Cajon del Maipo and Santiago
A Road Journey through Central Chile
As Julie and Angie packed their rucksacks in the UK, Chile burned. The fires had been raging since our horse trek through the Esperanza Valley and had destroyed whole communities. Franco and I drove up from Valdivia to Santiago through the smoke and ash filled Central Valley, and our hearts went out to the people of Santa Olga who had lost their homes and to the firefighters still battling the blazes. The people of Chile face so many natural hazards from earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanoes, they can really do without wild fires as well.
Julie and Angie are old friends of mine from Norwich. We campaigned together to raise awareness of the destruction of forests across the world and for peace. Julie and I then left to study forestry, Julie in Scotland and I in Wales. The last time the three of us spent time together was twenty years ago.
With a few days to spare before our friends arrived, we headed for the Cajon de Maipo for some rock climbing and were pleasantly surprised at how well our bodies responded. I had anticipated having to haul myself up on my arms but my feet still remembered the moves.
Kath climbing in Cajon del Maipo
View towards Santiago (note the smog)
In the evening we enjoyed a meal in the small town of San José and got chatting with the people at the next table. "Are you from Brazil?" they asked, which we took as a compliment. Carolina is from Santiago and she affectionately calls her partner Francisco, 'huasito' (little cowboy) because he comes from outside the capital Santiago. It turned out he hails from Conception, the second largest city in Chile, hardly cattle herding country!
Franco, Carolina, Francisco and Kath
At the airport, waiting for Angie and Julie, we saw more faces than we have done these past eleven months. They emerged at last and we whisked them away to the Cajon de Maipo.
We started the holiday in style with a white water rafting trip down the River Maipo. As we drove upriver in the truck Julie was having second thoughts but she was glad she did it in the end. Franco (aka ‘Control Freak’) stayed behind, not trusting himself not to take over the steering of the raft.
Rafting down the Maipo
The next day we headed into the high Andes and walked along the river. On the way back we plunged into the steaming thermal pools of Termas La Colina.
Franco and Kath in Termas La Colina
Back at the campsite we joined forces with Angel and Veronica, our campsite neighbours, for an asado (BBQ). Angel kept us entertained with tales from cookery school, in particular his imitation of a tutor from England (imagine Basil Fawlty speaking Spanish with an English accent), who later got the sack for being drunk on the job. The evening was a perfect crash introduction to Chilean for Angie and Julie.
With Angel and Veronica
Avid for culture, we headed into Santiago for a day and visited the Museum for Pre-Columbian Art which had lots of strange characters and the amazing 'quipu', the Inca accounting system. These were used for censuses, for stock-taking, etc. and involved tying knots in small groups to keep track of numbers. Julie and I attended several guided tours and after a while wondered where the others had disappeared to. We soon found them sipping expresso at the cafeteria.
Loosely following the Santiago walking trail, we stopped for lunch at 'Piuke' a food stall selling vegan fare. The name was unfortunate and apparently means 'heart' in Mapudugun, the language of the Mapuche. A few metres away stood the presidential palace 'La Moneda' where the then-president, Allende died in 1973 after the coup d'état and the bombing by the Chilean air force.
Our walk took us up Santa Lucia Hill with good views all around. Santiago is surrounded by mountains and the pollution just sits over the city, stuck in the bowl. Angie, Franco and I visited Londres 38, a building used by Pinochet’s special police force during the dictatureship, to detain and torture people perceived to oppose the regime. Today the building is a centre for remembrance and political debate. Before heading back to our peaceful Hostel 'Friendly', we dined in Bellavista, the so-called bohemian quarter but now very much mainstream.
Angie and Julie reading Harry Potter in Spanish while Franco and Kath stock up on new books in Santiago
Santiago from Santa Lucia Hill
Our plan was to drive down the Panamerican Highway as far as Valdivia, visiting national parks on the way. Most were shut because of the high fire risk but we were hopeful they would soon reopen.