Reflections on Valparaíso from Afar

We were introduced to the city under thick grey cloud. It presented a dismaying vision of ramshackle shabbiness and disorder. In bright sunlight the place is transformed. It’s still the higgledy piggledy city but now it’s playful. The crowds of houses tumbling down the big steep hills look as if they were built by some giant kid with coloured blocks idly amusing themselves and seing how high and how precariously they could pile them before they topple over.

The graffiti is all over the place. Everything from a hasty and arcane calligraphic spasm to a carefully planned and executed mural ten storeys high. The effect is cumulative. You feel the individual items were never meant to be seen in isolation. They make up one whole oeuvre covering the entire city. The colours clash then harmonise with the blue sky. A dizzying perspective is accentuated by the lines of one mural, negated by another. A chasm of a passageway is painted vibrant viridian to frame the coloured houses beyond.

The graffiti’s improvisatory style is carried on by the houses themselves. Their kaleidoscopic colours add to the visual feast. The hillsides are bewildering mosaics. Everywhere there are clashes or compliments of colour. At sunset the dying light harmonises them. The panorama around the bay becomes a subtle pastel nocturne in pinks and mauves. In the morning sun they are energised and squabble youthfully. When you pass cafes and shops you are frequently accosted by music much of it, unsurprisingly, latin dance music. You can convince yourself that the colours of the city pulse in a kinaesthetic empathy with the ambient beat.

Dogs wander freely throughout the city. At first the sheer number of them is daunting. But this is no feral pack of urban sub-wolves. Almost all look well fed and groomed. Some are well dressed dogs in coats. There are even dandies in chic collars, cravats and bandanas. They are almost always amiable and laid back. They may show interest in you but it is open-minded curiosity. They are not xenophobic. Only on a couple of occasions did they show any aggression towards us and that was mild and short lived. An unfortunate but necessary canine formality one felt. These are people-oriented beasts as I suppose they have to be. Wherever there is a throng of people there is an accompanying layer of dogs. That is a better term than pack which suggests the active and purposeful. Your Valparaíso dog has neither of those vices.

Cats are present too. Not in the same numbers and not on the street. We saw remarkably few cats at ground level. That stratum is sewn up by the dogs, it’s their turf. The cats’ ecosphere is, by and large, several stories up. They play at Where’s Wally as you look down from some viewpoint onto a chaotic perspective of roofs. They can be seen making perilous traverses on high ledges. They peer down with serene disdain from high windows. On at least one occasion we saw a cat contemptuously taunting a group of dogs fenced in a yard. We did see one smartly turned out calico cat sitting with great self possession outside a shop near the naval museum. Possibly a retired sea cat. He was very well turned out, ship shape and Valparaíso fashion you might say. But in general dogs hold the streets, cats the rooftops.

There is a joyfully vagabond army of young street artists and artisans. A freemasonry of bearded, guitar players, freewheeling girls in many colours, urban gypsies truanting, one suspects in many cases, from their middle class upbringing. Most are darkly tanned and tattooed. Baubles, bangles, necklaces and beads. And a very often a folding table and perhaps a folio for these are aspiring commercial folk. They sell geometric, neat colour-in fantasy cityscapes. Dream pictures with dream animals. Ethnic jewellery, much of it very attractive if a little pricy. The older generation of artists seem to specialise in neon hued perspectives of the tumbled city and its bay. Obviously the tourist is the target. In sharp contrast to the capital not a jugo de naranja seller is to be seen.

The funiculars are living fossils. All polished old wood and metal with the paint worn away and clickety old turnstiles. Everything a little, shaky a little creaky. You pay your $300 and take a seat on the wooden bench. Wait while the Chilenos come from the street to fill it up. Smart businessmen in grey suits, shiny black shoes and fashionable check scarves. A long haired youth very quiet and polite with a striking profile who one could easily imagine in Hernán Cortés’ ranks. A fashionable city girl whose face might have come from an Aztec monument glued to her phone. An older, somewhat more substantial señora with her shopping. The rusty rails rise in front of you at a fierce angle. A shake a judder and up we go. The motor’s vibrations transmitted through the traction wires. These looked thick and strong when we got in but as the street falls rapidly away and the sunlight fills the cabin they take on a rather flimsier look. Then the rooftops fall away and other steep streets come into view. Then you’re at the top. Old wood and iron and the turnstile’s clickety-click. You exit onto another level of the colourful mosaic.

There are the unexpected views you get in any steep place. Leeds and Scarborough have this quality. You turn a corner of a dingy, everyday street and are suddenly presented with a splendid vista. The Castle headland in Scarborough. A dramatic cloudscape over the Aire Valley in Leeds. In Valparaíso it happens with dizzying frequency. At every turn another steep perspective up or down, Another burst of colourful graffiti, a chasm-like alley framing an impossible tumble of buildings on a precipitous hillside. And always a glimpse or more of the sea, the great sweeping bay and the blue sky.

The cafes and restaurants are a treat to walk into. All those we visited even the ones in dodgy looking areas with slightly grotty exteriors and languidly prowling perros were clean, neat, welcoming. The people serving were quietly courteous, genuinely friendly and willing to help. They were delighted when Alison spoke to them in Spanish. Willing to speak slowly if necessary and explain subtle points of the language. The coffees and food they served were generally very good or excellent, the prices nothing exorbitant. They seemed to regard themselves as ambassadors for the city.

The stark contrasts are extreme here. In all cities now you have a juxtaposition of the well off and the poor. The sumptuous and the grotty. The salubrious and the shitheap. An affluent area is a block away from one that is poor and derelict. Perhaps this is exaggerated in South America. There are fine houses here, well tended gardens big cars, prominent security systems and these are cheek by jowl with depressingly decayed houses or even ones which have just fallen apart and are rotting like teeth in an otherwise healthy mouth.You don’t have to walk a block, they’re side by side.

But there are concenratrations of poverty too. The hills on which the city are built are cut by many steep ravines. These are frequently infested by fantastic structures of corrugated iron in various states of oxidation and salvaged wood of all descriptions. These are augmented by recycled pieces of metalwork which have undergone a kickstart program as railings for balconies or stairs, external clothes horses, mini alotment fences. Their appearance on the steep slopes is fantastical. Kublai Khan’s Xanadu in its anti-manifestation. Planning? Health and Safety? Que? What are they? I would hesitate to enter one of these in any circumstances. In an active earthquake zone that people actually live here day to day is mind boggling.

Pablo Neruda’s house rises serenely above the chaotic mosaic of the surroundings. An anti-shanty. You feel that it shares the freewheeling spiritual outlook of the shacks in the ravines but has been executed with the panache of an urbane and sophisticated taste. Backed up by plenty of money of course.  Apparently its five stories afforded the best view in the city at one time. It has been overtaken by urban growth up the hill since the nineteen fifties but it is still magnificent in Neruda’s own quirky way. The man is a national icon and treasure of course. Perhaps his love of fun, fantasy, all things offbeat and the good things of life as well as his reflective outlook characterise the best of this chaotic and appealing oddball city.

Fray Jorge National Park

We set off south on the CH5 this time. We are going to the Fray Jorge National Park. This is a cloud forest on a ridge overlooking the Pacific. The incoming fog as and clouds sustain a woodland which is uncharacteristic of this arid region.
There is the usual noisy snarl up on the Avenida Aguirre as everything tries to be in the same place at the same time but soon we are bowling along with the traffic to Coquimbo. This is a large seaside town joined on to La Serena and taking up part of the same bay. It is said to have a burgeoning night life which is why we’ve avoided it so far. It also has the Cross of the Third Millennium. This is a gigantic structure overlooking the bay possibly set up as a rival to the Christ figure at Rio. It doesn’t quite have the style or location of that particular icon though.

Then we are in a formless area of shanties, building sites and undefinable elements of urban mess. We are also climbing. This continues until we are approaching the level of the low coastal cloud which begins to break up. We descend onto a huge plain. The continental scale of South American landscapes in evidence again. We reach a toll gate and pay CP2 600 for the privilege of continuing on the same highway. We pass a number of roadside stalls. They often signal their presence with a cluster of coloured flags. We decide we don’t need anything and carry on.


Eventually we reach a turn off signposted for the National Park. As is the way of Chilean minor roads it rapidly becomes a baked and dusty mud track. It winds towards the high hills towards the coast. We meet a couple of settlements. They are randomly scattered low houses and shanties dignified with a few hundred metres of well surfaced road before the underlying track reasserts itself. In these parts the ubiquitous tall cacti are utilised in lieu of fences or hedges. The resulting tall spiny barrier would certainly deter most things with any sense from entering or leaving any designated area.


Again we are climbing and twisting. The surroundings are less arid, greener. In fact the whole thing is turning into a blossoming meadow. With the window open you can hear lots of bird song and smell the fresh fragrance of the spring flowers. Even the fiercely armoured cacti have big white flowers on them.


We reach the entrance to the park. There is a ranger’s cabin complete with the inevitable Chilean flag. We are charged CP5 000 to get in. There are some wall charts illustrating the local flora and birds. We are issued with a set of rules to be followed in the park. Common sense stuff about fires and litter mainly. We stop to look around. Flowers everywhere, lots of birds flying around. This would be commonplace in the English countryside on a nice May day. Here it is quietly spectacular. We drive on.


We go slightly off course at a picnic area. It begins to sink in that we have made the mistake of starting off on our expedition with a small bottle of water and one apple. As in the US national parks here are not the native haunt of the cosy cafe selling cream teas. We are a little underprepared. Not to worry. We head off again, rather slowly as we have got ourselves behind a tourist bus. After eating its dust for a mile or so it turns into a parking area. We carry on.


At this point I am glad we have a 4×4 vehicle. The track is now distinctly rough and gleefully climbing at about one in three. It does this for quite a while. The rented Subaru Forester we have named Harry Potter keeps up with it no problem. I could get into 4x4s. Eventually we reach a flat bit. We get out to look around. Looking back we see the distant wall of the Andes and the track winding back for miles. Magnificent. Round about we still have the flowers and the birds and a for the first time few small trees. We drive on to the official summit car park.


The access to the park is by way of an earth path on the inland side and a wooden path on the coastal side. You access the inland hillside first. It an extraordinary mix of plants, mostly unfamiliar. There are still some of the large cacti. There are tall stalks with a spiked flower head and bright yellow flowers which look like medieval maces of a particularly vicious design, there are the shorter spiky leaved succulents we have met before, but there are also a mass of delicate blooms of all shapes and colours. The whole hillside looks like an exotic garden. Birds like firecrests but about the size of a sparrow are flying through the plants. They are quite bold so that we can get decent photos of them. On the down side we are attended by a couple of the biggest horseflies I’ve ever seen.


As you pass to the coastal side there is a remarkable transformation. Suddenly you are in a cool, green, temperate wood. The shade is very agreeable. There are a number of unfamiliar species here. All of them well grown, full size trees. The only ones for many, many miles.


You then walk onto a platform which gives a terrific view of the rocky coast way below with the breakers white against them. Beyond these, a couple of miles out to sea, is the low cloud which is a more or less permanent feature of the coast and which, as it blows onshore in the evenings makes the whole remarkable ecosystem possible. It is a fabulous view. As we look at it Alison spots a lizard on the rocks under the platform. We make our way back up towards the car park. We share our meagre supplies and feel a kinship with the hardy souls who must have pioneered this land centuries ago.


We didn’t set off with particularly high expectations of the park. It does not feature greatly in the guide books. Just a mention. But on a fine day like this a chance to view this extraordinary place and its wonderful views is worth every mile you have to drive to get here. It deserves to be much better known.


On the way back we took in the Andes again. I keep having to remind myself that what I’m seeing is that fabled range. No longer just a name on the map. We drive back out of the park portal and return the rule sheet to the ranger. We compliment him on his park. As we drive through the lower part of the track we disturb a sizeable group of donkeys or should I say burros, enjoying a dust bath at the side of the road. Then drive on to disturb a group of sheep sprawled in the middle of the track.


Back to the main road. We stop at the first roadside stall. It seems as if he family actually live here as they are eating in a back room. There are oranges for sale along with something which looks like a white and purple avocado stone. We do not venture to experiment but buy two oranges. We drive off the road looking for a quiet spot to assuage our hunger. The oranges have a peel whose thickness accounts for roughly half of their diameter but they’re better then nothing.


Back across the sun baked plain. As we approach Coquimbo the cloud increases. It is overcast by the time we join the rush hour traffic. We reach La Serena without too much trouble. We filter onto the congested Avenida and get back to the hotel. Apparently it had been cloudy and dull all day here. We made a wise choice in heading out of town. We get ready to hit the restaurants and refuel.


Punta de Choros

We take the CH5, the Pan America Norte from La Serena. This involves an incredible snarl up at the traffic lights in La Serena. Everything seems to try to get on to the Avenida Aguirre at once. The resulting melée is alarming and noisy given the Latin predilection for using the horn. Once that particular hazard is negotiated it is plain sailing onto the big new highway and off we go.

This is an impressive road. Very well surfaced, furnished and signed. We soon leave the city and find ourselves surrounded by high, cloud covered hills. The sleek modernity of the road contrasts markedly with the scattered and rickety shanties which dot the hills for miles. The landscape becomes increasingly rugged.

Outside the cities in Chile it is usually apparent that you are on a continent. The sheer scale of the landscapes takes you aback. We found ourselves on a monster switchback with the road looping up and down into the far distance. The appearance is very much like that of the California coast round Big Sur. Huge hills dropping into the sea as massive rocky headlands, the low cloud always hanging above our heads.


Which cloud started to break up as the road took to winding up and up gigantic hillsides. We eventually reached a shoulder which led to a long descent in bright sunshine. We passed the turnoff for La Higuera. Some miles further on we leave the nice big road and take the D110 towards Choros. This quickly reverts to a mud surface with plenty of dust on it. After a few miles we are leaving the hills behind us and motoring into a vast plain which is apparently the Plain of Saint Lucia.


It is a long drive across the cactus spattered plain on a stony, dusty road to Choros itself. Here in this populated zone as the sign has it, the road suddenly becomes well surfaced for the kilometre or so before you run out of civilisation. There are the usual low houses in cheerfully assorted colours. The usual strikingly ugly electrical and telegraphy arrangements. We stop at the little shop and cafe. We sit in the sun with a snack which the rapidly recovering Alison has grabbed on the way out to assuage her returning appetite and which turns out to be some species of breakfast cereal. It goes quite well with the acceptable coffee.


While we are sitting there a couple of guys appear and start knocking on the house doors. Everywhere you go in Chile someone is trying to sell something. On the streets, at the side of major highways, at the traffic lights. These two are selling t-shirts and, wait for it, standard lamps. Not lampshades mind you, the whole thing. Here, right in the middle of nowhere. A variant on the Aladdin tale perhaps. But they make no sales while we watch.


The town has a cultural centre cum gallery too, but it is closed so we hit the road again. More dusty miles emphasised by the telegraph poles shrinking into a distant perspective, a cliché but effective. A few tough looking vehicles pass us at fairly high speed given the surface. We cross a section which is in danger of disappearing under the drifting sand and then we see Punta de Choros and the Pacific beyond.


It is a bigger settlement than we expected. It has a school but no road surface other than the native dust and sand. It is surrounded by vacation cabañas of various designs including the domes we’ve seen elsewhere. We first stop on a rise which seems to be the local rubbish depository but which gives a view over the point. It is obviously very rocky. We see the dark blue of the sea breaking vigorously over the rocks. There is a long pier, a hodge lodge of shacks, a number of fishing boats on the beach and what turns out to be a huge mound of the shells of some large marine mollusc. These are being scavenged by a mixture of gulls and what look like turkey vultures.


Several miles out from this rough shore we can see the islands off the point, they are a fair size. The water around them is the haunt of whales, dolphins, sea otters and the Humboldt Penguin. It is possible to take trips out to the islands. The ones which land on the breeding ground of the penguins are frowned on by environmentalists as damaging. You can take trips round the islands too, but there are so many of these in the season that these too are suspected of disturbing the wildlife. We haven’t planned for one anyway. They sail from twenty five kilometres north of here and it is getting late in the afternoon.


We drive back towards the pier. From here we see small boats anchored and tossed in the rough sea. A boat is setting off with some well clad fishermen in it. This is a fine day with a breeze. In rough weather this must be a formidable place. A blackbird sized bird with a white necklace is hopping very nimbly over the rocks then sheltering from the fresh breeze in a concrete structure like a box which looks like it was made for the purpose. There are shacks all around the pier in no special order. Urban planning does not seem to be a priority consideration in Chile. Further round the point are dome cabañas. The overall impression is that we’ve reached the edge of the world but everyone’s chilled about it. No worries.


Just back from the pier the fishermen seem to be passing their catch to a lorry. It looks like molluscs again. Not exactly identifiable. These guys look pretty tough. I guess weedy types would not be applying for the jobs available out here. There is a statue of Christ on the rocks which I hope serves to protect these folk. I thought it was a statue of Popeye at first but it lacks the robust forearms and anchor tattoo. We drive back through the bright, breezy sunshine and the dusty, sandy main street past a large mural of the Humboldt penguins and an information kiosk with Hawaian style thatch.


We stop at a cafe and order an empanada. It arrives quickly though is of basic standard. The place is a big timber framed hall with large windows making it very light. The lad serving us looks like Buddy Holly. The decor is sea oriented. Wooden fish caricatures, basketwork mermaids and a large and rather clunky model of a modern multi-storied cruise liner perched, with a fine disregard for any health and safety regulations that might apply, rather precariously on a Coke machine. Ah, well, makes a change from sailing ships although there is also a modest representative of that overworked genre on show.


Just as we are about to settle up and leave who should turn up but our old friends with their t-shirts and standard lamps. They have no joy here either. The lamps may have been insufficiently nautical. Maybe something in the shape of a lighthouse? With a top which revolves and flashes? A niche market perhaps, but I feel there are opportunities for the bold and imaginative entrepreneur.


Back out onto the baked mud road to Choros with its diminishing telegraph poles. On back through Choros, taking note of the kindergarten picket fence decorated like coloured pencils and the church sporting a cheery, kiss-me-quick blue and white livery. Back to Saint Lucy’s Great Big Plain then up onto a cactus covered hill where we spot a group of animals which turn out to be black-faced guanacos. They have lovely thick coats and astonishingly seem to be feeding on the ferociously spined cacti.


Then we spot the tell tale irregular white line of the snowy Andes many miles to the east. Before we came here I had the idea that we would have to edge our way along this narrow country, carefully moving sideways like crabs, taking care not to trip over the Andes. It is not quite like that but wherever you are here you are not far from a view of these enormous peaks. You walk down a grotty street in a town, turn a corner and suddenly they are there. You’re driving down a road surrounded by hills which are already high and there behind them are the real mountains, vast, aloof.


Then we’re back to the big highway. We cruise happily along in brilliant sunshine this time. Through the big Pacific landscape, from time to time catching sight of great rocky promontories far below with the waves crashing against them. The huge scrubby hillsides slide past us. The roadside shanties in their hobo colours look more optimistic in this light.


We wind and climb and drop and eventually approach La Serena. We are passed by a green and white car of the carabineros de Chile with red lights flashing. We think nothing of it until we approach to our familiar Avenida. The road is blocked with traffic, a huge jam, maybe an accident. The delay is not long though. The carabineros efficiently funnel the traffic off on a side road and we follow a large coach which seems to know where it’s going although we have our moment of doubt when it heads down a dusty single track. Not to worry, it is a good guide and we are soon in familiar territory inside the town.

When we get back we are treated to another of La Serena’s wonderful sunsets.

From Atacama to La Serena

(Fragmentary thoughts)

Accross the desert on the mesmerising road.
Forgot the turn off for the aeropuerto.
Lost in Calama, endless lights on red, squeezing, honking traffic.
Telegraph poles, wire tangles, exotic street trees, low houses in bright dusty sunlight.
Big black haired Aztec schoolgirls in too short check skirts and woollen socks.
We zig and zag through insalubrious streets and packs of dogs


No map, no connection.
Alison asks a guy with not a clue in a clueless area of town.
Then a clued up lady draws us a mappa mundi of the road to the aeropuerto.
It is a good map.


The Great White Teapot is returned to its stable none the worse for our company.
Air conned airport cool modern relief after the motor mayhem.
Sandwich and coffee in a Costa with paper Chile coloured decorations.
The little private planes in the bright afternoon sun on the desert runway outside the window.
We miss the baggage drop, go back to find it.


The flight, the desert, desert, desert.
And the mountains, mountains pinking and sinking into indigo.
Candy floss Aconcagua with puffs of cloud.
Then down down down to Santiago.


A short walk past taxi touts and
Unaccustomed water to the The Holiday Inn.
The future is now cool cats in the slick bar.
Nadal still twitching and obsessive on a big screen in the bar.
The room, big bed, view of a car park. No stars here mate.
Unusually an Afro girl serves us quiet efficient
A good dinner.
Out in the chill dawn, not as wrapped up as the Santiaguenos.
My straw hat incongruous conspicuous.
Back through taxi touts, to and fro to find internal departures.
The short air bus trip to La Serena.
Chile’s innate lumpiness again in evidence.
A ladder off the plane onto the runway.
Real flying like in the old movies.


The drive through the valley of big cactus dry hills.
The Big Yins with snow on them, looking over their shoulders.
Vineyards and olives and mobile phone masts against the blue.
A new road winds through blasted rock to a reservoir to a tunnel.
To Vicuña, bustling with its German tower.
We cross a one lane bridge enter the grid of streets.
Low houses coloured and graffitied. Ugly telegraph arrangements.


The square is busy, Latin music most elegant trees.
Stone tables with inlaid chessboards. A wedding cake church.
A modern bandstand, concert stage, whatever.
To the supermarket for lunch things. Rolls, cheese, apples, water.
Strolling we meet Gabriella Mistral all white on a mustard plinth.
Local girl made good and Chile’s upbeat flag is everywhere.
Always the huge hills peep out above them.


Up to the narrow Elqui Valley. Up and up and winding up.
Tiny villages, picturesque, lovely Spring colourful flowers.
Narrow cobbled streets, horses winding up the road somewhat perigloso.
Always the steep high barren hillsides closing in.
The narrow band of cultivation clawed from the hills.
To Elqui Domos.


A soft spoken New Age man speaks of ‘special energies of the valley’.
‘Powerful magnetism’ clearly a physics free zone.
A steep climb with suitcases to the cabin.
Some kids having fun in domes music.
The cabin is spare looks OK.
The hills tower over it.
No wifi.


Back to admin dome, nice decor grey tiles, wooden mobile curtain, sky charts.
‘Wifi only in admin’. Toilet paper as before. Cold water. Disappointing.
Dinner’s very good but Alison’s adversely affected by energies and throws up outside.
Our New Age guide kindly brings Rosemary to soothe.
Night falls. Too many lights from street and cars.
The window blinds are stiff and difficult.
A nearby party loudly beats until four.
Cold showers.
We check out.


We drive back down through the pretty villages.
Down and down past the vines and barren hillsides.
The further down the more is growing, flowering.
The spring flowers bright colours.
Montegrande is warming in the sun and stirring.
In the little plaza fruit sellers and jewellers set up shop.
Alison chats to the jeweller and buys a pair of silver earrings.


Down again to the main valley.
Then to Molle very tranquil.
People on horses followed by a dog.
We stop for empanadas at an airy plainly decorated cafe.
Bright red spring flowers.


On down the main road bigger villages roadside stalls.
Developments for sale for rent for all.
It’s busier more built up.
To La Serena back past the airport and on to the town
Through narrow, busy back streets.
Army barracks like a child’s toy fort with red and white battlements.
Stop at a hostel to ask the way to the Faro.
Wend our way through the one way streets low coloured houses.
Down to the wide long Avenida del Mar with lines of big thick palm trees.

Stop at the Faro.
Lots of folk out.
Sunday outings to the seaside.
We walk along the front.
Get to a big hotel with cabanas.
Ask to see a room.
Looks OK.
No claustrophobia here.
Just a fine sea view.
We check in.


Towards the Paso de Jama

When I hired the Great White Teapot at Calama I had arranged a permit to take the vehicle into Argentina. I thought it would be a romantic idea to cross the Andes. The northern passes were the best bet, the ones to the south are higher and quite likely to be snowbound at this time of year. So we decided to drive out on the CH27 towards the Paso de Jama and, if things went well, perhaps complete the crossing.
The road from San Pedro de Atacama takes you out past the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama. This was the only place we saw any quantity of free water in the area the whole time we were there. Some kind of burst main or similar had actually flooded the road.


The road approaches a shoulder of the Andes and then crosses it. Seen from our place in Coyo it all looks quite simple. But the scale of the this place is immense. We drive for a long time across the plain before even beginning the ascent. Then we ascend for what seems like forever.


We gradually pass our friend Licancabur on its southern side and the real size of the volcano becomes clear. There is still a goatherd, lonely or otherwise working here. We can see him from the road with his animals. We stop. Look back at the wide, wide vista of the plain and the salt flats. San Pedro and Coyo we can just about make out way off in the distance.


We drive on. And up. Up is the order of the day. You’ve never seen so much up in just one road. We wind from time to time. We pass the Chilean custom post though the border with Argentina is still many miles to the east. There is a sign for Bolivia. First left, keep on through the Andes, you can’t miss it. But always up and up and up.


The road levels, there are patches of snow at the side of the road. The landscape is barren, gravelly. There are high peaks streaked in snow all around us. We drive on in brilliant sunshine. Without it this would be a bleak and desolate place indeed. There are a few other vehicles around. A handful of big lorries. We think they leave their trailers near the top to be picked up by drivers from the other side. But the feeling we have is of isolation. Of being on the edge of the world.


We are near the highest point of the crossing, 15 874 feet. I was slightly worried about breathing at this altitude. Wimpy, I know but there was a lot of talk about altitude sickness in the publicity material. I feel exhilarated though. Maybe the low oxygen, maybe just the sheer elation of the drive. Looking back we can see the very top of Licancabur but viewed from the east side for the first time. The Rock of the peak is volcanic black. It has white lines of snow. It looks forbidding.


We stop at a big and partly frozen area of water and coarse looking grass. At first sight it looks as empty as the rest of the landscape. We get out. There is a walled parking area which is a bit of a surprise. The area is full of sparrow type birds. They are very active picking up something, seeds I suppose, from the gravel.


Then we see the beasts. They are grazing in quite big groups on the grass a couple of hundred yards away. At the time we thought they might be llamas, maybe domestic. Later we showed a photo to Jany who immediately said ‘vicuña’ and assured us they were wild. Then we saw large numbers of ducks and a big black and white goose. Also a gull which actually dived at me a couple of times. At 15 000 feet there is still plenty of life.


We finally decide that the actual Argentina crossing is not on. The border is still miles off and it is getting late in the afternoon. It’s just not practical. There is always the doubt about the weather at the back of your mind too. A fabulous drive in the bright sunshine but if the clouds come down as we know they can…..


We turn back. On the way back we get a view of the Mountains to the north west. Many of them will be in Bolivia. They form a distant snow spattered wall against a pale blue sky. In front of them is a frozen lake. A wildly beautiful scene. We resist the temptation to nip into Bolivia just to say we’ve been there. Back past the customs post. Eventually the huge plain of the Atacama desert opens out in front of us. We make the longest descent I’ve ever made outside of a plane and then we’re on the flat driving back to San Pedro.


We are Not disappointed. When we look out in the quiet of the evening back at Coyo we feel we’ve achieved a lot. We’ve seen the other side of our favourite volcano and seen what the world is like on top of the shoulder. Something we’ve wondered about since we arrived here. Tonight we know this wild, strange place a little better.

The Stars of Atacama

The Stars of the Atacama
(A note for the astronerds)

It’s been on the bucket list for a while.

For many years I have tried to get a decent view of the Milky Way in the Scorpius Sagittarius region. It’s the brightest part. You’re looking towards the centre of the Galaxy. There’s a dark band
Running along it which is gas and dust blocking out the stars behind it.

The trouble is that from Britain or similar latitudes it is very low in the sky. You need a clear horizon to see it. But that’s not the worst if it, light pollution is the killer. It is nearly ubiquitous in Britain nowadays. You need a really dark sky. And that is like asking for a live dodo. Dark skies in the modern civilised world are extinct.

That’s why we went down to Lake Tekapo in New Zealand a few years back. There, one hundred and forty miles from Christchurch and in an area where street lighting is carefully governed, the skies are as truly dark. From Mount John we had a wonderful view of the summer sky. A memorable experience if ever there was one.

That is to say the Southern summer. It was winter back home. Many magnificent sights were on display, the Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds, eta Carinae and the Milky Way of the Southern Summer sky but not the celebrated a Star Clouds of Sagittarius. That was where the sun was at that time. Back home it would be low in the winter sky.

What was required was a trip during the Northern summer to somewhere far to the South. That’s where Chile and the Atacama desert came in. We took a place in Coyo, a tiny oasis settlement a few miles away from the touristry of San Pedro de Atacama. Conditions here are idyllic for the stargazer. Very dark skies which are clear most nights. Coyo sits virtually on the Tropic of Capricorn at nearly eight thousand feet. Perfick.

I did not take any equipment other than a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars. Telescopic images are a’plenty online. I just wanted to see the sky at first hand.
The Milky Way is unbelievable here. On the first night at Coyo we went out to take a look as soon as it was properly dark. Even without any time to accommodate to the darkness the brightness of the Milky Way was apparent. As our night vision developed the view became stunning. It was difficult to believe what we were seeing. A soft bright glow across the entire sky blossoming into big billowing clouds of light in the Sagittarius-Scorpius region. Billows or pillows, take your pick, the effect was three dimensional. Through binoculars the whole region a vista of clusters, nebulae and brilliant clusters of stars. Completely mesmerising.

At home I have to use binoculars to find objects such as M11, M17 or M8 (The Lagoon). M22 or M4 are very difficult to find in the light pollution of the southern part of the sky. Here all of these objects are clearly visible to the naked eye. The Lagoon and the Triffid are brightly glowing embers. The Eagle and Omega fainter but clearly visible.

These are all familiar if hard to see objects for me. But then there were the unfamiliar ones. M7 behind the Scorpion’s tail is a strikingly brilliant patch of light. In binoculars it is a riot of bright stars. The Butterfly, M6 is not far away, another sparkling cluster. I could quickly pick out the constellation of Ara from our Kiwi days. It’s faint companion Norma is another area of rich star fields. Once again Cauldwell objects 82 and 89 are both naked eye objects. The Magellanic Clouds are on show, of course and The Big Two globular clusters, Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae are superb objects in binoculars.

On another night I went out for a couple of hours quite early and concentrated on the area around the Southern Cross. It’s on the opposite side of the pole to its position when we were in NZ in the evenings and sets around midnight. I still have to get used to stars going round the pole clockwise. Eta Carinae is striking of course. Still waiting for it to go supernova. Close by are C91 and the Southern Pleiades, C102. Not really serious rivals to their northern namesake but very pretty nonetheless. Around the cross are the Running Chicken and the Pearl. Kappa Crucis the jewel box is another one I’ve met before.

The Coal Sack is striking too. The brightness of the surrounding Milky Way show it up well. I have seen a number of meteors as you tend to do if you look at the sky for any length of time. They too are seen more brightly. A couple of them were quite brilliant and one left a trail for a couple of seconds. We have also seen the Zodiacal light regularly in the evenings. I noticed it the third night we were here. You would take it for light pollution except for the high conical shape extending through Virgo and Libra. And of course there is nothing in the way of habitation for more than sixty miles North West of Coyo.

Some other things which struck me about the sky. Scorpius seen in its entirety is a beautiful constellation, a big sweep of bright stars curling across the glowing clouds of the Milky Way. Mars and Saturn enhance it at the moment. M7 and Cauldwell 76 are beautiful additions to it. Eridanus is also much better seen in the round. Not as striking as some but it is a delicate jewelled chain meandering down into the Southern sky ending at the bright star Achernar. Corona Borealis could hammer Corona Australis any time in a fight. Seen from here the teapot of Sagittarius looks more like a kettle on the boil. The star clouds are puffs of steam from the spout. The Lagoon and the Triffid an isolated whips of steam. Modest Sagitta has a bright brash Southern reflection formed by λυκι of Scorpius.

Getting up just before dawn gives a completely different view of the sky. The Milky Way which dominates the evening sky has sunk below the horizon in the west. In the east the (northern) winter section of the Milky Way is rising. Sirius and Canopus , the brightest and second brightest stars in the sky make a brilliant pair. Orion and the bull are upside down in the northern sky, that takes some getting used to. Capella is nearing its highest point which is still quite low in the north. Fomalhaut, which we glimpse low in the autumn sky below the Square of Pegasus has passed almost overhead and is setting in the west with the southern aviary of Pavo, Tucana, Grus and Phoenix to the south. As the sky brightens Castor and Pollux rise above Licancabur, the huge volcano to the east of us.

Other scraps of observation, M10 and M12 Ophiuchi are globulars I don’t remember looking at before. Zubenelgenubi, (don’t you just love that name?) otherwise α Librae, is a double star. I had completely forgotten that. Uranus and Neptune are both sussed. Uranus is the nose of a rocket shape just below ζ Pisci, Neptune is in an arrow around λ Aquarii, the right flight. Invert if you’re up North.

We have now left Atacama, but the memory of its night sky stays with us. Totally magnificent. Totally unforgettable.

‘Tis the Voice of the Perro

‘Tis the voice of the perro I heard him declare
This place is too quiet I must bark at the air
As a boy with his trumpet so he with his woof
Batters ear’ole and eardrum and rattles the roof
When the weather is sunny he basks on the ground
And his snores have a soothing, mellifluous sound
But when in the evening the Chile air’s chill
His singing is raucous, his baying is shrill

I passed his adobe and saw his new coat
Which he wore with a colourful scarf at his throat
He lay in the doorway surveying the land
And the tourists all gave him a wave of their hand
He strolled down the street, a proprietary beast
As aloof as the Mountains which tower to the East
But then came a cyclist and up leapt the hound
And he saw off the bike with a fierce, joyful sound

Atacama Notes

First Impressions


The view from the air as we flew into Calama was desolate and forbidding. Hundreds of square miles of not a lot though prettily coloured. Was it a mistake coming here? The drive from Calama immersed us in this otherworldly landscape. The enormous sense of space was almost intimidating but the trip of roughly one hundred kilometres passed very quickly on the wide, well made road. The colours were subdued but glowing. The sky vastly blue. We had to stop to savour the lunar weirdness of the place. We spotted a couple of black and white birds of prey though what exactly they were finding to prey on is a bit of a mystery. As the sun dropped the colours deepened. On the horizon ahead the sparse Andean peaks took on a deep indigo. We passed through the Valley of Death, or Valle de la Muerte as the locals refer to it. We rolled past a Ruta de Desierto sign just outside the scattered collection of low lying buildings partly hidden in scrub which is San Pedro de Atacama and turned off to Coyo.

Felipé’s House


The house at Coyo is reached by a track which becomes progressively narrower and rougher as you go along. After scraping past some thorn bushes we arrived. The place is typical of the area. A low adobe and wood construction adorned on the outside with a shiny modern chimney, a satellite dish and at the back, a solar panel array. The Inside was spacious though it looked a bit worn. The Internet connection was surprisingly good. So was the TV reception albeit in Spanish. The first drawback became apparent when we read the notice in the toilet about the limitations on the septic system. No paper down the WC. Apparently this is the norm in outlying districts. You just bag it and dump it. There’s a cultural meme for you when you couple it with satellite TV and fast internet.

The second hiccup came when we went to light the gas. It gurgled and no gas issued forth. Sounded like it was waterlogged. This was the case as was clear when we called the caretaker lady, Jany, to ask for help. Easily sorted, but by this time what with having scratched the car and the toilet business I decided to email Felipe, the owner and let him know our displeasure. Jany seemed a little nonplussed. She is a local and vey helpful. Her own house does not have electricity. We must seem like spoiled, urban, first world kids to her.

The Night Sky from Coyo


The Hamill Southern Observatory (HSO)

We go out to take a look at the night sky. It is very clear. It is very dark. As our eyes adjust themselves we are gobsmacked by the spectacle which emerges. The sky is alive with the most brilliant, glittering display of stars we have ever seen. But the crowning glory is the Milky Way which stretches in a wonderful band of light right across he sky passing directly overhead. The trip was planned to coincide with the waning moon and with the Sagittarius region of the sky at its highest. This ‘Star Clouds’ region of the Milky Way has to be seen to be believed. It looks like three dimensional pillows of bright, soft light. The whole curl of the Scorpion is visible along with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius. Mars and Saturn are close by too. Our kiwi friends the Southern Cross and Alpha and Beta Centauri visible low in the sky. The net effect is stunning.



The bed we use is very comfortable. Waking up in the morning we see the distinctive shape of Licancabur through our window. It is pretty impressive. We go outside and bask in the rising sun, the night has been chilly though we are comfortable enough inside. The name of the peak means something like the ‘People’s Mountain’ not Tony Blair’s idea but that of the aboriginal folk who arrived here around four thousand years ago. The volcano, for such it is, sits on the border with Bolivia and is 19 400 feet high. We are already at about 8 000 feet and it towers over the landscape. Breakfast is taken in a leisurely way as we absorb the view and soak up the sun.


The Magical Landscape

The journey to and from San Pedro de Atacama is quite short. But the road takes you through a transcendental landscape. No attempt I made at a photo or video got near the impossible scale of the place or it’s subtle colour. The air seems to have different optical properties, an almost supernatural clarity. Even the blueness of the sky seems different. It Perhaps an effect on the sheer quantity of it. The volcanic peaks which disappear into an extreme distance towards the south east are subtle shades of indigo, earth red, ochre. These hues are modified by the blue wash of the distance. They take on a magical quality. The whole range is flattened by the distance. It look like an impossible, limitless theatrical backdrop. On at least one occasion we have seen puffs of smoke or steam above a couple of still active summits. The term otherworldly was never more appropriate.

Valle de la Luna


The Valle de la Luna is a well known tourist attraction. The tour buses kick up the dust on the mountain biking youth who toil through its fierce aridity and hurl stones at the hired cars of the senior tourists who frequent it. It’s still worth the visit though. Bizarre rock formations and sand dunes all on a huge scale make up the topography here. We climbed the amphitheatre to view Licancanbur and were joined by a biking lad from Leeds. It seemed strange in such a weirdly exotic setting to be chatting about the new look of Briggate. Lots of folk turn up towards sunset. Alison spoke to a Chilean family and took photos with them. They shared a peanut and honey bar with us. The kids took turns filming ‘slow motion’ movies of the group running along a ridge. At sunset the beautiful subtle colours seen in the surrounding landscape deepen. You are surrounded by a gorgeous warm glow. As soon as the sun drops behind the hills though the temperature drops with it. A chilly wind springs up. We make our way back to the car park, listen to the comments about Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the beautiful evening sky and drive home in the brief gloaming of the Tropic of Capricorn.


San Pedro de Atacama


San Pedro de Atacama itself is a tourist trap which maintains a lot of what must have been its original charm. One story Adobe type premises line unpaved streets where walkers, cyclists, cars, loiterers, vans, people pushing huge trolleys of bottled water and of course, dogs mix together with little or no friction. There is a generally laid back air about the place of which the epicentre is the main plaza. This is a large paved square with graceful Peruvian Pepper trees (I think). The church of the Saint in question is at one side, a discrete but solid adobe structure with a campanile and an archway in its decorative walls. Cafes surround it. There are coffee drinkers and lunchers sitting in the sun. Strolling musicians with guitars, pan pipes or both entertain or annoy them as the case may be. The streets themselves are busy in a relaxed, holiday sort of way. A lot of space is taken up by tour operators. They all compete to transport visitors to the main attractions. Telescopes are common furniture on the street corners. Tours of the night sky! Ours is best! Competitive commercial astronomy. There are many, many cafes and restaurants and many hostels. There are artisan craft shops with attractive, brightly coloured woven goods, gems and jewellery. Even a pyrographic artist who burns his wood with the aid of a magnifying glass and the plentiful local sun. There seems to be a local ordnance that all business signs shall conform a to a stylistic norm. Raised lettering and logos on polished wood. It does avoid the graphic pollution which ruins the visual character of streets elsewhere.


Brave New Hippies

The ethos of San Pedro is, in the main, youthful. There are backpackers and young entrepreneurs and shopkeepers. There are older slightly bemused tourists and kids on school trips. There are certainly locals of all ages here too but young seems to be the hot ticket. The town is a popular Chilean resort. This encourages a happy go lucky feeling, gives it a buzz. The dress code is colourful and offbeat ethno-casual. I would guess the place is like certain Afghan villages in the innocent sixties. The hippy spirit is alive here but the driving force seems to be adventure sports and commercial enterprise rather than spiritual quest and enlightenment. New age tomfoolery is in evidence usually to lend an angle to some aspect of the local economy. Andean cosmology to the astro trips, crystal vibes to the lapis lazuli sales, ill-defined but salubrious magical energies to the bus trips. Frequently in the warmth of the day the sound of guitar playing of varying levels of competence is heard in the street.

Los Perros

The perros are not peculiar to Atacama. They are a Chile wide phenomenon as far as I can see. I assume this attitude to dogs, a combination of total acceptance and total unawareness or indifference is a development of the Spanish outlook. We met it first in Santiago. The hounds sprawl lazily in the most unexpected places. Like the one at the Mercado central on the busiest street crossing I’ve seen. They were ubiquitous in Valparaiso. The chorus of barking continuing day and nigh. In San Pedro they seem a little more social forming groups, gentleman’s clubs perhaps. Many wore collars and were nattily turned out with coats or rather rakish neckerchiefs. They spend most of their time lounging in the sun. They are never really aggressive. They do occasionally run after a faster than usual cyclist, possibly they see themselves as traffic cops but in general They seem as oblivious to the humans as the humans do to them. The two species inhabit parallel worlds which don’t interact with each other.

At Coyo we were treated to their nightly chorus. It varied. It might be a solo performance with one dog repeating the same phrase for hours. It might be a duet conducted across several kilometres. At other times we were treated to the full orchestral force of all the dogs in the village in a complex fugue. These various ensembles ran in relays throughout the night. It was rarely silent. I got so used to it that it became almost like a reassuring lullaby. It was the background of my astronomical forays into the dark, dark Atacama nights. For me it is now the soundtrack of the southern sky.


He come with the dawning spreading all the light all around. I have come to appreciate sunrise as never before since staying in Coyo. The nights in the Atacama desert are chill, sometimes very chill. The adobe’s only heating is by a log fire. We just haven’t bothered lighting it. To much hassle. The strategy is to dress for the day and dress for the night as separate arrangements. The days are clear and usually warm to very warm. As soon as the sun sets the temperature drops like the proverbial. A chill wind will often suddenly appear. Then it is time to don the thick shirt and pullover. For stargazing add other layers and don the long johns aka cycling tights under the trousers. The chill often intensifies towards dawn. When you get up it has a definite wintry touch. As a kid I had a thing about dawn and the sunrise for a while. I would carefully underline the official time of sunrise as given in my pocket diary. I would get up very early especially to see it. In part this was the influence of the Gibbs SR and Kia-Ora adverts which skilfully employed images of dawn and early morning to invoke a sense of freshness and renewal. These cutting edge examples of the commercial art of the time provided me with a modern heliocentric mythology. Here in the desert I have regained it. Coyo is virtually on the Tropic of Capricorn. The sun rises at 67 degrees to the horizon. It seems to take off like a rocket. It rises into the Northern sky and very rapidly things warm up. Bringing back the warmth not only to the ground. It has become a ritual for me to sit outside on our porch with a cup of tea and simply absorb the sun’s heat until I feel thoroughly thawed and deliciously, warmly alive.


Felipé’s House

(to the tune of ‘The Black Velvet Band’)

Way up in the old Atacamey
Where the nights are so fearfully chill
There’s a house made of wood and adobe
It belongs to Felipė or Phil

The road to the house is so thorny
It scratches your car as you go
And the lock on the door I must warn ye
Is a bugger to turn to and fro

Inside it ain’t nowt to write home of
The furniture’s seen better days
But there’s plenty of space to spread out in
And the Internet happily plays

There’s a telly that speaks only Spanish
And water that’s hot and then cold
And the worst thing’s the note by the toilet
‘No paper down here!’ you are told

Now that is a bit of a poser
That will have you scratching your head
But Pre-Columbian folk had no paper
Aye, and just look at them, they’re all dead!

No matter we’ll cook us our dinner
And laugh at the cold Chile night
Oops! The cooker’s been flooded with water
It gurgles and then it won’t light

But the sun rises up in the morning
And shines in a sky of azure
And the chambermaid lady who calls you
Is the mountain called Licancabur

Then the wind blows up on the desert
And the mountains are hidden by dust
If you walk out you’re hot and your eyes hurt
You’re dry with a terrible thirst

Perfect timing! We put on our dinner
And the gas runs out just as we do
And the microwave can’t be our rescue
‘Cos the power it has gone AWOL too

But Jany comes over to help us
Whose ancestors lived in the hills
And she and her hubby are canny
Handy people who cure all our ills

And we’ve millions of stars as a ceiling
That live in the far Southern sky
And the Milky Way’s glowing bandana
Arches sparkling and glorious on high

And the hiccups and hassle all vanish
And the problems and grumps fade away
And the blazing night sky of the desert
Takes you out of yourself and away


Valparaiso is a crazy place. We travelled here by bus from Santiago. A pleasant journey in comfortable seats. After a short game of musical chairs, that is. Alison thought she’d lost the ticket. It had our seat numbers on it. We sat in the wrong place. We had to move. I was sitting on the ticket. You know the sort of thing.


Warm day and brilliant blue sky. Until we got within a few miles of Valparaiso. Thick cloud wall to wall. Like California we said, cloudy near the coast. It looked rough on the outskirts, cities always do. It looked just as rough towards the centre, maybe rougher. We got out. Heavy grey overcast. Everything seemed a bit grimy, a bit run down, a bit broken. Even the people. A few guys touting for taxi fares. We took one of them up on it.


Off through the centre. Some big grand old buildings now shabby. Busy streets, loads of fast traffic. Lots of horn blowing. Very Latin. Ancient shabby trolley buses. We get a bigger view of the town. It’s built on high hills, the clouds are down on the tops. Hills teeming with houses disappear into the clouds. Like San Francisco, we say.


Big houses, small houses, tin shanty houses, smart houses. There’s a green one and a red one a blue one and a yellow one. All these colours at once and more. They seem to be covered in graffiti. Everything from scrawled initials to big well painted murals. Some are guerilla work. Some look to be commissioned by cafe owners, shopkeepers.


We see how steep the streets are. Really steep, San Francisco and then some. The whole place looks like Haight Ashbury. But gone to seed, run out of money, flaking., breaking down. We drive on squeezing past other traffic, pedestrians all mixed up. We go up and up and up.


We reach the Casa. It is graffiti free outside, inside it is quiet, calm, orderly. There are tiles, textiles, polished wood, old maps. Even ships figureheads. ‘A nautical look’ ‘I say. ‘Yes, but the owner is from the South’ says Jorge the manager. He is small, neat, quiet. Speaks good English with a strong accent. He thought I said ‘nordical’. Our apartment is great, the living room has a view over the whole city and the bay. Wow. It’s like, Wow.


We take a walk. Down the steep, steep hill. We can’t get our heads round how, like, weird it is. Everywhere you look it’s steep. Like San Francisco, we keep saying. Yes, but more so. Houses piled up on top of each other. Graffiti in a million different styles. Wires strung everywhere. Tangled in knots and rolls on the concrete posts. The people look much like they did in Santiago. But this place is crazy.


We’re hungry. Go into the Cafe de Pintor. It has a colourful sign. Inside music that sounds Andalucian is playing. The fittings are dark wood. The place is clean and neat. We go for the fixed price menu. It’s good. the lady is friendly. She takes time to make her Spanish understood by Alison.


We walk back through town to the bus station. We need a ticket back to Santiago for Friday. The streets are full of school kids now. Big confident teenagers many in uniform. iPhones, laughing, snogging. The usual teenage thing anywhere.


The traffic is fast and noisy with horns blowing. The buildings are chaotic. Big grimy pink and yellow and blue colonial ones with fancy fronts. Smaller grimy newer ones. All the interiors though are smart and modern. The tangle of wires everywhere above our heads. It would be like a bad dream except everyone’s cool with it. They’re chatting, laughing, joking. Having a ball really. Just go with the flow in the crazy town.


We get our ticket, the señorita is patient, smiling. She makes it easy and pleasant. We head back. The road should take us to the sea. It has huge palm trees along it. The traffic tears along past the big buildings. Horns blare all the time.


At last we get to a quayside. It’s where the Armada de Chile and the customs hang out. Big smart buildings. Lots of little boats in the harbour. Big warships further out. The navy’s in town. Always. We look back up the hill. Thousands of coloured houses disappear into the clouds.


We make our way up the steep weird multicoloured hill. Crazy. Back to our wide big view. The lights are coming on. We open the windows look out. Lights on ships. Strings of headlights on the roads way down in the centre. Lines and clumps off lights going up the hills forever. A crazy place but awful pretty now.


Second day we take the hotel breakfast. Plump young Spanish Carla is in charge. Everything clean. Everything neat. Everyone helpful and smiling. We take the cereal and peach yoghurt, huevos revueltos. Switched egg as mum used to call them. We speak to an Ausie guest. Friendly. But of course.

We set out and walk along the Alemaña. It winds along the side of the hill. Not up, not down. Graffiti, some good some bad. There are very smart houses with big steel fences and smart cars behind them. Security cameras with razor wire. There are grotty houses. Dogs here, there everywhere. There is crap on the street. From grotty to knobby with no rhyme or reason. Always houses piled at every angle, every colour. Looking down the hills makes you dizzy they’re so steep. Like San Francisco we say. Yeah, man, but crazy.

We do Le Sebastiana. Neruda’s little place overlooking the sea. Five floors all very individual. Full of his toys as he called them. His fairground horse, paintings, coloured glass. His bars and everything geared for entertaining. A big china cow to mix his patent punch. A bon viveur and practical joker. He had it made, that guy.

Before we went in spoke to a Mexican lady. A missionary if you please. She’d lived in the Cotswolds. She’s with her boy. He’s maybe ten. Self possessed. Articulate. Likes the house and has the postcards. Likes big creamy hot chocolate too. Reassuring in a ten year old.

We go to the poets square. Sit with a poet statue. Shake hands with a poet statue. Wonder why a poet’s statue has no hands. All under the palm trees. There’s an open air gallery. Just more murals but they’ve tried to tame them. Make them official, it doesn’t work. They’re tight arsed. Stilted. Getting graffitied over themselves, anyway.

Further down to lunch in Chilean style again. A nothing kind of place on the outside. Inside the look and feel is modern. Cosmopolitan. Cool jazz. Black tiles. Chunky polished wood. Smiling ladies serve us. The food is good. Presented prettily. The view blows you away. Then a yellow and red painted old funicular runs right past the window. Like Scarborough we say. But crazy.

Down the steep steep steps. People drinking on them. They move aside politely to let us pass. Back to the centre. Pink and yellow plaster and wire tangles. Catch a battered old trolley bus. The inside is worn, ancient. The driver efficiently decodes our needs. Collects the small fair. At our stop he calls to make sure we’re off OK. We go up a funicular as ancient as the trolley bus. Dark wood polished by a million hands. Old metal with the paint rubbed off. Even the tiles on the floor have the pattern worn away. Reminds me of places that were old in my childhood.

The naval museum is a big, smart house up a huge flight of steps. Everything’s brass and wood and shiny. Shipshape. The rooms are high. The pieces on display are well presented. Big model ships, bits of wrecks, weapons. Portraits of stiff uniformed men, old photos of the bay full of ships, charts, paintings of battles we’ve never heard of, wars from a different hemisphere and Bernardo O’Higgins statue in a heroic pose, ‘This way to the pub, me lads!’ The quad outside is decorated with torpedoes and the capsule the miners were rescued with. A navy job it seems. Museum fatigue sets in. We leave.
We walk home. Up the Avenida de Gran Bretaña. There’s an ornate house with a pyramid tower. It’s painted purple with white trim. San Francisco or what. We take the Camino Cintura, a sort of ring road. I underestimate the size of the place. The road winds, meanders gets lost itself. There’s plenty of traffic but the areas get rougher, grimier, more dog ridden. More rubbish, more dogs. This is exactly where Jorge told us not to go when he gave us the map. Here be gawd knows what.

More bends.The grey clouds close in. There is a constant chorus of dog barking. Everywhere the steep hills tumble with houses. Many of them falling apart. Some houses look to be falling down. Who cares. Nobody. Call them shanties, that’s what they are. It’s a favella, a slum a shitheap. We pass a group of people smoking dope. ‘Buenos tardes’ ‘Buenis tardes’ back. Friendly as you like. Then we come across a dirt bike track. There’s a notice about local action for a community park. Somebody does care.

Eventually we recognise a street we were on yesterday. Soon we’re home. A welcome cup of tea. We sit in our big space, reflect on our adventures in the crazy city. The lights come on. The old whore’s put her jewellery on again for the night. She looks gorgeous.