Tuesday, 17 December 2013


9th December

We are typing this as we are driving over The Andes, crossing the border from Chile into Argentina!

Two weeks ago, when we crossed the border into Chile from Bolivia, it was clear we were entering new territory – tarmac road, a legal requirement to wear seatbelts, actually maintained useful road signs and emergency off ramps for run away lorries. We had arrived from the poorest country in Latin America to the richest… it was a relief to say the least, welcome back to civilisation after 3 months somewhat disconnected from it.

After a windy road descending a few thousands metres from the boarder crossing mid Andes heading straight for the desert we reached our destination. San Pedro de Atacama – home to the famous Atacama Desert – the driest in the world sitting at around 2440 meters above sea level. The town was lovely (if a little tourist ready) and again we could tell we had arrived somewhere new. Besides the sharp rise in prices of everything (except booze funnily enough!) there were fancy restaurants and bars on most streets. Prices were in thousands – around 875 pesos to £1!! It was clear we were going to need to brush up on our mental arithmetic pretty quickly!

We found the cheapest hostel we could which had a kitchen so we could start cooking most meals and begin that fun money saving game that would be required throughout Chile and Argentina. 

We soon discovered we had by chance arrived in San Pedro on a national celebration; 40 years since the town had been properly established, (or in our eyes, since all the locals got rich by ripping off the gringos). There was a massive free music festival with a great band down from Lima, Peru… and everyone was going. Unfortunately Hannah still hadn’t managed to shake the Bolivian bug so decided to chill in and get better. Becca joined her while Jon, Robert and I thought it would be rude to pass up the chance to party with the locals. We formed a group of about 12 people from the hostel and went in search of a Botilleria (booze shop). 2 litre bottles of Rum, 3 litres of Coke for about a tenner tucked under the jumpers and we were off into crowd. We arrived, poured out 4 cups of various strengths to pass around, the fireworks were set off and I think it is fair to say that within 15-20 minutes everyone was pissed. Funnily enough I can’t remember the name of the band but they were AMAZING! Got the crowd going mad, it really felt like we were at a proper gig back home except for the waves of drunken Chileans everywhere.

At some point after the gig finished we heard that everyone goes down to the beach… beach at 2000m I thought … never! But alas we stumbled about 20minutes out of town in the pitch black and suddenly we were walking on sand. But of course no sea! After some typical street football using our empty beers cans we decided to call it a night around 3-4am. A great night and an amazing welcome into Chile!

The following day with mild hangovers but a full complement of the group we all took a trip to the Laguna Cejar venturing into the desert for the first time. Stopping first at one of the most beautiful lakes we had ever seen – just 4 inches deep we ventured out into the perfect turquoise water treading carefully over the thick sharp white salt.

It was a stunning location to just stand and admire the huge volcano in front of us.

Next we went to two small circular pools side by side with the road going through the middle. They were 10 metres deep and went straight down. Jon and I decided to brave it and do a running dive over the 2m-drop.

COLD! If upright, from your knees below it was freezing cold. Best keep the feet up.

Eventually we arrived at the main highlight; Laguna Cejar, where the salt density is so high that, like the Dead Sea, you float. We were warned not to get the water in your mouth or eyes, so we lowered each other gently into the chilly lake and bobbed like apples. Swimming was difficult because you were so lifted out of the water, such a strange sensation floating while not having to keep a float. We all thought that this was the closest we would come to knowing what astronauts feel like when in space, totally weightless! If you stand up like a pencil and push up you bob like a fishing float; very difficult to keep your legs underneath.

When we all got a bit chilly we got out to be hosed down with fresh water

...and then it was Maracua (passion fruit) sours and peanuts for sundowners! Frightfully civilised!

That night at 10 pm we met for another tour. This time, checking out the universe on a star gazing tour with an astronomer with huge telescopes. We drove about 15 minutes out of town and began with an intro to all the constellations, then a bit of history to how stars and planets got their names. How they were used to let people know what time of year it is; for example, there is a harvest star that was used to let locals know when to harvest their crop in time for winter. We were absolutely baffled by numbers; everything was spoken about in the context of millions of light years. It really began to put into perspective just how small and insignificant we are in the universe. What we both really took away from the evening was that there must be other life out there! But the most frustrating thing is that even if there was or is we will NEVER be able to communicate with them. By the time we receive a signal the race will probably be extinct because it has taken so many millions of light years for the signal to reach us. We then respond and it takes the same time for our message to be received, by that time the human existence will be extinct. Gutting eh! We evolved because the conditions were perfect for life to grow. The universe is SO VAST that what’s to say there are not other planets in galaxies exactly the same distance on the other side of the universe with the conditions for a living habitat. We will never know! Especially as the universe is also constantly growing and expanding outwards. It was stunning to see parts of the sky that are invisible to the naked eye, but so clear through the telescopes. We saw Venus, Jupiter, two star clouds and various other mind-blowing formations. This was followed by a question and answer session inside the astronomers’ roofless house with amazing hot chocolate.

The following day, after some boring chores (laundry, booking bus tickets etc) in the morning, we headed to the Valley of the Dead and Valley of the Moon. We saw the Valley of the Dead from a vista point up high. It features rows and rows of mini canyons. Animals tend to die out here as they get lost and starve – hence the name.

The Valley of the Moon is a crazy landscape that fills your mind with sci-fi films – it looks like you’re on the moon!

What does this rock look like?!

There is a light dusting of salt all over and the rock formations include razor sharp edges of crystallised solid ice.

We explored a few mining caves where salt used to get blown out with TNT and then refined; but that fizzled out when the miners/companies realised they could get it cheaper elsewhere.

After wandering around for a while we finished with a small hike up to a stunning vista point for sunset.

That night we went for our first meal out in Chile, just the two of us in a lovely restaurant devouring a triple carne (meat) platter; being kept toasty warm by a large fire pit.

From this point we parted ways with Robert; he headed north while Jon, Becca and the two of us took a 17 hour bus south down the coast to the town of La Serena. We stayed in a cute little hostel called ‘Maria’s Casa’. Maria was an elderly lady who reminded us all of our grandmothers! She had the best tea we had tasted since home – we even had milk in it! When Kyle mentioned this to her and complimented her tea she just engulfed him in a massive hug! 

We got there early and after having breakfast, Kyle and I found ourselves walking to the nearby mall! We wondered around the shiny shopping centre with wide eyes! It had been so long! It felt strangely comforting to be in a place like this again.

A guilty pleasure!!

We explored the town, walking through the streets to Plaza de Armas and looking around some outdoor markets.

What struck us was the friendliness of the locals; they seemed so smiley and welcomed us to Chile on many occasions. We went to an antique shop where Kyle bought a relatively pricey second hand ‘Inca Cola’ branded yoyo, the kind that ‘sleeps’ at the bottom. He has been playing with it ever since!

We enjoyed lovely Chilean wine in massive 1.5 litre bottles, bought for just over £2!

We spent some time on the beach where it was a little chilly despite the sunshine. We still braved the icy cold Pacific though! It had been 2.5 months since the last beach; we had been in mostly landlocked high mountains so… we were getting in!!

It was lovely to chill again… ahhh to be at sea level! Bliss not waking up each morning with a dry throat and sore crusty nose – often bloody! Yuck. Also to be feeling a bit fitter again – not just randomly getting out of breath.

One afternoon we went to a pretty Japanese garden and spent a while watching the amazing koy carp fish.

One evening we got very excited and treated ourselves to the cinema! We saw the Hunger Games II in English! It felt bizarre to be doing something so familiar yet it felt new. We got the biggest ice cream to eat which ended up partly down my front, naturally. When the credits came and the lights went up we had almost forgotten where we were and soon remembered it was not the Bugsby Way Odeon in Greenwich.

A hint of Christmas...the CocaCola advert!!

Another day Jon, Becca and us got a bus to ‘Pisco’ in the Elqui Valley; home to lots of Pisco distilleries and vineyards. (Like Peru, Chile also claim that Pisco is their national drink – we don’t know who to believe!) It was beautiful. Think stereotypical South American wine growing valley, if you can’t then imagine the usual European ones then add to bloody great mountains either side. Very green, very hot and sunny! 

We discovered that there was a ‘free’ pisco tour about 5km out of town. After nearly an hour of walking in the midday sun we finally got there to find that as it was Sunday there was no tour guide. Arghh! We still managed to have a little look around though and have some tasters. We even bought a bottle of Vino Nectar – Vino dulche del Valle de Elqui (like a desert wine). After this we were ravenous so headed back down the road 10 minutes to a lovely restaurant with a stunning vista we passed on the way. We had a great lunch.

Afterwards we walked back to the town and decided that we hadn’t had enough pisco yet so we visited another place and enjoyed mango, lemon and apple & ginger pisco sours. Yum.

We bought a nice bottle of pisco there for just over £4!

Jon and Becca left that night for Valparaiso (Valpo); a bohemian city 7 hours south. We were to join them after one more day chilling in La Serena. We arrived in Valpo after a pretty standard night bus at 6am and headed straight for ‘Angel Hostel’ to kip on the couch for a few hours until everyone was awake. Free cheese toasties for brekkie in the morning are these guy’s ‘thang’.

Valparaiso is a combination of traditional colonial buildings of various colours and other residential houses cramped in everywhere and anywhere in the incredibly steep hills.

Once the richest city, and Chiles financial powerhouse because of its vast port it is now a slightly rundown but very creative community living in (now) the poorest city with the highest unemployment in Chile, due to the combination of a huge earthquake in 1906 then the Panama Canal opening in 1914; ruining the international maritime trade.

Like most large cities we have visited we went on the free walking tour – Where’s Wally was our guide– similar to La Paz we had a super excited gay tour guide, It was yet again another very interesting and informative tour. 

We learnt about Valpo receiving the Unesco grant of 60 million dollars in 2002, restricting the increase of ugly modern building in the centre.

This also allowed for the restoration of some buildings, paying for the neutering of the city animals and the rest - unspent still... who knows, probably deep in the mayor’s pockets. The Unesco grant has it’s disadvantages also though – as all the buildings are now ‘protected’ this means that absolutely none of them can be knocked down – only restored. This poses real problems as many buildings are needing serious repair and are falling apart, yet its far too expensive to restore them- better to just move.

We saw what was once ‘the richest street in Latin America.’ Not anymore!

On this street was a huge and really shabby building that is owned and solely lived in by a little old Italian lady who poked her head out whilst we were standing outside. Very strange!

We took one of the eight still running ‘ascensors’ up a little way. The hills are seriously steep here to walk up so this is a very welcome alternative.

Looking on a map you would think that you can just walk to a lot of places – they look very close – but no public transport saves you a lot of effort! We also rode a ‘trolley bus’ – the Chilean version of a tram. 

We had a deeper insight into the politics of the country. Although the dictatorship is gone the constitution is still in place. Chile is officially the richest country in South America however it’s the rich 10% that are accountable for this. Minimum wage is very low and many are struggling.

After the tour we went for the best ‘chorrillana’ in town. Chips, piled with pork, cheese, onions and egg. It was good.

That evening we met up with Jon and Becca and went to a performance that was part of ‘Tsonami’ – a sound festival. It was called ‘Light Bulb Music’ – as it sounds – one guy making sounds from loads of different light bulbs, using different frequencies. It was interesting, if a little odd! It was also quite long! The dark was making it very difficult for me to stay awake! We were taken back to some of the wacky performances at Laban…Afterwards we gratefully dived into the free wine and nibbles! That seemed to be just the beginning of the night; we ended up visiting the many bars on the street of our hostel.

The next day we wandered through the farmers and flea markets. All the fruit and veg seemed to be supersize!

We then rode the ascensor up (the only vertical elevator in town – gives you an idea of the steepness!) to the cerro Polanco graffiti barrio. There is stunning graffiti art everywhere; all over the city, but this area is particularly impressive. We walked around the area where street artists from all over the world have painted over 70 facades. Amazing work with fantastic views of the city to boot!

As we made our way down we passed some guys doing par core. A really awesome place to get creative and play with the surroundings.
It is in this city that they do the Red Bull Urban Down Hill Bike Race. Speeding down the little alleys, streets and steps and doing massive jumps on the way to the finish. Check out this link…

Another day we headed 10 minutes north of Valpo by bus to Vina del Mar, a city beach resort.

Vina is so different – much more pruned, clean cut and modern! I think we prefer the more rough and ready character of Valpo. 
Father Christmas in Vina!!

The following down we went further, north of Vina to Renaca. A lovely beach with awesome waves. The thing about the vast Pacific ocean is that it is bloody FREEZING!! Kyle complained that it was so cold it hurt!

The sun sets really late here, around 8.30/9 so the days are lovely and long.

On our last day we took a taxi/bus up to La Sebastiana where Pablo Neruda lived. Neruda is Latin America’s most loved poet and he had a pretty great view of the city from his house.

We headed to the port and had a harbour tour. It was nice to see the city from the sea – it’s big! We saw sea lions lounging on the bouys and one even on the front of a ship!

We got to see the navy ships, a submarine and the colossal cargo ships up close.

That night we treated ourselves and probably spent the most in our 3 months on a meal out! We went up to ‘Fauna’ restaurant and sat outside looking out over the city and the ocean – a perfect evening to finish on.

After 5 days spent in Valpo we took a short 2.5 hour bus to Chile’s capital; Santiago. There, we stayed with Camila, a Chilean girl we met on our Machu Picchu trek 2 months previous. She has a little apartment, that she calls her ‘suitcase’, in a fantastic location in central Santiago. Her balcony looks out over the beautiful old biblioteca (library). We met her girlfriend Effy and the 4 of us headed out for the afternoon. Unlike us, we were doing a flying visit staying for just one night! We hadn’t heard great things about Santiago from fellow travellers – smog, noisy, busy, nothing to see – so we were considering skipping it altogether. Knowing that we had an offer from Camila to stay with her we thought it was stupid not to take up her offer and experience Chile’s capital for ourselves. Very glad we did! We liked the city!
Camilla in her Chilean T.shirt!! Very patriotic!!

Camila and Effy joined us for the free walking tour – 2 Chileans amongst lots of tourists! We got a great taste of the capital.

 A massive mural in the process of

More art on the metro!

It was like having 2 tour guides because when the official tour guide stopped talking, Camila, the unofficial tour guide would start up! She is extremely knowledgeable about the city and has a great interest in politics.

 Copy cats!

'New York' street

A few things we learnt:
On average Chileans eat 8 gallons of ice cream per year! They love their ice cream!
They are very into public displays of affection in parks!
The Opus Dei church (think the De Vinci Code) has a lot of power here. There are rumours of it having a punishment chamber…
Abortion is illegal.
Divorce was only made legal in 2004. There is only one country left in the world where it is still illegal now which is the Philippines.
Earthquakes are prevalent here with huge seismic activity.

 Plaza de Armas

We bumped into this guy on the street  - he is a famous musician in Chile - Camila's favourite! She was VERY happy!

That evening we enjoyed some pisco sours and Camila took us to a great Chilean restaurant. We picked up ice creams on the way home. Naturally.

No comments:

Post a Comment