Monday, 18 February 2008

South to Santiago

After several days in the blistering heat and arid wilderness of the Atacama it was nice to know that we were on our way South to La Serena, Santiago and ultimately Patagonia. We left San Pedro on a full cama (almost flat-bed) bus in the two front seat on the top floor, with panoramic views of the desert as we sped our way South-East to Calama and Antofagasta. This city, the powerhouse of the mineral rich mining economy, is entirely dependent on the copper reserves of the nearby Chuquicamata mine. Wide boulevards, cut out of the desert, are the thoroughfares for countless modern pick-up trucks with giant antennas, transporting mine workers and engineers from their compounds to the mine and logisitics operations. The road from Calama to Antofagasta on the cost seems to have a constant stream of lorries shipping supplies to Calama. By the time we reached the coast night was beginning to fall and the curtains closed so that we could all attempt to sleep the remaining 8 hours to La Serena.

We awoke to a subtly different landscape. Although still parched and wild, the hills were now covered with low growing vegetation and candelabra cacti. The coast, now visible to our right, seemed to be a never ending series of bays with rocky cliffs open to the sounding swell of the Pacific. We caught La Serena, possibly the second oldest city in Chile, at the height of the domestic holiday season. Teeming with Argentinean and Chilean holiday makers, drawn by the long expanses and sandy beach and hot, dry days, the city still managed to keep the relaxed charm of a Mediterranean seaside town. After a couple of days visiting the beach and wandering the plazas and streets of the old town we were relaxed but ready to move on to Santiago for our flight to Patagonia.

We arrived in Santiago with low expectations after hearing stories of smog, pollution and big city anonymity. Our hostel for the night, Residencial Londres, is a converted period house that has retained all it’s original charm. Although it shows the signs of aging, its parquet floors, corniced ceilings and art deco furniture give it a sense of authenticity in a city that is more chic than any we have visited so far. With only an afternoon to spare before our flight the next morning and craving the opportunity to visit a European or US style mall we made our way to the North of the city and the Las Condes mall.

Satisfied with our purchases (some ‘normal’ shoes to supplement our hiking boots and Crocs) and a new duvet jacket to replace the one I lost, we made our way back to central Santiago. As we discussed our first impressions of Santiago over a drink that evening it was clear that we are both looking forward to returning at the end of March. In the meantime, we have the small matter of Patagonia to attend to. This next section of the trip is the part that I have been most looking forward to and in some ways I am a little nervous that it won’t live up to my expectations. I have a collage of mental images from the iconic vistas of the Pertito Moreno glacier and the Torres del Paine to the textual descriptions of Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux. However, none of these are in context and most importantly, they lack the texture and sense of place that you only get through traveling and meeting the people that live and work in the area. Fingers crossed that I won’t be disappointed!

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