June 26, 2015
Temuco - Pucon, Chile
Pucon is a popular holiday resort a couple of hours away from Temuco. There is a huge coned volcano - Volcan Villarrica - towering above this attractive town, which is also blessed by a lake on one side, a black side beach on another, and high Norwegian fjord style cliffs on the fourth angle. Villarrica erupted in March of this year, gaining worldwide attention.
Pucon has a great feel to it. An excellent place to chill, party or partake of endless adventure tourism opportunities. It is also, i feel, one of those places where an individual can reinvent themselves. You can move here, start with a bed in a hostel, and then find a job as a kayak instructor, or waiter or guide. I am staying at easily the best-value hostel of the trip - Insolente Princesa - where a cool French girl and a smart girl from Michigan run the show. Both no longer wish to return to their respective homelands, having discovered that life outside of the US and France is often better and more real. I enjoy half the day chilling and chatting to them, and the latter half sat on the beach admiring the stunning views of the Volcano and the sunset.
In the evening, Argentina just manage to make it to the semis, needing a 5-4 penalty win to beat James, Falcao and Carlos Sanchez of Colombia.
June 25, 2015
Santiago - Temuco, Chile
'I will treat us to a decent coffee before we go', Hannes kindly tells me as I try to get my shite together after a chilly night on the airport seats near the taxi offices of Santiago Airport.
'It's bloody Nescafe!' Even after cashing out on the deluxe coffee option, somehow, for the umpteenth time during our time in Chile, we have ended up with a cup of bloody awful Nescafe. It is like Chile is stuck in the 1970's with some stuff, especially coffee. You've got Brasil, Colombia and Central American coffee being produced on Chile's doorstep and yet they love this awful crap.
Anyway, it is a fittingly silly note to go out on as Hannes and I part company. He's flying to Calama in the north of Chile, where he'll meet up with Olie before heading for Bolivia after a couple of days. It's been a great laugh and Hannes has, as always, been excellent company, but now it is time for me to get on the double-decker to Universidad de Santiago for my 7am, 800-kilometre coach down to Temuco, the venue for tonight's Copa America quarter final match.
After those couple of crap hours of sleep on the benches of Santiago International, I doze in and out of sleep so many times that it doesn't seem long before I've reached Temuco. Temuco is a city of 260,000, surrounded by forests, but stretches far and wide more than many cities of three times that size, with low-rise earthquake-proof buildings pushing the city limits. I am so knackered and my Spanish is so limited that I end up on a minibus for an hour, first leaving the city, before finally being dropped off about five blocks from Hospedaje Tribu Piren where I have a room booked. I wouldn't mind relaxing for a while but I have no sooner put my bags down than it is time to set off for the German Becker Stadium on the edge of Temuco.
The minibus ride to the stadium is taking forever and it isn't exactly clear where i should go when I jump off it. Fortuitously a sweet local girl called Marion offers to show me the way to the stadium and to the press entrance which is a good distance away on the other side of a park.
The German Becker Stadium is modelled, i am told, on Hamburg's stadium. It is a nice, compact arena but is not much more than half full until there is a late surge just before kick off. I am sat next to former pro footballer Juan Palacios Casas. Peru are the clear favourites in this one and, not long into the match, it is clear Bolivia just aren't good enough to cope with Peru's bright forward line. It is schoolboy defending from the Bolivians at times and Jose Paolo Guerrero - the golden boot at Copa 2011 - is tearing them apart.
Marion invited me into the VIP zone at half time so sIightly bizarrely I have joined the prawn sandwich brigade for half time eats and desserts. Marion's friend is the boss of the waiters and waitresses and many of her friends are waitressing to the rich and connected.
Guerrero 1-0, Guerrero 2-0, Guerrero 3-0. Bolivia are failing to pick up the talented front man and their offside line is way too high. Forgetting how poor Bolivia are for a moment, this Peru side must rank as the third or fourth best team at the tournament and deserve their place in the semi finals for the second consecutive Copa.
After the game, which ends 3-1 after a late penalty from Moreno, I stay in the VIP zone with Marion and her friends and surreally find myself helping a little to clean up after the VIPs have gone. Any plans for an early night catching up with my sleep are quickly dropped as Marion invites me back to one of her friends' houses for an after party.
What a great crew of Chileans this lot are. I drink local carmenere, they drink pisco and coke, and we chat and laugh and listen to some great South American music into the early hours. I might have got some of these artists' names wrong but I am introduced to the delights of La Ley, Soda, Los Jaivas, as well as Los Prisoneros.
I love this bunch - they are so genuine and full of positive energy - and I am sad to bail out with a taxi home at 3am. I have to say that ever since I arrived in Temuco, everyone has been super friendly. Surely a contender for the friendliest town in Chile.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Rapa Nui - Santiago, Chile
'Hey!! It's dance man!!' a random tourist shouts as he walks into a cliff top restaurant, a couple of hours before our flight is due to depart these crazy shores. His wife waves and gives me the thumbs up. Hannes is roaring with laughter, as he should be.
We are both agreed that we feel we have eased into the pace of Polynesian life and don't want to return to the frenetic. This weird barren rock in the middle of nowhere is a chilled spot where you can stare at incredible moai, drink alcohol in the street, climb volcanoes and dance topless in front of hundreds of friends and strangers. I often think we leave a piece of ourselves wherever we visit: energy, memories, friendships; all of these combined, changing the history of that place by some impossible-to-measure degree. As our LAN jumbo somehow lifts its giant bulk off the short runway and the bizarre Rano Kau crater lake disappears below underneath a bank of clouds, there is a sense of sadness leaving behind Te Pito o Te Henua - 'the navel of the world', out here in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The pilot gives us regular updates during our flight on Chile's progress in tonight's quarter final against Uruguay and promises to get us back in time for the second half. The male steward has donned a Chilean national football top in place of his uniform, and passengers stream the game live from their mobiles as soon as we touch down on the mainland.
Inside the terminal at Santiago International, Hannes and myself dive into the closest place with a TV we can find, just as Valdivia goes close for the reds. With 15 minutes to go we grab our rucksacks and run for the arrivals area in search of a restaurant TV just as an almighty roar goes up across the airport. Gooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllllllllllll !!
In arrivals we dive behind a ground services desk with our backpacks, where a portable TV has been set up so half a dozen airport staff can watch the climax of the match. Chile have totally bossed Uruguay but it has taken them until very late on to win it. At the final whistle, there are hugs and cheers and then it's as if the airport ground services staff just woke up from a weird dream and found themselves behind their monitors needing to go straight back to work.
It is a great shame we couldn't get back in time to make it to the National Stadium to witness Chile reach the semi-final, but experiencing it behind a ground handling desk at Santiago International has its own unique quality that is bound to stick in the memory.
Hannes is flying north from here at 6am and i have a 7am bus from the city centre headed down south, so we are both crashing on the airport benches in the name of budget cutting.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Day 14 (part 1)
Having torn ourselves away from the football, which we reckon was 11-4 when we left, it is time for an evening of traditional Rapa Nui song and dance. Hari Kari are the most famous traditional act on the island and the compact theatre, tucked away down a long side passageway, is almost full by the time the ensemble begins its performance. After ending up drinking on a street corner last night, we were both so keen to see this that we booked advanced seats and find ourselves on the front row, mere centimetres away from the stage. You just know this is going to end badly. Especially as we are celebrating the birth of one of our best mate's son. Today we have christened Lucas Williams Day.
Starting with something akin to a Pacific haka - the lads all painted up, the size of international rugby players and convincingly scary with their shouts and facial expressions - the performance moves on to melodic Pacific sing songs to ballet style 30-person intricate dance moves. The men are huge and tattooed, the women are very pretty (and tattooed). And when the inevitable moment comes when some of the ensemble leave the stage and drag 'unsuspecting' members of the public up to join them, I am hugely relieved that it is Hannes that is chosen, not me. Oh, how I giggle at him, take embarrassing photos of him to tease him with later, and smile at his misfortune.
So, it is only fair, when twenty minutes later, as they bring the brilliant show to its dramatic finale that Hannes should be the one roaring with laughter as I am 'unsuspectingly' dragged up onto the stage. I can deal with this. In fact, with the other four victims having done their dance in front of the paying spectators, it seems like fortuitously I have been forgotten...
...oh shite, I've been dragged into the middle of the stage and the head female dancer is unbuttoning my shirt. Uh, oh, she's stripped me down to my trousers and I am dancing a duo in front of 200 paying punters. And suddenly, as if in a trance (most likely drunken), I find myself drift off and forget myself as I try to focus on dancing with the head Hari Kari girl. I'm jumping around, doing twissles and even waving my arms in some weird style I think I must have picked up from Bruce Forsyth. Then I am surrounded by all the girls from the show; all dancing around me...and just like that I seem to pop out of my weird temporary dance trance and hear and see the crowd going wild. Haha. The whole audience seems to be clapping, laughing and cheering my performance. And as I zone back in to reality I feel terribly ridiculous and marooned up on that Easter Island dance stage. Jeez, how on earth did my life reach this point?
Later in the evening, wandering down the main street looking for a place to eat, people are pointing and waving at me in the street. In a restaurant a father and his daughter congratulate me on my dance performance and show me a video of a bloke dancing topless on the stage who cannot possibly be me. Two blocks up in a smart bar, yet more punters are saying hi and showing me videos of a bloke who cannot possibly be me. From that point on, the night descends into random silliness, ending with Hannes and myself drinking with a Rapa Nuian, two Chileano tourists, a Tunisian trawlerman and five wild dogs down by the Hanga Roa cliff tops at 4am, waves violently crashing a metre or two away.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Day 14 (part 1)
If you live on a tiny rock thousands of kilometres away from any other sign of life, and you believe in star gods and spirits in nature, then you are bound to end up going a little doolally. How else might you explain the incredible moai culture of Rapa Nui all those centuries ago? Or the bizarre birdman cult that followed? Or indeed the decline of all of it as Rapa Nui's thriving culture eventually collapsed and went the way of the dodo? There are so many theories about the how and why of this island that it only seems right to come up with your own as well, if you are lucky enough to visit this place and get a sense of the vibe here.
I say all this because the spooky and strange Orongo ceremonial village that hugs one side of a volcanic caldera, just outside of the capital, is such an odd, godforsaken place that you soon start to imagine and dream up all kinds of weird stuff yourself. It is howling such a gale up here that it is threatening to blow us off the top of the volcano rim and in to the tempestuous waters of the Pacific below. The wind is screaming. Why on earth would you build a load of stone houses in this desolate spot up on the edge of a windswept cliff top? Once upon a time, this was the site of a birdman cult. Make Make was their god. They used to come up here and perform bird-cult rituals, whatever they might be. Inside the strange caldera, tortora reeds float in equally weird patterns upon the caldera lake. Like I said: spooky and strange.
All over Rapa Nui, small stones, usually in a circular pattern, mark the point at which you should venture no further. Understandably, this simple and inoffensive 'please keep off' prevents most of the thousands of annual visitors from face stroking the moai or lying on the ahu performing sickly selfies. But up here on the edge of the caldera, the wind hissing, the waves below crashing into the rocky headland, one of these small piles of rocks is preventing visitors from reaching the ancient birdman petroglyphs that are just out of sight. Hannes gives in to temptation and strolls a further five yards where he is able to spy the said petroglyphs but soon gets apprehended by the most Polynesian looking bloke we've seen during our entire time here; a local we had assumed was a tourist. I must admit I am roaring with laughter (from a safe distance) as Hannes gets a talking to and seems to be on his way to a possible citizen's arrest for crossing the rock threshold. Of course, the Rapa Nuian bloke in question is absolutely correct to apprehend the young Swiss (comedy value aside). Apparently, due to coastal errosion that particular spot is in danger of collapsing and hurtling into the wild Pacific Ocean below. Hannes apologises like a meak schoolboy and, after a thorough good talking to, we are finally able to hike back across the fields and small forest to the capital where we briefly watch one of the three daily jumbo jets clear our heads by 100 metres and touch down with a thump.
After a few hours spent in the gorgeous Polynesian hotel garden full of ferns and red flowers, and now properly assimilated to the slower pace of life on Easter Island, we take our Pisco to Hanga Roa's sole football stadium, down by the waterfront. There are apparently around 20 teams that play in the Rapa Nui League and we have arrived just in time to watch what appears to be a pub team play against an under-15 superstars side. Most of the pub team - let's call them Rapa Nui United - have just finished work and quickly dress at the side of the pitch before running on and blasting balls at the net without as much as a 5-minute warm up. The kids team on the other hand, look super skillful and might pass as a Premier league youth development team to see them warm up before the match. Hannes is predicting a 10-0 thrashing for the kids team, while I reckon the pub team are going to boss this one...
...twelve seconds on the clock and it is 1-0 to the u-15 superstars. Hannes takes a big congratulating swig of his mango pisco. But never fear, Rapa Nui United are classic pub team: they look overweight, out of shape and a bit rough around the edges but clearly in a parallel universe a couple of these lads could have played in the Chilean second division. Goal, Goal, Goal. And by half time it is 7-2 to Rapa Nui United. Of course, during this time, Hannes and myself have been chatting to one of the two subs - the cocaine sniffing number 22 - hoping they might invite us to play for them in the second half. At one point there is a discussion about the possibility of us maybe putting our boots on but I think the sight of our now empty bottle of pisco has buggered that one up for us. Instead, we have to settle for an impromptu kick about at half time, a huge moai staring across at us from the harbour as the waves crash noisily nearby. It is Hannes' first kick about for almost a year to the day after getting badly injured in a cup tournament last June. I think I even manage to break the stand-in goalkeeper's finger as he only manages to parry a pisco-induced thunderbolt into the top corner of the net. Grassroots football. You have got to love it. In the case of this particular match: very often absurd but brilliant. It is amazing to be attending the 2015 Copa America but, ultimately, this is where all that comes from. Not only is the setting quite remarkable, but here you have possible future stars playing 40 year old has beens and 32 year old only ifs. On this Polynesian field of dreams you have all the same banter, commaraderie and love of the game as you get on football pitches right across the globe. And in some countries - England included - grassroots football is dying as the mega billions made at the top of the game stay there with the elite, greedy and connected, instead of being reinvested in the grassroots game for everyone to enjoy. And you know what? The two of us find it harder to tear ourselves away from this Rapa Nui league game than it was from perhaps Venezuela vs Peru a few days ago in Valparaiso. It is funny really, when you think of it, because football today is a bit like a cult. After all, aren't all the flags, banners and player worship even more strange than the cult of moai and birdmen?
Monday June 22, 2015
Day 13 (part 3)
You have to tear yourself away from the magic of Ahu Tongarki. It is the kind of special place you could happily spend a day, just sitting there, staring at those enigmatic statues, watching them as the light changes. We cannot continue east to Peninsula Poike, which is a barren looking place, not suitable for vehicles, so instead Hannes drives our jeep on to Anakena, up on the north coast. The beach here is picture postcard perfect and looks more Fiji than the Isle of Skye. There are plenty of palm trees, gorgeous white sand and turquiose clear water that looks as inviting as a Bounty advert, minus the Bounty girl. To top this off there are loads of moai on a well-placed ahu, at the edge of the beach. What a setting! Paradise beach and moai combined and more moai on the beach than people!! I should mention though that the water is about the same temperature as the English North Sea in September, but at least Hannes and I each manage five minutes in the Pacific, admiring the crazy surreal backdrop as schools of little blue fish inquisitively surround us. Sunbathing on Easter Island. Can you believe it? We are both extremely lucky boys.
Instead of doing a late afternoon hike we retire to the hotel for an afternoon of pisco in the beautiful polynesian garden. It is about 20 degrees and the air smells wonderfully fresh. The car cost us £35 between us and the fuel only ran in at £4 so we go for the pisco sour and the pisco mango to celebrate our epic day of adventure.
I probably shouldn't mention it, but I will, that we end the evening hanging out on a Hanga Roa street corner with the wild dogs watching the world go by, swigging from pisco bottles like a couple of delinquent teenagers. It sounds silly and it is silly but it is strangely enjoyable.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Rapa Nui, Polynesia
Day 13 (part 2)
To be fair, we were warned that we might get to a roadblock and not be allowed past. Hannes and I stroll over to the young Rapa Nui lady who is guarding the roadblock, exchange pleasantries, and just like that she lets us past; no questions asked. All we have to do is sign something that looks like a petition to tell the Chilean government to do one. We will get to see all of Rapa Nui after all.
The moai are becoming increasingly impressive as we drive east before reaching the quite remarkable Rano Raraku. This place is off the scale. Known as 'the nursery', there are moai here, there and everywhere. Wild horses roam the slopes of this other worldly extinct volcano. This was the island's workshop, where the moai were carved before being transported to the ahus all around the island. There are close to 400 moai on the slopes and within the caldera of Rano Raraku.
As we walk to the coastal side of the volcano, we start to pass half buried moai. What you often see is only the head of the moai with some of these weathered sculptures up to 13 metres tall and weighing close to 100 tonnes. Yes, none of this makes much sense and the theories about the island's strange unique culture are still just that - theories. What on earth was going on here a thousand years ago?!
Some of these eerie statues are standing, some are fallen; face down, face up. Each has a different expression, usually content or proud looking, rather than sinister.
As we climb higher we reach a stunning vantage point where a couple of kilometres away on the sea shore, we can see the world famous Ahu Tongarki, with the Pacific waves crashing a few metres away. Incredible stuff.
At the highest part of the path we find the largest moai ever made. Lain flat, this absurdly large moai is 20 metres in length and is said to weigh 200 tonnes. But it is the 360 degree view all around that leaves the most wonderment: volcano, wild horses, endless moai, Pacific Ocean. Off the scale.
Inside the 650-metre-caldera, there is a freshwater lagoon and dozens more moai dotting the slopes. We are not allowed to venture as far as many of these but the whole setting is beautiful and utterly surreal.
Driving south east we turn a corner and set eyes upon the stunning sight of Ahu Tongarki: 15 huge moai, framed by the Pacific Ocean. The stuff of dreams and fairytales. Its 200-metre long platform is topped by fifteen very different moai figures, one of which is 14-metres tall and is wearing a hat of sorts. Some are short, others are dumpy. It is quite a bizarre sight.
I've read that these moai were returned here in the 90's after a 1960 earthquake caused a massive tsunami that washed these huge stone structures more than 100 metres inland. Just trying to take it all in, I lie on the grass fifty metres away and stare out at this ridiculous view. It is one of those scenes you spend much of your life longing to see, so it is worth lingering and trying to take in.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Rapa Nui, Polynesia
Day 13 (part 1)
Driving a car around Easter Island on a Monday morning. Haha, that's something I never expected to be saying. This is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places on Earth and we seem to have it almost to ourselves. The population of this 'country' (it is still part of Chile but not, I suggest, for many more years) is just 6,000 and with almost no tourists here because of three days of grounded international flights, this wild, 120 square kilometre desolate rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean appears deserted.
The at-times-bleak and raw landscape, with barely a tree in sight, is reminiscent of the Scottish isles, especially with endless rocks dotting the landscape and the rolling grassy fields. In fact, if I am honest, the first hour of our Rapa Nui tour has proven to be a massive anti-climax. With one exception, the first moai we see are on their faces or are nothing more than platforms (ahu) missing the moai themselves.
Things hot up shall we say when we come to a sudden halt with a rudimentary road block stopping our progress. For many years, all visitors to Rapa Nui have been charged a visitor fee for accessing the moai, ahu and petroglpyhs. The fee was 30,000 pesos - around $60 - with the money collected by the Chilean state and, I guess, most of it going to Santiago, rather than the local economy. But in recent months the locals have been very restless and have been pushing for more autonomy and self governance. The Rapa Nui Parliament, I understand, voted to close the park in late March. One of the biggest concerns of the 2,500 indigenous islanders is that Chileans are moving to the islands to exploit its tourist potential (80,000 tourists per year). This, they argue, is drastically changing the culture of the island and, understandably, this has accelerated the indigenous islanders' claims for independence from a government in Chile almost 4,000 kilometres away. It is said that only 500 Rapa Nui still speak the local language fluently. You can see why they are panicking. If they don't push for independence now, it ain't never gonna happen.
And so, the national park has been closed and a road block is preventing us from continuing east to see what we came all this way to see. I am fully in support of the locals...but this could be an epic fail for myself and Hannes.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
The flight to Easter Island has been cancelled.
This is not good news. Apparently the weather has been so bad out in the Pacific that a LAN 767 jumbo flew two hours west on Friday then had to turn around and come back due to severe turbulence. Since then the three-flights-a-day that connect the island with the outside world have been cancelled and we are told more than a thousand passengers are on waiting lists, many of them residing in the airport hotels playing endless games of I-Spy.
This doesn't sound at all optimistic. The word at 8am is: next update at 2pm, so we have got 6 hours of sitting around Santiago airport, expecting to be told our three-night trip to the mysterious Easter Island ain't gonna happen. Added to this a grey smog has descended upon Santiago as the city reels from a massive pollution scare which is deemed so bad that many people are being told not to go to work or school or play sport outdoors today.
Hannes and I both have that sinking feeling that Rapa Nui and its Moai isn't on the cards and, let's face it, Easter Island is so far from Europe; so damn remote with only two airports in the whole world servicing it, out there three thousand kilometres away in the middle of nowhere, that this opportunity might never present itself again. We are looking at plans B, C and D. Rumour has it LAN will refund all cancelled Rapa Nui tickets with a re-route to anywhere in South America. We are toying with the idea of four days in Colombia.
Infrared satellite images show a massive storm consuming a huge area of the southern Pacific Ocean. Some passengers have heard rumours that the flight disruptions are down to LAN not having enough flights for the Copa America and the weather is a convenient excuse to relieve capacity. I doubt that though. You don't fly a jumbo out into the Pacific and turn it around after 1000 kilometres unless it's genuine. You also don't want to compensate the hundreds of pax who have mostly paid $800-1000 for the trip-of-a-lifetime to Rapa Nui from Santiago (we paid $300 - long story)
"The weather has improved sufficiently for the flight to go at 4pm", the announcer tells everyone is Spanish, prompting applause and cheers. I must admit to a wee whoop myself.
And indeed not long after 4pm we leave Santiago with a polluted mist trapped like a grey blanket just above the city and set off into the vastness of the Pacific.
After hitting some nasty early turbulence, thankfully things settle down and we can enjoy the six-hour flight out into the middle of nowhere, with some fine service, food, drink and entertainment care of LAN.
Isla de Pascua is on the monitor - the most remote airport on planet Earth. It is exhilarating to realise we are so far from...everywhere. Off the map in many senses. It is also a little scary knowing that if we hit extreme weather there is absolutely nowhere to land for thousands of miles.
To the theme from Bladerunner a rocky outcrop comes into view and we hit land with a loud thud. The runway here is so short that the pilot needs to bring the plane down as early as possible.
I cannot believe it - we are in Rapa Bloody Nui!!!!
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!!