Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Country Review: Chile

Dates there: 8th January to 31st January 2014: 24 days

Chile's Wonders: Easter Island

Also Visited: Humberstone, Gran Torre Santiago

Some countries look like things. Italy looks like a boot, North and South Korea unified looks like a rabbit (though they manfully insist it's a tiger), and as if you ever doubted it, the UK of course looks like a witch riding a pig. So what does Chile look like? It reminds me of the fat from a pork chop.

Chile is one of the world's most ridiculously shaped countries. All coastline and seemingly not much else, it is an emaciated scrag of a nation, over 2600 miles long but not much more than 100 miles wide on average. It doesn't give you much option in terms of travel. Rather than dot around from place to place, you simply choose a direction and keep going. Starting at the top, we had little other option than to head down.

Yet despite that, we spent over three weeks there and only ever got midway, to where Santiago is. That's because while Chile may essentially shepherd you along a linear route, that route is a pleasant one. And a very hot, dry and dusty one. With massive bus journeys between each location.

While Chile may not have the plethora of ancient civilisations of Peru, the samba beach babes of Brazil, or the cocaine-based economy of Bolivia, it's got a much smoother edge than many of its South American brethren. It's wealthier - and more expensive - than anywhere else we went, and has a beady eye on European styles. Indeed, Chile feels more European in style than anywhere else we visited, certainly than Peru and Bolivia which still have large indigenous populations. The upside is that everything is more modern, more comfortable, and better organised than the rugged chaos of Peru and Bolivia; that's kind of the downside too. Chile is developing into a fine nation, but right now it still feels young, it still has an American kind of newness. Without an indigenous population to root it to the past, it lacks a sense of history, and isn't as intrinsically interesting as its shabbier neighbours to the north.

It's still a marvellous country. We visited six towns and cities (plus Easter Island, which I'll come to in a bit). Let's be honest, a few of these were just for convenience, and wouldn't be on anybody's hit list if not for them being the only significant towns around for hundreds of miles. Arica, near the border between Peru and Bolivia, is a beach town that feels like it's lost in the middle of nowhere. Because it kind of is. It's eminently pleasant and eminently forgettable, although it does have an iron church built by our trusty friend, Gustave Eiffel.

Hours and hours and hours south is Iquique, which my (arguably questionable) knowledge of Spanish translates as "And what what" and I won't hear anything different. Bigger than Arica, it's definitely better, and with a fairly charming city centre. So many Latin American cities have a centre dominated by square, a Plaza de Armas, and the format gets a little tiring. Instead Iquique has a long wooden boardwalk with delightful, often decaying, colonial buildings on either side. Its main square is called the delightfully terrible Plaza Prat, rather than just the regular Plaza de Armas. Otherwise, Iquique is just another city in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert, but it does have a little gem about an hour away: Humberstone. Peru has its ancient ruins, Chile has its modern ruins. Deserted in the 1950s, Humberstone is a nitrate industrial farm and adjoining town, dedicated to extracting a type of fertiliser from the earth. When a more modern version of the fertiliser was developed, the town was deserted. For about 50 years, it has been left to the elements, hot and sandy as they are, and it's a wonderful place to walk around, a modern ghost town full of collapsing industrial yards and derelict infrastructure. Even UNESCO has recognised as such, and made it a World Heritage Site. It was one of my highlights of Chile.

In terms of Wonders, mainland Chile doesn't really have any contenders, with Humberstone being the closest, and even then it'd be a stretch to describe the ruins of an industrial town as a Wonder. Without large-scale ruins of old civilisations (there are a few long-gone civilisations but they didn't leave much behind), any large-scale construction was left to the Spanish when they came in. They built the usual cathedrals and parliament buildings and mansions and the likes, but nothing in the truly world class ilk. Chile is more noted for its natural splendour. The top half, where we travelled through, is barren desert mostly, none moreso than the Atacama, the driest on earth. For a handful of days, we stayed in the backpacker town of San Pedro de Atacama, and got to float in saline lakes, and walk across salt-encrusted plains. It was fun. I'd like to go back to San Pedro, because it has a lot to offer but it's quite expensive for a casual backpacker, and we couldn't justify the cost so early in our travels.

We also visited La Serena, Valparaiso, and of course Santiago. La Serena is perfectly pleasant in a perfectly anonymous way, although Danielle liked the beach. Valparaiso is perfectly pleasant in a perfectly charming way, packed with colourful and ramshackle buildings spread across steep hills than run into the ocean. It was a delight, and one of Chile's must-visit places.

And Santiago? A great city. It's been hit by earthquakes more times than I've been hit by cars... wait, that doesn't work, I've never been hit by a car. More times than I've hit tennis balls? I'm not sure if that would be accurate, and it's not very punchy either. Well, you get my point, it's had lots of earthquakes, and some of them have been big. Very big. City-ripping big. Hence why much of the older part of the city is fairly derelict, because it's expensive to keep repairing old buildings that just get ripped apart by the next earthquake. The city centre is in overall better shape, and has an American feel with its grid plan and handsome buildings but with a European flourish by being mostly pedestrianised and a nod towards a cafe culture. But there are large, very modern, very swish, very earthquake-proof areas of Santiago that receive far less tourists but in many ways are more indicative of the city the locals recognise. This includes the brand new Gran Torre Santiago - which I translate as "Grandmother's Tower Santiago. At 300 metres tall, it's the highest building in South America. Given the city's propensity for earthquakes, it might seem a little reckless building something as big as this, but I'm sure everyone knows what they're doing.

That's mainland Chile covered. Well, exact for the bottom half, which almost every Chilean we met assured us was the highlight, being packed full of gorgeous, rugged, forest-and-mountain terrain. Another day, another life perhaps. There just isn't the time. Especially when on a Wonder mission, and Chile does have its own very strong contender for a World Wonder, although it's far from the mainland - Easter Island. 2300 miles from the mainland - that's almost the same distance as the entire length of Chile - the tiny island sits all by itself in the middle of the Pacific. And despite being utterly alone, a drop in the ocean, or Te pito o te kainga a Hau Maka - "the navel of the world" - the tiny population of this tiny island produced some utterly beguiling, utterly unique statues. Hundreds and hundreds of them. I'm talking of course about the moai.

This is one of the world's great sights in my opinion, racking up at number 4 on my list right now, and a very strong chance at being one of my Seven Wonders of the World. They are amazing.

Finally, back to the mainland, and perhaps one of our lasting impressions of Chile - the Terremoto. The Terremoto is a cocktail, of sorts, made with a kind of sweet wine and pineapple ice-cream, and served in a giant glass. It's very tasty, and very alcoholic. The name gives a little hint of the humour of the Chileans, as it means "earthquake", so-called because of the nation's propensity for these natural disasters, and because the drink leaves you weak at the knees and your world trembling after having drunk it. I heartily recommend it.

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