When we left Buenos Aires for the final time in
May our first stop was
Santiago de Chile. We stayed in a small private hotel/guest house called Vilafranca.
This is exactly the type of hotel one always dreams of finding, but rarely does.
More like staying at the home of a friend of a friend. Someone you don't
know all that well, but who is doing their utmost to make you feel comfortable
in their home and your stay a pleasant one. Vilafranca is that hotel and Gloria
is that hostess.
Santiago doesn't have the elegance of Buenos Aires though
it does also have great wine and good food, but not as cheap. Nor does it
have the Inca ruins that have made neighbouring Peru such a tourist destination.
It does have the Andes, they dominate the city and it's impossible not to be
aware of them. It also has horrible pollution. And this also is in
partly due to the Andes. Santiago nestles in a bowl in the foothills which
allows very limited air change with the result that the city is generally covered
in a haze of smog.
The other thing that characterises Santiago is energy.
It's hard exactly to define, but there's something (other than the smog) in the
air. This feeling is compounded by the immense amount of building work
going on. Several years of a South American stable government seems to
have made Santiago the place to build your new headquarters if you are a bank
or multinational. And with them comes the hotels. Maybe it's more
than the mountains that make this feel like a South American Switzerland.
The people are friendly and it feels safe to walk the streets, always a plus for
those without transport.
If you happen to be looking in the one direction that doesn't
have the Andes themselves in the background then you'll discover another smaller
mountain sprouting right out of the centre of town, the Cerro de San Cristobel. Since it's too steep
to easily build on, the Chileans have pragmatically converted it into a
national park which has been done with thought and consideration, with places to sit
and marvel at the view or just read the local rag and have a nap. A longish walk or 2 cable cars will take you to the top,
where on a rare smog free day you would have a stunning view across the city.
We though had to settle for a fine view of the smog.
There are two other things really worth visiting if you ever
make it to Santiago. The first is the fish market. Built as everyone will
stop to tell you of British wrought iron. The centre of the market is now
populated by a few upmarket and slightly touristy restaurants. But this is
still a working fish market and around the perimeter of the building are smaller
restaurants who will cook and serve you anything fishy that can be had from a
stall in the market.
And the Museo de Arte Precolumbiana. It didn't sound all that
interesting. Chile was on the edge of the Inca empire and didn't have any
of the great sites that exist further north and we were heading to Peru anyway.
So we have to thank two American tourists we met briefly at Iguazu who
recommended it to us or we would probably have missed it. It has
remarkable collections, ceramics, metal, textiles, but the star of the show is
without a doubt the mummies. These predate the earliest Egyptian examples
by thousands of years. Unlike the Egyptians the people who produced them
were nomadic hunter gatherers who carried the mummies with them as they
travelled. Often a number of individual bones have been replaced by the
same bones from family members of a later generation. Nobody knows if this
was because bones had been lost and needed replacement, or whether in some ways
the mummies represented a collective family spirit. Whichever is true they
And then, we cannot leave Chile without
mentioning Valparaiso. The valley of paradise. It's a name that conjures
romance and excitement. It's a place where writers, poets and artists went
to be inspired. It's a World Heritage Site.
It's a truly truly horrible city totally without
any endearing feature. Valparaiso's wealth came from the port which was a
stopping point for ships rounding the Horn. That all stopped when the
Panama Canal opened and it has been downhill ever since. Now it is a
dilapidated, down-at-heel, ex-major port and there are plenty of them around the
world. The historic centre which forms the world heritage site is where
the wealthy of Valparaiso once lived. Sited on one of the city's hills,
served by a few decrepit funicular railways, it's a collection of corrugated
iron town houses, a couple of short streets have been repainted, but mostly not.
The picture to the right looks OK but really it's the very best there is.
If enough UN money is poured in then maybe the area could be restored so as to
be interesting and attractive, but it can never be more than a handful of short
streets and it will still be in the middle of Valparaiso. If you
ever do decide to visit and find Valparaiso has developed into a wonderful
place, drop us a line and let us know - but you have been warned!