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Beastly Blog
Monday, 23 October 2006
Getting Chilly in Chile
Hola Beast Crew

We are in Chile , the land of the world's driest desert, Mapuche Indians, glaciers, the Andes and the Pacific. In just a few weeks we have chugged our way across one of the most diverse continents and over the highest drivable mountain ranges in the world. We are now in Chile!

We have spent the past week trying to hone our Spanish to enable us to converse with the locals and learn more about wonderful South America. We have also added a new podcast of our trip – if there is anything that you would like to see or for us to video more then please drop us an email!

Puenta del Inca (Argentina) – Santiago (Chile) – Vina del Mar – Valparaiso

8th October 2006 – 23rd October 2006
It is possibly the best road in the world, yet I don't think you would ever find it in "The Ten Best Drives" book. The road is cracked, the camber leans you down towards the hundreds of metres drop to the jagged rocks below and the speeding overladen trucks careering towards you scare the crap out of you, but the scenery is unparalleled. The road up from Mendoza , through the military zone to Puenta del Inca and through the tunnel into Chile is awe inspiring. It catches your breath in more ways than one as it winds from 1000m above sea level up to nearly 3000m, making any kind of walking or talking difficult (much to Greg's pleasure!). The snow capped peaks of mountains several thousand metres higher than the tiny Beast, tower up into the sky with evidence of collapse bulging out onto the road with boulders and scree edging the road out of existence.

The sign as you entered the Christ the Redeemer Tunnel was the only statement that we had seen or heard in Argentina that there is any remaining claim on the Falklands... Las Islas Malvinas son Argentina (The Falkland Islands are Argentina). Our slight sense of embarrassment and worry about how Argentinians would react to us being English, with a British ex-military vehicle driving through their stunning country was unfounded. The conversations that we have had with people about the Falklands war always was explained away with Margaret Thatcher and their then president, Galtieri, clutching at failing politics to keep them in power. Argentinians, although many in South America accuse them of being arrogant and snobby, are actually proud, extremely wonderful and friendly people. With some sadness we chugged through the tunnel which passed through the Andes and out into the bright daylight of Chile.

As with all border crossings, they are stressful times but this Argentinean/Chilean border crossing has to be one of the most amusing. Our temporary importation document was taken off us with efficiency by the Argentineans, we paid for entering their side of the tunnel and we were shuffled through to the Chilean side. Alexis was asked for some money for the Chilean side of the tunnel, which as obvious first timers to Chile we had no pesos. Alexis changed some money in the heaving passport terminal which offered some respite from the bright sun-strewn snow slopes offering some late season skiers the opportunity to ski from Argentina into Chile. Having paid for the Chilean tunnel we were shuffled through to the Chilean passport control where we were asked for documents that we should have been given by the Argentineans. The border guard flapped around for a few minutes before finding us the correct documents to fill in. Alexis had to then go and get a form identified as the papel amarilla (yellow paper) which was the temporary import documentation. She spent ? hour being shunted from one queue to another whilst Greg was having awe struck conversations with the carabineros (military police) who were cooing over the Beast, saying that it was the first time they had ever seen one, they had only ever seen them in magazines.

"Are you married?" asks the border guard coyly when we returned to the guard post with all the correct documentation. "Are all the girls in your country as beautiful as you?" Now this is a difficult one. You are sitting next to your long term boyfriend who is trying in faltering Spanish to explain that we are not married but almost, and if you touch my missus you die, and then you have a border guard who is attempting the only bit of English he knows and will let you through the gates into his beautiful country. I went with the border guard ignoring Greg. Five minutes and a lot of smiling later we are cruising slowly down through the Andes and counting the number of hairpin bends, down from thirty five in order to get down to the lush, green plains of Region V (or Santiago).

We hit the outskirts of Santiago where the streets turned into a speed track for buses all racing us into the centre. We drove into the centre of town where we pulled up in the central cobble stoned district of Paris-Londres where we grabbed a room and headed out into town. We had to get our priorities right as it was our sole reason for staying in Santiago for a few days longer than intended - we had to find a shop that sold Robbie Williams concert tickets! He was playing the following day in the National Stadium. Apparently the concert was not sold out, so Alexis went off on a quest to obtain the tickets that were selling for the UK concerts at twice to three times the face value. Tickets in hand we journeyed to the concert for a truly unique experience. There were sandwich sellers, drink sellers and nut sellers all squeezing down the thin aisles, shouting out their wares. Bandana salesman mingled with the food salesmen as the sun set over the Andes , visible over the top of the stadium. As the sun went down, Robbie jumped on staged and gave a 3 hour concert and we let him entertain us - a surreal experience watching a British popstar in a situation far from British.

The following few days were spent wandering the surprisingly lovely capital, which although it occasionally disappears under a cloud of smog, the snow capped Andes frame the skyline. There is a lot of British, French and German influence on the architecture, making the city feel unusually European. Alexis visited the house of one of the most famous Chileans, Pablo Neruda. Pablo Neruda is a famous Nobel prize winning poet who most recently gained notoriety when the film, 'Il Postino', was made about his life with his mistress when he escaped Pinochet's strangle hold to Italy.

Some would say that Friday the 13th would be a bad day, and that, coupled with a weak earthquake that hit 4 on the richter scale, made it a bad day for some who died the freak floods that caused road accidents during the heavy rains. Luckily for us the worst thing was that we got soaked in the down pour in the walk from the car into the hostel we were staying at in Vina del Mar. The rain streaked vineyards were a blur as we drove past to the coast.

Vina del Mar is the Chilean's coastal escape, with ugly high rise buildings crowding the hills with the prettier wooden clapper board houses serving as weekend holiday destinations. There are long golden beaches crowded with fantastic restaurants to watch the seals play in the surf framed by the red sunset.

We were destined for Valparaiso, to learn Spanish. Valparaiso has just started hitting the tourist route because it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003. It is well known for the stunning scenery that the houses create as the crowded hills with splashes of pinks, blues, yellows and red jostle with the dark blue of the Pacific Ocean. Artists graffiti line walls with pretty scenes of the surrounding hills. Cobble stone streets wind up into the hills. Balconies with washing lines streaming across the streets crowd the skyline. There is a bohemian atmosphere as you see artists drawing the beautiful buildings, musicians wander the streets, back allies squeeze between the buildings and at night music wafts down onto the street over the balconies.

There are 42 hills that make up Valparaiso which makes getting up to the top a strain that only the fittest can accomplish without collapsing. There are however 15 ascensores (or funiculars), box cars on a counter-balance pulley system, dotted around the town to ensure that you can still climb up to see the magnificent views. The whole area has crumbled under the impacts of devastating earthquakes but new buildings are now required to have earthquake protection from the tremors that occur every week or two through to the devastating earthquakes that occur every 5 to 10 years. Valparaiso (or Valpo) used to be an important port used as a stopping point for those rounding the Cape Horn . Because of the demand for Chilean wheat, brought on by the Californian gold rush in the 1850s, there was a population boom from 5000 (1818) to 55,000 in the 1850s. A devastating earthquake in 1906 and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 stopped the growth of the city and now the port has dwindled in size. We even found it difficult to ship the Beast into the port!

It is an interesting city with the rich and poor all squeezed onto the hills together. We have experienced the poor first hand as one of the girls in the hostel had her passport stolen and Greg got his pocket felt up by a taxi driver (although he was quite drunk so whether it was his pocket or crotch we will never know!). This is where we have spent the past week… learning and improving Spanish, finding out about the socio-economics of the region, looking at house prices and wandering the brightly coloured cobble stone streets. Unfortunately we have to leave and head south to the Lake District otherwise we would stay here forever!

Notes from Chile :

? After the daily weather report, an estimation of any potential seismic movements across Chile is given relating to the regions affected.

? Salaries in Chile range from #60/month to #8000/month. The average is #400/month

? The northern part of Chile actually belonged Peru and Bolivia until 1879 when the War of the Pacific was declared on them both as the demand for salt and nitrates forced foreign interests to conquer the surrounding countries and acquire salt and nitrate mines. The land is still disputed territory.

? Chile has very little natural gas and oil and so relies on surrounding countries to supply their energy. Due to their disputed territory, one of the largest natural gas suppliers, Bolivia, refuses to sell to them and has imposed clauses on other countries like Argentina on selling gas to Chile.

? Chile was released from Spanish occupation by the son of an Irishman, Bernardo O'Higgins who was part of the Army of the Andes in 1810. His statue is found everywhere and his name is used to usually identify the main roads in towns. Other liberators like Valdivia have towns named after them.

? The population of Chile is 15 million with 6 million living in the capital of Santiago .

? Chile runs down the spine of the Andes with Argentina located to the east and Peru and Bolivia to the north

? Chile is 4000km in length and is a maximum of 180km wide. It covers an area of 748,800 sq km and has 6,435km of coastline.

? The Chilean Peso ($) is at October 2006 rates, $950 = #1.

? Petrol prices are around #0.60/litre petrol and #0.55/litre diesel.

? During 'the Chaos' and the 'caravan of death' of Pinochet's rule, from 1973 to 1988 several hundred thousand people were murdered and 'disappeared' for opposing the military regime. Many people escaped out of the country.

? All of the regions are numbers from the north, Region I down to the bottom Region XII.

? The national drink of Chile is Pisco which can be mixed with lemon and sugar to produce a potent Pisco Sour.

Posted by Alexis at 12:01 AM BST
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