Two Santiagos

We were in and out of Chile within 4 days!

Not because of the massive earthquake which hit the area near Concepción in the south 3 weeks ago but because our route involves going to Mendoza, over the border in Argentina, for more wine tasting before we head south and back into Chile later on.

We started with an unremarkable two days in Santiago. The first was pretty much wiped out by jet lag as we arrived at around 1pm and had already been awake for 35 hours or so. The second featured an astonishing hatrick of empanada-based meals as well as some light sight-seeing. There is not all that much to see in the Chilean capital. A museum about the people who first populated South America featured a superb guide who we latched onto, making the experience much more interesting and informative and, other than spotting small bits of earthquake damage on old churches and the like, there was not much else to grab the attention. The earthquake caused some problems here but, bar the odd building or park being closed to the public for safety reasons, life is already completely back to normal it seems.

We boarded a bus next morning and travelled the 2 hours west to Valparaiso, arriving around lunchtime. Valparaiso is on the coast and the main part of town is built on the flat – but there are huge hills within a few hundred metres of the sea and the locals have built up them and onto them for years, adding endless stairs in order to ascend to the higher neighbourhoods. Luckily, they also constructed many funiculars to achieve the same result and there was one close to our hostel. The ancient wooden box shook quite violently as it was hauled up the extreme incline to the top by the combination of old iron wheels and cables but it was fascinating to see and got us up the hill a damn sight quicker than we would have done had we walked, what with our enormous, heavy bags – 300 pesos each (about 30p) well spent!

Our hostel was unmarked but we found it somehow and the owner came and invited us in, introducing us to a couple who said that they were staying there and would be making our breakfast in the morning (!) – odd, we mused, that other residents would choose to make our breakfast but who were we to argue?! Their story, however, was quite unbelievable.

The couple (Santiago and Catalina) had lived in Vina del Mar, up the coast from Valparaiso – six months previously, they had bought a new property which they intended to convert into a restaurant – in Concepción. They’d both moved house and were looking forward to the opening of the place, due in three weeks time. At 3am on that Friday, they were in a bar with friends (Chileans party hard on Fridays and Saturdays, as we were to find out!) when the bar began to move, the floor shaking and pieces of the ceiling beginning to fall down. Santiago was ordering a drink at the time and hung on to the bar with one hand and his girlfriend with the other. After knocking his way through what luckily turned out to be a polystyrene partition wall to escape, they both ran outside to safety with people screaming and grabbing at them as they ran.

No-one was killed in their bar but two died in a nightclub opposite whose entire roof collapsed. Feeling extremely lucky, his thoughts turned to his restaurant. Since it was a new building, he was fairly sure it would have escaped any major damage and had resigned himself to having to replace the windows but when he arrived the next day, he found that the ground outside had been split in two and there were several 1 metre cracks, 3 metres deep in what would have been the car park! The photos he showed me were incredible and he explained that, assuming the insurance paid up, the car park would now have to be built on three separate levels, rather than the one which it had been before – even the actual structure of the building had moved 80cm towards the river!

Fortunately, Santiago had a school friend who ran a hostel near his home town, in Valparaiso, and they had moved in and were helping out – hence the breakfast preparation prospects. Suddenly it all made sense, bar the fact that these two were so happy and friendly and appeared to be dealing with what had happened in such a matter-of-fact way! They were superb hosts and we made some great new friends as we chatted and laughed (particularly over the fact that Catalina is a keen follower of David Icke and tried her best to convince me of his prophetic abilities!) over the next three days, bar the Friday night when they woke us up at 5am, returning from a night out with some friends (as I said, Chilenos like to party!). To top it all off, Santiago plays international rugby for Chile and has been all over the world as a result!

Considering their recent experiences, Santiago and Catalina were superb hosts and they are apparently now considering going into the hostel business! They certainly made our stay memorable and we would like to wish them both luck in whatever they do – Santiago and I have agreed to meet in Cape Town for the World Cup Final in July if England and Chile make it there! I think that’s a pretty safe bet as Chile have to beat either Spain or Brazil and England will probably be crap but next time you’re in London, give me a shout and I’ll buy you a beer!

Valparaiso is an interesting mix of UNESCO World Heritage site, busy port and piss-smelling dump. Some parts are truly nasty and, amongst telling us about the fact that we were their first guests since the quake and how we shouldn’t worry because there hadn’t been any aftershocks for two or three days now (!), our hosts had also informed us of the areas not to visit and where we should be wary of our belongings. The areas on the hilltops though are really nice and one house in particular, built by famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda on top of a huge hill, was fascinating and has given us inspiration for our own house (bar in the dining room anyone?) !

After an exhausting day of wandering up and down vertical hills and another on the beach in a town just up the coast, Renaca, we felt we’d done Valpo and booked some overnight bus tickets to Mendoza.

The journey across the Andes to Argentina is apparently quite a nice one but, since we left at 10pm, the winding climb up the mountains on one side and down the other after the border was rather lost on us, being replaced by tormented sleep as by this point I was in the early stages of a cold and the increase – and subsequent decrease – in altitude was causing some truly fascinating (and quite painful) things to happen to my ears. We arrived at 7am, checked into our hotel and slept til lunchtime.

Our experience of food in Chile was second to, errrr, all – quite expensive and near tasteless at times, the meat was often tough and chewy and bland was the order of the day, a plate of quite obviously boiled meats in a bar being a particularly interesting pick (although a bottle of wine somehow seemed to make this taste acceptable). But our first experience of food in Argentina has redeemed South America for now. We met an American couple in the hotel who recommended a few things, one of which was a local restaurant so, being as we’d missed breakfast, we headed straight there for lunch. We ordered one steak and one chips between us, as well as a bottle of local wine and were practically drooling 20 minutes later when a 400g slab of beautifully cooked beef arrived. We devoured it and the wine, paid the paltry bill (around £13 for the lot!) and sat – contented, sated and triumphant – for a while, congratulating ourselves on being such gluttons. The food is good in Argentina – supermarkets are always a good gauge and, whilst the Chilean one we popped into sold some very odd looking fare in vast, family size packs, the one here in Mendoza sells some superb cheese, wine, salami and meat and today we have consumed much of the aforementioned produce whilst sitting next to a lake in Mendoza’s enormous park and sunbathing and reading. My cold appears to have retreated and tomorrow is (hopefully) ‘cycle round vineyards drinking wine’ day. Wish us luck, we may not survive the sheer horrors we are dealing with out here.