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Taking the half-hour roll-on/roll-off ferry to Chiloe, the skies started darkening and the temperature started falling. We’ve had pretty much perfect weather so far (nary a droplet of rain in four weeks) but as we head southwards this can’t last.

Chiloe is a pretty interesting and cute little island, but the weather and the fact we only had one night there dampened our mood a bit. Really we’re just killing a couple of days until we get the boat from Puerto Montt for the far south. So a barely pleasant bass dinner was consumed and then we headed back to the hotel for some kip. Or we would have, apart from the vociferous shagging that was occuring in the room below us. All the livelong night.

After finally succombing to sleep, we were then awakened the next morning to a familiar chorus. I’m glad they were enjoying themselves. Anyway, it was time to bail from Chiloe and make our way back to the tiny town of Puerto Varas. The pleasing settings here (like Pucon it’s on a lake near a volcano – in this case Osorno) meant we could chill and prepare ourselves for the 4 day boat trip ahead.

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After the Volcano climb (where we bumped into the Swiss and Irish from Talca) the order of the next day was to relax and recover. Pucon is pretty well set-up for just touristy bumming around – one of the very few places in Chile so designed really. So a late rise was followed by intermaneting, some concerted nothing-doing, dinner at the excellent Trawen and drinks and the chilled Mamas & Tapas. All the while not having to watch England be rubbish against Croatia (although we watched Chile be rubbish against Paraguay).

The next day was an excellent adventure in the form of hidrospeed. This is a fairly new activity (there’s only 3 people in Chile running tours) but is great fun. Basically it involves travelling down rapids. In a wetsuit. With only a float for company. Awesome. The guy running was great value too, we spent an hour after discussing tourism and Chile in general.

For our final full day in Pucon we decided to hire some mountain bikes and head over to Lago Caburga to see the waterfalls. Sadly after about 5km the gears on my back wheel decided to shear away from the wheel making cycling impossible. A short time spent rigging the chainset so it wouldn’t interfere with the wheel, we then proceeded back to town with Dave half pushing/half pulling me along the cycle path. The odd looks we received escalated as we started overtaking people.

Anyway after making it back (possibly quicker than we came, aided by a tailwind) we managed to rescue the rest of the day and spent the afternoon kayaking around the lake.

After six nights in Pucon we finally departed for the isle of Chiloe, in search of its mermaids and witches.

After the helter-skelter voyage down the country, we decided to put down roots for 6 days in Pucon, a small town in the Lakes region of Chile. Caught between an active volcano and a placid lake with easy access to hot springs, rapids, waterfalls and mountains it’s an idyllic spot to laze around and chill for a while.

However, we didn’t come to Chile to merely chill, so once we dumped Shakira in the hostel car park we got right on with the activities. First day was a chance to ease ourselves with a gentle horse ride to see a quiet waterfall. Of course, this presumed we wouldn’t get grumpy, ball-busting nags to carry us around and a sharp gradient hike to go with it. Horse-riding for treks is a very romantic sounding notion, but the reality for me is a rather less comfortable experience. I’m not sure I’d be up for a few days with only these solid, muscley, non-plush creatures for company. Plus, there’s no cigarette lighter to charge my notPod from. On the plus side, the waterfall was gorgeous (pics when internet speeds pick up) and it was a good way to get into the swing of the town.

The moon that had been so slivery in San Pedro de Atacama was now waxing gibbous and it brought about a certain… rabidity in the many stray dogs that patrol the town. Beyond the usual car-chasing and spring-time ‘exuberance’ that such animals are often known for, they would now stalk your every move from hostel to agency, cibercafe and restaurant. The midday sun was pretty much the only respite, these dogs might have been mangy and creepy, but they weren’t nuts. Fortunately, the 21st century Englishman comes equipped with high-factor sun cream and wide-brimmed hat, allowing him to pass more or less unharmed at this time. I say more or less, I managed to get a tiny spot of sun-burn on the underside of my nose when the sneaky UV rays bounced off the snow and outflanked my defenses.

The snow in question was that capping Volcan Villarica. This volcano emits a steady stream of sulphurous smog 20km away from Pucon. The town itself has been devasted in the past by eruptions, but Villarica’s activity has been diminished over the last two decades. In the winter a mildly competent ski resort is run on the slopes here (I say mildly, the road that takes you there is often impassable), in the spring and summer gringos swarm to the top to get their money shots of liquid magma and smoke. While it’s a steep 5 hour trek up ski slopes to get here, it is worth it for the rarity of the opportunity and the views. The trip down is far more enjoyable and involves the complicated task of sitting on your arse and sliding your way down the mountain. The previous snow-boarding trip alloewd me a lot of practice at this so needless to say, I excelled at it.

After Shakira ably negotiated our dragging her through dusty rocky roads for the sake of a brief 30 min walk in the mountains near to where Uruguayan Rugby players had taken to eating each other we arrived in a nice little river-side hostel in Talca, a city in the Chilean wine-growing heartland. Some very tasty fish and a nice bottle of Carmenere sent us to sleep, preparing for a full day of sampling, supping and inevitably snoring the next day.

We headed off into the depths of the Ruta del Vino the next day to Villa Donoso. This was a very exclusive vineyard/hotel, alongside wine production (almost exclusively for shipping overseas) they offer full retreat type holidays, including wine baths (why this is a good thing I don’t know, seems like a waste to me!). In the evening we headed off to a local wine festival which was much better value – 8 samples for 2500 CLP (about 2 quid 50). Met up with some fellow travellers heading south the next day, a garrulous Irish woman (I’m sure there are other types of Irish women) called Alice and a quiet swiss girl called Andrea who is soon to spend 4 weeks on a cargo ship from Valparaiso to Holland. As adventurous as this trip has been, that’s a level far beyond what I’m prepared to commit to, so fair play to her!

On our way from Santiago to Talca, we stopped off at Rancagua, home of the O’Higgins football team, site of a Massacre of revolutionary Chileans in the war of independence, supplier to the largest underground copper mine in the world and birthplace of my Dad. Obviously one of these things is more impressive than the other three.

Weaving through the city streets, we spiralled towards the old Aggleton homestead (thanks again to Chile’s pathological obsession with one way systems) hoping that a) there’d still be something there and b) it wasn’t some ghastly tower block now. We finally found our way and parked up one road away at the Stadio El Teniente. Sadly we had failed to count on c) the big gate blocking the road off and not allowing us in. Bugger. Anyway, through the cracks it looked nice and it certainly wasn’t a tower block!

We arrived in Santiago to a warm welcome in Vitacura at the house of an old friend of my Dad’s (cheers Dad, y ¡muchas gracias Roberto y Marisa!). Santiago is a pretty cool city, very European, with a pleasing backdrop of always being able to see the Andes in the background. The contrast in wealth here compared to the north is stunning. Gone are the arid, 2nd world shacks and shanty towns in Arica and arrived are malls, highways, parks, gleaming office towers and far, far better coffee.

After a couple of nice days discussing the variation of Castellano, Chilean and Uruguayan Spanish with Roberto and Marisa, it was back on the road though, a european city is a nice comfort, but there are valleys, lakes, volcanoes and glaciers ahead!

Two cities a grand total of about 3km apart on the coast west of Santiago, Viña del Mar and Valparaiso are extremely different places. Most information seems to say that Chileans prefer Viña, but for me Valpa has far more character. From the huge Naval presence and Armada building to the creaky lifts carrying you up to the hills that surround the city, Valpa is far more colourful. Many streets have large murals covering walls and the houses themselves have a a tendancy toward the brightly coloured. The geography of it, as well as the scent of bohemia lead to inevitable comparisons with San Francisco (which is one of my 3 favourite cities in the world, so that’s a positive for me).

After a whistlestop tour of Viña/Valpa, we headed down to Isla Negra – the most remote but undoubtedly the prettiest of Pablo Neruda‘s houses. The place is filled with maritime inspiration, parts of the garden are set up to look like a ship (mast and all) and there are figureheads, globes, maps and wheels throughout. Neruda was a wonderfully earthy poet and his ability to tie the land and the sea together are writ large in the make up of his house.

Most etymology discussions of the word ‘prat’ describe it as an old English word for ‘buttocks’. So a pratfall is literally to fall on your arse.

A Prat in Chile, however, is somewhat different. Virtually every single town and city has an Avenida Arturo Prat (not to mention the equally ubiquitous Avenida Liberador Bernardo O’Higgins). Prat is pretty much Chile’s most popular hero and the worship of him particularly appeals to my British sense of a valiant loser.

Prat is unlike most Chilean military heroes. O’Higgins, while commander at The Disaster of Rancagua was ultimately a key part of the successful liberation from Spain and the eviction of Spanish power from Peru. Jose de San Martin led the overall liberation armies in Argentina and Chile. Lord Thomas Cochrane successfully took Valdivia and led the Chilean Navy to sack the Port of Lima. Prat however, is famous for the small part he played in the Battle of the Pacific (a war between Chile and Peru/Bolivia). While blockading the port of Iquique with a small wooden ship, Prat’s ship was rammed by an ironclad Peruvian warship. While this was ultimately the end of their part in the war, Prat and his men jumped aboard the Peruvian Huascar with swords drawn. Their heroic deaths inspired so many young Chileans to join the cause against Peru, the tide slowly started turning in their favour and ultimately Chile won the war.

Apparently there’s just been a 7.7 Magnitude earthquake in Chile north of Antofagasta. This was barely 5 miles north of the road we drove on a week ago from Iquique, via Tocopilla.

Scary shit.

I hate driving in  pretty much any city.  It’s exhausting and stressful – and that’s when you know where you’re going.

We’re currently in Valparaiso, just west of Santiago. Yesterday’s evening arrival in Viña del Mar was just haunting. There are cars coming at you from all directions, the signs are non-existent and the maps generally non-helpful. There’s also an obsession with one-way systems in Chile that borders on religious fanatacism. Basically, you’ve no idea until you actually get to a street whether you can actually  turn the direction you want on it, and in the few milliseconds it takes to check this out and work out what to do next, someone behind you is honking at you, lest you delay their rush to get home.

I’m pleased that we decided to do this trip by car – it’s allowed us to get a much better feeling for the expanse of Chile and it’s features, and it’s also given us a lot more independence. But I won’t be too sad in 12 days when we have to part with Shakira and make our way on public transport again.  Ultimately it’s a lot less stressful.

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