Episode 11: San Pedro de Atacama/Santiago, Chile
Beard length (Tom): George Bernard Shaw
Skin colour (both): The really weak/milky tea that children and common people drink
Location: Santiago, Chile
Date: 24th April 2010.
Just a quick update today. It’s our last day in South America and it’s been a great three-and-a-bit months. It actually seems a lot longer than that to us, hopefully the whole trip will be the same and the next 8 months won’t be a blur!
We’ve had a fairly low-key week or so – I was “unwell” for two or three days with we arrived in San Pedro, which had its obvious downsides, but also one upside, in that I can now see my toes without craning my neck for the first time since university. The other upside is that we now have a whole new vocabulary for describing loo visits: “poo shake” and “Nik-Naks” being the most often used unfortunately. We’ve been forced to become much more familiar with each other!
Jane was surprisingly sympathetic and nursed me back to health in time for us to enjoy a couple of days in San Pedro. The first (fairly obvious) thing to say about San Pedro is that it’s in the desert – it’s hot during the day and freezing at night. It’s a dusty little town, quiet and friendly, with a few swanky eateries, lots of hostels and tour agencies, vast numbers of roaming (but friendly) dogs and not much else.
Slight snag to begin with was having to change hostel after the first night, after being kept awake until 4.30am, not by the usual dreadlocked traveller type with guitar and pan pipe combo, but by the hostel owners with a recorder and raucous singing! Not great for business, and the second hostel was altogether more convivial – you know you’re on to a winner when the owner is a middle-aged French woman.
We experienced the plunging night-time temperatures first-hand on an astronomy tour after midnight, which is up there with our favourite things so far. The skies in this part of the world are clearer than anywhere I’ve ever been (although Jane reckons Maine was about the same), and our guides were a comedy French/Chilean couple.
We saw Saturn up close through a telescope, a hazy Mars, numerous nebulae in the Milky Way and learnt with the naked eye about constellations and the history of star-gazing. It was educational and thought-provoking and I think I want to be an astronomer when I grow up.
The only downside was not having a swish camera to enable us to share the experience with you (donations welcome).
Our other trip in San Pedro was to the salt flats just outside the town. Since we decided to give Bolivia a miss, these flats were a consolation prize, but they were still very impressive.
First stop was to some saline pools, in which we could float to our hearts’ content (though found it surprisingly difficult to swim since our limbs were airborne). I also continued my “Mr. Bump” act by cutting my finger on the sandpaper rocks (don’t ask me how I hit the bottom in a pool in which you float).
I maintain that by getting into these minor scrapes I’m protecting Jane from similar accidents in my usual chivalrous way; she claims that I’m attention seeking and says “mind your head”, “mind out for that hole in the pavement”, “watch out for the dog shit” many, many times a day.
After the saline pools, we headed into the salt flats proper, to two pools which are allegedly 1250 metres deep, but as you can see, are only about 15 metres across. Some brave souls were jumping into these icy pools, including a memorable side-belly flop from a “bubbly” Welsh lass, which drew gasps from the onlookers.
We then headed out to the middle of the flats for a pisco sour and some great photo opportunities with the setting sun (unfortunately again our camera isn’t swish enough to do justice to the mountains).
A 24 hour bus journey the following day brought us to Santiago, for a few days relaxation before our flight to Auckland tonight. We’ve done very little here – lots of walking and a couple of museums (another museum of pre-Columbian art today, we now must be amongst the leading authorities on the genre).
We’ve been self-catering again, in preparation for our converted transit van tour of NZ. We did have one memorable lunch out (for the wrong reasons), when Jane ordered a cold seafood platter, not knowing that what she’d be served was a large bowl of raw seafood in their own juices.
I’m amazed she got any of it down, especially since one golf-ball sized item looked like a still beating heart. Not wanting to be defeated, she brought the leftovers back to the hostel to be fried up in some garlic butter for dinner (which she claims were delicious). Since you ask, my fish and chips were as good, if not better, than Harry Ramsden’s.
So our time here is at an end. We’ve loved it in spite of the drawbacks, but we’re also looking forward to New Zealand, where I understand you can flush your loo paper and they speak a pidgin version of English.
South America musings: generalisations and mild xenophobia
As we are at the end of our time in South America we thought a brief summary would be in order. Please note that in spite of all our whining and moaning, we’ve had a great three months.
In no particular order, here are our thoughts:
- South America is hard work (even with a basic grasp of the lingo). There’s a whole different concept of personal space, manners etc.
- “Service station” food knocks spots off a Wild Bean Cafe.
- There are more Israelis in South America than there are South Americans – there are also more stray dogs than South Americans, but we don’t believe the two to be linked.
- Israelis travel in small herds and are extremely modest.
- Israel is the best country in the world and has the best fish, most attractive women and nicest beaches.
- Australians have a volume control which fluctuates between loud and bellow.*
- If you don’t like beans and rice, don’t come to South America.
- Long distance buses are usually very comfortable but extremely frustrating (people talking, TV on the blink, food appearing at random times, unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere).
- The scenery almost everywhere (but especially in Patagonia and in Southern Ecuador and Peru) is fantastic.
- Buenos Aires is not the Paris of the South, it’s not even the Birmingham of the South.
- Civic pride is not high on the agenda: even the most beautifully located towns have rubbish strewn gutters and half built buildings everywhere.
- What they say about Argentinian beef is true.
- Machu Picchu is the centre of the biggest tourist rip off conspiracy in the known world. Prices for all aspects of visiting it, and the surrounding sites, bear no relation to prices in the wider Peruvian world. It’s still worth it though, which unfortunately they know!
- No dog has an owner (and most are missing serious amounts of fur/legs).
- Apparently my wife looks like Princess Diana – who knew?!!
- All meals come with Aji which should definitely be introduced to the UK (spicy tomatoey sauce/salsa thing).
- Pestering levels go up a notch in Ecuador and Peru and the “no gracias” t-shirt should have been the first purchase of the trip.
- Indigenous women really do wear those outfits all the time, complete with comedy bowler/fedora hat and have very few teeth past about 25.
- Alpaca is really tasty, unfortunately we never got to try the cuy (guinea pig).
- You will never be on any “gringo” bus without at least one musical instrument, often being played to an admiring group of gurning idiots.
- We still haven’t got to grips with crossing the road, where the rules seem to differ everywhere. Our mantra: wait for the green man.
- Ecuadorian buses come complete with a rotating display of beggars, hawkers, evangelists but annoyingly never a food seller when you’re starving.
* This is a little disingenuous, we have met several Aussies who’ve reached Brian Blessed level on the decibel-ometer.
Anyway, finally our collective top-five things in no particular order:
- Iguassu Falls
- Star gazing in San Pedro, Chile
- Galapagos islands
- Machu Picchu
- Patagonia – El Chalten hikes (Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre)
Happily, these were also among the most expensive things we’ve done here, so at least it was money well spent!
Until New Zealand then……..