That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Over the Andes

6 December 2010. Monday.

The volcanic south is also the misty and cloudy south. Meaning, I’m going to have to take their word for it, I’m afraid, that there are indeed volcanoes. I’m not asking for a big demonstration – nothing that might bury me in boiling ash – but perhaps a little burp. Or, at the very least, a parting of the clouds.

Volcan Osorno’s base is visible across the silvery saucepan of Lago Llanquihue, but its Fujiesque dome is totally obscured in a cotton-swathed sky. The town of Puerto Varas has mild charms that blend bits of Banff with bits of Duncan, B.C., but I have meandered through the whole of the town three times and it’s not yet a quarter to twelve in the morning. Hum!

An incredible change of pace, if nothing else – the single dilemma I face today is whether to hire a bike or not. Given the quietude of the town and the hidden splendours that won’t reveal themselves, I am looking forward to Bariloche on the Argentine side, and hope to spend a bit more time there. It sounds more purely like a Banffesque town with gargantuan mountains all around, and something of a buzz about it as well – though surely that could be the buzz of other tourists…

The night bus last night was quite good – a bit of a sore tailbone from sleeping at an incline for about eight hours, but that’s par for the course. I read some Bruce Chatwin, and played Scrabble against myself. Is that sad? Well, it might have been if I hadn’t scored a bingo! (SCUTTLES). There was no one to ooh and ahh at me though. In fact, I can’t think of a single person who would. But it kept me entertained. It isn’t hard to do.

Hmm. I wouldn’t say I regret Puerto Varas – this is essentially on the way to my real destination anyway, and it’s a relief of some kind to be in an incredibly quiet town without hordes of fellow travellers around. I can eat some croissants (media lunas, sorry!), cycle, hike, regale in the splendour of 19th Century German timber architecture, as Germans featured large in the development of the town over a century ago. I could nap, and maybe, just maybe, challenge an old Spanish-speaking grandmother to a game of Scrabble. Cor blimey, it’ll be a full day after all!

Perhaps more than Banff, or Duncan, P.V. just reminds me of small-town Canada overall. Grid-system roads, four-way stops, nary a pedestrian in sight except for the occasional dog walker or mum with a trolley. Quaint, faux-dollhouse buildings, ice cream shops and little galleries, and this cafe where I sit right now – colourful and brimming with cheer, biscottis and local art for sale. Populated by a middle-aged clientele on laptops or buried in newspaper pages. Kind and mild. These might be the “Lagos Patagonicos,” but there is nothing of Nigeria’s Lagos here.


Nothing today has really dissuaded me from the idea that I’m in the Kootenays. If only I were a rafter or heli-skier!

It’s 10pm, I’m treating myself to a beer in a kind of night club with no one in it, but a Shania Twain concert DVD playing on about… four screens. Today I’ve enjoyed a brief cycle round the lake (part of!) and a long walk down disused railway tracks and through an overgrown thorn-bushed trail to the shore, all loose pebble and mud. Managed a couple of words of greeting with two fly fishermen, and got approached by a very angry dog. I’m very looking forward to tomorrow – crossing the Andes by bus, and descending into the next big valley on the other side: the valley of Lago Nahuel Huapi. I’ve decided that, rather than risk another night of it being just me and Shania, I shall push through and take a second bus to El Bolson tomorrow night. Reunion time with M it is! So tomorrow will be epic in every way. Hell, Osorno might even erupt (come on, you!)

7 December 2010. Tuesday.
I have 90 minutes in Bariloche, and four hours till getting to El Bolson and joining up with M. What’s this town like? I’ve never been to Switzerland, and unless I come across an illicit windfall and need somewhere cute to stash it, I may never go at all. Bariloche epitomises what I’d expect – razor-edged summits ring the lake, and wind whips across it into a town of chocolate shops and wooden gift shops. For an adventure tourism hub, the town is sweeter and cuddlier than I might have imagined – I suppose scraped knees and bruised arms are best left for the trail.

The bus here: three hours in Chile through mostly pastureland and white cloud, which eventually gave way to intriguing mountains sheathed in large wisps of mist and gusts of sleet. So much for “summer”?

By the time we crossed the border and hit the eastern ribs of the Andes, the sun had freer reign and joyous vistas emerged. Great snow-peaked dinosaur-jaw ridges presiding over whitecapped lakes, great slides of tanned scree plunging steeply into the water, having washed away whole groves of twisted pines in their wake. Other mountains were completely bereft of trees, though dotted with dark puffs of thorn bush or bright bursts of broom. A misty, freezing network of lush ravines gave way to these semi-arid craigs, and I, like a hunter on the prowl, kept my Nikon poised for rapid snapshots from the bus window. Several times, I hit my mark, and let out a satisfied “ha!”

After having eaten a burger in town and changed Chilean pesos into Argentine, I’m now suddenly aware I have to go. So, here’s the last note for the moment – I imagine there will plenty of writing time in a couple of days, but as I’m about to see M for the first time in several months, I may put the book away till Friday at least. El Bolson ho!

Filed under: Travel, , ,

Valparaiso and the big bus south

4 December 2010. Saturday.

Santiago is behind me, and I’m ensconced in a triangular patio on the corner of Cumming and A. Montt streets, motorbikes and flatbed lorries rumbling around me here in Valparaiso. The sun blazes, and colourful, worn-down, century-old buildings stack against each other up the steep hillsides. Snoozing dogs steal patches of shade to lounge in, oblivious to motors rumbling everywhere.

My own hostel is a wooden-stilt-supported home built in 1892, snaked around by quaint alleyways and gritty stairwells (which are much more enjoyable after having dumped the rucksack – it was quite an ascent – a mile and a half walk from the bus station seemed doable enough until the hill decided to go steadily upper and upper).

The city’s got a bustling and youthful atmosphere about it – graffiti murals stretch across cracked concrete walls. No gang-style turf-claims, there are portraits, surreal landscapes, abstract expanses of colour for its own sake. I’m very curious how these murals are agreed. Do artists split the city up and decide to tackle different walls? How much of it is collective? Does anything ever get painted over? Do the UNESCO Heritage folks, who’ve designed the old town a treasure of humanity, actually kind of like what these kids are up to?

My last night in Santiago was a minor epic of lateness, involving a cluster of fellow hostellers, two of them long-term, who had collected their own friends in town since their arrival. The night involved a nightclub, which we were permitted into for free thanks to a Brazilian’s apparently magical skills at asking the doorman quite politely. The music was cheese and Top 40, before salsa dancing ensued, and it all closed up by 5am. Not the natural way to prepare for an early morning bus to Valparaiso (“Valpo” if I start using backpacker slang) but I made the bus all the same.

The major attribute of this city is the architecture and the street art, and the main thing for me to do really is just to wonder in its grit and colour, and look out across the Pacific horizon towards what I suppose must be the northern tip of Queensland. Despite all this, there isn’t much to “do” but drink coffees and take photos, which I’ve done plenty of so far, and which I certainly don’t mind. The purpose of travel to me seems often to be to seek out new and idyllic cafes, little bars, and take photos. So, missions are certainly being accomplished, however simple these missions are.

After the supermarket meals of cheese and pitas that I’ve depended on so far, tomorrow I’ll treat myself to sushi (as ubiquitous here as in Vancouver, though not quite as cheap). Even that meagre plan makes me look forward to the reunion with M in El Bolson even more, as solitude has its limits! Four more days till then. If buses from Puerto Montt permit…


I’ve just found a gorgeous, perfect hang-out cafe, thus re-fulfilling the cafe mission. A smoky, street-level dungeon, dim lights, young bohos, eighties rock played quietly, gritty and unpretentious, serving beer from tins for CH$900. It’s called “Cafe Ritual.” Tell Lonely Planet all about it! Walls of red and white, sheet music lacquered haphazardly across the walls, random furniture, and tiny. O.K., now for pasta.

5 December 2010. Sunday.

Valparaiso’s sun has re-emerged after a day of cloud and cool breeze, and with it, the end of a period of aimlessness. Feeling quite bright and excited about the next phase – the bus south – and also pretty well rested. A part of me had been very looking forward to the “Valpo” (sigh) Saturday night, imagining lots of folk rock blaring from cloistered late-night cafe bars, but 1) I was so tired, and 2) my fellow hostellers were kind of annoying, and 3) Cafe Ritual was the only place that looked appealing in the end. So in the end, I made some pasta and sipped a pisco sour courtesy of Jorge, the gregarious hostel owner (shame about the party kids).

In the end, I did agree to join a couple of them on a night out, which only reconfirmed that once you’re in your thirties, you’re in your thirties. And it’s nice here in the thirties.

We ended up meeting with a hosteller’s German 22-year-old semi-resident friend, who led us up one of the city’s incredible hills near midnight, towards his friend’s house where a party was supposedly going on. I was mentally bailing on them the whole walk, after the German explained his view on getting a good daytime high versus nighttime high. My favourite nighttime highs tend to involve dreams of riding a flying dinosaur, and these are utterly uninduced. So, 40 minutes after setting out on this walk, and finally finding the guy’s friend’s house and the cast of six half-asleep beer-drinkers, I said my hellos followed by a quick sorry, I’m out of here. Just not up for small talk about nighttime highs, sorry.

All for the best, as rising early, I got some insight from a Chilean surfer/geographer over breakfast about Chile’s south, and he advised me against Puerto Montt (a non-descript small city) and suggested Puerto Varas – just 20 miles from P.M., but a village on the lake, under the shadow of towering Fuji-like Volcan Osorno, and well connected for Argentine buses. I decided I’d take his advice, as I felt long overdue for some outdoor beautinesses.

First to the choral service at St. Paul’s church, a small place on Cerro Conception (I’d expected an organ service, but oh well) and then a successful tour of hilly neighbourhoods and some new classic photos. Took a couple of elevadors, the 45-degree-angle funiculars that grind up and down the steep hillsides of the city. Got online briefly and planned movements with the M. Without mobile phones, we are really going to be going old school, and having to plan our meeting point in advance – no luxuries of “I’ll text you” or “25 minutes late, can’t find that cafe, let’s meet at Tourist Information instead” – no, we’ll have to, umm, plan!

It’s now resplendent in Valparaiso – The sun is getting low here at 6pm. I think about London’s 3.45pm sunsets and snow, and find it oddly suddenly natural to be experiencing late spring in early December. I get this sense of normalness surrounding Christmas being a summer festival – something that is tied in with general carefree holiday excitements: why not also indulge in gift giving and song singing at the same time? Festivities surely don’t have to be stuck in with the act of hunkering down, making beefy stews and complaining about winter-induced aches. Not sure how it will feel to see fake Christmas trees erected closer to the time, but on verra.

But, that old sun is reclining seriously now, and I’ve got places to go. An 8.15pm departure for the volcanic south. Boom boom!

Filed under: Travel, , , ,


Hi all – I’ll be transcribing some of my South American travel-journal scrawl here in the Travel section of Polygonic over the course of the next month or so. Here’s the first small bit, though I promise entries will get more eventful once I find a computer with a decent connection!

3 December 2010

So this is Santiago. As is my habit lately, I donĀ“t seem to write in these little books too much anymore unless making lists, sketching out chapters, drawing logos for hockey teams that don’t exist. The only time I write about my day it seems is whenever I’m away. Right now, I’m most certainly away – the first steps on a new continent, back in the New World, shoe soles pounding on the foothills of Pacific coast mountains. Welcome home!

I was nervous in leaving the old world for this one, primarily due to heavy snow in London and a tight connection I’d need in Madrid. By sheer tooth skin, I made the connection, and settled in for some fitful sleeping, and as usual, found the deepest slumber within about an hour of having to land.

I arrived in Santiago yesterday morning: got on a bus and was nearly immediately approached by a fellow traveller, a fellow called Rupert, a South Londoner (Streatham!) who didn’t seem happy map reading and wanted to know if I knew where I was going. I said that I hoped so. He was nice enough, if very wide-eyed by the whole place, and coincidentally, we were booked into the same hostel, La Chimba in the Bellavista district. A small pang of fear shot through me that I’d have a companion for life now.

Faith No More would be closing a world tour in Santiago the coming Sunday, and it turns out Chileans have a huge fondness for the old rockers. The hostel deskie had a live DVD playing in the lobby, and told us excitedly he’d be at the show, live and in person. His excitement and distraction may have accounted for the fact that Rupert’s private room was not yet ready, while my dorm bed was. R decided against leaving the hostel until his room was sorted, which left me a little off the hook, and out I went to explore the city for the afternoon. We made plans to reconvene around 7.

I got a plat of empanadas and a beer (honestly did not expect a one litre bottle, but that’s how it came. Hey ho) before hiking up a nearby hill for (850 metres, but starting from 500). The Bellavista craig offered fantastic views of the Santiagan sprawl, a Seoulesque wallpaper of unblemished concrete, stretching far into a hazy horizon of Andean peaks – actually, more like a long ridge than a jagged mountainscape, so there were few ‘peaks’ to note. It was a tiring climb after three hours plane-sleep, and my earlier lunch of fried dough and lager.

A dinner of small steaks with a couple of hostellers, including Rupert, who had seemingly drunk the day away and made little sense by dinner. A quick visit to a seedy bar afterwards, and we returned to the hostel no later than 10.45, for crashing and sleeps.

The next morning – short walk bankside down the river towards the fish market: asking permission of fish mongers to take photos worked everytime, and led me into very small Spanish conversations. I think I was able to confirm one man’s guess that Britain doesn’t use the euro. I hope that’s what I said.

From there through sprawling high streets to the Museum of Precolombian Latin America, stacked floor to ceiling with 2000 year old fragments, frescoes, pottery, images of forgotten deities, and many questions and scenarios running through my mind of what the Americas might look like today without the European cancellation of this entire assortment of burgeoning civilisations.

Now, I’m in Barrio Brasil, a low key and sleepy neighbourhood with a sometimes-student feeling to it: a smattering of small rock bars and terrasses, some outstanding graffiti, and dogs sleeping in patches of shade beneath what is a partly, even mostly, cloudy sky. It’s hardly steaming hot – I doubt we’re breaking 20. The undereducated eye, which is what I’ve got two of, sees this city and wonders how easily it would slot into central or southern Europe somewhere. I reckon very easily indeed.

Tomorrow, I abandon the city and head west to the coast proper: two days in Valparaiso before a night bus south into the Patagonian northern borders. Somewhere around there, I’m sure I’ll find this girl I’m chasing.

Filed under: International, Travel, , , , , ,


June 2020

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