After the first kiss Chile continues to seduce us all and our love affair continues with this magical country. We arrived after a gruelling 11-hour drive into the dark, packed, narrow, dirt streets of San Pedro de Atacama. Lonely Planet had given us the Takha Takha hostel and campground to aim for, a lovely description, great location, and the added bonus of a pool to retreat to after a hot day exploring the sights of the driest place on earth. Of course we hadn’t booked…. But fortunately they had space in the carpark for us to pull into, and agreed a price after some haggling by Dean. Although tired we were excited by our arrival and, having put the tent up and got Fred out of his jim jams which he’d been in all day, we walked into town to find a pizza that had been promised to Fred. A tiny eat in and take away served us the most delicious thin pizzas which we washed down with non alcoholic lager, as the place had no alcohol licence. On our way back we dropped into a bar and treated ourselves to a very modest single pisco each. Eyes drooping, and the cold of the desert night having arrived, we got into bed and settled down to the wonderful noise of a town just waking up for a night of local partying 2 days in advance of Fiestas Patrias, apparently the celebrations for Chilean Independence lasts a mammoth 5 nights in most of Chile. Thinking sleep might evade us we discussed getting our earplugs out. We needn’t have worried, seconds later we were out for the count.
In the morning we awoke to find the most delightful colourful secret of gardens sprinkled around the site. It had been established by, and was still owned by an elderly Chilean lady, who has made a haven for explorers of this ancient village. A black and white photo from the 50s of her and her husband was on the wall of the reception. Immaculate in a belted sun dress, she sat nestled into the arms of her besuited husband, who sported a neat groomed moustache and slickly Brill Cremed hair, beside the Tatio Geysers. It reminded me of my grandfather who never left the house in anything less than a 3 piece suit and brogues, regardless of where he was going.
We decided that we needed a day of rest, so after a breakfast of homemade pancakes and a desperately needed shower, we settled down by the pool to read, catch up on social media, and a much required muck out of Stan the van. Dean found a local laundry shop and dropped off two bin bags of clothes. Fred, delighted to have wifi, could finally play his newly acquired Pokemon Go app. As I presume has now become familiar to readers back home, he spent most of the day wandering the large site phone in hand catching a variety of Pokemons, each one exciting him. The Raymond Chandler Big Sleep trilogy kept me entertained, as did the ice cold swimming pool that washed my sinuses thoroughly every time I dived in. After shopping for fresh veg we cooked dinner on our camp stove and then headed out into town for another evening explore. Having been pretty much alcohol free since we were in Pisco Elqui we made another Pisco pit stop. Predictably one turned into two, which turned in to three, and as an experiment we decided to see if we could wear four without a hangover. The barman seemed impressed by our efforts and we were rewarded with the most delicious platter of tender steak mignots and deep fried seafood dumplings courtesy of the house. With a promise to give a fabulous Trip Advisor review we very merrily walked the final 20 yards home to the van. We’d arrived in San Pedro with a full moon which would quash our hopes for star gazing. However every night there was a magic hour between darkness falling and the moon rising. Rather tipsy, we climbed our steps into the tent and there above us was the most glittering of starry displays.
Fresh brewed coffee from our stove pot and pancakes fixed us in the morning, no we can’t drink four Pisco Sours and not feel a little weary on waking, before we set off for the Luna Valley and Salt Flats. As we drove out of town we were treated to the range of 7 volcanoes that surround the town. Three of them remain active, and Fred couldn’t believe that he could see smoke puffing out of the most active of them. We later learnt that it erupts every year, but the regularity of its eruptions means it’s a rather undramatic affair. It only took us 15 minutes to arrive at the gate to the Lunar Valley Park. All the tourist venues are staffed exclusively by the indigenous population, and rather like the rest of South America speak no English. Nevertheless, we managed to pay, get a map and secure directions. Some help came in the form of a group of French University students on a year long placement in Santiago, that had come up to San Pedro for a break. In convey we set off into the desert on a track we had been warned not to deviate from. The map marked a series of parking spots to set off on foot to explore different geological features. First up was a narrow slit in the vast rock face that is the lunar valley. It was marked as a cave and we expected to find a small entrance quickly, how wrong we were. Instead the slit in the rock face continued for a circular mile taking us dramatically deep into sand coloured hill side. We flexed our bodies, weaving along the narrow path rock above and around us, sunlight illuminating our way until we entered the start of the cave, when we were plunged into total darkness. Fifteen minutes in and now only able to shuffle along the path sideways, due to its narrowing, and lit only by the torch on Fred’s mobile, I began to feel rather claustrophobic. Pot holing is my idea of hell. Much to Fred’s disappointment I called a halt and we doubled back. As we walked back to the car we saw a family of 3 who had completed the entire circuit. They had industrial torches in hand and were extremely dusty and dirty. Even if we had been better equipped and prepared I think I would still have bottled it!
We continued through the stops, taking pictures of the stunning landscape along the way, until we eventually came to the plateau that gives the tremendous view of the Lunar Valley. Multi coloured rock formations stare back at you, set off by the bands of salt that are ever present here, reminding me of the rainbow layered sand gifts that you’d be given after an aged aunt returned from a trip to the Scilly Islands. Although best seen at sunset, we were truly impressed by our mid afternoon visit. We bumped into Vince, an American who had lived in Santiago for the last 10 years with his family, running a high end suit making business for US customers prepared to pay $5,000. We passed 15 minutes with him and his daughter, both of whom yearned to be back in the US much to our surprise. Feeling adventurous, we took a road to our left which was marked on the map as the ruined Salt Mines. It turned into more of an adventure than we had bargained for. Clearly only suitable for 4x4s, we found ourselves bone crunchingly bouncing over the glassy bouldered track uphill with no way to turn round and head back. It took a nerve shattering 15 minutes to reach the abandoned mine and housing stock. Some hardy cyclists rested against the broken down walls. We spotted Vince and his daughter who had followed us. Clearly traumatised by the route, although in a 4x4 pick up, they didn’t stop, we saw them make a quick turn and double back. They missed a treat. This terrifying journey, and a short walk further uphill, gave us the best view of the Lunar Valley, which now opened up in a crescent below us. Fred then thought we should take the path that led into the Salt Mine. We made our way down through a gully that ended in the start of the mine which was snow white. Rather disturbingly the walls around us creaked, and having only recently watched ‘The 33’ about the buried Chilean miners, I again lost my nerve. We steeled ourselves, climbed back into Stan, and set off for our return journey to the main track. Thankful that we had only metal crockery, and once more bounced about like a ball on a roulette wheel, we got back to safe land determined to be more cautious on our next outings. The trip back down through the park afforded us more stunning views. We only wished we knew more about geology, and had paid more attention to our geography teachers, however we agreed we’d use the wifi back at Tahka Tahka to read up on what we’d seen.
By now mid afternoon, we carried on to the Cejan salt flat lake where you can swim. This was one of my must do’s of the trip, and as we wound our way along a desert track for several miles, we eventually emerged at the gate house to pay our entry. Three lakes make up this location, with one of them swimmable, and I was determined to test the claims that you can’t submerge yourself, such is the saline levels. Although the sun of the desert, and at the altitude of 2,500m is dangerous without full sun block, due to the delicate biosphere you have to wash yourself free of sunscreen, or any body products, in an ice cold shower before walking to the swimming lake. Fortunately, Fred has a UV swim vest so he had some protection. It is just stunning as you make the walk to the lake. A bright turquoise colour, it nestles in the pure white of the salt flats, which combined with the bright rainbow backdrop of the distant lunar valley, and the stunning pure blue sky is an outstanding sight. Hardly anyone was around, maybe 2 other families, and we found one of the 4 shelters giving shade. Fred and I set off for a dip first, we hadn’t expected our toes to reveal the water to be utterly freezing. Still determined we both jumped into a deep part of the lake. Shockingly cold we immediately bounced back up to the surface and sat there unmoving, suspended in the water by the salt. Not sure if Fred just didn’t read the memo, but he shot out of the water on the basis that it was salty and had just swallowed a mouthful. Dean obliged with a photo shoot from the shore, not nearly quickly enough, and once that was over we were out of the water in a flash to lap up the hot sun. Satisfied, and with some stunning photographs, we took another icy shower to rid us of the salt coating our bodies before heading back to enjoy the last of the hot sun by the pool. A long day, and the residue of 4 Pisco Sours each, made for an early dinner, with nothing stronger than water, and early night.
On Saturday we woke with excitement to the alarm we had set. This was the day we would visit the highest observatory in the world, ALMA. The visit was free but we had booked online 6 months in advance. We’ve all become very obsessed with ‘The Big Bang’ and how the universe started, evolved, and what lies in store for it. We’re an ‘arts’ minded family, and I (much to my shame) got an ‘Unclassified’ in my Physics O’level. Consequently we’ve been reading voraciously over the last 6 months the works of John Gibbons, Stephen Hawkins et al to redeem and educate ourselves on the life scientific, especially astrophysics. We walked to the bus station, where the ALMA bus would collect us. We were greeted, as we approached, by Eleanor who called out to us. She thought we looked like ALMA visitors, I suspect that was Dean’s beard, and we replied that yes we were. Being rather early we had not had breakfast. I left Dean with Eleanor and set off with Fred in search of coffees and Empanada’s as the bus wasn’t due for another 15 minutes. When the bus came there was much disappointment. Dozens had turned up hoping for places, there were none spare. Sad for them, but glad we’d booked and turned up on the right day (some had arrived weeks or days out from their booking), we set off. I got to ride the bus with Eleanor. She was charming. In her early 50s she had 2 daughters and a granddaughter that lived with her in San Pedro. From a wealthy US family that had moved to the Netherlands, she had arrived in San Pedro 30 years ago and become a guide. Things were tough for her, newly arrived ‘guides’ with no real knowledge of the area or culture were undercutting established, experienced guides. She was 3 months behind on her rent with a 12 year old to support. It turned out that Eleanor’s older daughter worked at Takha Takha and Fred later gave one of his surplus toys to her for Eleanor’s granddaughter. Eleanor had landed the ALMA tour gig after much lobbying, and hoped that the prestige of being selected would help her land more business on her newly launched website. We certainly found her a wonderful guide.
We were split into 2 groups when we arrived at the Operations Base for ALMA, a large Spanish speaking group and a smaller group of 6, which Eleanor guided, for the English speakers. The Operations Base, which includes the housing and facilities for the scientists and support staff, sits at 3,500m, whilst the dishes are positioned at 5,000m and engineers working with the dishes have to wear oxygen masks. We learnt that this international venture, involving 5 space agencies and countries, is at the cutting edge of astrophysics and astronomy. The 66 dishes are spread out over a 16km site and operate together to provide the largest span of imagery of space. Being set in the driest place on earth and at 5,000m, the highest information point in the world, ALMA can provide the clearest picture of the stars, moons, planets and galaxies beyond earth. It is not an observatory in the usual sense, there are no telescopes, instead the dishes read the radio waves, created by astral events going back billions of years, from which images are then generated via the largest non-military computer in the world (over 1M processors crunch the data). ALMA is truly at the cutting edge of discovery. We were amazed to find, as we talked to some of the scientists, that in the last 12 months they have found sugar molecules in space. Sugar is the key building block of life, and they believe that this discovery will eventually lead to evidence of other biological life forms. In one of the offices, where some of the scientists were analysing banks of screens showing live data I took the chance to ask whether they thought black holes contained something or nothing. Stephen Hawkins had postulated, in the 1990s, that black holes crunched matter to nothing and this remains one of the critical questions, what happens to matter in a black hole. I had the most marvellous 15 minutes listening them debating between themselves. Of course, they said, matter can’t go to nothing. One of them believes we will find that something comes out the back end of a black hole, possibly into another universe. It was one of the best 15 minutes I’ve ever spent, and I desperately wished I could have asked questions and listened to them for hours. They left me with the advice to follow the news closely over the next year, they are expecting a paradigm changing discovery, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was. So it’s probably worth us all subscribing to ‘The New Scientist’ forthwith! Very kindly, an engineer came into the offices with the scientists to give Fred an ALMA badge. He had seen him through his office window and had chased us down to give Fred the badge. He spent 10 minutes talking to him about his ambitions, and encouraging him to take a science and engineering route. There is a material culture of education and development of young people at ALMA. The majority of the workers are Chilean, a commitment made by ALMA in return for the Chilean government providing the site. In addition, they fund, and actively take part in, the education of local schools. They have a stated aim to develop engineers and scientists from the local population. It was impressive and enlightened, a sharp contrast to the history of colonial treatment of the indigenous population. What we also loved about this wonderful group of people was their humour. Dotted around the vast site were cartoons and white boards sporting ‘geek’ jokes, very endearing.
After our intensive educational and mind blowing experience we retired in the afternoon heat for a rest by the pool. Fred notched up a few more Pokemon’s, who knew there were so many in the desert. We also prepared Stan for our next 24 hours, where we would head up to the highest hot springs in the world. A 90Km drive uphill, into the heart of the volcano field, would take us to 5,000m. In preparation for this, determined to give ourselves the best chance of dealing with the effects of altitude (remember ALMA workers do not ascend to 5000m without oxygen canisters attached to tubes in their noses) we drank lots of water and no alcohol with another camping stove dinner, before taking a stoll out to find the music of the fiesta that was calling us on the eve of Fiestas Patrias. In the main square we found a flat bed truck loaded with musicians, surrounded by children in traditional costume dancing set dances with joy. Feet stamped in unison and white hankies waved high above their heads. A small café had a terrace overlooking the gathering. We ordered coffees and water, stopping for an hour to watch the locals in ponchos, knee high leather boots decked in silver spurs, and women in tightly corseted dresses with fulsome skirts taking to the cobbled dance floor. Our highlights were the 2 and 3 year olds throwing themselves into the mix, teenagers uninhibitedly keeping traditions going with smiling faces, and a wonderfully middle aged couple dancing a coquettish play of seduction reminiscent of voluptuous aging sopranos singing the willowy youthful Carmen. We briefly popped into the boozy hub of the fiesta at the municipal car park, but with a full day ahead of us a quick tour sufficed and we headed home.
A wonderful nights sleep and a refreshing shower set us up for the trek on Independence Day, the main national holiday. We had anticipated it would take us 2 hours to reach the Tatio Geysers. How wrong we were. We had misjudged 2 things; the stunning scenery with outstanding wildlife, and the terrible condition of the vertical hairpin road. For the scenery and wildlife we kept stopping for pictures that just had to be taken, over 24 hours we had more than a 1,000. For the road we dropped to 10Km per hour on many occasions. We crossed a rocky ford which we had to approach and leave at an angle of 30 degrees (see video) which got our nerves going again, but around the next bend a salt lake full of wild flamingos was our reward. As we worked our way up, the springs that spill out from deep below created narrow verdant valleys that iced up at the edges. The deep blue sky, rainbow geology, white of the ever present salt, was now complemented by deep green marshland around more aquamarine spring water. Pop a few stunningly pink flamingos, wild vicunias, foxes, llamas, donkeys, and vast array of birds into that landscape and you understand why we were so trigger happy with our cameras. All the mini bus tours go up to the geysers in the early morning and we gingerly avoided them as they descended. We were the only ones making the upward journey at midday. After 4 hours we reached the 5000m mark and the entrance to the Tatio Geyser park. No one was at home. A white flatbed truck was parked round the back and we eventually found a lone worker. Crushingly we discovered that the park was closed from midday, and tantalisingly we could see the geysers a mile from where we were, across the flat plateau surrounded by the tops of the puffing volcanos. Another 2 workmen appeared, after discussion between them, and confused exchanges with us, they moved the bollards blocking the park entrance and shooed us onwards with ‘Vamoos’s’, when we didn’t move and still looked disappointed, they got in their trucks and beckoned us to follow them. At the edge of the geysers they parted company and waved us on to enjoy this magical place alone.
The park has two attractions, the geysers, and the hot springs that form a pool that you can swim in. Human engineering has intervened and a natural swimming pool has been developed with the construction of a small dam. Icy cold at this altitude, we wrapped up and walked to the pool, past boiling water holes bubbling water heated at the earths core. With not a soul around we stripped and plunged into the wonderfully hot water. We swam, played and then lay still having a timed minute of mindfulness. We edged to the boiling water springs and felt the searing currents, making waves with our hands in the water to dissipate the dangerously hot water. Thankfully the altitude only slightly affected us, the lack of oxygen left us a little breathless, probably due to the slow progress of our journey up from San Pedro. Dean had the clever idea of boiling some eggs in the boiling springs, so I nipped out of the hot waters to the van and returned with sieve and eggs. 5 minutes later we were enjoying a late lunch of avocados and boiled eggs, washed down with yet more water to keep ourselves hydrated. With the van parked in sight we decided this would also be a great spot to shoot our Wicked Campers ‘get naked’ photo. Wicked Campers offices are decorated with customers stripped, but ingeniously hidden bits, in the wilds with their campers. Dean retrieved the tripod and camera and we created our family pic. I’ll leave it to Dean to decide if he posts it on this blog page as he was our main centrefold!
We had toyed with the idea of camping up at the geysers, but cautious of the severe cold we would have at night, and the possibility that prolonged exposure to the altitude may affect us, we decided to descend to a hamlet of 5 houses, thatched white washed chapel, and cemetery at 4,000m. As we made the journey back down Dean and I agreed that this had been the best day of our lives. When we had been going up past the hamlet the village’s Fiesta had been in full swing, dressed in traditional costume they were seated at red, white, and blue decorated tables, oil drum BBQ smoking away. As we arrived back in the early evening their celebrations (for the day) were over. With permission given, we set up camp in a sheltered spot and Dean went off to find bathrooms whilst I started cooking. Fred had got his football out and within seconds small, medium, and large children came tumbling out of a pick up. Dusty and dirty, the little ones wrestled one another to the ground in between playing football. They were like a joyful pack of puppies, seemingly oblivious to dust in their eyes, even the grit and odd rock that they occasionally threw at one another. As Fred played with this group of kids Dean shouted me over. I had thought that the music coming from one of the long houses was a stereo, but no, it was a cowboy hatted old boy with an acoustic guitar playing and singing the most beautiful Chilean love songs into 2 microphones, the speakers carrying the music across to me at the van. Sat next to him was the most sozzled but welcoming of companions emotionally singing along with him. We were given a cup of the local hooch, and stood there listening. It was the 4am in the morning point at a party, except it was 6pm, and we’d just arrived. It was another beautiful moment in a wonderful day and we loved that we were there for this dying moment, 2 men alone playing and singing and kept awake by coca leaves stuffed in the sides of their mouths. We declined the second drink, altitude headaches had started, and thanked them for letting us share as we left to cook and bed down.
With a stunning sunset came biting cold. We layered up in skins, jim jams, hats and woolly socks, and piled every blanket and quilt into the tent. We were looking forward to a peaceful night, free of the noise of San Pedro’s partying between 11pm and 5am, but it was not to be. I was woken by Dean screaming “Oh My God” which got me straight out of bed. Not disaster, as I had feared, but rather the stunning sight of the Milky Way right in front of us. So bright, visible and detailed I felt I could reach out and touch it. Stunned we all, including Fred who had been woken by the kerfuffle, gazed slack jawed at the sky that was so foreign to us. I’d like to say we sat and watched it for hours, but the wind had got up and it was so cold that Fred was soon crying, and I wasn’t far behind being in full possession of a splitting altitude induced headache in addition to being chilled to the bone. We bedded down again, overjoyed at the night sky and the fact that we had seen it, with Fred between us, warming him through. However the night time excitement was far from over. The wind continued to pick up and the top sheet of the tent came part free and flapped aggressively against the rest of the tent for the whole night, a wild donkey visited and decided to call to us (they are very very very loud), my headache worsened and I alternated maximum doses of ibuprofen and paracetamol through the night (my ‘Far From Help’ Wilderness Medical training course that had covered dealing with altitudes was paying off), and we all woke to drink water which then made us all need a pee. Waking very bleary eyed and poorly rested we unanimously agreed that the best day of our lives had been followed by the worst night of our lives, with the exception of our Milky Way and star gazing. We lolled in bed for a bit before cooking up more pancakes and coffee to set us up for our return journey. As we did so the mini bus tours that had made a 5am sunrise trip to the Geysers were now on their way down, stopping at our hamlet where the hungover locals were preparing llama meat on skewers over their oil drum BBQs to sell to the tourists. Between 10-11am 20 mini buses turned up. Much to our amusement they included us and Stan the van in their tour of the village. Most only asked permission and took photos, but a couple of groups stopped by for a chat, in awe at the psychedelic van with tent and ladder and curious about us. One family of 3 brothers in their 30s and their father from Santiago spent over an hour with us. They were great company and because they spoke excellent English we got the opportunity to talk to them about their extensive travelling, work in mining and banking, and Chile’s politics and economy. We parted Facebook friends and with more offers of a bed in Santiago when we drop the van off, and a commitment that Fred could come and stay with them in Santiago when he’s 18 and doing his own trips. Having enjoyed the interesting and relaxed pace of meandering conversations, with people in no rush, we felt ready to drive the remaining 3 hours back to Takha Takha and the restful oasis it had become to us.
We refuelled, checked tires, and oil levels at the gas station on our return. Picking up some more food at a local butchers and veg stand we were ready to recuperate and recharge. Eleanor’s daughter was on reception when we arrived back, and she made room for us in our old spot. We gave our report of the day before and she marvelled that we had had the Tatio Geysers to ourselves, and promised to tell Eleanor what a wonderful time we had enjoyed. Touchingly she was visibly delighted that we had found her home so magically special. The dusty clothes we had worn for the last 24 hours got a hand wash, and Stan had another clean out before we took to the pool relaxing on the loungers, too tired to even read. We passed a lovely gentle afternoon before dinner. Fred made more new friends with Sophia and Alberto on holiday from Santiago, passing a few hours with variations of Marco Polo in the pool, followed by hide and seek and other land based international kids games when the sun went down. We sat down to eat as they left to go out for dinner, but not before Instagram and FB details had been exchanged. Sophia and Alberto’s mother made another offer to host us when we get to Santiago.
This was our last night in Chile before we crossed into Argentina for 2 weeks, before crossing back into Chile to drop Stan off and flying out to Sydney. With Fred tucked up in bed we sat out and chatted over sparkling water. We have found nothing but warmth and friendship in Chile. More offers of accommodation than we could ever take up, rescued and cooked for when we got stuck in the sand, stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife, history, art, music, science and culture. At every stop dogs have joined us and kept us company, making us feel at home and useful. Friendly, gentle, curious and kind, we have fallen in love with Chileans. We read that Chileans will always ask you what you think of Chile, they want to hear if you think they, and their country, is OK. We found this to be true in all our encounters. So to our new Chilean friends who read this, yes you are OK, you are far more than OK, you’ve been wonderful and we thank you for every moment we’ve enjoyed with you. Lets hope we, in more ‘sophisticated’ societies, can find the humility to step outside of ourselves to look and learn, and ask the questions of ourselves and our society that Chileans ask. There’s a lot we can learn from you.
We crossed from Argentina to Chile over The Andes by bus, leaving cold Mendoza on a gloomy grey day and arriving 7 hours later into a hot sunny Santiago, nearly a week ago. It was a stunning ride from the flatlands of Argentina, up through a multi-coloured rocky landscape, climbing to a snowy 5,000 meters where the border crossing sits next to the chairlifts that service ski resorts for both countries. Throughout the journey the Andes towered above us at a height of 6,000 + meters, providing the most beautiful snowy backdrop to the landscapes below. The skies cleared as we started our climb out of Argentina so we benefited from crystal clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine. A border skirmish between Chile and Argentina 10 years ago has resulted in both countries maintaining a heavy military presence with numerous military camps on the route. We also read that parts of the Chilean border are still mined, mine clearance is ongoing, and not to venture out for a walk. Dean is yet again saved from hiking!
As soon as we crossed the border, a hilariously laborious and inefficient process that much amused us, the brightness of the Chilean people shone through. Not only does the sun seem to shine brighter here, but the people put a shine on everything. The houses were painted bright turquoise, yellow, green and red. Fiestas Patrias, the anniversary of Chilean Independence, is coming up on the 18th September, so each house was proudly decorated in the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag, and many had full sized flags flying at full mast in their gardens. Whether it is the climate, or just that they are more green fingered than their Argentinian neighbours, the gardens were in full multi-coloured spring time bloom.
Santiago bus station is too busy for the traffic it attracts, which resulted in the whole bus being decamped on a side street near the station. We picked up our full complement of bags, the weight of which seems to be growing, and made our way into the bus car park. We said a few more prayers as we dodged reversing double decker buses and climbed a waist high wall to safety. Having negotiated the ATM, and now with Chilean Pesos in hand we got a cab to our hostel. It was a gorgeous tropical haven in down town Santiago. Brightly painted walls provided a backdrop for the antique furniture and fittings, and funky murals covered the larger spaces. The accommodation ran around the vine clad courtyard which housed an open air bar, sofas and, much to Fred’s delight, a Football table. Our room snugly fitted a bunk bed and a single bed, decked out in stylish linens. It was our best hostel experience to date. At less than £1 a drink and £1 for a hamburger we took the easy option and stayed in to eat. Although it was dark after we had eaten we decided to venture out into town to stretch our legs, get some more cash and fresh fruit supplies. Santiago is a vibrant city, Chileans were out in force in the bars and restaurants, and we felt very comfortable walking around amongst them.
After a great night’s sleep we had our hostel breakfast with a French couple taking a year out travelling. With details exchanged we’re looking forward to receiving their spreadsheet of hostels for Thailand, they seemed to have been a bit more organised than us! Fed and topped up on coffee we said goodbye to our hostel hosts. We weren’t allowed to leave however until they had taken pictures of themselves with Fred. Apparently they don’t ever get any kids and wanted to have some shots to put on their website. Photo shoot over we walked to the main street and caught a cab to the Wicked Campers Depot to collect our home for the next month.
Paperwork took about an hour and then we were taken into the yard to meet ‘Stan’ our 6 seater graffitied campervan. A riot of colourful art decorates Stan, we have since found out that the lettering on both sides “Lican Peyote Style”, along with the accompanying art, celebrates the hallucinogenic qualities of cacti. No wonder we have been greeted with chuckles wherever we have gone, and requests for photos. As we were picking Stan up we met 2 Austrian mountain climbers returning their vehicle. They’d just completed summiting a 6,000-meter mountain in the Andes and some ski touring. They gave us some great advice on where to pick stuff up, maps to download, and places to get showers and camping gas which has proved really helpful in our first week.
Dean drove Stan out of the depot and into the Santiago traffic. We picked up our first set of camping supplies for the van and set off for Walmart to get food, our last stop before our first night destination, a small fishing village called Horcon just north of Valparaiso. We missed the Walmart turning and found ourselves outside Santiago with no food supplies. As we approached the last village on Route 5 we pulled in to see if we could find a roadside market. We were in luck. Although sparsely stocked in the tiny store, we got the essentials and then followed the shopkeepers directions to a roadside fruit and veg stall. Having spent £80 between the 2 local traders we were extremely pleased that we had missed the Walmart junction and spent pesos in the village.
We arrived in Horcon by early evening and were greeted by the sight of bright sun shimmering on the aquamarine Pacific. A tiny fishing village on a crescent bay, we abruptly came to the sea front. Fishing boats were lined up on the sand 5 feet from where we stopped. There seemed no where for us to go in this toy town destination (much smaller than I had thought it would be) and it looked like our first night plans were going to go horribly awry. Two fishermen, chuckling at our van, approached us and I asked, using one of the phrases I had learnt from Fred’s Latin American Spanish phrase book given to us by Pablo, if there was anywhere we could park and camp. Smilingly they directed us between some ramshackle wooden buildings to the right. We drove 10 meters and found a sand covered yard half the size of our garden where a wall lined the seafront and the fish gutting tables were laid out. We backed the van in and admired the view over the sea, hoping for a low tide that would keep us on terra ferma through the night. Slightly nervous about being so exposed to the elements we opted to set up the bedding in the van rather than erect the roof top tent. As we did so flocks of herons, pelicans and seagulls flew around us. A van pulled up to the wall and out jumped a fish merchant, throwing back into the sea his unsold produce. Even more birds arrived and we were incredulous at the amazing sight of the mixed flock surfing the waves below the wall, flying overhead, catching fish in full flight, and even more joyfully taking from the hand of the fishmonger. Show over and sun setting we set off for an explore.
Horcon has a population of about 200 and we passed most of them as we enjoyed the evening sunset over the ocean and stunning scenery. Friendly smiles and ‘Hola’s’ made us feel very welcome. The explore of the bay only took us 10 minutes, but it was truly gorgeous. We decided to be lazy and treat ourselves to some local seafood. We passed Paulo smoking on the steps of his restaurant. With a jaunty neckerchief, suave moustache and beard, and stylish impoverished artist look we decided to see if he was open. He took us in and, now that he had customers, he turned on the lights and handed us menus. Pisco Sours was our drink of choice and we let Pablo choose our food. With our Pisco’s we were served small homemade flatbreads accompanied by a pile of cut lemons and a dish of chili, onion, garlic and herb tapenade. Pablo showed us how to prepare it, cut and butter the warm flatbread, smear a tiny amount of the tapenade on the buttered flatbread, finish by squeezing the fresh lemon onto the tapenade. It was gorgeous. The combination of the chili and lemon was new to us and we’re definitely bringing it home with us. The fish was as much of a triumph. We had 2 different plates, both landed in the bay that morning. Served with a salad and a small amount of frittered potatoes. With our glasses drained of Pisco we asked Pablo to choose a wine for our fish and he brought out 3 bottles talking us through them. We went with his recommendation of the mid priced vine from 5 miles away. The whole splash out meal and drinks for the three of us cost £40. By now we were best of friends with Pablo who told us how he had moved from Santiago with his family because his daughter had terrible asthma in the city. She has none now. Facebook details exchanged, and sorry that we couldn’t take up his offer stay another night and meet his family for dinner and drinks at his house, we promised to stay in touch.
We merrily headed back to our van and were stunned to find parked up next to us the most magnificent, muscular, pure white horse. Utterly bizarre and utterly enchanting. Fortunately, we had bought apples on our fruit and veg shop, so we chopped them up and made friends with the snow white beauty who was to be our neighbour for the night. We sat out for a bit and people passed by on their way back home from a night out, we greeted them and they us. The elderly local drunk passed us merrily several times rasping smiling greetings to us and engaging us in conversations that were beyond us, I’m pretty sure they would have been beyond anyone. The owner of the horse, all beaming smiles, full on a tipple or two, also came by with a bucket of food. We found out that she was called Rosalind, but little else due to our language limitations. Happy, we finally we settled down into our den, three peas squashed into a pod, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the sea, and comforted by the presence of our white steed to guard over us.
Waking came with the van rocking from side to side rather violently. Disorientated it took a few seconds to remember where I was, what I was in, and to figure out that our equine neighbour had found and itch and decided that it was best satiated using the driver’s side of the van. We got up and shared an apple with Rosalind by way of a good morning. Inspection showed the wing mirror folded in and the drive’rs door decorated with white hairs but no damage done. Around us the work had already started. The first catches must have been landed because along the harbour wall the gutting tables were in use. An elderly chap with a wonderful handlebar moustache was working away with pelicans sat around him. The excess he held out to them and they took greedily. No waste for the landfill in this town. Children made their way to school as we washed the wine of the night before away with freshly brewed coffee. Fresh eggs and bread rolls were prepared on the camping stove, cue jokes (we think) about whether we would cook for the workers alongside us. A rather smart lady came by and offered us use of bathroom facilities. Other women came to the fish gutting table and bought the mornings catch just prepared, walking away with it wrapped in old newspaper.
Once dressed we walked the 20 meters to where the fishing boats sat and there were the horses pulling in the boats. I’d read in an old out of date guide book that this is one of the few places that is left where this practice continues, rather than use tractors. I had assumed that it would no longer be the case. What a surprise and it was wonderful to watch. It seemed that the entire male population of Horcon was on the seafront at this time of day. Old men sat or stood around in groups chatting, others were working the fishing boats and catches, some prepared the fish. It was a time warp and I was so grateful to have experienced it. I went back to the van and left Fred and Dean to have some man time with the locals. Fred had a lesson on all the fish they had caught that morning; star fish, hake, sting rays, sword fish, eels etc from a couple of the men. Apparently Fred met all the locals that morning as they asked him to go around a shake hands with each of them.
Before we left we walked down to the end of the bay where the rock pools were accessible. We were stunned to see vast quantities of fresh mussels and other shellfish everywhere. What a rich biodiversity they have here. We bought a few bits of local jewellery from a stall as momentos, and a thank you to Horcon and left to cheery smiles and ‘Adios’.
Next stop was inland and up Route 5 at the thermal baths of Soca. We got there a lot earlier than expected and discovered there was a campsite next to the baths. It was entirely empty but at the hotel next to the campsite they assured us we could let ourselves in and someone would come round. We opted to try the thermal waters immediately at the bargain price of £10 for all 3 of us. Dean was then totally thrown when he discovered that, unlike the Hot Springs of Nelson, he would actually be in a bath with us. Fred thought the whole thing was terribly exciting. We convinced Dean that all his achy ailments would be miraculously healed by the bath. Quite a feat given that Dean hates baths, and if forced to take them likes them tepid. In less than salubrious surroundings we stepped into a very large bath tub of steaming water and pushed the Jacuzzi button. None of us had washed for 2 hot, sandy, dusty, sea salty days. It was blissful to wash that all away and be massaged by the jets. After an hour we showered, washing our hair, and looked embarrassed at the black tide marks and exfoliated skin we were leaving behind in the drained bath. But fresh as a daisy we left for the campsite, free ice given to us by the hotel for our cool box.
When we got the campsite we found another tent pitched and wandered over to check if we were in mozzie land or not. Much hilarity ensued when after broken Spanish all round we discovered they were New Zealanders. We enjoyed our first conversation with native English speakers for a week which was a joy. They were undertaking a bike tour through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina covering 100km a day for 10 weeks. Amazingly it turned out they had met the same Quebec couple in Boliva that we had spent time with in Mendoza. Small world when you’re travelling.
Dean slept in the tent up top and Fred and I shared a more roomy night in the van. After another comfy great nights sleep we cooked up a breakfast and coffee before leaving for the other purpose of this stop, the Petroglyphs at the Valle del Encanto. The Petroglyphs were created by the aboriginal Polynesian settlers, who had made their way from Polynesia, stopping to populate Easter Island, before setting off across the Pacific for the unknown, finally landing in Chile. We pulled off the main road and followed the signs down a dusty track. Guinea pig like creatures scuttled into the fields as we approached, we’ve no idea what they were but they were shy and delightful sporting long tails. After a bumpy 4KM we came to a barrier and Clemence warmly welcomed us. Apparently we needed to follow him into his wooden shack and sign some papers before we could go into the historical site. My Spanish is now enough to be able to understand some basics, including where are you from. When I replied England I was greeted with a long list of famous English people, of which the first and much repeated was Margaret Thatcher! Paperwork over and map in hand we headed down a steep track into the deep valley. There are 3 main areas where the petroglyphs were created between 200-600AD which we needed to walk between to see. We set off with sturdy shoes, and as we did so another park worker found us and beckoned us to follow him. A private tour of the entire site followed, taking us to places we would never have found and on a death defying route that the National Trust would never endorse! Salvador revealed to us stunning primitive carvings on huge boulders in this ceremonial site. We learnt that the carvings were either of ceremonial leaders, stick men with elaborate headdresses, or robotic aliens, one arm up and one arm down sporting 3 antennae and 3 legs. The aboriginals believed that there were aliens in space populating the stars they could see at night, and they came to this valley to perform rituals celebrating their celestial neighbours who controlled the rain and sun. Intriguingly, in the park other carvings had been made mapping the night sky. Here they had bevelled out deep circles into the rock face. Each boulder was a different star map. One for Earth, Sun and Moon, another for the universe that they could see with the naked eye. Of course they also had a ‘devil’, the anti hero for alien deities, which was represented though a deeply bevelled out face. Finally we got to see, in the hidden depths of the valley (where we climbed and made leaps across huge rock faces) a ceremonial bath. A rock the size of a bungalow had been eroded by spring water over millions of years to create a deep, deep hollow. We could see right into it and there at the bottom was a pool of water, in the midst of desert land, and in this ginormous hollowed out rock was a ‘seating area’. We thanked Salvador for a wonderful tour and gave him a tip which was much welcomed. As we set off for our drive to the next stop for the night we chatted and pondered over the way different cultures explored, populated, and developed. We felt lucky that we saw these ancient, intriguing artworks alone in the middle of nowhere, with a wonderful guide. Yet another amazing day and successful school trip for Fred!
We headed into La Serena, another coastal town but it proved a real disappointment. The sea front reminded us of Zeebrugge / Dunkirk. White bland apartment blocks and an endless boulevard with no character. Although we were getting to dusk we turned around and headed back through La Serena and out onto the road that would take us to Pisco Elqui, our stop for the next day. We decided we would try and find a quite side road and look for somewhere to guerrilla camp. A sign to a village took us up hill on a dirt track and seemingly into nowhere. On the verge of turning back we suddenly spotted a garage forecourt sized triangular patch of flat ground half way down a valley that seemed like common land. As it was now nearly dark, and we had been warned to keep off the road when dark due to bad driving and poor adherence to the zero drink drive laws, we parked up. Just as we did so a pick up came up the hill to where we were. I flagged him down asked with my, by now fluent, Spanish sentence if anyone would mind terribly if we stopped there just for one night. Smiling and laughingly he said not at all. Relieved to have the permission of at least one local we decamped and got the cookers on whilst Dean sorted out the van. Just to be on the safe side we opted to sleep together in the locked van. As I cooked it became apparent that we were parked on an interchange between 3 ‘end of the world’ villages. Cars came past on 3 sides, sometimes dropping off someone so they could walk the rest of the way. Each time they did they slowed, waved and shouted honked their horns, and we waved in our best enthusiastic English way. A lovely couple who had been dropped off walked down past us and we had a lovely exchange, most of which I didn’t understand, but I think they were worried that we didn’t have a toilet and offered for us to go up to their house if we wanted to (but I’m not sure!). Fred decided that he would be in charge of the toilet and set about digging a hole in a suitable place with the shovel we had bought for exactly that purpose. Pleased with his work, and wearing the high vis jacket, he then set about levelling our exit route for the next morning. After a delicious campfire dinner we made the most of some lovely Chilean red before settling down for the night. Deep sleep was broken by the disconcerting noise of something rather large jumping about on our roof. Dean and I were both woken by it, but quickly decided that we had no desire to grapple with any local wildlife, and it soon made a noisy exit. Morning proved that our rubbish bin, hanging on the wing mirror, had been ample attraction for a fox or something similar!
We took our Sunday breakfast on the dusty terrace we had claimed, overlooking the villages below and around us, and got to meet more of the locals. The couple from the day before walked passed, asking if we had a good night, and then back again with shopping, from goodness only knows where. As they did their last pass they asked if they could take a photo of our van and then wanted photos with us in front of the van. A warm and joyful experience yet again in Chile. As we left our camping spot we took a picture of a sign just above us ‘Welcome to San Valentin’, very apposite.
Of course you can’t come to Chile and not experience Pisco Elqui, the home of the Pisco grapes. This was our next stop and we set off into the sunshine looking forward to a meander through ancient villages off the beaten track. En route we came across an enormous dam and pulled into a car park so we could walk up to the footpath at the top of the dam. The snow covered Andes again framed stunning scenery, and we marvelled at the engineering. We made a fuel stop at Vicunia and as we left the small colonial town we spotted a couple of lads on the road side and decided to ask directions for Pisco Elqui. Turned out that they were hitchhiking, very common here where everyone gives lifts, and one of them was looking for a ride to Pisco Elqui and the other to be dropped on the way there. Fred shuffled along and Angelo and Taco jumped in. The next 40 minutes we chatted, courtesy of fairly good English on their part, and learnt a bit about them and the area. Fred had been in search of a football so we asked Angelo if there was somewhere we could buy one in Pisco Elqui. Turned out that Angelo was about to play in a local football derby in about an hour’s time, hence his return home, and he showed us where to go to watch. We then dropped him at home and had a drive around to orientate ourselves before making our way in the van down to the ground. Fabulous new facilities had been built combining school, leisure centre (with pool, basketball courts, sports hall etc), and an astro turf football pitch replete with stadium seating and wooden slatted shade.
A surprising number of the town had turned out, nearly filling the stand. The only non locals we were treated with curiosity but welcomed. We found a shady spot in the stands and settled down with sandwiches we had made in the van. Of course in this hospitable, and wonderfully friendly country, it wasn’t long before we made friends. A group of local men settled beside us and were soon throwing out the names of English football teams and players. Drinking is banned in the stadium and 6 local police were on duty for this village Sunday Derby (2 teams from the same village), however they had snuck some in and were soon offering it to us. Dean did the duty for our team, one of us had to drive later to find somewhere to camp, and was soon best of mates. At regular intervals they would shout “DEEEEEEN” and much amusement followed each time. There were 2 matches played, second teams and then first teams. It was clearly a very serious annual derby, much shouting and riotous jeering and cheering depending on who had scored. Both matches were fast moving and full of skill, a total of 10 goals over the 2 matches. At half times and between the matches the kids came onto the astro turf pitch. Fred joined in and soon was best of friends too with some kids from the opposition. His efforts were rewarded with cries of “WEEYYNNE ROOOONEEEEE’ from Dean’s new best friends. Despite sitting with the losing side for both matches we had a wonderful time and set off to find a stop for the night. Before we did so we met an ex-professional footballer who had spent 2 seasons playing for Auckland FC in NZ. More joy for Fred.
We opted to stop in a campsite for the night that nestled deep in the valley, but walking distance into town. I cooked next to a babbling river that we had had to cross, on a rickety wooden bridge, surrounded by mountains turning pink with the setting sun. Tummies full we headed out to find some Pisco Sours in the home of Pisco. We found a wonderful rooftop bar and had the most delicious cocktails made by someone who’s name we did know, but after a few Pisco’s too many, we have forgotten! We chatted with him and a few more locals who gave us tips on places to visit in Chile and Argentina. Angelo had invited us to hear him play that night at a party but despite being giddy on the wonderful Pisco’s we headed home, admiring the glittering stars in the crystal clear sky.
None too bright the next morning I cooked up some French toast with scrambled eggs and stale bread that I soaked whilst I showered. A pretty tasty and hearty breakfast inside us, and a bucketful of coffee and we made our tracks. On the drive up the Elqui Valley I’d missed most of the scenery talking to Taco and Angelo. On the way down, which is probably the better view, it was revealed in all its contrasting colours; sharp bright blue sky, pink rocky mountains and the lush green of the valley vines. Very little tourism exists in the villages of the valley, instead we encountered men on their horses carrying trays of eggs and other produce, and locals milling about their business.
We headed back to Route 5 and soon passed back into scrub land before hitting the desert that runs along the Pacific. A supplies stop in La Serena broke our 6 hour drive to Bahia Inglesa. Its known for its pure white sand and crystal clear waters, as well has having been named after the English Buckaneers that settled it in the 1500’s. Full to heaving in summer time (Jan and Feb), it was deserted when we arrived at dusk. We drove around a bit looking for somewhere to park and stopped a couple of chaps with a van who directed us to the beach. We drove down but thought better of it, fearful of getting stuck in the sand and then washed away at high tide. Some lights along the long sandy bay drew us to try further along, on the road! Coming to a dead end, next to a large building I decided to turn round, only to take us off the road and into the sand. A less than agile gearbox (if I can claim mitigation) and I stalled it in the sand. Despite knowing better I managed to then bury the rear passenger wheel a foot deep. Whilst Dean, less than happy, inspected my damage I dashed across the road to where a could see a couple of people standing in a yard. A better turn of luck we could not have had. Victoria spoke perfect English and quickly got a couple of lads to help us using their 4x4 pick up. With a few of us pushing and a powerful Dodge RAM van pulling we were quickly out of the sand. Victoria then insisted we should stay on the campsite that we were outside and took me to the managers house, and negotiated a cheap rate. Having parked up Victoria then took us inside the cafeteria where a team of cheery, merry chefs were packing up from a week of looking after 250 mountain bikers who had taken part in a mountain bike desert race. Cristian, the head chef, slapped some huge steaks, sausages and loin of pork onto an indoor BBQ, threw drinks in our hand and made sure we had everything we could possibly want. It was beyond hospitable and unbelievably kind of them, the food was just stunning, the best steak I’ve ever tasted. Fred, having acquired his football in La Serena, made friends with the other chefs who knocked the ball around with him much to his delight. Eventually we said our goodbyes and retreated to our van for a much needed nights sleep, very grateful for the unbelievable kindness of strangers.
The next morning the team had flown home to Santiago and we awoke to a deserted campsite with the most stunning setting. We took a walk down the long beach to the village, bought a local paper which had details of the accident we had passed when we were heading north (a bus and a truck collided on the south bound carriage way and looked pretty serious), and had a coffee. Ready for an early lunch we found a lovely beachside restaurant and I opted for the Thai chicken red curry soup, Dean the seafood soup. Both were amazing yet again, Chileans really do know how to cook. As we left 2 dogs joined us, a blonde and a motley black dog. We patted and stroked them, soon they were following us. We collected the most amazing array of seashells, shellfish, coral and vibrant seaweed, still with dogs in tow. They ran ahead and we expected them to eventually turn back, they didn’t. For the next 24 hours they stayed with us. We had bought some dog food in La Serena, because we didn’t want to feed unsuitable food to stray dogs, like those we had given food to in Horcon. When ‘Dusty’ and ‘Smokey’ negotiated the campsite dogs and made their way to our van, Fred and I cracked open the dry dog food and made a water bowl from one of our pans. They hungrily devoured 2 servings before I called a halt to let their stomachs settle. Over the next 24 hours they followed our every move, sitting at my feet as I wrote, following Dean and Fred as they wandered the site, and sleeping outside the van in sand beds that they dug out to protect themselves from the wind. The guarded us and their patch from the campsite dogs, Dean had to make a midnight flashlight foray to give our new friends some peace. We were greeted every time with happy tails wagging and shy lowered heads beckoning a fuss. We loved, fed, and watered them throughout our 24 hours together, but it was still with a broken heart that we left them. In the shower, before I parted, I sobbed more than I think I have at anything imagining a shattering of hope that we had mistakenly given them. I wished with all my heart they had left us in the night and not shown a loyalty that we could not reciprocate. They will stay with me for a long time. The saving grace was they did not follow us down the road as we pulled out, I hope they may find a new home at the campsite…..
Our next stop was San Pedro de Atacama in the far North East. With little to draw us to stop between Bahia Inglesa and San Pedro, we had decided to do the 1000km drive in one go. With an early start, for us, of 9am we hoped to make it by nightfall. The drive was stunning yet again. We were quickly into the desert, first along the Pacific and then inland. Stunning geology and geography made the drive a lot easier. On the sobering side we passed memorials every few kilometres to those killed on the road. Route 5 has been hugely invested in and is now in great condition, apart from a few areas where we had bone crunching dirt track detours, because the road improvement continues. We’ve since learnt that Chileans believe that those who meet a violent end have confused souls that can’t pass to the afterlife. Therefore they build memorials and houses for the soul left at the place that the person died, to which families of the deceased make regular pilgrimages, even sleeping there. Judging by the upturned cars left abandoned, and the literally thousands of memorials passed, there’s been a lot of lives lost on Route 5.
Full up on stunning scenery we left Route 5 and passed through Calama on Route 23 out to San Pedro. We were racing against the dark, but despite this when we came over the brow of a hill just before San Pedro we unexpectedly saw the Valley de Luna in all its sunset multi coloured glory. Bad timing for getting to our campsite on time, but great for the vista. In the dark we negotiated the back streets of San Pedro, dirt tracks between single storey red mud houses. After a few wrong turns, and trying to drive down the main street Caracoles that is pedestrianised, we arrived at the Takha Takha Hostel and Campsite. What a blissful place this has turned out to be…………!
So I’m writing this in the early morning sat on the terrace of the gorgeous Sant Matre Hostel up in the hills of Santa Teresa overlooking, what must be the most beautiful city in the world, Rio. Birds of all colours and sizes; tiny emerald humming birds, thumb sized golden canaries, and multi-coloured parrots, are singing to one another, and I can hear the cheeky family of monkeys (marmosets that feature in the film ‘Rio’), who live in the palm, mango, banana, and avacodo trees getting ready to steal breakfast from the tables when everyone else gets up. I got up early because I wanted to do Rio justice in my blog, and write it when it still surrounds me.
As news of the Zika virus broke in 2015 we’d curtailed our planned Brazil and northern South America trip, swapping it for Canada and the USA. However, we needed to keep Rio because it was Fred’s ‘deal breaker’, this is a boy who supports Brazil rather than England at football, wearing his Neymar number 10 shirt with pride. As we travelled through the USA, catching the Olympic coverage in the press and on TV, we started to get a little nervous. Our nasty LA motel experience, quickly followed by the Lochte gunpoint robbery in Rio, with the associated alarmist reporting, only served to heighten this anxiety. We, and the press, couldn’t be more wrong. And neither, as it turns out, could Lochte. This is a city of extreme beauty, vibrant diverse culture, gentle and welcoming people, and a natural exuberance for living a joyful life.
(For those of you who don’t know Ryan Lochte the US Olympic swimmer went out, got hammered, picked up some young girls, vandalised a gas station including urinating on it, then because his Mum and girlfriend wanted to know why he didn’t come home he made up a story that he and his mates were held up at gunpoint. His mum then reported this in a Fox News interview and the whole thing blew up. Lochte couldn’t get out of his lie and compounded it, getting all his team mates to join in the lie, which then grew. Cue hysterical reporting about how dangerous Rio was, all based on a grown up man not being able to tell his Mummy the truth. Pleased to say his sponsors have dropped him and he’s subject to a criminal prosecution.)
Having procrastinated about where to stay in Rio, Dean found the Santa Teresa district. It sits above Rio, the magnificent houses were built in the 1700s by rich Portuguese merchants, set into the tree filled hillside, giving rise to stunning views of the beaches, mountains, and working city below. As the fashionable Copacabana and Ipanema districts developed in the 1900s, the middle classes moved out of the stucco, Grecian columned, colourful houses, into modern white tower blocks. Crime followed and the buildings fell into disrepair. In the last 10 years the district has seen a resurgence. Artists, musicians, and artisan crafters have moved into the cheap accommodation, and tiny bars and terraced restaurants started to open again. The old tram line that runs on the old cobbled streets, which have gradients that defeats cars when there is rain, reopened using the original trolley cars. Slowly, a few hostels and hotels appeared. A great Trip Advisor rating pointed us to this hostel, just in budget for a private family room. It came with the bonus of a pool, and a covered veranda with ping pong table and snooker table.
So to Rio. We arrived shattered, after an overnight 9 hour flight from Miami, at 8am. After unpacking for our 5 night stay, we decided that we needed to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We’d met Janet from New Zealand at breakfast, who had been here for the Olympics, and recommended a walk down to the city. We set off through the tiny winding cobbled streets, grateful that we were going downhill and wondering how on earth we would manage the steep walk back up. Murals, and less creative graffiti tags (the task is clearly to get them as high up the building as seems impossible) covered the neo classical buildings and it reminded me of Havanna. We passed the first of the artist studios, restaurants and cafes, and it was clear that we had found the ‘real’ Rio. We decided to keep on going and soon we were in the heart of ‘Gloria’ with not a tourist in sight. Because we were only really familiar with the images of affluent Copacabana and Ipanema and the run down Flavela’s, it was refreshing to see this part of Rio, the old heart of the city. It’s a surprisingly impoverished economy, with incomes running at a subsistence level. Small shops sit happily with street sellers trying to make a living by recycling stuff that wouldn’t be accepted on a village fete stall. Mothers with babies sit on the street selling a bag of onions, avocados, tomatoes and other produce that they’ve grown or collected. There was a scattering of homeless people sleeping on the pavement, police stood by but not moving them on. Interestingly they were not begging, and locals dropped food and money for them without being asked. We parted with some apples that we had just bought. After a good explore we headed back up the hill and stopped midway for lunch. A set menu of Northern Brazilian food; steak, rice, blackeyed beans, cous cous like maize and salad, revived us and we finished our walk home. Although only 4pm we fell into bed and had an almighty sleep.
The next day was hot, but not a crystal clear sky, so we decided we’d save our trip to Christ the Redeemer and do some other sightseeing instead. We set off on foot for ‘The Ruined House’ and local art museums. The ‘Ruined House’ was a grand residence owned by a collector of art who ran one of the most glamourous ‘salons’ from his home. At some stage it fell into disrepair and instead of renovating it, the city brought in an architect to shore up the foundations and put in glass walkways so you can walk up, and through, the shell that remains. Three photo shoots were going on whilst we were there, which added to our fun. On our way back from our sightseeing we bumped into a man who owned 4 VWs that were sat on his drive. He enthusiastically spoke to us in Portuguese but again language got in the way of a fuller exchange. We all nodded enthusiastically, signalling our agreement that VWs were the best!
On our walk home we opted for a very late lunch / early dinner at a local seafood restaurant. A couple of Cipriani’s warmed us up for a stunning meal. The prices were surprisingly high, so we found a cheap selection on the menu. They still didn’t disappoint. Dean had the seafood soup and it was incredible. It was a bowl full of prawns, mussels, white and red fish, in a lovely bouillon beautifully flavoured. To top it off an enormous Langoustine crowned it.
The hotel had a lovely man, Fernando, who would drive you around even more cheaply than the very cheap city taxis. Fernando spoke not a word of English, but he was a delightful and kind man, sharing his sweets and patting Fred every time he saw him. Fernando took us to see Christ the Redeemer on our third day, this time a beautiful clear day. Our drive was 20 minutes of more insane driving around us, and again we were grateful we didn’t need to drive through Rio. We had an hour to kill before we could board the old train up the mountain so we had a look around the museum of ‘naïve art’. On the second floor a vast mural wound its way along the ceiling. It told the story of Brazil from its discovery by the Portuguese, and alongside the mural a comprehensive history of Brazil was provided, covering its economic foundations, move from monarchy to republic, up to the present day. History lesson over we made our way to the train and up the mountain. We took the lift from the train to the base of the statue and it really is stunning. The statue is just vast, and it has been positioned to give the best 360 degree view of Rio. We took a heap of pictures and then went into the small chapel built in the base. The pious lay prostrate before the alter and we, along with others, sat in the chairs provided to have a quiet moment.
A city taxi took us back into Santa Teresa, more insane driving, where we ate in one of the small restaurants at dirt cheap prices. More Cipriani’s and conversation with a couple of professors from the university made for a fun afternoon, and a better understanding of modern day Brazil. Fred found some kids outside with a flea ridden golden Labrador cross puppy, cue lots of cuddles and one happy boy. We walked off the cocktails, then a game of pool and a session on the ping pong table finished our day.
Of course you can’t come to Rio and not do the beaches, so the next morning Fernando drove us to Ipanema and we settled into some chairs to people watch. Of course on our way we passed a few crumpled cars, and Fernando drove with aplomb tutting at the poor driving. Despite being mid-week the beach was full to bursting of locals. Football, volleyball, beach tennis, surfing all went on around us. The football skills on the beach were astounding. Groups of men and girls volleying a football between them in a circle, a cliché but true, they can play football. A continuous flow of beach sellers marketed their wares; bikinis, food, cocktails, portable bbqs to cook for you at your feet, toys, ice creams, the list was endless. They were respectful and helpful, and trade was good for them. Cheap prices mean that Rio locals don’t bring anything to the beach except their towels, buying food and drink throughout the day from these hard working people. Fred and I played in the surf, but the waves were powerful so we kept close to the shore. Later our caution was proven to be correct. We had just gone back into the water when we saw someone become agitated, his friend had got into difficulty and was 2 sets of waves back. The lifeguards had disappeared, we joined him in running back up the beach for help. Someone spotted the lifeguards walking slowly in our direction and we all jumped up and down screaming for them to come. They took an endless time to realise that they were being called, but finally broke into a sprint. At the water’s edge they put on their flippers and dove into the surf. The swimmer had disappeared beneath the waves. Eventually we saw that a surfer had paddled over to him, pulled him out of the water and onto his board. The lifeguards brought him back in and laid him onto the sand. Thankfully he was ok. The Brazilian lady who had helped us get the lifeguards hugged me. Dean and I had only just been talking about the terrible Camber Sands drowning of 5 young men the day before in England, it was easy to see how quickly these thing happen. I was rather shaken by the whole thing, but it was a good life lesson for Fred. We distracted ourselves with bat and ball, and sandcastle building; much to Fred’s amusement a small Brazilian girl came and joined him to help out. Not a word was spoken but they played alongside one another, very sweet.
That night we treated ourselves to dinner and dancing at ‘Rio Scenario’, a hip nightspot for Brazilians. They happily let Fred in, he was the only child there, and we sat down to a wonderful meal. A succession of bands played Samba with the floor filling each time, showing us how it’s done. My favourite was the groovy 80-year-old who circled the tables, catching a dance with lots of young beautiful women. Fred got Dean and I up for a turn, we did our best to not look like flat footed Brits. I then had the extra treat of Fred taking a turn with me. I don’t think the Repper’s did too badly!
Our final day saw us explore the ‘Museum of the Future’ which sat on the waterfront. A stunning sculptural building, it contained a multimedia collection reflecting our ecological and cultural history, and forecasting the future. More knowledgeable about how to preserve our scarce resources, Fred is now rationing toilet paper and how long we can stand in the shower…….
A walk along the sea front took us past the main Naval installation and training ground. We passed submarines and naval vessels, all very impressive up close. Sailors, dressed in Popeye bell bottoms, bib shirts and white hats that made us chuckle, walked amongst us. With a few more sights to see we grabbed a cab to the modern cone shaped Cathedral. Inside we saw how the four stained glass sides come together to form a cross, which is the roof, and in turn the glass cross in the roof creates a cross on the floor at the heart of the Cathedral. A walk to the antiques shops in Lapa took us past the arched viaduct and Carnival Stadium, more sights from the film ‘Rio’ we could tick off. With lots of sightseeing under our belt we were ready for the now obligatory Cipriani’s, and a bite of food. At the heart of Lapa is an interchange of 5 streets, each with bars that mark the corner. We picked one of these that had been beautifully restored, with the upper floor removed giving double height to the ceiling. Yet more great food, drinks and service kept our warm glow about Rio going.
It was with a sad heart that I woke on the day we were leaving, the day I started this blog entry. So with an early start I got up to make the most of the beautiful weather, stunning vista from the terrace, and company of the monkeys, birds et al. We all had a lovely morning relaxing before our midday check out. Fernando drove us to the airport. As he did so we hit traffic a few miles out from the hostel and queued with the cars, as motorcyclists weaved in and out. Eventually we came up alongside the cause of the delay, the horrendous sight of a motorcyclist dead on the road. I just managed to turn Fred away before he saw it, but I’ve been left haunted by the broken contorted body of a chubby middle aged man.
I loved Rio, it’s a beautiful place with wonderfully warm, kind, outgoing, but gentle people. It may be dangerous if you choose to find danger, but not at all if you have an ounce of sense. The biggest risk probably comes on the road or with the sea, but then that’s true of any city or seaside resort in England. Ignore The Daily Mail and Fox News, I doubt their reporters have ever experienced the place; too much bigotry and fearfulness. Finally shame on Lochte. I hope that people will forget his made up story, I suspect they won’t…. So come to Rio and tell others to. I’ll be coming back; I suspect quite a lot!
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx