Firstly, an apology that I haven’t written for so long. I’ve been busy working on my Australian visa application (for which I had to write four, yes four, reports, ugh!), and have finally got them submitted. So I’ve actually now made it all the way down to Patagonia. I’m currently sitting in a cafe beneath the amazing snow-capped turrets of the Cerro Castillo mountain as the sun sets, casting my mind back to my early days in Chile, back in Valparaiso.
One thing I definitely haven’t forgotten: on an early day of graffiti sightseeing in Valparaiso, I went down a slide to get to see a bit of graffiti and got my comeuppance. After taking hold of the edge of the slide to try and slow myself down before reaching the bottom, I managed to get my index finger caught on one of the outside props. It got stuck and yanked back. Then I managed to land right on top the same hand down at the bottom. Quite painful and not very sightly. All in all, I suspect I fractured the lower ‘knuckle’ on my left hand.
So, a few days later and with a nicely swollen hand and it was time to leave Valparaiso. Braking on the bike was definitely not too easy now, so I was strangely glad that there was a ridiculously steep uphill to leave the city. I’d decided to take some back roads on my way out, to avoid the main road and to take my time. After I’d huffed and puffed upwards for about half an hour, a man came out of his house to tell me not to go any further. He was extremely insistent that it was a dangerous neighbourhood and I shouldn’t proceed. As a cycle tourer, lots of people tell you something is dangerous but, to be frank, you learn to ignore them, given perceptions of danger differ greatly amongst people. But this guy was so incredibly insistent that I listened. He said there had been a fiesta the night before and even though it was early on Sunday morning, his not-so-nice neighbours were still awake and very drunk. He insisted this wasn’t a place to go alone. So reluctantly I turned round and then had to navigate my way all the way back down the hill (which was so steep, it was hard to walk normally, never mind manage the bike with 1.5 functioning hands and in shoes with cleats), only to pedal all the way back up it again, for the long 25km climb upwards and out of town along the main road.
Just south of Valparaiso the fields started to become carpeted with yellow flowers. Spring is in the air!
I stopped off at the small seaside town of Algorrobo for a cup of tea in a lovely little cafe along the sea front. For the first time, the weather was overcast but that didn’t stop the local strays from chilling out in the sand.
I joined the ‘Ruta del Mar’ – the start of the coastal road, an area known for housing the writing retreats of famous poets
I stayed in this great home-share by the beach near the small seaside town of El Tabo, ready to visit Isla Negra – another house of Pablo Neruda – the following day. The brother and sister who lived there had lots of pets and their puppy snuck its way into my room to do a widdle on the floor – I suspect not for the first time. I kept my flip flops on and trod carefully! I could just about spot the sea from my room and woke up to the wonderful sound of the waves crashing along the beach.
It was Monday night and everywhere was shut, except for this little fish shop just round the corner. Amazingly the only dish on the menu was fish n chips and it was pretty good too! A really nice taste of home – I couldn’t believe my luck
La Isla Negra
Pablo Neruda had three homes in Chile that are now museums – Casa Sebastian that I’d just visited in Valparaiso, one in Santiago, and this sea-side retreat in Isla Negra. The house was another show-case of his mad collecting hobby and obsession with all things maritime. It isn’t a huge house, but huge sections are dedicated to different collections. The main sitting room is full of huge wooden carvings of the ladies and mermaids that adorn the front of ships (can’t remember their proper name!). The dining room has more collections of the coloured glasses that he thought made water taste better. The study had collections of insects and trinkets from all over the world, and he built another bar where he would host famous parties for his guests, again appearing in fancy dress and changing his costumes throughout the evening. Throughout the house were nautical objects, from fish, to model boats and so-on.
One thing there wasn’t was examples of his poetry, except this couple of lines about the ocean:
‘The Pacific Ocean was spreading right off the map. There was nowhere to put it. It was so big, untidy and blue that it wouldn’t fit anywhere. So they left it outside my window.”
Pablo Neruda’s Isla Negra house
You can spy collections and nautical themed items everywhere
He has a huge shell collection which has now been put on display in its own little museum
Neruda and his last wife are buried just down the hill from these bells
A special kind of hospitality
From Isla Negra I continued my way down the coast and past the busy industrial port of San Antonio. The port area itself was completely open and although far busier than ports we’d see at home, had a bit of a depressed air to it. Riding round the back, I saw rows of small rooms where the dockers stayed. Here and there I could see men busy de-scaling and filleting fish, with the scales catching in the light as they flew up into the air.
In the absence of any hostels or campsites, I’d booked a cheap airbnb 4km off my route hosted by Ana and Jose, in a place called Casas de San Juan. As I pushed my bike up a steep track struggling to find their house, I heard a cheery voice shouting my name accompanied by the usual obligatory dogs barking.
It seemed I’d fallen on my feet. Ana and Jose were a lovely couple. Originally from San Pedro de Atacama and Santiago respectively, they’d met online after each going through a divorce and had decided to move down here together. Their house was up on a hill and had a view over the lush green valley of the Rio Maipo below.
We got chatting (well, they chatted, I tried my best with my still embarrassingly poor Spanish) and they just turned out to be people who loved to have guests and to hear about other people’s cultures and travels. Jose offered me a freshly made Pisco Sour which I was more than happy to join him in, and then Ana invited me to join them for dinner – fresh home made hamburgers and salad. Some very tasty local wine was poured, and Jose opened a second bottle. I could feel a glow in my cheeks from the wine and heat of the wood-fuelled stove, I was content and happily tipsy.
As I asked them about their lives, Ana told me she’d previously been a ‘Carabinera’ – a member of the Chilean local police. Los Carabineros are known for being one of the least corrupt police forces in the world, and people wear the uniform with pride. I asked Ana if she missed the job, and she told me yes, and that she’d left quite some years ago under the rule of Pinochet. With much sadness she told me how the Pinochet regime had treated the police force with severe brutality, and how many of her former colleagues had been disappeared.
I tried to imagine what she had been through, as her experience seemed so incongruous with this warm and caring person I saw standing in front of me. She asked her husband to put on some music – they especially loved The Beatles – and soon they were having a little dance together. It seemed like a good moment to make my way to bed.