Despite the somewhat treacherous windy mountain roads, the bus journey from Mendoza in Argentina to Santiago is rightfully held up as one of the most scenic in South America as it takes in jagged mountains, picturesque lakes, and several lower level ski resorts. The border crossing was OK even if at times it felt like a criminal line up.
If you think London Underground and the Tokyo metro are busy, they’ve got nothing on Santiago at rush hour. Health and Safety is non-existant on the main line central areas during busy periods. But for the most part it is easy to use and very affordable. “Santiago is not compelling,” an English traveller said to me in Foz de Iquazu and that is probably about right. It’s fine, certainly not offensive. There is eye catching architecture, plenty of cool bars and restaurants and like most South American cities, jaw dropping street art and graffiti. But there is something missing, and I felt a distinct lack of identity, unlike say Buenos Aires or Rio.
The more interesting neighbourhoods are a short metro journey from the developed centre. My first stops were the cemetries. The Catholic Cemetery, as well as showing off impressive religious architecture, also resembled a multi storey car park or housing estate, with the tombs stacked up so high.
Returning to the centre, the Plaza de Armas was dominated by construction work, another common theme of my time in South America. The best thing to do is take a trip through the student neighbourhood, taking in the amazing street art, before riding the cable car up to the San Cristobal viewpoint. Walk down the other side for some tranquilty away from the bustle of the city.
Of the main museums, the Memoria Museum is very impressive. Commissioned by the government early this century it gives a very thorough history of the Pinochet dictatorship that ran from 1973 – 1990. There is also a memorial to the executed prisoners at the general cemetery. The exhibits are high tech, varied and engaging. The first feature gives interesting information as to the number of people killed by the state in the name of politics, by each country around the world in the last fifty years. Although I noted that it did leave out North Korea, Cambodia, and Vietnam amongst others, which was a little strange.
Valparaiso was easily the best place that I visited in Chile. It’s a gritty yet urbanly artistic port town, two hours to the west of Santiago. There are numerous staircases and cable cars to help navigate the narrow streets set into the mountain that overlooks the port. The UNESCO site at the South end is the place to start, this includes several viewpoints, a handful of quirky churches and museums and an abundance of cool street art.
I found myself taking a photograph virtually every twenty metres. The best conventional site is the poet Pablo Neruda’s house, best reached via the main road running east from the UNESCO site. All that said, two days is enough for “Valpa”, of the other sights, the Navy Museum is well worth checking out.
My final stop of the six month trip was the sleepy mid-Northern town of La Serena. Given that I was quite nonplussed about this destination, I spent a pleasant couple of days meandering the quiet, wide streets and walking the 10km beach. The open air museum boasting sculptues on either side and the Archaeology Museum which houses one of the famous Easter Island statues are the best of the main sights. But this is a place to fill in a day or two as a stop off on the way to San Pedro de Atacama, or use a base for one of the star gazing observatories to the North.
I think that I missed a trick with Chile. It’s main attraction is mountain trekking on the Andes and Atacama regions, but with time limited and the temperature just too unfavourable, I didn’t visit the country’s most visually stunning regions, and doing so may well have proved to be one of the highlights of my whole trip. That said, the wine was excellent. Another place to come back to for sure.