Friday, March 24, 2017

Sad end to a great trip.

24 March, Home!

We started this trip with what, at the time, felt like a major disaster. But, within a day we were back on track with credit cards cancelled and Emergency Passports, allowing us to continue on our journey, somewhat richer for the experience.

However! On our second last morning in Chile, we were doing some research on the next leg, travelling to the lakeside city of Bariloche in Argentina, when a few comments in blogs we were reading alerted us to a potential problem with our Emergency Passports. Some quick research online and a few frantic phone calls to consular services in Australia and Buenos Aires confirmed the fact that Australians travelling on Emergency Passports require a visa to enter Argentina - a visa which can take up to a month to be issued.

So here we sit, home after only 10 days of what was to be an almost 2 month trip. Our exit from South America was fairly easily organised. Flights were quickly sorted with Flight Centre, (we always book with Flight Centre after getting them to price match) bus tickets and overnight stops booked for the long haul back up the Chilean coast. As a final treat we booked two nights in the Santiago Airport Holiday Inn, just 1 minute’s walk from the terminal. For two days we made like Tom Hanks in The Terminal availing ourselves of all the services an international airport and a four star hotel have on offer.

A final comment for all would-be world wanderers. Never leave home without travel insurance!

And of course we will be back!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Before the Storm

10 March, Tren Central train to Chillan

Pick-pocket mop-up operations continued through most of yesterday with a morning visit to the airport. The extremely helpful lady who looked after us at the Australian Embassy clued us up to the chaos that ruled at the downtown office of the International Police, the issuing authority and suggested the airport as a more favourable option.

Luckily, Santiago International Airport is fairly small, because we were directed to every corner of it by several helpful bystanders. We hadn’t realised that the International Police were in fact the PDI, probably best known as Immigration Officers. Their centre of operations was not the dinted grey steel door in the bowels of the terminal where we were directed, but the large immigration processing area emblazoned with the 2 metre high initials PDI.

So that, we thought, was the end to the drama for this trip. Well, not quite. A warning to travellers - the hits can keep coming if you aren’t constantly on guard and even when you are. On our way back into the city we were the target of one of the more popular scams - the “bird poop sting”. As we descended the subway steps, we were hit from above and behind with what seemed to be the poop of a large bird (actually a mix of mustard, some sort of liquid and who knows what else!). A helpful gent pointed out the bird poop on our backs and bag. By happy circumstance he just happened to have a large tissue at hand. To be honest, we didn’t cotton on to the scam immediately, however our natural suspicion of helpful strangers cut in and we just kept walking rather than follow him to somewhere where he could complete his charitable endeavours and grab our bag - or worse. He and one or two co-conspirators had lain in wait for tourists at this particular station where many change from the airport bus to the subway. One sprays the victims from above with various concoctions while a couple of other charmers perform the cleaning, snatching and mugging part of the operation. They had given us a fair dose of “poop”, so we abandoned our intended sight-seeing, preferring a shower and a visit to the laundry.

So here we are, under-way on the more serious part of our journey. The train trip from Santiago to Chillan is one of the very few long-distance passenger services still operating in South America. Chile once had a fairly extensive rail network, courtesy of early British influences. This line is very popular with both tourists and locals and many trains are booked out. We were able to book our tickets online and pay by PayPal. Online credit card payments aren’t widely available in Chile. At $25 AUD each, the fares are extremely reasonable. But bring your own food! We paid $20 AUD for a couple of milk-powdered coffees and two sandwiches.

The areas south of Santiago are far more attractive than the north of the country that we travelled through on our previous trip in 2015 and the further south we get, the more interesting the scenery becomes.

The small city of Chillan was to be just a rest stop for us on our long journey down the coast to Patagonia, but today we lucked out. It was folk festival weekend in Chillan and the city’s central plaza was the focus of foodie heaven. We did a wander through on our way to inspect the local markets, one of the “things” we do. These markets are just amazing, in South America and Asia in particular. Prices are just unbelievably cheap and the produce is just out of the field. We bought some fish in Santiago at the enormous city market. A whole Robolo (or something like that) filleted with much ceremony, was $7 AUD for about 1kg. Sadly we are in a hotel tonight so home cooking was not on. Instead, we joined the throng at the festival and after a very nice cerveza rustica, we lined up with the local families for the local sausage in a roll, followed by delicious BBQ pollo (chicken) on a stick. We did come across one person who spoke English, a wine merchant, but all our other conversations were conducted in Spanglish, with the emphasis on ‘glish’. Great fun.

12 March Hotel Apart Colon, Puerto Montt

Our 10 hour bus trip yesterday was comfortable enough in salon cama class, (read first class}, but we almost starved to death! On our many other trips on long-haul buses in South America, meals were provided, so we assumed we would be treated to all sorts of desiccated delights. Not happening! A quick dash off the bus at a terminal along the way produced a packet of chips and some water. By the time we arrived in Puerto Montt we were thirsty (it was past beer o’clock) and ravenous. We positively sprinted the 1km to our hotel, which was a good thing because it was after 9:00pm and the waterfront area was a little spooky.

The locals refer to their town as Muerto Montt (“Dead” Montt in Spanish) and they are dead right. To be fair it is Sunday today, but it was Saturday night when we arrived. With the words of John Denver’s “Saturday Night in Toledo Ohio” playing in our heads, we finally sated our thirst and quieted the tummy rumbles at a very average restaurant in the almost deserted city centre.

13 March, Esmeralda Hotel, Castro, Chile

Today we enjoyed another very comfortable 3 hour bus trip through some lush, New Zealand-like countryside, to the island of Chiloe, said to be somewhat of a remnant of pre-revolution Chile. The Spanish sympathisers held out here during the Revolution of Independence and that, combined with the isolation of the island, created the interesting mix of old and new Chile to be found here today.

In stark contrast to Puerto Montt, the streets of this vibrant little town are alive with activity. There are people everywhere going about their business, street stalls selling all sorts of strange sea creatures, fruit, beautiful vegetables and the usual modern trinkets, jugglers at intersections, buses, taxis and private cars competing with pedestrians for control of the crossings - it’s all GO!. We took a walk out of town to get a look at the stilt houses – palafitos - that are unique to this part of Chile. There aren’t a large number remaining, but in the bright sunshine that followed the lifting of the fog that had greeted us on our arrival, they were a photographer’s dream.

Fronting the Plaza de Armas (every town has one) is one of the oddest churches we have ever seen. The Iglesia San Francisco de Castro is clad in corrugated iron, painted yellow and lavender. While the external appearance of the church is somewhat gauche, the timber interior is amazing.  The church was built between 1910 and 1912, replacing two previous edifices that, not surprisingly, were burnt down. The structure recently narrowly escaped a similar fate when a large building across the road was destroyed by fire.

Castro has a certain earthy, gritty feel to it that we have instantly loved. Everybody seems to know everybody else, which makes progress on the street extremely slow as we all greet, chat and part with a kiss or handshake.

14 March, Esmeralda Hotel, Castro

After all the recent mindless statements from various Trump staff, we have imagined that the town of Castro may well be the target of some of those “microwaves that turn into cameras” (Kellyanne Conway) spying on the town because Breitbart News told the President that Raoul Castro lived here. In fact, Castro derives its name from the Ancient Roman word for a fort or military camp, “castrum” as Chiloe was the site of several defensive forts in colonial times.

The town still retains many traditional houses clad with wooden shingles as well as the colourful palafitos, which are best viewed on high tide as the shallow waters of the inlet drain to rather unattractive mud banks on low tide.

We had investigated a tour of the Chiloe National Park today, but a little online research steered us towards the local buses. For the return fare of AUD $7 each for the 3 hour round trip, plus the park entry fee of AUD $8 each we saved ourselves AUD $147 each over the tour price. Sure we missed the swank lunch but we enjoyed our cheese and crackers from the supermarket.

The National Park was interesting enough, but not spectacular. The beach was, as usual, not a patch on Australian beaches, but the forest walks were pleasant and easy going in the mild sunny weather.

Tourists and travellers are still thin on the ground. We have had no problems booking bus tickets, even just a day ahead. Seems we are just on the tail end of the “season”.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A little rain must fall

8 March, Santiago, Chile

“Into every life a little rain must fall”. We have used this quotation before, last time we were in South America, when we almost lost our debit card to an ATM in the small Bolivian town of Uyuni. Seems that we are always just one distracted moment away from potential disasters when we travel. We have put petrol in a motorhome’s water tank, locked ourselves out of apartments in Krakow and Warsaw, locked ourselves out of our van in Gjor, Hungary, been turned away from the Polish border, been robbed by police in Romania, stopped the trams in Budapest by driving the wrong way over a tram-only bridge, driven 100 kms on a Spanish autopista with no brakes and blown a tyre at full speed on a Spanish autopista. But yesterday’s disaster tops all of these.

We felt like old hands in Santiago. We had been here before and are the coolest couple of public transport users around. So, loaded up with two backpacks each, we jumped on the airport bus to the metro station of Los Heroes in downtown Santiago, from where we took the subway to Manuel Montt station at the end of the street where our AirBnB apartment is located. What we hadn’t bargained for was the fact that the subway was packed for the lunchtime rush. We were sardined into a corner where some light-fingered bastard gently prised apart the zips on one of our bags and took off with our passports, credit cards and a not insignificant amount of cash.

So panic stations.

We had our credit cards cancelled within 30 minutes (luckily, we have back-up cards) and were on the metro to the Australian Embassy inside the hour. Paperwork was begun to secure emergency passports and new passport photos taken.

This morning we were at the Embassy at 9:00 am, had our forms completed and lodged by 9:30 and were off playing tourist for the remainder of the day. Last night and this morning we commenced the horrendous task of redirecting our multitude of direct debit payments. By 4:00 pm we had our new temporary passports and were almost back on track. Tomorrow we have to go back out to the airport to see the International Police to get a replacement for our Chile Tourist cards that were inside our passports. These we will need to exit the country.

All part of the independent travel experience.

A special thanks to the fantastic staff of the Australian Embassy in Santiago.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

At the gates.

Just a few days now until we are off on our second trip to South America. As usual our plans are rather vague. Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Uruguay and Iguazu Falls are on the agenda, but who knows what we might get up to in between?  So far we have ourselves booked into a central city AirBnB apartment in Santiago for a couple of days of RnR before we tackle the inevitable long bus trips needed to see this vast continent.

Trains have become our favoured mode of transport of late. But sadly, most of the passenger lines in South America have fallen into disrepair and stopped operating. One of the few remaining services is the line from Santiago to Chillan, a four and a half hour trip that will kick us off in style. However, from there it will be bus, bus, bus. Not as bad as it may seem though, because coach (a more appropriate tag) travel throughout South America is substantially more comfortable than one might imagine, except perhaps for Bolivia, which can be challenging. The highest class of travel, ‘cama’, has fully reclining seats, video entertainment (Spanish), food service and sometimes Wifi.  Just the thing for a long overnight haul. Semi-cama services are very comfy as well. Good leg room, partly reclining seats and great views from the top of double decker coaches. Cama, by the way is Spanish for bed.

So once again the open road beckons .