and water - although a little toasty with no air conditioning as we found out in our hostel! Unfortunately, this is all overshadowed by scores of tour companies and restaurants all trying to milk the hundreds of tourists for their cash.

Leaping off our soap box, and in the interests of continuing to fuel the local tourist trap, we nevertheless embarked on three half day trips to see some of the natural wonders nearby. The first and most spectacular of these was watching the sun set in the Valle de la Luna, appropriately named given the moon-like, arid landscape. The venture was made all the more entertaining by an extremely enthusiastic local tour guide who pronounced that she was "salty not sweet", just like the landscape. After climbing through salt caves, walking along a mountain ridge and observing some pretty quirky rock formations, the colours of the sunset were magnificent, even if we did enjoy it with hundreds of others who were on the same ridge as us.

The next day saw us climb significantly in altitude, all the way to 4200m above sea level to visit the Lagunas Altiplanas. Given altitude sickness can kick in from around 2500m, we expected to feel a little queasy, but apart from a few slightly breathless moments we managed to avoid the worser symptoms. Endless salt flats and marshes housed the breeding sites of three types of flamingo, and we also took in the view of three huge lagoons, that were overseen by snow capped but active volcanoes.

A stark reminder of the tectonic activity in the region came in 2010, when an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale decimated many towns. Continuing along this geologic theme, a 4.30am rise saw us take in the El Tatio Geysers on our last full day. At over 4300m, this is the highest geyser field in the world, with more than 60 geysers and hundreds of other outlets that bubbled and steamed away into the dawn. In temperatures of about five degrees, we also bravely stripped off and went for a swim in a geothermal pool, feeling shivery but rejuvenated afterwards.

Flying from the desert to downtown, we arrived in the capital Santiago for our final leg in South America, back to the familiar surroundings of a Crowne Plaza hotel. A welcome break from a fortnight of hostels, here we were treated splendidly, receiving a room upgrade, access to a private lounge, an all you can eat breakfast and a happy hour with free drinks from 6-10pm every evening. We certainly made the most of these perks, with all of this being a small token in return for Vicky having spent more than 100 nights away at this hotel chain so far this year.

Having heard about the close proximity of a multitude of vineyards, we embarked on a tour of the Concha y Tora winery, only 40 minutes by subway from the city centre, with the owning company being the third largest wine producer globally. There we toured around a vast vineyard, the landscape gardens of which looked slightly English influenced, and learnt that the place grew 26 different grape varieties, such is the favourable climate in the area. One of the wines produced here is 'Casillero del Diablo', which will be recognisable to many of you: it was the UK best seller in 2015 (and Vicky was pleased to see they were also the official sponsor of Manchester United). We tasted three more before stumbling back to the city.

With colourful houses built on steep cliffs in a bay overlooking the Pacific, several guide books described the legislative capital and port city of Valparaiso as charming, colourful and poetic, and well worth the four hour round trip for a day visit. Enthused by riding on one of the city's 15 'ascensores' (vernicular railways), viewing one of the country's largest ports, and sampling some more genuine Latin American culture, the next day we set off heartily by coach from Santiago. What greeted us on arrival however was very different from the narratives in the guide books: litter strewn roads, broken glass, rotten fruit, copious amounts of dog dirt, and the scent of human urine hanging in the air. Quite rightly being instructed by Vicky to "not judge the book by its cover", we continued to stroll around the backstreets, and did indeed come across some pretty vistas and took a ride on a cable car that was built in (and perhaps not maintained since) the 1880s. Despite these, the highlights were few and far between, and after being accosted by a slightly aggressive local man on our return to the bus station, we agreed that the book's cover was indeed a sign of what was to come.

The two day trips out of the city unfortunately left us with relatively little time to soak up the capital's history and culture. A real highlight however was taking a short hike up to a statue of the Virgin Mary, who overlooks the city in a similar way to Christ the Redeemer in Rio. There, a Catholic priest was presiding over Mass to a fairly large congregation; nearby, a statue of Pope John Paul II stands to commemorate him doing the same in 1984. An afternoon stroll then took us around some of the city's other landmarks, including the Plaza de Armas (where the convicted were publically hung in colonial times), the city's fish market, and the presidential palace, which was bombed by an air strike as recently as 1973 as part of a coup. A statue of the world's first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende (1970), stands just outside the palace, with him dying shortly after the 1973 strike, through an apparent suicide. Less than 500m away the now graffitied address of 38 Londres is located, where interrogation and torture were regularly carried out to suspected dissidents of the Pinochet military dictatorship that followed. Another Latin American country, another chequered and tragic recent history.

In only a few hours we will be boarding our flight to a new continent, as we head trans-Pacific across to New Zealand. At 13 hours the flight is a long one, which will take us over the international date line. Strangely, we will depart Santiago at 00.05 on Wednesday, landing in Auckland at 05.05 on Thursday morning, making this year's Wednesday 2nd November shorter than most!

We hope all is well with everyone as we close in on US Election Day. We'll be watching how the race concludes, albeit 16 hours ahead of EST in Fiji. This blog predicts Clinton, but given another resurfacing of the email scandal, by a much smaller margin than originally predicted. Sweep stake anyone?

D&V xx


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