Dates: 7-16 January 2014
DAYS 65-68: “Sightseeing in Santiago” (7-10 Jan)
Our 16 hour LAN flight from Sydney to Santiago (via Auckland) was not as traumatic as we had anticipated, in fact it was quite enjoyable. We landed in Santiago at 10:30am on the 7th January having left Sydney at 09:30am on the 7th January…how confused were we?! We arrived at Andes Hostel, checked in to our 6 bed mixed dorm (our budget no longer stretched to private rooms) and got in a couple hours kip. We woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go…so we decided to take a little wander around town. We headed to the uber touristy Bellavista area and picked an uber touristy restaurant called Montana Steakhouse (how very Chilean!) for some chow…the walk, the food and the jet lag wiped us out completely and so after dinner we had no choice but to head back to our hostel home for some more beauty sleep.
The next day we decided to take part in a free walking tour of Santiago. These walking tours take place twice a day at 10am and 3pm. We decided to break all the rules of avoiding the suns most dangerous UV rays and went on the 10am-2:30pm walk. Let’s just say, it was ‘n bietjie warm! The walking tour was led by Franco, born and raised in Santiago, who had an extensive knowledge of his home town and its history. Throughout the tour he filled us in on where the country had been and how it ended up the way it is. He talked us through the military dictatorship of Pinochet (1973 – 1990) and its awful impact on the country. On a lighter note he also enlightened us on one of the most successful businesses in Santiago: an entrepreneur decided to make coffee shops as popular in Santiago as they are in other parts of the world (for some reason they didn’t take off in Chile). He decided that the only way to get people into these coffee shops was to introduce the “coffee with legs” concept. Found in the CBD these coffee shops are more like clubs – with tinted windows, UV/disco lights and coffee served by gorgeous girls in very short skirts. That’s how they get the men in – ladies get free stuff, so they have something for everyone! We also discovered that Santiago has loads of street dogs – although these are not the mangy mutts you’d expect to see running around a large city. We even had one join us on our tour, we picked him up at Palacio la Moneda (the Government House) and this little guy followed us to the end of the tour. He was fit, healthy, well-fed and groomed, not your usual look for a street dog. We asked Franco how a street dog could look so well and he explained that the city actually looks after these stray dogs through taxes and that this particular hound was in fact looked after by the guards at Government House. So you could say we were accompanied by the President of the street dog community, how special are we?! We ended our tour at Pablo Neruda’s mistresses house and discovered who this eccentric guy was (were we supposed to know that?!). We then parted ways with our tour group and headed out on our own. We took the funicular up to the top of San Christobal Hill (which you can walk up by the way…but why would you when you can just sit in a little box and get pulled up?!). From the top of this hill you get a stunning view of the city, or shall we say, you are supposed to get a stunning view of the city…nobody told us that the air pollution would make this quite an underwhelming view. Glad we didn’t walk up!!
After this the fun really started – us two little Saffa girls had to head down to the main bus terminal to book our tickets up to La Serena and on to San Pedro de Atacama. Feeling quite confident, as we had mastered the train system, we headed on our merry way to Estacion Central where we were told by two independent sources that this was where we could buy bus tickets from. The bastards lied! We came out of the station hoping to see signage pointing us in the right direction but alas, there were no signs. So what does one do when there are no signs? You ask people. However, this was not a simple as it sounds. No one we approached spoke any English and after much miming and charades we were pointed in the wrong direction about 5 times. Feeling defeated we made one last attempt to try and find where the freaking bus terminal was. The Gods must have had their fun with us as we finally found someone who spoke English and told us that it was a 3 minute walk down the road. It in fact turned out to be about a 20 minute walk down the road, at the next stop on the train line, University de Santiago…fantastic. But never mind, we made it with our senses of humour in tact. We of course stood in the wrong queue 3 times not being able to understand the Spanish signs and no one (again) spoke any English, making booking tickets relatively tricky. But finally the Gods smiled on us once again and sent us an angel in the form of a bi-lingual Chilean girl who helped us book our tickets on a cama bus (Turbus) for the best price – go team! After such a busy day we got some dinner (again ordering from a Spanish only menu – which is loads of fun as you never really know what you’re going to get) and had an early night.
We woke up the next day super duper excited as we were taking ourselves off to one of Chile’s famous wine farms. Turning our noses up at the USD35 pre-booked tour we decided to go it on our own, which was much more economical. We took the train and then a taxi to Conchos y Toro for a 1pm wine tasting. We were in heaven! Having drunk beer and questionable spirits for nearly 2 months, some decent wine was long overdue. We learnt about the history of the estate, the grape varieties they grow there and most importantly got to sample 3 types of wine. We were so smitten with the Sauvignon Blanc “Trio” we sampled, that we just had to buy 2 bottles before leaving. As it was a beautiful evening, on our way back we picked up some cheese and crackers to enjoy with our newly acquired vino in the park…how civilised!
We left Santiago for La Serena early the next day. Upon arriving at the bus terminal (we got off at the right stop this time) there were a few “gingos” lurking uncertainly around. One couple looked strangely familiar to us but we couldn’t work out why. Naturally birds of a feather flock together and us foreigners ended up congregating around our bags upon finding out that we were all headed to the same place, on the same bus. We started chatting to the familiar looking couple and discovered that they were on our flight from Sydney, behind us at Santiago airport immigration, and on our free walking tour – it is a small world sometimes. James and Emily were really lovely and this turned out to be the start of a beautiful travel friendship. The other “gringos” in the group were Lauren and George from the UK and Lily from Germany. The 7 of us boarded our bus to La Serena excited for some beach-time.
DAYS 68-72: “Lazy times in La Serena” (10-14 Jan)
It turned out that Lauren, George and Lily were staying at the same hostel as us…so the 5 of us arrived at Hostel El Arbol, a beautiful family run establishment which felt like a little piece of home. It had a huge farmhouse-style kitchen which guests were allowed to use. Thankfully Lily considered herself a real life Nigella and offered to cook us all dinner that night. This came to our great relief as I’m sure most of you know neither of us are that comfortable in a kitchen. After a delicious home cooked meal we had a couple drinks (Pisco Sours) and decided to have an early night in anticipation of getting in loads beach time the following day.
Upon waking up we were disheartened to see that it was overcast and on venturing out of our room, discovered that it was quite cold. How were we supposed to go to the beach in this?! We were worriedly discussing this at breakfast when someone explained that La Serena is overcast and chilly most mornings however come noon the sun burns its way through and turns the day into a sunbathers paradise. Thankfully this turned out to be true and that afternoon we (incl George, Lauren, Lily, James and Emily) hit the beach which, to be honest, was nothing special just some sand & sea. But perhaps we’ve been a bit spoilt with the sandy stretches of heaven we became used to in South East Asia and Indonesia? That night we were left to our own devices in the kitchen and resorted to making a tuna salad.
One of the things to do from La Serena is visit the Elqui Valley and go on a Pisco tour. We decided to vito the expensive pre-booked tour and go it on our own with James and Emily. We took a local bus from the terminal, through the Elqui Valley, to Vicuna – which was absolutely breathtaking. A mountainous desert region eventually gave way to green valleys made up of countless rows of grapevines. When we reached the town we had a half an hour walk to the Pisco factory, Capel. Upon arrival we enquired about the tour and were told that there was one at 1pm (awesome) but that they only offered tours in Spanish (not so awesome). We decided to go anyway seeing as though we were there. Luckily there were 2 American guys on the tour who kindly served as our translators. After the tour we got to sample Pisco in various forms and heard about the age-old rivalry between Chile and Peru – who created Pisco, whose is the best etc. Walking back to the town we stumbled across a woman standing on the pavement braai-ing meat and chicken. At the mouth-watering aroma our tummies started rumbling and we decided to stop in for some lunch. As we walked into the restaurant conversation halted, knives and forks were dropped and every single person in the restaurant turned to look at the 4 gringos who had just walked in…obviously not used to tourists then. Anyway, we took it in our stride, sat down and ignored the stares. The conversation around us eventually resumed. We then had to try and order our meal, challenging as there was no menu and the waitress spoke not a word of English. So we pointed out the window to the meat on the braai (BBQ)…success, she understood. Luckily we know the difference between pollo (chicken) and carne (meat) so we managed to order that. What came with our meat/chicken was a bit of a lucky dip with the waitress saying things to us in Spanish and us either shaking or nodding our heads depending on whether we liked the sound of what she was saying, or not! In the end we thought we had ordered the same thing but when it arrived Tam had mash and Sa had rice…oh the confusion. But in the end, it was a scrumptious meal that was at local rates, even better! We got back to the hostel just in time to say our goodbyes to Lauren and George who were off to Antofagasta.
On our last day in La Serena we headed up to the town, met James and Emily and decided to have hot dogs for lunch. This might sound random but hot dogs are a big deal in Chile, and quite tasty! We went for the Italiano version which is a hot dog with fresh mayonnaise and guacamole…they were lekker! We said our goodbyes (more goodbyes – can you handle it!) to James and Emily as they were off to Peru, although we hoped to meet again somewhere along the trail.
The next day we left for San Pedro de Atacama at 6pm, a 15 hour bus ride! Of course we had to book the premium bus with “cama” seats (cama = 180 degree reclining seats) and we were not disappointed. This bus was pimp! We watched a movie, got given a snack, pillow, warm blanket and then settled in for a good nights rest. In fact, we were a bit bummed when we arrived in San Pedro the next morning and had to get off the bus.
DAYS 72-73: “San Pedro de Atacama” (14-15 Jan)
San Pedro de Atacama is a small desert town in the very north of Chile. It was stifling hot, dusty and high veld dry. Luckily our hostel, San Pedro Backpackers, had a dip-in pool much to our surprise and delight. We only had 1 day in San Pedro and our mission was to book our Uyuni tour which would take us from Chile into Bolivia and onto the salt flats. Sa had done quite a lot of research prior to getting to San Pedro and knew that our first choice of tour operator would be Atacama Mistica. We found their office easily and booked our 3 day/2 night tour to leave the next day. We bought some coca sweets for the altitude, changed our currency into Bolivianos and were all set to go. The rest of the day was spent chilling by the “pool” where we met a group of 8 Brazilian guys who turned out to be very entertaining. They were pretty resourceful – arranging their own alcoholic beverages and “glassware”. They made a concoction of red wine, pineapple juice and condensed milk…it sounds disgusting but we can assure you that it was not. We enjoyed this on the pavement outside the hostel (you can’t take your own alcohol into the hostel) out of 500ml plastic coke bottles which had been cut in half…classy! The guys were also leaving on the Uyuni tour the next morning but with another tour operator…we said our goodbyes sure that our paths would cross again somewhere in Bolivia!