Our next destination is the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. In order to get there from Arequipa we have to fly north to Lima, then south to Santiago, then north again to a tin-pot airport called Calama, or spend 26+ hours on a bus. Going to Santiago is actually a bonus for us, since it means we are able to spend a few days with Lauren in her new home town.
However today, 28th September, is a day of being busted and sickness!
In Lima, whilst being put through the pain that airports inflict on poor passengers, we get busted for trying to smuggle a third of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin, a bottle of water and factor-50 sun block on to the airplane. The water and gin are the preferred weapons of the modern terrorists (as eny fule kno) but the sunblock would have been fine had it been in a plastic bag but, as it was not, it was plainly dangerous and suspected of having transformed into semtex.
In Santiago, we were caught red handed trying to smuggle 4 oranges into Chile. This is against Law number 1,235,758,945,876 and punishable by death. Sven was arrested. Debbie, thinking it a good ploy, bursts into tears. Sven stands there, Basil Fawlty style, arguing with a large female official but, as both are shouting at the same time, it only provides an amusing spectacle for passersby. However, the silo mentality of government automatons was unmoved. The law had been broken. Punishment must be administered. After an hour or so, Sven is informed by some stern faced stuffed shirt that he is minded to be lenient in this instance and will levy a fine of millions of Chilean whatevers (US$210). Not having any stupid Chilean whatevers, Sven is marched to a cash machine that spews out a thick wad of notes and penance is duly paid. Welcome to Chile!
Finally, when we get to our B&B, Nilontraro ($40 per night), poor Debbie is as sick as a dog having been given a poisoned breakfast in Lima. We have survived all manner of local foods in Ecuador & Peru but the Limenos were determined to have the last laugh.
To cap a perfect day, Lauren arrives and takes us to an excellent Pizza restaurant where Lauren and I tuck into a huge meal and Debbie looks at her slice of garlic bread as if it is the last thing she wants to see, and refuses a glass of wine!!
We spend the next couple of days with Lauren being shown the sights of this splendid city. Santiago is the political, economic and financial capital of Chile and stands in a wide plain with the magnificent chain of the Andes in full view – pollution permitting. The city is a modern commercial capital, full of skyscrapers (it boasts the tallest building in South America), bustle, noise and traffic, and a metro, which we became very adept at using. The buildings style a mixture of Spanish and German with some large blocks of flats that would not be out of place in Eastern Europe. It has the most European feel of anywhere we have visited.
In our travels so far, nowhere we have been has held on to its Spanish eating customs, and meal times have been more North American, that is to say, early. Not so here, where the evening meal does not begin until 9.00pm (a time we are often politely expected to have vacated our table in Ecuador and Peru) and dining continues late into the night until, according to Lauren, the clubs open.
It has been fantastic spending some time with Lauren on her own ‘territory’. She absolutely loves it here; she is looking really well, incredibly happy and very relaxed, apart from the pending test she had. We had the chance to see where she lives, well in fact she spends very little time there (her room is tiny) residing primarily with her best mate, Emily. We went along to her campus one morning and threatened to watch her play some tennis. We meet her girlfriends and, of course, Mum and daughter had to do some bonding that mostly involved credit cards! Lauren can lead a ‘full’ student life in this city at lower cost even without Mum’s credit card. The locals are very friendly and welcoming and, she says, cannot do enough for you. I was a bit sceptical on this last point: beautiful girls with strawberry blond hair that come from exotic places will always have a queue of people ready to open doors for them. However, I have to say, that my later experiences of Chileans, airport staff excepted, are that they are a people generous of spirit and always prepared to help.
Our first visit was to the Parque Metropolitano de Santiago in San Cristobal, a large hill on the top of which is a very large statue of The Virgin that overlooks the city. The climb is nearly 900m, nothing to us hardened trekkers but, not wishing to wear out poor Lauren early in our excursions, we opted to take the Funicular tram. The views from the top are wide ranging, from the Andes across the city and into the distance. They would be spectacular if wasn’t for the smog and the cloud covering the tallest mountain peaks.
A whistle-stop tour around the fruit and veg market did nothing for poor Debbie’s constitution where she encountered a ‘cheese’ made from animal brains that looked like it had been scooped from dead skulls and quashed into a nice cube. Not surprisingly, lunch in the fish market did not quite hit the spot despite being serenaded by a string of dreadful musicians clearly under the impression that foreigners would throw sliver at their feet.
The Plaza de Armas is the main square, where the Cathedral and museums stand overlooking a mixture of people some hurrying about, some people watching, some selling their wares. Frankly, it’s not unlike the centre of most capitals but it is a very pleasant place to sit and enjoy the warm spring sunshine.
Around the corner is the Plaza de la Constitution which was blocked off by all manner of police and security guards. The Chinese were in town. No doubt donating a part of their substantial cash mountain to greedy politicians in return for a licence to rape the country’s vast natural resources. The Chinese are a growing influence in South America and they are not backward in throwing money at assorted governments in return for access to underground mineral wealth. They do not have the western conscience towards the cost of doing business here or the health and safety issues adopted by the soft underbelly of European management.
Anyway, back to reality: The Cerro Santa Lucia is a beautiful cone of rock just a short walk from the city centre. Here the Conquistador Don Pedro de Valdivia built a small fortress in 1540, naming the town Santiago, and from this place the city grew. Besides nice views across the tops of the surrounding buildings, it has some Moorish fountains in a park that is littered by young locals intertwined gumsucking. We had to step over the bodies on our way out.
We enjoyed our brief visit to Santiago and enjoyed the company of Lauren and her friends. We wrapped it up with a very pleasant birthday dinner for James (where were your cards?).