17 October, Tur Bus, Valparaiso
Almost at the end of our long journey from Lima to Santiago, it is probably a good time to reflect on South American buses.
We have travelled close to 2000 kms on buses during this trip, from luxury “cama” class to local minibuses. We have survived them all, but the degree of comfort and convenience varied greatly.
As passenger rail services are virtually non-existent in South America and internal flights generally expensive, bus travel is extremely popular.
At the top end of the market are the long-haul coaches that connect virtually every major centre. Bus companies offer a range of classes of travel, but these can be simplified to two general classes, cama and semi-cama. Cama class has more leg room, seats that recline close to horizontal as well as meal and snack services. While not that much more expensive than semi-cama, they provide an element of exclusivity, with only 12 seats per bus, pillows and blankets, a dedicated attendant and a closed door to protect the lucky 12 from prying eyes. Semi-cama seats offer less leg room, seats recline to about 140 degrees, but are quite comfortable, with snacks provided on longer hauls. What cannot be avoided, for both classes, is the dreaded bus toilet. Enough said.
Shorter haul buses can be rather uncomfortable, with fixed seats. Mini-buses are, of course, at the bottom of the range. We have used mainly Cruz del Sur and Tur Bus for our journeys. Both are excellent. Security and safety are good on both, although there are often inconsistencies in application of procedures. We were happy overall with both companies.
We also learned some useful lessons about bus travel.
- Don't expect buses to be on time. They won't leave before the scheduled time, unless they’re full, but they will often be delayed en route.
- Many towns have several formal and informal bus stations. It always pays to clarify pick-up and drop-off locations.
- Most of the buses we travelled on were full, so early booking, a day or two ahead, is essential.
- Don't expect destination boards or bay numbers for departing buses. Just ask if unsure. We could have been left stranded a couple of times if we hadn't asked! A trick we picked up late in the game was to ask at the company's desk for the actual number of the bus you need to catch. If you do this just before scheduled departure time, the company will know the number of the bus allocated to your route.
- Small local buses and mini-buses don't always operate on a schedule. They just leave when the driver thinks he has enough passengers. These services don't usually have defined stops either. You just yell when you need to get off.
- In larger towns, local buses will have smaller terminals away from the main bus station. Again you need to ask around to be sure of terminal locations.
This may sound terribly complicated but, rest assured, it does work. Just be prepared to ask. People are generally helpful. We don't speak Spanish and we managed.
There are a lot of stories around about safety on buses. We may have just been lucky, but we had no security issues. Drivers were uniformly good, even on small local buses. To be honest, notions of bus-jacking seem a little far-fetched these days, even though they were once a fact of life throughout South America. Today, long haul buses operate on major highways that are well-travelled. While small local buses do take back roads, a quick look at the clientele of these services should allay any fears. Most of your fellow travellers are way too poor to be able to offer much to a would-be robber. As always, keep your wits about you and exercise good common sense.
A final tip. If your smart phone or tablet has GPS, you can use the cache memory to store the area you are travelling to, so you can track your location and find your hotel when you arrive. In Google Maps, caching an area is as simple as looking at it while online. You will be surprised how much detail the cache will hold, allowing you to effectively operate offline.
18 October, AirBnB Apartment, Valparaiso
Valparaiso is billed as quaint and quirky. Perhaps dirty and dodgy would be more appropriate. The city has played an important part in Chile's history, but, at least for the moment, those glory days seem to have passed. A port and a naval base, Valparaiso sits on a reasonably attractive harbour, one side of which is devoted to normal port activities. The small, container-loading wharf is not that bad to look at and the naval ships docked nearby provide some interest. Sadly, the rest of the water front and the two or three blocks behind it are an eyesore!
In their wisdom, the burghers of Valparaiso have constructed a metro line along the waterfront, cutting off access to the sea. Decaying, largely abandoned buildings, covered in graffiti and surrounded by litter, front a not-unattractive palm-lined boulevard that skirts the bay. These sea-level streets are a minefield of dog droppings, populated by an army of drunks and beggars.
Are we being too harsh? Perhaps. Maybe there are plans afoot to redevelop the water front. We can only hope.
Happily, it isn't all bad news. The hills of the city are so steep that 15 ascensores, (funiculars) have been constructed to scale the precipitous hills. The oldest of these is well over 100 years and several have fallen into disrepair and no longer operate. It is in these hills that some redemption lies for Valparaiso. During the heady days of the Nitrate mining boom, both the poor and the wealthy built on these hills (probably to escape the dreariness of the waterfront!). Many stately Colonial mansions have been maintained or restored and painted in Valparaiso’s traditional bright colours, that contrast with the multi-storey, drab and rusty, corrugated iron-clad boarding houses and tenements built for the workers. One of these large homes now houses the excellent Valparaiso Museum of Fine Arts. Nearby, an attractive Colonial Naval Station hosts the Maritime Museum, which features Chile's rich naval history. The serpentine streets offer pleasant surprises for the eye at every turn and it’s easy to become happily lost, happily because you just have to head down to find your way again.
Along with its pleasant close neighbour, the Santa Monica look-a-like, Vina del Mar, greater Valparaiso would have close to 1million citizens. It can only be hoped that Valparaiso can learn from its neighbour and do something to repair the malaise affecting the lower part of the city.
21 October. Air BnB Apartment, Santiago
We have four days in Santiago, partly as a bit of a wind-down at the end of our trip and what a great city to wind-down in! The more we see of Santiago, the more we like it. Sophisticated, modern but with an old European grandeur, Santiago is not what we expected at all. Lima and La Paz are definitely South American cities, more than a bit rough and ready in parts, sometimes a little “edgy” but with a definite South American vibe. The predominance of indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia probably accounts for the difference we feel. Their culture is strong and omni-present in both Peru and Bolivia. Chile is vastly different. It is a city of grand, tree-lined boulevards, public squares and monuments, almost the Madrid of the South.
Our usual round of museums and art galleries has kept us busy to date. Most of what we have seen can best be described as bizarre! Contemporary art is right out there in Santiago. We just wandered about shaking our heads. Of far more interest was the Museum of Human Rights that covered the dark years of the Pinochet Government when thousands of Chileans “disappeared”. Almost 40,000 political prisoners were incarcerated between 1973 and 1989. Many suffered torture and regular beatings, many more died. Pinochet came to power in a coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Pinochet ruled with US support and it is fairly clear that his coup was also supported by the CIA. The Pinochet Regime was eventually overturned when a Plebiscite and an enormous “people power” movement, combined against it.An interesting side-bar to the issue of US-Chile relations is America’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the War of the Pacific in the 1870s.Chile was at war with Peru and Bolivia and at one point it looked as though the US might intervene to protect its commercial interests in Peru. Seems the USA thought better of it when it realised that it would be easily out-gunned by the more powerful Chilean Navy.
The city has a population of 6.5 million. It is simply vast with multiple centres and many different neighbourhoods. The Metro and bus systems are simple to use and inexpensive. We purchased a Bip Card which is a simple, stored-value card that can be topped up at machines in the Metro. Because there is just a standard fare for the whole system, you only need to “Bip” in, not in and out, so one card can be used by multiple people. By repute, Santiago is the most expensive city in South America. It is clearly more expensive than Lima or La Paz, but we have not found it outrageous compared to Australian cities. By our major comparison tool, the beer index, Santiago is on a par with home. We are self-catering, so we have only eaten out at lunch and that is fine, a couple of big baguette rolls for $4-$5 each. Supermarket prices are about the same as Australia, except perhaps for beef, which seems to be very expensive by our standards.
26 October Home
The long return flight now behind us, we are slowly adjusting again to the regular rhythm of home life. The pace of the last couple of months was nothing too unusual for us, but it always feels great when it stops!
This trip and our adventures in China, Russia and the Baltic States last year have been a bit of a change from the road trips by car and the motorhome trips of the past. Here in South America we have been totally reliant on public transport, as we were last year. Most of our travelling companions have been half our age and, as we moved away from the more travelled tourist routes, fewer and fewer people spoke English. Our Spanish is extremely rudimentary, but we have muddled through without too many dramas. Booking buses and trains doesn’t require any language skills at all. We just write out what we want and the counter staff turn their monitors so we can check the booking process on the screen. Most other interactions can be managed by pointing or using some basic words. We rapidly learnt a useful phrase in Chile, “Dos mayores, por favor” (“Two seniors, please”).
We have covered a lot of territory in just 7 weeks, but South America is a very large continent. We will have to return.