Chile – Done in the blink of an eye.
After San Pedro de Atacama, Leen and I headed to Iquique. First, however, we stopped for the day at Calama. We did not have tons of time, so we really only checked out the mall complex. I know some of you are thinking that is a typical girl response, but honestly it has been quite some time since I have seen a proper mall. We even caught a movie, Apollo 18, while we were there. What a surreal moment to find a full-sized mall. Then it was a night bus to Iquique.
Iquique was fantastic. In fact, I could easily have stayed an additional week. It was fairly small and not all that nice, but it had the right vibe and all the necessities. Basically the perfect beach town. Built along an endless shoreline, an inexpensive fresh fish and produce market, fantastic empanada stands everywhere, hot desert temperatures, and all the modern conveniences of public transportation, shopping center and mall complex, and beach side refreshment stands. I replaced my camera while in Iquique. I actually made a major contribution to the store (Paris, a WalMart or Target chain business equivalent) by uncovering an entire shipment of faulty memory cards. Granted that discovery required me to purchase a camera and have it not work immediately after…but I am quite pleased with what I ended up with. Anyways, I am all equipped with my fourth camera of this trip…let´s hope I can hold onto this one.
Leen and I explored the city center and relaxed on the beach. We got into a great hostel where we had a grill-out on Leen´s last night. A huge past time of Chilean life is parrilladas, which is essentially grilling heaps of meat. Frequently these enormous meat portions come “a la pobre” meaning that the meat comes with a large helping of fries, fried onions, and a fried egg. It is a lot to take in. For the full Chilean experience, I had fish a la pobre in La Serena and steak a la pobre in Santiago, as well as wonderful salmon sushi in Iquique. Do not forget that Chile is a major producer of wine. Good, quality wine costs about $6 US (and still tasty selections come at $2 US). I was in heaven. 🙂
With some people I met at the hostel, we wandered among the shipping piers for a brilliant sunset view of the coast, saw a sea lion covered pier (they are called sea tigers in Spanish!), and walked along the pedestrian walkway. This walkway was an odd sight. It was an extra wide, two way street with completely wooden pedestrian walks to both sides; fully equipped with old-fashioned looking lantern light poles. The buildings were all wood fronted with large Victorian doors, large windows, and built-in wooden patios wrapping around the second stories. Seriously all that was missing were the two-way swing doors and a stand-off duel in the middle of the road. It could have been a scene from an old Western movie.
I stayed in Iquique several days, but I felt unsatisfied when I left for La Serena. It was such a lazy and pleasant place. Also a major contrast to anything I found in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Sadly, Leen departed back for Peru. It was so nice having a travel partner for a bit. I did travel to La Serena with a friend from the hostel, who coincidentally was named Lee. Haha.
Lee and I over-nighted a bus to La Serena and found this fantastic little B&B. The family was wonderful, everything was clean, kitchen fully equipped, and the breakfasts were great (little luxuries like whole grain bread, cheese, grapes, and yoghurt). That first day we walked to 3km to the lighthouse and beach, we wandered through a delightfully authentic Japanese garden, Kokoro No Kiwa, we explored the city center, and enjoyed a nice meal (fish a la pobre). Lee had to get down to Santiago the following day, but I befriended two English guys at the hostel. One of them, Fred, had Chilean friends in La Serena, so I had the opportunity to experience a night out Chile-style and the following night went to their house party. A speciality to Chile is to cut open a honey dew melon and fill it with white wine. Quite the tasty and refreshing drink. I also spent time wandering around the city, relaxing on the beach, and enjoying the nice weather. Located in a cooler climate where vegetation can actually grow, La Serena is subject to cool fogs in the mornings, so it was not quite up to Iquique standards, but three months in cold Bolivia made it more than acceptable.
Valle Elqui and Pisco Elqui
While in La Serena, I went on a day trip to Pisco Elqui in the vineyard lands of Elqui Valley. This was a mind warp trip. I could easily have been heading right into Sonoma or Napa Valleys in California. I seriously forgot where I was at one point; which was exacerbated when the nice Spanish gentleman next to me began chatting. Though we were clearly conversing in Spanish, I have a moment of pause where I literally had to think about what language I was supposed to be speaking in. Such a bizarre experience. The valley was great. Hot climate with lush valleys of grape vineyards (though in Chile they are predominately producing Pisco rather than wine: Pisco being a clear brandy liquor made from grapes). I spent a lovely day enjoying the valley views on the bus ride, wandering around the tiny town of Pisco Elqui, and reading under a tree in a peaceful little park.
After La Serena, I jettisoned down to Santiago, the center of life in Chile. About 40% of Chile´s entire population lives in the Greater Santiago region. Santiago, itself, is enormous. In fact it was a bit too large for me. For that I did not stay long. Fortunately, I arrived to Santiago on a Sunday when all the museums are free entry! I went to the Museo Arte Precolombina, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and Museo Historico Nacional. I also stopped by the Palacio de le Moneda. Originally the national mint, it is now the Presidential palace. Not knowing it current use to house the President, the guards must have thought I was crazy when I asked if I could enter the premises. I had thought it a bit excessive to have twenty-odd guards variously placed around the Plaza de la Constitución. I did find where the old minting equipment is set up for display, though sadly the museum is currently not open to the public. The bright side is that I stumbled upon the Santa Lucía, a park hill with a castle at the top. The hill is a gated property of gardens and walkways up to the castle and other buildings at the top. I also walked along the Parque Forestal, which was once a long, green, tree-lined park where the wealthy used to drive their carriages through during the weekends. A few other activities include La Vega Central, the several block meat and produce market; the Bohemian neighborhood; and the pool located at my hotel. However, as I mentioned, Santiago was a bit too much for me and I quickly headed back to the coast to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, the vacation hot spot for Santiagoneros.
Valparaiso and Viña del Mar
Though not as satisfying as Iquique in terms of climate (again with the cool morning fogs), I absolutely adored Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Valparaiso is more where people actually live and work, whereas Viña del Mar is the vacation spot with the beaches. Though they are really an extension of each other. I stayed at a fabulous B&B in Valparaiso on Cerro Bellavista (Turista Bellavista Hostel). Valparaiso in a chaotic city of hills, crumbling buildings from the several earthquakes, fading grandeur combined with modern luxury, and madly criss-crossing electric lines (I immediately imagined the crazy network of power lines in New York before the Great Blizzard of 1888 caused them to be put underground). The main city areas are all around the main port and piers, but the unique neighborhoods are tucked onto the cerros (hills).
On Cerro Bellavista, I enjoyed the Museo a Cielo Abierto, which is “open air” because the air is the graffiti-covered walls, eclectic building art, and random sculptures scattered around the blocks. I also toured one of Pablo Neruda´s (famous artist and poet) homes, La Sebastiana, which has phenomenal views over the harbor, a chaotic collection of ships´ figureheads, glass, 1950´s furniture, and art works from his friends. Mostly I wandered the streets. Plaza Sotomayor, the main plaza around the harbor, includes: El Plan-the naval heart of the city, Edificio de la Comandancia Naval-the naval command building, Monumento a los Héros de Iquique-mausoleum to Chile´s naval martyrs in Iquique during the War of the Pacific, and Muelle Prat-the main pier at the foot of the plaza. The Plaza was en route to Cerro Concepción, a delightful neighborhood of brightly painted homes, corrugated iron façades and pitched roofs, and most turrist targeted businesses. The unique part about Valparaiso´s many hills is that there are Ascensores (funicular elevators) leading up to all the hills from the main level. There are 15 in total, built between 1883-1916, they are definitely engineering feats built up to the chaotic cerros with labyrinthine roads, crumbling mansions, and kaleidoscopic rooftops. I rode in Ascensor Concepción, one of the oldest elevators, up to Cerro Concepción. I personally did not mind the walk up and down the hills (the Bellavista elevator was currently out of functioning order), but it would have been nice when I walked up the several flights of stairs with my pack that first day…
I also spent a day at Viña del Mar. I took a bus to the Reloj de Flores, literally a functioning clock made of flowers. I walked along the coast to the Castillo Wulff, a castle built right on the edge overlooking the rocks below, which is now an art museum though closed the day I visited. Next door is the Cap Ducal Hotel and Restaurant with is built in the shape of a boat. Very entertaining. Then I walked to the Parque Quinta Vergara, a magnificently landscaped park, to find HUGE lines. I did not bother to wait only to be shuffled around with the crowds. Then to the Museo de Arqueología e Historia Francisco Fonck, all Chilean history including Easter Island, to find that closed too. I obviously picked the worst times/day to go, but all was redeemed at Entremasas, a specialty empanada eatery where I grabbed one shrimp, mushroom, olive, cheese, and tomato and one basil, mozzarella, tomato, and olive empanadas to eat down at the beach. Mmmm. The beach was not a let down, I relaxed in the welcoming sun, ate my delicious empanadas, and read a book.
And that is it. Now I am in Argentina!