In the center of the 4300 km long country of Chile is located the capital city of Santiago. Here forty percent of the country’s population do live (extend the radius to roughly 300km and the figure gives actually 90 percent of the whole population).
Squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, Santiago was established as a colonial outpost by the Spanish empire. This is still visible today, by the many buildings of Spanish colonial style. From an early settlement that featured large haciendas (farms), it had to take the country’s independence – plus a steady economic grow due to the nitrate mines in northern Chile, to form today’s bustling metropolitan city.
In an effort to fight smog and pollution, the city did undertake enormous efforts to upgrade its transportation system. The project, called “Transantiago” is the pride of the locals and they are eager to tell tourists about their new low-emission buses roaming the streets. However, underneath this glossy cover, the implementation of the system was apparently terrible and many commuters (voters) are angry at various politicians and project leaders. Nevertheless, it seems that some objectives have been met: The total number of buses was halved and a lot of bus lanes are cris-crossing the city streets.
Can a whole area of a city be listed as UNESCO world heritage site? Yes, the city of Valparaiso is listed as such. This fact certainly would probably guarantee an exciting afternoon exploring a rather interesting town. So I went there in curiosity. To cut a long story short: Yes, Valparaiso is definitely a very unique place. Quite rightful, this site is also called “The Jewel of the Pacific”. Set in a hilly environment, the building of houses is a challenge and thus, the architecture is unique and colorful.
From Santiago, it takes one hour and a half to reach Valparaiso on one of the numerous buses heading there. My first bus ride in Chile. Unique fact of these buses are their mandatory displays at the ceiling which show to the passengers the speed, the drivers name and how long he has been driving. This system is called SINACH. Various stickers would tell passengers the speed limit (100km/h) and the driving limit without pause (5h).
Only on one occasion (so far), has the driver exceeded the speed (at 101km/h). This produced a hissing sound and the display showed the driver’s name and the current position altogether with some Spanish blurbs which I was unable to figure out. Either it meant that the violation was reported directly online or that the passengers were supposed to write down the details for reporting the offence. Seems a bit like “big brother”, but I shudder when thinking of the previous situation on the roads – which obviously pushed the government to have such a control system installed.
On a different excursion, I visited the Isla Negra. This is the place, where the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda built one of his houses along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Although he was not politically interested during his early years, Pablo Neruda became increasingly involved with the communist party after his close friend, Frederico Garcia Lorca, was murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
Almost any child in Chile seems to know stories about the poet’s life. How he used a piece of wood, swept ashore by the sea, to build a table for his study. Or the story about his wooden horse with three tails. As expected, his house was a huge collection of eccentric memorabilia, most notably wooden mermaids. He enlarged his house in Isla Negra (which – by the way – is not located on an island) on several occasions during the period of 1935 and 1970. In 1971, Pablo Neruda received the Nobel Price in Literature.
The poet died in September 1973 of natural causes – only two weeks after a military coup which brought the dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Although the new government Junta of Chile didn’t want to hold a public funeral for Pablo Neruda, thousands of Chileans were going to the streets to pay tribute. This eventually led to the first public protest against the new dictator, where the mourners chanted “Companero Pablo Neruda!” and the whole procession would answer “Presente!” “Companero Pablo Neruda!” “Presente!” “Ahora y siempre!”.
Visiting the three sites, where Pablo Neruda had residency (Santiago, Valparaiso and Isla Negra) has been a great introduction to Chile and I am very eager to head down South to see more of this fascinating country.