Chile has been the biggest surprise of our travels in South America. Until about a month ago I would not have been able to name any highlights apart from Torres de Paine and the desert regions near the border with Bolivia and Peru. As our time in South America was limited, we had from the start decided that we would not explore Chile further north than the capital of Santiago. However during our stay in the Chilean Lake region aka el Chico Sur ( the small South) we became aware that there was way more to this part of the country than we had imagined; national park after national park, the island of Chiloe and great surfing at the pacific coast. Moreover due to our unexpected trip to Antarctica the time we could spent in Chile was reduced by almost 2 weeks. With only a couple of days left, some though choices had to be made and in the end we decided to make a beeline for Middle Chile; the region of its capital Santiago de Chile.
But before going to the capital we spent the weekend in the lovely city of Valparaiso (aka ‘Valpo’). Chile’s second largest city is really a unique. Opinions are divided and a lot of Chileans prefer the neighbouring, and more mundane town of Viña del Mar but we loved ’Valpo’. The town that is strung along a huge bay in the Pacific Ocean consist of two parts: the flat city centre and the hills or ‘cerros’. The centre is your average but convenient neatly planned (South) American city. In the ‘cerros’ however all city planning was thrown out of the window. It is a big labyrinth of steep streets, stairs and alleyways with houses that seem to be built at impossible angles and different neighbourhoods that can only be distinguished by the locals as one hill rolls into another. The huge houses in all kind of colours are crumbling down a bit, giving the city an air of ‘glory of days gone by’. However restoration is now in full swing and all the colors and ‘street art’ make this a really funky place…and a photographer’s paradise.
We spent a day just wandering around the hills near our hostel together with Mauricio the hostel’s neighbour with a very keen interest in Belgium’s universities… and its girls. On Sunday we went out to check out some more of the hills but soon our way was blocked by fences. Turned out ‘Redbull’ was having one of its ‘adrenaline events’; a mountain bike downhill race. A bit unusual to have this in the middle of a city. Given the steep streets, hair pin bends and cobbled streets, that could be interesting. In the afternoon we went up the hill to check it out and it was very entertaining. A number of ramps had been installed and these guys were literally ‘flying’ through the small streets. To reach the final stretch to the finish, they actually jumped out of the first floor window of a house.
After that it was time to move on to the capital. Santiago is actually quite a nice city. Tourist wise there is not much happening but it does seem like a nice town to live with the Andes mountains (including a number of ski resorts ) just a stone throw away to the east. An hour to the west and you are at the ocean with some great waves to surf. As this was our last destination in South America before the Pacific Ocean would be our home for the next month, we had to take care of a lot of practical stuff. We did however find the time to visit some sights. We really wanted to check out the ‘human rights’ museum dealing with the very dark decades in Chile’s recent past. With loads of movies, testimonies and archived newspaper articles it gave a very good impression of what happened during and after the military coup against the Allende government in 1973. It showed how the country became subject to state terrorism and wide scale torturing of anyone who thought differently under the Pinochet regime that followed the coup. I had been reading a lot about this in the past and found this brand new museum excellent. A must for anyone who is interested in Chile’s history or the era of ‘caudillismo’ (military dictatorships) that nearly ruined South America in the last century. If you are interested in this subject and the role the USA, the IMF and the Worldbank played in it, I really recommend the book ‘the shock doctrine’ by Naomi Klein. It might even shed some light on what is happening in Europe for the moment …
On a lighter note and to really conclude our stay in South America, on our last afternoon in Santiago we went out to one of the numerous wineries that are just on the outskirts of town (they can be reached by metro). I must admit that I know next to nothing about wine. I hardly drank any wine apart from an occasional white wine until about a year ago when I got introduced to the South American red wine. As we had also been enjoying the Argentinian and Chilean wines a lot during our time here, I wanted to learn a bit more about it. Our visit to the winery was an excellent ‘wine making and tasting for dummies’ course. We also found out why Chile is so paranoid about bringing fresh food and fruits in the country. The border controls are very strict, similar to the ones they have in Australia but Chile could hardly be considered an island. Turns out that Chile is the only country in the world where the grapes for the ‘Carmenière’ wine can still grow. In all other countries these grapes have become extinct due to pests. It’s these pests they want to keep out of the country. Have a look at the map of Chile and you will understand that it must take a huge amount of time and money to check each and every person crossing one of the hundreds of border posts in Chile. But given the importance of wine making for the country, it does make sense.
After a brief tour of only 2 months it was time to leave South America. We could have easily spent another 6 months here but if we wanted to get around the world we have to start moving. That means start crossing the gigantic Pacific Ocean. First stop: Rapa Nui aka Easter Island.