Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The top half of Chile

A spurting geyser in the Atacama, Chile.
It was another overnight bus ride to get from Valdivia to the capital of Chile, Santiago. This was just the start of northern Chile, a region with astoundingly disparate climates and scenery. From the sea to the desert, it was constantly astounding.

It took me a while to get used to Santiago. Not just because it’s been a while since I’d been in a large city, but because I couldn’t decide whether it felt very, well, city-like. Even the centre had a very laidback atmosphere to it, despite being surrounded by large colonial buildings. In the centre is Cerro Santa Lucía, a rocky hill overlooking the whole city, which stretches into the distance towards the mountains on one side and the plains leading down to the Pacific on the other. Through the middle runs the Mapocho River, now all but a trickle. One can see how big it must have been, since the trench is wide and deep enough to sail a boat down it. But despite the city’s evident size, the centre itself is very compact and easily walkable. It’s full of outdoor cafés, plazas where old men sit playing chess while couples sit around eating ice cream and being overly passionate in public. It all had a very Mediterranean feel to it.

But there is a seedier side. I’d heard about a café called ‘Coffee with legs’, the owner of which had tried to draw Santiagans to proper coffee by dressing the waitresses up in short skirts. It worked, and several other cafés followed suit. However, in an attempt to outdo each other, some establishments went on to dress their waitresses in less and less clothing. Now the centre contains several ‘blue’ cafés with blacked-out windows, wherein stand businessmen on their breaks, sipping cappuccinos while scantily clad girls gyrate around them. This of course wouldn’t be out of place in any major city, were it not for the fact that the customers were only drinking coffee.

Santiago from Santa Lucía hill.
What endeared Santiago to me was my stay with a local family. My CouchSurfing host was a flight attendant with LAN Chile, but since she was busy it was her younger brother who met me on the first day and showed me around their leafy suburb of La Reina. When my host arrived she took me straight out to her local bar, all outside seating of course. No trip to Chile is complete without sampling the local spirit, pisco, made from grapes. When mixed with cola, it naturally becomes piscola. Many piscolas were consumed that night in honour of Santiagan culture.

The next morning I was taken to El Mercado Central, a large fish market and restaurant area. All the usual seafood was there, and several new ones (new to me). The weirdest of all was picoroco, a giant barnacle that looks like a creature trapped inside a rock. It pokes its beak out to look around then cowers away when confronted with a finger. Its reaction was not unsurprising: they were about to be boiled and served on a plate.

Picoroco, surely one of the weirdest foods around.
Nearby is La Piojera, one of the oldest pubs in town. It comprises a long bar and mud-and-straw walls forming several rooms of simple tables. On first glance it would seem rather dingy, but the walls are plastered with pictures and messages from thousands of people, and to say the atmosphere is jovial would be a massive understatement. Only one drink was being drunk when I went there: terremoto, meaning earthquake. It consists of a pint of cheap white wine with a dollop of ice cream in it. It certainly helps along the cheer.

La Piojera, one of the oldest (and funnest) pubs in Santiago.
My enduring memory of Santiago won’t be the food or drink or getting shouted at by presidential guards when I put my arms round them whilst having my picture taken; no, it will be of the hospitality of my host family. The mother looked after me by giving me plenty of delicious food (always a sure way to my heart), while my host and her brother told me everything about their lives and asked me all about mine. I was genuinely sad to leave them. I left Santiago with a very happy image of Santiago in my mind. It may not be as buzzing or as culturally diverse as other capitals, but it has a warm and cheerful ambience to which no-one can fail to be drawn.

Just a couple of hours down the road right on the Pacific coast is Valparaiso. It has a dull centre containing a few colonial buildings and a large empty plaza with two lonely cafés on it. But up the surrounding hills is where the magic is. The steep, winding streets are full of tiny, colourful houses, all different in shape, colour and design. Some are bright pink, some dark maroon. Some have eclectic paintings on the outside, others are decorated with items such as old wooden wheels. It creates a dazzling scene of colour playing in front of the eyes, made all the more attractive by the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and the brilliant sun in the cloudless sky. Pablo Neruda lived here (amongst other places); his house is shaped like a boat.

The hilly, colourful lanes of Valparaiso.
Another great thing about Valparaiso is the fact their favourite dish is the satisfying chorrillana. Basically it’s a huge plate of chips, onion, strips of beef and oodles of gravy. It’s perfect, especially when washed down with some of the local dark brew.

Next to Valparaiso (and I mean just a few minutes by bus) lies the city of Viña del Mar, a totally different world. It’s full of high-rise hotels, overpriced restaurants and expensive shops. Although I would always recommend Valapariso over Viña del Mar, it does have some good points. It has a nice sandy beach and some rocky outcrops upon which nest colonies of the massively beaked pelicans. It also has a few pleasant parks and a huge amphitheatre. Furthermore, tourists are for some reason attracted to a big clock made of flowers.

Pelicans in Viña del Mar, Chile.
We tried to take a bus up north, but they were all full so we delayed by a day. Instead, we spent a night in the first place we found, right by the bus station. It was run by an old lady on a crutch who must have recently inherited a large building and decided to turn it into a hostel. Unfortunately, she had clearly never visited one. She had put some rusting, lice-infected bunk beds into some musty, bare rooms and sealed up the broken windows with Johnny Depp posters. There was a kitchen but no cooking implements. She had just had internet installed, but had no idea of the password or what it was even supposed to do. Most bizarrely, there was a pot in the kitchen containing half a child’s t-shirt in some water. I was a bit scared. We spent the next day waiting for the bus and observing the student protests. Chile is currently in the grip of a strike by school and university students angry about the disparity between the allegedly poor teaching in the free public schools and the massive cost of private education. The sting of tear gas was still in the air and the riot vans were on guard.

Twenty four hours on the bus (via Santiago and Calama) brought us to San Pedro de Atacama, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The last time I crossed this line was in the middle of Australia. To me it’s the worrying indicator that things are about to get very hot. However, despite the crystal clear skies and the intense sun, the altitude and dryness of this region of Chile mean it’s actually rather cold in the shade, and positively freezing at night. (Or should that be negatively freezing?)

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
San Pedro is a dry, dusty town serving as the gateway to the Atacama, the driest desert in the world. All the restaurants and hostels have central courtyards in which bonfires serve as communal gathering spots. In the centre of the town are a shady plaza and a whitewashed church. But enough about the town: it’s the surrounding area that deserves the attention! Just outside the town are canyons and valleys of red, sandy rock. You can see the layers as they’ve been pushed up over the millennia, with some now sticking vertically out of the ground. This leads to intriguing erosion, resulting in ‘fingers’ or columns of rocks. Death Valley, walkable from town, is a great place to watch the sunset, lighting up the sand dunes and the cliffs in shades shifting from yellow to crimson to purple.

There are a number of lagoons in the Atacama. Some, like Miñiques and Miscanti, are incredibly high at over 4300m. They reflect a startling deep blue against the yellow of the shrubs and the grey of the rocks on the mountains. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Tibet, with fields of permanent snow in the shade. Another lagoon, Chaxa, is home to no less than three species of Flamingo, the pink of which is a stark contrast against the huge plains of brown. These plains are made of painfully sharp, dry earth which has risen as the salt from underneath has leached to the surface and crystallised.

Miscanti, a high-altitude lake in the Atacama, Chile.
More lagoons abound. Some are so salty that a swim, despite the cold, is essential in order to experience the sensation of floating serenely on the surface with no effort required. The only drawback is the fact that you’ll be caked in salt after getting out. My sunglasses were an opaque white. Then there are the Ojos de Salar, two perfectly circular holes known as the eyes of the salt flats. Other lagoons are perfect for observing the sunset whilst sipping a pisco sour. A group of us did just that, watching our shadows grow longer, stretching out across the lake as the sun lit it up in a series of awe-inspiring colours.

Flamingos in the Atacama, Chile.
Then there are El Tatio Geysers, which are best viewed at sunrise (requiring a wakeup call at the ungodly hour of 3.45am). But the lack of sleep, the bumpy drive and the terrible cold are all worth it to see the sun rising over the huge jets of steam, spraying water and bubbling pools. As you eat breakfast, the smell of sulphur and various other poisons blows on the wind, reminding you not to get too close. Oh, and the stories of people breaking through the surface into boiling pools is also good reason not to venture off the paths. Afterwards, a good way to warm up is in a hot pool. The water is fantastically relaxing, but the climb back out into the icy wind is not.

Finally, as if the myriad natural wonder weren't enough, there are numerous villages dotted around dating from the fifteenth century, the time of the Spanish invaders. Time seems to have stood still in these places, where locals create handicrafts out of the little natural resources and pass the day with extended greetings on doorsteps, shading from the relentless sun.

A typical village in the Atacama, Chile.
And this was the end of Chile. We took a bus to the Bolivian border, from where more deserts and mountains stretch into the distance, leading the way to an entirely new country and culture.

1 comment:

  1. fabulous photos J, glad you are having fun. x