A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: AlisonLeahy

Foxes glacier mints

Patagonian ice field

semi-overcast 10 °C

Having grown up on these in the 70s and watching the advert I was sure when I eventually saw a glacier with my own eyes I would be able to see straight it and wonder how on earth the polar bear was able to suspend itself in mid air.

I was fortunate enough to see several glaciers by boat, catamaran and on foot in the Patagionian ice field in both Chile and Argentina, and dear reader - they are a pearly bluey-white and even more wonderous than in the advert!

Posted by AlisonLeahy 06:44 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Beyond the ends of the earth

Puerto Williams, Chile

sunny 26 °C

If you had the world's most southerly town in your grasp - you wouldn't turn down the offer either would you? Puerto Williams is the capital of Antartica Province and on the island of Navarino (part of the Cape Horn Archipeligo). It's only 53 years old, it celebrated a birthday while I was there, which gives you a clue about how remote and untouched this environment is.

It is primarily a naval port and I didn't expect to find anything there apart from military huts and few shops. But, it was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 2006 by UNESCO and is one of the 37 most pristine places in the world. Which means it has 70% of the original vegetation (whatever that means). And, it is home to the Yaghan Indians who made their way down from the Bering Straits over thousands of years and have lived in the vicinity for at least 7,000. They were rehoused by the government to a rather shabby modern village on the outskirts in the 1960s, there are only 70 people surviving.

I quickly discover that Puerto Williams: has a humid and mild micro climate which promotes the forests and rare flora and fauna; is a bit windy as the air is funneled between the Navarino and Darwin mountains over the Beagle Channel; and has a UV Index of 7 which the sign outside the town hall reminds you is High. There's no tourist infrastructure, (except support for yachts who leave from the port to round the Horn), so I decide to hire a mountain bike and go for a ride to take advantage.

I had absolutely perfect riding weather but due to some inaccurate advice by a random woman I came across on a gravel road, I took a wrong turning and ended up the Cerro Banderas. Once this had sunk in I decided there was nothing for it other than to climb to the mirador through pristine forest and crystal clean air to see the Darwin mountains in their full glory. So now I was still facing a round trip of 30km on gravel track but I had already done 12 and climbed above the tree line...

But the scenery was stunning and all I felt was euphoria. The track ran along side The Beagle Channel and I passed small inlets with a hut and a fishing boat, peat bogs, beaver dams and romantic steppes. Up and down fueled only by home-made cheese rolls - Wallace would be proud. Eventually I reached Punta Guerrico one of the temporary camps of the Yaghan. They spent their year traveling up and down the idyllic surrounding of the Beagle Channel eating fish, dolphins and shellfish for millennium. I could see the indentation in the turfed ground left by living in the same hut for centuries but I couldn't find the shell middens. They had a taboo and nobody was allowed to destroy a shell either by breaking it, putting it in the fire or throwing it back to the sea. So, over the years shell middens had accumulated - but where were they?

I literally tripped over them as I was admiring the Yaghans' views of the snow-capped Darwin mountains. Behind the hut indentations were undulating turf hills and closer inspection revealed they were the middens: tons and tons of shells of all descriptions. Here I was touching history, touching the shells that ancient hands had caught and opened. I suspect it is like Chesil beach, although there are lots of pebbles if everyone took one home there would be none left. However, I put a shell in my bag to keep in touch.

Buoyed by the discovery but running short of cheese rolls, the thought of the ride back still seemed very challenging. You'll remember the wind. Well, it was behind me on the way there which means one thing for the return. It was 5pm and I had been on the go since 9am - passing the disused machine battery and visiting the University of Magellan's flora and fauna reserve. I knew I had 5 hours until the sun went down, never the less it was 11km so I resolved that if a car should happen to pass me I would fake an accident to get a lift. I was in the middle of nowhere, there is only Puerto Williams round there so the chances of a passing vehicle at that time of night were remote. After a few kms I heard the roar of an engine through the trees, was this the equivalent of a mirage in the desert? I didn't have to undertake any subterfuge. As soon as the guys in the lorry saw me looking back at them in the middle of a hill they stopped and silently put my bike on the back on top of the wood they were delivering. Angels, I tell you. I arrived back at Captain's Ben's house knackered but feeling very alive with extraordinarily clean lungs!

Posted by AlisonLeahy 06:05 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Mysteries of Rapa Nui

Easter Island

32 °C

It seems when faced with some uncertainty about the past, some people uncomfortable with the ambiguity invent an explanation that generally involves aliens. Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is one such place. The island was populated by aliens, of course, and that explains the strange-looking statues or maois. And the Nasca lines that I visited in Peru were alien landing strips and the existence of the 'astronaut' motif on the side of a hill is conclusive evidence.

I feel very privileged to have visited the island - it's around 4,000km from both Chile and Tahiti - the naval of the world as the original inhabitants called it. It was populated by Polynesians around 400AD when they set sail to find new lands to populate. There was devastating deforestation of the island during their time and the population shrunk from 15,000 to 3,000 by the time the Dutch 'discovered' it in 1722 on Easter Sunday. Regan to note, the Easter Bunny does not live there.

There were two cults on the island. Ancestor worship which led to the creation of moais from the rock of one volcano on the island. Each looks slightly different and is supposed to represent the person who has died. Statues were transported across the island and around 800 remain, all facing inwards except the moais representing the explorers who first landed - they face out to sea.

Later the islanders invented the bird man cult, (manutara), whereby a competition was held every year between a representative of each tribe. Chosen by the leaders, they would climb down a cliff, dive into the sea and swim across to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the first egg of the new season laid by a Sooty Tern. The first swimmer to return with an egg would secure control of the island's resources for his tribe for the rest of the year. This tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans.

I was struck by how unspoiled and relaxed the island was. The 'main' town was not a tourist trap but a sleepy single story village. The various reconstructed moai sites and bird man ritual areas were free from the usual trappings and where in the natural state left by their creators. You are left with just the beauty of the objects, island and the sea to enjoy. It's all very relaxed and you can't help but feel there is a resonance between you and the maois as you exchange serene gazes. I wad totally transported by the experience.

A volcano crater filled with fresh water that was used as recently as two generations ago for washing clothes and fresh water. My guide's grandmother used to hike up and down to the water as a matter of course to collect grapes and oranges to eat. A row of maois standing guard over a perfectly white sandy beach. A stone with holes and carved vagina symbols used by the locals as a horn to communicate with other villages. Diving with turtles in 40m visibility. Singing hymns in the church on Sunday in Tahitian with a live band as the bible wasn't translated into Rapa Nui. Wonderful, wonderful - if you have the opportunity please go.

Posted by AlisonLeahy 05:54 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

The Disappeared

Santiago, Chile

sunny 20 °C

I am trying to keep up with the archetypal grave digger as he hobbles at speed down Bernard O'Higgins allee at the General Cemetery in Santiago. I thought I was making progress with my Spanish, but his Chilean accent is broad and fast and I have trouble understanding him as he motions onwards. I have to trust him as he leads me further and further into the labyrinth.

My guidebook says that there a several notable graves in this cemetery but there is no map at the gate and the man on 'reception' flails his hands in a general direction when I ask him where they are. So, when the grave digger approaches me "Victor Jara?", I nod and follow. It's an enormous sprawling cemetery the biggest I've visited in south America and the usual mix of family tombs, graves and niches for ashes.

We walk through fields of new graves festooned with balloons, plastic windmills, football flags, streamers and flowers. Judging by the graves the Santiago support is equally divided between: Club Universidad de Chile and Colo-Colo. We arrive at Victor's original niche which is covered in graffiti. He is a guitarist who was tortured and killed by Pinochet during his coup d'etat in 1973 and reportedly his right arm cut off. We carry on to his new resting place - a magnificent tomb built when he was re interred in 2009. Here people have left guitars, spliffs, woven bracelets and messages, it's all very reminiscent of Jim Morrison's grave in Paris.

The grave digger is letting me take photos under his supervision although the man at the gate said no photos. There is an implicit understanding that I will tip him well and he will square it with his compatriot diggers. We move on to the monument to the Disappeared, this is in two parts: a massive wall with all the names of the people who were disappeared under the Pinochet regime and a vast area of metal crosses with no names on, one for each person. The latter I find most moving as the crosses are rusted and stand in in a field of yellowing long grass, and in turn this field is adjacent to the new graves. They are billowing and waving and streaming in the wind as the crosses stand unadorned bearing witness to the atrocities.

In international human rights law, a forced disappearance occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person's fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law. In Chile during this time 28,000 were tortured, 2,279 were executed and around 1,248 continued as Disappeared. In addition around 200,000 people have suffered exile and an unknown number (hundreds of thousands) would have gone through clandestine centers and illegal detention.

We find Salvador Allende's monument, the democratically elected socialist president that Pinochet deposed and who died during the coup. And not too far away is the Pinochet family tomb. Both Allende and Jara are both important figures in contemporary Chile as reflected in their new funerary monuments. Pinochet, on the other hand, was cremated in Concón in 2006, on his request to "avoid vandalism of his tomb,". His ashes are deposited in one of his personal residences as the armed forces refused to allow his ashes to be deposited on any military grounds.

We meander back at pace to the front gate of the cemetery. The grave digger stops short and looks at me. Our eyes meet and I know this is the moment that I reach into my wallet and hand over a large bill to thank him. Then I stop short as I realise that I only have a 20,000 Chilean Peso note worth 25GBR and that I can't possibly ask him for change even if I was able. I hand it over and am rewarded with the biggest smile I've seen in a long time...

Posted by AlisonLeahy 03:36 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

The students are revolting...

Santiago - Valparaiso, Chile

sunny 20 °C

Crashing into Chile across the Andes, three things are clear: customs are shit-hot and they're not looking for bombs but contraband fruit and veg, it takes us four hours to clear the sniffer dogs; Chile is very much in the Consumer Society, you can get what you want to eat and there is 'customer service'; and the navy - The Armada - in a pivotal part of Chilean society.

This is not surprising really as Chile is a long thin country with a coastline that stretches from Peru to the Antarctic, (including the bit they nicked off Bolivia in The Pacific War). Every seaside place I visit has at least one military grey vessel waiting to muster at a moment's notice...There is no love lost lost between Bolivians and Peruvians, for example, fairly regularly I was reminded about how arrogant the 'wealthy' Chileans. And let's not start on the Argentine-Chile relationship.

Santiago has a bohemian quarter and on my first evening I'm at once seduced by the micro brewery and restaurant menus but also sad that the thrill of trying to find cheese for sale in the shops will be a distant memory.

I'm not sure if I find trouble, if trouble finds me or there's just lots of trouble, but on my first morning in Santiago I was loitering in the main square wondering why all the news crews where there when a black sedan pulls up beside me and slick looking man gets out of the opened door. Immediately, every news crew in the square piles into the 4 square metres that the mayor and I are standing in. Squeezed between City Hall and the car I whip out my camera and start to film. But unlike the UK, the reporters ask polite and measured questions, taking their turn while politely jostling for position.

They filed into City Hall following the mayor and I asked the policeman who the man was and why the media was there, "the students are not happy", he replied in the biggest under statement of my trip. Of course, I'd read about the unrest/riots/protests over the last few months and that morning there had been a student protest in the square. All over and done with by 9am: Chilean students must have different sleep patterns to the British.

Valparaiso, a few hours away on the coast, houses the navy headquarters and is an important shipping port. Its sun has set a bit since the Panama canal opened and shipping took the short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but the shipping containers still dominate the sea front.

General Pinochet came to power in a coup d'etat 1973 when his forces overthrew a democratically elected socialist government. One of his reforms was to commission a new congress building in Valparaiso, moving Congress from Santiago. The incredibly expensive building is a massive monolithic square with an empty middle - a perfect example of facistic architecture towering over downtown Valparaiso.

It was a meeting of Congress a couple of days later on November 10th to discuss the funding of higher eduction when I next ran into trouble. There had been leaflets the day before asking people to meet in the main square and that morning I couldn't get to the bus station for tooled up riot police, barracades and alsation dogs. I didn't think too much about it as I wanted to find and experience the beauty of Vaparaiso's UNESCO World Heritage sites. But the town isn't that big and in the early afternoon I saw a cocophony of flags and banners, heard shouting and shots, and saw water cannon. A noxious gas hit the back of my throat, my eyes and nose began to itch and not surprisingly, I turned round and walked the other way.

The local paper reported that it was a peaceful protest until some people tried to get close to the congress building. Check out the photos of the march in the Multimedia section to see how it descended into a running battle. (For background, here is Wikipedia's take on things). Water cannon and rubber bullets sure puts the British Kettling Technique into perspective...

Posted by AlisonLeahy 01:33 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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