Unsurprisingly, like Uyuni at the north end of the Bolivian deserts, San
Pedro de Atacma in the south exists mainly to serve tourists. As a town,
it's OK and everything and, had I not seen nothing but desert for the
last six weeks, I don't doubt we would have hung around for a day or
two. As it was, we spent a couple of sweltering hours there and left.
Before we leave the high desert though, it's worth mentioning a few
things about the transition from Bolivia to Chile. About 100 metres over
the Chilean border, and the road turns from a rutted cart track into a
silky bitumen strip. San Pedro itself is a dusty little mud brick town,
but Willem, the Dutch guy, suddenly bcame very animated. 'Look, you can
get diet coke here' he exclaimed in the tones of a man who has been
subsisting on meat, rice and local colas for a month. Moreover, not only
is Diet Coke available, but it's served in passable restaurants by foxy
waitresses, not out of holes in the wall by terrifying matriarchs. The
other notable thing about San Pedro is that the Atacarma is the driest
desert in the world. It has over 350 clear days a year and it never
rains. In fact, apparently, some of San Pedro's more sedentary residents
have never, ever seen rain fall from the sky.
Big Ben, Big Deal
Still, we were heading for Antofogasta, one of the largest (and, as it
transpired, one of the dullest) cities in northern Chile. We thought
Jane's granddad had been born there, so this was something of a
pilgrimage. After miles of baking desert, we finally descended through
the last of Andes and, to our acclimatised bodies, the air became as
thick as treacle. Then we saw the sea: when you've spent over a month in
the deserts, this really is almost as exciting as when you are a child.
Actually the auguries for Jane's ancestors' old stamping ground were not
good. Antofogasta is the world's largest copper export port and not much
else. Really, unless copper is your hobby, it's difficult to spend more
than a couple of minutes marveling at big piles of copper, awaiting
When we arrived at the bus terminal, I bumped into one other bloke who
wasn't Chilean. He was a French student. I asked him if he could
recommend somewhere to stay. He replied in measured tones: 'Yes...but
you do realise that there is absolutely nothing to see here.' In fact,
he was wrong - there is one thing to see in Antofogasta and this is a
scale model replica of Big Ben. It was built to commemorate 100 years of
Chilean - British friendship, a relationship which has included high
points such as getting together to nick Bolivia's coastline and, more
latterly, the steamy politico-erotic Thatcher - Pinochet love in.
Still, what a rubbish replica it is. I mean, as an art deco civic clock
it's very nice and all that, but it looks absolutely nothing like
Pugin's gothic masterpiece. Nothing at all: it's not even the right
colour. This is doubly shit as the stupid clock was in fact a present
from the people of Britain who, unlike the Chileans, really have no
excuse for not knowing what Big Ben looks like. So we left, but not
eating some lousy food and reading an email from Jane's mum, telling her
that her grandfather was in fact born in Vena del Mar, a swanky resort
some 1300 km down the coast.
One expects (if one is ignorant like me) the Chilean seaside to be lush
and thick with great beaches. But it is neither. Although the weather is
often cloudy, it rarely rains and the coast is a drier, bleaker version
of California - mostly a stony desert, its vast distances punctuated by
functional towns like Antofogasta. Moreover, the Andes come right down
to the sea, just like they do on a map, leaving a littoral which, in
places, is barely wide enough to accommodate the pan American highway.
It really does feel like the edge of a continent.
Something to Beach About
But eventually things brightened up and we got down to Serena del Mar,
Chile's self styled premier beach resort. Serena is a nice enough place
in itself, although it's rather hard to believe that its beaches share
the same ocean with those in, say, Malaysia or Australia. They're big,
rough windswept ocean playas and the sea is none too warm. As an English
person, it's perfectly possible to splash around in these waters, but
it's no Pacific paradise: one local guy told me that Europeans usually
bitch like hell when they come all this way to find the Pacific is ten
degrees colder than the Med.
Appositely enough, Serena is very, well, serene. There are a couple of
reasons for this. Firstly there are almost no travellers there. The
reason? Well, Chile is kind of expensive. Not, you understand, expensive
like France or England or the US, but nor is it the kind of place for
those who like to tease a fiver out over a fortnight. But not only is it
overlooked by the pikier travellers (i.e. most of them) it's core
constituency have also deserted it. Serena used to be a major resort for
wealthy Argies. That is, it was until the World Bank discovered that
Argentina's government was using its MasterCard to pay off its Visa bill
and the currency collapsed. Now Argentina is a cheap getaway for
Chileans: plus ca change.
So it's a little quiet. But it's still a nice place and has great
seafood. Also, it was here that I managed to solve the mystery of why
three Pisco sours leave you completely babooned. That is because PSs are
not like G 'n' Ts. As a bartender explained to me, a normal Pisco sour
contains some 80 mls (or three pub measures) of Pisco, which usually
runs at about 50% anyway. In South America, this is a handy fact to
know. Even if, in this case, it was something of a post hoc discovery;
viz, I was already truly plastered. And I know I was very very drunk
because in Chile you know that everyone's very drunk when someone at
your table starts telling you what a good bloke Pinochet was.
It's chilly beach aside, La Serena's other big draw is its
observatories. High up in the mountains above town, these shell-like
white domes are all over the place. Astronomers like northern Chile
because a) it never rains and b) there aren't all that many military
coups to threaten their expensive toys. Anyway observatory tours are OK
- all very school trippish, and, in our case doubly so as there was a
rowdy school trip up there with us. As it was, there weren't any planets
out. This was a bummer because even the most powerful telescope in the
world will not resolve another (i.e. non-sun) star into a disc. So while
you can see many more stars, unless you're pretty keen, they all look
the same; planets, on the other hand, are much cooler to look at as you
can actually see stuff. Still the evening was leant some unexpected
levity by an American pair who kept banging on about the wonder of it
all and man's place in the cosmos and generally going 'Wow' a lot. The
calibre of their comments made me wonder if they actually understood the
difference between astronomy and astrology and if they'd come up here
hoping to see what happened when Uranus went into their love sign or
La Serena duly finished we headed down to Santiago which, rather
worryingly, is starting to feel a little bit like home. As I've been
there before, I don't really have that much to add about the place,
except that I wouldn't mind living there. And that it has the finest
espresso bars anywhere in the world. For not only do these make great
coffee, but they have clearly been designed by someone who was heavily
involved in Bond films in the 70s. They have these terrific retro
interiors, seriously chic, with curvy bars that snake all over the shop.
But best of all are the people who serve you. These are all unfeasibly
tall women clad in unfeasibly short, clingy dresses, very porntastic.
And they serve from a platform a foot off the floor, allowing punters a
perv's eye view of their cleavage. Naturally, I asked for a stiff one.
I'M IN THE EXECUTIVE LOUNGE
Sadly, however, I could not linger for as long as I might have liked in
these PG-13 Starbucks - we had a flight to catch to Easter Island, in
order to cop some big head action. So it was back to Santiago Airport's
remarkably swish exec lounge, courtesy of Jane's Silver Card. I like
Executive Lounges and not just because they serve 12 different kinds of
finger sandwiches. This is just as well, as we had a three-hour wait, at
the end of which, our flight was unceremoniously cancelled. Anyway, the
reason these places are fun is because they always contain a fair number
of people behaving how they think rich, classy people ought to behave.
The result is rather like a Harry Enfield sketch. In our lounge this
demographic was represented by a group of Americans whose every gesture
and remark appeared designed to draw attention to themselves. This
worked in that it made me notice that the alpha male, a beefy bumptious
jock type was wearing black socks with deck shoes.
But just as I was pondering this twit and his sartorial Chernobyl, an
Australian stole Jeff or Biff or whatever his name was's thunder. The
Aussie was, you see, MAKING A DEAL over the phone and doing so so loudly
that you could hear him in the gents, 30 metres and several walls away.
I must say, if I ever found out that one of my employees was
broadcasting company information at such volume, I would have them
sacked on the spot. Still, I guess he got his wish. After he had
entertained his fellow passengers to the most earsplitting transaction I
have ever encountered, no one was in any doubt that he was a) terribly,
terribly important and b) a complete prick.