March 18 – 21
Arrival to Santiago lateish in the evening, but hassle-free as I am flying domestic. I decided to continue to stay in airbnbs, as (I know I will sound snob and unpleasant) by now I really cannot stand backpacker hostels where everyone is 10 years younger, on a gap year (most likely on their parents money), and believes that wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt makes you a socialist. They say that if you are not a socialist when you are 16, you have no heart, but if you are still one when you are 40, you have no brain, and I guess there is some truth to that. Let’s just say that I am slowly approaching 40 and I cannot suffer reasoning about the beauty of communism with western kids who grew up having access to pretty much anything.
I also understand that these discussions are dangerous in the only country in the world where neoliberalism has been put into practice. And the point is exactly that. Communism and neoliberalism are two extremes. Two evils. And one is not a response to the other. And while any form of communism is evil (yes, evil, a theory, that has been put in practice many times and each and every one of such experiments left those subjected to it impoverished and spineless, is a theory that clearly doesn’t work, at best), and I think we can all agree that extreme unregulated forms of capitalism are quite as evil, there is a spectrum of possibilities in between the two. And no, capitalism does not need democracy to exist or thrive (quite the opposite, see China), but no democratic and free society can exist without some form of regulated capitalism. End of rant. I decided to airbnb my way through Chile to avoid the above mentioned discussions with juvenile champagne communists, but most importantly to really meet the locals.
I am staying with Jess (and her beautiful and cuddly schnauzer Niza) just a block from Plaza de Armas. During the two hours between the airport and arriving to Jess’s, I get two offers of casual hook up – politely declined, I am not that desperate. Yet. Still, I think I will like Chile as much as it seems to like me.
Santiago is not an overly beautiful city, but it has a good vibe. I walk through Barrio Brasil to admire the street art, all the way to the city’s main “attraction” – Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of memory and human rights), which of course tells the story of the CIA-backed coup d’etat of 1973 which brought Augusto Pinochet to power, the bloody aftermath, the desaparecidos, and features testimonies of people persecuted by the military regime (all subtitled in english). I spend something like 5 hours in the museum, weep (I may be approaching 40 and my brain may prevail over my heart, albeit only when it comes to political opinion it would seem, but that does not mean I have no heart at all) and come out quite shaken. I had seen Missing and read The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende (niece of Salvador Allende, and while I don’t really like magical realism, this single novel is worth reading). The most terrible thing I learned in the museum was how the coup left the country split in two (a split still noticeable to this day). While one half of the society feared to “disappear”, the other one celebrated the coup. The museum is not to be missed.
Other things to do in Santiago: take a wander through Bellavista quarter (and if you like good food and wine, dine at Bocanariz, their staff are all trained sommeliers and they have an excellent wine tasting menu). Visit the Museo del Arte Precolombino, which features a large collection of indigenous pre-spanish arts. Grab a seafood lunch at Mercado Central, just avoid the central court, which is a massive tourist trap, head instead for the outer aisles, where you will find joints where the locals go. I had excellent locos (local giant mussels) and pastel de jaiba (crab soup) at Yiyi.
March 22 – 25
It takes only about two hours to get to Valparaiso from Santiago (buses leave every 15 minutes from Alameda Terminal). It’s a beautiful city: colourful, dramatic, crazy, falling to pieces (except for the buildings that belong to the military). It has a reputation of being a little dodgy (as any port, I guess), but in the context of very safe Chile, Valpo is no more dangerous than Genoa or Rotterdam. Normal common sense applies. I stay with Maribel, who takes me on the tour through the narrow streets of the city centre and partying with her friends in the evening. It is full immersion into chilean alternative culture and an accelerated spanish course.
Valparaiso street art:
Speaking of chilean spanish. People who actually speak the language find it difficult to understand, but as I am completely untouched by any spanish (crippled italian seems to work just fine), I am ok. They speak a bit fast and they use ¿Cachai? several times in every sentence. It derives from “to catch” and means “you see?”, “got it?”, literally “did you catch it?”. Not to be mistaken with “una cachita”, which has the same linguistic origin. It means “a quick and casual sexual intercourse”. In case you need one.
Not to be missed in Valparaiso: the house of Pablo Neruda. Of course, not many people in South America ever heard about Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia, and literally no one has a clue that “The Poet” (to avoid the anger of his father who disapproved of his writing) took his pen name after the czech poet Jan Neruda. The house is fantastic. Beautiful architecture, breathtaking views, european furniture acquired during Neruda’s diplomatic career in Spain and France. Listening to the audio guide, it does seem a little ironic to learn how “the prominent communist poet” enjoyed mixing champagne cocktails for his (undoubtedly quite as communist) friends while admiring the views over the ocean. Oh, the house was supposed to have a heliport, too, although this project was never finished. And then there is of course the little affair of granting Chilean exile to the assassin of Leon Trotsky during his assignment as ambassador in Mexico. Just to point out that Neruda wasn’t such a pristine character, although for what I care the communists can kill each other as much as they like.
While Vina del Mar can be skipped in my opinion, it’s just a resort town for affluent inhabitants of the capital, Dunas de Concon are worth a trip. It’s about an hour ride on a micra from Valparaiso (just stand by the coastal road anywhere in Valpo and wave one down). You can walk around the dunes, seals and sea lions are not uncommon to spot, and you can try sandboarding. I did. I still prefer snowboard though.
March 26 – 28
Parque Nacional la Campana. A popular trekking destination just an hour out of Valparaiso. The easy way to get there is to take the metropolitan train to Limache and then either a micra or a colectivo (a shared taxi) to the village of Olmue. Both taxis and public buses go constantly up and down the road that connects the two cities. The more adventurous way is to take a micra from Valparaiso to Villa Alemana and then another one to Limache. I manage to explain to the driver my intentions of travel, so he drops me off somewhere where I should be able to get the connecting micra, however the problem is that the buses drive so fast and the writings that indicate where the bus is headed are so chaotic (basically they drive faster than I can read), that a good half an hour goes by before I wave down the right micra.
The most popular trek in the national park is the ascend to La Campana. Charles Darwin climbed it (for whatever reason) when he visited Chile. I wake up early in tho morning and reach the park by 9 am. The rangers warn me that I should not attempt to go all the way to the top unless I meet another person, because it’s dangerous to tackle the summit on my own. I meet another guy on my way up, so this isn’t a problem. The hike itself it a 14 km round trip. First 5 km are on a well-kept path, but the last 2 consist of climbing on all four over rocks with very little idea of where the path might be. The descend is obviously even worse, so the entire trek is translated into 8 hours of self-inflicted torture. The view from the summit is worth it (I guess). You see the ocean on one side, and Aconcagua (the highest mountain of South America) on the other.
Justice that’s given up: a beautifully sarcastic statue in front of the Court of Justice in Valparaiso. I don’t think they quite realized the irony.