Santiago Days (Outside the City Limits)

By 24 April, 2011

I have, over the last couple of weeks, had the opportunity (and legal necessity) to get out of Santiago and see some of the rest of this part of the world for a bit. Of the two trips in question, one took me due west in a straight line, the other east over mountain roads in the most un-straight line possible.

Straight lines first.

About an hour away from Santiago, is the city of Valparaíso and it is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. Lying against the Pacific Ocean, hills surrounding the natural harbour are covered in multi-coloured houses, with cables cars ready to take the weary walker up the steeper inclines. The city is truly unique.

Home to both the Chilean navy and national congress this vibrant city has graffiti in its blood. It is everywhere. Walls adorned with murals, genuine artworks painted at the expense of the artist for the pleasure of the public.

The day we arrived was unfortunately overcast, and not overly warm (winter is definitely on its way here in Chile) but even in those conditions you could still appreciate the views from cerro to cerro, and then down into the old town.

Central Valparaíso is a UNESCO world heritage site and the accolade is fully deserved.

At the harbour, huge freights stand next to battleships, while fishing boats potter in between. Seamen are on hand to take tourists out into the bay on small boats, and only the prospect of seasickness within my group stopped me.

Small cable cars (pictured below) are widespread, acting as a little help-me-up on some of the steepest inclines. Charging around 150 pesos (a little under 20p) you move through the wooden turnstile and into the box. When full (presumably not the method of choice for those in a rush) the doors are closed and the winch at the top goes into motion, bringing up the view from the windows as it does so.

Each hill acts as its own barrio, or neighborhood, with maps of each in shop windows. Raised pavements take you round the cast iron clad houses, painted, and low. Colonial architecture sits next to these strange, buildings, they almost look as though an up-market favela has sprung up. Skyscrapers, or in fact any tall building, are thin on the ground, although they do exist and protrude almost apologetically on the skyline.

Abundant views, street art, cafes and… well… dogs. There are a lot of dogs in Santiago, mainly strays, but even those that have owners are allowed free to roam. In Valparaíso there are dogs everywhere, hundreds of them, everywhere.

It is a city Chilean poet Pablo Neruda became enamored with, eventually setting up home here, and you can see why, the sea air, the colour and the architecture provide a welcome contrast to Santiago.

My second trip took me the other way, over the Andes and into the Argentinean city of Mendoza.

A Chilean tourist visa only lasts three months, so to complete my four month stay I had to leave the country and re-enter. The rules stipulate all you have to do is leave then you can basically come straight back in. But given we were legally obliged to visit Argentina we decided we should, well, visit Argentina.

Taking the bus over Andes as night fell and the full moon came up was truly breathtaking. Even the most unenthusiastic, hardened travellers were moving from one side of the bus to the other snapping picture after picture of the ever-impressive mountains as the journey went on.

Door-to-door, the trip takes six hours, but the actual time of your arrival is most dependent on the delay in crossing the border. Which is usually long. Around an hour and a half to two hours is standard fare. After all that, the two stamps you get on your passport (exit from one, entry to the other) seem scant consolation.

One positive aspect of the journey time is the side of the Andes you don’t see because of nightfall one way, is the side you do see going the other. They are spectacular both ways. (Although maybe the Argentinean side is nicer, if you can have a ‘nicer’ mountain.)

Mendoza itself is a small city, known for its wine and steak, of which we indulged, and I can confirm its reputation is deserved. There is also the massive Parque San Martin on the city’s edge that is well worth a visit.

Its so big it has its own cerro, stadiums and a university all within its boundaries.

So with my travels done I returned to Santiago, as autumn rolls in. The sun’s still shining but there is a chill in the air. I’m here for another two weeks before I return the British shores, where I hear the weather is starting to pick up?! Perfect timing!

As ever you can find me on twitter @briggsma, and I hope you stay and have a look round the site.

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