Thursday, August 20, 2009

In the shadows of the Andes

18th & 19th Aug

Our first day in Santiago was a washout. It was raining when our aircraft landed and continued to rain till the afternoon while we got our Bolivian visas. On our way to lunch, around the corner from the hostal that we were staying in, the rain stopped and a hint of warm sunshine appeared to raise our spirits. This was not to last and when we reappeared from the restaurant it had started to rain and continued to rain throughout the night.

Pooja woke up at 7am on the 19th, which in itself was not much of a surprise. What was incredible was that she had gone to sleep after lunch at 3:30 the previous afternoon and 16 hours of uninterrupted sleep brought about without a drop of alcohol in the system must have taken some effort :)

19th was a clear and sunny day and we were awed by the snow covered Andes towering around Santiago. We were told that we were lucky to have got a glimpse of the Andes as Santiago has a terrible problem with smog and in winters they are rarely visible due to the poor quality of the air in Santiago. It is only for a few days after winter rains that the atmosphere clears up and their towering presence is visible. In fact smog is such a big problem that when it rises over a certain level. the local government only allows cars with license platers ending in certain digits on the roads on a daily basis.

Given the nice weather we decided to go for a day trip to Valparaiso, a UNESCO world heritage site and the third (or fourth) largest city in Chile. Valparaiso is around 120km north west of Santiago, on the coast, and its claim to fame is that architecturally it has colorful old mansions built on 42 cerros (hills) that make up the city. Lonely Planet described it as a city that has you sighing on every corner due to the fabulous views and a city that brings out the photographer in everyone.

I was underwhelmed by the city considering the descriptions that had been given. While there is no arguing around the fact that a colorful city built on 42 hills has tremendous potential for photography, irritatingly placed skyscrapers and outdoor electrical wiring along the lines of what we see in Old Delhi spoiled most of the photographs. It was a nice place to wander around though and some views did leave you sighing about its potential.

One piece of advice though and i am talking from personal experience. If you are ever in Valparaiso let a woman in the group be in charge of the maps and navigation. Given the tendency of men (actually thats my tendency but am generalizing it to men in general to not look bad :)) to not ask for direction from locals and having full confidence in their ability to read maps, there is every chance of a wrong turn taking you downhill away from the place you really want to go necessitating a steep uphill 200m climb that could easily have been avoided had directions been asked initially.

After about 2 such instances i was forced to handover the maps to Pooja and we made it back to the bus station in the evening by the shortest possible route without any further incidents.

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