Notes from a traveller: part five (continued)

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Kaye has itchy feet: again. Read why – and where they’re taking her – only on Just About Travel Continued from yesterday

Continued from yesterday

Santiago had been hyped up by my brother who raved about the Chilean capital claiming “it’s the one South American city where I could actually see myself living.” Indeed my brother was so smitten by Santiago that he extended his stay from two days to 10, so I was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about.

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Bird’s eye view of Santiago

However when a destination is the subject of so much hype, it invariably falls flat and while at first glance Santiago certainly looks the part – set as it is against the stunning backdrop of the Andes – it lacks, in my mind at least, that certain je ne sais quoi. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with the city per se: it’s got gorgeous landscaped gardens, a fantastic seafood market and a wealth of first class cultural centres (here’s looking at the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda and the Centro Gabriela Mistral) and museums. (Don’t miss the Museum of Memory & Human Rights which exposes the terrifying human rights violations that occurred under Chile’s military government between the years of 1973 and 1990). But having been to Buenos Aires, I found myself feeling in Santiago like a film director who, having worked with Matthew McConaughey, now finds himself forced to work with an extra from Emmerdale. The Chilean capital has its measured charms, true, but all the fine dining restaurants in the world can’t disguise the fact that the Santiago will never match the glamour and grit of bustling Buenos Aires and its atmospheric, colourful barrios.

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The Museum of Memory & Human Rights

Santiago has its charms

Santiago has its charms

One evening I asked my brother over a Skype call as to why he was so enthralled with Santiago? “Because everything works!” he exclaimed excitedly. “When a cafe or restaurant claims it has WiFi, it really does. It’s not just a ploy to get you to part with your cash. Plus there’s no corruption and Santiago isn’t dirty like areas of Buenos Aires.” (This, reader is largely due to the legions of public workers who are employed to keep things clean and safe in Santiago). I understand my brother’s stance: Santiago is certainly more ‘first world’ than the Argentine capital (which must surely rank as one of the most corrupt cities in the continent). However while reliable Wifi may make Santiago a modern city, it doesn’t make it a magical one. My beloved Buenos Aires has its dark side (make no mistake, danger is a constant companion) but it’s the city’s sheer dynamism that leaves a lasting impression.

Santiago

Santiago

And so in stark contrast to my sibling, I found myself cutting my trip to Santiago short. That Keith and I had such a different response to the two cities reinforced the fact that while we share a genetic heritage, that’s pretty much all we share. Our story isn’t unusual by any means: I’ve met plenty of people while away who have revealed after a Pisco Sour (or three) that their sibling seems like a foreigner to them. Keith and I have always had very different temperaments and tastes but it’s only a recently that I have finally realised that blood is not necessarily thicker than water. And after a particularly brutal recent encounter, I refuse to flog a dead horse. Rather my time on the road has helped me recognise that I can choose the people I call family, with whom I share similar values.

But I digress….! From Santiago, travellers to Chile need to decide whether to schlep south to go trekking in Torres del Paine or push on up north to San Pedro de Atacama – aka the driest desert on earth. I opted for the latter – partly because northern Chile was warmer than the south  and partly because after a 2.5 year stint living and working in the Middle East, I find myself drawn to desert landscapes. From Santiago, Chile’s number one tourist destination can be reached either by bus or plane. Travelling by bus works out to be marginally cheaper but then, when the journey takes 24 hours compared to a two hour plane ride, I wager that it should be!

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro itself is a dusty backwater town that nonetheless draws tonnes of tourists who use it as a base from which to explore northern Chile’s most spectacular scenery: think steaming geysers, salt flats, pre Columbian ruins, rock formations, larger than life lagunas and giant sand dunes.

Horse riding in San Pedro de Atacama

Horse riding in San Pedro de Atacama

With so much on offer, it can be difficult to decide what to do and see in San Pedro. Desert stargazing is a hugely popular evening activity but personally it reminded me of a GCSE science lesson (never my strength or passion). For me it was at dusk in the middle of the Valle de Luna when the sun sank and the sky turned an incredible flamingo pink that San Pedro de Atacama truly cast its spell.

San Pedro de Atacama

Spectacular San Pedro de Atacama

But San Pedro is too late because I know that my heart is already full and belongs entirely to Argentina. And so it is that I find myself heading back to my beloved Buenos Aires via Salta – Argentina’s indigenous north west region – for a final fortnight.

The driest desert in the world

The driest desert in the world

I have tried to analyse just why I feel such a strong affinity towards Argentina and I think it can be attributed to the fact that it’s considered a country of immigrants. Or as the great writer Jorge Luis Borges once said: “ Our entire country is imported. Everyone here is really from somewhere else.” All of which suggests that Argentina’s forefathers moved there because they needed to get away – just like me…

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Chile’s number one tourist destination: San Pedro de Atacama

To be continued on 12 May

To read part one of Kaye’s ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, please click here

To read part two click here and here

To read part three, click here

To read part four, click here

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