When people think of Latin America, I bet many of them will conjure up images of shanty towns, poverty, police corruption, crime and chaos. And yet, while the continent does have its fair share of problems, it’s not always that way. Chile is an example of how Latin America could be if it got its act together: wealthy, democratic, developed, stable and safe, arguably with more in common with Europe than South America.
Arriving in Chile proved quite a culture shock having spent so long in Peru and Bolivia, two of the poorest countries on the continent. In Chile, standards of living are much higher, and it shows: the roads are better, the streets cleaner, the cars and buses newer. In fact, there seems little to distinguish Chile from Europe, and sadly that applies to prices too- the days of picking up bargains are well and truly over.
Our first few days in Chile were fairly uneventful. Our first stop was in the pretty village of San Pedro de Atacama, but we didn’t stay long. The main attractions in the area were the strange rock formations nearby in the Atacama Desert, but given that we’d seen in Bolivia enough strange rock formations to last a lifetime, we decided to give that a miss.
Our next destination was the nearby city of Calama, and it was here that things began to turn sour. Our time there was nothing short of a disaster. With hindsight we shouldn’t even have got off the bus, because within minutes of doing exactly that my backpack- and more importantly the laptop and other electronics it contained- was stolen.
Admittedly, I can’t prove that it was pinched- I didn’t see anyone take it, after all, and unfortunately there was no Cat Burglar style calling card. However, a young blokey had approached us and asked us a question only a couple of minutes before we realised it was gone, and it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to imagine an accomplice snatching our things while our backs were turned and our attention elsewhere.
I’d say I hope they both go to hell, but I don’t believe such a place exists, and besides everlasting torture seems a tad OTT for a bit of petty theft (or anything, for that matter). So, dunno, hopefully a pigeon will shit on them both tomorrow. Preferably a very large, bubonic plague carrying one.
We were only in the city to visit Chuquicamata, the world’s second largest open pit mine a few miles outside of the city, but due to a miner’s holiday we didn’t even get to do that. Muchos frustrating.
Next stop was the port town of Iquique in the north of the country. We chose to go there mainly because we thought we could spend a few days on the beach. Of course, this was on the assumption that the weather would be warm and sunny, which seemed to be a formality given Iquique’s location on the edge of the Atacama. But no such luck- our four days there were spent under a miserable blanket of dreary grey cloud.
Iquique itself was a pretty enough place, with a nice coastline and lots of 19th Century wooden houses in the city centre, but my abiding memory of the city will be of the tsunami warning signs on every street, and of the air raid siren which for whatever bizarre marked midday every day. Of course, the first time I heard it I had no idea it was a daily ritual, and naturally ran out into the street screaming like a little girl and repenting my sins as I awaited my watery grave.
The trip to Iquique would have been a complete write off it were not for our visit to Humberstone, a ghost town not far away in the desert. An odd little place, Humberstone was a little nitrate mining settlement populated for over a century until it was abandoned in 1959, after the discovery in Europe of how to make synthetic nitrates had made the mining industry obsolete. It had been left preserved by the dry desert climate until acquired by the Chilean government and turned into an open air museum. With the barren desert surroundings and old wooden houses, being in Humberstone felt like being back in the Wild West- I only wish I’d brought my sheriff outfit.
Our luck was no better in La Serena, further down the Pacific coast. The weather was miserable. We were only in the town to take a trip to a local offshore penguin colony, so when we awoke on the morning of the tour to hear it’d been cancelled, we found ourselves with nothing to do.
So instead we headed to Vicuña, a town 50 miles inland, where we hoped the weather might be better. No such luck. So we hoped maybe we’d wait until the evening for the clouds to clear so we could visit one of the nearby observatories and appreciate the night sky, reputed to be one of the clearest in the world. ‘Fraid not, said the man in the tourist information office, the weather is set in for the next few days.
So we decided to cut our losses and head straight back to La Serena, where we had another shot at booking a penguin tour. Again, we awoke to rain, and another cancellation, and that was that. It was clear that La Serena had a grudge against us, and that all we could do was get out before it took our lives, as seemed inevitable. So we did.
Thankfully, Valaraiso stopped the rot. The city, roughly half way down Chile’s long coastline, was unlike any other I’ve been to in my life. A port town that fell on hard times after the opening of the Panama canal, Valparaiso is a city full of steep, narrow backstreets, spectacular graffiti, 19th century funicular railways clambering up the hillsides, and neighbourhoods full of houses clad in corrugated iron, painted in myriad different colours.
Pretty though it was, Valparaiso- or at least its hillside neighbourhoods- felt like a very run down, neglected city. The signs of decay were everywhere- the often scruffy streets, the rather less artistic tag graffiti that accompanied- and sadly was often scrawled right across- the street murals, the multitudes of stray dogs. There were countless buildings with iron exteriors that, rather than being restored or painted, had been left to rust for generations. All that said, Valparaiso’s somewhat tired look only added to its unique charm, so I’m not complaining!
Sadly, our final destination in Chile, Santiago, was pretty underwhelming. Considering that it is the national capital, and home to a third of the Chilean population-some six million people- there was surprisingly little to see and do there, and it lacked the vibrancy and atmosphere of other cities on the continent. That said, there were some decent museums- including one particularly interesting one on Chile’s long, cruel military dictatorship- and a couple of nice hilltop parks offering great views over the city and surrounding snowy mountains. But are such things enough to justify visiting a city? I think not.
In all, then, Chile was a pretty disappointing country to visit. Apologies in advance for cliché attack, but my experiences there were a reminder to be careful what you wish for, that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. After so many months in Peru and Bolivia, I had longed to get back to the developed world again, and yet after a few days in a country which reminded me more of home, I had already forgotten why I wanted to be there so much in the first place.
Perhaps you may remember the list of things I didn’t like about Peru (most of which, incidentally, were even worse in Bolivia!) that I wrote back in July? Well, with the exceptions of stray dogs, which apparently patrol every street in the country, none of these issues apply to Chile. The streets are generally clean, the drivers sensible, the people friendly and polite… and yet, nice though that is, at the end of the day Chile always seemed a bit dull. The chaos of life in Peru and Bolivia may have been tiring, but with the benefit of hindsight (and perhaps even a nice new pair of rose tinted glasses) it was certainly fun to experience, and that’s what travelling’s all about!
But there are two last things about Chile that I must acknowledge: one, that as we were visiting the country in the southern hemisphere winter, I’ve no doubt it’s a more pleasant place to be in the summer when the weather is better; and two, we never actually saw the apparently rather pretty southern part of the country, and thus missed out on lots of mountains, lakes, glaciers and whatnot. Perhaps if neither of those issues applied I’d be able to say, hey, go to Chile, it’s great. But they did, so I can’t. Next!