Skip to content

Into Chile

  • by

World Trip Part 16

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Days 194-212

Mendoza, Argentina -> Santiago, Chile -> Valparaiso -> Viña del Mar -> Puerto Montt -> Puerto Varas -> Isla Chiloe -> Pucon -> Valdivia -> Santiago -> Mendoza

Chile and Argentina are neighbors – on a map they look like they are spooning, fat and skinny living in harmony. The border is defined by the towering Andes range, formidable enough to segregate two markedly different cultures and people. For sharing the long horn of South America, the people and politicians of these two countries have remarkably cold relations. One Argentine told me it was like the USA and Canada, but it seems to go deeper than that to me (for example, Chile sided against Argentina in the Falklands War). It’s amazing what you learn visiting a new continent. When I left for South America, I had to really stretch to remember whether that little country by the water was Paraguay or Uruguay. I knew there was probably a difference between Colombians and Chileans, but I sure couldn’t guess what it was. I couldn’t have predicted that Peruvian workers in Chile face discrimination along the lines of Mexicans in the United States, or that Bolivian citizens seem to face a universal wall of stereotype-driven opposition everywhere else on the continent. More than one country can claim the same dish as a national recipe and mutually accuse the other country of copying… The list goes on, and it just makes me dizzy realizing what I don’t understand about every other corner of this big world. Anyway, I crossed the Andes to learn a little bit about Chile for three weeks while my motorcycle was under repair in Argentina.

Santiago is the capitol city of Chile and plunged me headfirst into a new world that seemed strangely familiar. Beside the rapid fire slang-ridden Spanish used here and the comical currency valuation, the city feels in a lot of ways like the United States. People here speak in a lilting cadence that comes out almost like a song, putting my monotone Spanglish to shame. The sign for the Chilean Peso is very similar to the US Dollar symbol ($) but has two vertical slashes rather than one. The chuckle-factor never really goes away at seeing dinner bills of $5,000 (about 10 bucks). Their cash is incredibly colorful, durable, and has little clear-plastic windows. Beyond the little details, all the Chileans I encountered were upbeat, helpful, and proud of their country. I’m sure it helped my impression that I visited during a period of perfect summerlike weather, like visiting Seattle in mid-July.

On to the next city. One of my travelling friends described Valparaiso, Chile as a city made by God on an acid trip. While that’s probably a little bit offensive for those of the “clean god” mindset, I think it’s pretty accurate. The port city consists of a small flat section near the water surrounded by steep hills, houses clinging to the slopes like lizards on a tree trunk, connected by serpentine streets at improbably sheer angles. I hope they have a good brake repair shop somewhere. After a day discovering the psychedelic graffiti art, birds-nest of electrical wires blacking out the sky over each street, and rickety “ascensor” train car elevators plying the hillsides, one can’t help feeling a little bit off kilter. It’s far from sterile, with overpowering smells of rotting fish giving way to delicious baking bread within half a block. The overall effect is completely charming and unique, making this corner of Chile one of the most interesting cities I have visited.

One of my original goals was to cross from Chile to Asia as a deckhand of some sort on a cargo ship. Somehow I imagined a Captain Haddock figure strolling the docks, noticing my eager face and gesturing me over the gangway. As it turns out, modern ports don’t work that way and after some poking around I decided to bite the bullet and buy an airline ticket to Kuala Lumpur, leaving from Brazil on March 15. I had a good time watching the cranes loading and offloading the cargo ships, imagining what could have been – but in the end it felt fantastic making firm plans for the next chapter of the trip.

After Valparaiso, I made my way south to Puerto Montt at the northern limits of Chilean Patagonia. The town itself is nothing to write home about, so I won’t. This region is much loved around the world for the breathtaking scenery, and it was definitely beautiful, but here’s a dirty secret: it looks almost exactly like the Puget Sound! The mountains and volcanos in the distance, evergreen hills, and ships anchored in the harbor were almost like déjà vu. The two places are at fairly similar latitudes (Seattle above the equator, Puerto Montt below) and are situated on inland bodies of water connected to the Pacific, so I can see how similarities might arise. Whatever the case, after a couple of days here I met up with Blake again and our new friend Ankie from Holland so we could rent a car as a group.

We rented the car from a guy named Enrique. He claimed to have a rental company, but it was probably the most informal rental in the history of Chinese Corolla knockoffs. After a failed meeting at the bus station, he ended up driving the car to McDonalds where we were poaching wifi. He stopped curbside and had us fill out a short form on the sidewalk without checking for any identification – even a driver’s license!

Him: “How many days do you want it?”
Us: “Uh, five I guess.”
Him: “OK, you have to pay in cash.”
Us: “Well, where should we leave it when we’re done?”
Him: “Wherever you want. If it’s in another city I’ll go get it, but I’ll have to charge you. Take it to Rio if you want.”
Us: “Ummm”

He grabbed his backpack out of the car and walked away without looking back. I thought the car might be stolen or otherwise shady, but we checked the paperwork and it seemed to be Enrique’s legitimate buggy. I guess he didn’t feel too attached to it…

The next week’s road trip was a brilliant exercise in asceticism, a polite way of saying we lived like bums. We spent nights on the beaches of Chiloe Island, one night in a tent and another in an abandoned fishing hut with hard plywood floors and fogged-over porthole windows. We also slept in the car on a sidestreet of Whistler-like Pucon, disturbing the other wealthy visitors by making dinner on the sidewalk while blasting 80s music from our run-down “BYD”-brand car. We went hiking on a smoking volcano, survived an encounter with a terrifying unbroken stallion, popped a tire driving on a rough volcanic road in the woods, and embarrassed ourselves with the world’s worst rendition of Hotel California at a karaoke bar that drew a sympathetic round of applause from the other perplexed patrons. It was a memorable five days.

I also learned on the trip that I got in to Stanford’s masters of science program in Aeronautics and Astronautics! It was a fun place to get the news – halfway across a waterway on an old car ferry, somewhere in Chilean Patagonia, the email loading slowly on my Kindle’s browser in the back seat of Enrique’s sketchy rental car. I’m waiting to hear back about other options before I make a final decision for post-travel study plans, but I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

I have nothing but the best impression of Chile after my brief visit there. Blake, Ankie, and I split up after the road trip and I am now back in Mendoza, Argentina with Couchsurfing host Daniel. My motorcycle is repaired and I’m formulating plans for my last six weeks in South America. I pick up the good old DR650 from the shop tomorrow morning, trading a frighteningly large amount of money and a month of waiting for a usable machine. I suppose the coming adventure will make that trade completely worth it – Patagonia on two wheels will be hard to beat! With that, I’m signing off. Remember to check your oil.