There is very little that can be said about our time in the Cook Islands because if you have ever seen pictures of it on TV or in travel brochures you will already have seen exactly what we saw - a complete tropical paradise! Besides one day when we hopped back on a little moped to explore Rarotonga, the island we were staying on, we pretty much chilled out on a beautful white sandy beach overlooking the crystal blue pacific for the entire week we were there! Travelling around New Zealand had been pretty exhausting (don´t all send sympathy at once!!) so it was a much needed rest before heading to South America. However, one or two things will always stick in our memories about Rarotonga. Firstly, the road around the outer edge of the island was only 20 miles long so you can imagine what a tiny speck it is in the vast pacific ocean. We therefore got quite fascinated by the potential tsunami situation we were living in, particularly having driven by several "tsunami evacuation route" signs on our tour of the island! Apparently the islands are indeed slap bang in the middle of a possible route for killer waves but are quite protected by the large band of coral that surrounds each island. Those of you with a penchant for natural hazards geography will know it is something to do with the fact that because the power of a tsunami travels along the sea bed, when it reaches land that gradually slopes up from the sea bed, it can continue to gather momentum, hence its devastating effects. However, around Rarotonga, the coral provides a very sudden and steep ascent for the wave from the sea bed to the land, thus reducing its force quite considerably. Safe as houses we were assured!! Thankfully, we did not have occasion to find out!
After hopping back to New Zealand for an overnight stop en route, it was only an 11 hour flight across the pacific that lay between us and the start of our South American adventure. We arrived in Santiago, Chile's capital, on Tuesday and have already been getting down to chilean business! Generally this involves hanging around in cafes drinking pisco sours, the cocktail made of the local firewater mixed with lemon and sugar - yummy yummy in our tummies! Santiago though has been quite a surprise to us. We had both expected South America to rival, and even exceed, the rough living conditions and sprawling poverty we had witnessed in Asia but we have been proved quite wrong. Of course, there is still a very definite sense that the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor, like in Asia, but the whole atmosphere is far more westernised than we had expected. In Santiago, the atmosphere was quite european in places, with cafes around the edges of paved and gardened plazas, ranging through a very edgy Camden-style bohemian quarter to a thriving business zone full of restaurants and skyscrapers to rival any western financial district. The food is fantastic, the drinks are delicious and people are so friendly we got settled very quickly, although we were always reminded that were very definitely not at home, by the graffiti that adorns any and every surface which will hold the paint. Sadly our Lonely Planet was published in 2009 so not everything it recommends is still open, leaving us having to quickly formulate a plan B on a few occasions, but nothing a glass of the local sauvignon blanc could not straighten out.
After a few days, we headed out of Santiago, towards Valparaiso on the pacific coast. Valparaiso cannot in any way be described as beautiful, since it is dirty, crumbling and unloved in places, and everything is clad in corrugated iron (albeit in bright colours!) but is is absoultely enchanting. Set on and amongst a series of very steep hills, most places worth visiting require quite a climb to reach them but the views from the top are unique. The coloured buildings sprawling across the hillsides down towards the harbour and the incredible street art which lines every wall and building side create the charm of the town whose reputation as one of the most visitable towns in Chile is well-deserved. Those literary buffs amongst you may know it hosts one of the poet Pablo Neruda's three homes (at the top of a big hill, clearly), not to mention many many restaurants which actively encourage you to snuggle under a blanket with a glass of vino in hand and something delicious on the plate in front of you. Hopefully the small coastal towns we plan to visit in the next few days - Vina del Mar, Zapallar, Ritoque - will offer the same chilled out delights before we have to brave some seriously long bus journeys to reach our next ports of call!