South America Backpacking Diaries

North Through Chile and into Bolivia

Moon Valley Atacama Desert Chile

The Mendoza to Santiago bus journey that crosses the Andes into Chile has got to be one of the most scenic in South America. Many journeys I’ve taken have been tedious, but surrounded by the world’s longest mountain range, I didn’t mind the early start and eight-hour duration. An old Chilean woman on the bus tried to speak to me though, and despite trying to explain I’m English with just a shaky understanding of Spanish, she continued to persevere with talking to me, on and on she went. I do find it nice that there are many locals on this continent interested in travelling foreigners, but not when all the words this woman said just sounded like noise to me. It’s no secret Chileans speak insanely fast. Not that I intended to be mean, but I couldn’t be bothered to pretend to understand, no hablo Espanol love, leave me alone.

The border crossing is deep in the mountains, and as I expected I had to get off to get my passport stamped. Unexpected, was while there I had all my bags checked. I had no idea the Chileans are crazy about preventing fresh foods and plants coming into the country. For example, not even a piece of fruit is allowed through. Unfortunately, though given the way I’m going with this, perhaps expectedly, I had an apple I’d completely forgotten about lying in the bottom of my bag. After the x-ray machine raised alarm bells, my bag was aggressively searched and I had my apple confiscated off me and my details taken down as if I’d committed the most heinous of serious crimes.

What do you think you’re doing trying to smuggle bastard apples into our country?

I walked away ashamed of these deeply offensive actions. Back on the bus that bloody woman tried to talk to me again, and again I couldn’t understand her. She must have seen the apple incident though, I could just about make out ‘manzana’ and ‘mal,’ ‘apple’ and ‘bad,’ but she was talking so loudly it was bringing too much attention my way. Suddenly more people tried talking to me about this apple and I became the talk of half the bus.

There’s that crazy English guy who tried to get an apple into Chile!

I don’t think I’ve been so confused by anything ever. I doubt my abilities to ever raise such a commotion with an apple again. Needless to say I was fairly happy to finally reach Santiago and get away from the people on that bus.

Santiago to my surprise became one of my favourite places I’ve been to so far. You hear mixed things about Santiago on the gringo trail but I personally can’t see why. Of the bustling cities I’ve gone through this has the best quiet spots, something I’ve come to appreciate a lot more travelling solo. In particular, Santa Lucia Hill. For whatever reason I kept going back here each day, just a hill in the middle of the city that elevates you away from the chaos on the city streets below. I just couldn’t get enough of the peace. Maybe that’s evidence of the piss-take worthy changes you so often see when someone travels in another part of the world over a sustained period of time. Perhaps the changes my mates will inevitably take the piss out of when I eventually return home.

I had good company in Santiago, and I found it came a lot closer to Buenos Aires than I expected. But the time came again to move on, and I took the short bus journey to the port city of Valparaiso. I stepped out the hostel there and within 30 seconds saw a man holding a rock launch it at this other man’s head. Thankfully his aim was as bad as my apple smuggling antics and he missed, but not for the first time on this trip I questioned what I was doing here, and whether I should have left the relative comfort of Santiago. But then I soon saw the attraction of the place. The street art here is like none other I’ve seen in South America, and the houses on the hills overlooking the city are just as colourful. Imagine it as some kind of shanti Balamory. It’s a shame that the thousands of stray dogs make the place a dogshit minefield. There seems to be a stray dog problem in most places over here, but the number of them in Valparaiso was startling.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that has divided my opinion so much. Being able to get lost in the cobbled streets on the hills, it’s the kind of place you might expect a mental chase scene in a Jason Bourne film. At the same time, there’s all the old fishing boats and overall grittiness of the port area, so you could argue it’s a prime location for some kind of Chilean version of Trawlerman. I would anyway, superb viewing. That’s quite a contrast, maybe that illustrates my conflicting thoughts on the place. After it all, I was happy to have been there, but happy to have left. I’d had enough of sad dog faces.

I went back to Santiago to take a flight up to Calama, and then I was just a two-hour bus ride from my next destination, San Pedro de Atacama. As the name suggests, San Pedro is right in the middle of the Atacama Desert. I’d say it rivalled Asuncion for the biggest shithole I’ve visited, but given it’s surrounded by surreal scenery it’s probably unfair to categorise it like that. And because of that surreal scenery, the town is crawling with tourists. On first viewing I decided it best to get in, see something cool, and get out, in the direction of Uyuni, as quickly as possible. And that’s what I did. I visited Valle de la Luna, the Valley of the Moon, probably the area’s biggest draw, for some truly spectacular surroundings, and to briefly forget the circumstances in which I found myself living in. It turns out running water can be hard to come by in a desert.

The next day I rose early for the three-day drive to Uyuni. For many the salt flats are the best experience of a trip around South America. For some they are the worst. For me I have absolutely no idea, the whole experience could be both. On the third day when we stopped driving in the middle of the salt flats and I did my 360 degrees look around, I decided I was in the most bizarre, perplex yet utterly fulfilling place I could be in. It’s a shame I absolutely hated the majority of my company for the three days. At the obvious risk of this blog going global, I shall mention no names, other than I labelled one person the FRG – fat repulsive girl. Truly, that doesn’t do justice. I didn’t let that spoil it entirely for me, I still got the customary salt flats Facebook profile picture, but I was pretty unlucky with the way things fell. When I left the UK over two months ago I never thought a day would come when I preferred to be lonely, but those three days sure saw to that.

Throughout all this, I’d completely forgotten I’d crossed from Chile into Bolivia. Eventually the time came when I had to say goodbye to my company of those three days, sigh, but now I really did feel like I was in Bolivia, and back solo. I was in the delight that is the town of Uyuni.

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