My first impressions of Chile were not good, but that may have been because of my state of mind.
The view from the bus from Arequipa to Tacna, ( while I was still in Peru), was dispiriting. I realised that this was the start of the Atacama desert, as it was rocky and dusty and dark grey. Tacna had a lively nightlife, but what I saw was not an attractive place.
The next morning I took a “collectivo” to Arica in Chile. The system is a kind of taxi which collects five people and the driver sorts out passports/ID and paperwork. On the drive to the border we passed hundreds of one-storey buildings about 3mx3m big, each standing alone on a patch of land. I couldn’t work out what they were as there were no people, roads or shops among them. There were fences here and there where the sand piled up. Someone suggested they were for agricultural workers – but this was in a desert where the only plantations were of trees. It would be a nightmare to live there.
There are those who like Arica, but I am not among them. It’s smelly, there are dogs roaming the streets and the markets only have the cheapest of everyday commodities, with little colour or taste. Everyone lives behind bars and metal fences. You can learn to surf, but there are far nicer beaches all over the world. Apparently there are clubs and bars, but you can find those anywhere.
So I set off for San Pedro de Atacama on a long bus ride that goes through the night. I had been warned by the manager of my hotel to be awake when it stops at Calama, because there are thieves who get on the bus and take people’s bags as they are sleeping. All was well with me, but sure enough, in Santiago I met a couple who had had their bag taken with their passports and they knew of two others in the same situation.
In the morning, as the sun rose, the landscape proved to have changed considerably, with looming cliffs and snow-capped volcanoes.
Tour guides, restaurants and craft shops line the few streets, but it has a nice vibe and the dogs on the street are healthy and mostly asleep. I stayed in a quirky hostel, full of ethnic symbols and bric-à-brac and where I made friends easily.
The only tour I took was to Valle de la Luna and Death Valley. The former is a crater largely formed by upheavals of the earth’s crust. Following the rainy season, the water evaporates and leaves salt covering the land. Happily, I arrived at the right time, as this phenomenon only lasts for a month or so.
The last stop was at Coyote Rock, to watch the sun set. It was a stunning place, but it was swarming with other people, most of whom were queuing up to have their picture taken on a rock that juts out over a valley. They made a lot of noise and I’m afraid it rather detracted from the atmosphere for me. I did take a few photos however.
My biggest disappointment was that I was unable to do the stargazing tour. I went to the Meteorite Museum, in a little geodesic dome, and learnt a great deal about the origins of our planet and about meteorites of course – did you know they have found Adenine and Guanine, two of the amino acids that make up DNA, in meteorites? On the three nights that I was in San Pedro it was too cloudy and “humid” for the tour of the night sky. This is something people rave about and a few days later it was running again. Circumstances here in Chile can be unpredictable, as you may know by now.
A propos of nothing, I bought a T-shirt with a symbol I’d spotted here and there.
I thought I would break up the journey to Santiago by staying the night in Antofagasta. If Arica was bad enough, this was worse. The “hostal” I stayed in was really a B&B and was OK, but the location was awful. There were crippled and mangy dogs prowling the dirty streets, and on two occasions they followed me barking. I could find no cafe or restaurant and no real shops. Let’s just pass on.
I spent a couple of days in Santiago, which is a likeable city I think. I will say more about it later, as I will return there to catch a flight to Brazil. I went on a free walking tour, when the guide, who was a nice enough guy, mistakenly in my opinion, discussed the relative merits, or otherwise, of the elected President Allende and the military dictatorship that staged a coup d’état in 1973. Though he claimed to be “neutral”, it was obvious that he was ill-informed and naive. Yet another thing about Chile that has upset me.
I’m now in Pucon in a great hostel by the Lake Villarrica, with two large picture windows, one looking on to the volcano and one onto the lake.
The town is tiny, with buildings made of wood and all sorts of activities for tourists. My first day I just chilled, because I’d been on buses quite a bit and it felt good to relax.
The following day I took a local bus to Huerquehue National Park and walked around the lakes for about six hours. It’s beautiful country and I felt much more at ease, even if there was quite a climb to some of the viewpoints.
Arriving back at the hostel I heard that Calbuco volcano, South of us, had erupted. In the restaurant that evening I watched pictures on the news of a vast cloud of ash towering over the mountain, lightning flashes and an incredible sunset. They were evacuating people over a 20km radius, so there were queues of people at the petrol station. Closer to home, the Vallarrica volcano started to glow red hot, as if in sympathy.
I woke at 9am the next morning, (I had been kept awake most of the previous night by two loud, drunk German girls), in total darkness. At first I was completely disoriented, but then I realised that volcanic ash must have blotted out the sun. Outside the street lights were on and ash swirled around, stinging my eyes even as I was wearing a mask over my nose and mouth. We were advised to stay inside, so there was a brief sortie to the supermarket for food and wine. By midday the sky had lightened, but there was a dusty pall over everything. In the hostel we passed the day drinking wine, playing games and chatting, with a pasta dinner for all in the evening.
The pictures from Calbuco on the Internet are amazingly colourful but the same could not be said of here.