Posts tagged ‘Chile’

Snowboarding in the world’s driest desert. San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama feels like reaching the very end of the earth only to realise that everyone else has arrived before you. On the bus journey from Argentina we had seen tantalising glimpses of the other worldly landscape we were expecting from the region – huge stretches of chalky white ground; looming burned red cliffs; imposing volcanoes; gaping craters; and bottomless cracks splitting the parched soil. How could a thriving tourist town exist in this barren landscape where only llamas and crazy South American deer seemed to survive?

After 12 hours, several dodgy bus sandwiches, one Michel Thomas CD, two border crossings and two more passport stamps (hurrah!) we were starting to wonder if San Pedro de Atacama was really just some mythical traveller paradise like The Beach or The Lost City of Atlantis. Settling back onto the bus after a stressful Chilean border crossing (should we declare our balsamic vinegar or risk losing all four of our legs and our firstborn in Agricultural Department fines?) we started to believe that we were really headed for a labour camp or worse, the wrong side of Valparaiso when suddenly out of the sand rose what looked to be the outskirts of a town.

San Pedro de Atacama was like nowhere we had ever seen before. Neat rows of single-storey clay buildings painted white or not at all lined narrow alleys that no-one had ever bothered to pave. Everywhere we looked was red – red clay streets, red clay walls, red-clay-covered dogs. In the centre of town was a small square with a few spartan flower/tree beds, a bench or two and a beautiful little church washed in dazzling white and blue. It was exactly the idyllic, rustic, dusty little town you would expect to find in this, the driest desert in the whole world and was it not for the four girls tanning in the main square, magazine pages flicking in unison and sunnies reflecting the harsh desert rays, San Pedro de Atacama could have passed for a Wild West movie scene. That and the fact that every single building was a crafts shop, restaurant, hostel or tour agency.

Still, the food was fantastic (if a little overpriced), the vibe was relaxed, the company was good (we had reunited with Paul, Sophie and our Santiago friend Swati) and for once there was an endless amount of things to do. We planned on spending one of the town’s 300 clear nights a year star gazing; we were going to cycle to Valle de Lunar to see one of the most spectacular landscapes this side of the equator; and we had earmarked another day for horse-riding around the desert. First though we were going to try our hands at dune boarding on one of the ferocious sand dunes that sat just outside of town.

Determined to do it alone outside of rush hour traffic (around 3pm until sunset) we rented some bikes and boards and headed for the hills. The dunes were only 2km or so from the town limits so how hard could it be? Unfortunately we hadn’t factored on the altitude (we were over 2000m above sea level), the perils of cycling with a snowboard strapped to your back and the difficult relationship that exists between dry sand and bicycle tyres. Upon arrival it didn’t take us long to decide that the dunes were worth every back-breaking, sun-burning, lung-ripping moment on the bikes of death. Mountains of powdery burnt orange sand screamed out to be conquered by our newly waxed boards and who were we to deny them?

The first run was a bit of a flop. Gary and I had never strapped into a snowboard before so predictably we fell five or six times in one run, moving at little more than a snail’s pace when we were vertical. Of course fresh off the New Zealand snowboarding slopes, Sophie and Paul had a pretty full skill set to start with, managing somehow to make it from the very top to the very bottom of the dune without eating sand even once. With every run Gary and I gathered speed though and by the fourth run we were practically professionals. Well, practically.

I had figured out that if I strapped on my board while standing at the top of the dune I could get more speed (or “air” as us pros call it) and, since the tour groups had recently arrived in their droves I was keen to show off my incredible balance to an audience of 50 or so amateurs. So in I strapped and off I went at top speed, looking cool as hell in my Chanel sunglasses, tank top and shorts. “Check me out!” I thought as I moved faster and faster with less and less control. Just as I started to estimate roughly how painful it would be to hit a parked pick-up truck at full speed my silent victory was interrupted by a painful crack crack crack. The adoring crowd gasped collectively, releasing their sharp breaths in a hissing oooooooooh. Meanwhile my face had connected with a patch of sand that wasn’t half as soft as it looked from a 5ft something height. My face was quickly followed by my collarbone, chest, stomach, thighs and face again as I backwards rolled downhill and came to a stop at Gary, Paul and Sophie’s feet.

With a touch of whiplash and an injured ego I reckoned it was about time we left and, unwilling to drag themselves and their boards up that torturous sand dune even one more time (especially now that queues of tourists were forming and the wind was whipping sand in everyone’s eyes) the others happily agreed and we freewheeled our bikes back into town.

Now that we had one activity ticked off our list we were ready to take on the rest. Unfortunately the Atacama desert had other things in mind and what had looked at the outset like a slightly annoying turn in the weather soon became a full-blown sand storm that had us barracaded inside our hostel for the next two days. Hugely disappointed but with no other option, we decided to change our plans and accompany Paul, Sophie and Swati on their cross-border tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, taking in the Bolivian salt flats enroute. If we thought we had reached the end of the world in this dusty little village, we had a hell of a surprise ahead of us…

There are more pictures from San Pedro de Atacama available in the gallery


July 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

A Tale of Two Cities. Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso is a city with two faces. One is a gritty port town full of flea-infested dogs, crumbling buildings, shifty eyes and resentful stares. The other is a particularly magical little corner of the world, a hillside town of winding streets and narrow buildings bursting with colour and life. Unfortunately for us, this was a realisation that dawned late in our trip after two days spent wandering around with our hands in our pockets and our heads down, trying desperately to be invisible in a city where everyone was staring and whispering as we passed.

Our breaking point came when we followed the Lonely Planet walking tour of the city. Twenty minutes in we were feeling pretty good – we had passed the beautiful Plaza Sotomayor, waved at police in pristine white caps and photographed some fantastic graffiti. We were just saying that once you scratched below the ugly surface Valparaiso wasn’t so bad when a taxi pulled up at our toes and the driver started screaming in spanish. Noting our confusion he decided to switch language. “Don’t go up that hill! Very very dangerous! Go back now!” he barked before speeding off again. Looking around we noticed that all the locals were gripping their handbags with white knuckles and a homeless man was miming something along the lines of “Watch your bag.” After confirming with a policeman in pigeon Spanish that anywhere west of the plaza was mugging country, we shoved our hands firmly in our pockets and sprinted back towards our dive of a hotel.

After a block or two I started to feel a little guilty. We were hardly giving Valparaiso a fair hearing and what would I write on the blog? It was time to man up so we swung a right and started to climb up a steep hill. After only 200m our opinion of Valparaiso had been turned on its head. Gone were the broken windows and towering blocks to be replaced by rainbow-coloured buildings and wall after wall of elaborate graffiti. Where the streets in the port had been wide and pockmarked, the hill was a warren of narrow cobblestones that stretched upwards, defying the earth’s gravitational pull.

On every corner there were tourists musing over street art, locals sipping coffes and photographers brazenly flashing their wares. And it wasn’t just this one street that had character – every now and then there was a gap in the tightly packed buildings and the horizon opened up to reveal an endless stretch of coloured, corrugated iron houses or a vast ocean dotted with hulking tankers and rigs. This was a far cry from the paranoid shufffling mob in the city.

Our trip got better from then on and our last day or two in Valpo (as Valparaiso is known to its mates) was spent devouring set lunches in delicious Italian restaurants and trying to get to the very top of the highest hill so that we could get the best view of a city that was quickly growing on us. Part of our enjoyment was down to the two friends we had picked up in Santiago. Sophie and Paul were a Welsh-English couple who had a great sense of humour and displayed an uncanny knack of attracting strange dogs. Our exploration ended when Paul came home with a passive-aggressive Alsation who had taken a liking to him and had started to attack anyone who encroached upon his terrirory (mostly old women and one-legged men passing by on the other side of the road). For fear of contracting rabies or maybe losing a limb or two, we were all confined to our mouldy hotel rooms for the rest of the day.

After a few days spent in Valpo we left with nine dogs and a better feel for Chilean life. If given the chance to do it again we would change a few things – we would definitely stay in a hotel up on the hill and would completely avoid the newer part of town – but we would still do it again. With the right itinerary and a well hidden moneybelt Valpo is worth a day or two.

There are more pictures from Valparaiso available in the gallery

July 9, 2010 at 7:30 pm 2 comments

Chi-chi-chi, lay-lay-lay, viva Chi-lay! Santiago, Chile

Walking through Bellavista on Monday 28th June you would never have known that it was one of Santiago’s most lively neighbourhoods. Shop windows were darkened by graffiti-covered shutters and dogs roamed freely along the empty streets, sniffing at discarded burger wrappers. Traffic lights flicked uselessly from green to red on the main road where police and army officials in riot gear twirled their batons at invisible mobs. Still it was an eerily beautiful scene. Single and two-storey buildings with flat roofs painted orange with deep blue doors or hot pink with green windows. Riverbeds coloured by artistic murals and mounds of rubish. Meanwhile standing as a reminder that this was no ordinary city in no ordinary continent was a backdrop of hazy snowcapped mountains seen above a skyline of mix-and-match skyscrapers.

In every bar, cafe and home around the city people were sitting around moaning and sighing. Every now and then the empty streets echoed with a collective scream. Santiago was in the grips of football fever and today, Monday 28th of June, was to be their last World Cup appearance. Later there would be riots in the street, temper tantrums and defiant cheers of “Chi-chi-chi, lay-lay-lay, viva Chi-lay!” For now though, an entire nation was holding its breath.

Behind one purple door in Bellavista the scene was of a different nature though. Two opposing armies faced each other down – one in green and yellow, the other in red white and blue – across a room. They traded chants and insults in different languages for 90 minutes, one revelling in the misery of the other until eventually it ended and everyone grabbed their bottles of beer, wine, rum and pisco and headed for the rooftop garden. Somehow we had managed to choose a hostel which was sheltering a mob of Brazilians and when, a few hours after arriving we were woken up by a pretty girl waving a bottle of rocket fuel (aka pisco) and insisting on shots, we knew that our Santiago trip was going to be a little bit messy and a lot of fun.

By the next morning we had managed to slot into a huge group of Poms, Aussies, Brazilians and Irish people and were ready to take our hungover, jetlagged heads out for a walk arond the city. Leading the way, Katie decided that we should all climb a hill – Cerro Santa Lucia. After walking around the city for an hour we had come to four conclusions:

1.Chileans are incredibly friendly people

2.Santiago was one of the most sexually charged cities we had ever seen with couples, young and old, locked in passionate embraces on every street corner and park bench

3.There was an astonishing amount of stray dogs in the city – something about people liking to own puppies but not being too keen on fully grown animals.

4.We were going to love South America.

Although it was a challenging uphill climb, Cerro Santa Lucia was worth all of the energy. As we stood at the top and took in Santiago our hangovers started to clear and awe set in. The city seemed to be an endless maze of towering apartment blocks, delicate church spires and colourful residential areas. Most surprising of all were the ever-present Andes which, in the dense smog of a working day were all but invisible, their snowcapped peaks strangely detatched like whisps of cloud against a dim blue sky.

Over the next two days we cemented our first South American friendships over football and pisco (I know, us watching football. Gas.), grappled with our first few words of Latin American Spanish and wandered around Santiago. We were amazed by the stunning architecture of some of the city’s buildings – the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Ex-Congreso Nacional, the heart-stopping Palacio de la Moneda and the surprising Bolsa de Comercio (far too beautiful to be a stock exchange) – little slices of Barcelona, Paris or Rome peeking out over the bells of tiny churches and ugly office blocks.

The best thing we saw though was Plaza de Armas. As was our habit in Santiago, we arrived with bellies full of pisco and heads full of cotton wool and had to sit down for half an hour to take the mammoth square in. On a bandstand at one end were dozens of tables crammed full of old men stooped over chess games, a picture of concentration amid a flurry of activity. Across the square shoeshine boys (and men) tauted for business; a comedian was surrounded by a hysterical crowd of hundreds; tarot card readers poised serenely over desks covered in red cloth; and artists fussed over exhibitions of varying quality. There were some bizarre scenes too – toy ponies ridden by children posing for photographers; a group of students dressed up as The Flinstones; thousands of pigeons perched wing-to-wing on the roof of a sweet stall; and an information point on wheels that was zipping about the square far too fast to be of any help. Amid the chaos churchbells chimed and middle-aged men snored on benches yet somehow everywhere we went people looked at us as if we were the strange ones.

More than a little overwhelmed and still jet-lagged we tried to let it sink in. We were in South America. We had new friends. We were once again the obvious strangers in any crowd. We were finally adventuring again. Here in Santiago among life-size toy horses and a thousand curious eyes we were totally, utterly and completely happy.

There are more pictures from Santiago available in the gallery

July 5, 2010 at 9:41 pm 3 comments


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Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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