Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Chile III - Valparaiso

Valparaiso "The Jewel of the Pacific"
Valparaiso, thirteen hours by bus from La Serena, has to be one of the most colourful, fascinating and lovable cities I have ever come across. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it was also one of the busiest and richest in South America as every ship that sailed between the Atlantic and the Pacific was obliged to call in.

Victim of history -this luxury hotel intended to be the grandest in South America was almost completed when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. It fell into decay as the city's fortunes faded
 It was also very international with immigrants flooding in especially from from Italy, Ireland, England and Germany. They and their descendants are commemorated in many streets and monuments in this city and elsewhere. Bernado O'Higgins for example, and his friend Mackenna were of Irish descent and prominent in achieving independence from Spain in 1818. Arturo Prat who stands at the head of Sotomayer Plaza was a naval hero and most likely of Catalan descent, as was Manuel Montt who became the first civilian president of Chile. Valparaiso also had the first bank, the  first newspaper "El Mercure" which still publishes today, the first telegraph, the first running water, trams, the first street lights and and the first telephones.
It also had the first fire brigade  - still a voluntary organisation. However, each country protected its own. Thus there is a German Fire Brigade, an American one and even one funded by the King of Belgium. The volunteer status created considerable controversy recently when a huge fire broke out in April 2014, ravaging three of the hills and leaving around 11,000 people homeless and fifteen dead.


Valparaiso is built over forty -seven hills (more or less depending on whom you consult) and each neighbourhood has its own character. Indeed, residents identify themselves by the hill or "cerro" on which they live and regard outsiders with suspicion. The whole town is made up of narrow alleys and stairways which definitely favour (fit) pedestrians. However it also has a unique system of "Ascensors" steep funiculars to help those less able or inclined to get back up. The first of these dates from 1883. Originally there were around 35 of these, but only 19 are still in use. The World  Heritage Commission now recognises them as World Monuments. Indeed, since 2003, the whole town has been declared a World Heritage Site because of its wonderful improvised and original buildings.

Ascensor- El Perla from memory. As one car comes down, another comes up. 

It's a long way to the top but better than walking, and cheap too
I gleaned most of this information and much more during a three hour Tours for Tips walk with Wallies, Melissa and Priscilla. On the way, they introduced us to all the resident stray dogs which accompanied us on different sections of the walk. We also enjoyed some taste treats such as homemade chocolate covered biscuits with caramel inside and a local drink made from fruit and possibly white wine, most likely Ponche since I had some difficulty finding my way back. I should have taken notes. In between we rambled up and down the lanes and over the boardwalks, hearing about the history and admiring the excellent graffiti, often by very famous artists. Valparaiso is the Graffiti Capital of the world.

Up the stairs and alleys 
Small Graffiti....

... house size graffiti

Larger still....
Supersized -  both the above are by Stgo who also has large examples in Santiago
I could have filled my entire memory card with fabulous street art. There are several sites on the web devoted to it, but if you want to know how it evolved this one, offers some insights. They do have competitions every year. But Valparaiso doesn't limit itself to graffiti. Performing Arts are everywhere too. Just coming from the bus station in a taxi and waiting for a traffic light to change, there was a fire juggler working the intersection. Beats the usual windscreen washers!

Buskers were everywhere too
And why is Valparaiso so colourful? When I asked Melissa she said that because most of the original buildings were made of  adobe, scrap tin used as ballast in ships was used to protect them from the salty sea air. However, the tin rusted quickly for the same reason, so odds and ends of paint left over from the shipyards were used to protect the tin.
Melissa, one of the guides
The adobe houses still survive earthquakes better than those of other materials, important in a place that experiences catastrophic earthquakes from time to time. The last big one, 8.8 on the Richter scale, was in February 2010. There was even one on the first night that I was there -a  mere 6.5. The hostel was in an old building in an old part of town - Cerro Allegre (meaning "lively") where the sailors used to go. Some time after I had gone to bed the walls rattled and the building shook. No one moved. Nor were there any orders to evacuate so I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I didn't even notice the 5.5 aftershocks.  

Allende, the world's first socialist president is remembered too
Valparaiso also remembers his friend  -poet and diplomat, Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize in 1971. I visited "La Sebastiana " one of his three houses (the others are in Santiago and Isla Negra) which is now a museum.  It was certainly original and full of eccentricities, especially the bathroom in the bar. I didn't think you were allowed to take pictures so click on the site for more. What I can tell you is that while almost every house in Valparaiso has sea views, Naruda's house has them from all of its five floors. 
I also took a tour around the harbour on one of the old boats. There were some lovely views of the town from here too and also of a sea lion.
Down at the harbour - former fishing boats are available for harbour cruises

Nosy Sea Lion
Sotomayer Plaza- the glass box building on the left was the catalyst for World Heritage listing
The town was virtually blackmailed into allowing this black box (yes, it is actually black) to be built on top of one of its historic buildings. It caused such an uproar among the citizens that UNESCO intervention was sought and World Heritage listing was granted in 2003.

One of several impressive Navy buildings on the same square
Melissa  and Priscilla and the dogs (they know them all by name and I thought they were theirs until they  treated the other dogs on our route with the same familiarity and affection) also showed us where to get the best food and drinks, especially cakes, icecream and freshly made juices. 

Apart from a few ethnic restaurants and the many Chifas (Chinese restaurants) most of the fare was rather similar throughout Chile - the usual gringo food - hamburgers, pizza and pasta, or Chicken, Trout, or Loma Saltada (Beef stew) and the thick casoulet (a sort of meat and vegetable stew which I enjoyed often), Ceviche  which contains raw fish, which I didn't want to risk in most cases (at least I didn't once have an upset stomach either) and of course Empanadas, among the local foods, and I began to realise how much more interesting and varied our diet is by comparison. I blame our own immigrants for this and our proximity to Asia. (Please don't say the word 'fusion'  - it makes me puke). They do do a nice grilled steak in some places in Chile and it is possible to order salad or veg as extras, but these make an expensive meal beyond the reach of most backpackers. 

I had  planned to report on the night life and especially the music - both said to be good, but unfortunately my 'date' stood me up - hope you are reading this, and it didn't happen. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Chile II - La Serena and the Valley of Delight

The road from San Pedro to La Serena

First let me say Chile is huge - not wide mind you, it's only 350 kilometres across its widest part and 4,300 km long according to wiki, sandwiched as it is between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, and you have to cover a lot of miles before there is much change in the scenery. I had hoped to break this journey, but the main industry here is mining, including the biggest copper mine in the world, so accommodation was at a premium and I ended up having to go straight through to La Serena, about 1156 kilometres away and twenty -one long hours by bus. Most of the way the landscape looked like the picture above, but as we came down a long pass towards the coast the vegetation began to change to scrub and cacti.  In summer La Serena is a very busy seaside town, but at this time of year it was rather quiet.


Greening up -seen from the bus 
I wasn't all that excited about the the hostel I had chosen. When I arrived the owner charged me the equivalent of $120, instead of twelve. As I'd been travelling all night and wasn't used to dealing in currency with zillions of zeros at the end, I didn't even notice until later when I went to pay for something else.  Of course he returned the money when I complained and he also told me where to find cheap local food, but I'm sure he wouldn't have if I hadn't mentioned it. My room was  freezing too because it only had a screen instead of glass in the window and this opened onto the kitchen below. I shouldn't complain. Many of the hostels I stayed in especially in Bolivia, had no ventilation at all. Mostly though, I missed the warmth and friendliness of San Pedro.
After spending some time at the local market which had a greater variety of food than I had seen for ages and buying lots of dried fruit and nuts, I spent a day meandering through the nearby Elqui Valley on the local buses. The road was called Via D' Estrella -The Way of Stars because there are several observatories in this area. Clear skies, the absence of pollution - light or otherwise, and three hundred days of sunshine a year, make it an excellent place to study the stars. They also have a Valley of the Moon here, but I missed that as well. The rest of the valley was greener and quite remarkable with picturesque towns and hundreds of vineyards growing right to the edges of the barren slopes. It was a shame the grape vines were not in leaf or it would have been even more striking.

The home of Pisco, the national drink - the darker browns in the base of the valley are the grape vines
 This is where most of Chile's Pisco (grape brandy) is grown and made. There are several distilleries in the area and many of them have tastings and tours, although none seemed to be doing them on the day I was there. This is the off season. To make the drink, sugar, egg -white and lime are added. You can also use other fruit such as passionfruit.
The little towns along the way were  attractive too.  At the place where I had to change buses (it may have been Vicuna, since I can't find any others on the Google map), there was a lovely plaza with street stalls and sculptures and very unusual architecture. It seemed to me that people were very creative here.

One of several interesting buildings in Vicuna? It is now a craft gallery - not sure what it was.

Some of the artwork in the Plaza

Even the stray dogs* were artistically arranged
[* note: they are much sleeker and healthier than those in Bolivia]

Vicuna was Gabriela Mistral's birthplace, although there is a museum to her memory in the house where she lived at Monte Grande, just before Pisco Elqui a little further on. She was a poet, diplomat and educator who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, the first Latin American to do so and she is still their only female Laureate. When she died in 1957, three days of national mourning were declared and hundreds of thousands of people came to pay their respects. She is still fondly remembered today. A giant statue of her stands in the street in Monte Grande where she is buried (although she died in the U.S.A.) and the school there is named after her as is the Cultural Centre in Santiago and many other places. I specially looked her up because I wondered what all the fuss was about. For more about her life and poetry, click on the link below. South Americans do value their poets and writers. Perhaps these words inscribed on her tomb and taken from her poetry explain why:

What the soul is to the body, so is the artist to his people,”



Pisco Elqui at the end of the road was also a pleasant surprise. There was a neat church behind a shaded plaza and there were some nice looking restaurants, but what I found endearing was the way the modest little houses had been decorated with paint, bits of mirror and a few plants which gave the place a certain character.The setting with those mountains directly behind them made it all look rather surreal.


Detail on a house -doing a lot with a little
The Elqui Valley is also said to be a spiritual place. In the sixties New Agers flocked to the valley, believing it to be the new magnetic centre of the Earth and several communes were established. At least one of these still exists and indeed, according to one report, when NASA began studying the earth using satellites, the area was found to have high magnetic readings. It was also associated with spiritual practises among earlier cultures. I thought it would be an interesting place to have a Tarot reading. Unfortunately, while a number of alternative therapies such as Reiki and Yoga were advertised, along with herbal products and Tarot readers, I couldn't find a Tarot reader who spoke English. In fact, I had great difficulty finding one at all, but in this case the journey was more important than the destination. It was such a beautiful day and perhaps I did absorb some of that cosmic energy after all. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Chile I - San Pedro de Atacama

Dawn breaks over the El Tatio Geyser field
San Pedro de Atacama has to be one of my favourite small towns, not the least because there's nothing for hundreds of miles, except for volcanoes that is - twenty - eight to be exact, although only one is active. The town itself is a charming mix of simple adobe structures and cobbled streets.  Once a way station for cattle drives to the coast, tourism is now the main reason for its existence and they flock here in droves, not always to the delight of the locals.

The village of San Pedro

Even the furniture in the hostel was made of pise
For the most part though, Chileans are warm and friendly. I got more hugs in my month here than I'd had in the last seven years. Yes, it's expensive and they do take your money, but at least they do it with a smile.

During the day it was warm enough for the men to take their shirts off and most of my fellow hostellers wore shorts, but as soon as the sun set it was very cold. The hostel solved this problem by having fire pits in the garden on most nights so that people could enjoy being outside under the stars. It is an excellent place for stargazing.

A number of tours begin here including those going to the salt lakes. My first was to the Valle de La Luna here (there's one in Argentina too, as well as the one in La Paz). The stark landscape was created by salt, most of which is composed of lithium - the largest deposit in the world. Some say that the reason the town is so laid back is because of the lithium in the water. The valley covers a huge area and is full of bizarre rock formations, caverns and a few stalactites formed in same way as in limestone. Occasionally you can hear the rocks crack and there will be a minor landslip as salt  and moisture find fissures in the rock and expand and contract with the dramatic temperature changes between day and night. If you want to get a better idea, click here.

Chile's Valley of the Moon
Once a ceremonial site, its dunes are now popular with sand boarders. It is also said that Pink Floyd once performed "Dark side of The Moon" here.

My second excursion was to the El Tatio Geyser field about 90 kilometres from San Pedro. Because the geysers are at their best early in the morning, this necessitated another chilly 4 a.m. start. They were also  4,300m above sea level so we were advised to wear very warm clothing and not to partake of alcohol, meat or tobacco the night before. This was a shame since the hostel was having a barbecue that night with lots of free drinks.
This is the third largest geothermal field in the world and most certainly the highest. Everywhere geysers hissed, gurgled and bubbled. Bigger ones sent clouds of steam into the skies while smaller ones burped and chuckled. You can hear a bit of it here:


 I couldn't press the shutter on my camera with the ski gloves on, so I briefly took them off. My hands practically snap froze. Now I couldn't press the shutter because my fingers were completely numb. After retreating to the mini van and its heater, it still took at least ten minutes before I had any feeling in my hands and the pain was unbearable. Meanwhile people were stripping off for a dip in the thermal baths. I couldn't bear the thought of taking anything off at all.

Steam rises, fumaroles hiss and blubber and hot water surges out of the earth
Nice touch - breakfast of hot chocolate with chocolate biscuits
Unfortunately there is now interest in starting a geothermal power station here which may threaten the tourism value of the field. The guide said that just the exploratory drilling has caused the geysers to drop in height.  While the region may not seem very hospitable to wildlife, we did see one of the small local foxes. I think it was the Viscacha, a relative of the chinchilla. These do not run away when spotted but obligingly sit very still. There were also vicunas (other relatives of the Alpaca) on the grassier slopes further down. These were almost extinct thirty years ago, but a vigorous protection program on the part of the Chilean government has enabled them to recover and thrive.
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Little fox near the geyser field seen through the windows of the van
Vicunas grazing on the plain
We stopped briefly at the remains of ancient stone shelters used by nomadic herders in times past and  also at a frozen lake, - a bird sanctuary, where the birds waited expectantly, hoping for the ice to thaw, so that they could eat. We did our best to break the ice by throwing stones but with little success. We then stopped at the small village of Machuca which once lived from mining sulphur, and had been abandoned but now provides lunch to tourists. Although the smell of skewers of alpaca being grilled was tempting I had a cheese empanada which the guide recommended. It was freshly made and had the crispest lightest pastry I had tasted either before or after.
Walking up the hill to the little church, I noticed that each of the small neat houses had solar panels on its roof. It was sort of Stone Age meets the future without the Industrial Age, power poles and centralised power stations in between.

Little Church in Machuca