A Month in Chile – Santiago, Valparaiso & Arica

Its a long way south. A long way south, and thats where I’m going. Patagonia hopefully, but I have a feeling it might be a journey too far. Funds are light and while I have lots of time, theres a lot to do and I’ve never been one for bumming around.

Touch down Santiago, Chile. Its the furthest I’ve been abroad at this point – Im a spritely 24 years of age and really only beginning my world of adventures. Why here? Well, its a place that has always intrigued – this continent. Not just Chile. A land of epic and ancient adventures awaits at every turn.

Im here alone, the nearest friend an ocean or continent away and I’ve never felt so energised. So fucking alive. Its dark when I land and make my disoriented way to the shuttle to take me to the hostel. I check in proudly displaying my limited Spanish skills that Ive learnt myself over the last few weeks. I was studying furiously from my rustily scribbled notebook on the flight down.

I wake up in the morning and head downstairs; the hostel puts on a brief breakfast and then I book into some Spanish lessons at the school down the road for the next two weeks. 5 hours a day of Spanish. Its a nice way to settle into this land – a brief bit of routine while slowly discovering the city and adapting to the culture.

Santiago is a wonderful place – a city of grand scope and epic surrounds. Situated in a flat section of the broader valley and ringed by the foothills of the Andes, its a bit of a dust bowl. But it’s flourishing place too – high-rises dot the landscape and industry and progress is everywhere. There’s over 4 million people living here though its nicely spread out, so while its busy and happening its not hectic or over crowded.

In the days after class, I go for walks down the Parque A la Aviacion, snack on empanadas and head over for drinks in the barrio 2 streets over in Bellavista. I hike the San Cristobal hill and watch the city below under the gaze of the giant statue of Christ. I make friends with Camila who works at the hostel and is a local. She takes me to a university party one night and I’ve left the english world. Surrounded by espanyol and not much other way to communicate. Its now or never for my new found language skills and perhaps its that I’m pretty fucking buzzed off terramotto’s (typical Chilean drinks that equates to earthquake) but my confidence is high and as a result I kill it. Barely a word of english and yet I’m talking all night. Im estatic inside at my ability to thrive in the circumstances.

My head hurts the next day, but there’s nothing like a menu del dia to cure what ails you. 4 courses or so for only a few bucks. Its another day of Spanish classes and another night of Terramotta’s, over in Bella Vista in a nightclub. Things don’t even really kick off until around after 2am here.

Tomorrow is a good day – the football was on and Universidad de Chile is playing. The whole city pretty much stops. I wander in to a store for my daily empanada after classes and they barely look up from the TV. Just nod as place some change on the counter. We follow up the afternoon with a BBQ put on by the hostel and its my first taste of South American BBQ. WOW. Slow cooked BBQ about 30cm up from the coals and flames, constantly turning and heavily salted. Washed down with 2l of excellent red for only few bucks and damn…I love South America.

I find myself wandering downtown lost in the city and I step into the Santiago cathedral. This is the first Cathedral I ever step in, and my mouth drops agape. I stand in awe as I’m humbled by the lengths men will go to, in order to pay tribute to their gods. A handful of school kids surround me in the crypts, they ask where I’m from. Soy Australiano I reply, they giggle and I’m wishing they would shut up before they cause a scene in this silent holy place.

We leave Santiago a day after my friend Kim has arrived, I’m eager for fresh scenery so we jump a bus and head for Valparaiso. Its a decision made on a whim, and might not be the best course of action, but we’re away anyways. Valparaiso is the largest port in South America, essentially channeling all of the continents pacific trade through the city. The port never sleeps, round the clock the cranes unload and load the waiting line of ships. Its all built around the port and unfortunately it lacks a nicer upscale waterfront centre, though we still linger awhile savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the ocean.

The place is steep and steeped in history. Giant funiculars array around from the base of the city to carry people up the steep suburbs. We visit Pablo Naruda’s house, where he composed many a famous work and wander the streets. Take a wrong turn, get a very bad gut feeling people are watching us. The wrong type of people. The ones you don’t want watching you, so we leg it the other way. Theres not much more to say about the place.

Kim is exhausted and goes to bed at 6pm. Im bored and restless and I find myself wandering the streets alone at 1am bar hoping from dingy booze hall to the next. Its a fucking Tuesday. I think of all the people you don’t want to meet in a back alley. but tonight I’m the one you don’t want to meet. Clad in a giant bear coat, hugged by shadows, Im the illusion of a man to fear.

A bus the next day and we are headed 2000km north. Yes in a single go. Well a bus back to Santiago and then the 2000km bus ride begins. Destination: the northern border town of Chile, Arica.

Arica is a costal fishing town with a large fleet of boats and a bustling fish market. But to get there, its 2000km of nothing but dirt and dust. Wide open endless desert. Just down from the Atacama highlands and not far inland from the coast, not much rain falls here. Ever.

Arica itself is a quite little place that has come to life this weekend for a surfing competition on its famous break. We watch from the far shore as local school girls ask for picture with Kim because of her blonde hair. We aren’t really on the tourist trail here and blonde hair is a rarity on this continent.

We browse the fish market for dinner, and a gentleman offers me some swordfish. He lifts a tarp and there is a 2m beast of fish just sitting there. He cuts of two 2 inch thick steaks. Around a kilo of prime swordfish, a few herbs, lemons and items for a salad set me back around 3 dollars. Got to love this country. We cook a feast that night and sleep easy with bellies full of beer.