Savannah Grace

Central Chile

The adventure continues with Ammon and Sasha:

Chile has recently been blessed with budget airlines and it is now possible to fly some stretches of the country for the same or less than the price of a bus. Rather than paying more for a 20 hour bus, we flew 2 hours from Iquique to Santiago on New Years Eve. 10 years ago I was fortunate to meet an awesome Chilean traveler named Monse while we were both in Cairo. 10 years of “someday” finally lead to us reuniting in Santiago to bring in the new year with her family and a few friends at her place. This was much more than we were expecting for the day and helped make up for our uneventful Christmas.
It was also something of a final hurrah for Bre.
Apparently they take the day off on January 1st very seriously because I’ve never seen a more empty city in my life as we wandering around the centre of Santiago looking for food. Lunch time and nothing was open, nobody was walking or driving around. It felt a bit apocalyptic until we finally stumbled upon an open McDonalds. We have since learned that by law everyone must shut on New Years Day except for a few places that stay open as determined in a lottery system of sorts. That seems a little crazy and hard to believe but the evidence was there in front of us.
On the morning of the 2nd we made our way to the airport for a swap. Bre flew out as some of Sasha’s family flew in. Her dad, stepmom and brother flew in from Vancouver and her aunt flew in from Spain to join us for the next 12 days. We spent a couple more days in Santiago, which we got a chance to properly explore while allowing them to deal with jetlag. Metro Santiago is big but not as big as many other South American capital cities. It sits in a valley with a Mediterranean climate so it was hot and dry and reminded us of southern California in some ways. One of those ways unfortunately was in its air pollution. Santiago has had the worst smog we’ve seen on this trip by far. Santiago gets a relatively bad rap from most travelers in Chile, mostly because so much of the rest of the country is so stunning and more interesting, but that doesn’t mean Santiago isn’t without some redeeming qualities of its own. It has its share of historic colonial buildings and plazas, lots of parks (especially along the river) and tons of street art (aka skilled graffiti).

San Francisco church, oldest colonial building in Chile
Neptune fountain, Santa Lucia hill.
La Moneda palace
A new pedestrian walkway in the centre.
Bellavista neighbourhood is known for street art.
View from San Cristobal hill.
The sky costanera building, tallest in Latin America.

One day we went on a private tour to Cajon del Maipo a popular canyon south of the city dotted with little towns, a few wineries, and a lot of pretty views. We made it as far as the Yeso reservoir where we marveled at the beauty while simultaneously shaking our heads at the insanity of a 2-way road barely wide enough to accommodate the dump trucks coming at us. On the way home we stopped at a winery for a tour of the grounds and a tasting for the others. It was my first wine tour and I’ll admit that the scenery is nice and the grounds pleasant enough for a stroll but the main purpose was mostly lost on non-drinking me.

Cajon del Maipo
The Yeso reservoir
Concha y Toro winery
I’m really not as unhappy as I look haha.

The rest of our time together was spent at a very nice apartment right off the beach in Vina del Mar, a modern looking, very touristy beach city that is now essentially a northern suburb of Valparaiso. We had a good laugh when Sasha’s aunt, Bea, declared that she had come all the way from Spain to end up in the same city she left from. The street beside our apartment was even called Benidorm after her home town. The time we spent in Vina del Mar was mostly a mix of relaxation and family time with a small daily excursion such as a walk along the waterfront, a trip to the sand dunes just north of town, a visit to Valparaiso, etc thrown in. We lived well and ate well and it was a very nice holiday within our greater travels.

Modern looking Vina del Mar
Lots of beach space
Castillo Wulff and a restaurant that looks a little like a ship.
Sand dunes at Concon, just north of Vina del Mar
Couldn’t help ourselves 🙂

We visited Valparaiso briefly one day doing a “Tours for Tips” walking tour of the old town. It lasted about 3 hours and took us around to see some of the more famous points and views. Valparaiso is an old city by Chilean standards and had it’s glory days as a pre-Panama Canal stopover port for ships rounding Cape Horn. Post-canal it went into decline and the old town still exists in that charming zone between “historically and culturally aged” and “grungy and sketchy looking”. For many it is considered the cultural capital of Chile and after a touristic revival, greatly assisted by its listing as a world heritage site, Valparaiso has become a must-see for any visitor to central Chile.
It is built over a series of hills, many steep enough and with buildings so closely packed together that accommodating vehicular traffic is often problematic. Consequently many neighbourhoods are connected by narrow winding lanes. Valparaiso also had dozens of small funiculars running up the hills, several of which are still operating. This is cute, but, as the tour guide pointed out, makes it very hard for emergency services in the event of a disaster. The city has had several major problems with fire, including one in 2014 that destroyed 2500 homes. It is in a major earthquake and tsunami zone too. Valparaiso is also very well known for its street art which has attracted artists from around the world to do their best stuff. This was another focus of our tour. Like Brazil, graffiti is very common all over Chile so in many areas professional artists are encouraged to cover a surface so everyone else will leave it alone. There is no lack of colour and different styles around the old town, that’s for sure.

Former customs house and now a naval building in Plaza Sotomayor
You don’t see that everyday
Queen Victoria funicular
Colourful neighbourhood but looks a little shaken up.
So many different styles of graffiti.

I also made a little side excursion, leaving the group behind and returning to Santiago where I met up with Monse and her dad and the 3 of us drove south to Rancagua to join a tour to Sewell. It’s a former mining town built to accommodate those working at the remote El Teniente copper mine. The El Teniente mine is considered the world’s largest underground copper mine with over 3000 km of tunnels and spanning a height of 1200m within the mountain. It is crazy to think that the mountain you are staring at is essentially hollow inside from top to bottom…  It was also a little strange to be on a tour of an “abandoned” town and yet having lunch in a cafeteria with the local miners…
The mine started sometime in the 1800’s but didn’t get into large scale production until 1905-6 when the town was built. In a similar vein to Humberstone up north, the wealth of the mining company led to some impressive town planning and modifications to adapt to the harsh terrain. Sewell was located on the side of a mountain at ~7000ft, with no roads and uneven terrain so buildings were built where the landscape allowed and connected by a central grand staircase with side paths leading away. The style was simple and functional with almost no external decoration. At its peak Sewell had 500 buildings and over 15000 inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, life was segregated into managerial, professional and labourer groupings with very different amenities and entertainments provided to them. But it was harsh for everyone and not without frequent disasters, including avalanches killing over 100 in 1944 and one of the world’s worst non-coal mining disasters in 1955 killing 355.

Passing the mining operations before reaching Sewell
Sewell in a simple but colourful style.
The central staircase connecting everything
Lunch with the miners
In the Sewell church

In the 1970’s, after the Chilean government took over ownership of the mine, the people were systematically relocated and the town abandoned. Most of it was dismantled and destroyed but ~50 buildings still stand and infrequent but regular tours are the only way to access the area now. The whole site is still an active mine with lots of activity going on but unfortunately the tour doesn’t include much information on the current mining and no access to the mine itself anymore (it did until several years ago).
After rejoining the family we all made our way back to Santiago where we made our teary farewells as they headed home and we jumped on another flight further south.


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