From Sea to Sea

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of Chile  ,
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Santiago is the bustling hub of the Chilean transport industry and a short walk from the hostel lie the four large terminals that launch buses along the length of Chile. The total length from north to south is around 4000 km, a remarkable distance for a country only a few hundred km wide at most.

The spokes I set off for are the neighbouring towns of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar on the Pacific coast. With only 100 km separating them from the capital, the route is well trodden and served by a number of different bus companies. I reach Vina del Mar and check into a hotel near the ocean. It´s a friendly place, with a B&B feel to it. After dumping the bag, I head off to explore the Chilean equivalent of Brighton.

Wandering past the many pristine lawns and well tended beach apartments you could be in any seaside town. The beach is lovely with a 2 mile stretch of sand to slowly stroll along. Shoes and socks off, I dip into the Pacific for the first time. Families and young couples make the most of the early summer sun, while elderly couples promenade along the seafront. The waves crash with a roar as the beach drops off dramatically a short way out. Large container ships drift past on the way to the neighbour around the headland.

For lunch, I stop at a recommendation of the guide book, a German restaurant called `Max y Moritz´. A good chance to practice my German with the proprietor and a very delicious sausage steak with potato salad; thoroughly Bavarian. The rest of the day, I walk this off in the Vina high street. It is a funny collection of chains, boutiques and small well kept parks.

The next day I make for the next bay and Valparaiso (`Valpo´ for short). The has been Chile´s principal port since its foundation, and the history of everything maritime seeps through all the walls. The local bus drops you off at the bottom of one of the ascensors, rickety old funicular railways that carry locals from the port level to the upper residential areas. This particular one is very picturesque with a rickety cab running up through the flowering bushes on the hill. At the top, you find the imposing maritime college and museum, and a wonderful view over the bay. Various frigates are moored up in front of the college, along with a multitude of container ships loading and unloading with the cranes nearby.

Inside the whitewashed walls of the museum lie the treasured artifacts of the Chilean Navy. Laid out chronologically, it first tells the story of the defeat of the all powerful Spanish Pacific fleet. The Chilean Navy was commanded by a Royal Navy captain, Lord Cochrane, appointed as Admiral in Chief of the newly formed navy by Bernard O´Higgins. Then the gallery of artifacts leads through to the war of the Pacific, which saw both Bolivia and Peru defeated and Bolivia lose its coast. Finally they pay tribute to the recent naval heroes, especially the long standing admiral who became a senior member of the military Junta.

Leaving the museum´s cool, darkened rooms, you are hit again by the heat of the day. I walk down into the heart of the commercial district, centred around the port´s banks. A number of grand old buildings point to the heyday of this town, when goods were shipped to the far corners of the Earth. I have lunch in one of the small restaurants that lie at the base of these buildings. Penguin suited waiters flap around efficiently in a manner which I´m sure continues from the city´s golden era.

After lunch, I ride up the Concepcion ascensor to the quiet residential district of the same name. With all at siesta, I can explore the pretty streets with their painted houses alone. I walk along the long, winding road of Calle Aleman, hoping to visit the house/museum of Pablo Neruda, but the sign shows the dreaded words ´CLOSED FOR STAFF TRAINING´. Onwards and down the hill to explore further the endless areas of houses spilling down to the ocean.

Thoroughly cooked and with two further ascensors shut for reconditioning, I head back to Vina for a rest and a snooze. In the evening, I head out for another wander and pop into a local bar on the way back. Frequented by students from the local university it is a friendly and welcoming place, with cold beer on tap and plastic tables and chairs. A lovely place to spend a warm summer´s evening.

The next day, I head to Vina´s highlight away from the beach. A rich family created a subtropical paradise on an outcrop near the city centre and this remains well tended by the local council. The house is impressive along with the enormous ampitheatre that hosts local pop concerts; a great concrete bowl in the woods that must seat 20,000. But the true highlight is the wood itself. The son of the owners at the time brought back samples from all the far flung places he went as a sailor. His mother, an amateur botanist, then established great swathes of subtropical beauty from these samples. Climbing to the top of the hill gives the best view of Vina, looking over the trees and houses, the city centre and the apartments, to the great mountains and mighty ocean.

A fairly uneventful Chinese meal for lunch and then more exploring, before heading back to the room for a rest. A stroll back past the casino and into one of the Parilladas nearby for a quick dinner of chicken and salad. The American couple who are the only other customers in this early have a little chuckle about my order. They obviously didn´t just travel across Brazil and Argentina. I was glad of the change.

To bed, and no shower since the hot water was inconsistent to say the least. Awake and no breakfast, I head back to the bus station and zoom back up the motorway to Santiago. A pleasant day exploring the beginnings of the city, wanting to save plenty for the days ahead. A huge group arrive from Peru. A package that tells them what to eat, when to sleep and when to carry out bodily functions probably. Sounds like a nightmare. We will see where this goes next time.
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