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Published: October 18th 2008
At 2pm we were having lunch in Auckland and riding the subway in Santiago. We suffered the consequences of jumping back in time (by 17 hours) and felt exhausted and wide awake at all the wrong times.
It seems that there are few South American cities that are deemed a good place to start your travels on the continent, but Santiago is classed among them due to it being the capital of one of the most developed and stable countries in South America. Unfortunately, it´s also a pretty boring place to start. There isn't a great deal to actually do in Santiago, but we spent two days there, addressing the jet lag and adapting to our new reality. I tested my Spanish, finding my brain and mouth to have an untrustworthy connection. Previously unused words and phrases spilled out of their cerebral packaging and into the air in an unrecognisable mess, causing a few discreetly raised eyebrows, but the polite Chileans didn´t skip a beat and managed to salvage something from my confusing ramblings.
We passed on the museums in favour of finding out what Chileans eat, and more to the point, what we were going to be spending
the next couple of weeks eating. Worthy of a special mention are the completos
. They are basically a hot dog, but as the name suggests, they are considered ´complete' (if only Spanish was always that easy). So what does a 'complete' hot dog consist of? Well, in addition to the basics, it requires finely chopped tomatoes, a smothering of guacamole and mayonnaise, and then ketchup and mustard to taste. The first bite is a little weird with the hot dog suffocating in all the various sauces. The next few bites bring you around to the idea, and by the end of it, you’re wondering if it´s acceptable to eat them for breakfast.
We got some exercise in between the eating by walking up Cerro Santa Lucia for a view of the city sprawling towards the snow-capped mountains. It would have been truly stunning if Santiago wasn't cursed by perpetual smog. It looked like the Andean peaks (which we were lucky enough to be able to see) were just floating in the air.
We walked around the city and found it to be filled with amorous couples exhibiting the strength of their feelings on benches, in parks, on the subway,
in restaurants, even in the middle of a crowded street where passersby had to swerve to avoid them as their lust sent them rocketing from one side of the pavement to another.
We saw tarot readers under the grand arches of colonial buildings, and a man in a white coat, charging to take people's blood pressure. We relaxed in Plaza de la Constitution and watched protesters leaning out of the windows and shouting as sleek cars left the presidential palace. We also introduced ourselves to Chilean alcohol and found it to be wonderfully cheap and plentiful. We sat at the outside makeshift bars of Cerro Barrio with a litre of Eschudo (the local beer) for under a pound.
Our first journey was two hours east to Valparaiso. It was an introduction to the delights of Chilean bus travel on which I could probably write an entire blog. I will control myself though and mention one illuminating aspect. There is an electronic board at the front of the bus that tells you the speed limit, how fast you are currently travelling, the driver’s full name and how many hours he has been behind the wheel on that particular journey. It´s
almost as if they're trying to safely deliver you to your destination, which is quite a change from the speeding, suicidal maniacs who wrestle with the wheel on public buses in countless other countries in the world. If the Chilean buses are this safety conscious then let your imagination run wild with what else they might have thought up for your transport pleasure. We spent most of the journey lounging in our extra-padded seats, enjoying the expertly controlled temperature and range of programming on the TV screens. Chile would wipe the floor with the competition at the ‘world bus awards’ and tourists would flock to ride the length of the country, eating completos and appreciating the kind of driving that doesn´t deposit your guacamole into your lap.
Unfortunately our first journey was only two hours and it was time to get off and walk the streets of Valparaiso in search of somewhere as nice as the bus to stay. Valparaiso is steep and confusing (although only confusing if you have a map that appears to have been made by someone who's never actually been). We were still walking an hour later, and found ourselves on roads that resembled the
travelator on Gladiators, with us trying not to stumble and end up sliding back down to the beginning. We eventually made it to Casa Aventura, which would become our home for twice as long as we'd anticipated when we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the steep, confusing, wonderful Valparaiso.
My camera worked overtime and hopefully the pictures show why we loved it so much. Its architecture is a mix of colonial grandeur and bohemian quirkiness. Outdoor ascensores
(lifts) clatter up the steeper hills, offering a cheap way to avoid a heart attack, and providing a beautiful view. There´s street art everywhere: from murals and children's school projects, to artistic graffiti, abstract art and political statements and slogans. It attracts artists and other creative types, and it’s easy to see why when you visit one of the cities miradores
(viewpoints). The sweeping views take in the steep hills, which roll down to the sea, covered in wild flowers of orange, purple, pink and red, and clusters of multicoloured houses.
We met interesting travellers there as well, including Norwegian students studying in Santiago, a Swiss banker, and an American who was on holiday from his home in Bolivia where he worked
as a volunteer at an orphanage and refuge for women. We spent long mornings around the breakfast table of Casa Aventura, enjoying the endless supply of bread rolls, scrambled eggs, fresh coffee and fruit. Everyone was reluctant to leave the interesting conversations, and we picked up where we left off with a wine accompaniment in the evenings. The people working there were great too, and didn´t were more like a family welcoming you to their home. They helped us no end with kick-starting our Spanish by talking to us in nothing but, and making it seem manageable with their finely-tuned, easy-to-understand foreigner Spanish. One of the girls was learning English and we stood chatting and switching between the two languages until my brain almost imploded with the unfamiliar effort.
We boarded a La Serena-bound bus for another wonderful Chilean bus journey. La Serena was a bit disappointing after Valparaiso. We hadn´t expected too much because it´s mainly a beach resort and it doesn´t come alive until summer, but we wanted to break the journey and thought a deserted but picturesque beach wouldn´t be such a bad place to do it. Unfortunately the gap between the tourist-board promotion pictures and
the reality of the place was so large that the tourist board clearly spent a large proportion of their budget on extensive photoshopping: the sand and the water were the wrong colours, the lighthouse, which was the star of the tourism billboards, was collapsing into the sand, covered in graffiti and reeking of urine. We did a fairly abrupt turn on our heels and headed back to town. We consoled ourselves in the impressive wine aisle at the local supermarket (hmmm Chilean wine) and hung out at the guesthouse which was bizarre and full of even more bizarre people. The owner, Maria, had opened it ten years previously with by building nine rooms in her garden. She hadn´t done much else to alter the place and the miniscule kitchen was packed at mealtimes with people trying to cook in a kitchen designed for two. The living room was the only inside area to hangout in and it was full of ´homely´ features such as wedding photos and other odd touches that made you feel like maybe you shouldn´t be in there. Maria bustled around telling you all about so-and-so who lives in such-a-place and used to work at so-and-so (you
get the idea). Even when we first met her she rushed through the living room saying ´don´t worry I won´t be long and I´ve got my key´
leaving us utterly confused as to who the hell she was. We were sitting with a Chilean guy who had perfect English. He was more baffled by Maria than we were (‘what just happened? Who on earth was she?’
) but he had lots of opinions and knowledge about Chilean life, politics, and Chile’s complicated relationship with Argentina. We have since learnt that if you ask any Chilean what they think of other South American countries, they are likely to have a bit of a rant about Argentina; you only have to look at a map to figure out why.
It was back on to the bus; this time for an overnight journey up through the desert to San Pedro de Atacama. Out in the middle of the driest desert in the world, it used to be a stopover on the Andean cattle drive; now, almost its sole purpose is tourism. Despite this, it's still an amazing place, with dusty streets and low adobe houses. A startlingly white church stands in the
central square; it’s gently curving lines making it look like it’s been moulded out of clay by hand. Tourists visit not because of the town so much but because of all that lies outside; luckily the desert is a big place and it´s easy to find yourself (almost) alone out there. Our first desert adventure involved bikes and sandboards. We biked through the bizarre landscape of jutting red rocks and rolling sand dunes to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). Death Valley has an impressively steep and smooth sand dune which is perfect for sandboarding down. A track made by previous boarders went up the dune at a gentle angle to the ridge at the top. We make it to the top struggling for breath (the whole area is at altitude) and waxed our boards like we knew what we were doing only to end up eating sand shortly after easing ourselves over the ridge. Sandboarding is hard. After a while I managed a few fairly convincing runs down at surprisingly fast speed but always ended up in various ungraceful positions in the sand. It was worth it just for the few moments that you were upright and cruising down
the dune like a pro.
Our next trip out was to see the Geysers del Tatio. The geysers are only active in the morning so we had a freezing-cold 4am start to get into a minivan and drive up to over 4200m. All well worth it to see the impressive sight of boiling water exploding out of the ground. It was made even more impressive by the scale that it was on, with the steam rising into the deep blue sky all around. We were stunned by how beautiful it looked with the lunar landscape and the backdrop of mountains and volcanoes. We braved stripping down to our swimmers to take a dip in the thermal baths, being careful not to let our feet dig into the ground which would have resulted in burnt feet. We floated around in the 30-degrees water and put off the inevitably freezing-cold moment of getting out and getting changed. Afterwards, we drove through the desert landscape; visiting lakes where we saw pink flamingos, llama, alpaca and lots of other wonderfully odd-looking animals.
We weren’t ready for the desert exploration to be over and we were eager to head out on
horseback. Luckily the horses available for the trek were all proper horses of a decent size. The owner of the trekking company (whose name I can't quite remember) was a vet and hadn’t actually bought any of the horses but had rescued them and nursed them back to health. The horse I was riding had been destined for horsemeat at six years old (due to a leg injury) but after poultices and patience she was not only rideable but a really good horse with the kind of sensitive mouth and sides that most trekking horses have had yanked/kicked out of them after years of beginner riders.
We headed out of the town and were quickly in the Atacama landscape of jagged volcanic rock, orange mountains, steep volcanoes and silky sand dunes. The horses started to get excited as we reached a flat area of sand. It was clearly their galloping spot and they started to hop about in anticipation, chomping at their bits and quickening their pace. When given the all-clear, Paul and I galloped across the dunes with the horses. At first they were so excited to be running that they bounced about before settling into a smooth
gallop. Later on we had other opportunities to gallop, with the horses competing for the lead and streaming across the sand. We rested and watched as the sunset turned the mountains from orange to red to pink. We had one last gallop at twilight and rode back by the light of the full moon. I really can’t think of a better way to see the desert.
After San Pedro it was time to leave Chile with a brief stop in Arica to break the journey. We had one last lengthy bus journey which unfortunately didn't fit my Chilean-bus-journey mould (I wrote the first part of this blog before the last bus journey). A short while into the trip, the electronic board started beeping as the driver exceeded the speed limit. A little while later whilst Rambo IV(!) was playing on the TV, the beeping was so incessant that the driver turned the system off so that he could speed the hell up and get us into Arica at 6:30am instead of 7am (I'm sure no one was thanking him for that, I know we weren't). The bus attendant fancied himself as a Don Juan / bad boy and strode
up and down the bus with his hubcap belt buckle and slicked down hair. He was in charge of the programming and demonstrated his virility by choosing the most violent, pointless and depraved films possible. Just when we though the tv would be going off for the night (at 11pm), he put another film on which involved gunfire so loud that I kept jerking awake thinking we were under fire. It was fairly comforting to know that bus travel is bus travel and it will always be entertainingly frustrating no matter where you are.
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