All the good bus seats between San Pedro de Atacama and Santiago are booked and, it being a 20 hour ride, I don't want an uncomfortable seat. This is very annoying as I'll miss the true south American bus experience.
I can see the available seats on the Tur-bus and Pullman bus web sites, I can select a seat and enter a credit card, but the booking process fails at the end. So I start over with a different card. Everything has to be reentered, all my personal info down to passport number, age, height, weight. Just kidding about the last three.
Again it fails. Damn.
I then try Sky airlines for a flight from Calama (nearest airport to San Pedro de Atacama) to Santiago. Same process, same result. Damn.
It doesn't help that the Carpe Diem B&B's computer has barely enough RAM to run Windows XP, much less a modern browser. My android is faster but the websites are not so good on a mobil. I'll definitely take a tablet on my next trip.
Today I will look for a travel agent in Salta to see if they can work some magic.
The only reason I'm in San Pedro de Atacama is that the alternatives sounded worse.
Atacama exists to serve the people who come from all over the world to bike, hike and otherwise explore the driest place on earth. It is a tourist mecca like Aguas Calientes is for Machu Picchu. All reviews I read of the town were negative, plus I found that even a crummy hotel in Atacama costs an arm and a leg. But it's the first Chilean town you hit coming over the Andes from Purmamarca, Argentina, and, I thought, how bad could it be?
Then the bus entered Atacama and I realized I'd made a mistake. This isn't a town, it's some other town's dump. I got off the bus at the bus station and found nothing marked, no street signs, no addresses, just a maze of dusty streets populated by other bus riders wandering zombie- like looking for directions. I wondered if I could go back to the bus and ask if they'd take me back, let me ride to the next stop, Calama.
But I kept walking, determined to find some redeeming value in this horrid place. I pulled out my phone and called Canada, not for an RCMP airlift home but to add a roaming data plan so I could pull a map to find my hotel. And suddenly the town is OK, in fact better than OK. Soon I found the main square, streets with names, cute restaurants, excursion companies, bike rentals, hidden markets, and lots of people young and not so young speaking different languages and dressed in outdoorsy attire having a good time. And my opinion of Atacama changed. This is a cool place unlike any I've visited. I like it here. Weird, eh?
I start the day with a fifteen minute walk into Atacama for breakfast at a very charming restaurant. The sky is a cloudless deep blue and it is warm and, of course, dry - as i keep saying, this is the driest place on earth.
Casa Don Esteban claims to offer breakfast but instant coffee, stale cereal with no milk, and a cracker isn't breakfast. The rooms look much better in photos than in person. A poor choice of a hotel but after paying US$85 per night for the luxurious Patio Alto in Tilcara and 65 for the comfortable Carpe Diem in Salta, I thought 100 per night would get me a good room in Atacama. If I could jump into my tardis and do it again I'd pay the 300 or so that is the going price for a nice room in Atacama.
The hotel's positives are its bubbly proprietor, though she speaks no English, its peaceful location away from town, and its market: the hotel targets astronomers so it is empty and quiet all night (they are out stargazing) and they sleep all day.
I guess Atacama is a different market than Salta and Tilcara plus Chile's economy is more stable so maybe that is why hotels cost much more here. Atacama's international draw allows hotels to charge more; one can easily pay 1000 a night here. Just listening to the languages spoken and noting the expensive cameras - my barometer - I know I'm not in Argentina anymore.
After breakfast I hire a mountain bike to ride 10 km to a nearby lookout and it turns out to be spectacular ride through a red-rock canyon then up a hill that overlooks green valleys with volcanoes and snow - capped Andean mountains in the distance. Beautiful. The only challenge is that i can feel the altitude - 2500 m - so the uphill sections have me panting. Along the way I stop to talk to a German biker who recommends another trail, an all-day ride to a lunar landscape, but tomorrow I've a plane to catch to Santiago.
I get back to town and stop for ice cream. I'm thinking about going for a pisco sour later...
My opinion of Atacama is now a complete reversal of my initial impression and if I could I'd stay one more day, though I'd look for another hotel. I especially like how they've taken the indigeneous adobe architecture and had fun with it. As they say in Argentina, Ciao.
It is noon and I am sitting in La Estaka, a restaurant in Atacama, sipping an espresso and enjoying a lunch (the meal of the day special) which features cheese - covered clams followed by an entre of tender ground beef covered in pesto on a bed of local grains and vegetables , followed by dessert of pastel de leche (cake soaked in milk covered with browned whip cream) for 7500 pesos (US$15). Excuse the description - I find recitations of eaten meals and recipes tedious - but this is one of my best meals of the trip, for taste, reflection of local cuisine, and presentation. If i return to Atacama I may eat all my meals at La Estaka.
This is proving to be a good day food-wise. When I checked out of the hotel this morning I was surprised to find the hotel serving a real breakfast: scrambled eggs, meat, cheese, and bread. Don't know what happened to yesterday's breakfast.
I walk to town to visit the Museo Gustavo Le Paige, named for a Belgian priest, painter, and archaeologist who settled in Atacama in the 1950s. He founded the museum which contains exhibits (in English as well as Spanish ) on the Inka as well as the flora and fauna of the desert and the Andes. The museum is well organized in a hub-and-spoke chronological layout though the building is a bit worn.
I walk through Iglesia Sam Pedro, a beautiful 17th century colonial church also on the main square. The church is built of adobe, wood from the cardon cactus, and, in lieu of nails, large leather straps.
I am thinking about returning to Atacama - quite a change in attitude from my first impression - for a longer stay, perhaps combining it with Bolivia and a return to Peru. But I'll stay in a different hotel and study up on the different tours available. Atacama has lots of tour agencies in town offering trips ranging from local half-day affairs to multi-day trips to Bolivia.
That is it for today. I am off to Calama to catch a flight to Santiago.
My first day in Santiago started early, 2 am, when I woke from a bang and the building shaking violently. A 5.3 earthquake had struck nearby, in Valparaiso. This is the strongest earthquake I've ever felt, and I lived many years in California. But I saw no damage and city life went on unperturbed.
Today is warm and dry and I walk around the central city, starting from my apartment in Barrio Santa Lucia. The apartment is well located on a narrow street a block from the hilly park Cerro Santa Lucia and a couple of blocks from the Universidad Catolica . The university students give the neighborhood a lot of vibrancy, which I like.
I walk along the river, Rio Mapocho, that cuts Santiago in half, to the fish market and food court, Mercado Central, where maitre d's stand in your way to entice you into their establishment then insult you when you refuse their entreaties; like Istanbul, but with fish instead of carpets.
From the Mercado I walk along one of the many pedestrian-only streets, filled with workers and shoppers and the ever-present police or carabineros. I'm getting accustomed to the heavy police presence in south America. I've read the Chilean police are scrupulously honest, and I see them interacting with civilians, giving directions, for exsmple, but I've also read that they are powerful and you shouldn't be caught photographing military related stuff as they will take your camera. I really don't want to lose my camera so I'm cautious.
I stop to sit in the Plaza de La Constitucion. One side of the Plaza is bordered by the Palacio de La Moneda or presidential palace. The president no longer lives here but it contains the president's offices. The building was rebuilt since being attacked by the military during the 1973 coup d'etat that overthrew president Salvador Allende (with a little help from the CIA).
Interestingly, this Catholic country recently elected Michelle Bachelet as their new president, and by a wide margin. She is a former president, a physician, a socialist, separated from her husband, and an agnostic.
As I look at the Palacio I see standing across from the guarded building a line of protestors holding signs about some people being wrongfully terminated (at least I think that is what their protest is about.) I also see tourists taking pictures of protestors and police and I figure my concern is probably misguided and my camera is safe.
Next I pick up some pastries, which requires me to practice my mangled Spanish as you must first tell a cashier what you want, pay, then take the receipt to another person for pickup. Once again I'm rewarded for my effort to speak the language by my pronunciation being corrected.
Finally I walk to the top of the park, a lush yet rocky hill with fountains and a church and many different vantage points overlooking the city. From here I can just barely make out the near by Andes, which would provide a beautiful mountain backdrop for the city - the mountains are close, like Vancouver - if only the air were clear as Vancouver's.
I expected Santiago to be more like Buenos Aires, but they feel very different. Santiago goes to bed earlier and seems more conservative in terms of opening hours and alcohol.
Santiago is also better maintained: sidewalks are clean and unbroken, parks are watered and groomed, everything looks as if it could be in a prosperous North American city. Drivers are better behaved. Even the cars are different: Buenos Aires is full of small European cars, Fiats, Peugeots, VWs, etc. , plus old cars that make me think I'm in Cuba, whereas Santiago has larger American and Asian cars.
That is all for today, I'm off for sushi. Ciao.
Yesterday it hit me that I'm not in the mood for a big city but here I find myself in Santiago so I gotta suck it up and do the tourist thing. After Salta, Tilcara, and Atacama, all smallish towns , the crowds and traffic and noise and too many choices of Santiago don't sit well with me. And the heat bugs me more here than in Atacama. So last night I was glad to go back to the apt and settle in with a glass of wine or three, my book, and an occasional glance at the television for the amusement of watching foreign language programs.
Today I feel better about Santiago. For me, it is the more livable city of the two large cities I've visited on this trip. Buenos Aires is for a one night stand, Santiago is for marriage.
I start out early before it gets hot and head east through Barrio Bellavista which has many interesting old buildings and lots of murals. I love murals. The murals' artistry, colors, characters, and occasional alien (space not illegal) really spice up the neighborhood.
Next I ride the funicular to the top of a hill (869m) in Santiago's largest park, Cerro San Cristobal. At the top is a large statue of Mary, an open-air church, and a regular enclosed church decorated inside like a stone grotto. The grounds have piped in meditation encouraging church music. There are also odd looking tile-covered rectangles where you can have someone's ashes interred.
The park is very large and popular with bicyclists. The views of the city and surrounding mountains would be great if it weren't for the cloud of brown smog that is trapped in the bowl occupied by the city. I read somewhere that the smog is the main complaint Santiagians have with their city.
On a nearby hill, also in the park, is a decommissioned observatory, the Lick, who's name reminds me of the Lick observatory in Northern California. Turns out it is the same Lick - the observatory was put up by UC Berkeley. Berkeley still sends students to Chile to study the stars, only now they go to Atacama. On the afternoon I checked out of the hotel in Atacama I talked to the young woman who managed the accomodations for their astronomer guests and learned that Berkeley shares a nearby observatory with astronomers from Europe and Japan. Go bears!
Tonight I had a delicious and cheap Indian dinner (New Horizons) . My philosophy of dining out is the more I spend the less satisfied I am, sort of a law of diminishing returns.
Then I head out to explore the neighborhood, on foot of course. Barrio Santa Lucia is full of street side cafes which are packed in the evening. It feels very European and very safe. Even the drivers are well behaved here. At a street corner I stop to let a cab go through. The cab driver stops and leans out to tell me that I have the right of way. Weird. And i thought BC drivers were polite.
I'm back in the apt writing this with the help of some Chilean cabernet. Pleasant eastern European music is wafting in from a neighborhood cafe. Tomorrow is my last full day in Santiago and I need some culture so a museum or two will be on the schedule. Ciao.
Another beautiful warm day in Santiago. I walk to Universidad Catolica subway station and say "Quiero dos boletos por favor. De ida." The cashier smiles and holds up a calculator showing the amount due and then starts handing me maps and brochures to the city. My cover is blown as soon as I open my mouth.
The subway is modern and clean and no one walks down the aisle placing items in your lap. I transfer at Los Heroes to another line then get off at Cementario station. Once aboveground, I find myself standing in front of a long line of flower shops. You see, this is the station for the cementary and the flowers are for placing on the tombs. The cementary has a population of over two million and it is growing by one as I stand here.
I am at the cementary because it is the resting place of many of Chile's most famous figures. And I find cementaries a bit interesting. As I walk in I look to the right and see a long white stone wall enscribed with names. It reminds me of Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial in DC except for the color (Lin's is black) and it is above ground. I study the wall and see that the names are in two alphabetical lists, with one large name in between. The entries on the left consist of a name followed by a date, the entries on the right consist of a name, age, then date. Most died in 1973 - many were in their teens and twenties - though the dates range up to 1986.
In the middle is the name Salvador Guillermo Allende Gossens. The left set are names of the disappeared, the right set are the executed. It is a sobering site. I sit for awhile thinking about how recently this occurred, and that it occurred in this very country in which I am sitting. My mind rolls around the similar recent histories of Argentina, where I've just come from, and (as I was in Barcelona a few years ago ) Spain, which not that long ago suffered under Franco. And i think that I am fortunate to have never lived through such an event, though i wonder whether the US, via the CIA and multinational companies, played a role in the horrors that occurred in south america.
I walk the grounds for awhile. There are many people here, visiting, placing flowers. The above-ground cemetary resembles Buenos Aires' Recoleta but the latter is small, more densely packed with tombs, and more varied in tomb architecture. The Santiago cemetary has one distinctive feature: two- and three-story "condos" for those of lessor means.
I'm cementaried out and the day is heating up. I walk back to the central city through a section of town that is less nice than where I'm staying but likely more typical of life for the middle class. One neighborhood features block after block of clothing stores, many with rows of sidewalk mannequins, an army of female cylons in skin-tight jeans.
I stop when I reach Parque Forestal, a greenbelt that follows the Rio Mapocho, and eat my sandwich, then walk to Iglesia de San Francisco, one of Santiago's oldest buildings. Large and nondescript outside, it is attractive enough inside. It features the usual 14 stations with lots of bloody crucified bodies. It is old, built between 1572 and 1628, and looks like the next temblor could knock it down. I take a few pictures from the entrance to capture the aisle leading to the altar, then move about the church. There are many people inside , walking and sitting and taking photos with their little cameras, flashes lighting up the room. My camera doesn't need a flash so aside from its size I consider myself sort of unobtrusive. Suddenly a man walks up to me and tells me to stop taking photos, so I do, but there is no sign to that effect. I try to obey the rules but whatever.
I stop for a latte around the corner from the church. The neighborhood, Barrio Paris Londres, has a few windy cobblestone streets lined with attractive old stone buildings. Then I walk back to the apt. It is hot, walking city streets is tiring, more tiring than a hike in the country, and there are too many people, too many cars and buses, too much noise. I think i'll skip the museums and relax until evening.
Just before dark I hike up to the top of the park next door - an amazing park, it is a huge rock covered in odd little stairs and patios and waterfalls and topped by a stone turret with views of the city. A sort of adult playground. Oh yeah, I have never seen so many young couples kissing. Most are straight couples but not all. Is it a Chilean thing? A university student thing? Or is it just this neighborhood ? Maybe the giant rock in the park is emanating some weird vibe that makes kids make out. It is all fine, kindof sweet really. I end the evening with dinner at a Patagonian cafe (Sur Patagonico) on Lastarria, a nearby street lined with sidewalk cafes. Very good food and a delicious pisco sour. Ciao.
This morning I pack, hop on the subway to Universidad de Santiago, then take the bus to Valparaiso, which is 90 minutes west of Santiago.
From the bus window Chile is hilly and parched with scrubby trees. As the bus approaches the coast vineyards become common and large pine trees appear. Chile reminds me of California.
Suddenly the hillsides are covered with shack homes and the bus enters vehicle- and people-packed Valparaiso. I hope where i'm staying isn't so crowded.
I walk out of Valpariso's bus station feeling what I always feel in a new city: disoriented and uncomfortable. Every city's street life feels unfamiliar at first though it doesn't take long for that to recede. Fortunately the geography of Valpariso, the ocean on one side, the hills on the other, reveals where I need to go. I walk parallel to the ocean through the congested commercial center that is compressed between the port and the hills. This part of the city has seen better days but the light of the seaside and the cool ocean breeze feels good. I pass several pastry shops but keep my focus on getting to the apartment.
After fifteen minutes walk I turn to the east and walk up a windy narrow street. The sidewalk becomes a twisty staircase . The noise of tires on cobblestone reveals the approach of a car without having to look. The buildings become more colorful. Camera-toting tourists replace locals. I must be near my destination.
After about fifteen minutes of climbing I turn onto Galos street and am immediately at number 595. My apartment (Casa Galos) is spacious, airy and modern.
Jorge, the proprietor, preps the apartment's kitchen with food (juice, cheese, coffee,...) for the next morning. Guests make their own eggs and fresh morning bread is left at the door. Jorge stays awhile to recommend restaurants and ice cream shops and funiculars and neighborhoods to avoid.
I've come to Valparaiso to see funiculars and colourful buildings and ocean views. I also want clouds to appear overhead - sunny days suck for photography: glare washes out colours - but I don't expect my wish to be granted. I unpack then walk a short block furthur up the hill to the market but it is closed. I'm still not accostomed to the closing times of Chilean businesses. Restaurants close on Saturday evenings, grocery stores close for afternoon siestas. Work-life balance is all very nice but some choices strike me as odd.
I rest a bit then head out for a walk around the neighborhood, Cerro Alegre, and down to a neighborhood nearer the water, Cerro Concepcion. I am struck by the colours of the buildings and the murals and the art everywhere i look. Inside, outside, art and architecture and decay compete for attention. I love it. It is a visual feast. I am reminded of San Francisco, the hills, the light, the colourful victorians, but it is all turned up a notch or three. Many buildings are in a serious state of decay , the sidewalks are rough, the streets are steep, and some streets are just staircases (some painted in rainbow colors). What fun! There are plazas overlooking the ocean and colourful old buildings perched on hillsides.
I then head back towards the apt but stop for dinner at a Chilean restaurant (Cocina Puerto) for a tasty meal accompanied by a couple of pisco sours, the official mixed drink of south america. The waiter translates the menu which helps a lot. My dictionary and latin america phrase book don't include all the words used in menus so a helpful waiter earns an extra tip.
I'm struck once again by how different this city is from the previous and how friendly the people are, and i am very pleased with the variety that south america has to offer. From Buenos Aires to Tilcara to Salta to Atacama to Santiago and finally Valparaiso, each is worth a visit.
More tomorrow as I explore my last city on this adventure. Ciao.
The morning is cool, fog shrouds the bay, and the rumble of tires on cobblestones wakes me. After breakfast i walk a long windy street to Pablo Neruda's home- well, one of his homes . I like a country where a poet is financially well off. Neruda's is closed Mondays, I discover, but the walk is worth it, block after block of hillside homes, bay views, and colourful murals. And of course dogs. Dogs are everywhere. Not scary dogs, but dogs sleeping and investigating other dogs. Curiously, the poop situation is not bad like in Buenos Aires.
On the other hand, many Valparaiso homes are badly neglected which strikes me as odd as i would think the real estate is valuable. This to me is the Valparaiso puzzle: beautiful location , comfortable seaside weather, many tourists, and an abundance of artistic talent that fills the city with colorful and surrealistic murals. But my neighborhood aside, much of the infrastucture is in poor shape.I suppose there isn't the wealth to maintain the homes, sidewalks, stairs and roads. Most streets are clean and i see people sweeping sidewalks and washing and painting, but Valparaiso could be much better.
From Neruda's home I walk down the hill, taking a long staircase which belies what i've just written, it is trashy and smells of urine. At the bottom of the hill, near the bay, I pick up sandwich makings at the supermercado then head back up another hill to the apt on Galos street. Most grocery stores are tiny, not much bigger than a couple of phone booths; the town only has a few large grocers.
I then set out for Sotomayor square which I find surrounded by a few attractive old buildings and, on one side, the seaport. The most beautiful building is military so i leave my camera in my bag. Earlier, while standing on a hill, I photographed a few military ships but it was from a discreet distance. I am struck by the thought that Chile has more military ships in this little harbor than in the whole Canadian navy. You may have to be Canadian to see the humor in this.
I ride up a funicular, Ascensor El Peral (100 pesos or US$0.20), to Paseo Yugoslavo, which provides a great lookout over the harbor snd saves a lot of climbing. The funicular, one of a handful that are still running, is a rickety wooden box pulled up a rusty track. Another example of infrastructure neglect.
As i walk up the hill i stop in several shops selling arty stuff. A photographer with a studio on Lautaro Rosas (Hiperfocal) spends time with me explaining how he takes digital images and prints them on cloth, producing wonderfully moody black and white prints, and each print, even from the same original, looks very different. I love black and white and I buy three of his prints.
So my day is spent wandering the city, enjoying the murals and the views, walking up and down steep streets and stairs, and trying to understand why the city is in its current state. I think most of the buildings will collapse in the next big earthquake. Dinner (at Totobistoto) is soup (very good) and pasta (a bit bland) , and now it is late and i'm in for the night. Ciao.
After breakfast I head down the hill to the port. Along my way are: steep streets; crumbly cement staircases; painted steps; buildings snug up to the street, some colourful, some decrepit; a banging drummer on the propane truck; colourful surreal murals and ugly graffitti; sleeping dogs occupying narrow sidewalks; window-occupying dogs; balconies of barking dogs. Down down down I go until I hit the dense collection of dingy commercial highrises and beeping buses and cars and pedestrians that crowd the waterfront.
I enter a nondescript building containing offices, a small shopping mall, and a metro (Merval) station. The metro is a 47 km electric train that connects Valparaiso on one end with Limache at the other end. I am only going as far as Vina del Mar, the next town up the coast. I put a few thousand pesos on the metro card and walk onto the clean, modern train for the quiet ride.
Vina del Mar is a beach town about the same size as Valparaiso but in a bit better shape though of course i can only describe what i see and I don't claim to provide a definitive assessment from such a short visit. Many attractive buildings hug the hillsides but at my superficial glance it lacks Valparaiso's chaos and color.
I walk down a wide boulevard, cross a river, then walk along the beach boardwalk fronted with condo towers. Summer vacation is over so the beaches and boardwalks are largely empty. There are no lifeguards so no-swimming signs are up, and the vendors' stands are vacant.
Vina del Mar is called the garden city because, well, they've lots of flowers, including hanging baskets on streetlights like Victoria, BC.
After walking around the city awhile , i return to the metro and head back to Valparaiso. Sharing my raiload car is a four-piece band and i wish the ride were much longer as i so enjoy their music.
Dinner is Chilean (at Vinilo) at a neighborhood restaurant recommended by Jorge. Stylish - seems to be a requirement in this neighborhood - with good food and service. I am accostomed to bare-bones service in North America so I am again struck by the number of people working at even the smallest establishment. My apartment has six units with almost as many employees.
One thing i keep struggling with is menus. I carry a dictionary and phrase book but menu usage doesn't always match what is in the book. For ex, there are a lot of words for beef that aren't in a book. The Chilean wait staff is invariably great about translating the menu but i feel like i need to take notes during their translations. Fortunately i'm happy to try whatever they put in front of me.
I've pointed out a number of Valparaiso's flaws - decay, neglect, dogs,... - but it is a visual treat. I love the colors, i've never seen so many murals, and the locals have a wonderful eye for style. Chile has been a big surprise for me: the food, the style, the friendliness, the countryside, even the polite drivers. Who knew?
And today is my last full day in South America. Tomorrow evening I'll be in Santiago to catch Air Canada to Toronto then Vancouver then Victoria. I've enjoyed South America, made a lot of great memories, met very friendly and helpful people, but I am ready to go, back to my routine and the comforts of home. Once i'm home I'll clean up this blog - editing on a phone is awkward - and post pictures. Ciao.
Once I've visited a place I feel more of a connection with it and its people. News from these places always catches my eye.
Chile has had two disasters since I visited. The first, an 8.2 quake on April 1, reminded me of the quake that woke me early on my first morning in Santiago. Then this week there comes news of a forest fire that threatens Valparaiso. From the fire map if looks like the fire hasn't hit where I stayed, the touristy hills with the murals and funiculars, which is the part of town just above the port. The fire was further away, in the mountains, where those who can least afford a disaster live.