Tourist gaffes, we all make them. Whether it’s pointing your feet at a Buddha statue in Asia or wandering around a strict Muslim town in a bikini, I’ve seen it all. My little faux pas was tiny in comparison. After a strenuous day exploring the sites of Santiago, I was desperate for a cup of tea and so staggered into the first place I saw. I ordered my drink and then asked the waitress where the chairs were, not realising it was a famous stand up only bar, a café con piernas, coffee with legs. Not only that but the waitresses are dressed in skimpy mini skirts to show off their legs and it’s the kind of place where bored businessmen come to drink coffee, do business, and, well, ogle. The tea was great, though.
It’s all very retro 70s and very politically incorrect. But I also saw families with kids and respectable old ladies there. No one seems to mind. In a way it summed up my impressions of Santiago. It’s changing a lot and there’s a huge amount of construction going on, but there are still characterful barrios or neighbourhoods with tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and bars. The bland uniformity of globalisation has not yet swept away independent stores and cafes, and you can still see shopfront signage that hasn’t changed in 50 years. It reminds me a little of Madrid 20 years ago.
The setting of Santiago at the foot of the Andes is wonderful and the flight over the mountains from São Paulo was breathtaking. And yet it’s the little details that really strike you, the square and fountain you come across by chance, the little streets with graffiti, the friendliness of the people.
As I headed north to the coastal town of Coquimbo, I began to realise how different Chile is from Brazil. And it’s all down to geography and the Andes. The mountains here are brown and stark, instead of the lush tropical green of Brazil. The seafood is spectacular, a result of the colder waters of the Pacific. The coastline is rugged and dramatic and the weather drier. This is a semi-arid desert landscape. And it’s also prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The last one in September 2015 wreaked a lot of damage and the rebuilding work is still ongoing. You can see signs showing you tsunami escape routes. Basically, don’t head for the beach, run up the nearest hill.
Like I’m going to be reading instructions when a huge tidal wave is rushing towards me.
Coquimbo is a grimy industrial port city next to the neighbouring twin city of La Serena which is much more attractive but Coquimbo is cheaper so I’m staying there. But the Barrio Ingles has been nicely restored and is a testament to the presence of the English here in the 19th century when the city was a huge copper exporter. In the centuries before that, however, English pirates had sailed up and down the Chilean coast ransacking cities. La Serena itself was sacked by the pirate Bartholomew Sharp.
When you think of Andean Latin America you might think of the usual cliches like llamas grazing by high-altitude lakes, perilous bus journeys across mountain passes, men in colourful ponchos playing panpipes and women in bowler hats selling coca leaves. So far Chile has none of that. The capital has a distinctly European vibe and Coquimbo has the out of season feel of Blackpool, but that’s okay. For the moment I’m enjoying great food, pisco sours and a sense of security that is often absent in South America. However, I’m also looking forward to getting into the high Andes. I might even buy a poncho….