Archive for August, 2012

Ten Things the Guidebook Don’t Tell You About… Chile.

August 24, 2012

Here are some of those odd things you only realise when you get to Chile… in list form!

1. Some supermarkets don’t sell fresh garlic or tins of beans. However, they all have their own supermarket-brand basic tinned mussels – phew.

2. There are dogs EVERYWHERE. The ones on the street are generally pretty calm whereas the ones sat behind gates have anger management issues. They ALL hate cars – so much so that they will chase them down the street barking. This is pretty scary in Santiago as it looks like you’ll run them over but in smaller towns it’s pretty funny. Today, I saw a car completely brought to a standstill by a couple of dogs who had surrounded it barking and refusing to move. More and more dogs just kept coming to join in the fun. Evenually the people had to just park where they were and sit it out. Made for excellent viewing.

3. If you want some cheese and you go and ask “¿Tienes queso?” (Do you have cheese), the reply will nearly always be “Yes, how many?” which is pretty confusing at first. But basically, apart from Jumbo and farms that make their own cheese, when you want cheese you get Gouda. There is no choice in the matter – you want cheese? Well, it’s Gouda. In slices.

4. Every single computer keyboard is set to a different setting from what you can see on the keys. Even in people’s houses that I’ve been to. What. The. Hell?

5. Chileans do not like spicy food. If you want fresh chili you will have to buy really weak ones and add a lot. They just don’t sell other types. Apart from Merken – a Chilean spice – which you can have with bread and salsa. Love it.

6. Despite my guidebook saying that Chilean men don’t really bother you, this is just not the case. The men here are the most persistent I have met (although according to them the Argentinians and Brazillians are far worse). If you tell them to go away, there is absolutely no way they are going anywhere. Once they have set their eyes on you, they will not stop until they have you. Last night I physically pushed this guy away from me, all of his friends were laughing at him, and so was I. They were all leaving and I kept telling him to go with them but he wouldn’t. Eventually they pulled him away. 15mins later he walked back into the bar, alone, pulled up a chair, and joined me and my friends at our table. No question. No ‘can I join you?’. Incredible. And just to clear it up, he went home alone.

7. If you are a guest in their home, you are not allowed to do anything. At all. If they cook for you, you cannot do the washing up. If you need anything at all, they will get it for you. The generosity is staggering. It doesn’t matter who you are… and in the case of the Antofagastian family I stayed with, whether you can speak the same language. They will drop everything for you. Amazing.

8. In Chile, being a vegetarian is very difficult. In Antofagasta I visited a restaurant where the vege option was ‘pollo’ (chicken). Considering you get offered a lot of eggs and cheese as a vege, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be vegan. I met a girl who was lactose intollerant who was having a little bit of a nightmare finding food.

9. They make beer as well as wine! And it’s actually quite good! And pisco – ahhh, pisco, my new best friend. They know about alcohol in this country, that’s for sure.

10. My guidebook said Santiago is avoidable. It is not. Santiago is amazing. The people are fantastic, the bars are great and it is incredibly beautiful despite the smog. One moment you’re walking down an ugly highway and then you look to your left and the snow capped Andes peer at you through the mist. It’s a great presence in the city. Don’t visit South America or Chile and avoid the capital, you’ll miss a lot.


Wintering in La Serena

August 22, 2012

The couple to the right of me had passed out mid-empanada. Since the sun had begun to set, many of the passengers around me had gradually succumbed to the rhythms of the coach. We were travelling to La Serena – a small coastal city almost 400km north of Santiago – and I had stayed awake waiting for that first peek at the Pacific.  Most tourists visit in summer for the beach and the sun and yet here I was in winter, sunglasses in one hand, and scarf in the other. I wasn’t here to improve the tan.

It was 6pm. By this point, the pre-cordillera Andes (foothills) had begun to flatten out, and I could feel that we were getting close. And then, just before sunset, the teeth of the rocks opened up and the ocean flooded out.  First, a cove – a small white sandy beach painted turquoise by the water and then, there it was. An expanse of water stretching far into the pastel blue of the horizon – My eyes drank it all in.

Arriving in La Serena, one of the first things I wanted to do was to see it. I had met many Chileans in Santiago who holidayed and even owned second homes here so I had high expectations. Although visiting in low-season, the weather was good – My first morning, I headed into town to look around and to get supplies in preparation for a late lunch on the beach.

The city itself feels more like a town – the calm Plaza de Armas (main square) glimmers with cleanliness beneath palm trees while market traders sell the famous Chilean papaya based goods and artisanal souvenirs on the side of the street. But as you walk further into town, you’re suddenly surrounded by people – heaps of them, filling the streets with their awkward shopping bags, prams and suitcases. A shopping marathon seemed to be taking place, and I’d accidently walked in on it.

I passed shoe shop after shoe shop, eventually coming to La Recova – a spacious artisanal mall with restaurants on the top floor and below, a selection of craft and souvenir shops. It might be authentic but it doesn’t feel it. Every shop sells the same woollen jumpers and mini bottles of pisco, none of them for a reasonable price. It reminded me of a much smaller Camden Lock in London – started as a place for artisans and now a place almost solely for tourists. I still bought myself a poncho – I couldn’t help myself.

Afterward, I wandered into the Archaeological Museum, which houses lots of impressive artefacts – mainly from the Antofagasta and Tarapaca indigenous people (a map shows how many there were before the Spanish arrived). There are two mummies perfectly preserved and also a Maoi – Easter Island statue – which, if you haven’t been to Easter Island, is a sight to behold. You can get round the museum in about half an hour and your ticket (CLP600) gets you in to the other museum by the Plaza too. But I had other plans.

Heading finally to the beach, hunger in my stomach and expectation in my mind; I began to gallop along Avda. Francisco de Aguirre – the long stretch of road before the water. The basic tourist map ends at the Japanese Gardens which sit about 20-25 minutes away from the ocean, so I had to ask. I was told to just keep heading straight. The road became a mish-mash of pre-construction wasteland, mud-hut mini-markets, mechanic outlets and brand new hotels. The construction of other hotels along the road had already begun and there were many white balconied edifices at different points of creation. Advertising billboards declared ‘The best views in La Serena’.

However, from the street, blue fencing hid the mountains from view in front of plush villas and private university buildings. In clouds of dust and rolls of orange mesh, builders ran around in navy overalls, shouting, drilling and digging. Although palm trees lined the middle of the road, much of that area was still being paved and there were diggers sitting dormant in the path. A lighthouse eventually came into view and the pavement on my side ended so I began to trample over dust, plastic peligroso signs flapping from lampposts to my side.

Finally, I crossed to the ‘lighthouse’. It’s not really a lighthouse, but more, a pillar to signify your arrival at the La Serena beach. The weather had changed since I’d been walking and now grey clouds skirted around the horizon, the hills on the edge of the panorama purple under various layers of mist. The water was wild, large waves thudding against the land. But I couldn’t hear it. I could smell it, I could see it, but all I could hear was the drilling.

Around the walls at the lighthouse, teenagers on a coach trip were playing out various roles – a couple kissed, an overweight boy posed for a photo – and that serenity that I imagined from the coach returned to my dreams. The reality was this noisy, litter-strewn beach which in the summer may be worth sunbathing at, but in the winter screams of the destruction of human intervention.

To my left at this point, I heard a big screech and one boy, almost silhouetted at this time in the evening, held aloft a dead gull by its beak. Other boys gathered around him to throw sand at it, giggling, falling over themselves. The black shadow of the bird seemed to drip toward the sand. And all I could hear was drilling.

You can see an edited version of this piece at I Love Chile.

First View of the Pacific

August 16, 2012

White lines on the road



OOOOOOOOOOWhite lines on the road


OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOThe snoring of passengers

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOThe rustling of bags


OOOOOOOOOOThe vast window –






OOOOOOOOOOOOO over rocks as

The teeth of the cliff edge open ahead:


The Pacific.


A sketched outline with the sky

Brush stroked softly between two blues

Horizontal clouds recline and stretch beneath the canopy.

The vista broken


By the rising and falling of land and wave.



A gradient sky lets

The sun


OOOOOOOOOOitself on the water


The landscape turns to

OOOOOOmoonlike silhouettes


And layers of wave paint the sand.

Machuca Village

August 9, 2012

Machuca is a village of around ten people that exists solely because of tourists. The village used to be a place for travellers to stop, and also for miners in the region. However, many people left and it seemed the village would die. Therefore, people from other towns and cities in the area began to alternate living in the village for months or weeks at a time, leaving the population at a steady ten. Whenever one set of people would return to their houses in Calama, San Pedro or around, another ten would take their place. It seemed to me that they must have an agreement with tourist companies in San Pedro, as all tours to the geysers stop at Machuca on their way back.

The village tries to retain an air of tradition, with people dressing in local traditional outfits and the café serving empanadas and sopaipillas cooked in front of you. There is a toilet block, charging CLP250 and one shop selling the standard artisan goods – the colourful ponchos, hats and scarves and ‘hand-made’ souvenirs. I say ‘hand-made’ but I’ve seen so many of the same things that I think there must be a factory somewhere making these. Apart from this, there are a few houses and a dirt road, nothing more.

You arrive at Machuca at around midday on your way from the geysers. When the guide tells you the story of the village, you immediately feel like a cog in a machine. Having spent the morning in awe at the natural beauty of the planet, you arrive at a contrived human invention, seemingly only there for the taking of money and not for actual lives. The thing is, when you arrive you’re hungry, having had breakfast at 6.30am, and you fulfil your status, buy an empanada, and the cogs keep turning.

The village is based at a beautiful spot: 4000 metres above sea level, and surrounded by soft brown mountains, and these little mud-hut houses and church with straw thatched roofs blend seamlessly into the backdrop.

And then, when you begin to feel okay with the place, you look to your side and you see the reds, whites and blues of the coaches glimmering like cash machines in the sun.

Estoy en La Serena, Buenos Tardes.

August 1, 2012

I got the coach yesterday from Santiago to La Serena. This was after quite an escapade involving me leaving my hostel in a cab, realising I’d forgotten one of my bags, returning to the hostel, getting back in the cab, being dropped at the wrong bus station, and then being ripped off by the next driver to take me the rest of the way. Ugh. Then when I got there, I was walking around trying to find my bus and when I did it left without any people on board. 20 minutes later, another one turned up and we were on our way. My bad Spanish helped me find someone else who needed my bus meaning I could just follow him as the confusion continued. Once on the bus, I was amazed. Megabus and National Express should be ashamed! In Chile for about £20 you go 6 hours on what is basically a bed (like flying business class) and they play films and have food served on board! My legs didn’t know what to do with all that leg room!

When I arrived here last night, my hostel was full of British people. The first ones I’ve met (other than a posh twat working in the mining industry who had all the makings of a Bullingdon club member – he doesn’t count). I went with them to the supermarket and made a failed pasta sauce and we chatted away. They all left this morning though, so I spent the day alone walking the town. La Serena is pretty small. I saw the Archaeological Museum which was good. It was all in Spanish but I’m getting used to things being all in Spanish – my reading has improved tenfold. In the museum they have on display one of the statues from Easter Island so it was nice to get a chance to see one of them. They also have loads of mummies perfectly preserved by the desert.

I then went to the supermarket which continues to be a difficult experience. Why does every other country in the world complicate the shopping experience?! It is so much easier to just have things in a particular order (ie. the order that you might need things) and to not have to weigh some things and not weigh others. This whole weighing thing is throwing me off kilter. What should have taken me 15mins took me more like an hour.

I decided once I had some food to go eat lunch on the beach. By this time it was about 3pm so I was already pretty hungry. I believed the hostel to be near the sea. It’s not. You walk down this long dusty road, with construction sites, shack-like cafes and brand new hotels for about three miles. Everything is in a different state of ‘made-ness’. Eventually, to the sound of drilling, you arrive at the Pacific. There is a false-looking lighthouse plonked on the sand, like it should be a helter skelter. A tour bus sat behind it, while it’s passengers ran around on the beach. They were teenagers, maybe 16 or 17 years old. One found a dead gull, and lifted it off the sand by it’s beak. Boys gathered around each wanting a go to hold it, throw sand at it or try to bury it. Behind, across a section of the Ocean, what the locals call hills and what I’d call mountains rise and fall through the rain clouds, each one a different shade of grey layered atop the other. The sound of drilling echoes between the buildings and the water while the waves pull themselves off the sand and thud back into it, crisp white crests crawling over the shore.

It looks like rain.