Tuesday, June 16, 2015 Santiago, Chile
20 metro stops and a super crushed minibus ride away from our hostel, we have discovered that the much-hyped Maipo Valley wine tour is full today unless you have a pre-booked reservation. Of course we haven't. Fail. You'd think the plonker working at the hostel who sent us here might be aware of such eventualities. However, my hungover Swiss friends are not so easily defeated and 'plan b' involves two more local minibuses and a trip out from the edge of Santiago into the unknown of the 'real' wine valley.
It is beautiful out here in the tourist-free wilds: hectares and hectares of vines with the stunning backdrop of the Andes close by; some peaks now painted with a sprinkling of snow. We've managed to make it to Santa Licia, home to prize-winning wines for the past couple of years including its incredibly smooth Chardonnay, voted the best white wine in all of Chile.
We are all feeling quite smug as an epic fail is turned into a hard-fought victory...but wait...Santa Licia doesn't do wine tours. Fail.
Let's look at the pluses though: we do get to see inside the mock tudor estate building and have a little wander around looking at the massive collection of wine being stored in massive oak barrels and in the hundreds of wine racks. It is quite a classy place, like one of those homes that the characters in cheesy South American soap operas live, where everyone is exceptionally beautiful but absurdly-moody drama queens. And Dominic buys a bottle of their finest red and their award-winning white, so that we can do the wine-tasting bit back in the street-side hostel garden later.
On our complicated route back, it is highlight-of-the-day time as a young crooner gets on our Baquerdano-bound metro train and bangs out two haunting Chilean ballads on the microphone, along with a superb rendition of Elvis Presley's I can't help falling in love with you. It's like Chile's Got Talent vs Metro Karaoke Challenge. This boy is absolute class and has the four Swiss and the Englishman singing along to giggles and frowns from the other commuters.
Dinner is Argentina v Uruguay on a gorgeous rooftop terrace bar in classy Barrio Lastarria. All is going well until we discover our waiter for the evening is the silliest man in Chile. He also looks silly: like a cross between a Saint Bernard's dog and former Iraqi baddie Tarek Aziz. It takes some doing to cock things up to this degree with the meals and the drinks. So much so in fact, that you have to quietly like the guy for blagging a paid job. I also love him for asking for 'a 10% suggested tip' of almost 10 euro at the end of his circus performance.
It's a fitting end to fail day for me, especially with the news that Arturo Vidal has written off his sports car, drink-driving and almost killing his girlfriend, after playing in that 3-3 against Mexico. Fail, fail, fail.
Sunday, June 14, Vicuna & Pisco, Chile
Lucia, the lovely owner of Hostal Valle Hermoso, puts on a fantastic breakfast which includes the scrumptious locally-grown avocado and papaya from the valley, as well as those famous Chilean grapes that go into producing some of the best red wine on earth. Wilson and I chat for a couple of hours over breakfast in Lucia's beautiful 100-year-old casona, built by her grandfather.
Joys of modern technology: I watch live tweet updates of Riga United Ladies, the team I coach in Latvia, as they take on Daugavpils in the quarter finals of the Latvian national women's cup, 13,342 kilometres away. It is a resounding 5-0 victory. Congratulations to John Whitmore and Ieva Bidermane for guiding us into the semi finals! Special mention to Liene Vaciete too, for breaking her goal drought with two goals!
It's a low key minibus trip out to Pisco which, as the name suggests, is home to Chile's most famous pisco distilleries. The Elqui Valley is reminiscent of Morocco's Atlas Mountains while its one-horse, one-church villages are high on personality and low on stress. There's an intangible positive energy to this whole magical valley, impossible to summarise in words perhaps unless you were Gabriel Mistral, born in Vicuna and ending her distinguished life a Nobel Prize winner.
It's a road movie day as myself and Wilson chat for hours about our travel experiences and future aspirations, the Elqui Valley fulfilling the scenic backdrop to our ramblings.
Back in laid back Vicuna it's a double header of football with my favourite Copa 2011 team - Venezuela - upsetting more fancied opposition as they beat Colombia 1-0, and then Brasil overcoming Peru 2-1 in the 92nd minute of a game that without Neymar they surely would've lost. As the 20 degrees of mid-afternoon drops like a free-falling rock towards zero, I chat to some Argentine fans who are as ever greatly disappointed by the under achievements of their super talented squad. A good result against Uruguay next week, I tell them, and they can finally start believing.
The night ends with me retiring to my bedroom after saying goodbye to my two new friends: Lucia and Wilson. Wilson has been brilliant company for 24 hours and would've made an ideal travel partner had I been travelling north tomorrow, while Lucia must rate as one of the most genuine, lovely hosts I've had in all my years of travel. It says it all about her that as I close my bedroom door, I find she has prepared breakfast and a thermos flask of coffee for my 6am start.
Sometimes travel is much more about the people than the places you go, the backdrop simply serving as a canvas for travellers to share their thoughts and tales, while enjoying new adventures with strangers.
Saturday June 13 2015 Valle del Elqui, Chile
It's almost 9 before the sun pops above the horizon at this time of the year, so the early morning mucho frio stroll to Boquerdano for the metro to Universidad de Santiago terminal feels more like the middle of the night rather than the start of office hours.
I'm headed north out of Santiago to La Serena, a seven-hour bus journey along the Pan-American Highway. Much of the sun-drenched scenery is pure spaghetti western with millions upon millions of cactus atop dry hills that start in the foothills of the Andes to our east, and finish in the dunes and crashing surf of the Pacific coast to our left. The only significant breaks in this scenery is for the odd dry coastal town such as Los Vilos, the Parque Nacional Fray Jorge, and concentrations of huge wind towers.
I arrive in La Serena in something of a quandry. My original plan was to come here for Argentina v Paraguay, kicking off after 2.5 hours. Problem is I have no ticket. So I've booked instead to spend the night one hour away in the mysterious Elqui Valley. Predictably upon arriving and seeing thousands of Argentine fans and a police cordon around the Argentine team's hotel, I am tempted to hang around and see if I can buy a black-market ticket outside Estadio La Postada, which is only 400 metres away from the terminal (not that I fancy my chances with so many Argentines here also looking for tickets). On the other hand, there is no bus to Vicuna after the game so If I don't get a ticket, I might end up marooned here with no bed...so I spend 15 minutes deciding to leave and then changing my mind to stay, before I alter my thoughts again and jump on the bus out of town. It's typical of my nature that as soon as we begin leaving La Serena and Messi behind, I'm furious at my decision. I should have tried! It's Argentina for God's sake!
Vicuna is only an hour away in the very Moroccan-looking Elqui Valley. I check in to Hostal Valle Hermoso and manage to book myself on the night tour to El Pique Observatory, beginning an hour later. Thirty minutes into Paraguay v Argentina, just as Sergio Aguerro gives Argentina a fortuitous lead, I leave the bar near my new hostel and jump into a 4WD bound for the observatory.
Valle del Elqui boasts some of the finest stargazing conditions on earth. Half a dozen major observatories are located on the mountain tops around here, benefiting from the predictably clear skies, lack of wind and lack of light pollution.
The dusty 4WD trek up to the observatory is exciting in itself but doesn't prepare you for the pure majesty of the cellestial skies here. Only an hour after sunset and with Paraguay pulling back to 2-2 , 70 kilometres away down there at the head of the valley, the temperature is already down to five degrees, and the sky as clear as an arctic winter's night. Immediately, a shooting star streaks across the starry darkness infront of us, burning up like an expensive firework.
I am priveleged to be on this tour with just two guests: Susanna from Chile and Wilson from London. Our guide Christian is a charming and knowledgeable astronomer who shows us Jupiter, Venus, Omega Centauri, Nebula galaxies, spiral galaxies, binary stars, Andromeda and finally Saturn and its rings and moons, through his 30-centimetre telescope, a green laser - like a Star Wars light saber - pointing up to the heavens to show us points Christian wishes to make. The stripes on Jupiter are visible as are Saturn's rings, and the view through the lens of the tarantula nebula is unreal; all of this during the dark of the moon. It's an epic, spell-binding experience, five meteors streaming across the sky during the two hours at El Pique.
I'll be honest: by 10pm all thoughts of Messi, Aguerro and co are forgotten as I reval in the final moments staring up at the magnificent celestial heavens of valle del Elqui; the kind of evening which will not only remain one of the highlights of this trip, but of all my two-decade long travels.
Thanks to Wilson for letting me have the image above this blog from our visit to the observatory.
Friday, June 12 2015, Santiago
There's something very black and white movie about Santiago. It's not Buenos Aires chic or Montevideo super retro but there is still a lingering sense of the old school here. One diner on Avenue O'Higgins sums this up for me: leather American 50's style diner stools; weathered but decades still left in them, black-shirted uniformed staff, glass front doors with wooden handles, the cold June air punctuating the room when perhaps it shouldn't. Santiagans dash by outside, most dressed in winter greys and blacks but many of them smiling and laughing: warm hearted in the cold. All of this feels earthy in a wonderful way. Cracked and missing paving stones are not good but they add to this yesteryear vibe. Sinatra plays as Mexico take on Peru, Cabernet Sauvignon Central Valley accentuating the positive vibe.
It's been an unashamedly lazy day after two days of travel and an intense day one at La Copa yesterday. Rado Hostel has top notch Santiago panoramas and breakfast.
Later in the day, I stroll around Bohemian Barrio Lastorria, home to imaginative street art and the odd Parisian style cafe. Further afield I marvel at the architecture - rather than the art - of the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes (pictured above).
Apologies for the lack of updates for a couple of days. Been on the road. New blog in the next 24 hours. Meanwhile, here is an image from Santiago...
June 11, Santiago
One of the reasons I am here at the 2015 Copa America is because when it comes to many things - including football - the South Americans still keep things very real. From the passion and raw emotion on the terraces in the Stadion Nacional, to the thousands of 'real' Chilean 'fans' who spent 90 minutes walking home to the city centre and suburbs in the freezing cold after they witnessed their side brush aside Ecuador 2-0 last night, La Copa feels like football as it used to be, rather than the sickly, commercial and plastic-feeling tournaments often conjured up by FIFA and UEFA these days.
I arrived in Santiago on the opening day of Copa '15 at around 8am after a thirteen-hour flight from Madrid, the last leg of which was a remarkably beautiful overfly of the Andes mountains, towering so high into the heavens it was almost as if they wanted to touch the Iberia aircraft's under carriage.
I am staying near Baquedano, a popular spot for student gatherings of the riotous kind. Police riot vehicles look like something out of Mad Max. In fact they are so over-the-top that, dare I say it, I had a strange urge to chuck something at them myself. I didn't need to though as five stray dogs decided to take on one of the riot vans themselves and without provocation. Quite funny to be honest.
From Baquedano it is four stops to Nuble on Santiago's metro system, a ticket costing around one euro; three times cheaper if you are a student. Even seven hours before kick off, the metro is rammed with fans on their way to the stadium environs. Most are decked out in the red, white and blue of Chile, with pockets of mild-mannered Ecuadorians here and there.
Up at the press centre, I am relieved to discover that all is good with my press pass and I do indeed have a seat in the press tribune for the opening game of the Copa. Four years on from Argentina, the number of press covering the tournament seems to have quadrupled. Last time around, incredibly, there were around a dozen non-South American journalists covering the first round. The Santiago press centre is a converted swimming pool and is enormous.
I prefer though to get out of the press centre and see what is going on out in the streets. A student protest close to the stadium, attended by a couple hundred teenagers, has prompted a heavy-handed police response with 4 Mad Max riot vans, 20 or so normal police vans, at least 50 uniformed police, plus another dozen or so sinister-looking motor bike police - similar to those you see on TV reports about Iran - who all seem intent on nipping any problems in the bud immediately. I side step all this, rather than hanging around, as it looks like it could easily turn nasty.
Nearby, all manner of Chilean merchandise is being sold by every man and his dog on street corners and at traffic lights. Love it. At FIFA and UEFA events everything has to be 'official merchandise'. i.e. absurdly expensive tat most of the profits of which go into the pockets of those at the top of world's governing bodies and their chief sponsors. Not here, yet.
One rule that is in place at this Copa though, is no alcohol sales inside the stadiums. This is said to be out of fear of the Bravo Barvos kicking off with the authorities after they get drunk. I find a little 20-seat hole-in-the-wall bar a few hundred yards away from the stadium and people watch with a couple of cold beers as the Chileans excitedly make for the stadium.
The national stadium, inaugurated in 1938, is a huge concrete open bowl with old school floodlights and a raw energy that most modern stadia sadly lack. Instead of prawn sandwiches it is a bag of monkey nuts and a brilliantly positioned seat for the dramatic opening ceremony of the copa, which includes an 'Inca Hakka' dance. Strange and a little scary. Twelve ladies winched to mini air-balloons float above the outside of the stadium before drifting down to the main pitch, where a huge blow-up Copa America trophy and an impressive-by-any-standards fireworks display crescendos to an exciting climax which prompts 50,000 appreciative and spontaneous 'woooo's.
At the far end of the stadium, one section of the old terraces has been left as it once looked for 'remembering':
'Un Pueblo Sin Memoria es Un Pueblo sin Futuro', it says. 'A people without memory are a people without a future', a reference to Chilean dictator Pinochet's use of this very same stadium as a concentration camp, torture chambers and execution site in 1973.
Down the business in hand, Chile are under massive pressure to get a result in this game. I reckon, all things considered, they play some very cultured football against a very decent Ecuador side. One of the pluses about the Copa is that all the teams, with the possible exception of guests Jamaica, are high quality teams. There are no San Marinos or Faroe Islands (sorry Greece!) here.
Alexis Sanchez's touches and quick thinking are a joy to watch. We are watching one of the world's most talented players of the current generation at his prime. Valdivia and Vidal ain't exactly bad either. Despite some intricate build up play by Chile, it is 0-0 at half time.
With Eduardo Vargas on for Chile the game opens up in the second half but it is a needless penalty that gifts Chile a 1-0 lead through Arturo Vidal. Suddenly, Ecuador are chasing the game, and should equalize when a perfectly delivered cross from the right wing is guided on to the crossbar. With Ecuador coming close again minutes later, Chile are able to break with the brilliant Sanchez expertly playing in Vargas who fires home to make it 2-0. ROOOOOAAAARRRR go the crowd as if thousands of lions are celebrating a kill in unison. Chile have seen off Ecuador and already we can seriously talk about the hosts as potential winners of the Copa.
It is barely above zero as I catch a bus back to the centre and walk up to the litter-shrewn Baquedano where thousands of students are partying in the streets celebrating their victory. It is good-natured but a tad wild. An apt description of Chileans and their beautiful country I suspect.
Thursday, June 11, Noon
Finally arrived in Chile after two nights without a bed and the 14-hour flight from Madrid. The first incident of note to report was my bus to Gatwick having an accident at Heathrow Airport bus station. The driver made a mess of his wing after hitting first gear instead of reverse. We had to wait an hour for a new bus to take us to Gatwick.
Madrid was good value. Managed to do three hours of sightseeing and also get up to speed with some of the squads for the Copa America over a coffee or two in the park.
Iberia flight took 14 hours and they fed me on tomatoes and cucumbers for all my meals. They seemed to think vegetarians don´t eat anything else! At least the red wine was decent.
Arrived in Santiago at 8am. Took a good 1.5 hours to get through customs as the airport was rammed with Copa fans, many of them Mexicans. A door-to-door shuttle service got me to my hostel (H Rado) where the roof top terrace (pictured above) is a sweet spot for morning coffee and views of the city. Time for a shower and to get myself down to the Stadion Nacional to pick up my ticket for tonight´s opening match between the hosts and Ecuador. There is a great buzz in the city from what I´ve seen so far and I keep hearing sporadic chanting and cheers coming from the streets all around. It is a cold but beautifully sunny day! Bring on the 2015 CopaAmerica!!