Toward the End of the Earth

Perhaps I was a little hasty in recording a less than favourable impression of Chile; – after all, our first day was marred by the only example in 2 months of an accomodation provider cheating us, followed by two long bus trips through the centre of Chile, from the sterile deserts of the north to the empty forests of the south, it’s likely therefore that there ARE espresso coffee machines somewhere in Chile and that the entire population isn’t limited to the consumption of stale white bread rolls as the sole item for breakfast.

The day we spent in Santiago was noisy, (the huge yellow buses that roar up and down the dirty streets need attention to their ‘escapes’ (exhaust systems)) dusty, and very unattractive. Many of the buildings, especially the government ones, are broken down and derelict, contrary to the description in the Footprint guide (p610) ..

Santiago….. is one of the most beautifully set of any South American city, standing in a wide plain. The city is crossed from east to west by the Rio Mapocho, which passes through an artificial stone channel 40m wide spanned by several bridges. Public gardens are filled with flowers and kept in good order. The magnificent Andes, with its snow capped heights in full view for much of the year, rain and pollution permitting, there are peaks of 6,000 meters about 100 km away. Smog is a problem….. tables for air pollution are published in the daily papers, as are the registration numbers of the cars which are allowed into the city each day.

We never expected “tantalizing cuisine or obvious indigenous culture” but I am surprised by the lack of attention to detail, a sort of ‘ma±ana’ mentality that I thought afflicted only the northern Latin American countries – Chile and Argentina are supposed to be modern states, free from the corruption and inefficiency that have retarded Peru and Bolivia – or so were my preconceptions. But it seems that ever since the glory days of the nineteenth century Pacific war, when Chile was enriched by the nitrates and copper of the Atacama, creating a new working class and the ‘nouveaux riches’, both of which challenged the entrenched political power of the landowning oligarchy, (Facts about Chile – Lonely Planet P14) it has been downhill all the way.

The development of petroleum based fertiliser made nitrates obsolete and the mishandling of agrarian reform led to the development of socialist coalitions that threatened expropriation of the large estates. Cosequently, when, in the early 1970’s, Allende’s economic program included the nationalisation of mines and financial institutions, plus the redistribution of estancias, the country was ripe for a right wing backlash.

It ´s very difficult to engage locals in any sort of discussion about the events that took place during the Pinochet years – a traveller doesn’t get to know anyone well enough to broach such sensitive subjects, a shame really because I can ´t understand what would allow a whole population to stand by while the military took their loved ones off to the Villa Grimaldi and made them disappear. Perhaps Isabel Allende touches on the character of the Amecian in her book Of Love and Shadows.

.. buried in a vast and marvellous continent where progress arrives several centuries late: a land of hurricanes, earthquakes, rivers as braod as the sea, jungles where sunlight never penetrates, where mythological animals creep and crawl over eternal humus alongside human beings unchanged since the beginning of time; an irrational geography…. an enchanted realm of towering cordilleras where the air is as thin as a veil, of absolute deserts, dark shaded forests and serene valleys. Here all the races are mixed in the crucible of violence; feathered Indians; voyagers from far-away lands; itinerant blacks; Chinese stowed loke contraband in apple crates, bewildered Turks, girls like flames; priests, prophets and tyrants – all elbow to elbow, the living as well as the ghosts of those who through the centuries trod this earth blessed by seething passions. These American men and women are everywhere, suffering in the cane feilds; shivering with fever in the silver and tin mines; lost beneath seas diving for pearls; surviving against all odds in prisons.

I get a different feeling that the reserved nature of the majority of Chileans that I have met has been irrevocably influenced by the ‘golpe de estado’ and the 17 years of human rights repression that followed. I suspect that Chileans attituted to visitors from the Estatos Unidos may have something to with the fact that, in response to the 1998 arrest of Pinochet, Bill Clinton requested the release of files showing 30 years of US government covert aid to undermine Allende and create the stage for the coup d’etat. Chileans generally don’t converse openly with strangers, especially if they think you are ‘norteamericano’ – I usually manage to insert ‘Soy Australiano? into any converstaion early on – and have noticed a noticable improvement in attitude. At least I haven’t been spat on as was the case in La Paz.

The good weather started with a bus/catamaran tour thru the lakes district of Chile into Argentina. We spent five days in (San Carlo de) Bariloche, real coffe, great steaks and cheap red wine and, most famous of all, CHOCOLATE SHOPS everywhere. Had a day tour of the lakes and valleys (magic), visited a microbrewery on bikes (tried all six kinds of beer) – eat your heart out food lovers, they had lunch platters to die for; smoked meats and fish, 10 kinds of cheese, especially made for gout sufferers. We are back in Chile again. One can go further south from here but we would need heated long johns to keep us warm, and we’ve seen enough iceburgs for the time being. We had to cross the border from Argentina to get to the Torres de Paine Park – the penultimate ‘big thing’ we came to SA to see (the last thing is Igassu Falls, and for that we have to go back to Argentina). Anyway, we’ve left the land of chocolates and steak to enter the land of the stale white bread rolls.

The week we spent in the National Park de Los Glaciares (Glacier Park) was one of the most wonderful experiences. We have seen glaciers before in Europe, New Zealand and North America, but they were tidlers compared to Moreno and Upsala. And the ice bergs that break off, as big as a twenty story building, beautiful blue floating in the lakes. We have some wonderful photos ( I know they are good because I can preview them on my camera) and some unforgettable memories. The experiences have been enhanced by the marvellous weather, especially near El Chalten. The wind was ferocious , but only at night, during the day we had lovely sunlit skies surrounded by wildflowers and the best scenery you can imagine. By the way we met a couple from Darwin (Suzys son) on the top of a mountain while walking a delightful trail – the world sure is a small place !

Got two of the nicest horses to lug us up the big hills to see the best sights, even Rosemary started to relax after a while and she found the D sign on the saddle that put her mount into automatic pilot. The rain has started to fall outside (I’m typing this in Peurto Natales) and I have to complete booking excursions in the park so I’ll suspend blogging for now and add some more when I get to Buenos Aires.

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2022 years ago

I am glad I have such intelligent friends….Enjoyed the read very much. I am glad that you jave left all the Chocky shops…you both might have needed new (larger) clothes!cul8rX

2022 years ago

If you want people to talk, being an Australian is an excellent first step; but far more important is to appear to have absolutely no idea about the rights/wrongs on ANY issue. Watever you do, DON’T make comments such as “30 years” being spent trying to undermine Allende. Quite apart from that many years allegedly being devoted to Allende would cause many to question your perspective, ANY stand on ANY subject by a foreigner can make people more wary of you.

roger watters
roger watters
2022 years ago

I had similar problems when travelling through Franco’s Spain in 1963, similar yet the same.