Sometimes you have to wait for your day to come right. Chile seems to be asking me to be patient as she attempts to reveal her charms. As with our sojourn in the lakes, our city trip today took a while to catch fire. A 5am rise was always going to place us behind the game; an early departure reflected the ship’s need to have us safely ashore before the main business of the day, disembarking those finishing their cruise and embarking new passengers joining Star Princess. Yes, we are in transit today between the back to back cruises which make up our South American adventure.
So, we have 16 days to look forward to, exploring South and Central America with a scattering of sea days. No need to change cabin and the bar tab remains open so it’s full steam ahead. But not at 6.30am when we came ashore to a gloomy, decidedly foggy morning in San Antonio, a port city and nothing else; just as well as it was pitch black.
First destination Valparaiso. Now we’re in the central region of Chile as we sail north, an area whose income is from mining copper (Chile is the world’s biggest exporter) and lithium, producing wine, growing avocados, nuts and berries. There’s also an oil refinery and thermonuclear power plant (mercifully not on today’s itinerary). Valparaiso is a city of some 300000 inhabitants plus numerous squatters, who occupy the numerous hill regions rising behind the flat port area. It’s a city hit by an earthquake, fire and tsunami in 1906 and, economically, by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. We were informed it has problems with poverty and unemployment. If I’m failing to sell it to you then you have the right impression; from what I saw, driving in a bus around the flat area, Valparaiso is a dump. Unkempt, sprawling, graffitied (I despise graffiti) it was a place in which to quickly find the road leading out. We were told that the hill areas have some more affluent neighbourhoods; two apparently have UNESCO status, but to be honest I sometimes think having UNESCO status is a bit like having a Scotland football cap – it doesn’t actually guarantee that you’re any good. However, we didn’t have time to visit that area; why come here at all then, I muse?
It remained devoutly foggy as we drove the short distance to the seaside resort of Vina Del Mar, popular for vacations with Chileans and other South Americans. On arriving there, we were greeted by a lovely floral clock, a gift from Switzerland (so presumably reliably on time) in 1962, when Chile hosted the World Cup.
We were allowed out of the bus (it did feel a bit like that) to take photos before being shepherded back on board for a panoramic tour; a toilet stop would need to wait. There’s Chile’s oldest casino and a promenade flanked by apartment blocks; Vina is a pleasant resort, perhaps it would seem more enticing on a sunny day, of similar size to Valparaiso and, again, consisting of a flat seafront area backed up by hilly neighbourhoods. It’s certainly more upmarket than Valparaiso but I wouldn’t be booking a longer stay.
After a much needed ‘comfort break’ we hit the road to Santiago and, just as in the lakes, the weather turned for the better and the sun emerged. We entered the Casablanca valley, the scenery turning lusher with vineyards and olive oil plantations. However, a haze in the distance prevented views of the Andes.
Soon we were approaching Santiago. We weren’t given a huge amount of information initially; with a city of 7 million inhabitants covering the same area as New York City, it’s probably difficult to know where to start. Our approach was along Avenue Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, now sitting high in my list of favourite street names, bearing the title of one of Chile’s inspirational leaders, perhaps not to your astonishment of Irish origins. Initially, the streets were a melange of malls, low level disparate shops and a few (allegedly earthquake-proof) high rises. So far, so not very much. But then a pattern began to emerge, a wider avenue lined by poplars with some more attractive colonial type buildings; this confused me somewhat as we had been told the colonial buildings had been lost to previous earthquake activity. It was now much more pleasant as we headed towards the centre of the city.
To our excitement and relief we finally got to disembark the bus and explore a few city centre blocks on foot. Beginning at the Congresso Nacional, we took in the Plaza de la Constitucion with its buildings, trees and statues.
A short walk took us to the Museo Historico Nacional, the Corte Suprema De Justicia
and then on to the main square, named (as everywhere in South America) Plaza de Armas. Here, we saw, among other sights, the 18th century cathedral, with its Italianate baroque design, considered the most important church in Chile.
Finally we passed by the Palacio de la Moneda, now the presidential palace, as we returned to the bus.
By now it was midday and time for lunch at a local restaurant. En route, we passed the Central Market.
Lunch consisted of a main of Chilean salmon and came with pisco sour and wine. To top it all off, a colourful band and dancers entertained us thoroughly. Cheesy? Of course, but I’m not beyond some local cheese on holiday.
Our final view of the city was to be a memorable one, from high up in the metropolitan park, looking out to the south east over ‘Sanhattan’ with its modern look and high rises. By now, even the Andes had deigned to make themselves visible. Thank you again Chile for rewarding our patience.