Sunday, November 30, 2014

Chile VI - Santiago - The Last Chapter

Dark History -Palacio de la Moneda - The Presidential Palace - Santiago
I was rather dreading a city of six million people but it proved to be quite interesting with lots of parks, fine buildings and  wide tree -lined avenues. It also ranks third in  South America when it comes to air pollution. This is partly due to its geography, lying in a basin with the Andes behind it, but also because it has more cars than any other city in Chile.
It also has more stray dogs per head of population than any other city though it is hard to get a figure on this.
Unlike the dogs in Bolivia, these dogs are sleek and well fed and better looked after than many a homeless person. They have kennels in the parks and little coats to wear in winter. Chileans and probably South Americans in general do not believe in de -sexing their animals - not even the strays and there was a public outcry when the local authorities put three of them down. Instead, everyone feels obliged to feed them, pat them and look after them, should one attach itself to their person.
You learn all these wonderful tidbits by taking a Tour for Tips rather like the one I did in Valparaiso. This one was led by Lisette and Matthais. We looked at several splendid churches and public buildings including the huge Cathedral in the centre of town which was in the process of being rebuilt for the seventh time after a major earthquake. As in La Paz, while the Presidential Palace has been restored, at least one of the surrounding buildings still bears bullet holes from the 1973 military coup. Although an independent tribunal last year confirmed that Allende committed suicide, how he could have achieved that with an AK 47 remains a mystery. Despite all the evils perpetrated under Pinochet's regime - the suppression of dissent, the 3,000 disappeared or missing and the 200,000 driven into exile, 46% of the population still voted for him when elections were finally held after seventeen years of military dictatorship. The reason given was that he brought economic stability to the country, though no doubt as far as the rich were concerned he effectively stopped their land being redistributed to the poor. Chile remains very conservative. It is still a highly stratified society with education only for the wealthy. Divorce and abortion are still illegal  and so is gay marriage, although these issues are now being debated. It is also somewhat racist in that the lighter your skin and your eyes, the more chance you have to succeed. People count their blessings. No one talks politics.

A glimpse of the ornate statuary and stained glass inside the Metropolitan Cathedral
On a lighter note we also called at a cafe with legs - something quite original and unique to Santiago. Coffee, easily grown in South America was introduced  in the 1920's to displace imported English tea, but to attract the attention of  the elite they had it served by underclad waitresses in special coffee shops in the business district. Some of these still exist today (see below) but I was chased out of this one as soon as I pulled out my camera. It is said that President Clinton rather enjoyed his visit to one of these while bored during an
official visit. Inside the ladies wore red bikinis or only the bottoms in one case and rumour has it that at least once a day they take those off too, though the time is never specified. Guaranteed to keep hot blooded Chilean males keep coming back for their caffeine.

One of the the other highlights of my tour was an ice cream tasting. There are hundreds of ice cream shops  all over Chile as Chileans eat 7-8 kilograms of the stuff per head each year regardless of the season. The difference with this particular shop was that it was voted 25th in the whole world. Salted caramel was delicious, but having had caramel on almost everything for months, I was a bit caramelled out. Chocolate chilli was nice too, but in the end I had the house specialty - rose petal ice cream, before making my way to a very crowded peak hour subway. Three trains went by before I could squeeze on and even then the doors wouldn't close because a lady's handbag was caught between them. They do not have pushers as in Japan, but they do have ladies to make sure that you don't get pushed off the platform into the path of onrushing trains.
Another highlight was an impromptu dance performance at the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre. This was built by Allende in 1972 with physical assistance from the people of Santiago but later appropriated by Pinochet to house the Ministry of Defence. It seems very fitting that it has been returned to the people and is now used for all kinds of performing arts activities.

Along the way we also heard about Chile's indigenous people, the Mapuche who make up about 4.6% of the population about half of whom live around Santiago while the remainder live mostly around central Chile where they work in agriculture and forestry. Although not well treated in the past, the government is now seeking to redress this and their language, once banned, is now being taught in schools.   

It was a hard choice
Public displays of affection are common, mostly for the same reason as in Russia. Accommodation and privacy are hard to come by, especially for young people so parks are one of the few places where young lovers can get together. One of the guides assured me that a good proportion of the local population was conceived there. There is certainly no necking allowed in the churches.The sign below says so.

Love in the park
Tolerance for public displays of affection does not extend to the Cathedral
I spent my last few days in a hostel which had a lovely courtyard, great breakfast, a bar and a pool. It may have been a monastery as it had high vaulted ceilings, but it certainly wasn't one now. And so ended my South American Odyssey for the time being at  least. This is a vast continent and there are many areas which I haven't seen including the Amazon and the entire east coast - Brazil, Argentina and all those smaller countries in between. I carefully avoided Brazil because of the World Cup. It was mad enough in the countries I did visit. Loved the amazing countryside - the Andes, the rainforests, the volcanoes-  and the friendliness of the people. Many thanks to those who made my time there special and helped me out when I was linguistically or otherwise challenged.
Muchas gracias mes amigos and amigas!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Chile V - Chasing Volcanoes 2

Yay! I'm back. Apologies for the long delay between posts. My computer suffered a nervous breakdown after I loaded up the 2,000 photos I took. It has now been restored to prime condition (thanks Clu) and has stopped saying weird things like" would you like to change the colour scheme" or interminably trying to install update 1 of 1 whenever I log on so the story continues....

More awesome Waterfalls
From Pucon I ventured south to Puerto Varas in Patagonia where there were said to be more volcanoes and more waterfalls.  Alas, it also had real West Coast rain - it rains 200 days a year there -and was freezing cold. There was no breakfast and as it was Sunday everything was closed. Ended up eating half a stale lukewarm empanada with a slightly off filling for lunch followed by some of my packaged soup. There was still a lot of soup mix left and a few carrots, so I offered to make soup for everyone in the hostel that night. This proved to be an excellent idea as other hostellers added  potatoes, onions, zucchini and garlic to the pot making it much more substantial and more than enough for everyone. People also shared pasta and salad they had made so a good night was had by all.
As the morning looked pleasant and sunny I took the mini bus to the Petrohue National Park near Volcan Orsorno. A  charming schoolboy who sat next me shared his chips and carried on an animated conversation in Spanish.  I couldn't understand much of what he said and he couldn't understand what I was saying either but we had a pleasant journey and the chips, delicately fried and topped with chilli, mustard and avocado dip, were probably the best I have ever tasted.

My companion on the road

Although we could see the volcano all the way until we got there, it abruptly vanished behind a cloud when I got off the bus but the waterfalls and the majestic lake and mountain scenery more made up for it. Though not very high, these waterfalls were very numerous and powerful.

Volcan Orsorno visible from the bus

Feel the Power! Petrohue has dozens of waterfalls like this

And the setting amid mountains and rainforest is spectacular too

By the time I got back to the hostel it was cold and overcast again, but the charming French girl who ran it  made some pancakes with caramel (everything is with caramel in Chile - they have it like Nutella on their toast) and at five on the dot she peddalled off on her bike carrying a large guitar or cello on her back - very French. The service was very French too. After that we were left alone except for a very large dog which occupied one of the chairs and stared balefully at everyone as they came up the stairs. The telephone rang, people knocked at the door and the gas heaters went out (perhaps that's why we were treated to pancakes), but all to no avail.
Up to this point, I was still toying with the idea of going further south but as I froze even in my thermals, the idea quickly lost its appeal. Instead, I headed towards Frutillar which is notable for its German style architecture and cakes. In fact they have an annual Kuchen competition here and places have names like Salzburg Hotel, Austria and Frau Holle (Restaurant and B and B). I was very curious about this. Apparently around 6000 Germans settled in the region between 1846 and 1875, initially under a private scheme but then with government support as the country feared neo- imperialist claims by European powers in the post Spanish era. For their part, German immigrants were influenced by a series of Revolutions that began to rock Germany in 1848. Apart from their influence on the culture and cuisine, their most notable contribution appears to be the large Kunstmann brewery in Valdivia. My main interest however, was that the tourist brochures promised a view of not one but two volcanoes hovering over the lake. I sat by the lake for many hours waiting for the clouds to lift but once again Orsono remained elusive and so did its mate, presumably Volcan Cabulco.

Waiting for the clouds to lift in Frutillar
   Drove around for a while visiting some of the other towns around Lake Llanquihue such as Puerto Octay and  Puerto Montt which also promised views of volcanoes but no luck there either. Eventually I ended up at Valdivia an old Spanish Fort town famous for its seafood and the aforementioned brewery, neither of which did much for me. Did have a nice time in the hostel though. Two lovely Santiagans Sebastian and Christian, both physics teachers, not only shared their pizza with me and a Korean hosteller Min, who just happened to have a bottle of Pisco Sour, but they took me to one of the local nightclubs for a bit of local culture. I was very grateful as I hadn't had a chance to experience the famed nightlife or listen to the local music. Unfortunately, much of the satire was lost on me, but I'm sure it was very good. I really enjoyed the strawberry Pina Colada they shouted me too.

Another recommended spot for volcano lovers was near Temuco north of Pucon, on the way back towards Santiago which was starting to loom large on my horizon being my last stop before returning to Oz.  This was almost a disaster as there were no hostels and I paid far too much for a bed in a draughty old  hotel in a fairly depressing town. This didn't include breakfast and the shower was cold too though the landlady was quite nice. "Frozen pipes," she told me with a smile and did bring me hot water for my coffee. With that I headed off to Parque Nacional Conguillio about 80 Km east. This being the off season much of the park was closed and I only glimpsed the volcano in the distance before catching the bus again.

The last Volcano  -Volcan Llaima  3125m seen from Mellipeuco
   I still had five days before my flight out and nothing was as spectacular as the sight of Villarica in Pucon. I also missed the warmth (physical) and friendliness of the hostel there though I was tempted to spend a few days in Argentina being so close to the border. It did however necessitate an expensive reciprocal fee for Australians and Americans so I reluctantly gave that a miss. Unfortunately the weather was dismal this time  so I did little more than read and do laundry before catching the 12 hour bus to Santiago but the welcome was warm and it was very relaxing and  both the town and the hostel still had that pleasant buzz without being outrageously expensive. Thanks Pablo for the lovely room and for keeping the home fires burning.

I never did find out whether the wattle trees were imported or native to Chile also

Chile IV - Chasing Volcanoes (around Pucon)

Postcard from Pucon


I arrived in Pucon in the dark - how could I resist a hostel named La Princessa Insolente. When I woke up I was amazed to find a volcano smoking gently at the end of the street.
Pucon is a small resort town in the Lakes District, around 860 km and 16 hours from Valparaiso. It  not only has a volcano but a huge lake and is is surrounded by national parks. It is very popular with Chileans and other tourists alike.

In no time at all, I found myself shuffled onto a mini bus heading to the base of the volcano and the beginner ski slopes. As I left the bus I was handed this flat plastic thing shaped almost like a frying pan with a handle sticking out at one end. The others grabbed ski gear and snowboards and we all looked like Michelin men in the borrowed clothing.
As it happened I may have had the best deal of all. Most of the other passengers were still stuck at the ski lift or the ticket booth for the entire two hours we spent there, while I had fun tentatively sliding then hurtling down the children's toboggan run on my "frying pan." I'm not sure if my children would have been proud of me or embarrassed. It certainly wouldn't have hurt to corral one or two of the children so I'd have an excuse for being there -there were several parents and grandparents on the slope, but at least I didn't knock any of them over.

Toboggan run


Other hostellers were going white water rafting the next day, but as a friend of a friend said, "It's a bit like having a series of motor bike accidents over and over again." Besides, I have an aversion to getting wet, so I thought I might try horse riding to one of the many waterfalls, but that was another one of those things where they had to have a minimum number of people before they would do the tour. Instead, I went by mini bus to one of the National Parks where I did a little walking and saw a spectacular waterfall on foot. My waterfall shots are very disappointing. They all look really drab and you can't tell how high they were, or how beautiful the surroundings were. In fact, except for the volcanoes it was a lot like our west coast - superb reflections on the lake, ferns and mosses and even many similar species - Northofagus - the deciduous beech, myrtles and one that looked and smelled exactly like our sassafrass (Tepa) but didn't taste the same. Ours tastes like spearmint chewing gum and the bushmen use it so stop themselves getting thirsty in the bush.  As one of my sons said, " I bet the ranger was amazed to see you sampling their trees."
These are the temperate rainforest plants (now rare) and one of the proofs that the Southern continents were once joined as Gondwana 85 million years ago.

Beautiful lakes, waterfalls and vegetation just like Tasmania, except for the active volcanoes

It looked just like the West Coast
 There were also more Blue Gums in plantations (our floral emblem) than we have left in the whole of our state.

Chile does of course have a few species of its own - the Auracaria or monkey puzzle tree for example,  (not unlike the Norfolk pine), which is Chile's national tree. There is also a kind of bamboo -like plant although it's solid and not hollow inside like bamboo. No doubt there are many more, but it looked so like home, especially with the wattles in bloom along the way and small farms beseiged by blackberry, gorse and wild roses, just like they are here, that I was almost homesick. I was a little slow getting back to the bus stop for the last bus back to town - stopped to have a coffee at a little stand, but luckily three friendly women who were visiting the area, asked me if I would like a lift back up in the car for the last kilometre or so up hill. Very nice timing.

The next day I dragged myself to the bus stop for the early morning bus to Puerto Varas. Unfortunately it had either already left or there were no seats left and the next one wasn't leaving until four thirty. It was beautiful mild weather - not bad for a winter's day and there were still quite a few waterfalls in the area that I hadn't seen, so off I went on another mini bus again, hoping to see some of these.
I waited a while at a bus shelter on the Argentina road, but since no buses seemed to be forthcoming, I eventually stuck my thumb out. There were few cars and most were crowded, but a lovely couple gave me a lift  to the turn -off. Unfortunately, although the falls looked very close on my map, there were still ten kilometres to go from here. I would have walked it, but I was a bit worried about missing the afternoon bus so I walked but stuck out my thumb. Luckily a young Argentinian couple Lucas and Tamara and their dog Beepa who were going to the same place gave me a lift and we enjoyed the beautiful La Chine Falls together. Please note, you have to pay at all waterfalls in Chile.  This was in a kind of amphitheatre with several smaller falls as well. The young man in charge told me how to find the other ones, so I set off for the Salto Leon Fall, a few kilometres further on. Once again someone gave me a lift - a family in a red twin cab who squeezed me in the back with the children. We parted company at the Falls and I cheerily waved them goodbye.

Salto La Chine - one of several falls in a lovely setting


Since Lucas and Tamara planned to stay longer I started walking again. There were no cars now and I didn't dare detour to the third waterfall as I wasn't sure how far off the road it was. After about three or four kilometres with no cars in sight, lo and behold the red twin cab appeared although this time I had to ride in tray at the back. It was a bit bumpy, but as the old  German saying goes " besser schlecht gefahren als gut gelaufen." (Roughly translated, this means "better to have ridden badly than to have walked well)." I was certainly glad to see them. I had no sooner stepped out of their vehicle than another one pulled up and asked me if I needed a lift back to town which I really did by then.

The massive Salto Leon

I got absolutely drenched taking this picture

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.
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