After 20 hours on a semi-cama bus, two three course meals, wine and enough sweet black coffee to induce involuntary spasms, we were finally at the border post between Argentina and Chile (3000m above sea level). In the freezing Immigration and Customs building we chatted to a lone South Korean backpacker, who was wearing flip-flops and no socks. Hopping from one foot to the other for half an hour in the early morning chill (none more enthusiastically than the Korean woman who was doing a cross between a child’s must-go-to-the-loo dance and the highland fling), we were getting used to waiting Latin American style.
After all the passengers on the bus had been through Immigration, it was on to Customs and sniffer dogs searching for contraband: fruit, seeds, meat and fish as well as illegal substances which might be carried by ‘mules’. Everyone lined up with their luggage as police dogs and armed customs officers worked their way down the line. Suddenly, the dog was all over an American backpacker’s luggage. Her voice trembled as she tried to explain in Spanish that the bag, which the dog had taken a disconcerting interest in, was indeed hers. A short, but tense session of questioning ensued, followed by some rummaging in the bag and yet more questions. The other passengers were starting to get a little impatient; all eyes were on the young blonde. Was she going to get hauled away in handcuffs, never to be seen again? Once we heard Tienes miel en la mochilla? (Do you have honey in the backpack?), there was a collective sigh of relief: It would not be ‘snowing in the valley’ that morning, as they say in LA. Although she would have received a stiff fine if she had had honey in her baggage, we could all relax knowing that we did not have a smuggler in our midst. Finally, we re-boarded the bus and the American returned to her seat behind us. We never did find out what attracted the dog to her luggage.
Moments later we were meandering up and down serpentine roads, between spectacular mountains and past seemingly endless acres of autumnal vineyards beneath a perfectly cloudless sky. We basked in the perfect autumnal weather, unexpectedly breaking into a sweat as we shuffled between the subte and our hotel, bent double under the weight of our backpacks (Why are these bags almost back to their departure weight, even though we have given away several kilos of clothes since we left in January?). Little did we know, that the next morning we would awake to a light drizzle that was simultaneously manifesting itself as heavy snowfall in the mountains and would strand us in Santiago de Chile for almost five days.
The general consensus among backpackers is that the Santiago de Chile lacks the style of Buenos Aires. It is considered parochial in comparison; safe, but boring, rather like the Singapore of South American cities. While anecdotal evidence indicates hiking boots are de rigueur accessories for the Santiaguinos’ Winter 2011 wardrobe – something no self respecting porteño would be seen dead in – it is not all psychedelic Andean knitwear and sensible shoes.
There is nothing like being well and truly marooned in a city to give you the chance to see what it has to offer. Here are four quick tips for amusing yourself if you ever get stuck in Santiago:
Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino
In inclement weather head straight here and step back several centuries. This museum contains a wonderfully presented collection of artefacts from various pre-colonial Latin American civilisations. Unlike many museums in Latin America, there has been a concerted effort to post good quality explanations in English which is rare.
You might not have heard, but Santiago’s subte is a work of art in itself. Several stations have murals which tell the story of the heroes of the independence movement or which have become forums for exhibiting modern art. This was one of our favourite stations ‘Universitad de Chile’ the artist is Mario Toral.
If you want to get away from all the modern skyscrapers in the suburbs, head straight for the centre of town where you can see beautiful churches, the theatre and opera house. It is a lovely place to relax with a cortado and croissant.
Enjoy Andean scenery
Perhaps there are other ‘sky lounges’ which offer a good view of the Andes from the city, but it is hard to think of a more sophisticated setting than the Grand Hayatt Club Lounge from which to view the snow capped mountains which surround the city. While enjoying Chilean wines, smoked salmon and a variety of delicious snacks you can sit back in the warm glow of the softly lit lounge and watch the sun turn the mountains pink before the moon comes up to bathe them in its frosty beam.