Chile

– visited May 2014 –

I have to start with a confession: Despite calling this post Central Chile I am still, at least at the beginning,  in Patagonia. My next stops, the island of Chiloé, Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and Pucón are all south of the Bio Bio River which marks the end of Patagonia. I grouped them into the Central Chile post as for me, personally, I had left Patagonia behind as I was crossing from the Carretera Austral to Chiloé. And anyway, my post on Patagonia contains enough highlights. 😉

Chiloé

The island of Chiloé is famous for its wooden churches, recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage. The Church of San Francisco in Castro is very beautiful. Inside, it is all wood but the outside is actually covered by sheets of galvanized iron. In neo-gothic style it is by far the most elaborate of the churches, the others are more modest but not less beautiful. Besides the church in Castro, I have bad luck: The one in Achao is just locked, the one in Dalcahue closed for renovations and many others are on hard to reach islands.

Chile is in many ways the odd one out in South America. It starts with its geographic isolation. Many countries in South America have been and are closely connected; for centuries rivers have been vital arteries for inland travel. The Amazon Basin, for example, is shared by Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. The basin of the Rio de la Plata connects Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. Chile is isolated from all that, to the west, it is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, in the north, the Atacama desert long cut off the country, in the east, the chain of the Andes runs the full length of the border and in the south, the cold expanses of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego limited contacts. Charles Darwin describes with amazement how he found about the same number of different species of mice on both sides of the Andes in Argentina and Chile but none of them turned out to be identical. That is the reason why Chile is checking for fresh foodstuffs at its borders (similar to New Zealand, Australia…), some diseases and parasites just do not exist on Chilean soil.    

In colonial times, Chile was a hard to reach backwater. Decisions, fame and money were all made elsewhere. The disconnect has carried on into these days. The relationship with Argentina has long been difficult. Parts of the border are still not properly delineated, at stake is a great number of rocks, some of them coming with glacial ice, some without, and in the 1970s and 1980s the spectre of war was looming between the two countries. If the Argentinian assault on the Falkland Islands had been successful, an attack on the Chilean islands in Tierra del Fuego would likely have followed. The relationship with Peru and Bolivia, its neighbours to the north, is equally fraught. The issue here is still the War of the Pacific (Saltpeter War) that was fought from 1879 to 1884 and led to Chile gaining considerable territory (rich in Saltpeter) from its neighbours. While travelling in Peru, I asked someone how life is, his response: “It’s a great day, Chile got eliminated from the World Cup today”. How glad am I, that we have overcome these issues in Western Europe.

Chileans are sometimes half-jokingly called the “Prussians of South America”. They are considered a bit stiffer than the other countries and a bit more focused on rules. It is considered a lot less corrupt than other South American countries. Stories about Argentinians losing their cars to the Chilean police are numerous. It usually goes the following way, Argentinians are stopped for speeding, and instead of paying the fine, they try to bribe the Chilean police officer. Attempted bribery is a serious crime and the car gets impounded.

In the late 19th century, the Chilean military was modernized by a Prussian general and has kept many of these traditions. Still in Patagonia, in Punta Arenas, I witnessed a police/military parade that honestly, send a shiver down my spine. The style of the coats of the police officers just reminded me too much to the style of National socialism in Germany. The police is a visible and active presence in Chile. Even on sleepy Easter Island, I was stopped by police while riding around on my scooter. The scooter didn’t want to start again after the check, so at least I asked them to help me, which they happily did. Later on my journey, in Chile’s north, I would rent a car and be stopped by police as well. The two officers basically said hello and immediately started to open all the doors the car had, peeking around everywhere. My camera was lying on the passenger seat next to me but I wasn’t scared that they would attempt to take it (I would have been in a lot of countries) but it certainly felt intrusive. Oh yeah, and there are the parades, I encountered one Punta Arenas and another one in Santiago de Chile, I was told they are taking place most Sundays. Looking through my pictures in December 2019, I stumbled upon a shot demanding “stop to machismo and police violence”. Back then, it was only some graffiti for me but with the protests having erupted all over Chile in the past months decrying, amongst other things, police violence, it takes a bit of a different meaning.

The “Prussians of South America” also has a bit of another background. In numbers, German-speaking immigration to Chile was lower than to Argentina or Brazil but their presence is much more visible. In some ways similar to Paraguay but even more widespread than in Paraguay. The immigrants pledged allegiance to their new country but wanted to keep their customs, assimilation was not their aim. About 500.000 Chileans are of German origin and about 35.000 still speak the language. You will see German clubs, German “bratwurst” (sausage), “Kuchen” (cake) has entered the vocabulary of all Chileans and the Kunstmann brewery is following the German law on beer purity. You will especially find many German fire brigades, the concept of volunteer firefighters was introduced by the German immigrants and widely adopted in Chile. The German eagle graces many of those stations, in Valparaiso you will find fire engines completely marked in German as “Feuerwehr” and “Stadt Valparaiso”. This is not a thing to German-Chileans alone, I also found a Belgian “Brandweer”.

Zona Sur

I have reached the “Zona Sur”, the first region coming from the south, where considerable expanses of flat, arable land are located west of the Andes until the Pacific Ocean. Close to the mountains numerous volcanoes and lakes make for beautiful scenery. This is the area where German influences are most strongly felt. I visit Puerto Montt, the metropolis of Southern Chile and the end of the Carretera Austral. I would have ended up there, if I had not taken the diversion to Chiloé. If I had taken the Navimag ferry from Puerto Natales in Patagonia, I would have arrived in Puerto Montt as well.

In Puerto Varas, close to the beautifully shaped Osorno volcano, I taste the delicious “Bratwurst” from Müller’s; it is not 100% original though or have you ever eaten your sausage with avocado paste anywhere in Germany? I come to Pucón solely with the aim of climbing the Villarrica volcano. A beautifully-shaped, active volcano of 2,847 metres, it is covered by snow year-round. You walk up through ice and snow, hope to see some activity while looking inside the crater and then you slide down through the snow. I have only one possible day, I have to get to Santiago and time is short. The guy at reception looks at the weather forecast, “no, they won’t go”, is his verdict. Only one day in the last two weeks was deemed good enough to attempt the volcano hike. Yes, there was plenty of rain.

Santiago de Chile

Santiago de Chile is the political and economic centre of Chile. The Santiago Metropolitan Region has a population of seven million people. Chile is one of the, maybe the richest country in South America but also one of the most unequal. A homeless man is sitting on a bench and has lit a warm fire on the asphalt in front of him. It is a Sunday, and there is another police parade in front of the presidential palace. I visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which details the abuses committed by the state under the rule of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. I notice plenty of sex-related businesses in town. A porn cinema, an hourly hotel and several “Café con piernas” (Coffee with legs) a type of bar that only exists in Chile. The defining feature are the exclusively female waitresses with skimpy attire that might reach, depending on the establishment, from simple miniskirts and high heels to bikinis or even going topless. Another feature of Santiago are little houses, set up in parks, so that the stray dogs have somewhere to sleep.

Valparaiso

Valparaíso is Chile’s most colourful and atmospheric city often considered Chile’s cultural capital. It is the home of the Parliament, which is housed in an oversized, ugly building from the last years of the Pinochet era, but of no other political institutions. The centre is located in a flat area but the rest of the city is sprawling up the hillsides, leading to steep roads, staircases and several lifts and funicular railways. Many houses are covered with graffiti. The further you move away from the centre and the higher up the mountains you go, the poorer the city becomes. In April 2014, just one month before my visit, a wildfire that should become known as the “Great Fire of Valparaíso” had devasted some of these poor areas of the city. 2,500 homes had been destroyed, leaving 11,000 people homeless. Fifteen people lost their lives. I had seen the fire on TV while in Patagonia. I was told not to visit these areas as they would be rough but did it nonetheless and I was impressed by how many new structures were already being erected.

I also head to nearby Viña del Mar, a hotspot of beach tourism in the summer months.

Cerro La Campana

Somewhere in Tierra del Fuego, I had started to read Charles Darwin’s book “The Voyage of the Beagle” about his journey around South America that eventually led him to conclude that the many different species on earth had developed (and are developing) by a process of natural selection. On the first pages, I found the book boring but on my second attempt I found it a fascinating report on Darwin’s travels. I am especially impressed by his ability to observe the landscape and to draw far-reaching conclusions about the past and present. I am not sure if he is right on everything, science in the 1830s was in many ways in its infancy, but I learned a lot from his book and strive to be an equally precise and far-thinking observer.

One passage that had especially drawn my interest was Darwin‘s description of his ascent of Cerro La Campana:

“We spent the day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly. Chile, bounded by the Andes and the Pacific, was seen as in a map. The pleasure from the scenery, in itself beautiful, was heightened by the many reflections which arose from the Campana range with its lesser parallel ones, and of the broad valley of Quillota directly intersecting them. Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required to have broken through, removed, and levelled whole masses of them? … The appearance of the Andes was different from that which I had expected. The lower line of the snow was of course horizontal, and to this line the even summits of the range seemed quite parallel. Only at long intervals, a group of points or a single cone showed where a volcano had existed, or does now exist. Hence the range resembled a great solid wall, surmounted here and there by a tower, and making a most perfect barrier to the country.”   

I wanted to enjoy this view. It is an ascent of around 1,500 metres and a very long day trip from Valparaiso. I take the earliest train and then have to take two different buses to bring me closer to the mountain. I tell the driver to tell me where to get off. After some time, I start to worry. Somehow it seems we are driving back to where we started, I ask, “oh shit”, he forgot to tell me where to get off and now we are heading back to the station. I can take the next bus, even for free, but it means a loss of another valuable 40 minutes of hiking time.

As I finally reach the National Park, I find the gate locked. A sign announces that it is closed today to allow the staff to help with anniversary celebrations of the National Forest Service. What the f***! I climb through the wooden fence. Nearby, there is a hut for the rangers and an open window indicates that someone is there. I just keep walking … until I hear someone call. I turn around. I tell the ranger straight away that there is now way that I will not climb that mountain. He says I can’t, it is closed. I say I will. I tell him the story why I am here. He says, I can’t. I say, I will. We agree that he hasn’t seen me and I haven’t seen him. 50 metres on, I am not exactly sure which way is best to take. I turn around asking him with my eyes, he just shrugs, he is keeping his part of the deal.

I hurry up the mountain. I have to be down again at sunset, so the faster I ascent (and descent) the more time I will have on the summit. A dog is keeping me company for some time and two other hikers come down on my way up. The rest of the time, I have all the beautiful scenery just for myself. It is wonderful, it is just as Darwin described, all of Chile is lying in front of my eyes. You can see from the Andes to the Pacific, it is just a bit hazy towards the coast, preventing good pictures. The Andes form a wall, broken up by several towers. And the highest of these towers, unknown to Darwin, is Aconcagua, at 6,961 metres the highest mountain of South America (no volcano Charles) and clearly visible to the east. I decide to climb this mountain one day. I have already stayed beyond my cut-off time. I need to leave. I hurry down. I reach the valley as darkness sets in.