Monday, May 2, 2016

Salar de Uyuni - From moonscapes to vast seas of salt

Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni - Bolivia) via San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)
02 May - 06 May 2015

Sometimes when travelling you find yourself in the midst of one, or sometimes many, travelling stereotypes. Heading north out of La Serena, via what ''should have been" a direct route to San Pedro de Atacama was a wailing 2 yr old that had such a piercing scream it would have made Rob Halford put down his microphone and walk away from the scene. In those moments, when homocide feels more than justifiable, I usually resort to trance like medidation induced through unfocused gazing at the surrounding scenery, but, in its stead, on this day, whilst cruising up the Chilean Pacific coast, in an area where the desert meets the sea and sea mists painted everything in a shade of dirty grey, this noise just needed to be ended. Thankfully the bus gave out prior to me doing anything idiotic and possibly getting sentenced to living 12yrs in squalor and unnecessarily acquiring the attention of  random prison bum buddies named Raul and Ramon.

In typical South American fashion, when the bus broke down the driver kind of sat there bemused for a while, stepped outside, kicked a few tyres and then gazed forlornly down this empty stretch of road. It took Inga and I around 30 mins to figure out that these jokers had no clue as to what the next step should be in the process of transporting people from one predetermined destination to another after a forced stop had occurred. In my mind it should have gone something like this;

1. Call for back up bus,
2. Advise passengers of arrival of next bus,
3. Advise of likely arrival time at location. 

The way it actually went down was like this;
1. Pray for a bus from the same company to show up,
2. Pray that a bus, any bus really, shows up,
3. Advise passangers that they'll be lucky if they make it to the nearest down by the next day,
4. Advise passengers that walking would not be the worst option but neither would it be the best.

Somewhere in the midst of the organised mess we were actually delivered to the main bus station in town of Calama, several hours after our scheduled arrival time in San Pedro. There the duty fell upon the stranded passengers notify the bus company that had failed us, because no one else in the company was advised, and ask the bus company to kindly honour the tickets which now needed to take us an additional 110kms south-east from where we were to our original destination. Thankfully they were gracious enough to do this although it meant that we'd be rolling into the small town of San Pedro after midnight. Now if you're like me then you tend to run the logistics of what arriving in a small town, like San Pedro, after midnight, might hold in store for you several hours before actually getting there. You can readily assume that there will be no taxis, a tin shed bus station with two flickering 25 watt globe lights illuminating an area of 2mtrs squared around the back tyres of the bus, a map of the town that will inevitably make no sense and a broken vending machine whose only operating function will provide you with tissues...why? I don't know, it just does!

In any case, we rolled into San Pedro around 12:30am and of course its pitch black. No streets lights, no anything really. The bitumen streets give way to dirt tracks and the bus station seems like the sort of place where you used to sit down to have lunch in high school. All bags are offloaded and the small residual band of gringos that had by now become familiar with each others faces headed to the exit in search of something, anything actually. 

A large black ute pulls up out the front of the bus station, somehow we all deduce that "this is our ride". How the hell we thought that I don't know, perhaps there's some weird type of telepathy going on here in the northern parts of Chile. As we take our places in the back the guy in the drivers seat looks around with a WTF type of expression - huh, this apparently was not our ride then, this in fact was not anything but a random local that was in the right place at the wrong time. A few mins after being dumped unceremoniously to the curb an amphibious vehicle/bus emerges from the desert darkness. At the front door some words of English are exchanged and names of hotels/hostels are mentioned intermittently. It turns out that for a small fee Mr.Random amphibious guy will take us all to where we need to go. OK mate, you have yourself a deal! So off we head, the random French guy with his multi-purpose vehicle driving a bunch of foreignors to who knows where with bastardised Spanish being utilised as the conversational currency. It all makes sense, right!?

Valle de la Luna - San Pedro de Atacama - Chile

Valle de la Luna - San Pedro de Atacama - Chile

Our amphibious vehicle drops us off at the front gates of Cabanas - Camping Altos de Quitor. We buzz a few times at the front gates but there's no movement at the station. Somehow we find a way into the compound and locate the owner standing near a bonfire, beer in hand, talking to a group of Chileans, also with beers in their hands. Quickly we're offered a drink and in the same breath discover that we've arrived on a public holiday when a cross country cycle race had come to town and now that its all done and dusted  everyone is glowing brightly in their amber cheer.

The next day Inga and I utilise the bikes provided by the Cabanas and rode into town. It's relatively small, as in small in stature and size but big on enterprise. Its small dusty streets belie what truly lies behind its mainly adobe walls, that being boutique hotels, quaint restaurants, a myriad of souvenier shops and tourist agencies that go on for days. In fact many people who transiting through this area use San Pedro as a launch point for the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and as a method of finding an interesting way of crossing the border into Bolivia, both of which Inga and I  had elected to do also. After stumbling up and down the main street a couple of times we booked a three day tour with an agent that "looked" the most appealing. When I say "looked" appealing  I think it just meant that it was the tidiest and most organised agent that we saw on first glance, because really, what the hell did we know about the quality of tours in this part of the world? Ten minutes later we were locked into a three day, two night tour through the Eduardo Avaroa national reserve with the culminating highlight to be the well known Salar de Uyuni.

Valle de la Luna - San Pedro de Atacama - Chile
Journey to the Salar
The capacity for Bolivians to organise anything kind of reminds me of the organisational skills of Serbians. The main concept or idea usually gets completed but there's A LOT missed in the finer detail. Whether that detail gets missed out of sheer laziness or re-delegation of duties, due to laziness, I'm not sure, but an example of what I mean can be garnered from our first morning. After being picked up at our accommodation quite early, (6am), we were driven by Chilean drivers to the border post where the standard administrative tasks were completed. Our Bolivian drivers then took over for the rest of the tour. Now at this stage it would have been, and perhaps should have been, nice for our drivers to advise us that we would be immediately climbing to altitude and that temperatures were going to drop significantly due to the climb. Most of us were oblivious to the topography of the area and didn't have any clue as to what altitude we'd be spending most of the next three days, elements that both our agent and drivers could have forewarned us about. Why I say this is because we had all packed and tied our bags onto the rooves, (yes, this is the old school spelling of 'roofs' that I still use), of our respective 4WD's and hence this situation nicely negated our ability to access additional clothing with ease when it was urgently required. I only realised that there might be some sort of trouble when I all of a sudden started to feel like I'd walked out of a café in Amsterdam with my need for oxygen now becoming half a breath short of what my lungs were asking for. That increase in altitude inevitably meant a significant drop in temperature also, so when we exited the vehicles at the Bolivian border post our t-shirts and light pullovers were no match for the low single digit temperatures, high winds and +4000mtrs altitude. Asking our drivers to scramble and take down our bags was also a chore especially when they had it in their minds that their "real" task was to provide us with breakfast first and foremost. Only after that would the desperate need for warmth be catered for.

 Laguna Blanca - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
After finishing up customs formalities and an uncomfortable breakfast we jumped into our 4WD's and were off cruising the altiplano, a sparse, stark and desolate region but filled never the less with richness in terms of colour and contrast. The mountains of the Andes act as the border between Chile and Boliva, their slopes coloured uniquely with rich veins of purple, dark blue, orange/red and green soil. The sky at these altitudes also seems deeper and fuller, providing a magnificent backdrop to the rugged scenery. What a few of us  started to notice at this time was the mild onset of hypoxia (oxygen deficiency). That continued need for an additional half breath or the light headedness that we were encountering was simply due to the fact that we had made the climb to 4000mtrs+ rather rapidly that (again, something we should have been alerted to). Something we also should have been advised of was that our sleeping quarters for that evening was going to be at an altitude of 4900mtrs. Not that we could do anything about it now, we were already up and away, it just shows however that those finer details are never really at the forefront of these Bolivian minds.

Bolivian colours -  Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

I found that most of the first day I was struggling to keep warm. With frequent stops and jumping in and out of the vehicle for photo ops, there seemed to be a constant struggle between enjoyment and need for well being. The highlight of the first day was a stop at Laguna de Colorada, a shallow salt lake whose red colour is derived from red soil sediments and the pigmentation of some algae. The lake is also home to a colony of James's flamingos (yes, their really name) whose pink colour is apparently derived from a carotene rich diet, although in all honesty that didn't mean much to me other than the ability to take cool pink flamingo shots. 

Laguna de Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
 James's flamingos (yes, their real name) - Laguna de Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

James's flamingos -Laguna de Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
James's flamingos -Laguna de Colorada
The one thing that we were advised of by the tourist agency was that accommodation on our first evening would "basic", as in, there would be running water, there would be no showers, electricity would be restricted to just a few hours and the blankets they provided would probably not be enough to keep us warm. To this they stuck true to their words. Generators powered two lights for a duration of about three hours, enough to make it through dinner and allow for a handful of dumb refugio selfies. Once the mountains were blanketed by darkness however it literally was lights out. We were all in bed at about 7:45pm wondering out aloud and in our minds as to how the hell we'd force ourselves to sleep for the next 12 hours. Not only was that concept mind numbingly boring but the shortness of breath and dull headaches brought on by our oxygen deficit meant that all of us were finding out what it was like to have a prolonged asthma attack/or panic attack, take your pick. Either way, when the first rays of sun busted through our windows in the morning we were thankful for both the alleviation of boredom and the much needed warmth - sleeping under a mound of 10 blankets does not make for a good time.
Day 2 of our 4WD drive adventure was relatively uneventful. It was more of that rugged altiplano terrain, shallow salt lakes, the odd interesting rock formation and a late afternoon arrival at the salt hotel/motel, the later of which was interesting in part. The salt was real, the walls were real salt and so too the floors. I wonder if it ever suffered from severe bloating? I mean from my perspective I couldn't be sure. Needless to say, even though I'm a doctor (and not the real type, just a Juris Doctor, which really isn't even a fake/fake doctor, like say, having a Phd in Philosophy isn't really a 'traditional, fix your spleen Dr', but more of that fake Phd fake/fake, like I have the title of Dr without going the actual Phd miles...anyway...that really is a whole other story), so where am I...Oh yeah, my credentials don't allow me to make any sort of accurate diagnoses from the symptoms. Anyway, the REAL DEAL, as in the real highlight, of not just the three days but one of the REAL highlights of the entire trip was scheduled for the next, so why the hell should I wax lyrical any more than I need to regarding what was a pretty ordinary salt hotel, all things considered.
Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
Day 3 of the 4WD excursion commenced at the head spinning time of 4:30am. An awful time to commence any day of course but for me this was to be special for more than just one reason. The idea of seeing the Salar had been with me for many years and five years earlier this was to have been my very next port of call after La Paz, that part of the journey was of course was halted by the stolen wallet incident, the moment in time when my 1st South American escapade unravelled completely. This day therefore  felt like I had almost come full circle. Not a bad place to have it happen either, let me say.
As we headed out into the morning the moon was high and shone brightly, the night lights were on display and the sky seemed beautifully clear. With our early morning coffees wearing off quickly, most of us dosed the 40 mins of the drive until we hit the salt plains but the moment we did everything changed. The vehicle glided effortlessly along the flat surface of salt and as the sun started to awake from its own slumber we started to get a feel for our immediate surrounds, a totally surreal world that felt more like a moonscape than anywhere I knew on this planet. Several minutes later our driver slowed to a complete stop in sight of Isla Incahuasi.
The scene that morning on the Salar was unworldly. To use words such as mystical or transcendent to describe the scenery might seem odd but standing out in the midst of that vast,flat expanse of cracked, plated salt, the purple, blue sky carrying the setting moon on one side of us and the orange hues of the sun stretching further into the frame with each passing second, it was something else. Even the nasty bite of the cold wind running across the plain added to the rare atmosphere. It was a picture that I had waited quite a few years to see and one that in only a few seconds had surpassed all of my lofty expectations.

Moonset on the salar - Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

 Panoramic shot of Salar de Uyuni with Isla Incahuasi in the foreground- Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
After making a morning pit-stop for breakfast on Isla Incahuasi and then almost missing our ride out onto the salt plains due to my poor comprehension of Spanish, (we figured out something was wrong when both Inga and I walked to the other side of the island, on what we thought were the correct instructions, only to witness vehicle after vehicle shooting off into the salty sea horizon without us), we got the opportunity to stop in the middle of the blindingly bright salt plain and utilise our cameras to play around a little with perspective and depth of field.

 Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

"Message in a bottle" -  Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

 Looks like a Bolle sunglasses advert (just ignore the obvious RayBan brand name) - Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia 

 Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

 Inga, Building bridges - Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia


Dakar Bolivia - a reminder of a stop on the salt flats and a reminder that the Paris to Dakar is no longer what it used to be
Some 90 minutes after we were dropped off onto the plains both Inga and I had somehow outlasted our more energetic happy snappers of earlier that morning. I think by the time we had well and truly established our photo taking rhythm the others in our vehicle had tapped out their energy reserves by having gone too hard too early.
After spending most of the morning on the lake we moved on to the one street town of Colchani for lunch before heading the Cemetario de trenes outside of Uyuni in the early afternoon for a view more shots. Surprisingly a great place to take photos, especially black and whites.
Our three days came to an end in the small town of Uyuni, a place that was nowhere near as depressing as some of the guide books had suggested. Some of the write-ups had us worried that there may just be piles of dirt and a bus station to look forward to but it seems that the town is fully aware of the attraction residing on its doorstep. In any case, for those of you that are wondering about doing the trip that we did then here's a few handy tips should you choose to take it on yourselves;
1. Additional warm clothing always comes in handy
2. Be prepared that altitude may affect you in odd ways. To counter that start with anti-altitude sickness pills 3-4 days prior to heading onto the altiplano
3. Take a sleeping bag or two
4. Uyuni is not a hole
5. Take flashlights, candles, things to do when hanging out in the refugio on night one
6. Take toilet paper, you just never know when necessity will strike
7. Take additional food/drinks with you
8. The tour guides recommend taking 4litres of bottled water. It's a waste. Grab a few bottles that can easily be carried in a bag or in the car and not tied down to the roof rack of the 4WD
9. Get onto the Salar just before the sun rises

Cemetario de trenes - Uyuni - Bolivia

 Cemetario de trenes - Uyuni - Bolivia

Friday, April 15, 2016

Elqui Valley - Intergalactic sightseeing in a valley far, far away

Elqui Valley via La Serena (Chile)
27 April - 01 May 2015

Recently I decided to do some research into Daylight Saving time in Chile, as in, when it should occur, when clocks should move forward or back, you know, the standard questions that people in either hemisphere ask themselves when the months of April & October appear on the horizon and you get that uneasy feeling of realising that a time change is upon you but not really knowing when it should occur.  The reason for this belated research is that Inga and I ''apparently' got caught out by this  temporal revision when we were about to make our way north from Valparaiso to La Serena. We had arrived at the main bus terminal in Valparaiso, purchased tickets and had assumed that we had over an hour to spare prior to our specified departure time, only we actually didn't. We discovered an hour later, much to our chagrin, that our intended ride had departed 45 minutes earlier than we had anticipated. Now this type of mishap had also happened to me once before, way back in good 'ole Mexico. One time when downing Caronas on a Mexican beach a time change there had meant that the intended ride that Jet and I wanted to take from Mazatlan to Mexico City left 30 minutes prior to the time that our watches were showing. That error however had occurred in the northern hemisphere, during a time when I would have anticipated the clocks to have been moved forward, which they did, thus making the 'miss' fully understandable. On this occasion we were in the southern hemisphere, during April and a change of times should have turned the clocks back, which in essence should have provided us with an additional hour. To make this oddity even more confusing, my research of late has shown that in 2015 Chile made the once off decision of not changing their daylight savings hours, which now on reflection completely dumbfounds me as to how and why we missed this specific connection by over an hour when all others had gone and indeed did go extremely smoothly. So therefore I provide this tip to all would be travellers out there, check your time zone changes! Make these checks both when jumping borders and within the country you're travelling as movement across those long lines of latitude also means that clocks can move forward or back. Also, keep a look out for allotted days for daylight savings changes (if indeed they occur), this can monumentally stuff up your itinerary and catch you out in terms of finances.

Hours after our intended time of arrival we pulled into the uninspiring town of La Serena just on dusk. For all its architectural prominence and its status as Chile's second oldest city we had had the simple hopes of finding a place that served a decent pisco sour, I mean really, that was all our minds had requested after several hours on a bus. Somehow through our day of small misfortunes we also managed to find the one bar that served a desperately bad national beverage that included random floating pieces of lemon rind. The drinks looked more like a gringo joke than an actual verifiable concoction. In addition the price we paid also proved that the joke was well and truly being played out at our expense, which in the grand scheme of things wasn't a tragedy as the next day we were heading to the Elqui Valley.

So, why the Elqui Valley and why in particular Elqui Domos? Keep reading...

The road to Elqui Domos - Elqui Valley - near Pisco Elqui - Chile

Sometime in 2014 when the bones for this trip was being put together I came across an article in the SMH that mentioned the domes and cabins hidden in the Valle de Elqui. Having also commenced my early years of answering the notoriously annoying and irrelevant question of ''What do you want to be when you grow up?" with the answer of  "An astronomer" then the idea of sleeping under the "grandeur of the skies of the Elqui Valley" was something that established itself on my mental itinerary very early on in the piece.

Our bid to leave La Serena was almost halted at its earliest moment when we found ourselves sprinting from a supermarket back to the bus station after misjudging the distance we had initially walked in the first place. Still, we made the ride and headed the 107km east to our stop of Pisco Elqui.

A pisco pit stop - Sala de Ventas - Elqui Valley - Chile

As the bus made the slow climb into the valley the scenery very much reminded me of both the topography and the colours that I had previously encountered in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The lush green of the valley floor, being supported Rio Claro O Dercho, made for quite the contrast to the rugged, sparse mountains that offered up hues of blue, red and grey. The area itself is known for its cool desert climate, low rainfall (being positioned at the very southern end of the Atacama desert) and dry rocky terrain. The green striations of vineyards and orchards were occasionally punctuated by small, quaint, sleepy towns of Paihuano, Monte Grande, La Union and finally Pisco Elqui.

We arrived in Pisco Elqui on a beautifully clear day, the sunshine bathed valley stretching out into the distance within the Precodillera of the Andes. The village itself felt like it was living on permanent Sunday time, laid-back, unruffled, slow in pace, our presence making us feel like we had somehow disturbed their equilibrium. Needless to say, there were no taxis, no collectivos, no random guys in utes waiting to take backpackers to their next port of call. The only way from here to Elqui Domos was to walk the 3.5kms out of town in the beating sun, which is just want we did.

Walking the sun drenched bitumen up the valley immediately evoked a conflict of competing senses. Visually stunning panoramas subtly slid on the scale of importance when heat and thirst started to make their way through the pack. We were thankful when we came across the beautiful Sala de Ventas which looked out over the valley and settled our need for a nice cold pisco sour or three. It was with this energy boost that we were able to make the last small charge to Elqui Domos.

A roof with a view - Elqui Domos - Elqui Valley - Chile

The Elqui Domos facility occupies part of the rugged terrain that overlooks the valley. The domed tents that dot the grounds highlight the other main attraction that draws tourists to these parts and that's the unbelievably clear evening skies which provide you with a step ladder that allows you to high five the cosmos. It's also said that the Elqui Valley is where the Earth's magnetic centre is situated but how much truth can you take away from the lines "they say" and "apparently scientists have measured" other than the concept of an interesting tag line. Still, as we entered our cabin in the late afternoon and quickly found a latticed space on the roof which allowed for the a perfect view of the sky above, there was no need to produce any sort of counter argument.

As the sun dropped and the shadows grew longer, the "clearest atmosphere" in the world made its way to the podium and all those billions of stars that you never ever see for the artificial lights of the city came out to play, and yes, it was magical. Its said that under these skies that the human eye can see stars in the sky up to the eigth magnitude. In all honesty, I have no idea what that means but the suggestion by Inga that we take all our bedding onto the roof and that for this night we sleep under the stars was simply inspired. It felt as though the whole universe was wrapped around us, enveloping us as we starred off back in time. The Milky Way stretched out like a stubborn cloud that wouldn't leave the picture, only to be punctuated by a falling star or two, witnessed only in those moments when Inga wasn't looking. At times I drifted off to sleep only to wake up minutes or perhaps hours later staring up at the cosmos looking back at me. My recommendation to you, if you get then chance then don't second guess yourself, just go there.

Elqui Valley - Chile

The experience of the evening and the early morning was so fantastic that we decided to add another night at Elqui Domos the next day. To fill our daylight hours the next day we hired some bikes from Pisco Elqui village and cruised down the valley to the small village of Paihuno. The day before when we had passed through it had made a bit of an impression on me and I was glad to get the opportunity to go and investigate. Somewhat unfortunately when we arrived we found out why it was devoid of tourists, there was simply nothing going on there, at all. The reward that accompanied that ride was a tough 12km return ride back up to Pisco Elqui under what was a fairly brutal sun. Each kilometre turned over felt like 5kms as the long winding road rose further into the hills. It was simlply with brutal determination that we managed to get back under our own power and thus we treated ourselves to an afternoon at the bar of the Pisco distillery which luckily was supported by a lovely bartender that made basil pisco sours that were more than ample in volume. Each drink we purchased was actually a cocktail shaker in volume. We left the distillery with large beaming grins.

Pisco sours at the Pisco distillery - Pisco Elqui - Elqui Valley - Chile

Elqui Valley - Chile

On our final evening we took a ride further up the valley to one of the many small observatories that call the valley home. An interesting French astronomer took us on a tour of the night sky and almost looked to reach out and touch even the most barely visible stars with his funky laser pointer. It was intergalactic sightseeing at its best and something that will I'm sure will remain fondly in our memories for years to come.

Stargazing and moon gazing in the Elqui Valley - Chile

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Valparaiso - where urbanisation and mozaics got into a long term relationship

Valparaiso (Chile)
24 April - 27 April 2015

The first time I heard of the city of Valparaiso was when I was struggling through evening shifts of telemarketing for Heidelberg roof restoration. I was one of those pesky callers that would contact you in the middle of your dinner and entice you into a ''free roof inspection as our consultants were now in your street''. Of course quite a few people would say to me "I'm looking out my window now and I can't see anyone', and yes, they were right, but lets just say that their ''originality'' quite often meant that a miniskip bin would be turning up on their front lawn come the weekend. This by the way has nothing to do with Valparaiso and the tenuous thread that I'm going to utilise here is that I once worked with a lady at the roof restoration company that would mention the city in expressive discussions in her native Spanish to another lady. At the time I thought Valparaiso was just the name of a common female friend that they had, suffice to say that my assumption was a long way off the mark.

What Valparaiso now is and what the city once was are indicative of what befalls a city when luck shines upon you for a short while and then the economic roulette wheel comes up odds when you need evens. The port used to be a burgeoning and dynamic port city at the start of last century, acting as a major stopover for ships plying the Atlantic-Pacific trade route from Europe to the west coast of the US. What the economic Gods giveth however they also taketh away without regret and thus with a fully functioning Panama canal a few thousand kilometres north cutting travel time between the great oceans by a full moon cycle and some change Valparaiso was left to die a slow, painful economic death.

So, what's your answer when economic hardship befalls you and you're only able to call upon the famous green ink of the greatest poet of the 20th century? Well, you'll have to scroll down and figure it out from our photos...or manage to read on a little more.

Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

What we found in Valparaiso and what it is now also very well known for are its steep hillside districts that rise abruptly from the port area, its labyrinth of cobblestone streets, small alleys and random roads, its rickety funiculars that rise about 20 mtrs at a time but save possible heart failure and of course its city street art. This place is now filled with interesting, unique pieces of street art which are interwoven with the spectacle of often bright, oddly coloured buildings that at times can be ornate and stunning but in other moments (areas) are shabby, worn and sometimes precariously positioned on the steep Valparaiso hills.

Valparaiso - Chile
View from Camillla 109 B&B, Cerro La Loma - Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

What this art brings to this city I think it directly proportional to what it aims to take away. This city is a seaport and as is common amongst points of transit for sailor people, i.e., those spots where the men of the sea hit land and so too their crude desires. It appears now that for whatever worn or faded seediness you may feel whilst walking through this town, the artistic, bohemian endeavours of the new avant garde is funneling away and as long as that remains the pervasive tone of the town then tourists like me will make the journey to check it out what that dichotomy brings to the table.

And personally I have to say that I found Valparaiso to be both interesting and impressive. The hills form a natural ampitheatre around the still busy port and its multi-coloured houses of lime, yellow and red cascade down its green slopess and flow into the Pacific. Its streets force you to stop, look, take photos, retake them and then prompt you to ask yourself "why the hell can't I capture this image the way I want?". The resultant internal conflict only being resolved when you promise to yourself that you'll finally do "that" photography course when you get home in however many months time. It's still on the bucket list by the way.

Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

The hills of Cerro Allegre and Cerro Concepcion were the most interesting places for us to investigate and luckily were only a short hillside walk from our B&B on La Loma. Each little narrow street or drop in elevation brought with it a new gallery, restaurant or bar where it became obligatory for us to test the bartender's skill at fixing a Pisco Sour. Just between you and me, other than the Boca anomaly where we did have the best Pisco Sour on our journey (as a once off), the best consistenly made Pisco was in a little boutique hotel right in Valparaiso. Of course, I can't tell you the location because that would be an easy giveaway but if you want to try something that comes close then go to The Harley House (entrance on Exhibition St), Melbourne - happy hours 4pm - 6:30pm (just in case you're wondering).

Hostal Acuarela - by street artist (Mono Type) -Valparaiso - Chile

These were SO good!!! Valparaiso - Chile

Funiculars - Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

Valparaiso - Chile

Our walking tour through the city on the first day took us to many of the cooler street art displays in the town. It also brought to our attention that the city itself was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage centre back in 2003. As the guide explains to us, cool in the fact that the city receives funding from the government to maintain its current modus and also in the fact that tourist such as Inga and I are drawn in by what the city offers but difficult in other ways in that potential new business and construction are now dictated by both the regulations and increased financial cost of operating under UNESCO heritage guidelines. Sometimes your newfound blessing can also be a curse.

From an outsiders perspective however its easy to quickly be captured by both its vibrancy and bohemian sense of cool. Its one of those places where it seems where constant discovery would chase you incessantly if only you had the time. This kaleidoscopic vision sure ain't boring!

Valparaiso - Chile

                                                            Valparaiso - Chile

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Santiago - The art of NO!

Santiago (Chile)
22 April - 24 April 2015                      
Heading out of Mendoza also meant that we were now heading out of Argentina, a place that we would not really return to until the start of July. The Andes stood imposingly in front of us as we made our way west under sunshine and clear skies. Other than flying over the Andes this was going to be the first time that both of us had actually traversed the peaks overland and even though the journey into Santiago was 6hrs, the dramatic scenery meant that those hours slid on by quite quickly.
On the road to Santiago - outside of Mendoza - Argentina
On the road to Santiago - outside of Mendoza - Andes Mountains - Argentina
Arriving in the Chilean capital just after dusk our accommodation for the next few nights was going to be at the Luna Suite apartment located in the architecturally diverse neighbourhood of Paris-London. Situated in the city centre of Santiago, this neighbourhood of narrow pebble streets and European style buildings actually provided us with a little bit of a surprise. We had both heard prior to coming to Santiago, and also on our way here, that this capital is probably considered to be the most underwhelming and uninspiring in South America. Granted, on our travels, Santiago did not outclass any of the other major cities that we visited but all in all it was pleasant enough for the two day stay that we afforded it. Admittedly I think any more time than that would have been a waste.
Barrio of Paris-London - Santiago - Chile
Santiago - Chile
Santiago - Chile
Bellavista Patio - Constitucion - Santiago - Chile
Walking through the city in mid-evening we found it to be a nice place, clean, with mostly low rise buildings. Our meanderings, our should I say, loosely directed walk, guided us to Calle Constituticion in the Bella Vista barrio. Somewhere along the line I had picked up that the area was pretty much a bar filled street or a somewhat bohemian and rowdy type nature. Something that we didn’t really get to test out as somewhere along Constitucion we were dragged into the extremely large courtyard of Patio Bellavista. I’m not sure how exactly it happened, perhaps it was an arch way or its bright lights but once we were caught be is tractor beam we were dragged into what looked like an entire block filled with restaurants, bars and some souvenir shops. I was honestly like placing a kid in a candy store and saying, ‘Ok, you’re free to do as you please’. Which of course we were both at the liberty to do and had the means to do, so why the hell not. As mentioned earlier, the location of the patio places it right in the centre of the BellaVista bohemian district and hence there appeared to be quite a cross section of tourists and locals alike. Considering this discovery was wholly an accident on our part we were more than pleased with the outcome.
Bellavista Patio - Constitucion - Santiago - Chile
Santiago from Cerro San Cristobal
The next day we set aside to attack the Virgen Cerro San Cristobal, a hill that we had identified the night before as being our best bet to obtain the best views of Santiago and literally backed onto the Bella Vista barrio that we had occupied through our drinking spree in the early hours of the this. Prior to that however we set ourselves with the task of getting some laundry done, a necessity after having made our way through Patagonia for the last few weeks. Now this task is generally a fundamentally boring excursion but usually quite easy, on this day however it nearly turned into a contact sport for me. Somewhere along the line I walked into a very small convenience store and proceeded to ask a lady of say some 60 years whether there was a lavanderia in the area. Now to my sheer dismay the rather forceful and loud response that I received in return a blatant ‘NO!’. THAT was it! There was no offer of advice as to where one would be or even an apologetic ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know’ there was just that brutal ‘NO’ and then she turned to whatever the hell it was she was doing earlier. Standing there both perplexed and offended I pushed it a little further and asked ‘Where was one’ , the equally as abrupt and rude response was a ‘No se’ (I don’t know) but delivered in the kind of way that you do to someone when you’re being a total jerk. I stood in front of her for a moment, gave her a big ‘stuff you’ type of grin and simply added ‘Gracias’ as I walked away. I’m not sure why but that grandmother riled me up so much that for months after I had fantastic of walking into her store and delivering my own nasty punch lines, the best I think being taking 20 or so items off every low shelf, going to pay and then asking how much all the items cost only to scream out ‘NO’ in the nasty witches face when she told me a figure and simply walk away from the scene (…yeah…I still might do that one day!).
Constitucion - Santiago - Chile
Constitucion - Santiago - Chile
After the Searching for a lavanderia incident we eventually made it up to the top Virgen Cerro San Cristobal on what was quite a warm day. The hill/mountain lookout is essentially in the middle of the city and provides the perfect vantage point for viewing the layout of Santiago and the Andes mountains that surround it. In that sense I would anticipate that on a clear day (..on those rare clear days that Santiago ‘may have’) that being up here could be quite pleasant, unfortunately though the smog in Santiago is so thick that a brown haze blankets the entire city and makes the whole experience totally unappealing. It’s unfortunate because in a city that requires a bit of spark in terms of what it can offer the tourist this lookout would be a shining point if not for the serious pollution.
Santiago - Chile
After making the descent of the cerro via the peak tram (always on the way down as we NEVER took a tram up to anywhere, well except up Corcovado in Rio), we occupied our late afternoon at Patio Belle Vista once more, this time with some cocktails and fabulous tequenos (basically breaded cheese sticks that had some type of meat in their centres, absolutely delicious). We did eventually make our way back to the barrio of Paris-London that afternoon but only for a short stop, as somehow, almost inevitably, we returned to Patio Bella Vista for a few follow up cocktails.
And that my friends was that. Santiago was nice, but as you know, not many people like to settle for ‘just nice’. Just nice is what you accept when you’re looking for other things or when you’re in between stops, it’s rarely your final destination. So whilst I thank Santiago for putting us up for a couple of nights the next we were at the bus station and ready to head for Valparaiso, with the most enduring memory of the capital being a bad tempered granny with a poor attitude who doesn’t know that one day ‘I’ll be back’ and when that day comes my satisfaction from levelling the scores will be ever enduring.