South America 2012-2013: Santiago, Chile

Back at it with my travel bug, here I go again at Chile and Argentina. I'm not completely sure why, but last year's trip was indeed a thing of beauty. Once transacted, I don't second-guess my choice for using up quite a pile of frequent flyer miles. Nahuel Huapi or bust!

Yes, it's probably mostly my desire to hike the Nahuel Haupi circuit outside of Bariloche I'd passed on last year that drives this trip. This time I have a tent and sleeping bag, plus more of a mission to camp and trek on account of them. Does a bear poop in the woods? Hmm, guess so. I guess the point is that I will be, too.

MEANwhile, one of the twists of the fate of my mileage plan is that I will be flying to Santiago in Chile, not Buenos Aires. Fortunately this is probably better, mainly since Santiago is already situated next to the Andes. Furthermore, Chilean buses cost less - which should make making my way south a little easier on the wallet and my time.

The flight from Seattle to LA comes and goes in a flash, then I get on the beast to Lima on a large LAN CHile jet. So far, so good, as I read Le Carre's A Most Wanted Man practically in its entirety and see most of the inflight The Dark Knight (Batman) Rises. I don't care that the ending gets cut off upon beginning our descent, either.

Lima, however, proves a bit more of a clusterfuck. My plane is continuing on to Santiago, yes, but it takes me a half hour and a timely mention by a steward checking everyone's ticket before I realize that I'm on the wrong plane. I gather my stuff in a hurry and blaze through Lima's airport at midnight, blowing through an empty customs line as one of amazed staff suggests I tie my shoes before I face plant myself.

Good idea. Really. So I do so, making my next flight on the other side of the airport just in time. I'm sweating, overloaded as I seem to be of late on the start of these trips. Topping this, the next LAN Chile plane is a lot smaller and completely full - so the theme of overheating will unfortunately accompany me all the way to Santiago. I nevertheless still fill guilty as always when I ignore the safety demonstration for the umpteenth time. I always feel so bad for the flight attendant, but...

Overheating, meanwhile, is the least of concerns for a bopping man in his fifties with a glowing blue see of headphones. Tanned with gold chains, he weaves and jives away, squirreling both in his airport lounge seat before continuing to do more of the same aboard the plane. I marvel at his otherworldly joy, assuming that he is a musician somehow, one who's got it all figured out to the point that nothing can possibly rain on his world.

For my part, though, our arrival at 7 a.m. in Santiago's airport find me something of a wreck. I nevertheless move the airport quickly enough, happy to not pay the entry fee as I did the last year. It's gone from $140 to $160 in less than 12 months, but my stamp is fortunately good for the life of my passport. There's THAT, anyway, even as I give up my baggie of raisins at the agricultural check. I'll be damned if I'm going to mention my coffee, of course, although one would assume that pile of bags to be exempt after the toasting process.

A bus and a taxi see me to the Bellas Artes district in short order, and I grab a bed in the hostel I've targeted: Hostal de la Barra. This is good, a cute and affable Argentine manning the desk and umpteen cafes just outside and all over the nearby blocks. I sleep off jet lag in between walks and setting rear to said cafe's seats over the next several days.

The walks prove some new things to me, like how my image of Santiago being rather down at the heels now seems rather false. The metro is nice and effective, the parks are clean, the river... well, okay, the river looks like a bit of a high-flowing garbage dump. But it doesn't smell. And it does provide an interesting backdrop for grafiti.

Anyway, I guess I'm saying that I enjoy the hustle and bustle of Santiago that makes the place come alive in a way I never experienced before. The street vendors are numerous, yet not beggarly. People seem content, if maybe a bit in a rush. Even the buildings look less rundown.

I amble about aimlessly each day after my morning coffee - a time which gets earlier with each round of jetlag diminishing in vengeance. Although there is no core colonial district, there's no shortage of handsome buildings in the downtown area to admire. The prosperity of Chile - and especially of its copper mining industry - is evident in the number of skyscrapers visible in seemingly every direction.

It's for the prosperity that a returned Chilean in my room has returned from Spain. Likewise a Spaniard geologist (Mario "Granada"), is looking for local work with the mining companies. The Ecuadorian doctor in the room is sussing out possibilities as the remaining beds' two Brazilians are finding their spending power to not be as much as they'd hoped.

From each I learn something, like how I similarly traveled cluelessly at seventeen much as the Brazilians are making their way about. I can only hope I didn't similarly annoy everyone in my room like they do each morning, entering the room roughly every minute to access their lockers: ARGH! I'm actually more disappointed, however, that the meal they invite us others to with much fanfare is pasta of about the type that I cooked myself when I was about twenty or so. Fair enough.

No time for sighing, however, as over the same meal I get yet another prognosis of what hit me back in Quito in 2001, right after returning from the Galapagos Islands. Dr. Ecuador insists I must've had malaria, something actually provable even today if I want, via a blood sample. Beats dengue, I guess, as does probably about anything, but my story has been weakened somewhat by my take of things.

Playing the trumpet, meanwhile, beats all. With great acoustics and a willing audience, I happily take the horn out and alternately use my practice and harmon mutes - until one and all suggest I just take them out and blare away. This earns some blown kisses from Ms. Rosario, Lucia, as I trail her with Girl From Ipanema with perhaps just a bit of swagger and affectation. This is a promising start to the trip, indeed. Have horn, will travel.

I also find myself plowing through the quick-though-spooky Room to follow Le Carre's tome from the airplane; Room is followed by the third and last of my trade paperbacks, Welcome To The Monkey House. Unquestionably Vonnegut's tome is the cream of these three, but I'm nevertheless happy to part with it as well to hone my pile of fifteen or so to a dozen pocket-sized paperbacks. Why I do this front end overloading I'm not exactly sure, but at least I'll leave them all behind. So it's on to another Le Carre novel, then, The Russia House. Why not more Le Carré? Indeed, with thirty-some books and quality writing, Mr LeC's books have by now long turned into backup crack that is always easily reloaded at the local Goodwill.

Other observations on the street are random, meanwhile. For example, I notice that - like in Bariloche - there are many well-fed "wild" dogs that are somewhat disturbing if not provably offensive. I also find that walking to Herbies Hancock and Mann makes for great strolling - especially when I also find that the ubiquitous Otavaleño musicians I see are (sadly?) wearing increasingly ever more ridiculous costumes now here as elsewhere. Moreover, they're continuing to abandon their traditional Andean music in favor of more pop and electronics. This comes off rather weird for an Incan-root-claiming folk, and it contrasts with the plumage they sport that both harkens to the Amazon jungle and North American Plains. Say what? Just as disturbing, though, are the typical glamour ads I see. They always have only the whitest people possible to represent the considerably more darkly-complected Chileans I otherwise see walking on every single street.

More positively on the aboriginal front, I suppose, is an encounter by the local fine arts museum. A girl is prompted by her friends to talk to me as I sit on a bench to take in some odd performance art I've stumbled onto. Ostensibly she wants to practice her English, but I immediately find that this is hardly a come-on: Her grinning boyfriend is chief among her pushers. A long conversation about Mapuches (of which she is, and the street performance in front of us speaks to) ensues. It does nothing to shed further light on the subject of the performance, but this is unquestionably one of a number of dialogues I enjoy with people of numerous cultures to get this trip properly started.

And then that's about it after four nights of Santiago. I've been enjoying the sun and heat if not the smog, but the big city's not where I plan to spend my time. I plunk down the cash for the dozen hours or so of busing needed to get to Pucón, opting for the more deluxe "cama" (bed) seat for all of $40. This is the right choice, I assure myself, even as the several other seats in this lower first-classlike section brings in a few toddlers. Early screams as the trip begins fortunately add up to nothing more riotous; I'm ecstatic when no movie with ninjas is flicked on. Instead I listen through a pile of John Williams classics and some Mahler before oddly popping on Led Zeppelin's Kashmir to call it a night. I actually sleep on a bus, like a lot.

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