This entry is for the days from September 16th, 2010 to September 19th, 2010. Backdating hurts, but this post explains why…
The bus ride was clearly going to be one of ‘those’. Downstairs at the back, with a big guy next to me taking over the armrest. But I was excited. This road from Mendoza over the Andes to Santiago is the road Blair took back in July, when he bussed from Santiago to El Calafate over 3.5 days. From what he had said, this was going to be spectacular.
Just one thing was wrong with that idea. He went over during the day, and it was now dark. But I was going to be returning on the Sunday during the day, so that was ok. I settled in and watched some tv, and then tried to sleep. However the winding roads and guy taking 1.5 seats next to me didn’t help, and by some early hour we arrived at the top of the Andes, at the customs checkpoint. It’s inside a huge open warehouse, and at that time of the morning with snow around and freezing temperatures, it was a long, long time in the queues, while they stamped us out of Argentina and into Chile, and x-rayed and scanned our bags, despite the fact that some of us had left bags on the bus…
Somehow I then passed out for a few hours in my seat, and the next thing I knew we were pulling in at the main bus terminal in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Grabbing my stuff and avoiding the usual touts and taxi drivers eager to latch onto tourists, I exited the station and made my way down the road to the handily signposted metro system. This had gone quite smoothly, until I got downstairs and found the metro closed. Apparently they don’t open until 7am. Sat on the ground and tried not to fall asleep for an hour or so, and then bought a ticket to Santa Isabel station. Apparently the Santiago metro was designed and built by a German company, and it’s amazing – smooth, fast, clean and very punctual. Not as cheap as Buenos Aires, but still cheaper than London and no zones
Ventana Del Sur (Window of the South, if we’re being literal) hostel is down a few side streets and hidden away in a residential area. Upon arrival the usual security gate had a buzzer and a camera, and a few seconds later it opened. This always strikes me as amusing – anyone could hit that buzzer and get in really, it doesn’t add much security. I wandered in and was told I was too early to check in as people were still sleeping, but could store my stuff and have breakfast and coffee. Brilliant. The hostel was really well laid out, with all the dorms upstairs, and a big social area downstairs – kitchen, dining room with a giant table, living room, and pool outdoors. The upside of this is everyone has breakfast together. I sat down, grateful for the coffee and started chatting. There were a couple of Aussies (they had been few and far between so far), two American couples from Colorado, who had all skied at Copper Mountain where I worked a decade ago, a Welsh English teacher, a couple of German girls, and even a Slovenian – that’s a new one for me.
After getting set up, I decided to go visit Cerro San Cristobal. I like getting a feel for the rough layout of a city, something hard to do in Buenos Aires with all its high-rise buildings and no decent hills. This hill on the other hand towered 600m above the city, and was perfect for viewing. A half hour walk there took me through some of the gardens and over the main river flowing through Santiago, and the main tourist area beneath the hill, where I found the funicular (cable railway) up.
The sun was out at this point and despite my lack of sleep I was feeling quite relaxed. At the top I got the obligatory 70-100 photos of the city before realising just how snap-happy I was being – but it was a good view! Looking out, the city sprawls away in almost all directions, with it being situated between the Andes and a smaller mountain range to the west. Usually infamous for its smoggy covering, the view was clear and made for great shots.
Above the funicular is a statue of the Virgin Mary. Much like the Christ the Reedemer statue of Rio de Janiero fame, it towers over the city, and even has an open air church beneath it on the hill.
The hill itself is a few kilometres long, with many walk-ways, cycle paths, cafes and even pools. Santiago is really lucky to have something like this – and they knew it – the BBQ areas were packed, and it seemed like just about everyone was up on the hill – it was after all a public holiday today. After a decent walk around I dozed on a park bench for a couple of hours in the sun to try and catch up on some sleep. Finally when it started to cool a little I headed back to the ride down; the hostel had mentioned a Chilean asado and as regular readers will know, I don’t turn down a roast.
Back at the hostel, in typical South American fashion at the appointed starting time for the roast they began to think about cooking it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your view) the Americans had already worked out how to pass the time, and the drinks and cards were out. A conveniently placed bottle store around the corner made this quite a social hostel.
While awaiting the asado, the owner was telling us about the big earthquake. Much like Christchurch only two weeks earlier, Chile had suffered a massive earthquake at the start of the year, and Santiago had been hit hard. At the time the buses and airports were closed, and as a result all those staying at the hostel pretty much had to stay put for three weeks, living downstairs as each aftershock brought risk and panic. They were all pretty close by the end of that ordeal, and a poster on the wall serves as a reminder – showing all the quakes Chile has had in recent memory.
Before long the Chilean asado was ready, and everyone was in a great mood as almost the whole hostel sat down to dinner together. I made another mental note that this was a great design for a hostel – having a large dining table, everyone is encouraged to socialise and meet other guests. It’s the best way to learn about other people’s backgrounds, cultures – and where they’ve been and are going – an equal opportunity to share plans, experiences and make amendments to your trip based on these suggestions. Some of those suggestions from other travellers have been the highlights of my travels! I also observed that I prefer Argentinian asado to Chilean, although Chilean red wine is also pretty good.
As an aside, it’s interesting to see the similarities in games people play all around the world, and how even people from other countries and who speak different languages and have different cultures still know many of the same drinking card games. And they still have the same result…
Next morning, people rose very slowly for breakfast. Some orange juice and toast and I was mostly ready to go, which was good as I was meeting my German friend Susanne (who I’d met in San Pedro in July and seen again in Buenos Aires in late August). She was working for a financial organisation here in Santiago, so it meant I’d have a tour guide, which was brilliant The downside was that given the bicentennial, nearly everything was closed, including several streets for official parades and the like.
Before continuing I should talk about this a bit. The Bicentennial on September 18th was to commemorate the beginning of the process of Independence that took place 200 years beforehand. It was only eight years later that they actually became an independent country. As such, they’d had a while to plan the party and in addition to new parks, postage stamps and parades and fireworks, they’d also decreed that every building had to fly the Chilean flag, by law! This was quite a sight, and really gave you a sense that the people were united in celebration. That or they just didn’t want to get fined! Amusingly some of the northern parts of Chile were also celebrating it, despite being part of Peru back then – they only became Chilean 130 years ago!
Anyway, Susanne and I met up and did a good, solid walk around central Santiago. Despite having not been in the country that many months, Susanne is as fluent in Spanish as I’d heard any non-native speaker (aside from maybe Adrianne the American), and she was very well acquainted with the city itself. We went past the big sights – the palace, the river, the museums, main square (Plaza de Armas – funny story about that name to come in future posts), and then in-between dodging closed streets and so on, spotted the Australian motorcade (ok one car) come past. Of course, foreign dignitaries were coming for the bicentennial. We soon saw a crowd, and indeed marchers and dancers and a band were all performing outside one of the government buildings before the dignitaries, including the President himself!
We eventually found a cafe in the art district to have a late morning coffee, before Susanne had to meet up with another friend, and I had to head back to the hostel to try and find the fonda.Apparently on this September 18th – known simply as El Dieciocho – the national day – the ‘thing to do’ is to attend a Fonda. [Kudos to Zoë for the photos]. For want of a better description, it’s like a country fair with dancing. Actually I think that’s quite apt. Food, games, drinking, dancing, crafts of all kinds and cueca. So as I returned to the hostel, I was just in time to see some of the others heading to the fair, so I did a quick change and caught up. It was sweltering now – a perfect day for it. The fair itself was quite similar to any others – with ice-cream stalls, games, craft stands and the like, but also features a central dance ‘hall’, where a lot of the locals perform cueca – a traditional dance, which I gathered seemed to mainly involve waving a handkerchief and kicking your legs in the air. But the atmosphere was good and all people young and old seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The plan then was to head back for some food and then head out again to the fondas in the evening. Chilling back at the hostel, the owner then announced that there was to be a special bonus asado that night in honour of the bicentennial. Thank you, history! However luck couldn’t continue to run my way, and when I picked up my laptop after charging it, it crashed twice in a row on booting, and then refused to acknowledge Windows, claiming harddisk corruption. Not good.
On the other hand, another good night, and it was a bit rough getting up on the Sunday to go to the bus station for my ride back over the mountains, this time in daylight. Much quicker through this time, during which I chatted with an Aussie who was over for around nine months, and was travelling with only a carry-on bag. No pack or suitcase for this guy! The ride up was incredible – I could see now what Blair meant – and even at the top during September there was still an operating ski-field. Just before that is a massive series of switch-backs going up nearly vertically, part of which travels UNDER a ski-lift!
Just after the border, guys in the seats behind me were getting excited about something. As I turned to ask what they were looking at, they pointed and said “Aconcagua!”. For literally twenty seconds you have the briefest of gaps through the mountainous views and you are able to see the tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas. I however needed twenty two seconds to to get my camera out of my bag and lined up. I resolved to get it on my next crossing in two weeks or so, and mentally marked the point.
I Arrived back in Mendoza by surprise an hour early. Took a cab to Plaza Independencia and walked from there – amazed to see celebrations there too for their neighours’ bicentennial. Nice. Marco and Sam the American girl were a bit drunk after some gaucho experience took its toll on them, and I briefly chatted to Debbie and Keith from Ireland before going to the supermarket to get stationery for Spanish class in the morning, and then crashed reasonably early. I’d organised a discount rate, and was put up in ‘the loft’, six beds at the very top. The advantage was that nobody else was in that room, so I didn’t have to worry about setting multiple alarms for the morning…
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