City sights in Chile
26.10.2008 25 °C
We left Bariloche on an afternoon coach, headed for Santiago.Our journey wasn´t to take too long relatively speaking, only about 17 hours total, though it was to be split into 2 legs; a five hour ride over the Andes through to Osorno and then an overnight bus to Chile´s capital of Santiago.The only catch was that there was a 5 hour wait in Osorno until the next bus, and Osorno wasn´t exactly known as the party capital of Chile.The first leg was pleasant enough, our coach driving alongside Lago Nahuel Huapi for a bit, then climbing steadily higher as we approched the mountain pass through the Andes that would take us into Chile.The air got colder and the scenery changed from lush to snow covered, though a lot of the snow was melting as the warm spring was coming into season.We soon reached Parjaritos, the first town of any consequence in Chile and also the site for the Chilean border formalities.Everyone trudged off the bus, sorry to be leaving the comfort and warmth of their seats, and lined up patiently inside the customs building, while our rucksacks and bags were thrown onto the conveyor belt to be X-rayed.We got our stamps and entrance cards and crossed over to drop our smaller backpacks onto the belt, which we carried with us at all times, containing as they did all our valuable documents, wallets, mp3 players etc.Janelle was perplexed to be unable to locate her bag after it had gone through the machine, only to be helped by a friendly customs guard who was wearing it on his back for a laugh.She didn´t think it was very funny tho...
Once through customs we sped onwards to Osorno.The scenery again changed and became quite lush and green ane we spied many a vinyard through the window, Chile famously being a large worldwide supplier of wine.Osorno is a large agricultural hub in these parts, though there is little here that warrants any long term stay.We arrived not too long after and were thankful just to be off the bus.It was in the dingy and slightly seedy bus terminal we had our first taste of Chilean food, a local favourite snack called un completo.It´s basically a hot dog in a bun, though it comes served smothered in guacamole tomatoes and mayo, avacadoes being another one of Chile´s primary agricultural products.Tastes pretty good though, and it comes cheap.
On major difference between countries is obviously the currency used.And while Brazilian reals and Argentina pesos are near enough numerically speaking to Euros and dollars, Chilean pesos are somewhat different.Their notes start off in denominations of 500 pesos and go up to 20,000.This can be quite confusing when you´re used to paying 10 or so Argentinian pesos for a coffee and are then suddenly handing over a 2000 peso note for the same.It takes some getting used to ley me say.
We managed to kill 5 hours by wandering aimlessly around the small town centre, and by spending a few hours in an internet cafe updating blogs etc.We headed back to the bus terminal at night, ignoring the locals who catcalled after us in Spanish.We boarded quickly and set up in our seats, and as it was after 10pm at this stage we managed to fall asleep in no time.
We reached Santiago around 9 the next morning.It could not be more different than Osorno.Chile´s capital city, with a population of more than four and a half million is situated about halfway down the length of South America´s spine, and is about 2 hours inland from the sea.In fact, the shape of Chile being what it is, the width of the country is apparently never more than 200kms across, though it does measure some 4300kms from Peru in the north to the Straits of Magellan in the south.While northern Chile is hot and arid, with some of the driest desert on the planet (the Atacama desert), the south is wild and wet, containing any number of volcanoes (some of which are still active) and ends in Tierra del Fuego, which it shares with Argentina.Santiago however is located in neither extreme, and is thus perfectly suited to the requirements of being a capital city.
Santiago is smokey.And by that I mean it´s covered in a near permanent haze of smog that can obscure the neighbouring mountains that tower behind it.Its also quite possibly South America´s most commercial city, with shopping malls quite literally spilling out onto the main streets.In fact its famous for them, much like Rio´s famous for its favelas.In looks and character it most definitely does not seem to be of South American origin.Indeed, with Chile being the one country in the continent nearest to being awarded first world status (most, if not all the others in SA are 2nd world countries) its main city recalls parts of London or even New York.In spite of this, or maybe because of it, most backpackers hate Santiago.It is for many the first port of call in South America as they´ll fly in here from Australia or NZ or else leave from here on their way home.We didn´t meet a single traveller who liked it.Its ¨crowded, smoky, expensive....just another big city¨ was all we heard, so we weren´t expecting to like it.But surprisingly we did.
First of all we picked a nice cosy hostel in the bohemian part of town, Bellavista.It was safe, funky and a convenient base to exlore the area, being only 10 mins from the metro.We´d expected Chile to be expensive, indeed had budgeted it as one of the dearest countries; but we found it on a par with Argentina costwise and were thus pleasantly surprised.Smoky it was;but hot it was also.After all the cold weather we´d experienced in Argentina Santiago was a very welcome temperature, at least 25 degs most days.It was almost too hot sometimes, and we learned to travel in the shadows of buildings or trees to avoid the direct sunlight.Or at least I did.Janelle is better suited to this heat and loved every second of it.No, Santiago was a pleasant change from the towns and villages of Argentina;it had everything we´d missed while backpacking around; pedestrianised streets with cafes serving good coffee;bookstores that sold English titles;malls that catered to every taste and whim;restaurants of every ethnic food group from Japanese to Indian to Chinese.The area where we were staying was friendly and funky, with brightly lit streets at nite and murals covering the walls during the day.Local watering holes served the local brew Escuardo (very nice BTW) all night along with the Chilean version of empanadas (deep fried).Downtown was a bustling area with Chileans of all dress hurrying along to whatever business they had to attend, while every street corner was occupied by enterprising locals offering freshly squeezed OJ.There were many parks museums and gardens to spend time in and all were well maintained and serviced.We felt safe at all times and enjoyed being back in our first big city since Buenos Aires.
Unfortunately we hadn´t budgeted much time in Santiago, only two days, but we made the most of them.After wandering at leisure through the many malls downtown and picking up some necessary equipment (an adaptor plug being among them) and sipping coffee, we dined in fancy restaurants that served Japanese cuisine (much to Janelles´delight).We did some sightseeing too, and took a local bus up to Cerro San Cristobel one morning, a nearby hill of 485m that delivered some beautiful views of the (mostly hazy) city.It also contains a national park aswell as an Christian church (along with requisite Virgin Mary statue) whose outdoor pulpit must rank as one of the most inspiring places to addess a congregation.The park is served by a lengthy cable car system, that takes you right around the most interesting sights and eventually back down to ground.We found it a charming and quite relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
As nice as Santiago was, it isn´t exactly overflowing with activities.True, there are ski slopes nearby, but the season was at an end.And apparently there are wine tasting course and horse riding on offer, but we weren´t bothered.So we decided to head out to nearby Valparaiso two hours away on the coast.We´d heard great things about this port town and it regularly receives rave reviews from Lonely Planet and other guidebooks.In fact, its listed as one of the ´must sees´in Chile.So we headed out for the day with high hopes.
We arrived after two hours or so and were immediately besieged by locals guides urging us to take their tours.We politely listened to one so as to not be rude and then declined her offer once we´d learned all the places to go.She wasn´t too happy after all her talking!Ha!We sauntered on with the free map she had given us and somehow ended up straight at the nearest mall.Hmm.Though it was VERY impressive inside, moreso than some in London and other such cities.Anyway, we chose the mall because it warm, and the weather in Valparaiso was anything but.I´d dressed for the sun, as it was out in force when we left Santiago, but it conspicously absent in this seaside town.After warming ourselves up a bit we braved the outside.It was dull, dreary weather, overcast with no hope of sun at all.Not what we were hoping for.And maybe it was the weather but we couldn´t take to Valparaiso at all.I mean, its listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, its considered the cultural capital of Chile and it has bucketloads of history but none of it impressed.The seafront is mostly obscured by vast port containers waiting to be shipped or by the immense cranes used to ship them.There is no beach, no sand, no surf.Just an ongoing dockland.It wasn´t too dissimilar from the Dublin docks and I can´t imagine anybody wanting to go there for the day!
You could take boat tours out to see the bay from the water but we weren´t bothered with the weather.The only thing that brightened our day was discovering one of the many ascensores (elevators) littered thoughout the city; wooden platforms that take you right up from the lower downtown up onto the cobbled hillsides.These were built between 1883 and 1916 when the city was a great trading post for much of Chile, before the opening of the Panama Canal made it pretty much obsolete, and look every bit their age.Though they do take you up to much more sceneic barrios, and of course they give a great view of the port, grey as it was.We snapped away at the many murals lining the cobbled streets, all created with obvious attention to detail.Past a few churches and cafes here and there we descended again to the main plaza and rewarded ourselves with some swee coffees.We bumped into an English couple from our hostel who had the same opinion of Valparaiso we did and spent a few hours trading travelling tips before we decided to leave for Santiago.We´d only been there 4 or so hours and we were bored.Luckily we hadn´t booked accomodation as I´d initially wanted to before we´d arrived, and I was extremely grateful for Janelle for having talked me out of it.Anyway, we left ASAP and vowed never to return.
The next day was our last in Santiago, and as much as we´d enjoyed it, we were happy to move on.It IS just another big city, though as big cities go its not the worst by far.We were keen on reaching our next destination in Chile - San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist town out in the middle of the Atacma desert.There we would experience one of the expected highlights of the whole trip; the Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni saltflats, an otherworldly place of dry white desert, sentinel-like cacti, lakes of green,white,blue and red, and pink flamingoes to boot.But first we had to brave another hellish 24 hour bus ride and combat altitude sickness before we could enjoy it.And something told me it wouldn´t be so easy....