1 February 2015
A grocery run, a stop to fill up the gas tank of the silver SUV Raffael bought in Chile, and we’re finally on the road around 11:30 heading for those tall, jagged mountains to the west of Mendoza. It was barely a week ago that I talked with my friend Jenny about how much I wished I had someone to travel with. I guess saying it out loud was all it took to meet someone; now here I am with Raffel, a traveler from Switzerland, crossing the Andes mountains, headed for Chile. The pass over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago turns out to be one of those places that everyone tells you to go, and you mentally note it, but maybe you don’t make serious plans to go because maybe it’s out of your way, and people say that about almost every beautiful place they’ve traveled, and you can’t go everywhere and sometimes people exaggerate, and you think, it can’t really be that beautiful can it? – and then sometimes you go there anyway and it’s more beautiful than anyone told you it would be and you think, dammit, why didn’t anyone tell me this place was so beautiful, and you’re glad you went. First there’s a long straight stretch of highway with acres of vineyards spreading away towards Mendoza on our right, as the mountains jut up ahead of us like a steep, hard wall. Quickly we’re in among the foothills, passing dry, red, rocky peaks and mysterious narrow canyons that I just catch with the camera as we speed by. Raffael expertly glides the SUV around tight turns as we start to gain elevation, and I think it’s lucky I’m riding through the mountains with someone who grew up driving around the Alps. I’m given the important tasks of taking pictures out the window, serving mate, and choosing music for the drive. First a little musical education, as Raffael has not heard Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; then I decide the landscape calls for Neil Young. I always like listening to Neil on trips with impressive natural scenery. His music seems made for lonely, wild landscapes, and it seems thoughtful to me, in the way that big open spaces make you thoughtful. We glimpse a large, turquoise lake and turn off the highway to investigate. The reservoir is beautiful, strikingly turquoise against the dry hills, but low – many meters too low, it looks like. We walk to the edge of the water along white, chalky banks. Strict signs warn us not to swim but I dip my feet in anyway. We’ve already gained some altitude and the water is shockingly cold. A little later we continue along the highway as it curves through a wide canyon, following the course of a swift, chocolate-brown river swollen by hidden rains. Hungry, we begin looking for a good picnic spot. The bare walls of the canyon don’t afford any vegetation nor shade, so we eventually settle in the meager shadow of a boxy metal container next to a slip where one of the tour companies from Mendoza begins their whitewater rafting tours. We watch the brown river tumble by on one side and cars rush by on the other as we eat tomatoes and fresh fruit and cheese and the least disgusting gluten-free crackers I was able to find at the supermarket. We pack up from the whitewater rafting slip and not five minutes later pass a beautifully shaded little park by the river that would have been perfect for lunch, and laugh at ourselves for stopping at the ugly little concrete platform. The canyon we’ve been traveling through finally widens out into a broad valley. On all sides we’re surrounded by rocky, steep mountains. The broad plain is flat and yellow with a strip of green leafy trees bordering the course of the river. We’re settled into driving now as we cross the valley and begin climbing another narrow canyon, and I play some electronica to fit the mood. We stop now and again to take pictures as we climb deeper and higher into the sharp, endless mountains. Soon we begin to see glimpses of a high peak covered in snow away to our right. We come to a side road leading up to a little guard station and signs for views of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in all of the Americas and the highest peak outside of Asia. The wind howls down a canyon covered with tough, short grasses. It’s an easy walk up to the viewpoint, but I can tell we’ve already gained some altitude when I get winded on the way. Up along the walls of the canyon we see condors circling and tiny glimpses of motion on the rocks as rabbits dive for cover when the birds’ shadows pass over them. At the end of the canyon looms Aconcagua, nearly 7,000 meters high – around 23,000 feet. We’re already so high in elevation that it actually doesn’t seem that tall by comparison, just big and imposing. Aconcagua fades again behind closer mountains as we approach the Chilean frontier. The Argentine exit and Chilean entry offices are right next to each other. Leaving Argentina officially is a piece of cake, but as anyone who’s been to South America can tell you, Chile is notoriously strict about what crosses their border. I’m carefully double-checking my bag for any forgotten pieces of fruit or vegetables, and Raffael is sorting out the paperwork for his car, which has to be stamped through border crossings just like we do. From the way they write the fruit and vegetable warning signs at the border, and the stories other travelers have told us, I think we’d be in bigger trouble for trying to sneak an apple across the border than if we accidentally imported Raffael’s car illegally. Sure enough, while Raffael chats with a Chilean border official about a missing paper the Bolivian border officials misplaced a few weeks ago, a food-sniffer dog goes wild over a bag of trash in our front seat. The dog’s handler grabs the bag like it’s full of drugs and pulls out a discarded orange peel. He gives me a stern look, tosses the bag in the trash, and brings the dog around for a thorough investigation of the rest of the car. Meanwhile the official Raffael has been talking to laughs and stamps the car through. We finally clear the border as the sun sets. Immediately past the border crossing the road descends sharply into a canyon, dropping what has to be 400 meters sharply and steeply. Long, tight curves zig zag down into the valley. They’re coated with something that makes the tires squeal as we round each bend – Raffael complains about this – and I count 30 tight turns from top to bottom. Another forty minutes of driving and we’re close to Los Andes, a small town that seems like a decent enough place to spend the night. Our road maps show little water fountain symbols just outside of town – natural hot springs. We pull into a square in town to ask friendly locals about the springs (Raffael is much braver about talking to people than I am) and pick up snacks in the hopes of being able to picnic next to a hot spring under the stars. Termas del Corazón (hot springs of the heart) turns out to be an expensive resort. There are springs, but they’re part of a complex of constructed pools under a roof in the resort, and they’re closed for the night by the time we arrive. I’ve been completely spoiled by the natural hot springs I used to be able to visit from Reno, so I veto giving the resort a try tonight – plus the cost to stay overnight is an exorbitant 70,000 pesos per person (over $100). We return to Los Andes to look for a backpacker’s hostel, and eventually find a building marked HOSTAL that has rooms for a much more reasonable 15,000 pesos each. The very friendly night receptionist offers to let us park the car in their garage, and cheerfully opens the door to the dining room. Once we realize he’s not joking, I hop out and Raffael executes an impressively difficult parking job, squeezed between a wall of antique china and a pile of stacked-up tables and chairs. Our upstairs room is comfortable and empty of other backpackers, at least for this night. The hostal doesn’t seem to have a kitchen (at least not one for guests) and our room doesn’t seem to have a table, so we shrug, laugh, and spread out our snack-dinner on the floor – meat and cheeses and tomatoes and Raffael cuts apart a plastic water bottle to use as makeshift glasses for wine.
2 February 2015
It’s 8:23 and I’ve felt this before – a little rattling, nothing out of the ordinary, maybe just a truck passing – but it doesn’t stop, it goes on way too long to be a truck and it keeps going and then there’s the real shaking, the whole building swaying back and forth and I hold my breath and close my eyes and after a few seconds which feel like a few hours, it stops and now I’m awake. It’s hard to go back to sleep after an earthquake. Welcome to Chile, I think.
No one in the hostal blinked an eye at the tremor, which I look up later online. The epicenter was deep underground near Mendoza, around 6.7 there but in the low 3’s here in Chile. At breakfast – bread for Raffael; deli meat, cheese, and fruit for me – we talk with the owners of the hostal, who bought the old building and added a huge event hall, where we’re now having breakfast. Right now we’re the only guests but they sometimes host large groups – I guess that the hall could seat 50 people easily. After we say goodbye to the hostal staff, Raffael maneuvers the car back out of the dining room – we are both still giggling about this – and we set off in the direction of Santiago. We make a detour to investigate another hot spring marked on the map, but our hot spring luck continues to be bad, and this one is closed today. Instead after some exploring we find a shady spot under some trees by a small stream and make our picnic lunch there.
We’re barely back on the highway when the suburbs and traffic of Santiago start to come into view. Or rather, the toll booths of Santiago start to come into view – I think we pass three within a few kilometers. We pass through tunnels cut into the mountains that border Santiago and Raffael gets excited about some interesting engineering-related features that I can’t remember now (sorry Raffael). And then Santiago looms below us, modern-looking high rise apartment buildings and shiny skyscrapers and it’s hard to remember we’re in South America until we come down into the suburbs and there are the crumbling concrete buildings with their hand-painted signs and broken sidewalks again. They fade into elegant antique colonial buildings as we approach Bella Vista, a lovely neighborhood deserving of its name, urban yet pretty, with rows of restaurants and bars crowded together along quiet streets. Raffael sweet-talks a meter maid into letting us park the car on the street long enough to unload ourselves – funny how quickly I adapted to spreading out into every inch of the car after having traveled with just a backpack for the past five months. We settle into a huge hostel that seems nearly deserted – one or two stray backpackers and the friendly receptionists.
We walk through bella vista, down the length of a green park glimmering with fountains, and into the downtown area. I’m surprised by how nice this part of the city is. People say Santiago isn’t worth visiting – just a big city, they say – but I see interesting murals and cute shops and boutiques and pretty little cafes (Raffael knows some good ones and I drink the best coffee I’ve had since buenos aires), and a bustling restaurant scene. We take a wrong turn and miss the Thai restaurant we were trying for, and end up instead at an Indian diner that serves passable curried fish with coconut milk. I think Santiago seems like a fine city. 3 February 2015
We’re just a few minutes late to the free walking tour that meets downtown. Both Raffael and I have been in South America long enough now that we rarely show up to anything on time, and the tour operators are used to this as well, and everyone’s quite content to ease into the actual tour content around 10:20 or so. The buildings we pass downtown I find only a little bit interesting – I’m mainly amazed at the age of the buildings that are still standing after years and years of earthquakes. “If you pass an old building in Chile and you see it’s still standing, you know it’s safe” says our guide, and I guess he’s right. We cross the river into what our guide tells us is the poorer part of town, and in a few minutes we’ve come into the fish market. Raffael is delighted by the variety of very fresh seafood on display – there’s barely any fish smell – and begins planning a dinner that, if he includes all the ingredients he wants to, will feed about 20 people. We wander through the market stalls with the group. I’m staring at little piles of octopus next to gigantic glassy-eyed eels, while Raffael drools over piles of fresh mussels still moving and finds slices of what one vendor tells us is meat from a giant squid. In the center of the market the building opens up and I see that it’s very much like the market in Montevideo, which is reminiscent of a huge iron train station like the ones you see in Europe. The ceiling looms high and vaulted and beautiful and the open square underneath echoes with the bustle of commerce. I’m not the only one who’s reminded of Montevideo; they tell us there’s a rumor that when they shipped the pieces of this market building from Europe (I’m still not clear on why or how that happened, readers) the parts for this market were confused with the parts for the market in Montevideo. Given the general lackadaisical attitude toward formal organization in South America, I think the story seems believable. Out the fish market (we have to drag Raffael), across the street, and into another more modern-looking market building selling some produce and meats. I’m getting hungry but don’t have time to stop for a snack before we’re out again and on to yet another market – this one rougher, dingier, and way more fun than the last two. There’s all manner of produce being sold here – mainly fruit and vegetables, but further in we find rows and rows of spices typical of Peruvian cuisine (a lot of people from Peru live in Santiago, our guide tells us), bags of grain sold in bulk, and even high quality Japanese soy sauce. I open my eyes and ears completely as I drift through the stalls and hear vendors swapping jokes, greeting customers, hawking wares. Young men in rough work clothes grin with mouths missing most of their teeth as they haul in huge crates of exotic fruits. Raffael buys cactus fruits (which, confusingly, are called tunas) and I try one – juicy and soft, a lot like a kiwi fruit. The seeds are annoying but apparently harmless so I swallow those as well. Raffael adds about 30 ingredients to our dinner shopping list and I wonder if he’s planning to cook for everyone in the hostel tonight. After this last (and coolest) market, we hop onto Santiago’s clean, fast, and modern subway and hop out a few stops later near the cemetery. This is a new one for me – I’ve seen the mausoleums and huge tombstones in cemeteries in Europe, and sprawling manicured outdoor cemeteries like golf courses with tombstones in my own country, but this is the first cemetery I’ve been to that reminded me of a motel. Rather than being buried underground, the dead are tucked into niches that seem impossibly small and their remains are stacked in an orderly block arranged in a concrete honeycomb several stories high. There are rows and rows of these huge residential blocks of bones marching through the cemetery. Further in, the rich lie in enormous mausoleums more like what I’m used to seeing in European cemeteries. Many of them are absurdly ornate, several stories high or carved to look like mosques or pyramids. Some lie in utter ruin, not having survived a recent earthquake, waiting for remaining family members to find some way to pay for the repair of their dead relative’s ridiculous final resting place. Finally we come to the tomb of Salvador Allende. Here I hear for the first time the history of political events in Chile over the past 40 years. The history of Salvador Allende’s socialist government, the military coup in which the American CIA was directly involved, and Allende’s suicide are a sobering education, especially for me as an American. We’re told that Chileans tend to be strongly divided in their opinions about the Pinochet’s takeover and dictatorship. I don’t feel well informed enough to comment on the history here, but most Chileans I’ve talked with aren’t proud of the Pinochet dictatorship, despite the prosperity that Chile has enjoyed as a result. The walking tour ends with a visit to a bar where we’re able to try a terremoto (“earthquake”, a cocktail made of sweet red wine, sprite, and pineapple ice cream). Now it’s 14:00 and we’re starving. We retrace our steps back to the market where Raffael buys a modest third of the planned ingredients for tonight’s feast – including mussels and a giant squid tentacle – and we make it back to the hostel for a very late siesta and lunch. By the time we finish dessert it’s late, maybe 19:30. We walk back downtown for another of Raffael’s favorite cafes where I find an exceptional chocolate ice cream. He takes me to the Presidential palace, where Salvador Allende was found dead (the exact manner of his death is disputed, but it happened in the midst of the military coup during which the palace was bombed). In the main square, the Plaza de Armas, two astronomers have set up telescopes. It’s a full moon tonight, and for a few hundred pesos they let us look through the lens. The moon shimmers there, swaying slightly as the day’s heat rises from the mountains, still baking from the strength of the sun which set a few hours ago. We talk a little more with the astronomer, who points out Jupiter. We slip him a few more pesos to point his telescope at the planet and we’re delighted that we can see three of Jupiter’s moons, just little points of light around a bigger redder point of light in the lens. It doesn’t look like the pictures you see of jupiter, but it’s still beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and makes us both contemplative as we walk back to the hostel. It’s nearly 23:30 now – it’s late, but we took naps earlier and the fresh seafood from the market is begging to be cooked. Raffael washes the mussels, showing me how they squeeze shut when the fresh tap water rinses over them – this is how you can tell they’re still alive, which apparently they need to be when you begin cooking them. We make a stir fry of vegetables and slices of the giant squid tentacles, which have an interesting texture – not as rubbery as calamari, not exactly chewy, almost like the flesh of a firm cantaloupe, but less granular… It’s hard to describe, but tasty. While we eat the stir fry we’re simmering tomatoes and spices and by the time we finish our first course we’re ready to dunk the mussels into the stew. I feel a little guilty dumping live animals into boiling tomato sauce, but that’s how it goes with mussels, and I think we’re as humane as we can be about it. Soon they ease open and we sit down to the stew. Everything is delicious – Raffael knows what he’s doing. By now it’s around 2 am and the hostel is deserted except for the night receptionist. We bring him some of the mussel stew and laugh at ourselves for eating dinner so late.
4 February 2015
It’s a sad day of checking out of the hostel, walking downtown again for one last look at Santiago, and saying goodbye before my bus to Valparaiso. We only traveled together for a few days, but the idea of going to a new city without Raffael makes me a little sad. Four days traveling together didn’t seem like enough. Now I’m heading to Valparaiso and then north along the coast of Chile, and he’s headed south to Concepcion. I walk myself down to the metro and into the bus terminal and find a bus leaving for Valparaiso. With ten minutes to spare I buy my usual bar of chocolate (I always eat chocolate on bus trips). The trip to Valparaiso is quick – just a couple of hours – and soon I’m off the bus again, finishing the last of my chocolate as I walk out of the bus station and through the streets of a new city.