Friday, 13 December 2013

2 is company and 3 in this case is definitely a crowd

Before we get back to the travel details let’s get straight to the heart of this blog post title.
Admittedly it is not 100% confirmed but we are 95% sure that we are correct.
It appears that for the past 4.5 months I have been harbouring an intruder and uninvited guest – a sandworm – in my FOOT!!
Backtracking a few months you will recall that in order for us to pass from Central America into South America we had to take a boat and did this via a 3 night trip along the San Blas Islands. After the trip we spent a night in visa limbo as we overstayed our welcome in Panama to enjoy one last debaucherous night of booze and skinny dipping in an uncompleted hostel on a deserted beach on the fringes of the jungles of the Darian Gap.
The 4 residents of the hostel all had red swirly patterns on their legs, the calling card of this particular larvae; and now I have it!
As stated we are not 100% certain but check out the pictures and tell me what you think.
I probably should go to a doctor but according to the guys at the hostel in Panama (and Google) I only need to take a dose of antibiotics to kill it off or wait for it to die on its own (it could take up to a year), so I am not overly fussed and I have sort of grown attached to Wilbur.
Still; I have broken international laws by transporting biological specimens over borders – so that’s another tick on the list!

One thing that I forgot to mention during my previous post which I think deserves a recall was during our time in Arica, just over the Chilean border with Peru.
We were walking along the street when I let out a massive ripper (it must’ve been over 50 decibels); it just couldn’t be helped. What I didn’t realise was that we were just coming upon an army checkpoint with an armed guard standing well within earshot, so as I saw him I could do little else but put on my most shocked face and exclaim “Arancha, that’s disgusting”. She was so taken aback that she was unable to respond in time before the guard looked at her and then ran into his bunker to tell the rest, and I carried on walking with another victory to my name. Yeah!

So, back to what we’ve been up to.

Leaving the Atacama Desert behind we took an overnight bus to the coastal city of Caldera and knew we would be arriving early doors. However, we were not expecting so much efficiency that we would be arriving 1.5 hours early meaning that it was 4am in the morning and the mother*ckers dropped us off on the side of the highway, at least 3km outside of the city limits.
This place was small and there was no chance of a cab at that time so with no other choice we walked. If Arancha’s mood was not, shall we say, great, then it definitely didn’t improve when I realised that I hadn’t written the address of the hostel down!!
I had marked its location on the map but of course that was wrong and there was no hostel in sight. For over an hour we wondered the dark streets, me with my head down trying to stay out of further trouble and in the end we found a hotel that was open and kind enough to let me use their WIFI so that I could get the house number.
Who would’ve thought such a small thing as a number, (number 157, I can’t forget it now) would cause so much trouble?
The worst thing was that the hostel was located on the only stretch of a particular road that I hadn’t checked because I thought that it couldn’t have possibly been there. What a nob!
Anyway, all’s well that ends well and we got in at about 6:30am and went straight to bed.

Just to interrupt – I am currently at Santiago airport and I just got to put the toilet paper in the actual toilet for the first time in about 8 months – wow!!!!!

So; Caldera. Hmmm, not our finest choice of destination. We had read that the beaches close by were definitely worth a visit but as for the town itself there was nothing to do. We arrived on a Sunday so everything was closed and the beach was full of families enjoying the sunshine.
I can’t tell you any more than that because there isn’t anything, except that we met an English couple at the hostel who we have now run into at 2 more hostels; which really isn’t that interesting is it?

There just wasn't much to do!
The next day we made our way to Bahia Inglesa (English Bay – named by the English pirates who took refuge here in the 17th century) and whereas most people take a cab we decided to walk the 5 kilometres there. We didn’t realise that the road would take up through a stretch of desert and we definitely lived up to the proverb that only mad dogs (Arancha (not really)) and Englishmen (Me) go out in the midday sun. Not our wisest choice to date.
We spent the afternoon lazing about on the beach at Bahia Inglesa and it was a beautiful beach / bay. The water was clear and the desert colours made the ocean look even bluer than it probably was, but it was absolutely freezing. The waters here are fed by the Humboldt Current and come up from Antarctica!!
This is the very same coastal current that aided the population of the once uninhabited Galapagos Islands (see Galapagos post from October).


A few hours down the coast, La Serena was the next port of call. We stayed in an excellent German run hostel and I can’t explain how nice it was to have proper bread, cheese, salami and real coffee for breakfast – yummy.
The beach would obviously be a good reason to visit the city, and it was fairly decent but my main objective for stopping here was to visit a working observatory.
La Serena is in the epicentre of the astronomical world and there are multiple observatories dotted about the high mountains funded and used by scientists the world over.
This part of Chile used to be lit by fluorescent street lighting but it turns out that it caused so much light pollution the government had to pay for a complete overhaul to phosphorus lighting and so in return for this investment Chile was granted a 10% use of all telescope time for life. I think that is a fair deal.


Having already gazed at the stars in Western Australia and the Atacama Desert Arancha decided against going on this trip and instead stayed in with a bottle of wine to watch a few chick flicks. I think she just wanted an evening of peace and quiet away from me.
So it was left to me to go on the trip with Pisar and his wife. Pisar was an old school American who was in Chile to give a lecture to physicians and was now enjoying some extracurricular activity with the missus.  
I don’t know what it is but I am meeting some seriously intelligent people of this trip. So far there have been surgeons, doctors, glacial scientists and avalanche specialists; I am interested to find out who I will meet next.
The observatory was located a 90 minute drive away up into the mountains and I was excited that I would finally get to experience a chance to go into a proper observation room – you know the telescopes in the white domes?
Whilst waiting for the sun to go down somebody mentioned the Southern Cross that can only be seen in the southern hemisphere (you can see it on the Aussie flag) and someone (an American) said, “Oh really, can I see it now, where is it?”
The sun is still up love, of course you can’t.

The star gazing was excellent and I got to see quite a few things close up such as Venus, the Tarantula nebula, another nebula that I forget the name of, the Andromeda Galaxy and various star clusters. Even without the telescopes there was plenty to see such as the constellations – Greek, Egyptian and modern day ones, as well as the numerous satellites passing overhead.
Definitely a worthwhile trip but Australia still rocks as the best place in the world to view the stars and Milky Way.

We did little else here apart from a trip to the cinema to watch the Hunger Games 2, it is nice to do normal stuff every now and again and I also suffered a flip-flop blow out that was so catastrophic that I had to walk the streets and around a mall like a barefooted hobo.

We were a little over the long bus journeys so decided that our next location of Valparaiso would be a long one; 5 days for us in one place is a very long time.
Valparaiso is the tourism jewel in the crown of northern Chile and being there you can certainly appreciate its appeal.
The city is located by the ocean and is built up on adjoining hills that you can either walk up or take a funicular (a sort of diagonal lift) to the top. Each hill has its own community and ‘thing’ going on and it is sort of like a bohemian and more grungier/dirtier San Francisco. The hillsides were characterised by their multi-coloured buildings and street art (that is graffiti to you and me but some of it was impressive) and there was a definite energy and vibe to the city as well as a crowd that was very young and student; we liked it a lot.

We stayed in a luminous green hostel situated half way up the main hill of Conception and were very much in the middle of it all; including the mountains of dog sh*t that promised to get you in your flip-flops if you weren’t concentrating.
The best part of our first day in Valpo (as it is known to the locals) was finding a restaurant that served real mashed potato. Honestly you can’t appreciate these little things unless you have had a diet of boiled rice for the previous few months.

In Valpo we took the free walking tour around the city with the Tours For Tips company who dress as Where’s Wally and do the tour for ‘free’ but you pay them with a tip at the end.
These companies are great and I reckon I could make a decent living doing it in London if I didn’t earn more doing what I do. We have done the tours in Cusco, Peru and now Valpo and Santiago in Chile and they are perfect for getting to see the highlights and must-sees as well as learn about the culture and all of those secret places that you wouldn’t get to visit if you just made your own way around.
On this tour we also learnt that being a UNESCO listed heritage site can also be a poisoned chalice; which I never really considered before.
I have no idea how many UNESCO listed places we have now visited on our travels, it is a lot, but usually they are temples, churches, a tourist site as such. Yes we have visited UNESCO listed towns before but the difference with Valpo is that it isn’t just a tourist attraction but also a working city with an important cargo port.
The problem with its UNESCO listing is that the town is now in economic decline (although I am sure tourism will keep it afloat) because big businesses will not invest in a place where it is not free to develop or construct due to the strict regulations and requirements put into place by UNESCO.
With this in mind you are now left with a central plaza that in parts looks dated and shabby with a couple of derelict buildings.

We explored the hills and were given a tour around some of the best artwork as well as given some history of the city which until the construction of the Panama Canal was a major port for those cargo ships braving the cape from Europe.
The Glassy Lady with Wally


We were given samples of the local produce such as Alfajores, a delicious chocolate and caramel biscuit and of course no tour is complete without a shot of Pisco Sour.
As it was Saturday and Valpo was clearly a weekend sort of place we decided to make a night of it.
The great thing about wine producing Chile is that it is so cheap to by a good bottle of wine – seriously you can get 1.5 litres of decent stuff for about £3. Well, it is what I call decent!
We started in the hostel on the vino tinto (red wine) and were soon joined by Jesse, an American (we are meeting so many of them) hailing from Boston who had a twitch that steadily got worse the more he drank.
From the hostel we visited the Irish Bar because there is always an Irish Bar and after that we went to a well-known live music spot called Cinzano.
Cinzano was a bar for the locals and tourists alike and an establishment where you could drink, dance and clap along to the various singers who came up to entertain us, none of whom were under the age of 70 years old. My favourite was a very old man who looked like a miniature version of Sir Ben Kingsley but with one eye in a waistcoat – he stamped and clapped his way through a rip-roaring set with a lot of fist pumping to boot.
A Scottish/Norwegian couple from the city tour were also propping up the bar so along with Jesse and a couple of locals, one who was a fat ringer for Lionel Messi, we got down to serious drinking business and got to bed at about 4am.
When we awoke all we wanted from that day was to eat greasy food, so we did.
We had also done that drunken thing of agreeing to meet Neil and Hilda (the couple from the night before) that evening and although we didn’t feel like it during the daytime by the evening we were all good and had a really nice time; although we messed up by going to a veggie restaurant – we all needed meat.

In Valpo the Aussie Sheila, who boobs we nearly saw on the bus when she was opening the roof hatch turned up at the hostel and they were still hanging very, very low.
What else did we do? We took the 612 bus, a supposedly roller-coaster of a ride along the top of the hills which it was not, we again explored the street art and little artisan markets and we went to visit the local sea lion colony and that’s about it.

Fortunately, the capital Santiago was only 2 hours away by bus and this would be our final stop before we would take a flight further south – because we really need to get a move on to get to the bottom of the world and back up for the rest of things we want to do before the world cup.

In terms of location Santiago must been one of the most perfectly placed capital cities on the planet. The beaches of Vina Del Mar are only an hour away by bus to the west, the Maipo Valley famed for its vineyards is an hour to the south and at the other end of the spectrum you can just about get to the closest ski fields via the city metro system – it has it all. Imagine being able to take the London Underground to go skiing?
Unfortunately for us we were visiting at the beginning of summer so there would be no snow fun for us but this also added to the major negative of this city – the pollution. The city is said to have over 1.5 million cars and so apart from being busy and noisy, during the heat of the day you just can’t see what would be a superb view out to the mountains that circle the eastern edge of the city. I have added Santiago to my list of re-visits as I would really like to see it on a crisp winter’s morning after a fresh snowfall.

As mentioned we had a flight booked to take us a few hundred kilometres further south to the heart of the lakes region of Chile so we had 6 nights in Santiago and although the city isn’t full of attractions like London or Rome for example, we still found plenty to do. I think it also helped that we stayed in 3 separate hostels over the week due to a combination of shabbiness and pricing – seriously, $50 per night for a hostel room is mental but I guess it was sort of worth it given the breakfast we were served which easily ranks as number 1 and it had a swimming pool.
We partook in another Tours For Tips which started at the Bella Artes Museum, which we visited later in the week, and took us through a small stretch of a park that runs as a green belt and lung of the city for 16 kilometres.
It is common for young Chileans to live at home until their mid to late twenties so the park becomes the only place that they can get some privacy with each other, therefore a walk through the park is more a competition for spotting the best PDA (Public Displays of Affection).
There was also a high proportion of lesbian activity going on and we are also talking about older women with girls in school uniform! I need say no more!!

The rest of the tour took us by one of the top 25 ice cream shops in the world (of course we ventured back here – the chocolate orange flavour with real orange in it was divine), we walked through the London and Paris districts and finally to the scene of a political massacre where suspected members of a revolutionary group, mostly under the age of 25 were dragged off the streets before being tortured and killed.
Such a messed up world we live in.     


Santiago also contains the largest cemetery in South America, covering a total area equivalent to 117 football pitches and we only covered a small proportion of it before we wilted under the temperatures that were reaching 36 degrees. We escaped the heat on one particular day by going to the fish markets and eating some of the best seafood we’ve ever had. AJ had a crab pie and being a Saturday I kept real like I was back in the motherland and had fish and chips – it was f*cking awesome.
The views across the city were nice from the peak of Santa Lucia hill and we braved the crowds of one of the busiest city centres I have seen (think Oxford Street over a much larger area – horrible) to buy our mutual Christmas presents for each other.
I had to actually go shopping twice because I got side tracked during our first search hour apart. There was a vegetarian protest in the main city square and about 150 vegetarians stood about holding various animal foetuses (as you do), so I had to walk around and check them all out.
Smile with your foetus!

The nightlife of the city was decent and we had a few beers in the Barrio Brasil area of town and also caught up with Celine, who we met on the Inca Trail trek from Denmark who is studying here, in Bella Vista, a street packed with bars and live music.

For our final day in the capital we took the metro out to the east of the city to visit Chile’s oldest vineyard – how cool is it to be able to visit real wineries via the metro?
The Cousino-Macul vineyard was founded in the 1800’s and now produces 4 million bottles of the good stuff per year. This is obviously a lot but only accounts for 25% of the production of Chile’s largest vineyard. But as our guide Miguel assured us, it is about quality not quantity.
The tour was good and the amount of science, dedication and experience that has gone into the art of making wine is crazy. The tour took us through the original buildings and we got to see the original oak vats used for production up until only a few years ago. These bad boys could hold 32,500 litres!
We had one tasting in the cellars and whilst we enjoyed the more than generous sample we got to look over the owners’ own collection of 20,000 bottles valued at $2,000,000. It was of course all locked up behind jail-cell like bars.
We got the try 3 wines on the tour but each one was about half a glass so we could definitely feel the effects on our empty stomachs by the end.
Arancha insisted that we buy a couple of bottles (as she always does in these places) so we now have to carry those about in our bags until Christmas Day – like they weren’t already heavy enough!


And that’s it for this post. With a hop, skip and a large jump we are now in the lakes district of Chile and on the cusp of Patagonia and so far in only 2 days we are super impressed and excited.
Ahead of us are more volcanoes and snowy mountains and we can now add some new features to explore such as the fjords and the glaciers – bring it on people, bring it on!

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