Adios Peru

Trip Start Aug 31, 2012
Trip End Apr 30, 2013

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Flag of Chile  ,
Saturday, December 8, 2012

I'll throw down the name Augusto Pinochet and his infamous and oppressive regime, the fear-inducing Junta (pronounced more like 'huhn-ta’ but as if you were clearing a flobby glob of phlegm from your throat), talk of civil upheavals, military dictatorship, and the evocative poetry of much-loved diplomat Pablo Neruda (who, The Simpsons taught us, said that "laughter is the language of the soul" – well I’ve got to get my education from somewhere). These are the things we have had to google this week in order to introduce you to our current stop on the South American map. You might have rightly guessed that we are in Chile, trim and spindly stripe of a country, stretching tautly from the driest desert in the world to the southernmost town on the planet (not that we plan to get that far cold).

So, to retrace our steps a little, after the misty magic of Machu Picchu (some weeks back now, or is it a thousand years…?), we topped off our jaunt in Peru by heading south to the country’s second most populated city of Arequipa (‘ara-keepa’ if you like to sound them out). This place is famous (among Peruvians at least) – and fairly so – for its production of quality alpaca goods. Actually, as a place on the international traveler’s map, it is rather overshadowed by so many other of Peru’s tourist hotspots, and so stakes its claim with the use of such phrases as ‘industrial growth’ and ‘economic statistics’ and things like that. The greatest reason for visiting it, then, would be either to relieve it of some of its massive and un-dwindling stock of alpaca knitwear (which we are not wont to do), or to photograph its architectural splendors (which we most certainly are wont to do), exquisitely carved from the beautiful local volcanic rock known as ‘Sillar’ (‘see-yar’). This chalky white rock does make all the buildings quite a sight to behold, glimmering delightfully under cloudless skies that, unfortunately for the citizens of Arequipa, would benefit not a little from a few less smoggy fumes– what should be a sky of paint-box blue is sometimes more of a watery haze, obscuring slightly the vision of otherwise postcard-perfect mountains that loom over half of the city, one a splendidly cone-shaped volcano, and the others a range of snowy-topped summits. Walking around the alleys of Arequipa in rush hour (most hours) involves dodging queues of buses that cough and splutter their way up and down the cobbled streets like diseased but frantic old men, causing smokey tears to burn the eyes and blur the otherwise lovely sights of (as always) churches and plazas.

So, it wasn’t too long before we’d packed ourselves off into the surrounding mountains, and to the (perhaps dubiously proclaimed) deepest canyon in the world: The Colca Canyon (actually the second deepest, runner up only to another canyon next door), home to Condors, the sight of which seems to draw pilgrims from every corner of the planet, crowding onto the hillsides in droves for an opportunity to photograph what is essentially only a bird sitting on a rock. It was a pretty bird, don’t get me wrong, but nothing I’d want to spend hours on a bumpy bus for. I guess there’re some things that just don’t impress me.  You might feel the same way about colossal faces of steep rock, which for some reason fill me with feelings of ageless awe. At more than four thousand metres at its greatest depth, the Colca Canyon is boastfully more than twice as deep as The Grand Canyon, yet (thankfully for those of us who want to hike into it) without such famously steep sides.

We set aside three days to climb into and out of it, and found it to be a beautiful and invigorating trek, with only one brief, teeth-chattering moment of panic in the whole three days, where the path (thankfully not at too dizzying a height here) became a narrow and crumbly strip of what felt like tottery tightrope walking, but for what lasted probably less than a minute. The rest of the time, the path was relatively wide and secure feeling, and carved out over the passages of time by the stolid trudgery of the hooves of local donkeys, those steadfast bastions of beastly burden being the only way to get supplies into the canyon and down to the tiny villages which nestle at its bottom. We spent one night in the first village we came across once we’d descended all the way to the river at the bottom (after three hours or so) and crossed to the other side: San Juan (‘hwan’) De Chuccho. Content here with no electricity, but able to read our e-book by candlelight (and only singeing the curtains a little in the process), we settled down to enjoy the peace and quiet, and the homemade meal of hearty soup, rice, salad and alpaca, provided by our hosts.

On the second day, after a breakfast of cold pancakes, we hiked on, mostly staying close to the bottom of the canyon (but still high up enough to marvel at the surrounding views) to an oasis called Sangalle (‘san-ga-yeh’), where we spent our second night. This place is a surprising sprawl of lush lawns, palm trees and dazzling flower gardens in the otherwise barren yellow cliffs of the canyon; visible as a deliciously furry splat of green from many of the canyon paths above, it beckons teasingly - as an oasis might – to all hikers otherwise baking in the blasting sun. All the sweating and panting of the previous hours is forgotten as you enter its shady cool pastures to discover a paradise of grass and swimming pools, freshly filled from water pouring magically from the rocks. After a night here, we awoke at five o clock in the morning and took the “shortcut” back to the top, completing our circuit with what was actually a three hour climb straight up the canyon side at a near exact equivalent (in height) of  the tallest mountain in Britain (so not very short). At the top, we leaned on our shaky knees, weakly high-fived, and stumbled into the nearby town of Cabanaconde to hunt out one of the most amazing fried eggs on bread breakfasts we might ever have tasted.

So, as a farewell to Peru, Colca Canyon was a sweet and crunchy icing on a most delicious cake. The day after all that huffing and puffing we found ourselves on a bus and continuing south. Our original intentions after Peru had been to explore Bolivia, but at almost the last minute we decided to change our plans (don’t you love swerving right when you’ve been indicating left) and chase the coming summer as far south as we could, saving Bolivia until later, probably after Argentina and Brazil. So, we hastily read our Lonely Planet South America guide to see what Chile had on offer.

Our first stop was Arica, a seaside town close enough to the border to make not stopping there seem a little stupid. We had hopes of more sun-soaked sands and raw, lemony seafood, but were unfortunately none-too impressed with our first Chilean stopover. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Arica, but the only two things worth remembering about the town were a small church designed by a Monsieur Eiffel, of otherwise rather widespread fame for some tower in Paris (to find the work of such an artist in this little backwater burg on the opposite side of the planet was a little strange), and  another pleasing sight of a family of huge sea lions frolicking and idling down on the dock front (obviously made fat and soft in their affluence by the daily feeding of scraps by fishermen). Otherwise, Arica had little to offer us but the chance to be confused by the deciphering of a brand new currency and strange menus. To go from paying about eight Peruvian soles for a short taxi ride through town, to being charged one and a half thousand Chilean pesos for the same thing can at first give one the impression of being a little cheated and can cause some initial disgruntlement. But after having loudly abused only one or two poor taxi drivers (not in their own language of course), we finally got to grips with our new conversion rate, found our way to the cheapest hostel the centre of town had to offer and settled down to sample the local cuisine, which seems to consist mostly of hamburgers, sandwiches and hotdogs, and which may give some inkling of a clue as to the general  - shall we say roundedness – of the local form. I don’t want to generalize that the locals were all fatties, but they themselves seemed to have no problem in doing so, or of displaying said bulging form by squeezing it into dangerously-close-to-exploding denim short shorts.  Anyway, bitching is not the only reason we’re here, and so the next day we hastily left Arica and its hefty denizens, and bussed our way down Chile’s coast, and a little inland, to the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world (this may be our first real claim to a superlative – so far we only seemed to have witnessed the second deepest, second widest, or second highest of anything – you don’t win silver, you lose gold; it can be demoralizing). We repeated this wonderful description to ourselves often, in hushed and revered tones, dreaming of the day in some far off future when this piece of trivia will undoubtedly win us the pub quiz, and bathe us in the glory we deserve.

Our residence, then, in The driest desert in the world (or Universe, for all we know!) was actually in yet another oasis in the midst of all this dryness, hotness and sunnyness, a town called San Pedro De Atacama (Saint Peter of the Atacama), a small, whitewashed mud-brick town that looks like something out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and is a hop, skip and jump away from the peaks that mark the Bolivian border. Approaching this town via bus was quite an amazing spectacle, the terrain being like nothing we’ve seen before outside of sci-fi movies and cartoons. It resembled something like a cross between a Wile-E-Coyote landscape and Mars. I half- honestly expected to see signs by the edge of the road saying ‘free bird seed’, under the precarious arrangement of some bound-to-be-bungled Acme equipment, possibly of the rocket-powered variety. Alas, this was not Disneyland, nor even Warner Bros-World, and the closest we got to finding snacks by the roadside was the almost-as-interesting discovery that the driest desert in the world (the Atacama, remember it) is dusted in a layer of salt – actual, real, powdery, white salt - as though God was seasoning his chips and the shaker top fell off (possibly a practical joke by his old pal Satan).  This natural, beautiful and flavoursome display is actually caused (in case we had you fooled with that “God” nonsense) by the fact that the Atacama used to be a sea, and then one day about four or five million years ago, possibly due to the same seismic or geothermal activity (or something) that created the nearby range of volcanoes (we don’t know for sure – we’re not geologists, and I was only half listening to the guide), it dried all up, leaving that delicious white crystalline residue for miles and miles around. Yes, I acted like the class spazz and tried licking it, only because somebody’s got to. Admit it: you’d have been disappointed had I not. I would try to put the taste into words using all the culinary vocabulary I could, but then you wouldn’t bother coming to taste it for yourself, would you? Needless to say it was yummy (and oddly thirst-inducing).

We went on a very interesting tour of The Atacama, climbing dunes, crawling through caves, and being taken to an isolated and silent area to listen to the snap, crackle and pop of minerals in some cavernous wall; sounds that brought to the imagination visions of the entire cliff above us fissuring open and crumbling down on top of our heads, but which are apparently completely normal noises for a desert to make if you can find a quiet enough place from which to listen (this really was a very strange and exciting experience which did sound just like pouring milk into a giant bowl of Rice Crispies). Supposedly, this phenomenon is caused by the rocks’ minerals, like, rubbing together in the heat or something technical like that (again, ‘Stevie could pay more attention in class’). 

The last and most intriguing trip into this desert was to the Laguna Cejar, a small round lake that is reputed to be as salty as the Mediterranean’s more famous Dead Sea. This was definitely one of the highlights of the desert, mainly due to its wonderful novelty value. I’d always imagined those Dead Sea floaters to be kind of faking it, knowing that some people just float easily in water, while I’ve never been able to do so without at least wafting my arms and/or legs a little. This salty water was oh so different; as soon as you try to plunge under, it forces you back up as though you were made of cork, or trying to swim in half-set jelly; an immediately entertaining feeling, and one that caused us to burst out in giggles as we floundered clumsily about. It actually made swimming much more difficult, but it was very cool to be able to just lie back without any danger of sinking. The salt content became clear as soon as we stepped out of the water and into the relentless heat of the sun combined with the cold bite of an early evening wind: As soon as the water dried on our skin (after about five seconds), we were left looking like we’d been rolled in something white and sticky, which actually began to chafe and itch if left un-rinsed. This afternoon expedition was further dignified at dusk, with our being served Pisco Sour cocktails and snacks by the edge of another large salt pan lake (which was so thick with salt as to look like we had just missed a heavy snow storm) as the sun sank, painting the distant eastern mountains in changing colours from yellows to reds to purples, and setting the sky above them ablaze with brush-strokes of glowing fire.

From the instant tanning salon of the Atacama, then, we took a sixteen hour bus south (ever southward) to a town called La Serena, the second oldest town in Chile. This coastal city sports nearly thirty churches, and that’s about all there is to spout about.  We decided to go to the nearby town of Coquimbo (‘co-kim-bo’), and stay in a beautiful old house-turned- hostel which once housed the French consulate, and is now run by two wonderful old ladies, who potter around keeping the place clean, and who seemed to take great pride in offering smiles and assistance in anything we asked for, whilst equally fawning over the resident dogs and cats. If you are ever in this area of the world, we urge you to go and spend at least a night in Hostal Nomades, which we felt privileged to call home for a few wonderful days. These two old dears were also more than happy to look after the majority of our luggage while we sojourned to the nearby Valle (‘va-yeh’) De Elqui (Elqui Valley) for a couple of nights camping in vineyard country. This place is most famous for its production of local tipple Pisco (of Pisco Sour fame), which we first sampled in Peru, but which is equally popular here in Chile.  Valle De Elqui is also renowned for its many observatories and star-gazing opportunities, but - in a mild stroke of rare misfortune - we seemed to be visiting on the two single days of the year when the skies weren’t fabulously clear, and all observation tours were cancelled. The locals pointed at the thinly overcast sky and grumbled about the “terrible weather”, but we consoled ourselves by building up bonfires and gorging ourselves on locally grown avocados (beyond delicious – like eating knobs of butter) and campfire-seared steaks and chicken, as the sun went down at the modest time of around eight or nine in the evening. For Kez, this seems to be a completely novel (almost alarming) concept. South Africa, it seems, never has daylight beyond about seven in the evening. To us Brits this is nothing new (if only for that brief annual – or so – fling we call summer), but even I haven’t really had that late evening sun for the last four years or so, and have to admit it seems a little strange to be still basking in UV rays at that time. Obviously the farther south we go, the longer that sun takes to go down, and where we are now those yellow fingers are still reaching into the sky at nine o clock. I know that anyone reading this in the northern hemisphere right now is cursing our names, and we don’t wish to show off (much), but just mention it as a point of interest. We’re looking forward to just how much daylight we can measure in the coming few weeks as we head even farther south.

The other thing we were advised to do whilst in the Valle De Elqui was to take a tour of the vineyards and Pisco breweries, and so we took a stroll one hot midday to discover just how this concoction is created. Unfortunately the tour was only available in Spanish, and so by straining our ears to the max we learned that the grapes were collected by hand (we understood that) and left to ferment for thirty days (we just about understood that) and then, though, there are these big copper vats with port holes, and lots of coppery coils and pipes and things, and there are probably some hubbly-bubbling noises and one final ringing ping! sound before a baby bottle of Pisco is birthed, a label is smacked onto its bottom and it is sent off into the world to be chugged (we made an educated guess at all that). And so we left the valley not much the wiser, but at least with a few bottles of cheap, award-winning spirit to weigh down our bags and perk up our evenings.

So, upon excitedly arriving back at Hostal Nomades to the warm greeting of our newly befriended dogs, we repacked our bags and booked a ticket for the six or so hour journey to this nation’s capital, Santiago, where we are currently residing.  You’re falling asleep at the back there, so we’ll save this slide show for the next time.

The typically said thing about Chile by most travelers is that, coming from Peru, for example, one might wonder what happened to South America. The buildings have more of a European style, ranging from the bright, seaside stucco look of the Mediterranean, to more Eastern European-looking almost- castles.  It’s also more difficult to tell apart a good many Chileans from Europeans, being that much of the national ancestry is derived from the immigration of Germans, British, French and Italian as well as, of course, the Spanish “conquistadors”; so spotting a tall-and-blonde amongst the short-and-darks does not necessarily mean spotting a westerner here. The culture certainly seems daubed with influences from worlds that we at least partly recognize (one of the most popular local foods is the ‘Italiano’ hotdog, proudly flying the green, red and white on so many street corners by serving thick layers of mashed avocado, tomato and mayonnaise over a small sausage), but can certainly hold its own in a contest of identity (they seem proud of the fact that even other South Americans cannot understand the rapid babbling of Chilean Spanish).  Chileans have a difficult and interesting history, which I won’t embarrass myself by pretending to know anything about, but which has seemed to awaken in them a strong sense of pride, a love of poetry, a passion for music and dance, and a desire to cover every spare inch of wall they can reach in miles upon miles of beautiful, haunting (and even sometimes possibly disturbing) mosaics, murals and gang-style graffiti that brings so much of their cities alive with colour. To simply walk around is to be immersed amongst images of their loves, their hates, their needs, and their wacky dreams. We sometimes rub our eyes as if we need to wake up.

So far it’s been easy to love Chile, and there’s a heck of a lot more to see…

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