Across the Andes to Chile

Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
Trip End Dec 04, 2008

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Friday, November 7, 2008

We left Mendoza on Sunday morning for our second Andean crossing, this time back into Chile, to Valparaiso (Valpo) on the Pacific coast. The seats on the bus were very comfortable and we were served (by a steward on board!) a snack as we left the city limits. We passed mile after mile of vineyards before heading into the foothills of the Andes. The climb through the foothills (I call these the foothills but in fact they're a separate mountain range that runs parallel to the Andes and at an average of 2,000m, these mountains are quite a bit lower than the 5,000m+ peaks of the Andes) was gradual and we were treated to beautiful vistas of the rugged mountains with their craggy peaks. As we cleared the foothills, we entered a dry, shrubby plateau that is fed by a countless number of streams - the streams gush down the mountainsides, then seemingly disappear. Here and there, we spotted green oases with imported cypress and sycamore trees, and fruit orchards, all in the shadow of the snow-capped Andes. The bus continued along the plateau towards the Andes and we soon reached the foot of these imposing mountains where we turned off towards the Los Libertadores pass into Chile.

The drive through the pass was just spectacular. The Andes loomed large on both sides, with sleek waterfalls tumbling down its sides. I've never seen such dazzling peaks before - it's just awesome when you consider that these mountains are at least 5,000m high!! After three hours of truly outstanding scenery, we reached the Los Libertadores tunnel which took us under the mountains and into Chile. Just when we thought the scenery couldn't get better, it did. As we exited the tunnel, a brilliant snowy wonderland awaited us. On all sides, massive snow-covered peaks towered above us, their rock faces glistening in the sun. We could see waterfalls, streams, huge snow packs and the tips of glaciers. OMG factor: 9+. We soon arrived at the border checkpoint. We got off the bus and just gaped at the scenery - I think we must've been at about 3,000m high but it wasn't cold. There was a massive queue of cars and buses - the Chilean customs are very strict: everything is searched - and after about half an hour, we were ushered into a large hangar-like immigrations/customs building. We got into lines for the exit stamp from the Argentinian authorities, then an entry stamp from the Chileans. When the passports were done, we had to stand in another line, this time opposite the bus where all the luggage had been offloaded. Several officers came around to collect our customs forms, then two (adorable) sniffer dogs were led past each and every piece of luggage. When they were done, we were instructed to put our hand-luggage on the benches in front of us. The dogs came by again, sniffing every square inch. The whole immigrations/customs procedure lasted about an hour. When that was done, we were allowed back into the bus and we continued on our journey to Valparaiso. The Chilean side of the Andes was very different: there was a lot more snow and while the ascent on the Argentinian side was quite gradual, the descent on the Chilean side was steep. The road curled its way precariously down the mountainside, with each hairpin bend (and there were many of them) drawing 'ooohs' and 'aaahhs' from the passengers. Phenomenal stuff. We caught glimpses of Mount Aconcagua (at 6,960m, the Americas' highest peak) as we descended into the Aconcagua Valley. From here, it was a smooth drive, basically following the path of the impressive rapids of the Aconcagua river. The valley opened out into a broad plain as we left the mountains behind us. The scenery (vineyards and orchards) looked familiar - we'd visited this area during our wine tour on our first visit to Santiago several weeks earlier. The bus continued through the plain and over the low coastal cordillera (mountain range) and after 7.5 hours, we finally reached the Pacific Ocean!

The bus made a quick stop at Vina del Mar, a popular seaside resort, before continuing to Valparaiso which is just a few kilometers down the coast from Vina. From Valpo's bus terminal, we took a taxi to our hotel: Robinson Crusoe Inn. This inn certainly deserves a mention. Perched on a hillside (Cerro Bellavista), the inn boasts a truly breathtaking view of the city, the port and the ocean from its rooftop terrace. The interior of the inn, with its eclectic collection of French, Spanish and Portuguese-style furniture and maritime-themed ornaments, is to say the least....bizarre. We just looked around in amazement as we were led up the creaky wooden stairs to our room, which turned out to be extremely small and jam-packed with classical furniture (once our bags were in the room, there was almost no space for us to move around, and having a shower was an exercise in precision as making a wrong move or turn could result in a bruised head!), and incredibly quirky (the bathroom window opened out to the main staircase that led to the restaurant so it had to be closed at all times). That evening, we were cordially informed that most restaurants in Valparaiso were closed (it's Sunday!) and that our best bet was a small restaurant in another neighbourhood (Cerro Alegre). Exhausted by the trip behind us, we had no choice but to (grumpily) pick ourselves up and head out again. The fresh ocean breeze lifted our spirits as we clambered down the hill. We surveyed the neighbourhood and the brightly coloured houses cheered us up. After several minutes, I thought, this town is just gorgeous. Valparaiso is built on several hills that face the ocean, hugging the bay like an amphitheatre. The first thing that struck us were the colours. Valpo is one of the most colourful towns I've ever seen. The houses cling to the steep slopes of the hills and are painted in bright colours (in various hues of red, blue, yellow, orange and purple). In addition, many walls are adorned with fascinating murals that are a kaleidoscope of colour. The hills are indeed steep and a whole network of stairs link the various neighbourhoods. There is an easier way to navigate the hills: the many funicular railways. These were built in the 19th century and are still in operation. Anyway, we made it down the Bellavista hill to the narrow (but flat) strip of (reclaimed) land that is now the town's administrative and commercial area. This flat strip connects all the hills and it's often easier (if you're going from one hill to another) to go down to this area, walk to the next hill, then take the funicular up. From here, we made our way to Cerro Alegre and easily found the restaurant, Poblenou, and yes, it was open (and the hotel manager was right: EVERYTHING ELSE was closed!). It was a small, cosy place owned by a friendly (here we go again)..... Dutch girl called Anke! We ordered a lovely Chilean Merlot and some tapas (which were very good). The Merlot went down very well too - I have to say, we found Argentinian wines great. However, Chilean wines are just outstanding. Anke later introduced us to some friends of her's (from Belgium; who also live in Valpo) and we had a lively conversation about why we think Chilean wines have that edge.

The next day, we went for a long walk through some of the town's most colourful neighbourhoods. We first took the funicular down from Cerro Bellavista (it was a fantastic ride. Really, everything shakes and shudders on those things) to the flat strip where we visited the cathedral and the town square which is adorned with massive fig trees, palms and gorgeous fountains. We then walked along this strip and took the funicular up to our next hill, Cerro Conception. Cerro Conception and the adjoining Cerro Alegre are simply gorgeous. The colours of the houses are just electric while the sleepy, tree-lined, cobblestone streets with their many wall murals are wonderfully atmospheric. I just loved the murals. There are a countless number of themes: socio-political, historic, sexual, scenes of Valpo, while some were just decoration. Walls are the predominant surface used but I spotted some smaller works of art on the backs of street signs, streetlights, balustrades and even ordinary rocks on the road. We stopped for a 'coffee with a view' at the Brighton Hotel, a cute bright-orangy/yellow house that's perched precariously on the hillside. We strolled around both neighbourhoods for several hours just soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the panoramas from the various viewpoints. We had lunch at a fantastic restaurant: Cafe Turri, which also came with a fabulous view of the city and the harbour. There we had probably one of the best meals of our trip through South America. Frits ordered a super-fresh swordfish filet while I had the most mind-blowing scallops and prawns (lightly flambed with whisky and drizzled with cumin) EVER!! OMG factor: 10! And the Montes Alpha Sauvignon Blanc that accompanied the meal was simply divine. After that very leisurely lunch, we took the funicular down and explored the port district - Valpo is Chile's main port. Along the way, I decided to get my sneakers polished by one of the many shoe-polish guys on the street. It looked like fun, sitting in that high chair, and my sneakers did look filthy. It was my first time and it certainly was a novel experience. As for my sneakers, well they're shiny now but they're basically ruined - too much brown polish! :-( From there, we took Valpo's longest funicular to Cerro Artilleria where there's a fantastic viewpoint of the city and the port. The Naval Museum is there as well but it was closed - for some weird reason, all museums in Chile (and there are no exceptions) are closed on Mondays!

We left Valpo the next day. We took a taxi to the airport in Santiago where I said goodbye to Frits. Gosh, those five weeks have just whizzed by! He's returned to Amsterdam and I'm a solo traveller again. From the airport, I made my way into Santiago where I'm staying for three nights. I chose a different neighbourhood this time: Bellavista (we stayed in Providencia the last time). Bellavista is the bohemian district of Santiago. It is indeed. Its streets are just crammed with restaurants, bars, clubs, cafes, art shops, studios, markets, you name it! On my first night, I stayed up till 3am with a group of Obama supporters in the hotel cafe watching the US election results unfold. Everyone was incredibly excited as the night wore on. There was also a sense of awe and a realisation that we were seeing something historic. Quite memorable.

I was led on a wild-goose chase yesterday: I have another Andean crossing, this time in the north of Chile from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta in Argentina. I've heard from many people that it's best to purchase this particular bus ticket as early as possible as there are only a few departures each week and the buses fill up rather quickly. I asked around at the hotel reception and they called the bus company here and the person on the line told her that it is possible to buy the ticket in Santiago and that I should go to their office at the bus terminal. I got the address of the terminal from the receptionist and got there within an hour by metro. At the office, they said (contrary to what they told the receptionist) that 1. they don't do that particular route (San Pedro to Salta) but Calama to Salta (Calama is located more than 100km away from San Pedro); and 2. I should buy the ticket in Calama or San Pedro. Great! Anyway, I made my way back to the centre of Santiago and spent the afternoon walking around the city. In the evening, I explored the Bellavista neighbourhood and it really is a vibrant, 'happening' place. The streets are just packed with terraces where you can sit and have something to drink or eat. Loads of interesting restaurants here too. I went to one called La Boheme and had an excellent mahi mahi steak with a garlic dressing.

This morning, I met up with Lize (an elderly Dutch lady who's travelling around South America on her own, and whom I met at the hotel on my first day) and we went for a stroll around the neighbourhood. By day, Bellavista is somewhat like Valpo, with its brightly-coloured houses and murals. We found a gorgeous, shady little square and sat there for three hours! Gosh, she can talk! We then took a bus up the Cerro San Cristobal (the highest hill in Santiago) where we had an amazing view of the city and the surrounding mountains - it really is a huge city (there are 6 million people living here) with a massive sprawl. Up on the hill was a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary looking out over the city. We then took another bus down and found another terrace where we had a nice cold beer (it really is warm and rather humid here during the day - the evenings are cool). That evening, we went to a lovely Chilean restaurant opposite our hotel and had a fantastic five-hour dinner filled with tapas, wine, tiramisu and great conversation.

Anyway, I fly off to Calama in the north of Chile for my desert adventure tomorrow morning. From there, I have to take a bus to San Pedro where I'll be staying for 4-5 nights. That should be very interesting.

Till my next blog.

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