Chile - Grapes, Quakes, Aches & Navigates / Santiago photos
Feb 15, 2005
|Picture this ... you're on an episode of "Fear Factor". Okay, so maybe you're not on the actual TV show, but you're definitely feeling some fear right about now. You're in the Lake District of Chile, halfway up Volcano Villarrica, one of the most active volcanoes in South America. The climb itself isn't too strenuous - you're only gaining 1500m altitude of which 400m is with the aid of a chairlift - but the hiking conditions are difficult. You started hiking on loose volcanic rock but left that behind around an hour ago and are now climbing on snow. In some places the snow is icy and slippery and footing is tricky. You're using an ice pick for stability as you walk, and to dig into the snow to stop yourself from sliding into oblivion should you slip and fall. You can't help thinking, as you look at the pick in your hand with jagged teeth and sharp points, that in an emergency situation you'll more likely impale yourself on it than successfully use it to stop a fall. The incline seems incredibly steep and looking around makes you feel dizzy, so you take only quick glances at the amazing scenery around you. The wind is howling, bringing tears to you're eyes and blurring visibility which is adding to the fear-factor element. You finally reach the top and breathe a long sigh of relief. You peer over the rim of the volcanic crater and see red lava inside that bubbles and spits. The volcano is more active today than normal; tonight is full moon and apparently lunar cycles affect volcanic activity. Little explosions spew sulphuric gas in your direction which makes it difficult to breathe and quickly drives you away from the rim. The tour guide pops the cork from a bottle of champagne and you toast a successful climb with your fellow hikers. You start the trek back down, this time donning ski pants and sliding down the mountain on your butt in toboggan-like fashion - a much faster and more enjoyable way to descend. The whole trek takes 10 hours, you're exhausted at the end ... but you've successfully bagged another volcanic mountain!
Feb. 15 - I arrived in Santiago bus terminal even though I had paid for hostel-to-hostel service from Mendoza. Took the subway to the hostel, but the hostel was closed. Located the hostel owner, and he started laying on the smooth Latin love moves. Man, have I had a day!
Feb. 16 - Chile has the strangest geography. It's very tall (4300km from tip to toe) and very skinny (less than 200km at it's narrowest point) and is wedged between the Pacific and the Andes. Santiago, the center of Chile's universe, sits around midpoint. Santiago is a beautiful clean & prosperous city but feels very European and somewhat out of place down here in S America. Other than visiting museums there's surprisingly little to see and do here. Downtown is somewhat dull - some old architecture and statues but mostly modern buildings and office workers rushing to and fro. I can see that any old day back home. I took the funicular (rail car) up to San Cristobal Summit (870m). Great views of the city, or at least what you can see through the hazy smog. Also rode the teleférico (gondola) around Metropolitan Park, which I think is the largest inner-city park in Chile. Later I was wined, dined and introduced to Santiago's nightlife by Alejandro (the hostel owner) in his continued although unsuccessful attempts at Latin seduction. I just can't get used to this late night schedule in S America - they don't eat dinner until 10pm at the earliest, and wouldn't be caught dead going out clubbing until well past midnight. I'm usually snoozing in bed by that time!
Feb. 17 - I found something else to do in Santiago today. I went on a tour of Concha y Toro, one of Chile's largest and oldest wineries. It's a beautiful facility in the country complete with its own villa, duck pond and rose garden. The tour was great, very professional and enjoyable, quite a difference from the measly tour in Bolivia. Alejandro joined me on the tour, then later we drove through the beautiful countryside, stopping along the way for a great meal of Chilean barbecue and cheap wine.
Feb. 18 - Made my way further south today. Santa Cruz is a small town south of Santiago in the heart of Chile's wine production region. It's off the regular backpacker radar and I soon discovered why - it's very expensive! Chile in general is fairly cheap according to European or North American standards, but it's one of the most expensive countries in S America and it's a real strain on my budget after Peru and Bolivia. The countryside around Santa Cruz is dotted with wine bodegas - grapevines for as far as the eye can see - but it's a challenge to visit the area without your own transport. You're basically forced to take a tour, which is outrageously expensive. I was willing to pay the price but strangely all tours were booked by private groups for the next few days. So I bought a nice cheap bottle of wine from the supermarket and simply relaxed for a few days.
Feb. 19 - I don't know what language these Chileans speak, but I'm convinced it's not Spanish. They use different pronunciations, different words, basically disregard the end of every word, and then speak so quickly that all words blend together in one long utterance. For instance, in the Spanish I learned in Peru/Bolivia, I'd say 'hasta luego', meaning 'see you later', pronounced in 5 syllables (has-ta lu-e-go). Chileans pronounce it something like 'tway-go'. That's just one example, but multiply it by the entire language and Houston, we have a problem. Since arriving in Chile my Spanish vocabulary has sadly been whittled down to a paltry few words and phrases:
(1) Que? - meaning "huh?", accompanied by a deer-in-the-headlights stare
(2) Como? - meaning "no, seriously now, what did you just say?"
(3) No entiendo - meaning "I'm sorry, I haven't the foggiest clue what you just said"
(4) No sé - meaning "at this point I'll just say 'I don't know' because I'm too embarrassed to admit that I haven't understood a single word you've said for the last 5 minutes".
Feb. 20 - Arrived in Chillán today, a city with a split personality. Mapuche Indian sieges and earthquakes in the 19C constantly devastated poor Old Chillán. So they built a new town a few kilometers away and lived peacefully until another earthquake all but destroyed New Chillán in 1939. New Chillán has modern architecture and is the center of commerce. Old Chillán is small and quiet but has one very important claim to fame - it's the birthplace of Don Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme, liberator of Chile.
Feb. 21 - New Chillán has tons of things to amuse the tourist: shopping, internet, banks, markets, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, a convent of strange gothic design, some quaint smaller churches, and an extremely modern cathedral. There's also the Mexico School, a facility donated by the Mexican government after the last earthquake, containing some interesting wall murals representing the history of Chile and Mexico. Old Chillán has basically nothing for the tourist - well, maybe one small restaurant and church - but numerous memorials to the man of honor, Bernardo O'Higgins.
Feb. 22 - The Panamericana highway runs down Chile from its northern border with Peru to its southern Patagonia region where roads almost cease to exist. Travel along the Panamericana is quick and easy. Distances seem to take half the travel time you'd expect, which is exactly opposite to what I've experienced so far in S America! I'm now in Pucón, a pretty little tourist town in Chile's Lake District. It really reminds me of some resort towns in the Canadian Rockies - same style of log/stone architecture, artesan shops & restaurants, pretty lakes & evergreens. It's also a place of seemingly unlimited outdoor activities options, so I decided the days of wine and roses are over and it's time to get physical.
Feb. 23 - Signed up for "Canopy" today. We got strapped into harnesses, wore helmets & gloves, and went zooming along (sometimes at speeds of 50 km/h) on wire cables that extend from one treetop to another. One time I braked too soon and stopped, suspended over a river, about 6 meters short of the other end. I had to turn myself around and then pull myself backwards, hand over hand on the cable, until I finally reached the platform. Another time I braked too late and kinda went splat against the oncoming tree. Luckily there is lots of padding in place for brake-challenged people like me. Eventually I got the hang of it, and it was smooth sailing from then on. What a blast!
Feb. 24 - I climbed Volcano Villarrica today, definitely a new entry to the "hardest things I've done in my life" list. It was close enough to an Everest Expedition for me to know that I NEVER want to do one!
Feb. 25 - My muscles are stiff and sore from yesterday's exertion, so it's a good day to sit and relax on a bus. I'm now in Valdivia, a picturesque city surrounded by rivers, not far from the Pacific coast. It too was all but destroyed by an earthquake in 1960 - I seem to be traveling down Earthquake Alley! The Lake District area of Chile was a popular destination for German immigration in the 19C. Architecture and cuisine have a noticeable German design and influence. It's strange to see German pastries and Spanish empanadas on the same restaurant menu. I sampled a fair share of both and after my taste-test here in Valdivia, I can confidently say that my mother's Apple Strudel is still the best I've tasted on 3 continents ... North America, Europe, and now South America!
Feb. 26 - In the 16C the Spanish and Dutch tried to occupy the Valdivia area but Mapuche Indian sieges drove them away. The Spanish returned in the mid-17C, this time taking a firm hold and building a wall around the town, thereby protecting it from future Mapuche raids. Forts at strategic locations near the ocean protected against European attacks and gave Valdivia the name "Fortress of the Seas". I hopped on a series of buses and boats and toured the fortress ruins at Niebla, Mancera Island, and Corral. Some of the canon armament was impressive and reasonably intact while other buildings were either recreated or in total ruin. A visit to Corral, the largest fort, included a re-enactment of a surprise attack on the Spanish by Chilean patriots in 1820. Pretty cheesy, but then we are a long way from Hollywood. In the evening I attended a free performance of traditional Chilean folkloric music that was part of a rodeo competition being held in Valdivia. The rodeo wasn't quite up to Calgary Stampede standards, but the musical entertainment was fantastic.
Feb. 27 - I arrived in Puerto Montt today, gateway to Chile's Carretera Austral region. It's almost like parts of the mainland broke off and created a labyrinth of narrow fjords and small sparsely inhabited islands. Puerto Montt itself is somewhat nondescript but is the hub for transporting goods and services between the mainland and islands. And it absolutely bustles in the summer season with tourists taking the popular 4-day Navimag ferry trip through the Carretera Austral between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. And you got it, I'm on it!
Feb. 28 - Boarded the Navimag ferry today. It was supposed to leave port at 4pm, but left somewhere around 6:30pm - an example of Latin America "rubber time". Other than Chilean crew, the ship is completely filled with tourists - 150 of us of varied age (yahoo, for once I'm not the oldest in the group!) and from around the world. I haven't been surrounded by so many English speakers in a long time. It's no cruise ship but a real cargo vessel, although it carries no animals on board during the high tourist season (for which I give thanks). I had expected a real grimy ship, but everything seems quite comfortable and it has surprisingly good food and the dormitories are nicer than some of the hostels I've stayed in.
March 1 - The scenery is spectacular, made even better by warm sunshine and mostly cloudless skies. There's a great group of people onboard, already new friendships are forming. We're on the lookout for whales but mostly see sealions who jump in synchronization and play in the water like dolphins. There's also a lively activities coordinator who keeps us from getting bored by providing information on this part of the country and the indigenous people who once lived here. We watched a great Imax documentary on Antarctica and Georgia Island today. There's also Pisco Sour "happy hour" that runs from noon 'til midnight, and tonight is movie night.
March 2 - The Kaweskar people traveled the southern icefields and inhabited this area for thousands of years. They were nomadic, traveling in small wooden boats and, when not in the water, lived in teepee-like structures on land. They were a hardy people, only covering their bodies in seal fat and dirt to ward off the cold. They lived off the sea. The men built boats. The women gathered food, diving naked in freezing waters for shellfish. Then the missionaries came along who decided they were ripe for "civilizing". The Kaweskars were forced to wear clothes, live in houses, stop hunting seal. Many died of disease from interaction with Europeans. Forced to give up their normal way of life, sense of pride and purpose lost, the rest turned to apathy and alcoholism. We visited Puerto Eden today, a tiny village (population 120) on a small isolated island where the last of the pureblood Kaweskar people live (all 15 of them). Fishing is the main industry on Puerto Eden, and whatever tourism the Navimag ferry brings once a week. Women and children make handicrafts - little canoes covered with seal fur, and reed baskets similar to what their ancestors used when diving for shellfish. Surprisingly for such a small remote settlement there's a school with internet, small hospital and church. We only had time for a short walk around the island, talking very briefly with the locals and admiring their handicrafts. For our last night onboard we played bingo. Sounds pretty cheesy I know, but we did unusual variations on the standard game and all had a ton of fun. I won a free Pisco Sour. Disco dancing followed - woohoo, more excitement!
March 3 - Everyone rose at dawn to watch the ship go through the narrowest passage of our journey, which we navigated smoothly. Our early wake-up was also rewarded with a beautiful sunrise over the islands and reflections on the mountains. We arrived in Puerto Natales midday, end of the ferry trip. It was sad to say goodbye to all my new friends but, without planning it, we were soon reunited at the one decent coffee shop in Puerto Natales! And of course we're all on the same Gringo Trail, which means we'll inevitably see each other again at different destinations over the next few weeks. And now it's time to experience more of Patagonia.
Currency: Chilean Peso
Exchange rate 1USD = 580 Pesos
Languages: Spanish, Mapudungun & Rapanui (on Easter Island)