Back to the Future
26.01.2007 - 06.02.2009 29 °C
So we are still a little behind I admit, so I’m going to bring us up to speed rapido!!
The boarder crossing was, in more ways than one, like a scene from Back to the Future. Firstly we were woken up from a motion-induced-bus-slumber in this Wild West town on the boarder of Peru, rushed off the bus and escorted from one gated bus terminal to another surrounded by bus workers as we got ready to get a taxi across to Chile. Strictly instructed not to speak to anyone as they are apparently ALL con artists
A little bewildered by having the bus driver haggle the price of our taxi for us and guard us in a circle, we piled into the back of a very 1980’s maroon square-edged car. The driver and two fully grown men piled in the front. It was close to 40 degrees. The boarder crossing is just a straight road through the desert, so we went 'quite fast' with an enormous dust cloud trailing behind us, the windows wide open, not being to see anything but miles and miles of sand and the mirage of the heat rising off of it. We didn’t vanish into a porthole, as apt as it would have been, but we might have well of done. After a couple of none remarkable exit / entry stamps, with the usual palaver that goes with it, we arrived in Arica, Chile.
Gone are the indigenous people of Peru, pokey little corner shops selling the bare essentials (avocados and bread), street vendors with all kinds of battery powered tack laid out in front of them, the smell of Empanadas wafting on every street corner, little box taxis ready for the scrap yard flying around like there on a go cart course, dogs and children constantly running under your feet, all in the setting of old cobbled streets and colonial architecture. (I might not make it sound that charming, but in its own way, it really is)
So, within a twenty minute drive this was all exchanged for it’s polar opposite. Fast food joints, paved streets, high street shops, fully stocked pharmacies and super markets, saloon taxis with perfect, uniform yellow and back paint work, and a whole set rules and regulations that are abided to. The high street in Arica looks a bit like Redhill, Leatherhead or Liverpool with the standard red arched sign bearing the name of the town. It was so familiar to what we know but so alien to where we’d just come from. Same same, but different.
Every one looked clean, the return of fashion in place of practicality and affordability. People are polite, no one pushes you out the way or tries to insist that you need a pink bracelet and that it looks really ‘Linnnda’ on you. What’s crazy is that despite Peru sounding like a hectic nightmare, immediately I started to miss the rawness of it and Ecuador and Colombia alike.
You set foot in Chile and you could be in numerous places in Europe, it is really like Spain. We had to quickly accept that this is a different South America, but South America none the less and we had to accept and enjoy it for what it is. A little trip out of town, as advised by our lovely hostel owner and his equally lovely wife, and it was abundantly clear we were not in Europe, we were actually in a mountain range of sand dunes, in the driest desert in the world that goes all the way to the lashing Pacific Ocean with ancient hieroglyphics still etched in the side of mountains. Last time I checked, you don’t get that in the Costa del Sol.
We didn’t hang around in Arica, horrified that we had to pay $15 for a room (a bargain by Brazilian standards), we boarded a 40 hr bus to Santiago. Thankfully we hadn’t taken a sleeping tablet as it was in fact only a cool 30 hours so we arrived in Santiago ahead of schedule. Not that we believed the bus drivers. Claire actually poked one of them on the chest, laughed, called him a joker and tried to get back on the bus. It took asking a passer by to get us to remove our bags and accept we didn’t have another 10 hours to settle into and had to try and find a hostel at 11pm. Not the hardest of tasks, but when sitting on your arse is all your expecting to do it’s a bit if a shock. We giggled our way though the ridiculousness of the situation and found our selves in the safety of a nice hostel in a picture perfect area of Santiago; cobbled streets, fountains and beautiful town houses. Glass of wine. We were doing alright.
The owner was incredibly helpful, if not a little mad, with his young Chilean lady friend, both running around the hostel giggling like school children. Generally a really nice environment to gather yourself and plan.
So we decided the most time-efficient and economical way of getting a taste of what was on offer around Santiago was to hire a car and go on a road trip! This was a lot of fun, we had a lot of laughs and made a nice change from buses for a bit, especially as the local radio stations liked to mix it up with a few classics from the likes of Salt N Pepper, Simply Red but to name a few.
Horcon, as stated in ‘The Book’ is a bohemian fishing town with a beach, bars and hippies. It was not. It was a very bizarre little town built into the hillside with an arcade, seagulls, some pebbles and not much else other than a notably mostly male population. However, we found a quirky Swiss style room to stay in with a quirky owner to match. The girls went out for a Basil Mojhito and a trip to the arcade but soon returned for a night of wine on our little decked balcony listening to the crashing sea whilst planning to leave - first thing.
On to Valparaiso, again built into the hillside, with an enormous port filled with fishing boats, huge Ocean Liners, industrial machinery, impressive architecture, big squares, statues, museums, galleries cosmopolitan cafes and imposing glass office buildings. Travel 5 minutes up the hillside and you are submerged in bohemian beauty, cobbled streets, colourful town houses, little quirky health food cafes and the most incredible collection of street art I have ever seen. We landed ourselves in a hostel owned by two local artist with the most beautiful 2 yr old boy and a cool collection of travellers to boot. Here, we wandered the streets in the sunshine, drank Mate Tea in our little court yard, chatted till our hearts content and watched the American Superbowl. Quite an event, apparently. Couple of days later we hit the road again, carrying the luggage of a few new pals who were to meet us in Isla Negra, our next stop.
I completely forgot to mention that we didn’t have a map. You can’t buy them anywhere so we were navigating practically blind with only the abysmal Rough Guide to Chile to help us. We did a surprisingly good job and didn’t actually get lost.
Isla Negra was everything it was meant to be. Sandy, traditional, laid back and beautiful. Driving around trying to find a cottage to rent we stopped outside an enormous ship perched in the middle of a residential area more than 500 meters from the sea. It had a mast, deck, female figure on the front etc. It is was fascinatingly cool and we obviously wanted to find out if we could rent it. No one home, unlikely anyway, just as we were about to drive off, a cave man wearing no shoes and dragging a large branch sauntered down the road and took the partial tree into the house. Of course, it was his house and not for rent but he showed us around anyway. He had built the whole thing from scratch and it was a ship, down to the last detail. Portholes, bottles built into the walls, rigging -the whole shbang!! He then, very kindly, insisted in helping us find somewhere else to stay.
We rented a miniature 2 bed cottage between six of us, caught a stunning sunset on the beach, a night of cooking and wine, and a sit down rave. We visited the home of the eccentric (recurring theme) Paulo Neubra, Chile’s most famous poet and winner of the noble peace prize and got on our merry way back to Santiago, still map-less. Easy peasy.
The next day wasn’t quite so successful as we tried to navigate out of Santiago onto some obscure
B Road in search of natural hot springs high in the mountains that was not in our guide book. I wont go into it, but after 9 hours of driving we arrived back to Santiago, after encountering 'a little fuel issue', having not dipped a toe into a hot spring. We still had lots of fun, saw some incredible snow capped mountains, the right mountains too, on the right road and a lot of goats.
The car was returned and we spent some time in Santiago, visited an exhibition, sat in a park, got ripped off by a tramp, ate in a sushi restaurant and other such things cosmopolitan things before boarding another twenty something hour bus to Mendoza in Argentina.
Chile wasn’t a cultural shock or somewhere that we fell in love with but we didn’t expect it to be. What it is, is incredibly beautiful, clean, well maintained, safe and full of extremely accommodating and interesting characters that will help you, like most Latin Americans, wanting absolutely nothing in return. People often say that Chile is not real South America. I disagree with this. Yes it is expensive, even to our European standards, and it is different to the northern South American countries but I don’t think it should be discredited because of this. A country once ravaged, like so many others, by the USA, is now one of progression, development and growing economic strength. The people have got the same good nature and inherent Latino warmth mixed in with an abundance of the arts and modernity. Aside from this, I think it maybe one of the most naturally beautiful and diverse landscapes you can hope to find, I am yet to see the best of it. I’m now sitting in a hostel in Brazil (my next blog instalment so I will be with you again soon) and we are heading back towards Chile through Argentina to see Patagonia and I genuinely can not wait to get there.