Hello from drizzly Auckland - hope you're all well.
Slightly belated happy birthday to Carol for the 29th (which, weirdly, didn't exist for us as we crossed the dateline and waylaid that date somewhere along the way...)
And so our last entry for South America. We were sad to leave, the three months flew by, but we packed a lot in and now we're excited about New Zealand (apart from the rain aspect).
When we last wrote we were recovering from our desert experiences in Northern Chile and Bolivia. After the Salt Flats tour we had one more night in San Pedro de Atacama before getting on yet another bus to the seaside town of La Serena. From there we hired a car (exciting! Our own transport!) and drove through beautiful mountains and pisco vineyards to the Elqui valley. Pisco Sour is the local aperitif that certainly puts hairs on your chest. I imagine.
The Elqui valley is known for excellent star-gazing, apparently having the optimum climatic and atmospheric conditions - in fact there are various mega telescopes located in the area. So we'd treated ourselves to a night in an 'astronomy hotel' which we'd read about back home in the Sunday newspaper. It has half a dozen luxury dome tents, complete with proper bed, bathroom and an upstairs and downstairs. The domes also have detachable roofs, all the better to see the gorgeous night sky with...
Which would all have been super - if it wasn't totally cloudy the night we were there. So the telescopes remained covered, we remained undazzled by the starry night and Don McClean's ode to Vincent Van Gogh rang balefully in our ears. Gutted. Oh well, at least the next morning was beautifully clear (grrr) and sunny, so we (I) enjoyed a spot of sunbathing by the pool before we left our brief encounter with luxury.
One more night in La Serena and a fairly decent Chinese (perhaps not so typically Chilean) before heading down, sadly back on the bus at this point, to Valparaiso.
Various people had raved about Valparaiso and the picture we'd somehow imagined was of a pretty and quaint fishing port. It's actually quite industrial with huge tanker ships in the harbour and multicoloured containers lining the docks. But rising up from the shoreline are lots of impossibly steep hills with ramshackle houses in a crazy palette of colours clinging on for dear life. There are also loads of brilliant graffiti murals all over the place. It's a very strange and quite bohemian place which actually has a certain rough and ragged charm. We stayed in a great hostel which was more like a boutique hotel with cool owners about our age who gave us the keys and let us have the run of the house.
From Valparaiso to the capital, Santiago. We were lucky enough to be invited to stay at the home of a lovely Chilean couple, Pedro and Carla, we met on the Salt Flats tour (amazing how bonding getting up at 4am is). When we arrived at their beautiful penthouse flat (result!) on Sunday evening, Pedro and Carla took us on a tour of Santiago - great to get the insider perspective. We saw and learnt so much more during our time in the city than if we'd been on our own.
We spent the day times getting to know Santiago ourselves, including wandering round the various neighbourhoods (our fave was Bellavista), a super fresh seafood lunch at the central fish market (design based on Smithfield market in London) and taking the funicular up San Cristobal hill to look over the city and the snow capped Andes in the background.
We also visited one of the houses of the Nobel prize winning poet Pablo Neruda who, shamefully, we knew next to nothing about. We had a great tour of the place and it was interesting to learn not only about Neruda, who sounds like a bit of a fruitcake as well as an obviously amazing writer, but the context in which he lived. It's incredible to us that Chile was under a dictatorship only 20 odd years ago. When Neruda died, shortly after Pinochet's coup, thousands of people risked their lives to attend his funeral even though apparently private gatherings of more than 20 people were forbidden.
Neruda's house was great fun, if more than a little barmy. He loved the sea but didn't have good sea legs so he brought the mountain to Mohammed, to mix metaphors a touch. He had a room built to look like a lighthouse, a river running through his garden, a Captain's galley, portholes, deliberately sloped floors and ceilings to create a sense of motion... Apparently he used to dress up as a sea captain (we're thinking a la Captain's Birdseye) or a pirate and entertain his friends, Picasso and the like. Sounds like the 60s were certainly fun!
We found the Chilean people to be very proud of their country and extremely welcoming, especially Pedro and Carla who so generously invited us into their home. It was a lovely end to our time in South America, and even though our Spanish was embarrassingly still pretty rudimentary after three months, we feel pleased that at least we'd met a few bona fide South Americans along the way.
And so one uncomfortable flight (we've got too used to the relative luxury of South American buses!) and a fair few time zones later and we're on the other side of the world. We have three nights in Auckland and then we're picking up Rob's car which he's very generously lending us for our time here - again, we've lucked out with people's kindness and we're very much looking forward to our own (albeit temporary) wheels and hitting the road in New Zealand.
Hope all is good back home.
Take care and lots of love
Helene and Roland x