Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Chile Feb 20, 2008

We left Buenos Aires in the middle of a heat wave, and were mighty glad to leave. Our “room” at the Alkimista Hostel wasn’t much more than a glorified closet with a small window opening out into a stifling airwell. The small fan we’d been given was barely adequate to move the air around and for a week we sweltered.

Our 22 hour trip west by bus took us through the Pampas of Argentina, across the Andes and into the capital of Chile, Santiago. The landscape was incredibly beautiful through the Andes, twisted rocks, switch back turns, small valleys all topped by snow capped peaks. Near the Chilean border we caught a glimpse of Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak of the Andes at 22,800 ft. above sea level. At the border we first lined up for the Argentine exit stamp, then the Chilean entry stamp then back onto the bus. There, we waited until finally customs had room for us. As we lined up the entire luggage was hauled off the bus, loaded onto a conveyer belt and passed through an x-ray machine. Then each of us was called forward to unlock our luggage so the customs people could paw through our underwear, shake each bag, etc. Our ostrich feathers were confiscated, for no clear reason; we repacked our bags and everything was reloaded onto the bus.

Down the other side of the Andes the road was much the same as going up. Some incredible switchbacks down the mountain. Because we went through a new tunnel, we missed seeing the “Christ of the Andes” the world famous statue which stands at the top of the old pass through the mountains. Finally we pulled into Santiago and unloaded our belongings into a taxi to the hostel, the Che Largato Hostel, conveniently located a block from the main street and the metro line, a block and a half from the supermarket, and several block from a large pedestrian street. The Hostel had once been a large single family dwelling with rooms on several floors, multiple bathrooms and a kitchen large enough to serve royalty. The reception desk was placed in what had been the garage for the horse and buggy. We walked around, Ted taking pictures of the park, the old buildings and more of the numerous statues of generals that dot all parks in South America. The most important of the generals was Bernardo O’Higgins, obviously of Irish descent, and the main street of Santiago is named for him. Another thing we’ve noticed about statues in South America is their love of Grecian and Roman statues. Even in very small towns, half clad women or Roman soldiers share space with statues of Romulus and Remus suckling or Generals of every war ever fought on the continent. But some of the names seem strange, General O’Higgins, Lord Cochran, not what I would expect in a South American country.

Though the city contains over 3 million people, it is not a particularly imposing or interesting place, seeming more like a small town. Buenos Aires it ain't.

Here began the mis-information that was to plague us for awhile. First we were told that rent paid in U.S. dollars would save us the 19% tax that Chileans had to pay. So we converted Chilean pesos to dollars. We later found out that was true only in Hostels and 5-star hotels. Then we found out that for budget hotels and guesthouses, Chilean pesos were needed, forcing us to buy pesos. Also, as of Dec 1, 2007, Bolivia requires a visa from U.S. citizens, at $100 U.S. dollars and a passport picture without glasses. All Ted’s photos have him in glasses. So we needed two one hundred dollar bills and a new photo. None of the banks here will change money for foreigners, so we had to rely on the money changers and we lost money on every conversion.

When we had arrived at the bus station we had checked our large suitcases into “Left Baggage” and needed to retrieve them before leaving for Valparaiso. Following the map we rode the metro to the bus terminal only to discover it was the wrong station. Asking directions, we boarded the metro again and backtracked to the second bus terminal in Santiago. Again it was the wrong station. Finally, across the street from bus terminal 2 we found terminal 3 and our luggage. Now we had to return to terminal 2 to catch our bus lugging all our suitcases (2 large ones, 2 small ones, Maria’s backpack, Ted’s camera bag, our laptop computer case, and at least one bag of various kinds of foodstuffs for use when the bus food was inedible.) By now, both of us were ready to abandon the large suitcases except they contain all our cold weather clothes. It was a temptation! Finally we found the correct terminal and platform for the bus to Valparaiso.

Valparaiso, one of the port cities of Chile, is a much smaller and less hurried city than Santiago. Here, rich Chilean families have summer homes built on the hills. In every direction the hills are covered with houses separated by narrow winding streets. There are sixteen “Ascensors” or small cable cars that transport citizens up the hills from the old city built at sea level. Visitors can ride up and back for free. They are quite the engineering marvel. The oldest dates from 1883 and the newest from 1916.

Our stay there was in a “guesthouse”, a lovely home built about 1910. Valparaiso suffered a severe earthquake in 1906 causing similar damage as in San Francisco, CA but didn’t get the press attention. Rebuilding, many of the old homes are similar to those built in San Francisco. The “El Rincon Marino” is one of those homes with the second floor now converted to rooms for rent. Big rooms, high ceilings, wooden floors, large windows looking out over the street and very comfortable beds.

We walked around following the main streets to the main square, the Sotomayor plaza lined by government buildings. One interspersing building of shinning glass was built inside of an old stone one, the multi-story rising above the single stone in a weird mixture of old and new. Again statues of famous generals. The next day we rode the metro a few miles north to Vina del Mar, a wealthy suburb of Valparaiso that reminded us of La Jolla, CA. Many shops, lovely park, good restaurants, lots of tourists, a very lovely little city. There Ted found a passport place and got his photo with no glasses. One large mall built on a spiral design had 17 different beauty parlors side by side. There may have been more but we didn’t feel like walking up the spiral to see. Another funny thing we saw in Chile is the outdoor telephone booths. Tiffany lamp shaped roofs set on poles. No place for Superman to change.

Returning to Valparaiso, we hauled our stuff to the bus terminal for our trip to Calama, high up in the Atacama Desert. A 22 hour ride through a high desert where absolutely nothing grows for hundreds of miles. Rain is measured in millimeters with many places not receiving any for years. Every once in awhile, there is a small patch with low tufts of grass but the whole place is completely devoid of green. Finally at Calama a small river runs through and some trees and grass grow.

Calama is an old city where the trains that transport copper from the mines can still be heard. A few years ago there had been a passenger train to the Bolivian border which ran several times a week but is now gone. Outside of the city, tour companies run tourists to the world’s largest copper mine but the real attraction is getting tourists to San Pedro de Atacama and the salt flats.

On Saturday before school starts we walked around. It seemed that everyone in town was out buying school uniforms and supplies. The pedestrian street was crowded with shoppers. And, as in Argentina, the number of babies in strollers or learning to walk is startling. Children seem to outnumber adults five to one.

We needed to buy some water and toilet paper. No matter how many blocks we walked, no SuperMarket. We did find a huge market similar to the ones in Asia where stalls offered everything from meat to car parts. Clothes, shoes, fruits, vegetables, cold weather clothes and swimming suits, but no water or toilet paper. However, there were at least 15 different pharmacies. The biggest thrill we had was a small earthquake which shook the town for about 2 seconds. Chile is extremely volcano and earthquake prone, but with a bit of luck, we’ll miss the big one.

After resting up for 2 days in Calama, an hour and a half short bus ride through part of Death Valley and the Valley of the Moon finally brought us to San Pedro de Atacama. Here, because of a fast running river, humans have been living for twelve thousand years. The Spaniards came in 1540 and found gold and copper in the surrounding area. By 1557 the small town had been made into a governmental hub for the surrounding area. In 1557 the first church was built and in 1997 it was made into a Historical Monument. The church at the town square is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in northern Chile. It is interesting because of its age and because the ceiling is covered with cactus wood.

Basically San Pedro de Atacama is a very small town with several dirt roads, adobe houses, some maybe centuries old, that have been converted into restaurants, hotels, shops and tour agencies. Tourists roam back and forth along the main street and sometimes down one or two of the few side streets. Hotels, hostels and camping places dot side streets. There are about four mini-markets and two ATM’s. Looking around we found one pharmacy but he doesn’t carry any drugs. Hope no one gets sick. Hotels range from 5 star type establishments to basic dormitory facilities and they are all over priced, but we had met some girls from London who turned us on to the Hostel Miskanty, a brand new place where we got a double room with a queen sized bed and private bath for only about $32. This was luxury; the first private bathroom we’d had in over a month.

The sole purpose of the town today is to separate tourists from their money. Tours take visitors to salt lakes, hot thermal pools, geysers, several windswept rock formations and a star gazing tour. These are all very expensive and, after checking them out, we decided to see all those same things in Bolivia on the way to Uyuni, a much cheaper option offering 3 day 2 night trips for only $100 USD per person, all inclusive.

Stay tuned.

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