When looking at a map of South America, you can see that the shape of Chile is geographically likened to a bean pole, very long and very skinny. Chileans refer to it as an ‘inland island’ as the country is totally surrounded by natural extremes. To the North, the driest place on earth lies the Atacama desert, to the East the Andes, the South is Tierra Del Fuego or ‘the end of the world’ and the West runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. Totally surrounded. This explains Chiles pretty strict customs procedures. Due to the sheer size of the place and us not being millionaires we get didn’t get to see all that much. Maybe if Chile had Peru’s bus system or Bolivia’s economy we would have but unfortunately it was simply too expensive to venture far on cash. We hope to return someday with more pesos in our pocket and most likely a car – maybe even a trip to Antartica on assignment for Nat Geo and or Sea shepherd ? We can dream. But what little we saw of the country in our brief 2 and a bit week stint was beautiful and incredibly different to what we had so far experienced. We had definitely crossed over to a new South America.
After our crazy time in the Bolivian desert, Chile was a significant culture shock.When we crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile there was a noticeable change. This was the 4th time that we had crossed a border via land and usually you don’t start to see differences for a few hundred kilometres. But this change was immediate. Accent, cars, attitude, technology.. height. At the San Pedro de Atacama border the customs officials looked and spoke a lot different to their neighbours in the north. As we drove into town we passed classic adobe brick buildings which we had seen many times before, an ancient way of constructing bricks with mud and straw. But instead of unfinished housing for the poor, these adobes were filled with organic markets, gift shops, cafes and restaurants and had brand new Land Cruisers parked outside. What? Where are we? We had just come from the poorest country in South America and in a matter of hours had entered into a new world, a first world?
In 2012 Chilean Presidente Sebastian Pinera said: We will be able to show to the Chilean people that Chile’s a country which is absolutely able to defeat poverty, to overcome underdevelopment, and to join the First World… Chile will be a First World country by 2020.
So the big man has a plan, and from where we were standing Chile is certainly on its way into the first world. Paved roads, gourmet food, shopping centres, potable water the list goes on. My strongest memory of the Chile however will be the produce, being the best we had in any country most specially the FRUIT! Walking to the market one morning in San Pedro I noticed my favourite variety was everywhere so I stocked up on peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines and almost cried from happiness. I hadn’t had such amazing stone fruit in years and these were incredible. Trying to ignore the fact that everything was triple the price of what we had been use to and oh we hadn’t budgeted for this and oh had we made the right decision.. I ate my fruit in the desert sunshine, flesh dripping down my hand and thanked Pacha Mama. Whilst in SPDA we headed out, just for something completely different, to a salt lagoon. Ah but this time we could swim in it! It was the strangest feeling, swimming out to the centre lying on your back, or front and bobbing along like a duck. No matter how hard we tried you couldn’t sink or push your body down – the salt made you completely weightless. It was a very strange feeling, especially when we came out of water and noticed our whole body was covered in clusters of pure salt. As our bodies dried the salt hardened and tightened our skin and hair. Luckily we headed to a fresh water swimming hole where we could wash off our salt scrub. The next day our skin was muy suave (very smooth).
From SPDA we headed 18 hours south to La Serena, a modern city located right on the coast. We walked through handmade Christmas markets, battled shopping crowds, ate cheese and drank Chilean wine on the beach unbothered by anyone. All firsts for this trip. Trent even had a Cappuccino made on a coffee machine served by an Italian. The European influence was very strong here especially evident in the accent. Apparently the Chileanos were speaking Spanish but not the Spanish we had come to pretend to kind of understand. It was Chilean Spanish, yup Chileans have their own language even their own language book! They talk a mile a minute, fill their sentences with informal slang and when asked to slow down and repeat they would just talk louder and faster which was a bit trying. We weren’t sure if it was all of the European influence or the impending first world status but Chile seemed to be a bit of a confusion and we were bit lost in this new place. Bright neon lights of shopping centres, expensive cars, the latest clothing and electronics, modern food you name it. The influence of other cultures meant it was proving difficult for us to feel like we were in South America until we realised something. We think Chile and Argentina are baby steps into Latin America for those a bit skittish. Countries where people feel safe, many people speak a bit of English and the food is the same as home. Where was the rich culture of the North, the indigenous people, the dress, the markets, chaotic transport and traditions we had come to love? We were feeling a little confused but decided to embrace the idea that we were now in the ‘Europe of South America’ and we had to dig a little deeper to find the real Chile.
So from La Serena we headed a few hours inland to the stunning Pisco Elqui Valley, famous for its production of the distilled wine alcohol ‘Pisco’. Desert and a grassy oasis meet and the sunshines til 11pm, pure bliss. We wondered around markets, people watched in the town plaza (one of our favourite South American pastimes) and went for walks in and around the valley. Some would say we were too young and too poor to be ‘relaxing’ in a winery region but we rocked it anyway. We went on a tour of one of the oldest Pisco Distillerys in Chile, made use of the free samples and finished off with a Pisco Sour in the vine draped courtyard with couples celebrating anniversaries and weddings – we were simply celebrating life it was all incredibly civilised. Whilst we were there we stayed in a little garden shed converted into a dorm at a fancy lodge filled with Chilean weekenders and beautiful German families. We lived off the most incredible avocados, beefsteak tomatoes and ate sun ripened apricots straight from the tree. Chile was when we really committed to our consumption of the ‘included breakfast’ as we would try and eat as much as we could for the entire day. It was generally unsuccessful as it would render us requiring a 10am nap. Our 4 days in the valley ended with a Christmas parade around the town as Spanish Santa yelled ‘Feliz Navidad’ from the back of a moving ute as he and other Disney characters pelted soccer balls and boiled lollies at the children in the crowd. A bit of a weapon once airborne yet incredibly entertaining and nice to have a touch of christmas whilst abroad.
We kept moving and ended our time in Chile with 5 days over Christmas in Valparaiso. We managed to find a very cute and colourful studio apartment located half way up a hill in a great neighbourhood (barrio). We were yet to visit a South American city we truly loved and we had found it in sunny, port side Valpa. Valpa is like I mentioned a port city and along with Buenos Aires and Puerto Igauzu(other ports), locals refer to themselves as porteñas and believe they are a bit different – more relaxed, friendly and full of culture. This was definitely true as the porteñas we met were all incredibly lovely, chatty and welcoming. Valpa and also much of Chile has a very strong European influence and it was on our walking tour that we found out the reason. Before the Panama Canal was created and in turn establishing a pass between Central and South America, travellers by boat had to navigate themselves all around the base of the continent to come back up and around to North America. Many sailors didn’t make it as far as the California Goldrush and instead set up shop in sunny Valpa. They brought with them the music, art, dress, colour and music of their countries and a very multicultural and artistic city was created. Built on a series of cerros(hills) facing down towards the port means any height affords beautiful views of the mural soaked city tucked upon the hill side. The city has also been a popular destination for international and national street artists and anywhere you walk you can find hidden gems, big and small on streets, doors, houses and buildings covered in art. This was heaven and we spent hours walking around the free ‘street galleries’ taking photos and appreciating the work of the faceless artists. Valpo is a beautiful city and we truly fell in love. We spent our days enjoying our own space which was finally bigger then a dorm bunk: cooking, drinking, exploring the city and discovering its hidden secrets. Sadly due to funds and we can now say a lack of hindsight (not realising how expensive our next country would be) we made the decision to head to Argentina and bid farewell. But as we say in Espanol ‘Hasta luego Chile’ we will see you soon. Xx