After doing some research, we disappointed to learn that everything we wanted to see in Chile was in Patagonia, far to the south. We have learned the hard way on this trip that two months is not enough to travel around South America. Far too much of our time is spent getting from one place to another, with travel times being more than double what I thought they’d be. Traveling across Chile and Argentina are turning out to be a bit faster, but still we are spending almost an entire day on the bus for every two or three days spent in one place and going around to explore. We would have needed another couple of weeks to see Patagonia, and we have neither the time nor the budget for that.
Thus, we skipped over Chile fairly quickly. We were told (and later confirmed) that Chile is much more expensive than Peru or Ecuador, so we gritted our teeth and did a few really long stretches on the bus, spending less than a week in Chile.
Just getting from Cusco to the border took all day. We were told that the journey to the border town, Tacna, was six hours by bus, so we left early in the day, expecting to get there by one or two, cross the border to a town called Arica, where we hoped to eat lunch and then catch an overnight bus to Antofagasto. The best laid plans.
We hit traffic somewhere outside of Cusco, and we sat in one place for over an hour. Then once we got moving, there was more traffic. After sitting idle in the middle of some desert moonscape for at least half an hour, I got off the bus and talked with the driver, who was smoking by the dry riverbed off the road.
“What’s going on?” I asked, in Spanish.
“A landslide,” he replied. “From all the rain.”
“How long until the road is open?”
“Poco y poco,” he replied. Little by little. They had managed to clear half the road, and they were letting traffic by one lane at a time, ever so slowly. What was supposed to be a six hour trip became an eleven hour trip. By the time we arrived in Tacna, we were all in poor spirits, and ready to be done with buses. So much for my plans.
We lodged in Tacna, in poor accommodations, with only three single beds. I wanted to leave early the next morning, but I couldn’t motivate the chief bag packer to get out of bed and get us mobile before ten. We finally got to the bus station and crossed the border, which took longer than we’d expected. When we got to Arica, we thought it was one o’clock, but it was actually three. Apparently, Chile and Peru, although sharing longitudinal coordinates, for the most part, are two hours apart in time. We lost two hours that day, like some sort of inverted episode of Pete and Pete.
We also learned that there were no buses from Arica to Antofagasta until the nighttime. I paid four times as much for tickets that in Peru, would have gotten me twice the distance. And these were not even the better seats. For overnight buses in South America, there are three classes. Semi-camas have seats that recline to 145 degrees. Camas recline to 165 degrees. Deluxe, or suite seats, recline all the way to 180. Thus far, we had always had at least the full cama seats, but for this trip, we had to deal with semi-camas, which not only don’t recline as far, but also are narrower, comparable to economy seats on airlines, whereas cama seats are wide, like first class.
So basically, it was a really poopy day. We bought the only tickets we could find and stowed our luggage with the bus company. We had about six hours to kill.
Arica, like most of Northern Chile, is in the middle of a God-forsaken desert. We made our way to Centro, downtown, where we hoped to find food and some sort of diversion to help pass the hours. We found food, though it was far below the standards we hold when we live in first world privilege. For diversion, we made our way to the main plaza, where we were pleased to see a big shindig was gearing up. All around us were people dressed in fancy dance outfits, some traditional, some jazzy and western.
We figured we might as well stick around, with little better to do. I ran around the plaza with Lila, while Eva and Gaia played with a girl they met. I tried to translate for them when she proposed different games, which reminded me how much further my Spanish vocabulary has to go.
When it finally looked the show was getting started, I took a seat with Laura along the wall, facing the big stage that had been set up in front of a massive fountain. Yet, the show was reluctant to start.
Two people took to the stage with microphones to introduce the day’s festivities, which we would, unfortunately, never see. Instead, we bore witness to a forty five minute introduction, which involved all sorts of ceremony and fancy talk. I understood only parts, but I got the idea that the goal was to stretch an event that could have been wrapped in fifteen to about two hours.
Laura was really hoping for some dancing, as there were dance troops of all types lined up around the plaza, but this was not to be. Eventually, much at the behest of the girls, who lost their enthusiasm for play once the crowds packed in, we had to just leave, disappointed yet again.
We spent an uncomfortable night on the bus and arrived at Antofagasta in the morning. Antofagasta, we were to learn, is not a tourist town. I picked it as a nice near-halfway point on the map, between Peru and Santiago. Our goal was to cross Chile quickly, but we needed a day off from sitting on a bus. This meant two nights in one place, to avoid the challenge of packing and making ready.
Yet when we arrived at our hotel, further complications awaited us. The room I thought I had booked, with two double beds, was not to be had that day. All that they could muster for us was yet another triple room, with three single beds, for almost double the cost I had booked for.
Rather than pay this rate twice, we opted to stay only one night. We arrived early enough to have a day on the beach, which was the main reason I picked Antofagasta, as I read that it had some decent beaches.
So after checking in, we walked down the road to the beach, which was artificial, I had learned from the guy at the hotel. The sand had to be hauled in, because the coast was naturally rocky. The beach was located within a protected jetty, making it safe for the kids.
We rented an umbrella and spread our beach blanket. Eva and Gaia went off into the water, while Lila got to playing in the sand near our spot. I went for a brief swim and then out onto the jetty to see the surf crashing in. It wasn’t killer swell, but gnarly nonetheless, and the rocks were brutal. No Bueno para surfir.
It was a nice day on the beach, though I made an error typical of my disposition, opting to build a massive sand castle to rival all the other constructions on the beach. Erroneous only because I lacked sun protection, and after a couple of hours of hopping in and out of the water and walking the beach between stints in the shade, I burned quickly in the twenty or thirty minutes it took me to construct my kingdom in the sand. But oh, what a mighty fortress it was. The entire time I was working on it, Lila pestered me to destroy it, but I made her wait until I was done before she bombarded it with rocks and then stomped all over it like Godzilla. Her nickname of Ghengis Kahn never felt so appropriate.
On the way home from the beach we stopped at a grocery store, thinking we could save some money by buying food and making it home. Plus, we longed for a tasty salad of our own design. Honestly, I don’t know how South Americans survive on such starchy, meaty food. Kale, collards, and chard are hard to find, and most menus seem to favor meats, bread, pasta, cheese, and tomatoes. Where are the greens? Where are the nutrients?
So we got our salad fixings, along with some ingredients for wraps. Alas, such a course did not save us any money. We spent over seventy dollars (equivalent) for our picnic, though, admittedly, much of what we purchased would last two meals.
We ate our picnic in the hotel room we decided to just take it easy for the rest of the day. We watched a Mr. Bean movie and ordered a pizza for supper. Later that night I had a good conversation with one of the hotel staff, a guy who was studying law, and who understood the principles of anarchy and non-aggression. We talked about corruption in government, human freedom, and many other topics that made me glad to know that no matter where you go, a certain number of people, amongst the many, get it.
The next day we took our time getting packed and went back to the good old bus station. “Vamos al terminal de autobuses” is a phrase I could say in my sleep, so many times have I said to taxi drivers on this trip. We took another long bus ride – half the day and through the night – to reach the capital city. When we arrived we took a cab to the hotel we’d booked, only to discover that our cab driver let us out some six blocks from the actual hotel, simply because he didn’t want to bother with having to drive all the way into the out of the way location we had found.
Jerkface, was the conclusion to which we all came by the time we arrived at our hotel.
Fortunately, although it was yet early, our room was available and we dropped off our things before starting off for some food. We were staying in Santiago for only one night, as Laura was tired of being in cities and she wanted to move on to Argentina, about which we had heard good things.
So we walked around Santiago for a bit, eating at a pretty good cafeteria style vegetarian restaurant. As usual, I wanted to walk around more than anyone else, so in the early evening I struck out alone with my camera to explore.
Santiago’s downtown is huge, and after I walked around the old town area, visiting several parks and seeing the usual cathedrals and museums, I took a subway over to another district with lots of buildings, presumably a financial district. The subway was so crowded that I could barely get on, but I had to go only a few stops.
This other part of town was nicer and more modern looking, and bustling with people. I made my way to the tallest tower, which had a sky deck. It turns out that this is the tallest building in South America, with views that are supposed to be fantastic.
They were indeed, though they would have been much better were in not for all the fires. South of Santiago a series of forest fires has been blazing for some time. I had been hearing about it from cab drivers and other people I talk to. Apparently, the fires are being set on purpose, in multiple locations. Acts of terrorism, they suppose. Firefighters and equipment from around the world are being brought in to combat the blaze, though I don’t really know how well it’s going. The haze from these fires clouded the horizon, and I could still see the mountains in the distance, but just barely.
That evening we went to find some food closer to the hotel, and the place we settled on disappointed us. Gaia got a shrimp salad that was just awful, and we suspect that it might have contributed to her affliction the next day.
But we are moving on to the next installment, in which we cross yet another imaginary line in the dirt and trade in our pesos for different pesos. What a silly world. It's actually quite preposterous that we have to ask for permission from some false authorities to cross invisible lines, but such is the way of civilization.