Sunday, 30 September 2012

Fiestas Patrias

The Phoenix, of
Chilean miner fame
The Fiestas Patrias are the two most important days in the Chilean calendar, and they mark both the beginning of the Chilean independence process from Spain (September 18) and the Army Day (September 19). However, for most Chileans it's a great excuse to eat huge quantities of meat, drink a lot, and dance some cueca. Although only a 2 day holiday, the government decided that, seeing as the fiestas fall on a Tuesday and Wednesday, they'd better give everyone the Monday off as well so we can all have a 5 day weekend. Not bad.

Unfortunately, my dieciocho (meaning 18th, cunningly), was somewhat spoiled by some unfortunate timetableing constraints with a TurBus, which meant that I spent the day on a coach back from San Pedro watching Undisputed 1, 2 and 3 badly dubbed into Spanish. Not exactly what I had planned.

However, the next day I went to a fonda with Ignacio and Soledad in a local park. A fonda is basically a sort of temporary outdoor fair, where they put together a mix of eateries, bars and entertainment together with more Chilean flags than I've ever seen in my life. They're hugely popular, and this is where pretty much everyone goes over the fiestas patrias.

Meat being cooked on a traditional wooden fire.
Me and Ignacio (plus randomer in background) with Terremotos
Chorillana: chips, steak, chorizo, egg and onion.
A Chilean cowboy, aka Huaso
Traditional rodeo with huasos

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

San Pedro de Atacama

As promised, Ross, here's a post especially for you.

San Pedro de Atacama is a small town that's completely overrun with tourists in the middle of the Atacama desert, the driest in the world (according to Wikipedia). It is, however, one of the coolest places I've ever been. The town itself is kind of interesting, but its the places around it that really make it special.

The town, minus tourists, could almost be out of the American Wild West. The streets are sand, the signs wooden, and the buildings made of some kind of plaster stuff. Have a look:

Caracoles: the main street in San Pedro
Iglesia in San Pedro
Side Street off the Main Street
There's an awful lot of stuff that goes on around San Pedro, and I managed to do a fair share of them whilst I was there for a few days. Here are a few pictures of the best things:

Massive telescope showing the insanely clear night sky
Salar de Atacama: one of the largest salt flats in the world
Chaxa Lagoon Natural Reserve: James Flamingos
Thermal Pools in the early morning at El Tatio (4000m)
Cejar Lagoon: salty lake in the desert where you cannot sink
Valle de la Luna: amazing sunset over the Andes
Tatio Geysers at Dawn: the highest geyser field in the World

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Travelling North

I've now reached San Pedro de Atacama, in the middle of the driest desert in the world, after 5 days travelling with Pachamama Bus.

Day 1: Santiago to Coquimbo
This was the first day travelling, where I met the other people I would be with over the next few days. There were 8 of us in the bus, as well as a guide and driver: we had a german, a pole, 2 danes, an american, and 2 dutch people. We headed up the Pacific on the Pan-American highway, stopping off at Pichidangui, a small fishing town, for lunch on the beach. Several hours later we were in Coquimbo, in an old hostel likened to the Adams Family house by Yersin, our guide. We had a quick look around the town, which is a large fishing port, and then had dinner and some drinks in the hostel.

Day 2: Coquimbo to Bahia Inglesa
The next day we headed further North towards Bahia Inglesa, a beach resort that was founded by English pirates, hence the name. On the way we stopped off in the Humboldt Penguin Natural Reserve, where we all got onto a boat and headed out to the islands that make up the reserve. Unsurprisingly, the reserve is home to the Humboldt Penguin, as well as sea otters, sea lions, dolphins, and a lot of birds. After that, it was further up the coast to our next overnight stop at Bahia Inglesa.

Day 3: Bahia Inglesa
Today was a break day where we got out into the nearby towns to have a look around, and check out the local food offerings. Caldera is a small town near Bahia Inglesa that is little more than a port town outside of the summer months, but which turns out to be home to the Chilean miners who were trapped underground around 10km away. In the evening we got together for a big Chilean asado, with the usually huge quantities of meat.

Day 4: Bahia Inglesa to Antofagasta
We left early the next day to keep going up the coast, towards our penultimate destination of Antofagasta, the mining capital of Chile. Along the way we had two stops: at the mano del desierto, basically a big concrete hand in the desert, and a cemetery left over from the nitrate years in the Norte Grande. About 100 years ago one of the main exports of Chile was nitrate minerals used in fertilisers, and this area was very rich in those deposits. However, these quickly became obsolete when people managed to artifically synthesise nitrate, and the subsequent end of mining created the ghost towns that are dotted around the area today. Interesting.

Day 5: Antofagasta to San Pedro
This was probably the best day. The first stop was in Baquedano, where we visited a train cemetery, another hangover from the nitrate days. It was basically an old train yard where engines had just been left, but because of the dry conditions they had been really well preserved. Its actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. Next we headed to the Atacama Salt Flats, the biggest in Chile and second biggest in the world, where underground activity has created miles and miles of rock salt crust in the desert.

Then it was further up into the Andes, with a stop in Peine, a small oasis town in the foothills that has a pool fed by rivers from the mountains, where we swam and played water-polo (of sorts). The final stop before arriving in San Pedro was the Chaxa Lagoons, potentially the most beautiful place I've ever seen, with flamingos and birds wandering around in the shallow salt lagoons creating mirror reflections of themselves, all with the backdrop of a clear blue sky and the Andes. Bit smelly though.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Heading North

This Saturday (tomorrow) I leave Santiago, and head North. However, despite travelling some 1,750 kilometres, I'll still be very much in Chile. The journey will be spread over 10 days, and in the process I'll be bussing the equivalent of London to Moscow - it's a pretty long way! Have a look at this map for an idea of the route:

The Atacama Desert
I'm travelling with Pachamama by Bus, a backpacker bus company, for the first 5 days. We're heading to San Pedro de Atacama, and breaking up the journey with overnight stops in La Serena (second oldest city in Chile), Bahia Inglesa (beaches, penguins, and natural park), and Angofagosta (mining heritage). We'll get to San Pedro de Atacama (in the middle of the driest place in the world) and then I'll stay there for 4/5 days. Then I bus all the way back down to Santiago, a journey that will take about 24 hours.

"Semi-Cama" seats: 2nd class on coaches
An interesting point is that Chile has a really good bus network, and a very poor rail network. Although trains allegedly go down to Puerto Montt, in the South, I can't actually seem to find any information about these, and the only main train route is around the Santiago metropolitan area. Buses are the way to get around. There's a huge coach network, which is really very good; the coaches are safe, comfortable, and relatively quick. Also, unlike anything else in Chile, they actually have a timetable which they run to. The best company seems to be TurBus, which has routes country-wide, and also goes into Bolivia, Argentina and PerĂº - a safe bet for my journey. Plus, tickets are cheap: San Pedro to Santiago is costing me $18,000 pesos, which is around £25. Not bad for that big a journey, in seats comparable to business class flying.

I might not have very much internet access throughout the journey, but I'll post photos and info on here when I can.

(PS. Well done Penny for finishing the LifeCycle ride - Britain is a long country to bike all the way down!)

Sunday, 2 September 2012


This weekend was an interesting mix: I went to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the Iglesia de San Francisco (sorry, Martha!), the Cerro Santa Lucia, and then partied on down in Barrio Lastarria and Vitacura with some friends of friends from work.

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is dedicated to the victims of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet, from 1973 to 1990. It's a really excellent museum that shows the story of what happened during the dictatorship, as well as the coup itself, and their fall from power. Some of it's pretty nasty stuff: the secret state police, the DINA (replaced by CNI) and other government organisations, were responsible for the torture, execution, interrogation, intimidation and "disappearing" of tens of thousands of Chileans. Also taking into account both the 200,000 Chileans who were forced into exile and the fact that this happened little more than 20 years ago, it's understandable that this is something that Chileans are still coming to terms with; the museum was pretty empty.

Next up was a bit more sight-seeing, albeit slightly less heavy. The Iglesia de San Francisco is the oldest church in Santiago, and has managed to weather the frequent earthquakes well considering it's made out of adobe. It's a nice place, but basically just another church that happens to look a bit different. Close by is the Cerro Santa Lucia, a small hill in the middle of downtown Santiago Centro. You have to sign the guest book before entering (why, I'm not sure) but the walk up is well worth it for the great views on top. However, the vast number of cuddling couples on benches was a little off-putting; one is fine, but there was genuinely a couple on every single bench. Ew. However, the view at the top was pretty cool!