¡Hola a todos!
It is natural I feel that some experiences on this trip will carry more weight than others and it is for that reason that my thoughts and comments concerning the Pachamama bus journey back northwards to Santiago will be brief. In truth, the journey took only two days anyway and the highlight for me was an evening stop-off at a waterfall, in a log- and stone-built cabin in some woods, within hearing of the pounding torrent. Yes, the falls fell far short of Iguazu but, the setting was very tranquil and rather picturesque. The evening was spent cooking a fine meal of steak fried on the gas cooking-hob, avocado-based mashed potato infused with roasted onion and garlic, a mixed salad and warm bread, all bought earlier that day at a local supermarket. In a rather rash moment, I assured everyone that I could cook the steaks, being the only male among the party besides our driver (who was being given a well-earned rest) and, quite amazingly, I surprised everyone - not least myself - with some tasty offerings; I even managed to cook the cuts to the various orders of my group! I confess that this success left me feeling a little pleased with myself - I put it down to male instincts regarding raw flesh and heat and countless lessons at the feet of a true master of cooking meat (my Dad, of course). Needless to say, copious amounts of pisco and wine accompanied the meal and so conversation and alcohol flowed late into the night.
I arrived back in Santiago with three days to kill before heading north upon the Pachamama bus once more. The first day, in truth, was simply the evening after disembarking from the bus and so some friends and I merely headed into the city centre for a coffee and, for some - not I, I was being good - the largest slices of cake I have seen in quite some time. The next day, Johanna, Rachel, Tina and I, compatriots from Pachamama, headed up Cerro (hill) San Cristobal for some excellent panoramas of the city. Not for us the funicular to the hill's top, no; we slogged up punishing switchbacks in the blazing sun along with other tourists, locals and a healthy array of those ever-present street-dogs. The walk certainly did some good (I speak with hindsight of course) and the views were stunning, although for more than simply the chance to see the city spread out below, like a toy-town. The views were also stunning for the very real presence of so much smog. It sat above the city skyline, blocking some views out entirely, a malevolent blot before the landscape. Santiago has, in this case, the unfortunate location between two lines of mountains, the Andes to the east and the Coastal Range to the west. The resultant natural basin holds the smog for days on end and apparently is only cleared after a day of rain.
My final full day in Santiago was also my favourite. In the morning, I rose early and headed to the Concha y Toro vineyard with my friend Chris, a two hour journey along three subway lines and a local bus route south of the city centre. I was particularly excited by this visit because I drink a lot of this company's wine back home and I enjoy it very much. Also, Dad and I once attended a wine-maker's meet at the Tanner's wine cellars in Shrewsbury and there spoke to a chap representing the company from Chile - thus I had formed in my head yet more romanticized imaginings of some happy reunion among the vines. Alas, this proved to be impossible: Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in South America and the vineyard we visited constituted a mere slice of the company's total land-holding. Nonetheless, the trip was wholly worthwhile: the vineyard lay nestled among roving hills, beneath shaded boughs and even boasted the original family home of the vineyard's founder, built in neo-Classical French style within an English country garden. After visiting so many vineyards in Mendoza, I wondered whether there would be anything new for me to learn in such a short tour. Of course, there was and the tour actually proved to be much longer and more fulfilling than those previously experienced. I learnt how many South American vineyards follow the French tradition of planting a rose at the head of each row of vines, a red rose for a red grape varietal and a white rose for a white grape varietal. This is done because grapes can often fall victim to disease and the roses are an environmentally-friendly method of detecting such pestilence early because they are much more susceptible than the hardier vines.
Concha y Toro also boasts a well-known story from the vineyard's early days. The vineyard's original owner, like so many wine-makers past and present, held a private collection of premium wine deep in his cellar, constructed from brick held together not by cement but instead by egg-white, a mixture that has endured to this day, some one hundred and twenty or so years later! One day he noticed that several bottles were missing from this collection. Clearly some of his workers were taking home more than just their wage packet. The owner knew that he would have to tread carefully so as not to alienate his entire staff so, being a wily old fox, he began to put about the rumour that his cellar was the private residence of the Devil himself. Quite why the Devil should choose as his lodging a wine cellar in the middle of Chile is unclear but, the local worker population being good, superstitious Catholics, from that day forth no more bottles went missing from the owner's personal collection. In these increasingly secular days the vineyard relies instead upon some rather imposing-looking jail-house styled iron bars to deter potential thieves but, I enjoyed the original story very much.
That afternoon I parted company with Chris and headed to the old home of Pablo Neruda, one of Chile's most celebrated literary figures, now a living museum to the great man. I showed my Argentine student card at the door and found myself able to enter for a third of the normal price. My elation soon evaporated as I discovered that entry included a compulsory guided tour, which - due to my student card - would be conducted solely in Spanish. Great. Actually, the tour was a lot of fun and, due to the interactive and particularly visual nature of the house, rather more intelligible than I had expected. Built upon the lower slopes of Cerro San Cristobal, the home reflected a terraced design, with three separate structures all built upon different levels and connected by wonderfully quaint wooden and stone walkways. I was reminded quite forcefully of the home of Uncle Steve, Aunty Sue, Jo and Ali, particularly I think due to the terrace design and the curious walkways leading to hidden gardens, views and such-like. The garden crowded in on all sides, conjuring a quiet, shaded nest of tranquillity and it was easy to imagine, before the advance of the modern, high-rise city skyline the excellent views that Neruda would have enjoyed over the fledging city. The rooms themselves were rather busy - Neruda was clearly a hoarder, though one with some taste. The highlight for me was my first opportunity to see a Nobel Prize medal, this for literature, which is displayed to this day in the poet's old study, the highest of the buildings constituting the house. At the end of the tour I spent a pleasant hour conversing with a friendly Brazilian lady who's English was fantastic and travel history amazingly extensive (she has seen more of Europe than I, merely inconvenienced by a vast ocean). Finally, with early evening approaching, I parted company with the Brazilian and made my way back towards the city centre and to the university theatre.
It was on the final day of the southern Pachamama bus tour that my guide, Vanessa, alerted me to a classical music concert being held in Santiago for two nights that-coming weekend. Happily, my bus to the north departed Saturday morning and so I was able to attend the opening night of the concert the previous evening. One of Chile's greatest and most-loved pianists, Roberto Bravo, was to play with the Chilean Philharmonic Orchestra. Admittedly, I had never heard of him, nor of many of the pieces on show that night but, that has never hindered me before where music is concerned. The evening was truly wonderful: the music was easy to listen to and executed well, the conductor alone was great value for money, a huge, hairy Polish chap who became particularly excited whenever the tempo quickened or the volume increased. Bravo himself was inspirational - despite looking somewhat frail (he must be at least 65), he held the audience well and his solo encore was especially good: so good in fact that I sought in vain for the name of the piece at the concert's conclusion, even speaking briefly with the theatre's programme manager but, alas, my efforts came to nought. Perhaps I shall rediscover the piece at some future point and I was at least lucky enough to hear it at all, in a small, intimate, poorly-lit theatre, in the company of passionate, vocal Chileans (you would never hear such whooping at a Classical concert in England). This was an odd choice of entertainment perhaps, on my backpacker adventure but, a glorious one nonetheless.
¡Saludos a todos!