Big cities are always pretty grubby - oversized populations sardined in between too many vehicles and multi-storeyed blocks of concrete. Santiago is no exception; busy, frenetic, bustling, but it stands out big time in my humble experience due to the ever-present layer of pollution which sits on top of everything. I´ll get to that later.
It took 2 hours to flag down a minibus yesterday outside Portillo. Buses run frequently up to the resort, but due to the fact that the inefficient Argentine border is a half kilometre before the resort on the way down, no bus times can be guaranteed so the buses don`t offically stop. Great. You can get to the resort no problem, and they`re more than happy to take your money with their US-focused ease of use and "put-it-on-the-bill" mentality, but to get back down to Santiago? No. I asked how to book a transfer, and was told to stand by the side of the road with my thumb out. It`s like Hotel California - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
The trip down was cramped, pinned between a chubby Argentine and a Paraguayan grandpa dapper in his crimpoline beige suit. Once again the countryside rolled by, but this time I really noticed how dry and parched this part of the world is, something I´d not really clocked before - cacti. Those huge 10 foot long ones, that look like loofers (spell check please, I´ve never written that word before in my life. Anyway, I digress.) or baguettes; you know what I mean. Again we were at the mercy of a Mansell, so couldn`t take any photies quick enough (not that I´d be able to show you them... looks as though that´ll have to wait til I`m back.) due to everything passing in a speeding blur.
Once we got off the bus at the oppressively hot terminal, Katrin from Germany asked me if I knew a good hostel. No idea. Again, a carbon copy of the last arrival into this coach station, there he was - know-it-all Mr Fix-It. "Taxi, hostel, hotel, excursion, another bus, where you going, what you need, tell me." "Quisiera un hostel" I shot back, pleased with my language capability. Then Katrin, in perfect Spanish, tells him we need a cab to a good hostel, could he recommend any and where are they and how much. "Thought you were German?" I remarked. "I´m fluent in German, English, Spanish and French" was the concise response. "Oh" I mono-lingually replied, inadequacy tapping me on the shoulder and waving.
Booked into the Eco Hostel in downtown Santiago - what a place. Super bright, laid back, clean as a whistle and I have my own room in the boy`s bit cos I´m the only one in the bunk room. Nice one. So after a quick pizza and a couple of beers, chilled and hit the sack.
We walked the length and breadth of the city, including the cathedral, ancient art museum and the Cerro Santa Lucia, a huge hill in the city centre with a castle on top of it. From the top of that you really appreciate how polluted the place is. The Andes stand out in the background, and tower blocks and skyscrapers stretch up to the what-should-be azure sky. But hovering is this blanket of white, almost ethereal, smog, everything tall rising out of it. It gets in your eyes, under your fingernails, and you can actually taste it.
It´s a really easy melting pot of nationalities to navigate, gridded like Buenos Aires. Poverty is not so apparent - the usual suspects such as BK and Pizza Hut rub shoulders with cheap electronics shops and the odd tramp wandering about, spitting and asking for cash every 5 seconds. Just like any other city on the planet, in reality. I like it, but there´s no way you´d really want to live here. We´re off out soon to meet up with Jules and Felix, the 2 lads I rode with in Termas de Chillan, so will be checking out the nocturnal side of life too. Tomorrow I`ve got a bus booked to Valle Nevado for the final day of shredding, so can`t get too wasted. Hmm, said that before...