While I have a little time on my hands, I’ve decided to dig out some old photos and throw together some blogs from past trips that I never got round to reporting on.
Back in 2015 I was aware that I had a free June coming up, so as always I wanted to take advantage and make a trip out of it. Somewhat a veteran of South America, I was actually looking elsewhere until a Chilean friend, Daniel, who I’d met at the World Cup in Brazil the previous year, insisted that I go to Santiago, where he’d show me around his city and we’d take advantage to sample the Copa America, South America’s (on this occasion, plus Mexico plus Jamaica) continental football tournament.
Now I’d been to Santiago back in 2009 whilst working in Buenos Aires, but unfortunately I’d lost my debit card within hours of arriving. That’s because in Chile the cash machines give you back your card last of all and it doesn’t come out automatically; rather you have to say that you want no further transactions and then remove it. Luckily, I had enough money to survive for a few days, so budgeted wisely and spent what I think were three nights there.
Returning to 2015, and I felt that I had unfinished business in Chile, so took Daniel up on his offer and jetted off to Santiago for a relatively short holiday at just over two weeks. For the first week or so, I’d spend my time with Daniel in and around Santiago, and in the second my then girlfriend would arrive and we would explore a little further afield.
My mate Dani is from a neighbourhood called Huechuraba, very much a working class working area. To get to Santiago centre you can jump on a metro bus which drops you pretty much at the central square and though the fare is approximately 1 USD per ride, no one actually pays this. Apparently you should top up your metro card (valid for all kinds of city transport) and swipe it every time you use the service, but this is only controlled in metro stations and main bus terminals. If you board on the street, it’s a case of jumping or ducking the barrier at the front or diving on through a side door. It’s not just youths that break this rule, but families passing their kids over and grannies crawling underneath, so I figured that I may as well do as the locals do.
The main attraction of downtown Santiago is Cerro San Cristobal, a viewpoint you get to via a not-so-taxing climb of less than an hour. At the top there is a statue of the Virgin Mary, possible styled on Rio’s Cristo Redentor, and you can see out over the whole city and take in the views of the Andes, the skyscrapers clawing upwards from the banking sector and the national football stadium, all covered in a thick layer of smog, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Santiago is almost completely encircled by the Andes mountain range. I took photos in the exact same place a mere six years earlier, and I’d proffer that not much has changed in terms of the landscape or the portraitee of the picture.
Dani and I had met at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, so it was a given that he would present me with his team, Colo Colo’s, football shirt and take me on a tour of the stadium. The stadium was quite impressive, to be fair, and I learned that Colo Colo is the only Chilean team to have ever won the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s version of the Champions League, back in the 1970s. Domestically, they have done well, as evidenced by the huge number of trophies to be found in the stadium museum.
I must admit that although I didn’t get chance to know Santiago that well by night, we did go to a bar where there was a very good singer on, and if I hadn’t been spoken for at the time, I’d have been tempted to prolong the interesting chat that we had embarked upon post-performance. We also went to a famous bar in the centre called La Piojera, a rustic and unpretentious yellow-coloured bar with a very basic interior. The house special is a Terremoto (earthquake), which consists of an unknown concoction of licquors with a blob of ice cream thrown in for effect. I won’t remember it for its taste, but its effect at mid-afternoon was startling.
Most of our subsequent trips out around Chile would involve a casual beer at some point, and it took me back to an afternoon back in 2009 that I’d spent in a bar by the exit of Cerro San Cristobal, where I supped a numerous amount of litre-bottle beers in tiny glasses with a Dutch friend, chatting away as we basked in the afternoon sun.
Onto to that famous Chilean (or is it?) drink of Pisco, a yellowish kind of brandy made as a waste product of the wine-making process. Over at Alberto’s (Dani’s uncle) a few days later we’d get through quite a lot of it, downed with coca cola, and they’d insist it was of Chilean origin, though a subsequent trip to Peru would suggest that it was from further north along the Andes. Pisco is a drink that has always left an impression on me whenever I’ve encountered it. There was a time back in Argentina where Pisco sours made me ask a girl out in quite a ridiculous way (and not succeed), a bottle (incidentally given to me by Alberto) that would sit untouched before being cracked open as I returned to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics in 2016 (in the very house/hostel where I’d met Dani and Alberto), and then a few months later in Peru, I would down a mere 15 sample shots of the stuff in a Pisco-tasting tour in Ica. A drink to be had on special occasions.
In Santiago, the staple fast food is a completo, basically a hot dog on a bun which you can smother with all kinds of sauces, in addition to the standard avocado and cheese that it bears. Other typical foods to be found across the capital include the picada (this is the term in Colombia, and I’m not sure if it’s the same in Chile), which is a range of different meats, usually sausage, beef and chicken, chopped up and spread over a huge bed of chips. Back in 2009 I had one of these on the premise that if I ate it all I wouldn’t have to pay. Unfortunately I failed and had to pay about 6/7 USD for the privilege. One other quirky foodstuff that sticks out in Santiago is the mote con huesillos, skinned peaches soaked in a thick syrup/nectar with a hint of cinnamon and sat on a bed of wheat. Served up in a plastic cup with a spoon, and usually procured at street stands. Sorry, Chile, but I’d dare say you’re culinary delights are nothing to really write home about.
A day driving along the Pacific coast
Chile is well-known for being long and thin, and the Pacific coast stretches thousands of miles from Patagonia in the south to the Peruvian border in the north. Much of the country’s urban centres are concentrated around the capital and easily reachable by car, so with this in mind, Dani took me out in his taxi to take in a few spots along the sea. First stop was San Antonio, a sea port and resort where Dani told me that you could get hold of excellent fresh seafood and fish. A missed opportunity, because the likes of octopus, mussels, raw fish etcetera were yet to be acquainted with my pallet and I seem to recall opting for some kind of cheese empanada (pastry). Dani told me it was the getaway for the working classes of Santiago in the summer, whereas the bourgeoisie would opt for Valparaiso and Viña del Mar further up the coast.
We continued along up the coast and traversed completely isolated beaches (to be fair, it was mid-winter). Views out to the Pacific are delightful and there is an ongoing contrast between rocky and sandy terrain. On this route we took in Cartagena, Las Cruces and El Tabo, all of which were ghost towns in that particular season, though I’d imagine the boarded up bars and restaurants would be more lively at the height of summer.
Further along at El Quisco there were more isolated sandy expanses, and we also took in one of Pablo Neruda’s many houses at Isla Negra. For those that don’t know, Neruda is certainly Chile’s and perhaps one of Latin America’s most famous poets, and unbeknownst to me until then, he came from an extremely rich aristocratic family.
Valparaiso and Viña del Mar: Chile’s big boys
My then girlfriend would arrive a few days later and we decided to spend a few days in Valparaiso. Getting there was straightforward, as cheap buses run regularly from Santiago’s main bus terminal, though be warned, as you arrive a long way from the area with hotels, and if your company isn’t a keen walker and spontaneous when it comes to finding accommodation, then you’ll be in trouble. It’s about a forty minute walk along the coast before you get to the hippy district with all the hotels and hostels, and we eventually settled for a hotel quite high up with a marvellous view out to sea. There was a standard room for 35 USD per night and one exactly the same but with the sea view from the window for closer to 60 USD, and I imagine you can guess which one was chosen.
Valparaiso or Valpa, as it is affectionately known to locals, is famous for being hippy, and there are indeed an eclectic mix of different-coloured houses, cute squares, swathes of graffiti and dress-wearing, long-haired, barefoot youths that you’d expect from such a ‘bohemian’ area. From memory there’s a nice walk down to the sea, though it’s a little windy, and you have to be careful when finding your way back up to your hotel as that district is made up of winding small alleyways, dead-ends and samey-sameness, so there’s a slight risk of being re-routed. I grabbed a decent three course meal, the highlight of which was a lovely steak and we headed to a local bar to watch a Chile football game, which the home team won at a canter.
If Valpa is hippy and bedraggled, then Viña del Mar is swish and refined. Buildings are more modern, the seafront is conducive to afternoon ambles and there are lots of green areas wonderfully decorated with an array of flowers, the main attraction being a clock made of flowers, though it doesn’t actually tell the time. Dani basically had us walk the whole length of the Viña coast, before we continued on foot on what seemed a neverending walk to the football stadium to take in Argentina vs Jamaica at the Copa America of football.
We next went to the aforementioned Alberto’s house about three hours south of Santiago in Longaví. To prepare for our visit he’d bought and then slaughtered and quartered a pig, which had been hung up to dry for about three days before we arrived. One of my jobs involved the cutting up of a certain part for chicharrones, basically the reject parts of bacon which are similar to pork scratchings elsewhere, but not as dry and hardened if taken from the animal and cooked soon after. It was my first time playing butcher of sorts and the meat definitely tasted all the better for having been involved in the preparation process, as was the fact it was cooked in a clay oven.
Alberto also had a garden with trees that literally flooded the ground with almonds, walnuts and avocadoes amongst other things, which you could pick up and eat, making one wonder how supermarkets can charge such vast amounts for food which is in massive abundance. Of course, the logical answer is exportation, but one gets jealous of those that have orchards on their doorsteps.
It was particularly cold in this neck of the woods and so the several bottles of Pisco we polished off (drunk with coke), as well as a heated bed which was way too heated for me, meant that I got a good night’s sleep in the main.
Though the primary aim of going to Chile was to attend the Copa America, and ultimately see Messi, Neymar, Sanchez, Falcao and of course, Wes Morgan, in action, I was happy to have seen a bit more of the country under the guidance of a local. While Chile is not as aesthetically in-your-face as other South American countries (remember I haven’t been to Patagonia), the coastline is impressive. I probably didn’t make the most of the cuisine as I was still a seafood virgin, but I did find local beer pleasurable. Chileans were welcoming, even if their accent takes a few days to tune in to, and I felt totally safe all over what is perhaps rightly deemed to be one of South America’s safer and more organised countries.
Patagonia, one day I will see you.