Chile—Santiago and La Serena

Chile was always going to be a scramble. Perhaps we should have realised how much of a scramble it would be, but it was a unique situation, so I’ll cut ourselves some slack. The Lawyer, the Doctor, and I were in the country to view a total solar eclipse (a story I’ve already told), but we were also each in the Southern Hemisphere and South America for the first time, and while we were all experienced enough at travelling, we were well outside our comfort zones. For myself in particular, while I’m used to travelling alone, travelling with friends is a less common experience.

We’d divided up the duties before arriving, with the Doctor, who was landing the day before the rest of us, dealing with accommodation and myself with car hire. The latter wasn’t too hard to arrange, but the crowds flocking into the country for the same reasons as us, as well as the vagaries of Internet booking, meant that the Doctor had a harder time of it, dividing our time in Santiago between the Luciano K and Magnolia hotels, and arranging a beachside apartment in the Agua Marina complex in La Serena.

It was a little hazy on the first day, but that cleared.
A glimpse of Santiago from the top of Cerro Santa Lucía

As the Lawyer and I flew in (on separate flights, mine delayed) to Santiago, the city wasn’t showing its best side. The morning light struggled through the clouds over the Andes and the coastal mountains that cradle the city, but the airport delivered us through customs and baggage reclaim without too much of a struggle. Our hotel had arranged a taxi to pick us up, with my Irish name replicated closely enough to be recognisable.

The drive into town took us past plenty of slices of the city, with the sights of wooden pallets stacked high, walls daubed with massive murals, and the now grey, overcast skies making me think of Belfast and the glorious 12th that it’s always a pleasure to avoid by being in a different country, and if possible a different continent.

A mural in Santiago, telling the history of the city.
Santiago is full of murals—this is one of the more official ones.

Once we’d rendezvoused with the Doctor at the Luciano K and dropped our bags, we could do some proper exploring. The Doctor had done some reconnaissance the day before and showed us around the city centre, taking us up the Cerro Santa Lucía, a sculpted peak in the heart of Santiago, with monuments and viewing points aplenty. From up there, we could see the contradictions of the city’s architecture: like most older cities, it maps its history through eras of enthusiasm and decline, with modern skyscrapers rising amid older areas both wealthy and drab, occasionally preserved but often neglected.

For the rest of that day and the next, we experienced as much of Santiago as energy and jet lag would allow. The city is easy to walk, though there’s a good metro system if you’re in a hurry, and it boasts some excellent museums. The one we liked best was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which showed a full array of artworks from across South and Central America, limited though these were. It’s a sobering reminder of just what was lost when the New World encountered the Old—civilisations that were developing along parallel tracks to our own but were snuffed out and much of their art and memory lost with them, as well as the chance to ever know how they might have developed, given the chance.

A golden ear ornament from pre-Colombian South America.
A rare piece of surviving native goldwork. Most of it was melted down.

As for nightlife, we weren’t the most active partakers. We became fans of the restaurant Holy Moly and the nearby Opera de Catedral bar, with burgers and beer at the former and pisco sours (and more beer) at the latter. Despite it being the heart of winter it was still worth enjoying the rooftop bar at Opera de Catedral, but we probably enjoyed being in the cellar of Holy Moly more, especially when the Copa America quarter final was on, and we were treated to a penalty shootout between Chile and Colombia. (A return trip to watch the semifinal between Chile and Peru after the eclipse was sadly less successful for our adopted team.) The Doctor and I also ventured across the river to the Cerro San Cristobal and to the Gran Torre Santiago at the Costanera Center in Santiago’s financial district. Both offered incredible views of the city and the mountains surrounding it, with the tower in particular worth visiting for the well-designed viewing floor and skydeck.

When the time came to drive to La Serena, our base for the northern half of our trip, my car booking proved to have been a solid one, though the car we were given was an odd Chinese brand, with Tesla trappings in the form of a massive LCD control panel, but little of the Tesla refinement (a delay of a few seconds when trying to use the screen, assuming it responded at all). Still, the five hour drive north was pleasant enough, with a single stop at a crowded filling station enough to refresh and refill us. As driver, I didn’t get the full benefit of the often stunning views as this section of the Panamerican Highway moved from mountainous terrain to rocky coastlines, but the Lawyer and the Doctor certainly enjoyed it, and the road was never too crowded, even at the regular toll booths.

The beach at La Serena, Chile, just before sunset.
It’s not Baywatch—that job was left to the helicopter that buzzed the beach after sunset, reminding surfers to get out.

We arrived in La Serena early enough that it wasn’t yet jam-packed with eclipse watchers. Our apartment, while chilly, was right beside the beach, so we did get to stroll along the sands and enjoy a Pacific sunset, in between which we were interviewed by a Brazilian reporter—one of many present for the event. Decent burgers but slow service were had at Bastad & Burger right beside our apartment, and we had an early night for the early start we were expecting the next day.

Of the actually eclipse experience I’ve already written, so for the morning let’s just say that we were well organised and ahead of most of the crowds, getting out onto Route 5 (the Panamerica) and climbing into into the mountains of the southern Atacama desert along several switchback sections. We’d read our instructions well and followed the signs to the La Silla base camp rather than the eclipse party camp that the normal road would have taken us to. A fleet of minibuses took us up to the mountaintop, where we joined hundreds of others in waiting for and enjoying a close-to-ideal eclipse experience.

A mirrored dish and telescope dome at La Silla observatory, Chile.
Even without the eclipse, it still would have been a pleasure to visit La Silla.

Descending in the darkness and driving back along the 5, things got a little more tricky. The switchback sections of the road were navigated without too much trouble, but long before we hit La Serena we hit a tailback. One that went on and on, keeping us stop-starting and crawling for an hour and a half before we reached the lane closure that was the partial cause. That and the numbers of cars leaving the eclipse viewing sites were a warning of what the next day would bring.

Our last day in La Serena saw us trying to get around some bank and card issues that had been only partly sorted out during the car hire experience. This entailed leaving the beachfront area of the city behind for the commercial centre, crossing the dirt-tracked area in between, and navigating the city’s one-way system before we could even begin to deal with the banks and get the funds we needed for our accommodation. Still, we managed it in time and had one last look at the beach before getting in the car and setting off at around noon. A little later than planned, but a five hour drive and eight hours before the car was due back was plenty of leeway, right?

Sunset over the Pacific again, seen from somewhere north of La Serena.
I didn’t get to see the sunset while driving—this at a rest stop we took was the best I could manage.

Wrong. The Panamerican south to Santiago was a nightmare. The one sensible thing we did was to fill up the car as early as we could, as every subsequent filling station featured ever-longer queues. Every toll station along the road south now resulted in a massive tailback as everyone quit the area of the eclipse for the capital and/or the airport. None of the tailbacks were as bad as the one we’d endured the night before, but together they added up, and it was long after dark that we found ourselves at the outskirts of Chile’s capital, trying to follow the signs for the airport. (On our trip north, we’d missed a turnoff and ended up heading south through the city instead, eventually restoring ourselves to the right direction through guesswork and drama.)

After some tense moments, we finally pulled into the car rental site with ten minutes to spare and gratefully returned our off-brand Chinese SUV without any more scratches than it had when we got it (but quite a bit more desert dust). A shuttle to the airport and a taxi into town at last brought us to the Hotel Magnolia, by far the most luxurious of our lodgings. We had just enough time to venture out to Holy Moly for one last round of beers and burgers, as well as Pisco sours before and after in the hotel bar.

A queue to board a coach in Santiago’s Terminal Sur.
All aboard for those of you who want to cross the Andes in genuine comfort.

That was more or less it for me though. While the Doctor and the Lawyer had another full day in Santiago to shop and explore, I was heading for the bus station the next morning, after eating my fill at the Magnolia’s excellent breakfast buffet. Farewells were said and I was off, first on the metro and then (after an hour’s delay) on the bus heading east into the Andes, where tunnels, valleys and switchbacks took me above the snow line and into Argentina, my last view of Chile being down a narrow rocky valley into the sunset land beyond.

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