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Published: January 25th 2009
He can even find you in the desert
Think Of A Price... Double It... Then Double It Again
After weeks travelling at altitude it was finally time to come down, waaaaaaay down, to warmer climates and thicker air. The road from Bolivia wasted no time doing this, decending almost 3000 metres into a brown desert valley. Clearly this scorching hot, non-stop descent had caused some serious issues in the past as the roadside was littered with blown tires, car and truck parts and the occasional burnt out and rusting wreck. It´s no wonder they now have emergency sand filled run-offs every few kilometres for vehicles that have burnt out their brakes.
You might recall from the last blog that this was the journey where the driver was trying to con us into paying him more money. Understandably we were both worried that he might get fed up at our resistance and instead resort to a new tactic of stopping the bus and making us get out. In this environment we would be vulture food in no time. Every time he stopped the bus to let the brakes cool down we wondered if this was the moment, but in the end good conquered over evil and we
It Burnses Us!
Traffic Light warning system for sun strength in San Pedro
were safely delivered to the Chilean border post.
Due to Chile´s very strict rules about not bringing in fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese or coca leaves this was the first border since New Zealand where we had to face an inspection. Begrudgingly we all unzipped our bursting at the seams backpacks while a man came along and randomly poked about in each for a few seconds. We were secretly very pleased to see that the only people who had their bags fully searched were the rude French couple who had been highly unsympathetic to our cause on the bus. Ain´t karma wonderful!
So our crazy journey that began before dawn in the high thermal pools of Bolivia finally ended in the dry and dusty "Oasis" of San Pedro De Atacama. Although we were still 2440 metres above sea level this place was hot, and as we trudged down the golden sand street in search of a hostel we were both slowly cooking. Luckily SP is a tiny place and within five minutes we happened upon a slightly tatty looking hostel with a tiny, unobvious sign. "How much is a bed in your cheapest dorm room?" we enquired. "US$8 a
Dry As A Bone
Just another day in the desert
night" came the reply. "HOW MUCH"!!!??!!!
We had just come from a country where you would struggle to spend $8 on a decent hotel room, dinner for two and a large beer. Hopefully you will understand our surprise. "This is the cheapest place in town" said another packpacker..... and thus on his word we ended up staying at what indeed turned out to be the cheapest and one of the nicest places in town. And that cost shock was only the beginning. Chile is definitely not a budget backpacker location. Everything here, except the wonderful wine, was much more expensive and the bus prices were extortionate. Not since Singapore had we felt the need to compare prices to things at home. We guess this reflects the fact that Chile is close to being the 1st "first world" country in South America.
It´s Earth Jim But Not As We Know It
With just a few days in SP we had decided on two major activities, one of which David had been looking forward to for weeks. First up and with a 5am start we set off on rented bicycles to the Valley Of
No, just the Valle de la Luna at sunrise
The Moon. Actually we set of, realised it was bloody cold, came back, woke everybody in our dorm up putting on more thermal clothes and then set off again. According to the signs selling expensive jeep tours this place is extremely popular for watching the sun set over the strange and eerie lunar type terrain. Wanting to avoid the crowds and for the adventure we cycled the 17km with the stars and our little head torches lighting the deserted roads.
As we didn´t actually know what this place would look like and given we couldn´t find any signs we finally ended up picking a spot, locking our bikes and scrambling up a few hills in time for the sunrise. What a result. It was magnificent and as we sat and ate our breakfast we had it all to ourselves. The colours of the early morning sun on the giant sand craters and rocks reminded us more of Mars than the moon. Maybe this is where NASA secretly films Mars pictures in case the actual craft fails to make it. Perhaps by turning up now we were about to stumble across a giant conspiracy and be wisked away by black
Sunrise In The Valle De La Luna
Beat the sunset crowds and go in the morning. Beautiful
suited men talking into their lapels. Or perhaps our imaginations are just far too active.
Ground Control To Major Frog
That same day after a wee sleep and a big coffee we set off on our second celestral adventure. This time we were driven into the desert to the home of a French aatronomer called Alain Maury who had given up his former career working on giant international telescopes to start a private tourist venture. David had heard about this from some other tourists and as he loves the stars and planets he was bursting with excitment. We were not disappointed.
For most people the experince lasts about two hours. In this time you learn some fascinating and easy to understand facts about the Universe (Why are some stars brighter than others? Where does Earth and our solar system fit into the big picture? etc etc) and then you get to look through a number of large telescopes. By large we are not talking about massive multi-million dollar structures, after all this guy has to buy and maintain them all, but we were getting up to 120 times the magnification which gave us an
Star Gazing With Alain
The Milky Way can be seen above Alain´s head
amazingly clear view of the surface of the moon.
Tracey had requested an interview so she could write an article for a travel magazine. This meant that while everyone else was taken back to town at 1am we ended up staying until 4. This time alone turned out to be best of all as Alain is so passionate and knowledgeable that we could easily have been talking until dawn. And then, since all the stars had moved and Saturn had come into view (if you knew what you were looking for) we ended up getting more telescope time including a wonderful view of Saturn and its beautiful rings. When you are looking at something like that it is hard to believe it is the real thing and not just a picture cut out and sellotaped to the end. Afterwards he dropped us back at our hostel and our wonderful day that had began at 5am finished at about the same time.
Christmas Time, Mistletoe and (Cheap) Wine
By now it was a few days before Christmas and after two stressful hours where we couldn´t find a single free bus seat until Boxing Day we
Inside Our Dome
It was a bit like being in a golf ball
finally managed to find a way out of SP by leaving a day early. This time we were heading to the ocean to enjoy our Christmas gift to ourselves, three days of luxury and indulgence in the small beach resort of Bahia Inglesa.
At this stage as we boarded another bum numbing nightbus it is worth noting that Chile is one of the strangest shaped countries. Long and spindly it stretches about 4300km from the driest desert in the World at the top to massive glacial ice fields in the bottom. If you live in Chile and you want to pop to Bolivia or Argentina, no problem, they are only a few hundred kilometres away if you can get through the Andes, but travel up or down your own country and it can take a week to get to places.
Thanks to Lonely Planet repeatedly warning us that at Christmas time everywhere is packed full of Chilean holiday makers, we had taken the rare precaution of booking our accommodation in advance. We were staying in a highly original place called Domo, which by the look of the pictures on the internet appeared to be a series of small
Our Christmas ´Tree'
In our dome room on Xmas morning
and large geodesic domes containing accommodation, a bar and a restaurant. At $50 a night this was a real treat for us (it was Christmas after all) and after weeks on the road we were both looking forward to Christmas luxury and a great big party.
Where Did They All Go?
So it would be fair to say that when we finally made it to Bahia Inglesa we were rather dissapointed to find the whole place was a virtual ghost town. To be more accurate, it felt like we had arrived in the middle of the off season, not two days before Christmas, as two of the five restaurants were closed, one was being renovated and the other two were empty, as was the beach and the town. Putting on a bave face we checked into Domo, all our hopes now resting on the Christmas celebration agenda of our special resort. And what was their amazing plan to feed and water their excited guests?
"We´ll be closing the bar and restaurant on Christmas Eve and after breakfast on Christmas Day"
Our hearts sank.
They told us that the only other
hotel in town was staying open to serve food on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and that if we were hoping to eat something (call us crazy) we could always go there. And so it was that we teamed up us with the two other guests who were staying in Domo and began what turned out in the end to be three fun filled days. By Christmas morning loads more families had come to the beach and the town had found it´s party atmosphere. And by having Domo to just our little group we were able to drink our own Champagne at breakfast, eat all our own treats and generally run amok about the whole place without any staff around. This turned out to be great and with the beautiful white sand beach only a quarter full we were able to hoof the epic frisbee as far we liked without accidently smacking any kids in the face.
As gifts for each other we had previously gone to a big supermarket in the nearest city and secretly shopped for treats within a fixed budget. We then wrapped them and put them under our Christmas "Tree" which was a dying tree
Or live scallops to you and Me
branch sellotaped to a chair. Oh well, needs must, and with the addition of some tinsel, gold plastic bells, Christmas hats and plenty of cheap red wine we managed to make it a fine Christmas morning unwrapping our presents from Sandyclaus.
A specialty of Bahia Inglesa is live scallops. The harbour was full of scallop farms, so what arrived still breathing on your plate had come fresh from the sea that day. It was a little weird to see them shrivel and squirm when you squeezed raw lemon on them but that feeling was quickly over ruled by the taste. Hmmm hmmmmmmm. They were so good we ended up having three plates for a fraction of the price you would pay at home.
Our next stop in the capital city of Santiago was ruined by having our bag and, get this, our brand new replacement digital camera and lens stolen. That´s right folks, the camera and lens we had just bought in Lima to replace the camera and lens that was stolen in Ecuador was stolen right from under Dave´s feet in a walled in, 3 sided cubicle in an internet cafe.
To cut a long and painful story short he was very cleverly distracted by a smart man in a suit trying to take the chair that Tracey had just vacated to go to the toilet while the thief he was working with managed to somehow get past his chair and legs to nick the bag in the few seconds that Dave was turned around distracted.
The crime was so simple, so beautifully executed and so heart destroying for us that we were both in a state of shocked disbelief for days. Luckily, and we are still counting out lucky stars (Alain would be happy) the chip was not in the camera so none of our pictures was stolen. Had they been stolen it is quite possible that we might have given up and gone home, but instead we were once again talking to the police and the insurance company and then putting the whole thing behind us.
As a word of warning it turns out that Santiago is one of the worst cities on the continent for crime. On the same day that we got robbed two other people in our hostel had their wallets stolen, an Aussie
lady had her handbag and passports swiped and an American also lost his camera. We also had to queue behind other local robbery victims at police station. There were a lot of grumpy people in the hostel that night we can tell you.
Santiago is probably a lovely city, unfortunately we spent most of our three days there in internet cafes, on the phone or at the police station. So when we left for out final destination in Chile we were determined to forget about it and not let it ruin the party.
Out With A Bang
Valparaiso or "Valpo" as the locals call is a port city about 120km from Santiago. In the 19th century it was extrodinarily wealthy as is evident by the numerous little cable car / lift type things they built all over the city so that gentlemen of wealth did not have to crack a sweat climbing up stairs. Then Valpo sank into deep decline until all sorts of artists, painters and other bohemian types moved into the crumbling old buildings and made it cool again. Now it is a Unesco World Heritage Site and considered the cultural capital
A Great Way To Travel
One of the lifts up and down the hills in Valpo
Stuff the culture, we had come here for the thing Valpo is now most famous for, an enormous, non stop New Years Eve street party and the largest firework display in Chile. To be honest what happened that night is all a bit blurry but we did spend many hours perched high up a hill with locals, drinking, sharing food and waiting for the show to begin. And what a show. As it got closer to New Year the ships in the harbour started to sound their horns while other smaller boats shot flares into the air. You could sense the anticipation of a few hundred thousand people in the streets below and when midnight came the fireworks show was long and spectacular. From our vantage point we could also see enourmous firework shows from other beach towns up and down the coast. It was amazing, and when it was all over and we finally made it down into the town the dissapointment of a cold overpriced hot dog and the end of the big show sped up our decision to head home to bed.
Than you Chile, you were costly and criminal, but also tasty
and fun. Now it´s time to cross the Andes into Argentina. For a change it will be nice to let the bus do the mountain climbing.
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