Archives for category: Getting to know Chile

The town of Coñaripe is an interesting place. Located about 700 km south of Santiago, it sits on the shores of Lake Calafquén and in the shadow of Villarrica Volcano – one of South America’s most active. Coñaripe is a popular holiday spot for Chileans who can’t afford to stay in the flashier town of Pucón, on the other side of the fire breathing mountain, which caters to international tourists.

While Pucón has a neat grid of boutique hotels, bars and manicured parks, Coñaripe has a pot-holed main street that is dotted with cabins for rent and cheap-but-cheerful restaurants that churn out traditional favourites like pastel de choclo and cazuela. One thing both towns have in common is tourism companies. Lots of them. You can’t go for a five minute walk without being asked if you’d like to climb the volcano, go rafting or relax in the termas (natural hot springs).

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Cerro Renca: a high point of Santiago.

During my 12 months in Chile, I came to see Cerro Renca, or Renca Hill, as more than just a prominent landmark. Located on the northern side of Santiago, the pointy peak rises sharply out of the ground, separating the municipality of Quilicura, where I lived, from the rest of the city, which lies sprawled out to the south and the east. From the start, the hill dominated my views and my imagination and very quickly, I learned to use it as a reference point. Whenever I saw it, I knew I wasn’t far from home. A few months into my stay, I had already decided that I wanted to climb it.

Cerro Renca stood out for three reasons. The first one was its size. According to Wikipedia, its summit sits at 905 metres above sea level and a good 300 metres above the rest of Santiago, making it the highest point within the city’s limits. It’s big. The kind of big that makes you want to stop what you’re doing and climb to the top.

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The backpack in happier times.

The taxi driver popped the boot open without moving from his seat and Leo and I shoved our backpacks in. After a 26-hour bus trip, we were finally back in Santiago. We had been on the road for almost three weeks and it was nice to be back among the city’s familiar landmarks. The statue of the Virgin Mary perched above the San Cristobal Hill glowed spotlight white against the dark outline of the Andes while the Mapocho River trickled a silent welcome.

But as well as being excited, we were also weary. It was approaching 1am and most of the city had already fallen asleep. We wanted to join them as soon as possible.

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With Gabriela Mistral and Bernardo.

Ominous clouds hung over the Valparaíso hills, reflected grey in the waters of the harbour below. It was a grey kind of day. That’s not to say there was no colour – far from it. In every direction there were eye-catching walls, coated in primary colours and graphic street art, breaking up the view like patches on a handmade quilt. But it still felt grey. Not bad. Just grey. Nothing like the sun-drenched city splashed across all the postcards.

Perhaps it was because I had just come from Pablo Neruda’s house. Perched high up on the hill with panoramic views over the bay, the five-storey home once served as an artistic refuge for the Nobel Prize-winning poet who, like Peter Pan, had refused to truly grow up. In the middle of a serious and sober world, he built his house as a sanctuary and filled it with  toys – a giant rocking horse, music boxes, a glass bottle collection – and his friends, whom he served personally from his custom built pink bar. While he poured, they drank and laughed and played parlour games. Then they drank and laughed some more.

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Colourful character: The only time Marcelo wasn’t smiling was when I asked to take his photo.

Making my way along the path leading down from the lookout on Valparaíso’s Artillery Hill (Cerro Artilleria), I am stopped in my tracks by an unexpected question. With his eyes fixed on me, a small man in a large, beige jacket addresses me in stilted English.

“Where are you froh…?” he asks, a disarming smile spreading across his face. “Germany?”

“No,” I reply in Spanish. “Soy australiano.”

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A performing sea lion or sea wolf, depending on what language you're speaking.

One of the most charming characteristics about the fabled port city of Valparaíso is its rich supply of breathtaking views. Spread out like a blanket over more than 40 hills around a placid bay, Valparaíso is blessed with several amazing vantage points for taking in the beauty of the colorful houses, pointy church steeples and soothing azure waters. And even better, each lane and lookout offers a different perspective of the vibrant city, above and below.

Climbing a steep flight of stairs, you find yourself face to face with a striking street mural, set against the backdrop of the endless Pacific Ocean. Turn a corner and you come across a rickety, wooden ascensor carriage, meandering past a row of ramshackle homes.

But to gain a complete understanding of the city, it’s best to get out on the water.

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Sunset in the Andes.

For about a month Leonel and I had been talking about heading up to the Andes for a weekend. A friend of his, Carlos, who is a camping and trekking enthusiast, knew of a great spot just south of Santiago in the Cajón del Maipo where there were some termas, ornaturally heated springs, and a still decent amount of snowfall. The perfect blend of hot and cold.

After extending the invitation to a few other friends and trying three times to find a date that worked for everybody, we finally decided on the first weekend in October. It was a plan and I was keen. I had never touched snow before and I had been enchanted by hot springs on my trip to the south of Chile back in February.

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