January 2013, SANTIAGO, Chile.
I believe in Chile and its destiny: Salvador Allende 11 de Septiembre de 1973.
His statue stands by the Palacio Moneda; I’m told there are plenty more statues in the city. There are people having lunch in the park beside it, pigeons and dogs are everywhere. One dog, which is known to the locals, is trying to steal my water bottle to play with. People are selling nuts and drinks. (Remember to find out the name of that drink with oats or hard bits at the bottom – that way it’s drink and meal in one). But the white restored building holds an eerie presence. It’s a period in history I was never taught and never read about. All I know is a lot of people died here at the hands of Pinochet.
I go to the Museo de la Memoria with Igor, it’s out of town by the subway. The museum is ultra-modern and designed, entrance is free but entirely in Spanish. Crap. I’ve only been in Chile for a week and my Spanish is still at a very, very elementary level, but I don’t let Igor know that.
Neither of us talk for two hours as we see footage, letters, drawings from children and letters from mothers begging for the return of their families. We see artefacts from soldiers, and prisoners, exiled and tortured for fighting against dictatorship. We pass through the years of torment, hardship, and corruption of Chile to the last room. The NO! campaign, which saw Pinochet elected out of government, but never punished for his crimes. His rule really only ended in the 90s? When I was born? I’m shocked and shaken by this period of history. I make my first promise of the trip, you need to read about this when you get home.
The first visual I get of South America when I arrive to Santiago is the Andes. And it is incredible. I’ve read about the mountains, seen photos, heard stories from others who have been. But it all means nothing when you see it; the ancient energy of the Andes grabs you and doesn’t let go, not once in the five months to come. I knew a part of me went to the mountains that day, energy, spirit, connection…and I don’t think it will ever leave.
I’m nervous passing through customs, I’m a real grown up now at the age of 20, it’s the first time I’ve had to use Spanish and I get everything wrong and now I’m in a shuttle going through the downtown of a city on a completely new continent. I want to laugh, cry, I have finally escaped from myself to the world I dreamt of for so long, a culture I wished to be a part of. We parallel the Rio Mapuche and the Andes circle above and between the blocks, occasionally masked by the smog. Same sights – billboards, buildings, people walking, but it’s different and alien. The city is tinted grey, there’s pollution and graffiti but right now I find it edgy and quirky. I’m in Providencia now; it’s affluent, green, and just outside the city. The houses are low and colourful, Ventana Sur hostel blends into the colonial style.
British student Jason and his Chilean friend Ivan run the place, though some of the long-staying guests seem to run things too. You gotta do that one day, just stay somewhere, work at a hostel. It’s basically a house and there’s a patio and pool, grape vines dangling from the beach umbrella out the back. There’s a Dutch girl staying here while she does her Masters in Latin American Politics and Revolutions, a guy from Boston teaching English (he taught English in Turkey in the past), one Brit who seems to live and work here who is well acquainted with two guys from the UK and Colorado who have been travelling from North America all the way to Ushuaia by motorbike. During my time at Ventana Sur their bikes had failed twice and they had to return. I spend my days with Igor, a French engineer (I think), who was staying for the same time as me. Others pass through the hostel momentarily, but at the hostel we’re family. The Brits cook everyone Thai one night, the Americans make pasta another and on the last night Ivan does an asado for everyone, with choripan and roast. Every meal is accompanied with endless red wine, the best quality wine and we pay less for transport.
The sun doesn’t set until at least 10pm, something I’m still adjusting to. So we sit on the patio and drink wine together, other times I sit and read my notes with a beer. Some nights Igor and I go to a parrillada downtown, placing ourselves in the scene of cool Chilean hipsters. On the last night we all go to the salsa bar, couples swing and we admire. One man, with long hair and unbuttoned shirt dances with every woman who catches his eye. Crazy and sassy Portuguesa Ana swoons, he knows it and dances with her, attracting all of her energy and leaving her hot.
Every morning we walk through Parque Bustamente on our way to the spectacular and rewarding city district. Plaza de Armas is constantly filled with markets, musicians, dancers, old men playing chess. Just sit and watch. Dogs stroll through the square unnoticed, but it doesn’t take me long to accept this custom. Someone says, To be a Chilean is to have a dog by your side. Look at the art portraits in galleries; you’ll see a dog somewhere in the picture. Igor and I race around town seeing Cathedrals, Parliament, Museo de Historico Nacional, we drink coffee in the wealthy Italian suburb Lastarria and we climb San Cristobal Hill to overlook the entire city. Pass through the dull Las Condes financial district and the bustle of Centro, to the bohemian and artistic Barrio Brasil and Bella Vista, across the bridge at the base of Cerro San Cristobal. There’s food, bars, cafes, music, and parks. We’re in the university district of cheap eats and heavy drinks, we try 1L terremotos and instantly regret the combination of white wine, pineapple ice cream, rum, and some other alcohol we couldn’t work out. German beers and Galindos’ pateados con porros becomes my favourite meal. I take friends back later after accidentally leading them to slums.
I go back to Barrio Brasil and Bella Vista on my own when Igor leaves for Valparaiso and discover markets, artists and graffiti and street art. Someone says that during the dictatorship Arts and Culture was considered a threat and so artists were forced to move across the Rio Mapuche to the slums. Interesting how things change. Pablo Neruda’s house, La Chascona, is located in the barrios and we get the chance to experience the personal life of a writer, poet, and politician I have admired before arriving in Chile. The collection of junk and antiques fill every part of the house, which is built in the style of a ship, one of his obsessions. Chascona is named after the mistress who became his wife and inside we find paintings of the lovers by Diego Rivera, Gaugin, and Picasso. Most other valuables were stolen by military in the dictatorship and our guide tells us that only a fraction of his collectables remains.
Looking back this may be the only week in my travels I spent entirely dedicated to the culture and arts of a city. I spend hours strolling in Bellas Artes, ate Emporio la Rosa helado in the magnificent and central parks amongst Chilean families and couples who played in fountains. I saw Cultural centres, visited craft markets, and drank wine everyday. My love of the artistic will bring me back to this sprawling city in the future but today I leave for Patagonia and meet a group and guide who will travel together for the next week and more.
I meet my trekking companions in Londres and the next morning we catch a small flight to Puerto Natales, stopping in Puerto Montt, Puntas Arenas and passing volcanoes on our way. Puerto Natales is the vision of my stories in Patagonia. It’s a small community on the still glass lake; there are rugged snowy mountains in the backdrop. The land is flat and windy and the airport is nothing but a large space of grass. Houses are like patchwork, a collection of wood, metal, rock, and each house is tiny and spaced apart from another. There are cows and chimneys, and we stay in a cosy wooden hostel Amerindia with sheepskin rugs and fireplaces. We eat at a local restaurant, likely built for tourists, and we share fresh seafood, Patagonian lamb and beef, with our first taste of Patagonian beer. Patrick and Chris, both from South Carolina, become my favourite trekking buddies, they shout everyone beers and make us laugh. The town is quiet early and we sleep the best we will in a while.
There’s a bus to take all trekkers to Torres del Paine, there are signs everywhere warning penalties for bushfires and mistreatment of land and animals. Hector, a Chilean trekking guide from the town, meets the six of us for a trek to the caves. Hector knows everything about the geography, geology, and history of Patagonia. He quizzes us a lot. Hector loves his home and tells us on his holidays he takes his five-year old daughter mountain climbing.
We start hiking up to the caves, the landscape is rocky and filled with thorns and carcasses of guanacos. As we climb higher we can see the lake we passed, it’s a whitish blue and there are hundreds of guanacos gathered around.
Can we go there? Marcel jokes. We see an old couple running back from the direction we’re headed. They’re covered in bites and waving their hands in front of their faces. Don’t go they yell at us. We laugh, we’ve got repellent on, mosquitoes won’t get us. We continue through the steppes, in a scene of yellows, browns, reds, and ocassional greens and bright purple flowers. Most plants sting or scratch.
But we’re soon shown up. Hector tells us that it’s mosquito season here but he’s never seen so many. We spend about 40 minutes enduring heavy bites, we find a fresh carcass, circled by a group of condors, and climb higher to see wild guanacos with their young, with the Torres del Paine mountians in the background. Everyone is complaining and we finally let ourselves be defeated. We trek back to the main entrance and catch a ride to our campsite where our main guide Carla is waiting with others.
We have sandwiches, fruit, and nut bars at the campsite before taking a five hour hike to Lagos N….. instead. (dark lakes beside white blue glacier lakes, strong winds, hot, rain, microclimates!). Hector takes the group back to camp but directs an alternate route back for those wanting to do a longer and more difficult hike. Trying to be cool, I go with Patrick and Chris and we follow a barely marked trail up the side of the grassy mountains.
Margaret (28, NYC), Patrick (40, surfer fishing guide from South Carolina), Chris (trauma surgeon, South Carolina), Janelle (Occupational therapist, North QLD), Reto (engineer, Swiss), Marcel (software engineer, Swiss, funny guy), and Carla (25 from Ushuaia, beautiful person, Reiki, independent, traveller, trekked everywhere in Patagonia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, one of the most inspiring person I have met).
Dinner in the group tent and early start for Torres trek. 8 hour day. Steep rocky steppes, then high in the valley scaling the mountains, lakes and streams to refill drinks from, forests, refuges, final stop is a steep climb to the Torres. Return journey share Abuelo with the South Carolina boys. Return exhausted – celebrate with Spades and cervezas and an early night. The next day leave camp to take a boat to another campsite closer to the French valley. Drink mate in the refuge & learn the customs. Straw facing guest means welcome, away unwelcome/ stir & you dislike mate/ less than two sips they know your secrets/say gracias & you don’t want more. We take a 4 hour afternoon trek to the Grey Glacier, largest in the Southern Ice Field. See the remains of the forest fires. Far scope.
Dinner, vino, Austral cervezas and Argentinian spades with the group. Early trek to the French Valley, RAIN. Freezing, slippery rocky, rough bridges to cross the rivers, half way on the trek decide the weather is too dangerous and chill out together at the base of the glacier by the lake. Skip stones, sleep, muck around, Chris and Hector go swimming in the lake for bets. Trek back and fiesta in the refuge. That night winds are 70-80km per hour. Tents are destroyed and blown away, dust gets in, roof is pressed onto my body all night. No one sleeps that night.
The next day we leave by bus 8 hours to El Calafate crossing the border to Argentina.
“Life needs only one thing: to be rooted in the present.
The past is no more, it is dead; the future is not yet, it is unborn.
Only the present is. Only the present is alive. When you are herenow,
life flows in you. When you are herenow, you are in God.
Live dangerously! Live joyously! Live without fear, live without
guilt; live without any fear of hell or any greed for heaven. Just
Live deeply, live totally, live wholly, so when death comes and knocks
at your door you are ready — ready like a ripe fruit to drop.
… And remember: Life is insecurity. Each moment is a move into more
and more insecurity. It is a gamble. One never knows what is going to
happen. And it is beautiful that one never knows. If it was
predictable, life would not be worth living. If everything was as you
would like it to be, and everything was certain, you would not be a
man at all, you would be a machine. Only for machines is everything
secure and certain”.
Places: Santiago, Patagonia, Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine, San Pedro de Atacama
Writers: Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, Gabriela Mistral
Figures and politics: Salvador Allende, Pinochet Dictactorship 1973-1989, Mapuche, Bernado OHiggins
Food and drink: Pisco Sour, Terremoto, vinos Casillero del Diablo and Caminere, cerveza Cristal, porotos granados, asado