Tag Archives: Chile

Barcelona blog: Benvinguts!

Barcelona modernista chemist

Barcelona: It’s been a while, but I’m back. I spent 4 years in this great city before an aching heart and itchy feet took me to the big mountain ranges and red wine of Chile. After a year in the shadow of the Andes, I returned to European shores in January to be met by a gregarious Scottish customs official, heavy snow and comforting roast dinners. I dallied for a while in Windsor (living round the corner from the Queen) before fate and a temporary contract at a magazine brought me back to the Catalan capital. Barcelona sure is one hell of a magnet.

Not much has changed. The streets and houses are still being noisily drilled. Old ladies still dye their hair burgundy. Little shops that sell nothing but coat hangers, door knockers or shower curtains are holding their own against the giant shopping malls. People are still smoking like chimneys and wearing too cool for school specs. Kids eat giant croissants in the street at 6pm. Women clean the same rectangular shaped patches of pavement in front of their buildings, swivelling their mops dry between two hands as if trying to start a fire. And tourists, prostitutes and bag-snatchers still rule the roost on La Rambla, with not a Catalan in sight until the clubs chuck out at 6am.

Barcelona

Barcelona’s streets are just as filthy as they once were, despite being washed day and night by an army of cleaners who wilfully hose you down when you’re wearing flip-flops. And that’s all some people wear. I’d forgotten about the naked men. I caught a glimpse of one them taking a stroll by the marina the other day, but sadly it wasn’t the guy with the tattooed speedos.

Nothing has changed on the beach either. Women whip their tops off without a moment’s hesitation, while South American men, unused to such pleasures at home, can be easily recognised by their propensity for wearing dark glasses and lying on their fronts.

Prices have shot up while I’ve been away but the bars and restaurants are still full and somehow people seem to manage. Unlike in Chile, there’s a large middle class here. The rich aren’t as well off as the wealthiest Chileans but there’s not the grinding poverty either. No one can afford to buy a flat so the theory goes that you might as well accept it and go out and have fun.

Barceloneta beach, Barcelona

One thing I never liked about Barcelona was that people didn’t smile much. It took me ages to get this, but people here just don’t feel the need to grin like fools at strangers. It can smart when you smile at someone’s cute baby or happy dog and the owner scowls back, but that’s just the way it is here and you best get used to it if you’re going to stick around. It’s simply too darn hot to be warm and fuzzy all the time and Catalans don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves – at least not unless FC Barça are playing.

As a city, Barcelona shows you affection in the same way my dad does. It doesn’t scoop you up into a big, slightly suffocating bear hug like South America would. There’s no firm English handshake and a fight to buy a round. In Barcelona you just get the equivalent of one of my dad’s shoulder squeezes and a self-consciously mumbled “aye, yer not so bad lass”.

I’ve missed it.

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Filed under barcelona, blog, Travel blog

Chile’s Earthquake From Far Away

Photo by Luis Iturra

I was in a hotel room in Doncaster, England when I heard about the earthquake in Chile. I’d got a few days work and had woken up late after driving through the night. My mum texted me the bad news.

I’d been living in Santiago until early January and had missed being in the middle of the quake by a few short months. The badly damaged art museum in central Santiago was round the corner from my old flat. While I was living and working in Santiago, locals kept telling me they were expecting a big one (Chile, located on the ‘Ring of Fire’, seems to get hit every 20 years or so) but I don’t think anyone was really prepared for this. Chileans joked at us foreigners for being so nervy about the tremors, telling us that if things weren’t falling off the walls, it wasn’t worth waking up for. Saturday morning’s 8.8er certainly made them sit up and pay attention.

My initial reaction was fear – fear that my friends might have been injured or worse – followed by shock, sadness and, I have to admit, a little bit of envy. Here was the biggest news story to come out of Chile in decades and I’d just missed it. I’d experienced a few girly tremors but nothing like this and the trainee journalist within felt a bit duped.

I have no doubt that Chile will bounce back from this. Chileans are a stoical bunch. They’ll rally round to help and many have survived worse (the 1960 quake in the south was the biggest ever recorded anywhere). It’s the dogs I’m worried about now. The shelter where I was volunteering is now in ruins, and in a country where the majority of the people don’t have a great deal and will be struggling themselves, I fear the stray dogs of Santiago and the shelter in Melipilla will be forgotten about.

Here below is how I experienced Chile’s big earthquake, through the emails and status updates of friends on Facebook. These small snippets of information were way more informative than the BBC, newspapers or other media networks. 3 simple words – SAFE AND SOUND – were all anyone wanted to see. Other updates and emails were terrifying, while some expressed panic, resilience or good humour. The ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ award goes to a British colleague, who, much to everyone’s disbelief, managed to sleep through the whole thing on the coast…

From my inbox

Don’t worry, we’re both all right. I spent a few hairy minutes standing in my bedroom doorway – thankfully I live in a modern building and there was almost no damage (although the burglar alarm which reacts to movement spent the next couple of hours crying). It hit around 03.40am so I was a little drowsy and went back to sleep for hour or so afterwards though there were a few aftershocks. Xxx was at her mum’s and there’s plenty of glass that needs sweeping up but otherwise they’re okay. Both her parents have seen worse than this – her dad was in the south during the big one in the 1960’s. I haven’t been able to phone England. My mum is probably going mental. :S

Hey! Please tell Lemmy Killmister that Chile ROCKS!!! (Literally)

Thanks for worrying about me. Mobiles still don’t work. I was in a basement watching some bands. The earthquake was incredible and I had to walk a really long way home. Luckily though, I’m OK. Thanks.

I’ve just talked to him. He’s in the city and fine. His cat threw up though.

The tsunami now going towards Hawaii, thoughts and prayers going out to them.

I’m ok. Everything looks ok around providencia. not too much damage, we have eletricity, water, internet… supermarkets are open. Thanks for your concern.

It was at about 3:30 in the morning. I had just seen some friends off at the door of my building which is in the very centre, overlooking the Mapocho. At the beginning it felt normal, but then it started to shake so heavily that I decided to get up. I live on the top floor, so I though that if I tried to go down, the building would fall on me, so instead I decided to go into the terrace, which has a view of the Mapocho and north, and then I panicked! I saw how the pavement moving like melted chocolate and the traffick lights blowing up. Everywhere I saw flashes of light and then a general blackdown… And it didn’t stop. It went on for a couple of minutes (or at least that’s how it felt) and the only thing my panicking nervous system managed to do was dial my boyfriend’s mobile. No answer. The city was entirely dark. When it stopped, I hurried downstairs I don’t know how. On the way ddown, people with mobile phones to lighten up, or candles, or flashlights, most of them in pajamas. I went out of the building and the only thing I could hear was people crying, screaming. HORRIBLE!! I was shaking… I managed to take out a cigarrette and light it, and I sat down, still shaking: I couldn’t control myself…

My neighbour, a very nice man who I now wish I’d more of an effort to know, has given me his wifi key and also let me use his blackberry.. His entire family is in Conception, apparently their house is destroyed but they’ve survived okay. He’s waiting to get hold of a friend who was living in beach area that’s been 90% washed away by a tsunami!

The Lider has been looted!

It was a distressing night as it was about 4 am. The apartment shook violently, it was impossible to walk, everything fell off the walls, the electricity went so we were in pitch dark and the aftershocks continued through the night and still are. After that we spent the next few hours outside. The next day we noticed massive cracks in the walls, the corridors windows were cracked and water was coming through the ceiling in the one of the rooms.

I was in Viña asleep in a hostel and didn’t know anything until I got up at 10 am and asked why there was no water or electricity. No one can believe that I slept through it!

Thanks for your concern. I’m alive & well. Lost all glassware and some furniture but the building seems to be fine. I moved to my parents though, ’twas reaaaaaally terrifying to be on a 13th floor. The important thing my girlfriend and my family are alive.

I’m OK. There are some cracks in the flat and I’m sleeping outside in the square because my building is old and likely to collapse.

OK everybody, alive and in one piece, was in Valparaiso while all the shit happened, so the floor was moving from before for me.

(Description of a video link): The first impression I got of the earthquake was a river of water coming down the emergency stairs…

and yet another aftershock…just when I was starting to relax

SAFE AND SOUND

Was on an island when quake hit, spent hours in a hill billy truck “reading” the ocean, finally got back to mainland when found out landing strip wasn’t damaged. Flattened villages, crevasses in road, boats on land and houses in river. Friends flat pretty damaged, slept in car outside Conce… no water, gas, electricity. Pillaged supermarkets, riot police, more flattened villages and broken roads. Just assimilating the fear now my family know am fine and all friends here in Chile are ok. Now looking forward to some fine wine and a Chilean bbq. Love to all, will be back in touch when the hangover subsides!

It’s a bread frenzy, buy bread, forget the tinned tuna, buy bread!

I can’t sleep with all these aftershocks!! I’ve got a headache, there’s no internet or hot water, but I can’t complain. There’s a lot of people worse off than me..

Electricity, check. Water, check. Gas, check. Swaying building from aftershocks, check. Life is almost back to normal

Xxxxx and xxxxx, please, if anyone knows anything about them, let me know.

 Be careful if you’re wandering around the city- there are lootings at shopping centres and scuffles with police.

The animals were behaving weirdly ’cause they could feel it. Then, there was a creepy low-pitched sound from underground. The first tremors appeared while everything started to shake and, after an apparently short retreat, the huge wave was unleashed, striking us all without mercy.

In Santiago everything is OK, no visible damage in our neighbourhood and all our friends are OK, just very scared. Our flat has some minor creeps in the inner walls, the only problem was that our front door got stuck and we had to break it down. In the south, things are much worse. Let’s hope for a quiet and shockless night

If you’re near the coast i.e. viña, valpo, try to make your way towards the hills because of the tsunami warning- DON´T try to come to Santiago- highways are damaged and buses aren’t running.

Xxxx has never been so scared before. We are fine, our flat only has minor damage…update follows

Guys stay away from the coast they’ve issued a tsunami warning

Massive earthquake last night….but we are fine. Lots of broken glass in the apartment….i prefer my Iowa tornado over the earth shaking violently…and at 4am on sat morning…no where to hide.

With thanks to my brave friends in Chile.

P.S. If any of you would prefer not to see your words here, please let me know. x

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Filed under chile, Santiago de Chile, Travel blog

How to Couchsurf Without a Couch (Matador)

Santiago’s party people. Photo Natasha Young

You don’t need Couchsurfing’s most famous accessory to take advantage of the site. Here’s an overview of how to couchsurf sans couch.

When you’re tired of traveling thousands of miles across the globe only to be faced with a hostel-full of your loud drunken countrymen, it’s time to join Couchsurfing. No matter if the idea of staying on a complete strangers’ smelly sofa fills you with horror; you can still use the site to meet knowledgeable locals and avoid all those hostel ‘have you done Peru?’ conversations.

Better still, if you’re moving to a new country and don’t know a soul, Couchsurfing meetings are a great place to start making friends. Here’s how.

Once you’ve joined the site and created your profile, your first stop is to check the CS communities. Most big cities have their own group/forum on the site and even if they don’t, it’s worth checking the events page to see if anything is going on nearby. If a meeting is listed, you can generally assume that everyone and anyone are welcome.

The Meetings
Couchsurfing meetings aren’t (just) about trying to cop off with handsome foreigners although they can sometimes feel a bit like speed-dating. In big popular cities like Buenos Aires, Paris or Barcelona, meetings may be so packed with eager residents and traveling Couchsurfers that it’ll make your head spin. Wherever you are in the world, you’re likely to meet some of the following:

a) The Party People. These young kittens have no job. They probably study astronomy or anthropology. They don’t care who you are or where you’re from. They’re just delighted they have a new friend to soak up the gin with.

b) The Lechers. “Mmmmm, you’re new”, they purr, as they clumsily brush their hands across your knee and look down your top. Couchsurfing may not be a dating site but no one has told them. In their profile shots, they will be wearing the very shortest shorts. They will only want to host girls.

c) The Knackered Travelers. They want to like Couchsurfing they really do, but before they came to this bar, they spent 3 days hiking up a volcano and then got on a bus for 32 hours. They were hoping to collapse into bed when they got here but their host is one of the party people (see above) and now they’re going to a club…

d) The Ex-Pats. When they first arrived here they were full of gleeful wonder but they’ve waited in one long bank queue too many and now they’re all bitter and twisted. They will take real pleasure in telling you everything that’s wrong with the place you’ve just landed in.

e) The Professional Couchsurfers. These will be the people who organized the meeting or answered your question on the forum in 30 seconds flat. They will make it their life mission to make you, and any other newbies, feel all warm and welcomed. They will have 543 positive references and get very cross when they read newspaper articles that describe Couchsurfing as a free alternative to hostelling rather than a cultural exchange.

The City Forums
When you need up-to-date local info on your destination of choice, there’s nothing better than an active Couchsurfing forum. Residents will know exactly how much the airport bus costs, where the drum and bass clubs are and if you need to include a photo on a local job application. Just be sure to ask them nicely, thank them profusely and return the favour to other travellers when you get home.

You can pretty much find anything on a Couchsurfing forum, but if what you want to see isn’t being organized, consider doing it yourself. From camping trips to city tours, piss ups to opera outings, language exchanges to sex toy parties: someone somewhere is planning it. Recent posts in Santiago de Chile included a trainee masseuse looking for people to practice on for free, Chilean Couchsufers and their families taking in solo travelers at Christmas and everyone rallying round to help one of their own who had taken ill in Brazil.

The Groups
Like listening to The Grateful Dead when you’re naked? There’s probably a group for that. Couchsurfing lindy hoppers, gay cyclists, handsome lawyers and high maintenance male backpackers all have their own groups, so why can’t you? For a walk on the wild side, check out funny negative references.

The Private Messages
If big social gatherings aren’t your thing but you want to meet people, it’s worth searching the list of local Couchsurfers for like-minded souls. Look for those with positive references that have logged into the system recently. When sending them a message, be sure to mention something from their profile; nobody likes a cut and paste. If you don’t need a bed for the night, check ‘coffee and a drink’ to find eager tour guides and drinking buddies.

Good manners and positive traveling karma underpin the ethos of Couchsurfing. Don’t forget your pleases and thank yous, and when you’ve been around long enough to know the answer to a question on the forum, be sure to dive in and answer. If you meet someone and have a splendid time, consider leaving them a positive reference. Equally, be honest and leave a neutral or negative one if you don’t.

In a perfect world, every Couchsurfer would want and be able to host and surf but it’s not always possible. If you can’t go the whole hog but want to get involved, remember this: sleeping over can be awesome but just hanging out can be fun too.

Read it here on Matador.

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Machu Picchu without the walking boots

Machu Picchu. Photo Natasha Young

I’ve never been a walker. It’s my parents’ fault. They met over a soggy map at the Ramblers’ club, admired each others jazzy hiking socks and that was that. Later they chose to torture their children by taking them on walking holidays, dragging us up wintry peaks in the driving rain as fast as our little legs would carry us. There was a holiday in France too. I saw a lake, a beach and happy children eating ice-cream, but no, we had to have a walk first. Of course we got lost and we trekked for miles through dense woodland and brambles. By the time we got back it was dark and the ice-cream shop had shut. In my small world it was nothing short of child abuse.

I did think about walking the Inca Trail I really did. Then I realised I could just get a comfy train and a bus up the mountain and I thought no more. My friends had already been to Machu Picchu before I got to Cuzco. They’d all loved the Lost City but had gone by car (the newest and cheapest option of getting there) and  their stories of disaster, woe, vomit and dodgy fly-by-night tour operators had put me off. With time short and the Christmas holidays making organisation difficult, I opted to sod the expense and pay for a tour that included the train. I’m so glad I did.

Peru Rail to Machu Picchu. Photo Natasha Young

A bus took us in the pouring rain to the station at Poroy, passing though the real Cuzco as we left town, a place where people got up early to trade goods at the local market and ramshackle houses perched on the hillsides. The train, a classic well-appointed model with comfy seats chuffed out of the station right on time. This was Perú for tourists with expensive sandwiches and excellent coffee served up for breakfast.

We were an international carriage. My companions were Colombian, Uruguayan and American and when we weren’t gazing out the window at spotted piglets, cows on chains and ruddy faced children who stared back, we chatted about our lives and adventures. It was a beautiful journey. After the never ending desert between Chile and Arequipa, the green mountains between Cuzco and Agua Calientes were a joy. As the train snaked up into the hills and low cloud, we passed families washing their clothes in the stream, working the fields and chopping firewood. There were oddly shaped cacti, grazing donkeys and then, suddenly, a row of nodding, cheerful sunflowers.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Natasha Young

When we pulled into Aguas Calientes, there was a scrum of guides waiting to meet the train. We dutifully trooped after Victor and his brown flag. Before my inner traveller could get depressed and start screaming ‘tourist! tourist! tourist!’, I noticed where we were.

Although I’d been prepared to be wowed by the ruins of Machu Picchu, I hadn’t anticipated quite how spectacular the surrounding area would be. We crossed a footbridge over a raging brown river, guarded on both sides by masses of dripping green foliage and majestic mountains, and hopped onto a waiting bus.

After a never-ending series of hairpin bends, we pulled up at the entrance to Machu Picchu. For those walking the Inca Trail, to arrive at this point takes 4 days. It had taken me a few hours and although I didn’t have the smug satisfaction of having done something stupendous, I was warm and dry and had even managed a short nap on the train. Weather-wise, it was bucketing it down. This was rain poncho weather and despite the presence of a few unsuitably dressed American exchange students, the look of the day can best be described as ‘wet condom’.

Poncho action. Photo Natasha Young

Machu Picchu is every bit as beautiful as you expect it to be, although having seen so many photos of it over the years, I felt as if I’d somehow seen it before. I could hear complaints about the weather, but to honest the low clouds just added to the mystique of the place and as a Brit, you learn not to let the rain spoil your day.

In the Inca language of Quechua, Machu Picchu means ‘old peak’ but the site itself is surprisingly young. Built in 1430 AD it was abandoned by the Inca rulers a hundred years later. To be fair, it can’t have been easy nipping out for a loaf and a paper living all the way up there and they must have got well fed up with the commute.

In my travels, I’ve often found that the big draws – the World Heritage Sites and must-sees – turn out to be a bit disappointing, and the places that you least expect, knock your socks off. Machu Picchu did not disappoint. It’s stunning. A grey stone city, hidden on the top of a mountain in the middle of dense vegetation, that not even a thousand ponchoed tourists wandering into your photos can spoil.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Natasha Young

On the way down the mountain I got chatting to Gerrard, a commerical artist from New Zealand who was on his way home from a salsa competition in the States. We had lunch in Agua Calientes in a hotel that had a fine view of the ferocious rapids. Gerrard’s tour had included lunch there but mine hadn’t. It was a typically Peruvian place where no price is ever really fixed.

“How much for me?”
“55 soles” the reception replied solemnly.
“Sorry but that’s way too expensive for me, I’ll go and buy a sandwich and catch up with my friend later.”
“Ok, 50?, 45? 40, 35?…….. 35 is my final offer”.
“Ok, 35 it is”.
35 soles was still outrageously expensive for me on my budget but it was a small price to pay for a decent lunch, good company and fine views. Aguas Calientes isn’t exactly bargain central. On the way back to the train, I could only laugh at the prices being charged at the tourist market. If Cuzco was twice the price of Arequipa, this place was  shamelessly charging triple.

Machu Picchu. Photo by Natasha Young

The train ride back to Cuzco was just as splendid  as the trip out. I was sitting next to a lovely Colombian couple (is anyone unfriendly in Colombia? I bet even Pablo Escobar asked about your family, gave you a broad smile and bought you dinner before he put a gun to your head) who were enjoying their summer holidays. They insisted I share their wine with them and told me proudly that their country was every bit as beautiful as Chile. I told them how much I wanted to see Colombia and they immediately pressed business cards into my hands, making me promise I’d come and visit.

Photo by Natasha Young

From the window, I spotted a snow- covered mountain I’d missed on the way out. In the valley, a group of kids were playing football under the setting sun. Intent on their game, they didn’t turn to look at the passing train or the tourists who had their cameras pressed to the windows. I felt a brief pang of envy for this poor but simple way of life, played out against those dramatic and sacred mountains.

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10 things I learnt in Chile

Chilean flag. Photo Natasha Young

1. 2 ½ hours journey time is nothing

Having been brought up in miniscule England, I always used to prepare for any journey longer than 30 minutes as if it were an Arctic voyage. I’d consult maps, pack skis and prepare a lunch. Manchester to London takes 2 ½ hours by train. In English terms, this is very far away indeed. In Chile, you’re nearly there. You can start packing away your bits and pieces and put your coat on. Mendoza in Argentina is a mere hop, skip and a jump across the Andes from Santiago and takes 7 hours. Travel may never be the same again.

2. Politics matters. Democracy matters

Right and left are not the same. Democratically elected governments should not be confused with military dictatorships. A military coup is not, as one student tried to argue, simply a change of government. Voting matters. Resistance matters. Some scars never heal.

3.British customer service is really good

British friends may moan about it, but it’s fabulous. In Britain, most shop assistants actually care about trying to help you find what you need. There’s usually a friendly smile, pride in knowing something about what’s being sold and often a welcome amount of honesty (“Haddock? Ooh, I wouldn’t if I were you lovey, have the cod instead”).

4. British public transport is rubbish

The Chileans should come to Britain and show us how it’s done. It may be a long, straggly country at the end of the world, famous for wine and not much else, but by God they know how to run a bus service. Long distance coaches in Chile are cheap, plentiful, comfortable and punctual. You can watch a selection of terrible straight to video films to pass the time and there’s even a man to hand you a wee pillow and a blanket when you’re feeling sleepy and wake you up with a carton of juice in the morning. I hang my head in shame at the thought of any Chilean who has been to Britain and jumped on National Express, Megabus or British Rail, in the mistaken belief that it might be a good idea.

5.You can always make new friends

Moving to the other side of the world (or even a new city) is a scary business. But the truth is, I’ve always met new people I like, wherever I’ve gone in the world. If your old friends are good eggs, they’ll always be there for you, whatever you decide to do with your life and wherever you go. Meanwhile, new friends are just waiting to be met.

6.Rain can be a good thing

Hardly a day seemed to go by in Manchester when in didn’t rain. Rain stops play, spoils barbeques and outdoor music festivals and ruins your hair. But it also makes the countryside beautifully green (the South of Chile doesn’t look that lovely without a little help), clears away the smog and stops mosquitoes. And would all those Manchester bands you like have learnt to play the guitar if it had been sunny outside? I think not.

7. Yes doesn’t always mean yes

It took me a really long time to learn this, but in Chile ‘yes’ often means ‘hell, no’.

For example:

(To a waitress)

“Is this white wine (that I just watched you take out of a cupboard) cold? “  – Yes.

(To Chilean friends)

“So I’ll meet you at 10pm. You’ll be there on time, won’t you?” – Yes.

(To any bureaucrat)

“Is this absolutely necessary?” – Yes.

(To a stranger on the street)

“Excuse me, do you know where Calle Biarritz is?” – Yes.

(To someone hurrying onto a bus)

“Is this the airport bus?” – Yes.

8.You get what you pay for

Pay peanuts and you will get monkeys. Slip a bloke 40 quid in the street to sort out your internet connection and cable for the rest of the year and there’s an odds on chance you might have a few problems with it. Buy super cheap shower gel and it will extract all the oil from your skin until you feel like you are made entirely from wafer biscuits. Take the cheap bus in Bolivia and you will be squeezed into a mini van next to a vomiting toddler and a man who smells of cheese.

9. Red wine isn’t so bad

When you’ve not got time to chill a bottle of white, red wine does the job. I even grew to like it. To be fair, paying buttons for a classy red that would cost a fortune at home is a sure fire way to get a taste for the stuff.

10. Dogs are like valium

I’ve always loved dogs, but working in a Chilean dog shelter confirmed it. Few things make me happier than stroking the ears of a wet nosed mutt with a wagging tail.

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Filed under blog, chile, Santiago de Chile, Travel blog, Uncategorized

Arequipa, Perú – home of homicidal taxi drivers, nuns and Inca mummies

Arequipa's Xmas tree

I think I’d make a good Peruvian taxi driver. I have zero patience, I’m always in a rush and if I can’t get a cup of coffee, I really do want to kill people. I’ve got the car for it too. My old Skoda is just the ticket, although I might need to break the exhaust off to really fit in.

Unlike Chile, Perú is in one big hurry. I noticed it the moment I crossed the border. Whereas Chileans will wait patiently for 3 hours to buy a sandwich without so much as looking at their watch, Peruvians can’t be doing with dallying. At the border they yelled for the bus driver to drive faster, they shouted at the poor soul loading the bags onto the bus, and they stamped down hard on the first sign of faffing amongst fellow passengers.

The only people not in a rush, begging for change outside the church

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Arequipa when I arrived. It had taken forever to get there on a bus without air-con, I smelt horrific after the journey and the first thing I saw in this busy city was a man throwing a well-aimed rock at a stray dog. I thought it wasn’t going to be my kind of town. I was wrong.

Arequipa is noisy and impatient but quite lovely. Ok so the car drivers would rather see you bounce off their bonnets than wait a millisecond for you to cross the road but the city centre is full of handsome squares, dazzling buildings of white volcanic rock and great bars.

Get me to a nunnery

I’d arranged to go drinking with Marco, a local Couchsurfer who was happy to show me round town after he finished work.  As I checked in at the Casa de los Pingüinos (a lovely mini hotel with hostel prices), I failed miserably in my attempt at explaining the concept of Couchsurfing to the matronly Dutch owner.

“So you’re meeting a Peruvian guy you’ve never met before that you know very little about”

Yes.

“And you’re going to drink alcohol with this man”. 

Yes.

 “And you don’t know where he’s going to take you”.

 No. But it’s OK, he’s a Couchsurfer. 

“But you’ve never met him!”

 Yes, I know. But he’s a Couchsurfer. It’s OK. He’s got good references. Honest.

 She looked at me hard, squinting her eyes as if trying to memorise my features so she’d recognise me when the police scooped my body out of the nearby canyon. When I further tried to explain that Couchsurfing was a network of over a million people who let complete strangers stay in their houses for free, she turned pale. She clearly didn’t plan on expecting me to return alive and able to pay the bill later.

As it was, and as expected, I had a great night with Marco and his mates. Perú might not be as rich as Chile, but you wouldn’t know it from the bar scene. On a mid-week night just before Christmas, the bars and clubs were busy with a young crowd. Out on the streets, friends congregated and passed round bottles of rum, women sold cigarettes out of suitcases on street corners and buses rumbled along the cobbles, young boys yelling out the destinations as they went.

I ate my first falafel in a year in a great Turkish joint called Istanbul, had happy hour mojitos in Brujas and ended up drinking Cusqueña in a club where there appeared to be as many people on the stage as off it. Thanks to Marco, a musician who clearly knew absolutely everyone, I was introduced to half the city.

Surprised by my safe return, the hostel had had to hurriedly set me a place for breakfast the next morning. With only 24 hours in Arequipa (hardly time to do it justice), I set out early to see the sights.

The convent

First up was the Sanctuaries Andean Museum to see Juanita, the incredibly well preserved mummy of a young girl who was sacrificed by the Incas on the summit of the nearby Ampato Volcano. She was found by a team of anthropologists in 1995 and the museum shows a 20 minute video reconstructing the moment she was ritualistically clubbed over the head before everyone is whisked off on a guided tour. It was all fascinatingly grotesque and it once again made me glad I hadn’t been born an Inca. Too many steps and if the volcano kept erupting, too much chance you might get clobbered to appease the gods.

For a nanosecond I considered becoming a nun in Arequipa. The Santa Catalina Convent was so gorgeous I almost stayed, until I realised I wouldn’t be able to get Pinot Grigio, Radiohead or internet access. I’m not normally the least bit interested in religious buildings but this is a city within a city, as colourful as a Mediterranean village with hidden gardens, flowerpots and quiet courtyards. Closed as a working convent in 1969, it’s now open to the public and has an elegant restaurant tucked away inside that does tasty salads.

More Santa Catalina Convent, Arequipa. All photos Natasha Young

Around the old town, Arequipa is a mite touristy (it’s a common stop off on the way to Cusco) but walk a few blocks in any direction and you find the real Perú. There’s no H&M, Starbucks or KFC round here, just small shopping galleries, tiny shops with old-fashioned counters and busy markets. The people here are proud of their city and consider it and themselves to be different from the rest of the country. It’s Perú’s answer to Barcelona, and just like the Catalan capital, I loved it.

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Arica and trying to cross the Chile/Peru border

Eiffel-designed customs house, Arica

After a horrific bus journey from San Pedro in which the water in the bus toilet practically boiled for 11 hours, enveloping the bus in a eye-watering stench, I arrived in Arica. Chile’s northern-most city, on the border with Perú, Arica is like a mini-Santiago, albeit with friendlier people, less smog and a world-championship standard surfing beach.

I got to check into the lovely Jardin del Sol at the ungodly hour of 6am and after a few hours sleep, felt almost human again and ready to hit town. Arica was in the grip of Christmas shopping  mayhem. Queues snaked out of the bank and the streets were lined with women wielding scissors and coloured paper, offering to take  the pain out of wrapping presents for a few pesos.

On a budget, I went for Cazuela de Ave at the market for the bargain price of $1,200 CP (£1.50). Perched on a stool with barely room to move my elbows, I got chatting to the guy next to me, who was taking time out with his family from Christmas shopping.  I had THE conversation that I’ve had at least a million times since I arrived here. It goes like this:

Where are you from?

England, but I live in Santiago.

Ahh! How long have you been in Chile?

A year now.

Are you an exchange student?

No, I’m an English teacher.

Ah, I see. Do you like Chile?

Yes, very much, it’s a beautiful country but I’m not a big fan of Santiago.

Well, everyone is in a hurry in Santiago aren’t they.

Urm, I suppose. (unsaid: No not really. To be honest, tortoises walk faster.)

(Bemused smile)  Have you got a Chilean boyfriend?

(smile) No.

Why not?

Well, I hate to say it, but they are all mummy’s boys.

(At this point, the man’s wife almost slips off her stool she’s laughing and nodding so hard).

No, but Chilenos are so cariñosos (warm/affectionate)!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not like the English. The English are cold.

Maybe, but at least an Englishman doesn’t speak to his mum 154 times a day and have to run home in time for his tea.

Finally a beach day, Arica

And so it went on. He took it well. I liked the people in Arica. Plenty of time for a chat and noble with it.

I spent the rest of the day at the beach with some guys I’d shared the horror of the bus with, and had dinner with Sezgin, a German guy with a dark English sense of humour who was staying at the hostel. Before I went to bed I booked a taxi for 6.45am.

The next thing I remember there was a knock at my door. I sprang out of bed assuming I’d overslept and that an angry taxi driver was waiting impatiently outside. It was the eldery night porter giving me a wake-up call. I hadn’t asked to be woken up. Especially not at 5.30am. Half past five is not at time to be awake, unless you have tequila running through your veins and a hot date. I had a shower. As I turned the water off, there was another, more urgent knocking at the door.

“Your taxi is here! Are you ready?”

Urm.  I didn’t order a taxi for 5.45am, it was for 6.45am.

Silence. And then.. “Bugger. Wrong person.”

Two minutes later I heard him knocking on a different door and the frantic yelps of a backpacker about to miss their bus. He shuffled off, grumbling to himself.

If the backpacker whose wake-up call I got was heading to Perú, there was really no rush. I got to the bus station to find that the 7am bus service I’d booked had been cancelled because the Chilean border police were on strike. It wasn’t until many hot sticky hours and several near punch-ups between passengers later that I made it finally to Arequipa. More on that to come.

Tacna bus station, Peru

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