The "end of summer" sensation didn't last long. After a surprisingly sound night's sleep on the bus from Pucón, we step out into a very sunny Santiago. A taxi ride from the terminal to our hostel - the dubiously named but in fact utterly brilliant Happy House Hostel - is a bit of a jarring shock. Wide avenues, cars, cars, cars, people, people, people. Santiago is a big
city - nearly a third of Chile's entire population lives in the city and its suburbs.
We spend only a couple of days in the capital. It's not a particularly engaging place - certainly less so than Buenos Aires - and it's very, very hot. Wedged right up against the Andes in a geographic bowl, Santiago suffers from terrible air pollution. From a high viewpoint in a pretty park in the centre of town, the city can be seen stewing in a thick haze of smog. For us, it's a place to do some essential shopping before we move on. Our attempts to visit a couple of the city's museums are thwarted by the fact that they are (together with seemingly every other museum in the whole of Santiago) closed for renovation
or some such. There's some tasty food to be had here as well, but we definitely don't feel like it's worth lingering here any longer than necessary.
While on our little boat trip to the marble rock formations in Puerto Río Tranquilo on the Carretera Austral, we met a lovely Chilean couple - Pame and Javier - from the city of Valparaíso, some 120km from Santiago on the Pacific Coast. Eager to see them again and spend a couple of days in this famous port, we ring them up and arrange a short visit.
Valparaíso's historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - and with good reason. Built on a series of steep hills overlooking the ocean, Valparaíso is unique - and strangely compelling. It certainly isn't what I would call an elegant city - there is no manicuring here. In fact, it a ramshackle port city consisting essentially of a mxture of crumbling colonial-era buildings and brightly-painted corrugated iron houses which tumble chaotically towards the sea. Right now, in summer, it is - for us at least - very
hot. There is definitely a bit of an edge to this place - within a few seconds
you realise that it's not a place you'd be comfortable walking around in after dark. A maze of passages and stairways criss-cross the town, and so steep are the cerros
(hills) on which Valparaíso is built that a network of funiculars called ascensores
carries its inhabitants from the commercial centre (known as El Plan
and built at sea level) to their homes up on the hills. The city's sheer dodginess, if I might call it that, is a crucial aspect of its attraction. Santiago is a city of glass and metal office buildings, of fancy shopping arcades and general refinement. Valpo - as is it endearingly nicknamed - is the opposite of all that.
A few miles outside Valparaíso is the Casablanca Valley, one of several wine-producing areas in central Chile and a great place for a day trip. Dozens of producers, from the tiny to the international big players, have vineyards and bodegas
in the valley. We opt for Viña Indómita, one of a handful of places with scrummy gourmet restaurants where you can guzzle the produce as you feast on (for us at least, after weeks of self-catering) some very posh nosh. Bottoms up!
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