Days 58-60: Santiago, Dos Parte

Santiago II wasn’t quite the blockbuster sequel that it might have been. But that was fine by us. After a 22-hour bus ride back over the Andes it was reassuring to return to our Santiago apartment.

The next couple of days were spent… well… not doing very much at all. The odd museum, healthy meals (and Chilean plonk) from the local supermarket and chilling out by the rooftop pool. Not really the stuff of blogs but a welcome pause for breath.

After sixty memorable and unexpectedly emotional days our South American adventure is over. Now -which way’s New Zealand?

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Days 43-45: Santiago, Una Parte

Once we reached Santiago we decided that a change was as good as a rest. Instead of the habitual hostel or humdrum hotel, we busted out the apart-hotel experience. This was partly due to the fact that this wouldn’t be our only stay in Santiago: in a little over two weeks time we fly to Auckland from here. So we will have a second opportunity to explore Chile’s capital. As a result we decided to chill out, make full use of the amenities (private kitchen, our own washing machine and cable tv) and soak up the city like Santiagans (we may have made that last word up).

So Day 43 was spent browsing the delights of the local supermarket and chilling out on the rooftop pool.

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On Day 44 we ventured to Cerro Santa Lucia, a local city centre garden, and then on to Cerro San Cristobal, which is Santiago’s huge metropolitan park. From over 850m up, there are fantastic views over the city and the hill is topped by a 22m-high statue of the virgin mary (we would have included a photograph here but it may prove to be the caption competition for Chile!).

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In the photograph below, rising above a band of city smog, you can see what looks like two clouds. Well, they’re not clouds. They are snow-covered Andean peaks. Not a bad urban backdrop.

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In the park there was rumoured to be two fabulous swimming pools. We wandered far and wide, getting lost in the process and being found by three stray dogs who refused to leave our side.

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Eventually we found someone who spoke English and they informed us that the pools didn’t open until mid-November. Typical. Only days away. Undaunted, we vowed to return.

With time on our side, today (Day 45) we have decided to nip across to Argentina and visit Mendoza, a trip recommended by our English-Bolivian-Australian friends Tom and Anna. Apparently they do a mean steak and phenomenal wine. ‘Nipping to Argentina’ isn’t really something we could do in the UK, so we thought we’d make hay while the sun shines. 32 degrees Celsius to be precise.

Days 36-42: High Time in Low Serena

On the third day of the salt flats tour we were dropped off near the Chilean border, where a short trip in a minibus saw us wave goodbye to the delights of Bolivia. Our budget urges us to return soon but our stomachs have crossed it off the Christmas card list for good.

Night 35 and 36 were spent in San Pedro de Atacama. It is apparently the driest desert in the world, although beer seems to be in plentiful supply. Our time there was uneventful aside from the odd upset stomach and anvil-splitting headache – perhaps a reluctance on the part of Bolivia to release us from its grimy grip.

From SPdA it was a 16-hour bus ride to La Serena – which isn’t as arduous a trip as you’d imagine. Once you been forged in the fire of the La Paz-Uyuni route, then you can pretty much survive anything.

La Serena lies 300 miles or so to the north of Santiago and is Chile’s second oldest city. More importantly it is a big fat zero metres above sea level, which after three weeks above 3,000m provided a much needed boost to those red corpuscles; and after Rio’s Atlantic delights it was our first real encounter with the Pacific Ocean.

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A smallish city, La Serena has a homely, European feel about it. Everyone seems very polite and friendly and despite the chilly, damp mornings it’s not a bad place to kick-back for a few days. Which is precisely what we did…

Strangely, Day 39 turned out to be a typical, UK-style Saturday. In the morning we went to the mall…

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In the afternoon we visited the park (albeit Japanese)…

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In the evening we went out for pasta and ice cream. And at night we watched the stars. In this case, not Strictly Come Dancing but the likes of Alpha Ursae Minoris and Proxima Centauri at the Mamalluca Observatory, a two-hour drive outside of La Serena. Please see the photograph below, where you can clearly make out the dazzling night sky (ahem…).

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Day 40 consisted of a comical tour of Elqui Valley. A beautiful area full of vineyards and fruit farms, it was only marred by our Spanish-only-speaking guide who blustered and blagged his way around the valley. A French chap on the tour, who helpfully could speak both Spanish and English, confirmed our suspicions and dutifully informed us that the guide was ‘at it’ and we weren’t missing much. Still, the lunch was nice and along the way we were introduced to the joys of cactus flavoured ice cream.

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Today (Day 42) we take the bus to Santiago, Chile’s capital, and one of South America’s more friendly and manageable metropolises. It will provide the base for exploring more of Chile in the coming weeks.