A Travellerspoint blog

Chile: Footnote to Santiago de Chile

Shake a leg

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John:....a short addition to the previous blog. As I mentioned previously we are staying on the 18th floor of an apartment block in Santiago. This morning a 5.8 earthquake centred around Mendoza, 128 km away, across the border in Argentina. On the 18th floor we felt a strange ´wobble´ as the building moved then saw water slopping around in the glasses. All settled down again straight away so no big dramas but another experience to add to our time in South America. Living in NZ we quite often feel minor shakes but being on ground level means that they are far less interesting!

The whole thing would have been even more interesting if we had been in the swimming pool on the top floor. See you in Hong Kong

Posted by JohnandJac 12:25 Archived in Chile Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Chile: Santiago

Second time around

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John:... Santiago is a very stylish city. Don`t get me wrong; it's not pretty, but then style was always about more than just being pretty. It isn`t even especially individual although I`m sure that people from Santiago would disagree.....it is just that it is a very classy place.

We have now been back in Santiago for a week. On our first 2 day visit we were all pre occupied with Jackie`s lost luggage and planning our schedule for our 3 weeks in Chile. This time we have been able to settle in to a more relaxed mode, watching Santiago move.

It is the least frenetic city we have been in since arriving in the Americas 4 months ago. Nobody seems to rush about anywhere; traffic is well mannered enough to pause and let you cross the street, just as well nobody is rushing about because the temperature has been in the mid 30s centigrade all day every day. The sun has baked down and from shortly after sun-up the temperature gauge climbs quickly from its already high overnight level. With no prospect of rain in the near future and the breezes only gentle the smog levels are rising. The mountains are slowly disappearing behind the tobacco stain yellow of the air over Santiago giving rise to strange phenomena such as the large blanket of snow on one of the mountains being visible whilst the mountain that it sits on seems to have merged into the atmosphere leaving the snow hanging in the air like some strangely angular cloud.

From an architectural point of view there are several fine Spanish colonial buildings in the centre of the City, around the Plaza de Armas. The fish market is housed in a Victorian market building and several of the civic buildings look very grand and imposing. Apart from that there are many of the sort of buildings that exist in every city in the world; business centres, apartment blocks and so on. There is a lot of space in Santiago. The roads are wide as are the pedestrian areas. There are lots of parks and green spaces and these are well used, providing some privacy for young couples getting to know each other better, shade for families enjoying a picnic and benches for those of us happy to watch the world go by.

We are based in the Providencia district, between the river and the Ave de Providencia, the centre of commerce in the city.Our apartment is one of those bargains that is hard to believe. At a price just above what we have been paying for some hostels we have a comfortable, clean, well equipped apartment on the 18th floor of a 22 storey apartment block. The view from the balcony is towards the south west of the city, looking across the city centre, over the river to the hill of San Cristobal to the enormous white marble statue of The Virgin Mary looking down on the city. Just behind the hill is the airport and to our left, the south, the city stretches out across the plain at the base of the Andes.

From the 18th floor the city seems to have a double life...at ground level the city wakes at 05:00 or there abouts, about the same time that it seems to go to sleep from our crows nest view point. Up here it all starts to happen as the sun goes down with a giant flashing red and white advertising hoarding for Claro (mobile phone company) joining the sunset palette of colours. In the distance the thruster rocket colours of the Telecom tower lights give it the appearance of a space mission getting underway and one by one the lights come on. All of the tall buildings and radio masts have red warning lights and with half closed eyes we could be back on the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon Basin looking at the red eyes of the Caymans on the riverbank. Some of the red lights flash, each with its own rhythm but collectively arrythmic...if this was a cardiac monitor we would be looking at a city in ventricular fibrillation!

Having our own kitchen has meant we can do our own cooking which, in addition to keeping the budget sweet is a good thing to do. We enjoy cooking and have sometimes missed it. This has come at a good time in our trip as the self-catering opportunities on the South East Asia leg of the trip may not be so easy to find.

The cherry on the cake has been the swimming pool on the top floor of the apartment block. Plunging in to the cool cool water has been a real tonic in the heat of the early evening. To our landlord, the excellent Sebastian, we raise a glass of the finest Chilean Vino Tinto, Carmanere and toast your good health.

We reached Santiago at around lunchtime after the painless Turbus ride of 90 minutes from Valparaiso (see new pictures in the photo gallery). Much of the journey was across the Cassablanca Valley, one of the major grape growing areas of the region. Loma Largo, Vina Indomita and Vina Mar are three of the big winery names we pass by with their long drives and grand buildings. In the middle of all this Hispanic influence a little welshness as we pass the Canaerfon College. Land not given over to grapes is planted for peaches, nectarines, oranges and other citrus. Now and again a large field of maize but as we climb up into the hills the cultivated land very soon gave way to scrubland with thorn trees and cactus. Through the Lo Prado tunnel and soon into the outskirts of Santiago.

Our stay in Santiago has been extremely interesting, a combination of trying to squeeze the last drops from the South American leg of our trip, due to be over in a few days whilst anticipating and planning at least the early stages of our next leg in South East Asia. So jobs to be done, hostels to book and Jackie`s bag still missing.

This has also been a chance to explore this city. 6.5 million people, over a quarter of Chile`s population, concentrated here. For want of a better phrase this has been the most homogenised place we have been in South America. To these eyes there is little evidence of the indigenous population as there is in Ecuador and Peru. The life style is a very `western`one, and many of the symbols, brands and behaviours are easily recognisable. Because of this it is a very easy place for a visitor with poor Spanish to get around. I set out to try and find out a little more about Chile through the cutural centres in Santiago.

The National Museum of Fine Arts, in Bellas Artes, provided an interesting exhibition of landscape paintings from the different parts of Chile and a gallery of photographs by a German photographer but to these eyes it looked like a place that has not been comfortable with the work of contemporary Chilean artists, further evidenced by the fact that the Museum of Contemporary Art is currently closed. The newer, shinier Museum of the Visual Arts just up the road indicates a direction forward with a class of school children busy constructing collages in the middle of the main gallery. The nearby Cafe Des Artes has the best coffee I found in Santiago and has some lovely contemporary rural landscapes on the wall. We met a Chilean poet in the street just by the Museum of Visual Arts. He was selling his own poems, self published, in a series of 6 booklets. He was a great salesman as well in a slightly crazy way and managed to persuade us to buy a booklet of his poetry, in Spanish, which he signed for us in extravagant hand before bidding us farewell and setting to work on the next tourists passing by.

I mentioned before that it is hard to find evidence of the pre colonial (Inka and Spanish) people of Chile. I bought a book ´A Short History of Chile´ which takes just over 15 pages to deal with the first 14 000 years of human occupation. The rest is devoted to the Spanish conquest and subsequent political events. There is little evidence of indigenous peoples here as there is in Ecuador and Peru...the last indigenous groups can be found in the far south and north of the country. The excellent Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino, just next tio the Plaza De Armas is the place to go (www.museoprecolombino.com) with some beautifully displayed pieces from all over Chile including Rapa Nui (Easter Island). I was lucky enough to get there at the same time as an exhibition about the Inka empire in Chile. I hadn´t appreciated that the Inka empire extended as far south as halfway down Chile. From the top of Ecuador, the whole of Peru and Bolivia and halfway down Chile they built an empire characterised by distinctive approaches to order, communication, infrastructure, trade, culture, art, law, architecture and it was all over in 80 years....

When we first visited Santiago I came across an excellent music store called ´Kind of Blue´ in Belles Artes. The man in the shop answered my request for recomendations of Chilean music by saying ´There is no good music from Chile´. I revisited the store a couple of days ago and told my story to a younger chap who was there....¨Oh him¨, said the young man, ¨he doesn´t think there is ANY good music anywhere in the world that wasn´t recorded in New Orleans between the 1920s and 1940s.¨ That sorted he brought me some great music, Chilean and other stuff. As might be guessed from the name of the store they sell a lot of jazz, other music as well but we started off listening to Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau followed by a beautifully atmospheric piano trio from Chile with pianist Mario Feito at the helm. Soundscapes of Patagonia in ´El Ultimo Patagon´...to provide a contrast he brought an interestingly contemporary take on the charango (small distinctively South American 8 stringed guitar type instrument). Called Charango Progressivo by the band Charanku it sounds like some of the 1970s progressive rock bands from the UK with a ukelekle....I guess you need to hear it to appreciate that it sounds much better then my poor description!

Our last trip out before getting down to the washing and packing was up the impressive mount that is Santa Cristobal. Just a short walk ride from us this huge pile of rocks rising out of the plain at the foot of the Andes was turned into a park in 1917. From scrubland it has become a lush, green park housing a zoo, swimming pools, picnic areas, a Japanese guarden, viewpoints across the city and, as mentioned earlier, the large white marbvle Virgin Mary at the summit. This is reached by a funicular railway climbing several hundred metres. On clear, smog free days, the views must be stunning (perhaps in the Winter). For us the views were really good but even from up here we couldn´t see Jackie´s bag!

So from here to Hong Kong tomorrow. South America has been absolutely great for us. From the Amazon Basin to the semi deserts of Chile and Peru, from the high altitude of Puno and Lake Titikaca to the seaside at La Serena. A fabulous experience. Lots of love and best wshes to family and friends. Adios

Posted by JohnandJac 09:55 Archived in Chile Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Chile: Valparaiso

Worth with holding judgement

sunny 33 °C
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John:...This is an awful place....this is a great place. How many times has this happened on our trip. The number of times we have changed our view on a place after poor first impressions....so to start with the poor first impression. I looked up the literal meaning of Bella Vista in the phrase book on our first morning in Valparaiso. Apparantly it means 'beautiful view'. On the basis of our first glimpses of the area we were booked in to it should have meant ´place where stray dogs hang around in packs of 4 or 5 fouling the footpath and watching people graffitti the walls'.

We had arrived on the Tur bus from La Serena on time at 19:30 and made our way to the Hostelling International place in Bella Vista where we were booked in for 7 nights. As we approached Bella Vista in a taxi, our choice of hostel was becoming questionable and as we lugged our cases up the 2 flights of steps to get to the front door even more so. A quick look at our grubby bedroom and the bathroom in similar state confirmed our view that we would change our accomodation at the first opportunity. We walked down into the town centre to find somewhere to eat, past the aformentioned packs of dogs, over the dog excrement, past the heavily tagged walls and doors of the dingy looking, broken down houses and each step down the hill made us seriously wonder about Valparaiso as a destination for a whole week. This was compounded by our taxi ride back to the hostel. We knew that the taxi driver had overcharged by 100%, on appealing to the hostel manager he said the taxi driver was right and we should pay the inflated fare. (note for those travelling to Valparaiso: The question "Cuanto por favor (how much is the fare please)?" that would be asked in many other places is, in Valparaiso, answered by a shrug and the answer "Taxi metre"...beware. The first point is that the fee for the first 200 metres varies hugely. Licensed taxis will have a sticker on the window with 200, 300 or 500 on it. This tells you, in Chilean Pesos the starting fee. Beware of extra loading i.e. the driver puting 800 Chilean Pesos on instead of 200. In financial terms for us it was a dollar or two which I would probably have given the guy as a tip...being vain though I hate to be taken for a mug!. Also give the driver the exact amount at the end of the ride as getting change can be difficult)

Thank goodness we decided to stay.

Onto the internet and a quick search of the available accomodation...only two places with availability so first thing the next morning we visited the first of these, Casa Kreyenberg. The opposite to everything about our first hostel we moved our stuff, paying the 1 night extra penalty to the Hostelling International place happy to get out without having to pay the full 7 nights. Our hosts, Lucia and Juan Pablo were charming, generous people, knowledgable about their own town and able to advise about the places that are safe to walk and those that are not. Conversation ranged from the best wines to the work of Chilean poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, Chilean politics to music, football to food and all points in between. Lucia, herself a talented painter and Juan Pablo both had very good English. Juan Pablo, passionate Santiago Wanderers supporter (lost 3-0 at the weekend), has a tourism degree and is a great person to consult about where to go and what to see.

Valparaiso was, until recently, the number 1 port in Chile and is still a very busy place for merchant shipping. Also the base for the Capitan of the Armada Chilean (Chilean Navy) the harbour area is a fascinating place to sit and watch the world go by. The climate has been beautiful since we arrived, mid to high 20s centigrade with light breezes from the sea and clear blue sky. Our hostel is at the top of one of the 49 hills that surround Valparaiso Bay. Overlooking the busy harbour from the balcony outside our room is a lovely way to start and end (see featured photo of full moon over Valparaiso in the gallery) the day. The container ships change around frequently and today the Valparaiso III, a floating dry dock, partially submerged to accomodate a tanker before blowing the ballast tanks and lifting the tanker out of the water. The predecessors of Valporaiso III, namely Valp. I and II are fully submerged permanently and accidentally elsewhere in the harbour. Just behind the container ship wharf is the Valparaiso part of the Chilean Navy. At the moment 8 surface ships in the harbour and looking down on them from the top of the Artilleria Hill is the excellent Naval Museum and the Naval Command.

Valparaiso is a perplexing city. Fiercely proud of its naval and political history (although there is little public reference to or evidence of Augusto Pinochet, born in Valparaiso; no statues, no plaques) on the one hand and its reputation as a bohemian alternative to the capital and sometime home to one of Chile´s most famous sons, the poet Pablo Neruda. Architecturally the city is a mix of the British, Spanish and German 19th and early 20th centuries. Along Condell and Esmarelda streets the mighty financial and civic buildings stand out amongst the brutal concrete slabs and squares of the mid to late 20th century. At times it seems as if these monstrous things were deliberately placed to conceal their neighbours or, at the very least spoil their view! Visiting Pablo Neruda´s house high up on the hill side this afternoon we were struck by how much of the view of 'the Pacific that is so blue and so messy that it couldn´t fit on a map so they left it outside my house' that he cherished so much is punctured by characterless spears of tall buildings often without any continuing purpose.

Houses on the hillside are often brightly coloured and built from a variety of materials, some from adobe brick then clad in corrugated tin from base to rooftop. Sitting on our terrace many of the roofs are badly in need of repair. Street artists are prolific in this city as they seem to be throughout the South American countries we have visited. Wonderfully detailed murals of city scenes, huge abstract pieces the size of the side of a house are, in turn, ´tagged'. We visited the open air Museo al Cielo Abierto which displays murals by 17 renowned painters, many returning from exile in 1991/2. We thought the place to be rather sad as the murals have been vandalised and neglected, now fading in the bright sunlight. Behind the main plaza in Valparaiso, on Cerro Bellavista, the display occupies several steep streets. In marked contrast to the officially sanctioned museo, the houses and shops just up the hill, towards Pablo Neruda's house are also decorated in bright engaging style.

We have enjoyed discovering the cultural side of the city. An exhibition of landscape paintings of 19th century Valparaiso showing justy how much it has changed, Jackie saw an exhibition of the Ecuadorian painter Guyasimin in the gallery next door. We took some time out of the highbrow and went to the neighbouring town Vina del Mar, watching James Cameron´s Avatar at the end of the day (we didn´t want to be left out!).

The naval museum is a real treat, occupying the first two floors of the lovely old Naval Academy building. The large grass outdoor area houses various pieces of naval ordinance whilst inside the history of the Chilean Navy is told in oil paintings, documents, detailed large scale models and various other artifacts with helpful English commentary. One look at the map shows that coastal defence is a big job for Chile, coupled with its ongoing occasional border disputes and conflicts with neighbours Argentina and Peru, Antarctic territory and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) the naval history is fascinating. Early General and Presidente Bernardo O´Higgins is quoted after a victorious land battle against the Spanish as saying ¨We won this battle and we will win one hundred more and it will all by for nothing if we do not control the sea¨. The museum is not particularly chauvinistic but is dedicated to and respectful of Chilean sailors lost at sea or in battle.

One room in the museum is given over to models of ships made by local model makers. In there was a model of an Oberon Class submarine operated by the Chilean Navy. When I mentioned that my Dad had served on an Oberon Class boat in the UK it transpired that Juan Pablo`s father had done so in the Chilean Navy.

A lot of the food we had in Valparaiso was outstanding. In particular I would strongly recommend Cafe Turri next to the Turri Ascensor and Cafe Vanilo further up the hill towards Plaza Santa Lucia. The seafood platter to share turned out to be almost enough for a full meal with razor clams, oysters, mussels, shrimps, prawns, scallops and bread, and the terrace overlooking the Valparaiso Bay made for a great setting...the stand out dish at Cafe Vanilla is a piece of slow cooked beef with smokey sausage, mashed potato and local vegetables.

On balance we really liked Valparaiso. A city looking for itself perhaps. No longer the biggest port in Chile and the local commercial centre is developing Vina Del Mar, the next town along. Still a fascinating blend of cultures with art, food and architecture all influenced as a result. A lot of poverty evident outside of the tourist areas and clear warnings from our hosts about where was safe to walk and where, day or night, we shouldn`t go. Maybe Valparaiso is in need of some strong municipal leadership and given the recent history of Chile it may be a little nervous about that. Parts of the town are included in its UN World Heritage Site status but it is hard to see how the money that that brings in to the city is spent on preservation and development. If the tagging and neglect is a symptom of disenchantment then the city has a substantial problem developing.

On the musical front nothing much to report....Lucia and Juan Pablo, in addition to enjoying a lot of UK bands from the 80s and 90s were able to direct me towards a style of music known as Cueca which is a folk dance (criolles). We have just tracked down the Jazz Club here in Santiago so will try and get there this week. The guy who mans the local news stand around the corner from where we are staying plays a blisteringly hot blues harmonic in the evenings between selling papers. We may buy a paper or two from him even if we can`t read it!

Lots of love to family and friends from Santiago. Probably 1 more posting before we head to Hong Kong and South East Asia. Some new photos in the Gallery.

Posted by JohnandJac 06:47 Archived in Chile Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Chile: From the Jungle to Santiago and La Serena

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John:....first things first, the Amazon pictures are back and they are not very good. Far too dark in many instances and attempts to get get pictures from a speeding canoe proved fruitless. I have posted a few on the blog gallery but just to show we were there! With the benefit of hindsight the type of pictures I had in mind taking needed tripod and much longer studying the actual terrain before snapping away (although one of our group, Tom, got quite a few good pictures). Having said that I have a couple of pictures of a toucan...you can just see it...honest...and several of villagers in a very dark hut. I could have got really good pictures of a toucan at the zoo in Cuenca but that wouldn`t be the same...so I´ll keep them but they are unlikely to trouble the judges at the South Westland Show in Whataroa in the AMAZON WILDLIFE - COLOUR section this year!

As mentioned previously LAN Chile managed to lose one of Jackie´s checked in bags so quite a chunk of our first two days in Chile was devoted to the administration around trying to get it found and the insurance, compensation details that are required. The front of house staff at LAN in Santiago have been very helpful although this is another situation where better language skills in Spanish would have helped us a lot.

In these security anxious days I find it almost incomprehensible that something as large as a bag can go missing without trace whilst having bar codes, tracking numbers etc attached. At the same time the shore side security seems able to detect microbes, hair grips and plastic cutlery not to mention FRUIT that, in the wrong hands can bring down governments. They proudly (and quite rightly) display captured Swiss Army pen knives and other such items but there is no display indicating how much luggage is lost and flying around the skies unattended.

We are now 9 days into our Chile stay and no sign of the bag yet. If, like us, this is your first venture of this kind, a detailed inventory of the contents of your checked in bags with as much detail as possible and, if possible, digital photos of the bag and contents are helpful.

For all of the above reasons we have not had a good go at Santiago De Chile yet and will spend a week there at the end of our time in Chile. We did take the opportunity to visit the outstanding food markets there however. The fish market in particular is wonderful and shares its space with Augostos International Fish Restaurant. This extraordinary place serves every possible variation on the theme of fish. They also sell very cold tap beer, unusual in these parts. We will return to Augostos; there is still work to be done there! We have managed to rent an apartment in Santiago for a week at a knock down price so will be able to enjoy shopping for and cooking the local produce.

During our time in Santiago we cracked the excellent, cheap (for us) and easy to use metro system, visited the artistic area, Bellas Artes, of the city (where the best coffee is to be found), located the various museums and galleries for examining when we get back. Of particular interest was an excellent CD store with an owner who is a Jazz enthusiast, again we shall return.

Having looked at the options for travelling to the Atacama Desert and the far south of the country and found both to be, for us, prohibitively expensive we elected to conserve our money and energy and concentrate on three locations; La Serena, popular holiday destination on the coast 6 hours by coach from Santiago, Valparaiso, Santiago´s coastal neighbour an hour and a half from the capital, and Santiago the nation´s capital, itself.

We are just coming to the end of our stay in La Serena. Our approach to the town on the coach was along the Pan Americana, Highway 5 in Chile. Out of Santiago and soon up into the sierra with amazingly fertile, well organised farming. The scenery reminded me very much of southern California with the arid surroundings contrasting heavily with the deep green of citrus, avocado and other trees, grapes (a rapidly expanding crop), maize, potato and many many others. All of the employment along this stretch of the highway seems to be related to agriculture. Continuing to climb, the farms spread out and the agriculture gets smaller scale as the burnt grasses and hillsides give way occasionally to fertile fingers of green running along seemingly dry river valleys. Sometimes there is enough grass to support the occasional cow or two and a few houses here and there before the beige takes over from the green again. Otherwise cactus, thorn trees and tussocks dominate.

As soon as the road drops down the farms reappear and the roadside fruit and veg stalls, wearing brightly coloured flags signal their presence. This is a skinny country and you are never too far from either the Pacific Ocean or the Andes. Now and again the road ran alongside the rocky coastline before winding away for a while but as we approached La Serena the sea became a fairly constant presence, as it has been for us since we arrived here. After passing through Coquimbo, the neighbouring town and port we soon became aware of a plume of dark grey smoke swirling out of what looked like the La Serena town centre, which is precisely where it was coming from. A block of businesses had gone up in flames and it was several days before the whole thing had cooled down enough for the fire brigade to stand down. We explored the town, looking as we went for those small things that of themselves have little financial value but indirectly do. Jackie`s camera battery charger (lost in the suitcase) is a case in point and we are struggling to find a replacement at the moment....too much longer and we may need to replace the camera.

The town itself is fairly non-descript consisting of an ´old town`with market, churches and commercial centre and a ´resort´area by the beach, a good 30 minutes walk from the old town. Initially we had booked into the Hostelling International place Aji Verdi on Vicuna street but after the second night of partying all night by our neighbours we moved out to an excellent little family holiday park near the beach. Our chalet was a little over our budget and had no self catering facilities. The owners very kindly furnished us with a bar b so we shopped and each night have enjoyed cooking for ourselves. We are 50 metres from the beach, there is a pool and you can hire a bicycle.

Supplies have been secured from the local mall where the hypermarket is called JUMBO and the DIY centre is called EASY. The latter kitted us out with charcoal and replacement plug adaptors and the former with a fridge full of food and several bottles of the magnificent Chilean Carmanere wine. This wine is a Chilean specialty. My brother Pete tells me that the Carmanere vines, originally shipped from France to Chile in the 19th Century have survived where as the vines in Europe died from disease. The wine is big, warm, fruity and full and 10 - 15 dollars will buy a very good wine indeed. Pete has given us the names of some labels that he sampled on a trip over here so in the name of research we will continue his work!

Also, in the enormous shopping mall: who`d have thought that Newcastle Brown Ale would be so easily available here and, in the neighbouring CD store´s bargain bin, imagine my delight at finding ´Hit This and Kick That´ by Charlie Chesterman and his Classic Motorcycles for just a few dollars!

We haven´t done much in the way of sightseeing but yesterday we headed out to the Elqui Valley, calling in at a Pisco (the national spirit distilled from wine) distillery and the one time home of the poet Gabriele Mistral, winner of the Nobel Prize for her work in 1948. With the organised tours there is a premium placed on moving on....vamos and so brief exposures to things often deserve following up either with internet searches or, and we will need to wait for our next destination Valparaiso for this, bookshops that sell translations of Chilean work. Gabriele Mistral is one such person. We had hoped to spend a few hours at the observatory up in the mountains but cloud got in the way so we have rescheduled the trip for tonight. Hopefully visibility will be a bit better.

We have been struck by the extraordinary differences between, on the one hand, Peru and Ecuador and on the other Chile as far as Mercados Artesanales are concerned. Now given that we have only had a slight exposure to the country I may have this wrong but whereas in Ecuador and Peru the indigenous people wear their traditional costumes with enormous pride and make beautiful garments and other things none of this seems to happen in Chile. Indian music, art, design has a high visibility, not just in the country side but in the cities as well. We have seen some artisans markets here but they are sad and sorry affairs with poor quality goods and the stall holders dressed in western style. I need to do more reading up on this and maybe the museums of Santiago will have an explanation but it is a significant point of difference for Chile.

Also different is my relative height. I have shrunk relative to the local population, now being about normal height and not far off standard skin colour. The people here have lighter skin and fairer (still predominantly dark) hair, seem taller. In moving south we have hit seasons - not just wet and dry but 4 seasons, (mercifully it is a steady 30 degrees c here at the moment)...anyway I am rambling so time to wind up and send much love and many best wishes to family and friends. Next posting from Valparaiso in a few days time.

Posted by JohnandJac 11:17 Archived in Chile Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Ecuador: Banos to Quito then out to Amazonia

Welcome to the jungle; be careful out there.....

semi-overcast 33 °C
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"Si, por favor"

"10 cents"

so ran the short conversation 2 hours into our three hour journey from Banos to Quito. I'm not sure what the 15 cent option was called, perhaps an extra ordinario, but it came with two squares of toilet paper collected from the nice lady at the foot of the steps to the toilets. One quick ordinario later and back on the bus to finish the journey. The remainder of the journey would be in the shadow of the mighty Cotopaxi volcano, the dominant physical feature of the surrounding countryside. Now extinct but still reveared by local people and climbers alike.

Our bus to Banos from Cuenca had airbrakes that had a wheeze then sneeze kind of sound whilst the bus back to Quito from Banos had more of a barking dog sound, compounded by the occasional barking dog chasing the bus. Next to the 80's megamix played at full volume through the bus speaker system the airbrakes almost sounded good! Otherwise an uneventful journey with lots of coming and going. We were almost the only people to do the whole trip from Banos to Quito. People selling snacks hopped on and off the bus selling bags of things that were recognisable and other bags of things that, to these eyes at least, looked very different. The competition between buses to pick up fares was intense, leading to some interesting overtaking manouvres, the most memorable as we overtook another bus going onto the Panamerican highway at a 'T' junction, before we eventually chugged into Quito.

The Plaza Grande in Quito is surrounded by is the Presidential Palace, Cathedral and balconied shops and restaurants. There was a great deal of hustle and bustle around the Palace with motorcades being prepared, sniffer dogs in attendance and motorcycle outriders with the only decent police bikes I have seen so far in South America (BMW 1200). The President was clearly going somewhere and, given the history of assasinations in this country it was not surprising that nobody was saying anything. After a while I headed over to the graceful old colonial building that housed the Cultural Centre and saw a moving black and white photographic exhibition telling the stories of the descendents of the many African Slaves that were brought to South America and in particular Brasil. On the next floor an exhibition of lithographs by Goya together with what I think were contemporary Ecuadorian artists reinterpreting some of the themes that Goya presented.

Despite the cultural attractions of colonial Quito though, my mind frequently wandered to our forthcoming trip into the Amazon Basin. Like Machupicchu in Peru this was, for me, one of the most keenly anticipated parts of our trip to South America. Being as economical as possible with our packing and leaving behingd anything that might be badly affected by the high humidity (iPod included) but making sure we had plenty of batteries for torches and changes of socks and undies...no electric power at all at the lodge except for solar powered battery rechargers on for 2 hours per day and no drying facilities other than hanging clothes outside....where the scorpions and spiders roam!

Our day began early with a taxi to the airport to catch the 35 minute flight from Quito to Nueva Loja (more commonly known as Largo Agria). A short trip in terms of time taken but several worlds away in terms of topography. Quito, high sierra city at 2 800 metres to Largo Agrio in Tropical Rainforest at 200 metres. Quito warm and dry, Largo Agria hot and with a humidity of 85% in the dry season (95 - 100% for the remaining 9 months). Quito packed tight and snaking through all the available space between the volcanoes and mountains, Largo Agria spaced out and new since the extraction of oil started here.

We landed at the brand new terminal. I was disappointed that nobody said "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE", or as they used to say in Hill Street blues "Hey...be careful out there...it`s a jungle" but they were probably busy at the time. We were picked up by a young man who said little but drove us in his minibus for 90 minutes along the main road east from Largo Agria. At a steady lick we travelled for 90 minutes along brand new tar sealed road, paid for out of oil money as were the numerous new buildings and the huge strip of cleared rainforest through which the road passed. Two oil pipes, perhaps a mere 9" in diameter, cradled in sturdy tubular steel frames carried the precious black cargo responsible for all of this and also for the over development of the small townships that lined the road. The small towns were frontier towns to all appearances. We finally arrived at a bridge over the Cuyabeno river where, after a short break for lunch, we began our four hour canoe journey down the Cuyabeno River to Samona Lodge, our base for the next 5 days.

Our company numbered five plus our guide Luis and boatman Carlos: Matt from Canada, Tom from the USA, Paulo from Argentina and Jackie and I. A great group of people. We enjoyed their company very much. Our guide for this first part of our trip was William. William came in to his own very soon in to the trip when he shouted out ZLOT!!! ZLOT!!!, pointing excitedly at a tree. We looked and looked and eventually made out a small bundle of fur that turned out to be a 2 toed sloth, resting in the crook of a tree just above the river. The guides being able to spot things that we had no idea about was a constant feature of the trip and their observation skills, knowledge and experience were invaluable. How a) William had been able to spot the ZLOT!!! and b) how the zlot had managed to continue sleeping through the noise of William, each was anybody´s guess. We were powered by the far from traditional but very effective mighty oars of Yamaha. The work horse of the river, these engines and the propeller blades take a real beating on the river . However skillful the boatman the submerged trees and other obstacles will inflict fairly heavy damage....no such problem with paddles but everything takes many times longer and in an emergency you can't beat good old horse power (better than oars power!)

The Rio Cuyabeno was very low. This is the dry season and in just 1 month the river will be approaching 3 metres higher than its present level, covering the banks and rising up the tree trunks where the water marks from the last wet season can still be clearly seen. The practical consideration for us was the extent to which the low water level affected our trip, extending it by nearly 2 hours. Carlos exercised great skill in getting us to the lodge without smashing the propeller.

As we bumped and buzzed our way the main attraction, the Amazon Jungle put on a great opening show. As the light began to fade troops of monkeys crashed about in the tree tops, kingfishers of various shapes and sizes flashed along the river in brilliant streaks. Overhead a yellow headed vulture and hurling themselves onto the boat in ferocious frenzy small 'dogfish', sharp toothed relatives of pirana fish. Every now and again a big swirling in the water would indicate a Pache, a 3 metre fish with scales of such a size and strength that local people use them as plectrums for guitar playing (I would have brought you one home Mark but MAF might not approve and it would probably be fairly smelly by July!). Wafting by at surprising speed were butterflies the size of my open hand with brilliant electric blue wings. We had a lesson in photography on the way, namely that even with digital technology or ASA 400 film the light, or lack of it wouuld be a major factor in trying to get good pictures.

Two hours into the trip the heavens opened and they stayed open for most of the rest of the journey. We were soaked through to the skin. Even with good gear on the water got through. William and Carlos didn't bother with jackets etc...they had been out in this many times before. By the time we reached Samona all our gear was wet and the drying challenge began...to get as much dry as possible before we needed to wear it. Inbetween heavy showers insects hatched, buzzed and flew around bringing out things that ate insects and, in turn, the things that eat the things that eat insects. Scarlet Macaws headed home sceeching and squaking, long nosed bats flapped and every now and again a caiman would slide into the river.

If I turn this blog into a list of creatures we saw it will be dull. We saw many many insects, birds, reptiles, trees and plants. The jungle itself with its heavy air and distinctive earthy, watery, composty smell dominated. Amazing that so much growth can happen on such miserably poor soil. We had numerous activities including going out at night on the river looking for the local version of crocs, the caiman. We saw many including a 4 metre monster in the water within 2 feet of our boat. He didn't move a muscle. He didn't need to. In a head-to-head on the water there would only be one winner.

A night walk along a jungle path near the lodge introduced us to some of the millions of insects, frogs, birds and monkeys that would keep us company at night. Our guide, Luis, found frogs that defeated our eyes and numerous spiders wove fantastic webs. Overhead the appropriately named Noisy Night Monkey was heard then spotted and making a star appearance towards the end of our walk was a very elegant looking black scorpion on a tree trunk. (reminded to shake shoes, bags etc before inserting feet, hands). There is a saying that we encountered in Africa: you only see 10% of everything that sees you. In the Amazon that felt more like 1% and it was because of the guides that we saw that much. There was always the feeling that a jaguar or pink dolphin or anaconda were there to be seen and not far away. We didn't see these creatures but groups before and after us saw some of them. Knowing they were there was satisfying in itself.

Our evening excursions sometimes took us Pirana fishing and Matt, Tom, Luis, Paulo and I went out with some beers and sticks with line and hooks. Luis brought beef for bait and the trick was to hook the pirana before it ate all the beef (which piranas are very good at doing)...not skillful at all but good fun and we had 3 fish to supplement dinner...they tasted good. On our return to dinner we were joined by one of the local tarantulas, looking down on us from his/her roofing support while a tree frog, with one eye on the tarantula watched us from the next one along.

We travelled into the dry part of the forest with Luis who gave us tree bark to chew...quinine, he showed us the local plant used for contraception and numerous other medicines that come from leaves, roots, bark and berries; tattoo ink, leaves that you can write messages on with a stick, lipstick berries and palm leaves for basket weaving....so much more than I can write here. Our people contact was with Lucia from the Sione tribe. They live in the village of Puerta Bolivar, downstream 2 hours from us. We went, first of all to meet the local Shaman. He was either out on a house call or fishing. Either way his son explained the role fully and how the Shaman and local health services work together. From there back up to Puerto Boliva where Lucia showed us how to make bread from Yukka roots. We all had a go and very tasty it was too. Grated, sifted and dried yukka root is simply poured onto a hot clay bake stone, pressed and lifted off. With a little of Lucia's home made concentrated chillie paste and a smidge of marmalade you couldn't beat it with a stick.

Night times were noisy. Very noisy. Insects, birds and frogs can kick up a hell of a din in the dark and the handover period between 04:30 and 05:30 is almost orchestral in its intensity. Things quietened down somewhat after 10:00 as the day gets hotter but by 15:00 they are all tuning up again and itching to make a noise. If the trees are competing for every square centimetre of sunlight either by growing taller or wider than everything else then the creatures that make noise have used every trick in the book to fill all the available frequencies for seeking, maintaining or repelling relationships. In so doing they seem to cross over with frogs sounding like mammals, insects sounding like birds and vice versa.

On our fourth day, sadly, Tom, Matt and Luis left to head back to Quito. I went out on another fishing trip with the group that had just arrived and, after the pirana fishing and caiman spotting was surprised to see how keen some of the group were to get in the water for a swim....not me! We had had rain a few days in a row which meant that the journey back up the river was quicker, just two and a half hours this time.

A quick turnaround in Quito before taking the night flight to Santiago de Chile. We were deeply disappointed that one of Jackie's bags was lost by LAN on the flight via Guyaquil with the inevitable searching around trying to remember what was on it. Fortunately the LAN staff in Santiago city have been very helpful but we are now 4 days on and still no sign of the bag. Hopefully good news before the next blog.

Lots of love and best wishes to family, and friends old and new. We are now in La Serena, 6 hours by coach north of Santiago. It is very hot here by the coast so a plunge in the Pacific will be nice tomorrow....more refreshing than swimming with pirana and caimans in the Cuyabeno anyway!

Posted by JohnandJac 13:15 Archived in Ecuador Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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