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Santiago Here We Come!

I’m in love with the Chilean Lakes! I arrived feeling distraught, having been unceremoniously kicked off my Dragoman Tour which should have lasted 15 weeks and in the end was less than 3 weeks. The Chilean Lakes have calmed my shattered nerves and soothed me with their stunning scenery. It’s crowning glory, Villarrica Volcano, has been ever present and an exciting character in my lakes story as it churns out smoke and gas. The lakes will always have a special place in my heart but it is time to move on. I have cycled and walked every glorious corner and winter is starting to rear its ugly head so it is with reluctance that I decide to say goodbye. There is a bus to Santiago and I decide that I will be on it.

My task now is to convince Heather and Christine to come too. They are sceptical. We don’t really know each other very well. I point out that we haven’t known each other for a complete month. This takes a bit more explanation. We met on 2nd March and it is now late April so that means we have not known each other for the duration of a complete month that runs from 1st to 30/31st.

All of a sudden, Christine comes on board and is a firm convert to the ‘Go North Project’. Heather is still very quiet on the matter. Christine and I book our bus tickets for the princely sum of £19 for an 11 hour journey that is 750 kms. The 35 minute journey that is 25 kms from where I live to central London costs more than that! We get a seat with a view at the front of the top deck. The anticipation and excitement begin to build!

I want to end up in UNESCO World Heritage Valparaíso. Heather says it is too large and could be locked down. To date, Chile has just locked down certain areas, many being parts of Santiago which houses a quarter of the population. How about scarcely populated Concon up the coast, as a compromise? Too much like Queensland in Australia where she lives.

Too my amazement, Christine takes charge and books a 3 bed apartment in Valparaíso. It is so cheap that even if it is just the two of us, it is affordable. We keep our fingers crossed that Heather will change her mind and at the eleventh hour she does thanks to her daughter who persuades her that she would be better off coming with us. I whisk her off to the bus station to buy her ticket before she changes her mind.

On the morning of departure, our favourite Uber driver, Oscar, picks us up and takes us to the bus station. We have to fill in an online health passport and wear a mask. Villarrica Volcano is wearing a fresh coat of snow and is sparkling in the morning sunlight. It makes it very hard to say goodbye. We head up through the Central Valley which is like the Garden of Eden. Its volcanic rich soil makes for very big vegetables and tasty fruit. In addition, it has the stunning back drop of the snow covered Andes and volcanoes. Nearer to Santiago we encounter vineyards in their autumnal colours of gold and red.

We are stopped three times for temperature checks. As I queue up outside the bus I have visions of the temperature gun beeping loudly and declaring that I can proceed no further! Thankfully, it doesn’t!

We roll in to a very dodgy looking part of Santiago well after dark. The bus station is closed so we are off loaded in the street outside. We take a taxi to our apartment in central Santiago and go along the wide boulevard that I remember seeing on the news last autumn full of angry protesters. The ghosts of the 36 people who were killed still loom large in this country.

On arrival at our apartment complex, I check that I have got the view of the Andes that I have requested. Oh yes, he assures me. Ten minutes later I am back in reception because, guess what, the view is not up to scratch! I go armed with a picture of the view that I have been promised. He ums and ahs and makes pathetic excuses. Does he realise who I am? Do I have to remind him that I have Genius status? He eventually realises he’s dealing with a mad woman who would kill for a good view so he sensibly promises to move us to the penthouse suite the next day.

I wake the next morning to a spectacular half view of the Andes. It will look incredible from the penthouse suite!

We head off to the Plaza de Armes which is at the heart of the city. It’s chock full of beautiful architecture and the ubiquitous man on a horse. We try hard not to look like tourists! There are police everywhere. Other women are trying not to look like street sellers and rapidly dismantle their make shift stall as two police on bikes approach. They are, however, spotted and questioned.

We decide to try and buy our bus tickets for our trip to Valparaíso the next day so we know when we are departing and can inform our apartment of our time of arrival. We work out that we can get to the bus station where we can buy a ticket using a local bus. When we try to find the bus stop we get lots of head shaking and ‘no’ in tandem with negative finger shaking. We switch to Plan B and order an Uber. I get a message saying “Please be ready to deposit your package” next to a symbol of a parcel. I send a message saying we are people not a package. It becomes clear that human Uber rides are not allowed. Our friendly Uber driver, Marcos, picks us up anyway and we tell him we are going to the bus station to buy bus tickets to Valparaíso. He does the head shaking thing too and tells us that no buses are running over the public holiday to stop people from Santiago going to their holiday homes. It is becoming rapidly clear that we have logistical problems. Can he take us, we ask. Yes, he will try. What time? 6 am to avoid the police road checks. He drops us off.

Christine returns to the apartment and Heather and I go for a walk in the park. This doesn’t last long because Marcos sends messages to say the road will be closed to Valparaíso at 6pm today and stay closed over the holiday weekend. We ask him if we can go before the road closes. Yes, he says but he needs our passport details to get permission to travel. Heather and I return to the apartment. Heather is calm and relaxed and I am frantically google translating Marcos’ messages, consulting google maps, calling Christine to update her and nearly getting run over by Santiago traffic. I’m just saying, Heather!

We pack in 30 minutes and I have to go and turn down the penthouse suite with spectacular views of the Andes. I do, however, ask him not to give it away as we may not make it through the police checks so could be back! I try to think of another journey where I set out not knowing if I will be turned back and can’t think of any. As we whizz out of Santiago we see lots of street markets which are certainly not conforming to social distancing.

Marcos, our friendly Uber driver, shows me the ‘Authority to Travel’ on his phone and says that if we are stopped, it is best to say we are friends. Marcos is a migrant from Peru. He has to get back to the capital by 6pm or he will be fined by the police. We can see the check points on Marcos’ sat nav and it is very nerve wracking when we approach them. We are waved through three without being pulled over so we start to celebrate. This, however, proves to be premature as we are directed off the road in to a holding area. A woman takes our temperature. Christine’s beeps ominously! It turns out, however, that she has been in the sun and when the woman switches to the other side of her head all is well. The woman, however, wants to know where we are from. The words U.K. and Australia leave her looking horrified. OMG, our number appears to be up. She goes to consult a colleague and we hold our breath. Traffic is building up and her colleague appears to shrug. She waves us off and we are on our way and very relieved.

We drive through the dry and arid coastal range and in to Valparaíso. Compared to Pucón, it is like being on a different planet!

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