A Travellerspoint blog

San Pedro, Chile

days 156-159

sunny -5 °C

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After the rather long and arduous 15 hours bus ride from La Serena, we finally arrived into San Pedro de Atacama at 7pm. When we are arriving after dark we usually book a hostel online as the last thing you want to do after a long journey is traipse around, but we couldn't find one online and so decided that as San Pedro was a big tourist destination we assumed that we would have no problem finding one. There was another guy on the bus sporting a bright green backpack who made the same assumption. You know what they say about assumptions...

At 10pm we had been in and out of more than 10 hostels all of whom were full, and none of which seemed to have any confidence in recommending that anybody else would have space. The situation had got to the point where as I saw it we had 2 choices: the first one was to pay to stay in a boutique style hotel for 150 quid a night, and the second was to find the busiest bar, get drunk and hope to make a local friend. We went with the first choice and even though it was going to cost us more than a couple of days budget, I was secretly looking forward to a spot of luxury – a concept that had alluded us for quite some time. Sadly for us, but happily for the budget, even the boutique hotel was full, and our options had dwindled down to 1 – beer.

Well, almost. On our way back to the centre of the town from the boutique hotel we spotted, down a very dimly lit road, a girl with a backpack disappear through a door. With nothing left to lose we followed her and made our way to reception to enquire about a bed. We weren't in the least bit surprised that they didn't have any room, but with more than a hint of desperation I suggested we wouldn't mind sharing a bed, or even sleep on the floor, as long as there was a roof over our heads. Probably more out of pity than anything else, the receptionist made a phone call to her boss and it turned out someone had reserved a room but not turned up so her boss agreed we could have the room and we breathed a sigh of relief. We also ran to the room and unpacked our bags quickly in case the original intended occupant of the room turned up and we could claim squatters rights and tell them to shove it. Ten minutes after we had claimed our room the guy from the bus with the bright green backpack turned up looking even more desperate than we had but trudged off disappointed. We didn't see him again and I've no idea whether he found a bed.

The town of San Pedro is charming in a dusty old-world desert kind of way. Apparently as recently as ten years ago it wasn't a popular destination for foreign tourists (although was for Chileans), but that has most definitely changed now. For all of the new tourist money the town brings in now, it doesn't appear to have changed much. The roads are still rocky and dusty, the higher-end hotels have all been built sympathetically so that they don't appear all that new at all and the restaurants, although slightly pricey, all have a rustic feel to them that befits their surroundings. The town is small though, and the main reason for it becoming such a hot-spot on the Chilean travelling scene are the tours you can do in the surrounding areas.

We had decided that as the tours were quite expensive, we would stay for 2 or 3 nights and just pick one tour. The morning after we arrived we scoured the many travel agencies that litter the main street, and eventually settled on a tour that would take in the altiplano lakes, the salt flats and the geysers - hot springs.

The pick-up for the tour was 6am the next morning and as we waited outside in the freezing cold, a minivan drove past us 3 or 4 times before finally stopping and allowing us on. The driver had an order of who to pick up and clearly lacked the brainpower required to swap the order, but never mind, at least any traces of a hangover from the rather lovely Chilean red wine the night before had been frozen out of us.

The tour was excellent, although it had a slightly different itinerary that the one we had booked. There was to be no geysers, although given the air temperature was below freezing was probably for the best from an avoiding pneumonia point of view. The first stop was 'laguna chaxa' in the salar de atacama to see some flamingos. There were several different types of flamingos to see, including the “James flamingo” which was my favourite. Despite being my namesake the flamingo had a tear-drop shaped black shading near its eye which gave it the appearance of belonging to a crazed American convict. In short, it was cool. The other things to note from the first part of the day was that it absolutely ponged – there is loads and loads of lithium in the area, and also the temperature – it was minus 5 before wind chill and when we were served breakfast (outdoors), the ham and cheese sandwiches were crunchy with ice.

The rest of the day we took in a couple of lagoons that had once been one but were separated by an earthquake a lot of years ago, a nature walk in 2 feet of snow and finally a visit to Toconao – a charming small town around an away hour from San Pedro. It was a bank holiday in Chile the day we visited Toconao and we stumbled across a fiesta to celebrate some Catholic event or another. It was interesting to see the mix of Catholicism with indigenous dancing, lots of colour, vibrancy and energy. Not words usually synonymous with the catholic church but enjoyable viewing nevertheless.

The next day we were still unsure of our next move; the choices were head up to Bolivia on a 4x4 tour or head to Salta in Northern Argentina. For a couple of reasons, primarily the tour up to Bolivia involved being freezing, but also because we could leave Bolivia until later in the trip, we chose to go to Salta. We were too late for the bus that day but booked the bus to leave early the next morning.

To fill the rest of our final day in Chile we headed out on one of the many walking routes that surround the town and lazily traipsed through the orange desert with the warm sun beating down. We finished the day bumping into a bloke from Birmingham who we had met in the hostel in La Serena. Lou was taking some cash out and he spotted her in the queue. He assumed, for no reason other than that he was stood in close proximity to her, that I was the bloke in front of her in the queue. I wasn't he, but I was close enough to see and hear the ridiculous spectacle of a guy from Birmingham speaking to a Chilean (who clearly didn't speak English) in English about the pros and cons of food in Chile. The clearly perplexed look on the face of the unbeknown imposter didn't seem to deter the Brummie and he continued speaking at him for another minute or so before Lou realised what was going on and pointed him in my direction, to the clear relief of the Chilean who had long since given up trying to work out what was going on and who's facial expression had changed from confused to slightly perturbed. He then came over to me and started talking to me about the hostel we had both stayed in in Santiago. I informed him that we had in fact met in La Serena but he was having none of this and carried on talking at me about Santiago and it dawned on me that it didn't matter if I was Chilean, English, or a lamp post, this guy would just talk at me no matter what about anything that came into his rather empty head, in an accent that did his dozy appearance no favours whatsoever.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 15:28 Archived in Chile Tagged san de pedro atacama Comments (0)

La Serena, Chile

days 153-155

sunny 6 °C

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After deciding we were going to head north from Valparaiso to the Atacaman desert town of San Pedro, the only decision we had left was whether to do it in one very long bus journey or stop somewhere along the way. Since we were in no great rush, we decided to stop somewhere along the way, and after a recommendation from Gerrado in the Jacaranda hostel, we decided that La Serena would be it.

The town of La Serena doesn't immediately strike you as one to spend any time in, but the trips available to the surrounding areas make it a decent place to spend a couple of days.

We arrived late, but thankfully the hostel was only 5 minutes or so walk from the bus station. The 'Maria Casa' is a family run hostel and they make you feel at home instantly, which was becoming a theme of Chilean accomodation. The only problem with the hostel is that the rooms are absolutely freezing. Thankfully we had bought hats, scarves and gloves in Santiago although we didn't really expect to be wearing them in bed.

The trip we chose to do after several recommendations was to the 'Mamalluca' observatory. I'll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about matters astronomy but both Lou and I found the experience completely awe-inspiring. We got picked up at 9pm and driven the 2 hours or so to the observatory, located high up in the mountains. The sky was already the clearest and most star-drenched sky I'd ever seen even before we got to look through the telescope and was probably worth the fee alone, but the best was still to come.

Our guide was an absolute mine of knowledge and wildly passionate talking about astronomy. I had about a thousand questions and he answered all of them in detail and with vivid interest. When it came to looking through the telescope he explained in detail about the rings around Saturn, the M82 galaxy and why mars (rather disappointingly for me) 'live' doesn't look as red as mars that you become accostomed to seeing on the television or in magazines.

After we had all looked through the telescope at our galaxy, other galaxies and a few planets we moved outside and the guide explained in more detail about constellations, black holes, satellites and only finished when we had completely run out of time and the minibus to take us home's engine had started.

The next day we had a bus booked for 1am so had one of those days you have while travelling where you're just waiting to leave. A walk around the town centre killed a bit of time and then we walked the 2km or so to the beach which was a hugely dirty and deserted affair. It seemed a shame as the potential was there to make a decent attraction but the only people it seems to attract right now are drunks and tramps. It also seemed a bit odd to build a town 2km away from the beach, but I wasn't going to let it give me any sleepless nights and after a few hours hanging around the hostel it was time for the night bus up to San Pedro.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 15:25 Archived in Chile Tagged la serena Comments (1)

Everton Vina del Mar 2-0 San Antonio Unido

sunny 4 °C

Video diary from the 2nd leg of a cup game between Everton VDM and San Antonio Unido.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 05:34 Archived in Chile Tagged football del mar chilean viña everton Comments (0)

Valparaiso, Chile

days 148-153

sunny 6 °C

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When we booked our round the world flights and Santiago was on the itinerary, I did what any Evertonian would have done – swore that if there was a remote possibility I could see the “other” Everton play then I would do everything I could to make it happen. Unfortunately for me there was a gap in the season for the weekend that I was to be in Valparaiso – only 30 minutes bus ride from Vina del Mar where Everton play, but I noticed that on the website I was using for fixtures cup games appeared out of the blue, and so I hadn't quite given up hope.

Then a few days before leaving Sydney I checked the fixture list and noticed that at 3:30pm on the Thursday afternoon following our arrival into Chile, it was the second leg of a cup game. This seemed most bizarre to me, so I emailed John Shearon who has done so much to forge a friendship between the two clubs, and he confirmed that there was indeed a cup match, but not to expect too much as it generally wasn't taken too seriously. I didn't care – after 5 months without any live football at all I would have watched a kick in the park and enjoyed it. I wont go into too much detail about the match, as I made a video diary that you can watch above, suffice to say that seeing South Americans with Everton hats and shirts on, and supporting this lot almost as much as I would our lot at home was an experience that will stay long in the memory.

Valparaiso's reputation is of a city once abundant with national wealth as an exporter of wheat to the USA, and international wealth due to its prominent position as a merchant port for both the Cape Horn and Pacific Ocean routes – primarily for ships en route to the Californian gold rush from Europe, but also for whalers. In the early 20th century an earthquake devastated the region and then in 1914 the Panama Canal was built. The city then went into decline and has never regained anything like the wealth it had, but now has a charm that doesn't come without being a bit rough around the edges. Most of the charm comes from the fact that the city is built on the many hills that rise up and overlook the port; the roads are windy and hilly making it laughably easy to get lost, and there are many funiculars that taxi people up and down the highest points of the hills, but what really gives the city its charm are the numerous tiny bars and cafés that are in and around Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción, and most importantly the street art (graffiti) that decorates these neighbourhoods and all of the surrounding ones. The street art in Valparaiso isn't just the often ugly and intrusive graffiti found in every large city in the world, but creative, interesting and expressive and give the windy, hilly streets character and life.

The hostel we picked to stay in during our stay in Valparaiso was chosen exclusively for its name – the Jacaranda, a favourite bar of both of ours in Liverpool that has been open since the 60's but when we left had sadly closed its doors. Our hosts – Christian and Gerrado lived downstairs and had opened the upstairs of their house up to guests providing two dorm rooms and one en-suite double room. We didn't want to risk another 'Rich' incident so soon after the last and so opted for the double for 20 quid – only 5 quid or so more than 2 dorm beds. The hosts were informative, friendly and really made us feel like we were at home – such a rare luxury for us. They also gave us information about a “free” (tip-based) walking tour that they highly recommended, and so we decided to give it a go. They pointed us to the direction of Plaza Sotomayor and told us to look out for the guide wearing the “where's wally?” jumper, and off we went.

We got to the square early and as we were wandering around spotted the couple from Manchester whom we had become acquainted with in Santiago - they had decided to go to Valparaiso for the day and were returning on the bus that night. Our walking tour was due to start at 3pm and take 3 hours so we arranged to meet them just after 6pm for a beer or two and we said our farewells until later. The closer it got to 3pm the more people started arriving for the tour, and they all started congregating around Lou and I, even following us cautiously as we meandered around the square. I was the first to notice it and then Lou confirmed that people, and they were all tourists, were definitely gravitating towards us. It was then that Lou pointed out that I had a maroon and grey striped jumper on that could definitely be mistaken for a “where's wally?” jumper, and obviously the tourists all thought I was the guide. The real guide then turned up and a couple of people apologised for following us around the square and then off we went.

The walk was really good and I would heartily recommend it to anybody who has the time (and is in Valparaiso of course). The guide had excellent knowledge, seemed to know everybody along the way and explained the origin of some of the street art and the stories of the artists behind them. Pretty much any wall in Valparaiso (within agreed boundaries) is treated as an open canvas, so you are much better inviting a good artist to paint your walls than allow anybody to rock up and have a go. The artists also have an agreement not to paint over each others work so the result is a series of interesting and aesthetically pleasing (depending on your tastes of course) walls rathern than clutered and ugly, which would be the case in a "free for all" dynamic.

During the tour we met a Brazilian guy and took him along with us to meet the Manchester couple. We had heard about the local tipple "terremoto" (in English: earthquake), and obviously being culture vultures we had to try it. The ingredients are simple; add pineapple icecream to sweet white wine, that doesn't sound too potent, right? Wrong! 3 jugs between the 5 of us and we were decidedly merry, bordering on pissed. It was time for the Manchester couple to go and get their bus, but after the terremoto they had no plans to leave and so Lou and the girl ran up to our hostel to get them a couple of beds for the night.

The previous night Lou and I had found a bar that sold 2 litres of beer for about 2 quid, and so the 5 of us moved on from the “terremoto” and onto the beer bar. When you go to a bar that sells beer that cheap, and plays metal music, you shouldn't really be too surprised that some of the clientèle are... interesting, so when 'Antonio' plonked his fairly massive arse on a chair next to our table, I knew we were in for an interesting time.

To be fair to Antonio, despite looking like a hells angel, he was actually very nice... to begin with. He was helping us with our Spanish, telling us about Valparaiso, and asking everybody about their home towns. After not too long at all, it became apparent that although Antonio was a pretty friendly guy, he had held a special little torch for Lou. When you look like a hell's angel, you can do pretty much what you want, so I assumed that he was going to whisk Lou away from me and I'd actually already started making plans for travelling alone. Only joking of course (!), but I certainly wasn't going to concern myself with minor trivialities such as whispering into her ear, putting his arm around her waist and last but not least not letting me get within 3 feet of her.

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We announced to Antonio that we were leaving to go to a club, and he immediately grabbed his jacket and insisted on leaving his table full of friends and coming with us. This was not what any of us wanted to hear, as we could all sense by then that the friendly guy could probably turn at the click of a finger, but what choice did we have? On the way to the club Anton said hello to, stopped to talked to, or high-fived just about everybody we walked past, so we promptly nick-named him Don Anton (although obviously not too his face) and we realised that we really did have a piece of work on our hands.

When we got into the club the Don ordered the first round of drinks, which he demanded we all down, and the collective level of inebriation grew further. The first sign that the Don might be a bit of a handful came when he asked me if I had a cigarette. When I replied that I did not, he let out a loud grunt that was not altogether dissimilar to that a large bear makes when its hungry. Soon Lou got her camera out and started taking pictures, and when I had a look at the ones she had taken I realised that in all of them the Don was pretending to punch me, and I made a mental note right then not only not to upset Don Anton, but to full on ingratiate myself to him.

After an hour or two in the club the Brazilian guy had really had enough of the Don, and asked me if we should try to escape from him somehow. I rejected his proposal out of hand, and continued to high five the Don when it was necessary, and stay fairly far away from him for the rest of the time.

At some point Lou and the other girl in the group took themselves off to the toilet, and the Don said he would escort them. Now Don or no Don, I wasn't going to let an increasingly erratic, potentially crazed lunatic follow them to the toilet on his own, so I followed him. Almost incomprehendably (for a male), the girls took more than 30 minutes to do whatever girls do in toilets. In this time Don Anton didn't move from outside of the toilet door. After 15 mins I went to get us both another drink, but when I got back the Don was seriously agitated:

“What's up Anton?” I tentatively enquired
“That fuck over there” was the not-so-tentative response
“What did he do?” I asked
“Nothing, I just like fighting” was the Don's heart-sinking response

I then decided to go into ingratiation over-drive

“But you're a nice guy, you don't need to fight just for the sake of it” I reasoned
“I fucking love fighting man, ok?” the Don barked back

At this point Anton slapped me with quite a lot of force on the chest. I had an exit plan in mind, but as the exit was the other side of him I was going to have to try and hit the beast before he hit me, and then

“You know what. You, I fucking... like you man. You're cool”

If that was a friendly slap, I would hate to have seen an aggressive one. We decided to leave soon after due to tiredness and drunkenness, but not before the Don played his final hand. The Brazilian guy had already left so the 4 of us headed for the exit. Me and the two girls got outside, but the bloke from Manchester was still inside. After 10 minutes he still hasn't come out, so his girlfriend tried to get back in to find him, but the door staff wouldn't let her. After wondering what could have happened between the club and the door for 5 minutes, he came out and told us that the Don had caught him on his way out and wouldn't let him go until he was happy for him to leave.

The next day Christian and Gerrado announced they would do a Chilean style BBQ and so after less than a week, we were to have our first proper home cooked South American meal. What followed was mountains of meat, choripans (chorizo sausage in a bun), an excellent potato salad and a really spicy chilli and bean salad – perfect for a hangover.

We had a couple more days in Valparaiso which were spent mostly taking pictures and relaxing, and certainly not partaking in any more terremoto.

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Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 05:29 Archived in Chile Tagged art walking street chile del tour mar free don valparaiso viña anton everton Comments (0)

Santiago, Chile

days 145-148

sunny 6 °C

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Sometimes people will say that they've had a long day. Usually what they actually mean is that they have had a difficult day, or perhaps they had to get up early, but of course the day itself will have been 24 hours long. But on Monday 2nd July we really did have a long day. We set off from Sydney at 9am, were in transit for 16 hours and arrived in Santiago at 11am of the same day, just 2 hours later accounting for timezone adjustments. We had gone backwards through the international date line and by the time we finally saw the back of Monday 2nd July, it had been 40 hours long. When you factor in very little sleep on the plane, it was a profoundly confusing experience.

We had both been studying the basics of Spanish for a month or so, but it is one thing listening to a CD and repeating what you hear, and quite another when a Chilean taxi driver is waffling on with seemingly no gap between words and staring at you through his rear-view mirror eagerly awaiting a response. When none was forthcoming, he said in perfect English "you're in South America now, you have to speak Spanish". He was right of course, and we had every intention of learning as much as we could during our 3 month trip, but give us a day or 2 hey mate?

We got to our hostel, the "almirante rivieros" in barrio providencia at mid-day, and were thankful that one of the two guys that ran the hostel spoke a little English. Between his little bit of English, and our Spanish/Spanglish, we managed to get sufficient information out of him to be able to find the bathroom, know what time breakfast was served, know which neighbourhoods not to go into, and which direction to take the metro. After the pleasantries had been exchanged and the information extracted, we were trying to work out how best to adjust to the new time zone. In the end, and after not very much deliberation at all, we decided to go to bed and set the alarm for 2 hours later. I think the alarm did go off 2 hours later, but we were so utterly shattered that one of us must have switched it off, and so it was in a dazed confusion that we woke at 7pm in the pitch black trying to work out whether we were awake or asleep, alive or dead. As we had pretty much gone straight to sleep I had no idea where the light switch was, but managed to find something that felt like a lamp, switched it on and realised that to my relief I was both awake, and more importantly alive.

Outrageously it was still Monday. Feeling hungry and jaded, we trotted out and decided to go into the first restaurant we could find, regardless of the cuisine sold or the price. A Chinese restaurant was the first place we saw and in we went. The proprietors spoke no English at all so we got to practice some Spanish, and were feeling very pleased with ourselves when we got exactly what we ordered. We decided that wandering about in the dark in a large, strange city probably wasn't the best idea in a jet-lagged state and so retired to the hostel for the night. We fell asleep before 10pm and slept all the way through until the next morning and woke up delighted on two fronts: firstly we've had a lot of sleep and felt fresh, and secondly it wasn't Monday any more.

We hadn't done a whole lot of detailed reading about Chile, or indeed South America, beyond having a vague route. We knew roughly where we wanted to go, but we've found from experience that the best way to travel is without plans set in stone, and take up recommendations offered by other backpackers. One such recommendation was not to spend too much time in Santiago, but to head to Valparaiso an hour or two north on the pacific coast. So we decided that we'd head north, but not before we had a couple of days to look around Santiago – it is a capital city after all.

The general opinion of Santiago is largely correct; its fine to spend a couple of days in to have a look around, but any longer and you've probably run out of things to do. On our first morning after a fantastic breakfast in the hostel featuring a savoury pancake, a sweet pancake, freshly squeezed orange juice, a choice of 5 or 6 teas and rather outrageously a huge chocolate brownie, we set out with a map for a walking tour of the city centre and its main sights.

The main highlights of the walking tour were the cathedral on the main square – the plaza de armas, which is more impressive inside than out, and “cerro Santa Lucia”, a fairly steep ascent up to a plateau that gives a great, albeit smog hindered view across the city. The best part of the view, however, was glancing to the left and realising the sheer size of the colossal Andes that kept watch over the city like bouncers do over the bars they protect – with authority and might.

The daunting feeling that you get when you first get to a country, or continent, where you don't speak much of the language had largely passed and so we decided to venture a bit further on our second night to find somewhere a bit more traditionally Chilean to eat. We found a cosy little café but as we were still not armed with sufficient language or confidence to ask what things were, we picked one of the 5 items on the chalkboard menu that was hung on the wall next to us and hoped for the best. What came was chorrillana an interesting plate of chips, onions, chorizo sausage and steak pieces – all fried together with a spicy salsa and served with 2 fried eggs on top. Its the kind of dish that would go down a storm after 3 or 4 pints, but sober it was a bit of a shock to the system, albeit not an altogether unpleasant one.

For our last day in Santiago we had two things left that we wanted to do. One was to take the funicular up to “cerro San Cristobal”, which is essentially similar to Santa Lucia but higher and with better views. It is also in the neighbourhood of Barrio Bellavista which we wanted to check out as its the most bohemian area of Santiago and had a load of cool bars and restaurants which we spent an afternoon frequenting. And secondly we needed to buy warm clothes, and lots of them. We were aware it was going to be winter in South America when we arrived, but this was woolly jumper, hat, scarf and gloves weather – so that's exactly what we bought.

The next morning we were due on the bus at 10am to go to Valparaiso and so had another utterly fantastic breakfast and left knowing we probably wouldn't have to eat again until mid-afternoon. We also met a couple who live in Manchester who were heading to the extreme north of Chile to the Atacama desert, exchanged pleasantries with them and set off for the sea-side with very little idea of what to expect.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 05:25 Archived in Chile Tagged winter san santiago cristobal andes Comments (1)

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