Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA – PART 1 CHILE – SANTIAGO TO LA SERENA

Introduction

In 2008, my friend Steph and I embarked on a journey around Latin America. We saw, we drank, we disagreed and we did other things as well. Then we split up and went our separate ways.

Travelling alone, I met shamans, fondled monkeys, nearly drowned, was vomited on, pissed on and other things not suitable for a first paragraph.

The trip was my idea but we had no absolutely no idea. This was ten years ago and there was no was no instagram, no 3G, no ebook readers, twitter existed but wasn’t that popular, neither was Facebook.

Hostels didn’t have wifi so we queued up for slow PCs in internet cafes. People didn’t bring kindles, tablets, selfie-sticks or action cams. Just point and shoot cameras along with a big ol’ guidebook. Along with the insatiable desire for an adventure and all the experimentation that involves…

There were the epic highs and awful lows that every traveller will know: hunger and boredom, excitement and euphoria.

We flew to Santiago in Chile and thats where we begin the overland journey that took me from Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego to Nicaragua’s city of Leon.

Eleven months, 4,776 miles and no flying. So much happened and it starts right now.

Chile:

First of all, let me tell you a little bit of Chile, a country that has gone through so many changes in recent years. Attitudes in Chile are changing with new generations as they emerge from the shadows of living in a dictatorship. The country is mainly Catholic with a small percentage of Evangelical Protestants and atheists. 

It is one of the few countries in South America that wasn’t liberated by  Venezuelan freedom fighter Simon Bolivar. Chile finally threw off its Spanish shackles to gain independence in 1818. It is the world’s ninth largest producer of wine with 100 wineries. They also export copper, lithium, iron, silver, salt and salmon.

Incredibly, divorce was only made legal 2004. So you’d think people would have been queuing round the block to get divorced, right? But not so as they already had plenty of creative ways to get out of unhappy marriages up their sleeves…

To avoid bureaucracy and expense, people would try and get civil annulments to prove their marriage wasn’t legal. Loophole tactics include misspelling names deliberately or getting married outside of their jurisdiction as a safety net for if the marriage fails.

The new law requires that there be a religious and a civil ceremony, the period between means that either of the parties could cut and run, opening up a new loophole to be exploited by crafty couples.

In order to catch aliens Chile has a government-backed UFO facility. This was in response to Navy footage of unidentified flying objects over Santiago, you can watch the video online and draw your own conclusions…

It was not detected by radar despite being in range and no aircraft had been given clearance to fly in that airspace. Or so they say. In a ‘scientific meeting’ the French thought it was effluent from a plane and an astrophysicist said it was space junk. The truth is out there. Interestingly, the US, Canada, France, UK, the Soviet Union, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil and Australia have all run UFO projects.

The world’s second largest swimming pool can be found here in San Alfonso de Mar which is the size 20 Olympic sized pools and it can be navigated by small boat. It contains 66 million gallons of water and cost £2 million to build. Are the hotel guests happy with such extravagance? Not really as you are not allowed to swim in it. The largest pool is in Egypt and they might even let you swim…

The oldest manmade mummy was discovered in Chile at an impressive 7,000 years old. The Chinchorro mummy was discovered by students near Arica after repeated earthquakes brought various historical artefacts to the surface. What makes the find so interesting is that it predates Egyptian mummy remains by 4,000 years.

A third of Chile’s inhabitants live in its capital Santiago, where our adventure begins.

Santiago de Chile

As soon as we landed in Santiago, we were harassed by taxi drivers, I almost gave in to one as Steph gave him the time of day but it was so expensive that I walked out. I managed to get a much cheaper minibus and we were on our way!

For the first two nights of our journey we stayed in Barrio Bellavista which is the boho district of Santiago. The cafes and shops are covered in colourful murals and Pablo Neruda lived here, a true sign of the area’s artistic leanings. We slept most of that first day, exhausted and fearful about the epic trip we were about to embark on.

The first morning that we properly faced the capital our first stop was Parque Metropolitano where we climbed up to Cerro San Cristobal to look at the views of the city. We cheaply avoided the cable car by walking up the hill but it was worth it to peer over the city before heading to the centre.

In Plaza de Armas Steph started speaking to a woman who worked at a charity, I gave her some money and she wanted me to give her even more. She was peering into my purse which I didn’t like. I was also getting a bit annoyed with Steph politely speaking to people who were trying to rip us off. We ate at fried chicken at a filthy chicken shop and enjoyed a coffee in the main square.

As well as charity muggers, Santiago has a serious stray dog problem with hordes of animals roaming the streets. They even cross the road together in groups.

Our next stop was Cementerio General de Santiago, the oldest graveyard in Santiago and one of the biggest in Latin America. I don’t quite know why we went, but it is an historically interesting site as there are memorials to the victims of General Pinochet. Politician Salvador Allende is also buried here. There was a service going on whilst we were there which I avoided as an open casket is not something that I wanted to see. 

In terms of parks and museums it is a culturally rich capital and I now wish we’d seen more of it. Especially to learn about the lessons from history from Pinochet’s rule. 

However, being in such a big, dirty city wasn’t doing anything for our stress levels and we weren’t really meeting any other backpackers so after two days we got the bus for the short journey to Valparaiso.

Valparaiso

Famous poet Pablo Neruda was hidden in a basement in Valparaiso as it was illegal to be a Communist under Presidente Videla. He wrote many of his poems in green ink to symbolise his desire and hope.

His full name was Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basalt and he went on to advise Salvador Allende after escaping into Argentina to avoid prison. He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971 and his poems are enjoyed by many to this day. Interesting to think how the place had changed since he was was hidden there.

Valparaiso was our first stop on our journey to the North of Chile, it is a major port city described by the Lonely Planet as a ‘wonderful mess’. It certainly opened our eyes to the pitfalls of travelling in South America.

When we arrived I had lost my booking for the hostel and I had to print it from an internet café as these were the days before smart phones! As we were still new to South America we made an absolute catalogue of errors.

We went for lunch near the square, I ordered a pork steak as it was one of the only things I could translate and Steph ordered a seafood pasta dish. She is really faddy about food and I’m pretty sure that she wanted a burger! When she tried to change her order and the waiter brought her more bits of seafood in a small bowl. It was pretty entertaining as she was disgusted by the whole thing.

We should have tried harder to learn Spanish before we came, but we didn’t which led to so many cringe moments at the beginning of out trip. You’ll be glad to know that I did learn Spanish by studying and speaking every day, as I felt pretty ashamed of myself.

We wanted to explore after our terrible meal and Valparaiso is geographically blessed as it is located in a bay with colourful houses built up the surrounding hills. There are lifts you can take that go up to the viewpoints to see the beautiful views. Colourful houses can’t be dangerous, right?

Instead of taking the lift we just walked up the hill and stood there taking photos. This was until a man started shouting at us in Spanish, luckily he caught up with us and could speak English. He told us that there were dangerous people who listen for foreign voices and take the opportunity to rob tourists. Something that he may have witnessed before as a resident of the bright favelas.

He flagged down a bus and put us on it so that we could be transported back down safely. We were disbelieving at the point, but of course he kept us safe and for that I am thankful. It was an important lesson to learn.

We went for some beers in a bar afterwards and we asked the waiter whether it was dangerous but he didn’t answer us and seemed perplexed by the question. We left none the wiser but I think it would be bad for tourism if people realised the colourful houses were shanty towns similar to those in Brazil. Later on we met other backpackers who loved Valpo and had a great time there on the piss so its not all bad.

Another fail happened when we went to the bus station, which was shady and full of weird people. We accidentally missed the bus as we hadn’t changed our clocks and had the wrong time. Then we had to buy new tickets and wait with the weirdos for another two hours. Fail. At least in La Serena we finally got the opportunity to chill out and see some of Chile’s wonders, like the moon.

La Serena

La Serena is indeed a serene place. It is the second oldest city in Chile and it has long, golden beaches. We were there out of season so we had the place to ourselves. The weather was gorgeous but it is covered in mist in the mornings just like in San Francisco.

We went for a stroll down the beach when we arrived and we went to a weird park that was full of animals. It had ostriches, foxes, zebras and all kinds of other creatures. We were ushered out as they said it was closed but it had many more animals than your average petting zoo! Very strange. We had the genius idea to eat at a university cafeteria in a bid to get a cheap lunch but then spent ages trying to find it. Aside from the coast, we did have another motive for being in La Serena.

As Chile is at such high altitude it is the perfect place to go stargazing. We visited the Cerro Mamalluca observatory on a tour and our guide was the most enthusiastic man in the world. He was super excited for the next period of the moon and he knew how many times he’d seen the planets in certain formations. The man was as interesting as the stars themselves. He showed me how to take a really good picture of the moon with my camera through the telescope and of course we could see the Southern Cross which is a novelty for us Brits.

The moon
The moon

The next day we visited to Isla Damas. It is a Humboldt penguin reserve and we actually saw a couple! This endangered bird lives on the coasts of Chile and Peru and is named after the cold current that runs along the West coast. 

Like many animals it has had a bad time of it, it was once victim to guano harvesting and its chicks are at risk from invasive species. The decline is also due to overfishing, ocean acidification and climate change. Two gay male parent couplings have been observed in zoos in the UK and Germany, with male pairings adopting eggs abandoned by other couples. One Humboldt escaped from a Tokyo sea life centre and hung out in the bay for nearly three months before being caught. Now that’s sass.

Even more excitingly we saw two Chilean marine otters! It was a pretty incredible sighting in the water amongst the smelly sealions. They are the world’s smallest marine mammal and seem to have very little presence in articles on South American wildlife.

Their population was decimated by the fur trade but they seem to span the entire Chilean coast as well as some of Peru so nobody knows exactly how many are left. They have many threats to deal with, orcas in the water and dogs on land as well as ongoing coastal development and oceanic chemical spills.

On our last day in La Serena we got the bus to Pisco Elqui. Nestled in the Valle Pisco, it is just a thoroughly nice place. We ate our lunch in someone’s back yard whilst watching their cow stood next to their tree. The Coquimbo region as well as the Atacama area is where the Chilean version of Pisco (a type of brandy) is produced hence the name of this pueblo. It is also made in Peru where they also have a place named Pisco.

It is a very political drink as colonialism caused many grape growers to turn to cotton planting. Especially during the American Civil War when access to cotton was restricted. It remains popular in SA and the region is understandably proud of it. We sat in the street at a table and drank Pisco Sours made with lime juice, egg white, syrup and bitters. It was tasty and there are variations to be found all over SA. That afternoon we got the luxury bus to San Pedro de Atacama, an incredible place which still managed to increase our anxiety levels even higher…

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