27.12.2011 - 07.01.2012
Hola Chico's, from the country of hundreds of well fed stray dogs, Coffee with legs and Pisco Sours (an issue disputed with Peru)
So after a very very long day (we saw the morning of the 27th Dec twice!!!) in the air and making an unexpected stop off in Auckland we finally arrive in Santiago. As we fly over Chile the skies are clear and we start to get a decent impression of how mountainous Chile really is. Next challenge was making our way into the city center, finding the right bus and asking for a ticket in spanish! Some hand signals and a few basic words got us into the city and to the metro station as we needed to get to the Salvador area. Jetlag had definitely set in and we crashed out for the first afternoon/night but after about 14 hours sleep we felt a bit normal again. Our hostel was cheap and cheerful and even included a basic evening meal plus free wine on Wednesdays, wohoo at least 2 glasses for Sian then.
After so much sleep we managed to get up nice and early for our fist full day exploring the city and first up was a wander along the river east to the El Golf area. The river itself was less than impressive just fast flowing muddy brown, nothing attractive. El Golf is the new business district so plenty of modern building including what will be the tallest building in South America once it is finished. Whilst crossing the road at a set of lights a guy decided to prop his stool in the middle of the road and do some juggling tricks to amuse the waiting motorists. Seemed a bit of a weird sight back then but we've seen a few more since and it seems they get quite a bit in tips! We aimed to get to Bellavista for lunch as it is meant to be full of nice little restaurants and bars but somehow we ended up in the area next door, Patronato and found ourselves in the busiest local market. Quite a mixture of goings on, loads of food on sale, clothes stalls and a large group of men gambling and playing cards. We found a Mexican style restaurant to have lunch which had some fellow gringos outside. Just down the road was the old funicular which takes you to the top of Cerro San Cristobal and has been there since the 1920's. The hill gives great panoramic views of the city and has a white virgin Mary statue on the top and an open air church below, which at the time was still blasting out crimbo songs, Feliz Navidad. Unfortunately Santiago's skyline is plagued by the smoggy cloud that stops you from getting a clear view. At the bottom of the hill is Bellavista, so at last we had found the right area and it is definitely full of restaurants and bars.
The main tourist area in Santiago is the Plaza D'Armas (arms square) which is home to the cathedral, old government buildings, post office and museums. The square is a hive of activity with kids making the most of the cool water in the fountains and some random entertainment in the band stand. We visited the Museo Historico Nacional to find out a bit more about Chile, unfortunately is was all in spanish with no obvious availability of bilingual guides but it is home to a good collection of presidential blue/white/red sashes warn by the various presidents including General Pinochet. Each day there are free walking tours of the city so we decided to join one and see what it's all about. The guide was a Chilean student (who we learnt are protesting for better education in Chile at the moment) and spoke really good english, & gave us a lot of information and history. Turns out in the earthquake in 2010 resulted in one of the towers of the cathedral crashing down into the square. Books in Chile are taxed very highly so lots of people use the libraries. A popular socialist president Salvador Allende was ousted from government by the military coup led by General Pinochet and bullet holes are still visible in some of the buildings around the presidential palace still. Chile's founding father Bernado O'Higgins was in fact an illegitimate son of you guessed it an Irish man, they get everywhere!Plus Cerro Santa Lucia in the middle of town is closed at night because loved up couples can't resist it's romantic setting. All in all the tour was well worth it and the guide makes his money from the tips he receives, so he has to impress. We made it back to the hostel via the green shady area along the river with a quick stop off to see some dancing and drumming being practiced.
For New Years we had decided beforehand that we would go to Valparaiso on the west coast and booked up some inflated accommodation in advance, good job too because the place was jam packed. Its renowned apparently in South America for its NY's fireworks and street parties so not a bad place to be. We got a Tur Bus coach over early (not out of choice) the day before NY's eve and found our basic hostel up some steep steps in a alleyway! The city was founded by a mix of Europeans travelling round to the west coast of the states in their ships, so at one stage the place was a bustling port with some impressive wealthy, bold buildings. Sadly times changed after the Panama canal was completed & the place took a bit of a dive. The historical part of town is on the slopes of the bay, and very steep too. Rich people obviously don’t like walking up hills because the place is full of old fashioned escalators (two carriages, one up one down on a cable) hiding up alleyways on most streets taking you up to the next level for 100 Cl pesos less than 20p.
Tours for tips seems to be hitting it off over here and we timed our visit to the tourist info perfectly to jump on the afternoon slot with about 30 others, so popular to. The tour guide was from the states who had adopted Valparaiso as his home, and dressed as Where's Wolly so stood out a little. He took us wandering round the more modern man made sea front made from the dumped ballast, and through the square up into the winding narrow streets of the upper town, even fitting us all on a electric tram/bus and giving free samples of local biscuits and Pisco Sours. The old centre of town is nice with a lot of rustic charm and posh restaurants and café’s, but it is defiantly rough around the edges with some area's that you wouldn’t go wandering through in the evening/night, but the place is leaving the dark times behind and starting to gear up for tourists more, which might be good. Our time here was spent wandering round checking out the different little area's, having a few drinks in the cafe's and deciphering the Spanish menus in the restaurants and for NY we stocked up with some bear and vodka and Fanta (classy) and went off into the streets in search of a good view point over the bay. We bumped into some Aussies from the hostel in Santiago and teamed up with them and a Finish girl to head up and up to a park, with a potentially great view of the fireworks. Obviously the locals knew of this park too and it was really busy, and by this time dark too, so we found a spot and merrily waited till midnight.
The fireworks kicked off our 2012 with everyone around in a merry frenzy!!! Memoryies after this point do get slightly hazy and involve al street party on the way down and a hike back to the hostel! Our first day of the year will not be remembered for anything energetic with little more than a trip out looking for somewhere open to eat in the evening summoning all our energy, and preparing for the coach back to Santiago the next day.
When we arrived back in Santiago our hostel this time was slap bang in the centre of town in Baquedano district and it was only over the river to Bellavista's bars & restaurants, so that's where we went when we landed there at lunchtime. Meurig managed to find the cheapest meal we found in Santiago, good old chicken and for a change from chips there was rice, all for £2ish. The hostel was Footsteps and was a little nicer than our first place in Santiiago but didn't have the add benefit of a free evening meal. However we used the facilities that afternoon e.g. pool table, free wifi (makes such a difference from NZ & Oz) and decided what we could manage to post back home, the backpacks were just too heavy. The hostel was right near the Parque General Bustamante so off we trotted for a wander before finding some food. It seems that unlike home there are more people out & about come evening time rather than the afternoons, but then I suppose they get the weather for it but they definitely make good use of their parks & outdoor spaces.
Our last day in Santiago was spent mainly around the area of Cerro Santa Lucia and parque forrestal after a quick stop at the main post office in Plaza D'Armas & eventually being able to understand what was going on in spanish. Cerro Santa Lucia is a city centre hill which is where Santiago was originally founded. The hill is home to some very nice gardens where we had a picnic and up the steps to the top is an old fort with a good viewing platform for some city views, shame about the hazzy smog once more! At the bottom of the hill the entrance is dominated by the impressive Font Neptune with water gushing from various places and some large sculptures, it would have been nice & refreshing to jump into the water! Our next bus booked that night down south to Pucon, so we had some time to kill before heading to the bus station and visited some art & craft markets and to Bellavista for a meal (again).
Our first overnight bus in South America was pleasing enough for the near 800km we travelled and the driver was far less scary than the ones on the night buses in Vietnam! We arrived in the lake district town of Pucon at around 9am and the sun was shining bright so the view of Volcan Villarrica hit us immediately. The town has a feel of the alps about it as most of the buildings are made from wood to look like winter ski resort cabins, apparently it can get quite cold here in winter! Even though the temperature was definitely in the high twenties the volcan was still snowcapped! The town has loads of nice eateries and bars and we managed to get a nice brekkie with a great view of Villarrica whilst waiting to check into our hostel. We stayed at Hostel Wohlenberg, sounds German right, well that's because around this area & especially a bit further south was home to a large number of German settlers, so as you can imagine there was a nice selection of beers around. Pucon is along the shores of Lake Viallarrica which has its own baking hot black sand beach (assuming its a lot to do with the huge lava spluttering mountain nearby) which is tourist central. We went to soak up some sun on our first afternoon and thought a nice dip in the lake would be a chance to cool off. Refreshing is an understatement!
Next on the agenda was the main attraction, an ascent up to the top of the one of Chile's most active volcanoes! So an early start at 7am (it could have been earlier with some tours starting at 4.30am) we were suited & booted and packed into the van for the 30 minute trip to the base at the ski resort. The volcano is nearly 3000m meters high and the trip in the van took us to about half way up so only 1500m to go plus we took a short cut in the ski lift for a couple of hundred meters as the rest of the group voted for the lift, easy!! Armed with lots of sun cream and an ice pick off we set off up the snow capped beast. In our huge walking boots we followed the foot holes that the guides had created in front of us and made sure the ice pick was wedged into the ice with every footstep. Once we got into the grove we were making reasonable ground and took a few short cuts to pass some slower groups and got to our first break after about 25 mins. The next break was another 30 mins further up on a ridge created by a lava flow from the 1984 eruption (as old as Sian then). Suddenly once we left the ridge things got a lot windier which made the increasingly steep climb harder and the pace had to slow a little. After about another hour of hard climbing we got to within reach of the crater and the snow was replaced by volcanic rock deposits which made it more slippy underfoot!!
Eventually we got to the crater face and were greeted by chocking poisonous fumes, sounds lovely but once we moved away from the wind's path the fumes cleared and we could breath again and the views were spectacular. The lava had receded compared with the same time last year according to our guide who had seen the bubbling stuff last year, Gutted. We could see at least two other snow capped volcanoes in the distance and looked down onto tiny Pucon town and the lake. After about 15 minutes at the summit the guide advised we should start the descent away from the fumes so once again it was time to breath in and hotfoot it carefully back down to the snow level. Now it was time for the fun to begin with our ultimate sledging back to the ski resort. After donning the ski gear and instructed how to use the ice pick as a break off we set down four or five dug out trails in the snow. Sian managed to lose her ice pick half way down one of the trails and had to stop, climb up the snow, warn the next person and retrieve the ice pick, no sweat!!!! It had to be one of the best moments of the whole trip and a must for anyone ever visiting Pucon, the guide told us a 70 year old woman had done it the day before us so no excuses, and looking back up at the peak from the car park we couldn't help feel satisfied. The day after was defiantly a recovery and chill out day with the biggest activities being an evening beer in one of the bars along the lake and a wonder through the craft market. With our next bus booked it was a fond farewell to Pucon and on the Puerto Varas.
The bus journey to Puerto Varas was an easy 5 hours this time so we arrived mid afternoon but they take their siestas seriously and most places were shut so straight to the hostel. The town is again in the lake district and on the shores of another lake called Lago Llanquihue. The German influence is much more obvious in Puerto Varas with kuchen and coffee everywhere so we indulged in very nice looking cakes whilst trying to sort out our itinerary for the months to come. The narrow beaches along the lake draw in the crowds on a sunny Saturday afternoon even with the blustery wind and unfortunately due to the change in weather we couldn't see the top of Volcano Osorno, too many clouds. A short distance round the lake there is a strange looking old pump house building with a yellow VW beattle sticking out!! We went over for a look and realised it was actually a museum belonging to the local artist Pablo Fierro who seemed to recycle all kinds of things and packed them into the old house in an artistic way. It was free to visit but Sian couldn't leave without buying one of his small paintings of the Osorno volcano & lake! We carried on our walk along the lake then went inland into the town to look for some of the tourist sites on our map and the 17th century German church built in the town centre, it definitely stands out. After some more exploring of the relatively small town we got some supplies for supper and headed back to hostel to find there was a power cut. Luckily we were planning on dinning alfresco in the garden anyway!
We ventured into the nearby Vincente Perez Rosales national park to take a look at the Petrohue falls which squeezed the turquoise water between volcanic rocks. The area around the falls had a few nature trails which we followed and had to continuously keep swatting away the humongous stripped horse fly looking things. After leaving the falls we headed for the village at the end of the remaining 6km of gravel road Petrohue by foot instead of waiting for the bus. We probably got about half way when a couple stopped and offered us a lift, probably because of our waving the relentless giant flies away!!!! The village sits on the edge of another huge lake called Todos los Santos which streches through the mountains to the boarder with Argentina and apparently is a journey undertaken by Che Guevara over the Andes. After soaking up the surroundings we hopped on the bus back to Puerto Varas and to another power cut at the hostel. This definitely was a sign that we should go out for food so off we trotted to the seafood restaurant highly recommended in the guide book. It didn't disappoint from the tangy pisco sours to the seafood chowder style stew, delicious and very filling, probably didn’t need the chips.
So after the first couple of weeks in South America it was time to bid farewell to Chile and head over the Andes to Argentina........