A Travellerspoint blog

Sunny days in Sanhattan

Exploring Santiago, the Chilean capital


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Continuing our journey with Frankie and Geoffrey (Stuart's parents), we caught a bus to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Stu and I were very excited to see the size of the hotel rooms and that it had a rooftop pool too (we would make good use of this over the next few days). Not very typical on a backpacking trip!

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Stuart and I were very excited to find a perfect running park near us with lakes and mountain and city views so we enjoyed running early each morning while we were here. We've really noticed our fitness levels plummet during this trip, despite all of the hiking so we're hoping to take every opportunity to run when we can, now that we are in places with parks and it feels a little safer.

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After checking in, we decided to travel to the Costanera Centre, the tallest building in Latin America, where they have an observation deck with amazing 360°views of the city and surrounding mountains. It was a great introduction to Santiago and we enjoyed a drink while looking at the view. Later that night, we went out for a really good curry and some drinks. We are being spoilt rotten with amazing food and copious amounts of Chilean wine on this part of our trip! (Thank you Frankie and Geoffrey!)

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The next day, as is our tradition, we took part in a walking tour of the old town. Our guide, Diego, took us around a number of buildings and districts, teaching us about the history of Chile, particularly the politics and dictatorship of the 70s and 80s. It was really interesting and quite shocking how little I knew about what went on here in such recent history.

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We returned to a couple of the recommended museums later in the week; the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and the Museum of Pre-colonial Art. The first of these was quite shocking and depressing, hearing about the suffering and torture of so many Chileans by the (Pinochet dictatorship) government, because of their political views. There were photos of many victims and memorials to them, as well as objects and video testimonies of survivors' experiences.

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The second museum had lots of examples of art from different tribes across Chile before it was Chile. It was interesting to see the wide range of styles and how many different tribes there were in this area.

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In the afternoon, we took the funicular up to Parque Metropolitan, and rode the cable car across the park admiring the views. It was beautiful but quite hazy so we sadly couldn't really see the mountains. We enjoyed a glass of wine in the park cafe before returning to the hotel.

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That evening, we had another really nice meal in a Peruvian restaurant, where we were bribed by the waiter with pisco sours to give him a 5* review on Google (which of course we did!)

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On our other day in Santiago, we decided to leave the city and see some of the Andes scenery in the Cajon del Maipo valley and the El Yeso Reservoir. Once more, we were treated to amazing views of mountains, a glacier, waterfalls and a bright blue lake. I'm not sure we could ever get fed up with these views… We also had some cheese, wine and snacks by the waterfall for our lunch which was a nice additional touch to the tour.

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On the way back, we visited the Casa del Chocolate, an interesting wooden building with beautiful gardens, where we enjoyed an ice-cream before getting back on the bus.

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We've enjoyed our time in Santiago. It doesn't feel much like the rest of South America which we've visited so far, more like a fusion of US and European buildings and cultures, but a nice city.

Our next destination was Mendoza in Argentina so we took an 8 hour bus journey across the Andes. The scenery was impressive but the border crossing took a very long time and was the most confusing so far. We were a little worried as we didn't get any passport stamps, but the bus driver assured us that this is normal when entering Argentina. I guess we'll find out when we next get a plane or cross back into Chile…

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Posted by loscaracoles 14:59 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Feliz Año Nuevo!

Celebrating in Valparaíso with some special visitors


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With New Year just around the corner, we invited my (Stuart’s) parents to come out and join us to see a little of both Chile and Argentina.

Having picked them up from the airport in Santiago, our first stop was the nearby port city of Valparaiso.
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Our first day was spent sightseeing around the hills and squares of the old town. We visited the house of the Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Neither of us had read any of his poetry but my folks are fans of the Italian film “Il Postino”, in which Nerudo is one of the main characters. The house seemed to be popular with intellectuals of my parents’ age, carefully examining the paintings and upholstery while nodding along to the audio guide - all of which lent a slightly surreal air to proceedings.
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Later we wandered through the Museo del Cielo Abierto (Open Air Museum), a collection of murals on the side of houses in the streets of Cerro Bellavista. Interesting but pretty restrained compared to Medellin and other cities.
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After some wandering through the slightly dilapidated streets of the centre of town, we took one of the many funiculars up to Cerro Alegre for a different view over the city and a pre-new-year-celebration meal.
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New Year’s was spent on the balcony of our AirBnB, enjoying a view out over the bay and watching the excitement build among the inhabitants of Valparaiso. Sadly the famous fireworks display had been cancelled. After being postponed for a couple of years due to the pandemic, the fireworks themselves had gone out of date. Seems laughable that they hadn’t checked until a week before the event but these things happen.
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New Year’s Day was spent sprawled on the beach at nearby Vina del Mar. As you might have predicted it was really busy, with lots of families having a great time at the start of their summer holidays. The sea here has impressive waves that were keeping the lifeguards busy blowing their whistles and shouting.
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My mother, an expert at sitting and sizzling away on the beach for hours in France, got very burnt. We can chalk that up to skin that’s come straight from the English winter or the hole in the ozone layer.

Our final day in the city was spent learning a little bit about Chilean cuisine in a cooking class. After agreeing what the menu would look like, we were taken around the market to buy all of the necessary ingredients. The market was fairly quiet and empty due to it still being a holiday after New Year’s but it was still good fun hunting for aubergines and apricots. We hopped on the bus up to Cerro Mariposa and were ushered into a beautiful house with a big kitchen / dining room and balcony overlooking the bay.
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Over the course of three hours we made:

  • Empanadas (both pino / beef and berenjena / aubergine) with “pebre”, a garnish of onion, tomaro, coriander and chile;
  • Palta Reina, avocado stuffed with a mixture of palm hearts, mayonnaise, pepper and coriander;
  • Pastel de Choclo, a corn cake with a base of ground beef or aubergine;
  • Fruit salad topped with palm honey.

To kick off the meal we enjoyed a (couple of) pisco sours on the balcony.
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We had some great company from a Dutch family, also two long-term travellers with parents in tow.

On getting back to our apartment we all had to crash out to digest everything!

Our next stop is Santiago, where we’ll spend a few days. Looks like the weather is due to heat up significantly so we might be running between shady spots in the city.
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Posted by loscaracoles 00:39 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Christmas in the Chilean lake district

Pucón


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Our journey to Pucón from La Serena was long: about twenty hours by bus with a bit of time to change between bus stations and grab some dinner in Santiago.

Bleary eyed, we wandered about the town before the shops and restaurants had opened. It's a small, smart place: like a Chilean Morzine, perhaps? The nearby Volcán Villarrica looms large above the town.
large_IMG20221223084048.jpgThe beach.

The beach.


The square.

The square.


A man pushing his bicycle along Avenida O'Higgins.

A man pushing his bicycle along Avenida O'Higgins.


Once the hostel opened we checked in, did some shopping for Christmas day treats and spent time sunbathing and playing with the hostel's dogs. We watched the sun set on the shore of the Villarrica lake (with a Patagonia beer).
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The following day (Christmas Eve) we grabbed some bikes and headed towards Caburgua, with its sandy beach bordering a beautiful lake.
View from the road to Caburgua

View from the road to Caburgua


large_IMG20221224113032.jpglarge_IMG20221224142017.jpgLago Caburgua

Lago Caburgua


On the way we stopped off at the Ojos de Caburgua, a series of waterfalls at the confluence of three streams. Highly recommended.
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Christmas day started off with a nice long run, perhaps attempting to preempt the cheese consumption we were planning for later on the day.
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We made it to about one minute past midday before popping the cork of our £3.50 sparkling wine (which was nicer than expected tbh). We were sharing the hostel with a couple of friendly volunteers, so it wasn't as quiet as we'd worried it might be. The dogs came and kept us company too 😆
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On Boxing Day, as is traditional, we went for a nice long walk. This year was across the snow fields of the volcano.
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The view from (nearly) the top

The crater we couldn't quite get to.

The crater we couldn't quite get to.


We weren't allowed all the way to the top as Villarrica is currently rumbling and smoking more than is usual. Check out the ash that's settled on top of the snow.
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All great fun and helped to clear out our cloudy heads and cheesy arteries. Especially since they let us slide down the snow all the way to the bottom on plastic spade things / toboggans 👌

On our final day in Pucón, we jumped on a bus back in the direction of Caburgua, all the way to the Termas de Pozones hot springs. These were great, nice and simple with stony pools and a river in which to cool off between soaks.
The springs were in this pretty valley

The springs were in this pretty valley

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Pucón was a great place to spend a few days over Christmas. Now we're heading off back to Santiago to pick up mis padres for New Year in Valparaíso. Should be fun!

Posted by loscaracoles 19:26 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Pisco and penguins

A stop off on the long road south


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There don't appear to be many common stopping points for tourists between San Pedro de Atacama and Antofagasta in the far north of Chile, and Santiago in the centre of the country (a distance of just over 1,300km). Many people fly directly between the two parts of the country to skip some bus miles.

We chose instead to break up the journey with two days spent camping in Vicuña, a quiet and attractive town in the Elqui valley and two days in La Serena, by the sea.
The main square in Vicuña. Had to feel sorry for Santa, sweating profusely while greeting children in his grotto.

The main square in Vicuña. Had to feel sorry for Santa, sweating profusely while greeting children in his grotto.

Some sort of folly tower in the centre of Vicuña.

Some sort of folly tower in the centre of Vicuña.

Our campsite was well situated and (after watching the dying minutes of the world cup final) we quickly made friends with the other campers, a couple from Germany touring in their monster truck and some Santiaguinos who had ventured north for clear skies and had brought a rather impressive telescope with them.
Our very pleasant campsite

Our very pleasant campsite

We explored the valley by bike, taking an uplift to Pisco Elqui and descending through small towns, past cooling rivers, vineyards, wineries, a brewery and a pisqueria.
Pisco Elqui

Pisco Elqui

large_IMG20221219103206.jpgPisco Elqui, with its famous wooden spired church

Pisco Elqui, with its famous wooden spired church


large_IMG20221219104942.jpgAt the Las Cavas winery

At the Las Cavas winery

Las Cavas

Las Cavas

The cellars of Las Cavas

The cellars of Las Cavas

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Gabriela Mistral, I think? A famous Chilean poet who lived here.

Next town along from Pisco Elqui

Next town along from Pisco Elqui

large_IMG20221219123800.jpgMaking friends along the way

Making friends along the way


At Cervecería Guayacan

At Cervecería Guayacan

What are we tasting now? Beer? Good stuff!

What are we tasting now? Beer? Good stuff!


Stopping for a swim under the willow tree

Stopping for a swim under the willow tree

At Pisqueria Aba

At Pisqueria Aba

Where to start? 😆

Where to start? 😆

Pisco maturing in barrels

Pisco maturing in barrels

Pisco stills

Pisco stills

We had great fun but I don't remember arriving back in town too clearly 😆
Cooling off after a long day of trying different kinds of booze.

Cooling off after a long day of trying different kinds of booze.

The following day we moved on to La Serena, a short bus ride away. We spent a bit of time exploring the city and haggling (ineffectually) with tour agencies. It's an interesting place in so far as it has a mix of well preserved old town and scruffy outskirts.
Juice bars in the main square.

Juice bars in the main square.


Santa's temporary airstrip and supply depot.

Santa's temporary airstrip and supply depot.


Teenagers passing their time in the elaborate and beautiful Japanese gardens.

Teenagers passing their time in the elaborate and beautiful Japanese gardens.


The beach was attractive and made for a good running destination.
The "monumental" lighthouse.

The "monumental" lighthouse.

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We had an early start the following day for a tour to the Reserva Nacional Pingüino de Humboldt. At Punta de Choros, we jumped in a boat and headed across the water, first following the coastline of Isla Choros then making our way to Isla Damas where we disembarked and walked around the island.
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Isla Choros was by some margin the more interesting of the two. We saw many colonies of birds, sea lions and, of course, penguins.
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Isla Damas had plenty of seagulls nesting amongst the cactuses.
The very beautiful beach at Isla Damas.

The very beautiful beach at Isla Damas.


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No whale or dolphin sightings for us, sadly.

All in all, a relaxing diversion on our journey but we were excited to be moving on to Pucón for Christmas.

Posted by loscaracoles 21:43 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Having it Very Large

A visit to Cerro Paranal


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Antofagasta is not a city that appears on many Chile-bound backpacker's itineraries. It seems to exist mainly to service the nearby mines and metallurgical industries and despite its seaside location is a bit of a grim, dusty sprawl. Our reason for diverting from the gringo trail and stopping there was to visit the ESO Paranal Observatory, home of the Very Large Telescope, or VLT.

Paranal is nearly 150 km south of Antofagasta. The ESO organisation offers two tours to the public every Saturday, you just need to book ahead. There's no public buses that pass the observatory so, short of hitch-hiking, the only way to travel there is to hire a car and drive. I was somewhat apprehensive about doing so given (a) I hadn't driven since I sold my car five months ago and (b) driving on Chilean roads was something of an unknown. Luckily the desert highways were fairly.. deserted and the journey was uneventful and even scenic in places.
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We stopped off for a picnic lunch at the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture in the desert sand by the highway. Rachel was very happy: she'd managed to find Brie in the supermarket the night before.
Hai guise!!1!

Hai guise!!1!

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After another hour of driving we turned off the highway, climbed the narrow winding road up to 2,400m and arrived at the observatory gates. With loads of time to spare, we sat and admired the cloud inversion over the Pacific, a mere 12km to the west. The interaction of prevailing winds and ocean currents that creates this effect is the main reason this location is well suited for observing the skies. The astronomers here expect to have some 320 clear nights per year, with very little humidity and a constant but light breeze.
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ESO (a joint venture by a consortium of European scientific agencies and the Chilean government) built the facility towards the end of the 90s, specifically to house the VLT. In reality, the "telescope" is a collection of four "unit" and four "auxiliary" telescopes. The unit telescopes are mahoosive, with 8.2m mirrors weighing 23 tonnes each. For comparison, my university telescope (which I thought was high tech and powerful) had a 35cm mirror.
Cerro Paranal, the hill on top of which the telescopes live.

Cerro Paranal, the hill on top of which the telescopes live.


They made us wear these awesome hats.

They made us wear these awesome hats.

large_IMG20221217145911.jpgPrimary mirror is halfway down, underneath the big grey section.

Primary mirror is halfway down, underneath the big grey section.


The instruments for imaging or spectrography attached to the telescopes (of which each telescope can be fitted with up to three) are also gigantic and require constant cooling with liquid nitrogen to combat thermal contamination and prevent noise being introduced into the images. For the same reason, the interior of the telescope enclosures are kept cold, roughly at the average temperature of the previous night.
Me in front of one of the three instruments.

Me in front of one of the three instruments.


There's so much cool technology applied to getting the best possible images from these telescopes. My favourite thing we had explained to us was probably the adaptive optics subsystem. This compensates for atmospheric disturbances using a computer controlled, deformable mirror. The computer tracks a known guide star and adjusts the mirror to keep said star in place within the field of view. If there's no guide star visible then the astronomers use four 22 watt lasers to excite sodium atoms in the mesosphere (90km up) to stimulate one. Mad!
Not my picture, visitors aren't allowed to stick around until night-time.

Not my picture, visitors aren't allowed to stick around until night-time.


Although the majority of requests for observations are distributed across the individual telescopes, for special applications the light from two or three telescopes can be combined using a technique called interferometry, increasing the effective size of the mirrors by an order of magnitude.
🤯

🤯


All of these advances have made the VLT a workhorse of modern astronomy, helping us detect exoplanets and provide the first detailed observations of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. ESO are currently constructing the VLT's successor: the ELT (yes, you guessed it: Extremely Large Telescope) with a planned mirror diameter of 39m. We could see the site at Armazones from Cerro Paranal.
The view across the platform towards Armazones site and Argentinian border.

The view across the platform towards Armazones site and Argentinian border.


While we were looking in that direction, our guide pointed out the peak of a volcano and explained that it marked the Chile-Argentina border, some 170 km away. Pretty cool to be able to see all the way from one side of Chile to the other from the top of a big hill!

It's rare that I find myself regretting leaving academia as soon as I was done with my undergrad. Seeing things like this though make me a little jealous of my coursemates who stayed on and spent time at Mauna Kea and other places. As Rachel points out though: I probably wouldn't have had two gap years and seen so much of the world if I had stayed studying. Swings and roundabouts 😜

Posted by loscaracoles 23:10 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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