Santiago is the capitol of Chile and home to ~5,900,000 people. It was a culture shock for us entering such a big city after the desolate areas we have been travelling through in the past few months.
Driving into big cities always poses challenges for us. Firstly there are no camping options so we need to find a hostel, which is always more expensive. Not only do we have to negotiate the heavy traffic but also we need to find secure parking for our vehicle. The Garmin GPS has been worth its weight in gold. Plug in an address and it navigates for us taking into account the one-way streets, which are in every town in South America. Parking is a little more difficult, as most parking garages only have a clearance of 2 meters or less. Priscilla needs a clearance of 2.5 meters. Usually we book a hostel ahead of time and ask about parking in the area. Then it is a matter of walking or driving the surrounding streets to check the clearance.
We opted for staying in an apartment in Santiago, (run by Andes Hostel) as we had Jeff and his friend Barbara to share the costs. After about 30 mins searching we found a secure parking lot with adequate clearance.
Cities for Mike, Keira and I are usually about seeing the major sights, restocking supplies, accessing US dollars, catching up on internet and “skyping” with friends and family.
Santiago offered an additional treat of good restaurants. We literally ate sushi for lunch and Thai food for dinner everyday we were there. Oh, and as much as I hate to admit it, I went to the evil empire of Starbucks so I could get a decaf, soy latte.
I think I gained a pound each day!
The highlights for us besides the food, was seeing the Pre-Colombian museum and people watching in the main plaza.
The Chilean Pre-Colombian art museum had an amazing collection of ceramics, textiles, Chinchorro mummies and statues spanning 4500 years of Pre-Colombian civilization. It was very impressive. Watching the street performers in the plaza was fun too. The architecture in Santiago was very mixed with 19th century churches and government buildings sitting alongside high-rise buildings. Although busy it felt a little less hectic than Buenos Aires.
The other experience I repeated was a trip to the hairdressers, which I had also done in Buenos Aires. It is always a little daunting going to a hairdresser in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language well enough to explain exactly what you want done. I always hold my breath whilst there, and resign myself to being OK with having orange hair or platinum blonde streaks.
In Buenos Aires they did an OK job, with highlights a little on the orange side. The hairdresser at the Santiago salon was great, as she got a couple of other people to help with translations, however I still had no idea how it would all turn out. The whole thing was not a relaxing experience, as this was one of the “trendy techno salons”. That basically means that they play techno music at full volume and this one even had a DJ for part of the time I was there. Four hours later, my hair was revealed, and I actually really like it. It is one of the best hair colors that I have had. So I left happy but with a really bad headache. Stay tune for “hair by Lima, Peru”.
Our next stop was Valparaiso, ~ 2 hours north west of Santiago. It is a port town of ~283,000 people, which is set into the hills. The streets are cobbled stones and are very steep. There are ascensors (tramway type cars) at strategic points, which take passengers up steeper sections from the flat port area to the Cerro’s or hills. We rode the Ascensor Concepcion, which is one of the oldest ascensor. It did look old and was extremely jerky as it made the climb. Keira’s cries of lets do it again, lets you know that it felt more like a ride in a theme park than a mode of transportation. We stayed at a hostel called Luna Sonrisa in Cerro Alegre district, parking the car on the street outside which ended up being totally safe.
Valparaiso is known for its colored houses and murals (artistic graffiti). It is a world heritage UNESCO listed site. The streets in Cerro Alegre and Concepcion are where most of the street art is displayed. Literally every third building has murals painted on its walls. The creativity extends to some of the locations they are placed also, like roofs, steps, doors, and gates. Some of the artwork is really beautiful. Unfortunately other not so nice graffiti, which can be seen in all towns in South America, is here too.
We really enjoyed our time in both cities but we were eager to move on. We would be crossing the border to Argentina again for the wine country of Mendoza and northern Argentina. Saying good-bye to Chile for what could be the last visit.
The Portillo border crossing to Argentina via a pass through the Andes Mountains was certainly interesting. The landscape was amazing and unlike any other we had experienced so far on this trip. The mountains were treeless, and mostly shale but were vivid colors of reds, pinks and shades of grey and brown. It reminded us of areas of Tibet we had travelled through. And in actual fact parts of the movie “Seven Years in Tibet” had been filmed in this location. There are many tunnels through this area, including a long tunnel called the international tunnel that takes you across the border.
The pass itself is 3834meters (12674 feet). Most of that climb is done in the space of 5 kms. This feat is accomplished through a series of very steep and very tight switchbacks or hairpin bends. The photo of the GPS reading may give you some idea of the steepness. The road is full of trucks; mostly going very slow due to heavy loads and passing is difficult. Priscilla took it all in her stride.
Border crossings are different at each location. Just when you think you know the process, something changes and you are thrown for a loop. Usually when exiting a country, you do your exit paperwork in the country you are leaving. This time for us that was Chile. However when we approached the first checkpoint where trucks were stopped they waved us on. Next thing we knew, we had passed across the border with no exit stamp. We had stopped before the international tunnel to check with a guard and he had assured us that all paperwork was done in Argentina, but we were still not sure. Descending from the pass, we found a building off to our left that was the immigration point. It was set up totally different to all the others. This was like a tollbooth inside a building where you drive into and pass through 2 booths to complete the paperwork. We realized then that there were 2 people in each booth. One from Chile who stamped our passports out and one from Argentina that stamped us in. At the next booth, the Chile officer took our car temporary import permit to cancel it and the Argentina officer completed our new temporary import permit to enter Argentina. It was all completed very efficiently. The customs officers since we were going into Argentina did not check the car for fruits and vegetables (entering Chile is more strict) but they had Mike open the vehicle because they were curious about our set-up.
We realized that the border was set up this way because of the steepness of the pass, the high altitude and for the harsh weather and winter snows.
We knew coming on this trip that being a family would sometimes be an asset, and certainly at border crossings it has been. Even the sternest official can’t resist the charms of a 5 year old.
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.