Sunday, 25 December 2011

December 25th

It's that time of the year again.  Christmas Day.

It's grey, chilly and drizzly, but not snowing.  Probably the only people I know having an honest-to-God White Christmas are my cousins in Canada (one near Ottawa, the other Vancouver) where it tends to snow from about October - but the way weather is nowadays that might not be the case either.  It used to snow in Poland from then too - it was when I moved here 10 years ago, but I can't remember the last really white
Christmas in Warsaw.....maybe my last UK Christmas, when a blizzard kept me here an extra night so I got back to England on Christmas Eve.  Certainly the last few years have missed the snow and this year we haven't even fitted the winter tyres yet: unheard of.  So Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth is definitely true, no matter what America's industrial lobby and other global warming sceptics may say.  Me, I think we're in deep shit and the failure of Kyoto and more recently Durban could haunt as all for generations.

But anyway, wherever or however you're celebrating - whether Maracas Beach in Trini, the African bush, Kiev or Gravesend, or anywhere else hot and sunny or grey and cold, I wish you the very best for this Christmas season and Health, Wealth and Happiness for 2012.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Chile - The Final Post

I’m in my final week here in Santiago.  It’s not been a bad trip at all, really – certainly a different part of the world and a long way from home.   So time to summarize then.
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Chile is an interesting place.  It’s one of the wealthier and more developed countries in South America, if not yet on a par with Brazil or Argentina.  Geographically, it’s extraordinary, a long and narrow country sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific, stretching from equatorial regions down to Tierra del Fuego, at the very tip of the continent – almost Antarctica, and one of the world’s most hostile environments.    Cape Horn, at the very tip, has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most difficult and unpredictable stretches of ocean in the world, a veritable ship’s graveyard.  At the other extreme, in the far north of the country, lies the Atacama desert, one of the highest and driest locations on Earth, and at a height and with such a clear atmosphere that it is becoming one of the best astronomical centres anywhere on Earth.    From end to end, the country is around 4300km long, and about 175km wide, from sea to mountain.  It has offshore territories, too, including amongst its Pacific islands Easter Island, world famous for its collection of massive, prehistoric stone head statues (I would love to have visited it, but it’s a couple of hours flying time, and quite expensive to do, needing at least a few days’ visit to do it justice).

It’s also a seismic country, with several big and still active volcanoes (including a huge dormant one within sight of Santiago).  One erupted in the south of the country earlier this year, and the resultant ash cloud caused widespread flight cancellations across South America and the entire South Pacific as far away as Australia and New Zealand……a southern hemisphere version of the Icelandic blow-out in 2010 that closed European airspace for a week and blocked my first Caribbean trip.    Earthquakes are also quite common, mostly slight tremors but now and again there’s a big one – as recently as February last year the biggest ever measured (8.8 on the Richter scale apparently) struck the country, followed by many aftershocks, including one measuring 6.9 in March 2010.  Nothing like that has happened during my visit as I write, although on Monday evening I was sitting in the hotel having a quick surf on the internet, when there was a very clear and unmistakable tremor – it only lasted a few seconds, and nobody seemed to take any notice of it, but I felt the floor of the room (I’m on the 8th floor) tremble, heard a clear groaning sound, and saw the light fittings in the room start swinging.   All very interesting – when it stopped I went onto my balcony and looked around, and it was as if nothing untoward had happened as people went on about their normal business without a care.

The result of this seismic activity is that the hotel safety card is very different.  All the versions I’ve seen before just give information about fire escapes and actions to take in the event of a fire.  Here, the card in my room gives this information, but also carries sections covering what to do in the event of a volcanic eruption, an earthquake and a tsunami – even though Santiago is over 100km from the coast and the nearest active volcano is about 80km way.  Better safe than sorry, I guess.

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Politically, it’s a stable democracy with a popular and forward thinking president.   This is a marked change to the 70s and 80s when the country was ruled by the army generals, led by Augusto Pinochet, a brutal regime that resulted in thousands of people being tortured and killed or just plain disappearing without a trace.  Sting wrote a song about it – the haunting “They Dance Alone”.   Pinochet, after he was overthrown, was a bit of a pariah and became an exile himself in Paris, but died from natural causes before he could be extradited to face justice.  Interestingly, Maggie Thatcher always denied he was a butcher and insisted he was a true friend to British democracy after he allowed us to use Chilean naval and air bases during the Falklands war back in the 80s.  To the day he died she refused to hear a bad word about him.

But despite this relative stability, the Student Demonstration seems to be a national pastime as popular now as it ever was.   If you look on the UKFO Travel Advice website, it gives a warning that demonstrations can happen at any time, and that tear-gas, rubber bullets and water cannon are routinely used to disperse them.  I went downtown last Saturday, where the University campus and all the museums and the cathedral are situated, and I had hardly left the metro station when I heard loud chanting and klaxons going off.  There was a small demo taking place about 50m away, a couple of hundred people marshaled by  half as many riot police, and they were heading down the closed off shopping street I was standing in.  I shot off a couple of pictures and walked down a side street to avoid any potential confrontation, but there was none.  Later, on my way back, I looked across the main road close by, O’Higgins Boulevard, at the main campus building – right the way across the frontage, just below the roofline, a protest banner was stretched and small groups of students were marching to and fro shouting slogans.   They seemed to be having a fine old time….
                                                    Chile's national pastime...the Student Demo

It seems the president is more popular outside Santiago than within it, and even more so outside of
Chile.  Like leaders worldwide he is fighting an economic crisis, with unemployment rising and productivity falling, and like leaders worldwide he is relying on the new buzzword and tactic of “austerity measures” to solve the crisis – and like everywhere else it’s not exactly a popular course of action (nor particularly effective since it slows economic growth to a standstill even as it attempts to reduce costs through tax increases and job cuts).  The cuts to the education budget here are particularly harsh, and so the students at universities across Chile are vocal in their opposition. 
                                                                      *          *          *

Downtown – Old Santiago – was a bit of a disappointment really.  I didn’t see much as my dodgy hip started playing up and I had to cut the expedition short and go back to the hotel to rest, but what I did see was frankly not that impressive.  There were some fine old buildings in the area, big and clearly Spanish influenced, but the whole area, like that around Estacio Central (see my last post) was very grubby looking and not well managed.  The roads were narrow and clustered closely together so it was easy to get off-track as many of them weren’t labeled on my hotel tourist map, and the key buildings were poorly signed – I walked past the cathedral about three times from different directions before stumbling on to the front entrance: there was no precinct around it as with St.Paul’s or Westminster in London (or indeed any cathedral I’ve ever seen), the front door opened straight onto a busy shopping street and only the sounds of the Mass drifting out of the doors gave the game away.

Close by was small and pleasant square, perhaps the size of a football pitch, surrounded by more grand old buildings (I think one was an art gallery), and preparations were going on for some kind of show that evening: a stage was being erected, there were small stands around the edge selling all kinds of ornaments and crafts and snacks, and in the middle of it all strode a dark suited evangelist preacher, Bible in hand, haranguing everyone in sight.  Everyone ignored him completely.

                                                      Oy!  Is anyone listening to this?

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Last week there was a bank holiday here.  Whilst the project shut down for the day, the main shopping malls and tourist attractions remained open, so I took a hike to the biggest and most popular mall in town, looking for the usual gifts to take home.  The mall was perhaps a three kilometre walk away, within the same Las Condes suburb as the hotel and office.   I stopped off at my local Starbucks for some breakfast, then strolled through what is in effect New Santiago, past high rise office blocks and apartment complexes, some of them quite spectacular (one such had a helicopter landing pad on the roof, a platform that stretched out over the road), in lovely tree lined avenues.  Santiago is quite a green city: all of the main boulevards and many other roads both large and small, in both the Old and New city, are tree lined, and there are many parks.  I walked through one small park that was actually sited between the opposing carriageways of one busy road: it contained attractive flower beds and well-tended lawns, play areas with swings and slides for the kids, benches and picnic tables to relax at, and a jogging/cycling track down the centre.  A similar park I saw on the way out of Santiago on my coastal trip stretched for perhaps three kilometres, again between carriageways, but instead of flower beds and cycle tracks it held a succession of football pitches and basketball courts, some of them floodlit.  There is an almost identical area on the road out to the airport, and I’ve seen it also in Mexico City, again en-route to the airport.
                                                   Nice place to live.....

Most of the apartment blocks were lovely, fifteen and twenty floors high, all apartments with big balconies and underground parking, surrounded by landscaped gardens containing tennis courts and swimming pools, and of course 24 hour security guards at the complex gate.  Las Condes is clearly one of the more select areas in Santiago, both for work and living: it even has its own golf course (I walked past it on the way to the mall).  I haven’t checked, but my guess is it would be very expensive to live in the area – but worth every penny.

The mall was huge, without doubt the biggest I’ve been to anywhere.  We have some big and impressive malls in Warsaw, but this one was the equivalent of perhaps three of them combined – for UK readers, imagine perhaps 3 Bluewater’s in one building.  I got lost.  There were at least three floors of shops in each wing of the mall – the local department stores (equivalent to BHS or Marks & Spencer), plus the usual suspect international brands like Benetton, adidas, Zara and so on, plus local brand stores, many food courts, cinema complexes and, as we’re in December, no less than three Santa’s Grottoes.   There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the layout – there were little arcades of shops shooting off the main avenues, sometimes looping round to rejoin it further along, at others merging with another massive department store, and I saw no store maps to help you navigate.    I found a local gift store within a couple of minutes of arriving, but decided to see if there were any alternatives – and when I couldn’t, spent another hour trying to find the place again.

I ate in one of the outside food plazas on the roof as it was (as usual) hot and sunny.  It’s one of the few places I’ve found with an English menu, so I selected something called “Meal for the Poor”.  It turned out to be a big plate of chips and fried onions, with 4 nicely fried slices of beefsteak topped with two fried eggs.  It was delicious, and I’m still wondering what is the “Meal for the Averagely Well Off” if this monster was for “the Poor”.   But washed down with a pint of the local brew, cold and from the tap rather than bottled, it certainly hit the spot.
                                                  A Meal for the Poor, apparently.....

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Close to my hotel is the Parque Metropolitan.   This is a big area containing a large hill (or small mountain if you prefer) that rises about 400m above metropolitan Santiago (itself around 500m above sea-level), at the top of which are a number of radio and tv masts and a 22m statue to the Virgin Mary on a pedestal surrounded by a crafts market and picnic area.  Next to this a funicular railway takes you down to the city, close to the zoo.   The web says the view from the top of Cerro San Cristobal (as it’s called, San Cristobal’s Hill) is spectacular, across the city and mountains, and a “must see” for any visitor to the city.  Fair enough: I’d better go there then.

The main entrance to the park is actually downtown and needs a metro ride to get there, so I decided to find a more local entrance.  Again the map was not too clear on this: although the park itself is clearly shown entrances and exits aren’t, except for the funicular.   Anyway, working on the basis that any park, no matter what the size, must have more than one way in, I decided to look for something closer to the hotel.  I wandered around a bit before I found the right road, and eventually got to where the park appeared to start, at least at this end of the city.  It didn’t…..instead, there was the entrance to the San Cristobal tunnel, that leads evidently under the hill and on towards the airport, avoiding a run through the city centre.  I walked along the road that parallels the 10ft fence separating the park (or at least that section of Cerro San Cristobal) from the surrounding houses – the neighbourhood, despite its proximity to a network of main roads and dual carriageways ringing the northern edge of Santiago, is very nice: no apartment blocks but quiet roads of mainly detached houses and bungalows – but could find no entrance.  Once I reached a concrete traffic island separating lanes of traffic at an intersection I figured I had gone far enough, and doubled back.   At the tunnel entrance, I noticed some mountain-bikers coming out of a side street and decided to look there.

Sure enough, it led to the park entrance.  There was a decent looking bar/restaurant there which I ignored (I had a bottle of water and a banana in my back pack) and a playground for the kids, and a number of paths leading into the woods that cover the side of the hill.  I selected the easiest looking one (it had a shallow flight of wooden steps within a few yards of the start) and headed off.  It was a hard climb in the event, not easy at all – that flight of steps was the least strenuous part of the entire walk – but well worth it.  The path zig-zagged its way up the side of the hill, through woodland.  It was usually quite steep and narrow, with plenty of tree roots exposed to trip you up if you weren’t careful, and now and again a flight of wooden or rock-hewn steps with rickety wooden railings would help you navigate a more difficult stretch (usually a sharp bend where the track doubled back on itself, but on a higher elevation).  It was hot and dusty despite the shade from the trees, and invariably steep and a hard walk.  Every so often the path would level out and form a little viewpoint, and the guide books and websites are right – the view out across Santiago is superb, and better the higher you go.  The whole climb took probably an hour, with a couple of stops on the way for a quick drink, and in that time I saw perhaps another dozen people on the track, including one lunatic riding a mountain bike at speed DOWN the track.
                                              Now where the hell has that path gone?

The top of the track brought me out onto a road that wound its way up to the park at the end of the massif, where the funicular, the statue and the market are situated, so I strolled along there.  At the top is a small garden with seats and a picnic area, and a kiosk selling drinks and ice-cream (but no beer), and next to it a further small elevated park that leads to the base of the radio masts at the very summit of the hill.   The masts rise another 100 metres or so, and I felt giddy just looking up at their tips – I admire anyone who works at maintaining those things, climbing up a narrow ladder to the tiny platforms at the top as required.  I hope their life insurance is generous and they’re provided with parachutes….

The statue of the Madonna is beautiful, in white marble, and is very similar to the statue of Christ the Redeemer above Rio de Janeiro – gazing out across the city below, arms outstretched, but a lot smaller.  At the foot of the statue’s plinth is the craft market and another picnic area that was quite crowded on this sunny Sunday afternoon.   Below, Santiago stretches away south, east and west, right up to the Andean foothills, and on this day some of the higher mountains beyond, snow-capped and magnificent, were clearly visible.   I spent an hour or so wandering around here, trying and failing to take the perfect picture to do the view justice, browsing the trinkets, leather bracelets (I treated myself to one, aging hippy that I am), post cards, traditional Indian knitwear and so on, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
                                                     The Blessed Virgin.....

                                                    ....and the view......

The funicular ride down was fun.  It’s an old railway, and although well maintained probably hasn’t been significantly upgraded for years.  Each “train” comprises 4 linked carts, each about 7feet square and covered by a stretched tarpaulin roof.  They are all open to the elements with no windows at all and only waist high wooden walls with gates that are secured merely by bolts as you would see on an old farmhouse door.   One goes up and as it does so one goes down to keep the line balanced.  Half way down the steep slope of the track is a passing space.  But it was fine: the ride down took perhaps 10 minutes, half of which was spent just above the passing place waiting for the other car to fill and climb up to meet us.   The line passes through Santiago Zoo, but I didn’t  get off there (and nor did anyone else) – the only creatures I saw were a few monkeys lolling in a tree in their enclosure beside the track, dispassionately watching us trundle past.
                                                         The passing place on the funicular

At the bottom the street from the station back into the city passes perhaps 60 bars and restaurants, small places with outside tables selling identikit burgers and beers at similar prices, all of them playing competing flamenco or hip-hop music.  I gave it a miss.  There is a metro station  at the far end of the street, next to yet another university campus (there seem to be more options in this one city than in Oxford and Cambridge combined), and the train from there took me back to the hotel in 15 minutes.  I was tired but happy, it had been a lovely afternoon’s exercise.
                                                                *          *          *

So what else can I say about the place?

Well, it’s certainly worth the long journey, at least in the summer months, when the weather is hot and sunny.  I imagine winters are good too, with Andean ski resorts a mere half an hour’s drive away.  The surrounding scenery is stunning – the only place I’ve been to remotely like it was Almaty, with its Himalayan offshoot on its northern border.   But Santiago, in particular the Las Condes district in which I’ve been based, is much much nicer than anything I saw in Almaty. 

There are other similarities to Almaty as well – the traffic is heavy  but the drivers more polite than the average Kazakh (at lease traffic signals are obeyed), and some of the old bungalows in the poorer quarter around Estacio Central, and on the edge of Las Condes viewed from Cerro San Cristobal, reminded me of the northern suburbs of Almaty.   Like Almaty too there is a surprising lack of spoken English – both cities are flourishing business and international banking centres for their respective countries, and I would have expected English to be more readily spoken than it actually is.  Santiago and Almaty are still the only two places in all my business travels where I have had no option but to use the services of an interpreter to do my daily work.   That is perhaps something the Chilean tourist authorities need to get a grip on and improve, because I can quite easily envisage the place becoming a more popular destination, and the lack of English (or for that matter, French, German etc….) in even the main Tourist Information Offices can only be harmful for its development.

I would certainly love to see more of the country.  My trip to Horcon and its beautiful beaches whetted my appetite, and I can think of many worse places to spend a couple of weeks lounging in the sun.   Having flown over them on the way in, a trip or two into the Andes would be wonderful.  I would love to travel north to the Atacama desert and lie on my back one dark night and watch the stars wheel overhead through crystal clear skies with no light pollution, and in patterns very different to those I’ve lived with in northern Europe these last sixty-odd years.  A trip to Easter Island to see those strange statues would be great as well – I remember in my youth reading a book by (I think) Erich von Daniken that cited them as proof that Earth was at some time in the past visited by alien powers who helped the primitive civilizations develop tools and techniques that should have been way beyond them.  Not sure I believe that (although I am totally convinced that we are not alone in the universe – there are other sentient beings out there, we just haven’t met them yet) but I’d love to see the place and make my own mind up, thank you very much.  Tierra del Fuego would be great too, with its colonies of seals and sea-birds and in season the odd passing whales, and dramatic almost Antarctic climate: granite coastlines and rough seas pounding them incessantly.
                                                                      *          *          *

Yes, it’s been a good trip.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

To the Pacific coast

As I said in my last post, while I’m over here in Chile I intend to do a couple of trips, including one to the coast – a dip in the Pacific is a must as I may never get this way again, and I do love the sea.   I’m a real beach bum.   As it’s the summer, the weather is pretty good – so far it’s been consistently around 30C, very pleasant indeed – so there’s not likely to be a better opportunity.

So I did some research.  On the maps, the coastal city of Valparaiso is nearest to Santiago, but it’s a port so bound to be quite industrial and possibly not too good as far as beaches go.  A little to the north is the resort town of Vina del Mar, and people at work recommended this as being good, with plenty of beaches, shops, restaurants and so on.  So not a bad bet then – travel by train or coach is the option, as it’s about 120km distance.

Next, the internet.  There are of course thousands of places to look for more detailed information – TripAdvisor is a favourite; the Chilean national tourist site another useful tool; simply searching by “Chile beach pictures” brings up thousands of options too.  It took care of an evening anyway…..    And I stumbled across a little fishing village listed under various names, but generally Horcon forms part of it (there are actually a number of locations in Chile that have Horcon as part of the name, including a couple within Santiago itself, so Google Maps was initially of little value).  Anyway, this place looked really good – it’s described as a very quiet and traditional fishing village with not a lot to do, but that has grown a little with the construction of a handful of condo’s just on the northern edge of the village that cater to Santiago’s nouveau riche as a weekend retreat.  There are a number of good looking sandy beaches around the village, and the website stated that, back 30 years or so ago, it was a popular stop off on the South American hippy trail and still maintains a relaxed hippy vibe…..     Well, that’ll do me, aging hippy that I am (the beads and necklaces I wear testify to that, as does my taste in music).  I’ll go there then.

Bit trickier on the travel front though – a change of buses in another equally small and undeveloped coastal town from an inter-regional coach to a local (and almost certainly decrepit) bus service beckoned – and the likelihood of finding someone there speaking English seemed remote, given the surprising lack of reasonable English even here in one of the biggest banks in the capital city.  But that’s what travel is all about, right – the adventure of using an alien transport system to get around and never knowing until you try how it’s going to be…..    I’ll try anything once, me – so Horcon it is.

Further surfing showed me the bus company to use, travel times and fares – at least as far as Quintero, where I had to change: after that there was no information.  Someone at the office advised me the best metro line to take from the hotel to the main bus terminus in Santiago (advice that was completely contradicted by the hotel staff), and someone else at work advised me slyly there was a “special beach” there – the Groucho Marx eyebrow wiggle suggested it might have something to do with a lack of swimwear being acceptable.  All in all, it sounded better and better.

So on Friday evening, I did a bit of shopping to make up a packed lunch, a couple of litres of water (I figured I’d buy beer on arrival) and an early night – long trip planned, so early start required.

Happy days.
                                                                          *          *          *

So Saturday morning I left the hotel about a quarter to seven – hideously early for a weekend, but since the coach journey was getting on for three hours I needed that early start to make any kind of a day of it.  I had my book, a packed a lunch, my iPod and a hotel towel (as I had neglected to pack my own beach towel when I left home), so was all set.

God, it was cold!  The whole time I’ve been here, as I’ve written previously, it’s been hot and sunny, high 20s.  But at that of time of day – well, let’s say what few people were about were dressed in thick sweatshirts, scarves, and jackets to keep warm…..and there was I in a tee shirt, shorts and sandals.  It was chilly, it was misty, and my heart sank……in another post I referred to myself as having a rain-man reputation with my kids, as it always seems to turn horrible when I go on vacation (the same was true last summer in Poland).  I had visions of another lousy day.

But I headed off anyway – just getting out of the city would be good, and a bit of sea air would do no harm.  The metro station is about 200m away from the hotel, and the guy on the ticket desk understood perfectly when I gave him my destination in the most appalling Spanish.  He even had the wit to type the fare into a calculator and show me rather than expect me to understand anything he said.  A good start.

The Santiago Metro is reckoned to be one of the best in South America.  There are about 5 lines covering most of the city, and it’s modern, efficient and clean…..what more can you ask for really?  It didn’t disappoint.  A half-empty train pulled in as I got onto the platform, but rather than sit I remained by the door and followed my progress on the map there – I didn’t want to get lost straight away.   But it was fine – right line, right direction and in 13 stops (say 30 minutes) I wandered back into the open air at Estacio Central – that’s Central Station to you and me.  My hotel had told me this was the best place to get the bus as it’s the main train and bus terminal in Santiago: “Just come out of the metro and you will see the buses, no problem.”

Well, yes – except they were all local commuter buses, not the inter-regional coaches I was expecting….dozens of them tearing around in all directions from a selection of stops within 100m of the station entrance, and absolutely nothing to indicate which stop to go to for mine, nor where to buy a ticket.  I wandered about for a bit, ignoring the drunks and derelicts that occupied the various stops and the beggars holding their hands out for cash or food.  Estacio Central, despite its name, does not appear to be in the heart of Santiago, rather more towards the western end of town, and certainly in one of the less pleasant suburbs… fact, the place was a shithole.  There was rubbish piled up everywhere, on every street corner a stall selling coffee and evil-smelling pastries and sandwiches, crumbling old tenement buildings covered in graffiti and a (closed) McDonalds on the station forecourt.  A four-lane highway swept through, dedicated to one of the nation’s old heroes, the wonderfully named Bernardo O’Higgins, and the traffic seemed to treat it as a raceway – even the buses seemed to be in competition over who could get away from the stop fastest.  After a while, at one of the stops I saw a group of young people, early 20s I should think, wearing suits and with laptop bags, who I figured may speak English, so I approached them and politely asked where to get the coach to Vina del Mar….  They looked bleary eyed at me, and one of them swung round, nearly falling over.  His tie was neatly knotted but outside his collar, and he stunk like a brewery – they were all totally pissed.  He pointed vaguely behind me – “Over there….”

I thanked him politely and went in the direction he had pointed, which was away from the station, then crossed the road and headed back to it – the guy clearly hadn’t a clue where he was or what day it was, so was certainly not a reliable guide.  I got back to the station and went inside.  It reminded me a bit of Charing  Cross or Blackfriars in London, back in the 80s when I used to commute through them – old Edwardian buildings, a soiled glass roof over the forecourt and platforms, loads of pigeon shit everywhere and in desperate need of a clean-up and renovation.   There were loads of shopping outlets beside the main forecourt, a little like Warsaw Central only grubbier (especially now Warsaw is being re-furbished before next year’s Euro football championships), and plenty of people now milling around or queuing for train tickets.  No sign of a tourist information kiosk, so I tried a ticket office.  “Coach to coast?  Vina del Mar?”

The girl looked blankly at me, shrugged and called her colleague over.  I repeated the question, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it all.  She giggled, said “Ummmm….”  a few times then pointed to one of the rows of shops across the forecourt.  “There.  Two left”.  Or was it “To left.”  Ah, the subtleties of the English language!

There was actually an entrance to an arcade where she had pointed, and sure enough, the second entrance on the left had a sign with a picture of a bus on it, so I followed it, maybe 150m through the  arcade, at the end of which the signs disappeared but there were a selection of ramps and escalators leading up.  I took one, and found myself in the bus depot.  There were perhaps 50 ticket desks scattered around, most of them closed, each for a different company – Pullman, Andes, San Raphael …. I was looking for Condor, but couldn’t see it at all.   I asked a lady from Andes Coaches who had no idea what I was talking about, and merely shrugged her shoulders, sounded off in Spanish for a minute and returned to her magazine.  I tried a guy from Pullman, who directed me to the other side of the forecourt.  And sure enough, there was the Condor Bus booth, two blokes.  I had my destination written in capital letters on a piece of paper and showed it to one of them.    He shook his head: “Sorry, no.  Quintero.  Is close.”

How close?  “About 20 minutes.  Local bus.  Easy.”

OK then, Quintero.  “You come back today?”    Yes, but no idea what time.  “Is ok, I sell you open ticket.”

So he did.  I selected my seat – number 1, right behind the driver – he printed off my ticket for a coach leaving in 10 minutes, with the return same day, any coach up to about 10 p.m.  From bay 15 – he pointed.

So I was on my way.  But the weather was still cold and cloudy and looked like rain.

                                                                   The coach to Quintero

                                                                 *          *          *

Santiago is 520m above sea level, in the Andean foothills, so the drive to the coast is basically all downhill.   This made me hope the weather conditions in the city were in effect caused by the place being actually in an area of low cloud, so that before too long we would drop out of it and into the sort of hot sunshine I’d been enjoying the rest of the trip.  But first, we had to get out of Santiago.  As I wrote above, Estacion Central – whether train or bus – is a decidedly low-rent area, and this became more apparent as we headed off.  The coach wound its way through a selection of narrow and grubby streets, all containing dilapidated bungalows, mostly in terraces, with small back yards and usually opening straight on to the street.  Walls were covered with graffiti, and there were few signs of life.  Rows of shops and garages (well, mechanics’ premises and tyre shops) were in similar buildings, distinguishable only by the signs over the locked and shuttered doors and windows.   After about 10 minutes, we came to another bus depot, and stopped to take on more passengers, then headed off again through some dingy backstreets until a left turn suddenly placed us on a two line highway heading out of town.   We called in at one final coach station (the one the guy at work had recommended to me: despite the grief I had had finding it, I was glad I had settled on Estacion Central as my starting point) and then we were on the main motorway signposted Valparaiso.  I settled back in my seat, camera in hand, to enjoy the ride.

The road ran more or less straight in a north westerly direction, through a succession of small suburbs that were mainly garages and food warehouses, for perhaps half an hour, and then halted at a toll-point.  We paid up, and headed on, the road more winding now and on a noticeably more downward course.  It was still cloudy, and the tops of the surrounding hills were shrouded in mist.  Then we hit a tunnel, carved through one of the bigger hills that form the barrier between the central valley where Santiago lies and the coastal plain.  The toll we had paid was specifically for use of this tunnel: I assume it pays for  its upkeep, but in the absence of an alternative route it’s a fee that can’t be avoided.  The tunnel ran for a couple of kilometres I guess, then emerged onto a road that continues to wind downhill.  The weather had improved – there were now patches of blue breaking up the slate grey clouds – but it was still not evidently beach weather.

After 15 minutes or so, the road leveled out and ran through wine-producing country.  Chile is famous for its wines, and here we were going through one of the main areas of production.  For kilometre after kilometre, vineyards stretched away on both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see.  Every few kilometres, an imposing wall and wrought iron gate would identify the entrance to another vineyard (and no doubt brand): beyond it was generally a long graveled or tarmacked drive leading to an imposing mansion, which would be surrounded by a complex of low sheds presumably housing the presses and bottling plants.  Tours of the region are available from Santiago, but as I’m not really a wine drinker I’ve not bothered, interesting though I’m sure they are.

                                                               Chilean vineyard

The weather too had brightened up, with blue skies overhead and a bit of a heat haze visible over the lush green vineyards.  But it didn’t last long: in perhaps 30 minutes we were through the valley, another range of hills loomed ahead and more clouds rolled up.  We came to another set of toll booths, for another tunnel, shorter this time, the gradient slightly steeper, and emerged into bright sunlight that stayed with us the rest of the trip.  We turned off before Valparaiso, taking the road into Vina del Mar, a winding, steep and narrow road, under a motorway and into a quite pretty looking town, with a strong Spanish influence to its architecture.  We wound through the streets, stopped at a couple of places to drop passengers, and then were on our way back out of town, passing a BMW dealership with the wonderful name of “McDonald and Scott Motors”: what with O’Higgins, there is clearly a Celtic influence in the country too.  We later passed a massive private school, some distance from the nearest town, called the Murray Academy that had a big playing field containing football and rugby pitches, some floodlit, and good looking athletics facilities.  A little further on we passed through a small town called Con-con, dominated by a massive oil refinery, and shortly after turned sharply left onto the road into Quintero.  It passes under a wide and low bridge that I subsequently found out carries one of the runways at a Chilean air force base on the edge of town.

Apart from that, the town has little to recommend it as a resort.  We glimpsed the sea in the gaps between buildings near the centre of town, and it looked like a small port – there was sizeable freighter moored at one unseen pier - , dusty and a bit rundown looking.  The coach station where we ended the ride was just a dusty enclosure the size of football pitch, with no sign of concrete or tarmac to be seen.  There were maybe 8 bays for the coaches to pull into, and facing them a row of small ticket booths for the coach companies and a small tourist information office.  I went here and asked where to get the bus to Horcon, again resorting to my piece of paper with the word written on it.  The guy led me outside, and talking in Spanish with expansive hand gestures, indicated I needed to leave the bus station and walk one road down.  So off I went.

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At the corner of this road stood a small hospital, and across from its gates a ramshackle bus was picking up passengers from a plastic-screened stop.  I wandered over, said “Horcon?” to the driver.  “No, senor,” he said, dropped the clutch and drove off in a cloud of dust.  I stood there for a minute – there were a few other people there, locals, dressed scruffily and evidently not likely to speak any English – they looked at me curiously.  A battered old bright yellow Toyota Corolla pulled up, on the roof an illuminated sign reading “Horcon”, and another inside on the dashboard “Quintero – Horcon”.  The driver got out, talking on his mobile, pony tail blowing in the breeze as he opened the boot so an old lady could drop in a bag of groceries.  “How much?”, I asked, rubbing thumb and fingers together in the universal gesture.  He said something, recognized my lack of comprehension, typed something into his mobile and showed me – 800.  Pesos.  So about a pound sterling.  That’ll do me…. I clambered in.

He waited a few minutes while another couple of passengers arrived, then off we went.  We followed the road out as if we were going back to Santiago, under the runway bridge (we were slightly elevated as we approached, so I could see the network of runways and taxiways, and across the far side a few buildings and hangars, but no planes), then shortly after turned left.  We went past another massive industrial complex right at the sea that seemed to be part refinery and part container port, right next to Quintero. The beach next so it, sandy and lapped by blue Pacific waters, looked clean enough but there was hardly anybody on it.  We drove on through a small and unnamed village (it may actually have been the northerly edge of Quintero, I suppose) then uphill and back inland for a couple miles before another left took us onto a road down into Horcon.

I got out at the harbour, the end of the line.  It was a delight, and well worth the journey.   There was a small bay, maybe a couple of hundred metres across, with a selection of small fishing boats pulled up onto the beach, and a line of cars drawn up along the harbour front facing them.  Fishermen sat in some of the boats, preparing them for their next trip out.  There were a few shops here selling wet-fish and ice cream, beachballs, buckets-and-spades and all the usual beach paraphernalia.  I wandered along past a few stalls selling tie-dye t-shirts, home-made beads and shell necklaces, dream-catchers and so on – that hippie vibe the website had mentioned.  Someone was playing Bob Marley.  In a hut by the old concrete sea wall some fishermen were mending their nets and enjoying a beer, and on the wall perched a big pelican.  Some more were on the hut roof, and beyond, on the rocks at the sea’s edge, were more pelicans and a raucous selection of seagulls.   They posed quite happily for my camera.
                                                                  Friendly wildlife

I walked on along a sandy, ummade road between the sea and a row of small cottages.  In the many rockpools kids were playing, and a small fishing boat was pulling out of the next small bay and heading out to sea, its two man crew laughing and singing as they steered into the sunlit Pacific.  A bit further along, an old pier, windswept and in some disrepair, jutted a hundred metres or so out into the sea.  In the little bay beyond it some teenage boys were playing football, while others were running in and out of the sea, laughing and shouting, all clearly trying to impress the handful of giggling teenage girls sitting on the rocks and watching them.

I walked on along the beach, the cliffs rising all the time to my right, and after a kilometre or so I was below the new condominiums that had been built for the out of towners.  There were fewer people on the beach now as I left the village behind, even though the rocks and pebbles had given way to clean sand.  Soon a steep wooden staircase came down to the beach from the clifftop a hundred feet above, seeming to mark the end of Horcon – there were no further buildings visible above.  By this time I had walked getting on for two kilometres along the beach and the village and harbour was almost lost to view at the far end of the bay; it looked as though I was getting on for two-thirds of the way across and I was getting a little worn out and thirsty.  I sat on a big rock, stripped off my shirt and rummaged in my back pack for my bottle of water, contemplating stretching out here for a swim to cool down.  While I sat there gazing out to sea and wondering how far New Zealand was, a group of perhaps twenty people came down the stairs and struck off along the beach, heading north and away from Horcon.  I decided to follow – clearly there was something further along that was popular and perhaps worth a visit.
                                            Approaching Playa Luna nudist beach, Horcon

Sure enough, after perhaps another ten minutes stroll, the beach widened out and a selection of beach umbrellas, windbreaks and small tents appeared, nestling at the foot of the high cliffs.  And as I got closer, my friend with the Groucho Marx eyebrows was proved correct.  There were getting on for a hundred people at the end of the beach, clustered in ones and twos, bigger groups of friends, and families with kids building sandcastles and splashing in the sea.  All naked.  All ages from maybe eighteen months up to probably seventy.   I joined them of course, settled at the back of the beach, at the base of the cliff, a little away from the main crowd.  And I spent a very pleasant few hours there, roasting in the sun, reading my book, eating and drinking.  I went in the sea, which was pretty rough – the journey from the far side of the Pacific, the world’s biggest ocean, seemed to have given an extra strength to the waves – and surprisingly cold, probably the equivalent of the English channel: certainly much cooler than the Caribbean or even the eastern Mediterranean around Cyprus.

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Around three in the afternoon, I packed up and rather reluctantly I admit, trudged off back to Horcon.  The one thing I hadn’t done was find out what time the coaches left Quintero for Santiago.  I reckoned the best part of an hour to get back along to the harbour, then I had to find a bus or cab and get to Quintero – I figured I wouldn’t arrive there until about 5.  So Santiago around 8, probably.  Just in time for dinner.

I passed several more couples heading for the beach, most of them strolling naked and hand in hand, enjoying the sun and sea breeze… really is an idyllic place, and without doubt one of the nicest places I’ve been to in all my travels.  I could happily vacation there.  Around half way back to the village, one of my old leather sandals split right across the sole, which made scrambling across the rockier parts of the beach tricky now the tide was in, and the other sandal was not in much better condition.  But I got to the harbour without mishap, and there was as yellow cab there for Quintero.  I arrived there just before 5, and the guy dropped me in the middle of the town, in the shopping district, somewhere near the coach depot.  It took me half an hour to find it, walking around the side streets trying to figure out where it might be: I know he had dropped me fairly close to it because I recognized some of the roads on the way in, but several streets were closed off for a street party – there was a national charity fund raiser last weekend, similar to the BBC Children in Need thing.  But eventually I found the depot and there was a coach leaving in ten minutes – perfect.

I slept most of the way back, and arrived at the hotel a little before nine.  It had been a long and tiring day, but a good day.

Friday, 2 December 2011


OK.  I've been here a week now, over the jet lag, so time to write I think.

First impressions: nice place.  It's really unlike anywhere I've been previously, despite being a modern vibrant city.  It's surrounded by the most beautiful scenery, the Andes, that are more than a match for the Himalayan offshoot that borders Almaty, and certainly knock those around Sofia into the shade.  The view from the roof of my hotel and certain rooms in the bank is beautiful, with the sun glittering on snowy peaks that look that jagged clouds floating in the sky - the summer haze generally makes the mountains below the snowline look indistinct.  I look forward to making a trip there one weekend.

                                                          The Andes, on the edge of town

I'm in an area called Las Condes, which is basically "new" Santiago.  Essentially it's the business district, so full of high-rise office blocks that match anything comparative European cities like Frankfurt, London or Paris can offer, and are much higher than anything seen in Luxembourg, Zurich or Geneva.  Some of them remind me of the architecture in Abu Dhabi, but on a less grandiose scale - there's no oil money to fritter away here.  There are wide boulevards and heavy traffic, and black taxis (though with yellow roofs and mainly Toyota) everywhere, plus double deck tourist buses - so in that sense it's a little like London.

All in all, I'm finding it very difficult to pin down, sorry - but right now I like it.

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There are restaurants everywhere, and like in most cities a mixed bag.

I found Starbucks, maybe 400m away, tucked away behind the office on the next main road across (the city is a bit blocky, American style).  It's like every Starbucks I've visited (there have been a few now), which is comforting I suppose.  You know exactly what you're going to get: decent coffee at reasonable prices, good salads, sandwiches and cakes, comfortable seating to enjoy the fare in and generally crap music playing.  It's a big branch, with outside tables and settees and wooden camp chairs, under a pleasant veranda and with plenty of climbing plants and geraniums everywhere.  I spent a pleasant couple of hours there last weekend, relaxing in the sunshine, drinking my latte, reading my book and getting acclimatized.  I'm sure I'll go there again this weekend.

You Know where....

There is also the inevitable Irish pub close by, perhaps 100m from the hotel in the opposite direction to the coffee house.,  Now one of my Rules of Travel is to look up the local Irish pub as soon as I arrive somewhere new, on the basis that if you find that you are guaranteed decent food and drink for the duration of your stay.  In places like Almaty, where the local food tends to be horse or goat prepared in a variety of interesting ways, that Rule has proved its worth.  (I never actually found one in Limassol, but since all the restuarants there seemed to serve good old English food it didn't really matter.)

But Flannery's (for such it is called) has been a huge disappointment.  I've eaten there twice now, and both times the service has been poor and the food not particularly Irish - you can get a bacon double cheeseburger anywhere, including McDonalds, and without giving it a fancy name like Dundalk Steak.  Last night I had a chicken pie, which was ok - big succulent chunks of chicken, with mushrooms and onions in a creamy white sauce, with a dash of cheese in the pastry - but there were no chips or other vegatables with it and it was undercooked (the pastry was more crispy white than golden brown).  But the place seems popular - on Sunday the outside tables were all full although inside seemed quite empty, and last night it was packed, with many tables reserved already when I got there (probably because the local football club was playing in the semi final of the South American version of the Champions League - they won).  The beer, though, is excellent - the usual local and international lagers like Carlsberg, but also three (I assume) home-brews - a stout, a lager and a bitter, all bearing the Flannery's name.

Opposite Starbucks there's an American diner called Ruby Tuesday's that is better (I wonder if they're paying the Glimmer Twins for that one?).  Again, I've eaten there a couple of times and in this case it hasn't disappointed at all.  The food is typically American - so burgers, chicken, ribs, steak and fish, cooked in a variety of ways - and so far has been really tasty, well cooked and well presented with decent service.  But in this case, the beer is the disappontment: a large one comes out in a long thin and very decorative glass but is less than half a litre I should pint pots here.  I've sat outside both times, much nicer to do when the sun is shining, (it's doing that a lot, as it's summer), which was fine on a quiet Sunday evening but less pleasant tonight, as the place seems to be sited on one of the main roads linking Old and New Santiago and hence subject to the usual evening rush hour traffic.

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The hotel is ok, actually an aparta-hotel, so instead of just having a room I have a little flat, with a well furnished lounge area (three piece suite, decent stereo), separate bedroom (very comfortable double, with tv - and I have no idea why that isn't in the lounge too), plus bathroom and a small kitchen with a proper cooker and fridge-freezer.  It's pretty handy - being only about 150m from the office I've been popping back for a sandwich lunch and look at BBC News, and that's stretching the per diem allowance very well. 

                                                                     The hotel......

                                                           ....and my lounge

According to the website, there is a pool and fitness suite on the 17th floor, so I dutifully packed my swimming trunks and trainers, so I could get some much needed exercise.  I'm piling on the pounds a little, and when I saw the doctor the other week about my hips he told me to exercise more and drop a bit of that excess.  So when I arrived and unpacked I checked out these facilities.

The 17th floor is actually the roof.  In fairness there is a very nice, spacious and well furnished lounge area there, mainly glass walled and offering lovely views across the city to the surrounding mountains.  Outside of this is a pleasant sun-terrace with loungers provided.  There is also a sauna that I haven't tried yet.  But fitness centre...gym?  Not a trace.  And the pool?  Well, it's there but is without a doubt the smallest I have ever seen - the hot tub at my local swimming baths is about the same size.  It's open to the elements, so is always carrying several handfuls of flower petals blown there from the pot plants edging the terrace, and I don't think it has enough space for a single stroke - push off from one end and you'll hit the opposite edge before you have time to do anything.......

                                                             See what I mean?

But it's a pleasant enough place to stay for the month I'll be here.  The staff are friendly, there is a small cafe in the place that does a reasonable breakfast (included in the room rate) and today they put up and decorated the Christmas tree in the entrance hall - a 7 foot artificial one and very nice too.

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So week one is done, just over two more to go.  As from Monday I'm on my own, the rest of the team have buggered off for the Christmas break already so I can't help feeling a little conned.....   But I have enough to keep me going so I don't mind too much.  If I was sitting on my own, farting in my chair (as my Beloved describes being not very busy...) I'd be less than happy.

This weekend I'm off to the Pacific coast, to a small and apparently beautiful fishing resort with national parkland adjoining the beach, called Vina del Mar - some people at the bank thoroughly commend it.  It's about an hour on the bus apparently, so it could be an entertaining day, given my total lack of Spanish!

Watch this space......