Chile (I part)
A journey in the richest State of South America
I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama a couple of hours after crossing the Chilean border. The phone did not have signal since some days (I came from the Bolivian desert), so I could not book any beds. I saluted the British girls C. and J., who chose a random hostel on the street, and after having changed the few Bolivian money that I had left I finally found a WiFi in a café, which allowed me to find name and address of a hostel I’ve had seen days before on Hostelworld (Rural – La Florida), and it’s probably one of the best in this part of Chile.
There was a bed available, and the receptionist – P., Italian – immediately gave me a lot of info, including that I would have to wait at least five days to observe the stars. Which is one of the main reasons for being there.
One of the peculiarities of the Atacama Desert, in fact, is that it’s the most dry place on the planet. This climate, combined with the easy weather forecast, make it the favourite place for the observation of astronomical objects, even with naked eye.
In those days, (obviously for me) there was a full moon, which could not be bigger than that; therefore I would have to wait for our nice satellite to vanish – waiting for two weeks – or wait for it to rise later in the evening (six nights later, as I said), because it’s too bright to let you see the other objects in the sky.
I thought about it and I decided to extend my stay for five more nights (six in total), because who knows when I can get back to Atacama desert?
This decision ended up to be the right one, and not only for the stargazing.
In fact, during my stay in San Pedro, I met several people, all of them lazy like me in my hostel or in the sister hostel (Ruralito), not far away. Particularly significant was the meeting with the Scottish girl V., the Canadian guy A., another Italian girl, V., and the Dutch and tall girl H. All of them would later appear again during my trip.
Therefore me, with some of these characters, the two “English girls from Uyuni”, and other various people – Australians , English and Germans – created a large group of people with whom I found myself more than happy (and it’s not easy when you’re a misanthrope). Especially counting that six days in San Pedro with little to do, would have been a boring suicide, without these human beings.
Travellers in South America are mostly over 25, even more around 30 than 25, and this was a big difference compared to the hostels in Australia and New Zealand, where the average age was around 20 years old, because of the extreme ease in living and traveling in Oceania (both for language and services). This fact helped me a lot in avoiding annoying European kids, who left home with dad’s money the day after the graduation exam, to spend a year abroad trying to drink and fuck as much as possible, with little interest in exploring the host country (go in a random hostel in Australia to understand what I’m saying).
For the third time since the beginning of my South American trip (after the Italian G. in Huaraz, and the Swiss-Italian girls in Santa Cruz), once again it was the randomly encountered people who brought the Chilean experience to the next level. A personal level, therefore unrepeatable and intense.
Because anyone can go to San Pedro to see the stars, or to Machu Picchu for the Inca ruins, or anywhere else in the world. But no one else will be able to relive those same days in my own way, with those people met by chance, end up living unique situations – unique in the proper meaning of the word, not as “incredible” – and unrepeatable.
In the interminable hours on the bus, in the following weeks, this thought jumped in my head more and more often, convincing me that those situations – perhaps more than the places – were the fundamental element of the journey. In retrospect, of course.
The places, for me, have always been the spring that triggered me, that made me leave and sparked interest in the trip. In every “next trip”. Also because you can’t (nor must) leave home hoping, or believing, to meet for sure many new beautiful people. However, this happens automatically when you least expect it, and the result is magically embellished. And I’ve personally learned this lesson very good in Australia.
Another condition that further helps the meeting of new nice people – and consequently opens the door to other unforeseen experiences – is traveling alone. When you travel with someone – one, two, or more people – the contacts with the others solo travellers will necessarily be limited, if not almost zeroed.
In San Pedro, therefore, I just did a tour of the beautiful Vale de la Luna (Moon Valley), with the guide that first took us through a cave – where we even had to use the torches; then on top of an imposing and very windy dune, on which I almost lost my precious hat; and finally to admire a beautiful sunset on the lunar landscape below.
Unfortunately, I had to skip also the visit (free!) to the ALMA European Observatory, where you can see the largest telescope in the world, and many other things. This time because it was booked out months in advance.
It will be for the next time, yeah.
The days passed like that, in the picturesque, small and beautiful arid town of San Pedro, with dinners, lunches, with a night party in the middle of the desert, a festival of Latin rock music, too many beers and finally the last night with the “Stargazing Tour” (20,000 CLP).
Unfortunately we couldn’t be able to observe the Milky Way, as it would have appeared in three hours, but it would still have been “darkened” by the incoming Moon. But our guide – very well prepared – explained to us several things about the stars, the formation of the universe and its “functioning” (as far as we know, clearly). With the help of five telescopes we could observe nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, new stars, and so on. Eventually they taught us to recognize the stars (like Orion, the brightest of the sky) and the constellations, the use of the astronomical map, and how to easily find the south celestial pole.
For € 25 it was not bad at all.
Another thing I immediately confirmed, however, was that Chile was more expensive than Bolivia and Peru. One night in the hostel I chose was 9,000 CLP, or NZD 19.00 (or 11 €). About twice what I paid on average in the two previous countries. And everything else followed this.
After almost a week in San Pedro I went to the capital, Santiago. To get there I decided as usual not to fly (too easy), and began long bus journeys. A bus took me to Calama (2 hours), and from Calama, another bus, finally took me to Santiago, 22 hours later.
Obviously during these trips it is always a comfortable sleeping bus (with a bed or semi-bed). Never again would I have made the mistake of the Lima-Arequipa thing.
In Santiago I met again the Scottish girl V., with whom I spent the first day exploring the city, and trying out the famous local “Terremoto” (Earthquake) cocktail. I did not understand what it was, I remember it was strong and with a ball of ice cream on it. A couple of Chileans – sitting at the table next to us, in the most famous town tavern (La Piojera) – offered us at least another three laps, which made V. risk losing the plane that evening, and other things.
In the following days I continued my tours in the beautiful Chilean capital, where I met again Canada, Italy and Holland. Together we visited the Chascona, one of the houses of Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda that, like the houses of each artist, was obviously particular and luxurious in its own way.
Then I went, alone, to the two hills of the city, or “cerros“: Cerro San Cristobal and Cerro Santa Lucia. The first, higher, at the edges of the city. The second, lower, literally in the centre, surrounded by buildings.
Two places, these, not to be missed, as well as the Palacio de la Moneda (presidential palace), the Plaza de Armas with its Cathedral, and the old train station now empty, Estacion Mapocho, these visited the first day together with V.
For an absolutely authentic local lunch, there is the central market, where you can find dishes based on anything: fish, meat, vegetables.
There are also numerous city museums, of which I only visited the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts), which I can consider “particular”.
The differences between the Chilean cities and the Peruvian, and Bolivian, cities were enormous.
Although the Chilean capital is huge (8 million inhabitants), I hardly ever heard a car horn during my stay. The streets were generally clean and intact; the traffic was intense, but rather fluid; road rules are well respected; public transport works exclusively thanks to a magnetic card (there is no physical ticket); there is the subway; it’s full of huge public parks and well-kept gardens.
In short, there is no doubt that Chile is a country much richer than its northern neighbours. And this despite the fierce dictatorship of Pinochet, which upset the country until less than thirty years ago (1973-1990).
Today Chile is the richest country in South America, and it is visible everywhere (always bearing in mind that it is still South America, of course). On the Cerro San Cristobal I observed simple situations, which I had not been used to since I left New Zealand. I saw people enjoying a sunny day without working, without trying to sell me something, walking with an ice cream in hand, or arriving in a group with racing bikes, to enjoy the sunset over the city and take some pictures.
I’m not saying that in Peru or in Bolivia people don’t have fun or relax, no. But the impression I had that day was that Chile was absolutely closer to the western idea of ”free time” (without judging it here), while in the poorer countries I had always noticed their inhabitants working or “doing something“. All the time.
On very few occasions I saw a Peruvian or a Bolivian laze, jog, or ride a bike, except for those extremely old or extremely young, or in the centre of the richest cities, such as Santa Cruz.
Yes, I know that even the Peruvians and Bolivians have fun, and go to the park to fuck around like all the people in the world. But in Santiago all this came back, in my eyes, to the western levels, both as a number of fucking-around-people and as a kind of recreational activity.
The economic gap between Chile and Bolivia, therefore, is very sensitive in various fields, and I began to notice it just after the border.
Returning to the trip, left Santiago I went to the nearby Valparaiso. This is a lively port city, very colourful and, in fact, famous more than anything else for its countless murals and houses all painted in different ways.
An entire neighbourhood is known as the “Open Air Museum“, because of the first murals and graffiti painted there in the 70s, when the City Council commissioned them to the local Art School to make the city more original.
Today this area is quite bad, and the old graffiti, still present, are not comparable (in my opinion) to the most beautiful and modern that now stand out everywhere in the rest of the town.
In Valpo (as its inhabitants call it) South America is definitely more alive – and vivid – than in the sophisticated Santiago, and the vibrant port city is perhaps the Chilean mecca of entertainment. It is ramshackle, full of stray dogs, and with a smell of excrement every fifty meters. But, in the midst of all this, the clubs with live music overlap each other, as well as hostels, bars and restaurants (even luxury ones, in the most touristic areas). More generally, a fabulous hippie, relaxed, and fun atmosphere can be felt.
The city is all up and down – some alleys are very steep – and by the sea, and there is not a street in which there is not a mural, or a street artist, or melodies come from who knows where and, above all – always and everywhere – the scent of Marijuana that pervades the air. Well, Valparaiso is fun.
I spent almost three days there and then my journey had to continue, always south, to the next destination, Puerto Montt. Thus, finally, I reached the geographical region of PATAGONIA (the diary continues in the dedicated article).