Chile is by many accounts a beacon of functioning democracy in South America. It boasts strong institutions, good infrastructure, a healthy economy and low crime rates – that is to say: it works.
But given my recent experience in Santiago International Airport, I’m wondering if all of the impressive development that Chile has undergone over the past few decades has led Chilenos to forget how to let their hair down a little.
Let me explain. I have just arrived back from a fun-packed, adventure-filled, two-pronged journey to Patagonia. During the first stage I trekked in Torres del Paine with George and Oscar, two friends from Yale and a third new friend, Gene (aka. Gene Gene Mak Mak) who lived with George in San Francisco. During the second, I made my way from Southern Chile to San Martin de Los Andes, a quaint little hamlet just over the Argentine border in northern Patagonia, where I met a group of friends from Buenos Aires.
The trip, which ended spectacularly, began tumultuously. Although I’ll readily admit I’m mostly to blame for my initial, Chile helped!
I arrived in the Santiago airport two Thursday mornings ago, two hours late due to flight delays and eager to hit the city. George, who had taken a slightly earlier flight to Santiago, and I were passing through the Chilean capital for only a few hours in order to pick up Oscar and Gene – our third and fourth trekking buddies. We only had about 12 hours to explore before catching a 1:35 am (GULP) flight to Punta Arenas, where we would sleep on the airport floor for a few hours before boarding a bus to Puerto Natales, the jumping off point for Torres Del Paine national park.
When my flight doors opened, I all but ran to the immigrations booth where they alerted me I had to pay a reciprocal fee to enter the country. This is pretty standard practice in South America and would have been fine if the fiscal fairy hadn’t cast a spell which caused me to leave my credit and debit cards at home in my nightstand.
Did they accept personal checks? I asked with pleading eyes to a negative response.
I tried to get a hold of George, who had taken an earlier flight, but he had already collected his baggage and couldn’t come back through to the customs area.
My level of alarm rose from orange alert to burnt orange alert.
Luckily there were quite a few more americans in line to pay the fee and I dutifully asked each of them if they would be willing to pay for me with their credit cards and I’d write them a check. Many of them were living in Argentina where banks wont cash checks made out in dollars and thus declined. Even the frat boy exchange students in Santiago for Lolapallooza shot me “how could you be so dumb” looks.
Burnt orange alert gave way to red alert.
Finally my savior came in the form of an adorable couple – Ezekiel from Buenos Aires and Melissa, originally from Vermont but living in Buenos Aires – who were also in town for the music festival. Unlike my frat pals the pair clearly belonged to the more appreciative class of concert goers actually interested in listening to the music rather than getting “as fucked up as we did in MenBROza, man!” Ezekiel paid my fee with a credit card and we made our way to the exit so that George, who had not been
so idiotic to forget all of his cards enchanted by evil fairies, could recompense him.
But the Chilean travel gods would not make it so easy.
As soon as my bright yellow, NBA-player-height backpack rolled through the customs scanner, an agent with a painfully tight ponytail summoned me to step aside. She riffled through my top pocket and fished out a sealed ziplock with sealed, i repeat, SEALED bags of almonds, rasins, and peanuts.
“Why did you not declare these?” she said accusatorily, removing the almonds and raisins from the Ziploc and waving them in one hand as she wagged her finger with the other.
I glanced at Ezekiel and Melissa who were patiently waiting by the customs exit.
“Uh, I didn’t know I had to. But you can have them. I just really have to go.”
“Why didn’t you read the declaration form.”
“I’m sorry you’re right, I should have, but I just really have to leave now. Take the nuts, I can buy more.” By this point my eyes were welling up with tears of frustration.
“No,” she said with apparent satisfaction. “You have to come with me to the office and make a statement. The peanuts are fine because they’re salted, but the almonds and raisins are a danger.”
A small laugh escaped me. “A danger?”
Senora Tight-Tail didn’t share my amusement, apparently. “Yes. Come with me.”
I explained what had happened to Ezekiel and Melissa, appologized profusely and told them to go on and find George. Meanwhile the customs agent led me to a small, windowless room where she sat me down next to a man who had forgotten to declare a banana. The entire scene felt a bit like a twisted jail holding pen – “What are you in for?” I asked the french woman waiting behind me. “Orange,” she answered in a quavering voice. ”They took my husband in first, but it was mine. They wont believe me!”
After 30 minutes of paperwork and finger twiddling I was released with a citation for attempting to smuggle .2 KG of Raisins and .255 KG of Almonds into the Republic of Chile plus a copy of my written statement that a friendlier customs agent had helped me to fabricate:
“I believed that with the material being sealed and in a ziploc that I would not have problems with entrance, it was an error on my part and without bad intentions. I’m sorry.”
I thanked the agent for at least making my spanish sound good, grabbed my bags of peanuts (why they were allowed and almonds not, I still don’t know though I’ve heard Chile has tolerance problems) and ran to meet George.
Melissa and Ezekiel, aka. my Godsends, had waited around to shuttle into the city with us where we met Oscar and Gene, George’s former roommate in San Fransisco and a former Navy Seal. (He has a current life too, or at least so he claims.)
Oscar, who has been living in Santiago for the past year, led us to a neighborhood sandwich shop where we ravenously devoured the plates set in front of us. Apparently Sandwiches are beloved in Chile – chicken, beef, turkey, ham – sandwiches of all types and but always formbidably sized and accompanied by heaping globs of mayo the size of nimbus clouds.
We spent the next couple hours making final trip preparations (which for me meant napping on Oscars bed, and for the boys meant splashing around in the pool connected to Oscars building) until re-emerging for a stroll and dinner. Though I only saw Providencia and a small area of downtown called Bella Vista, I liked Santiago. The architecture was less pleasing to me than the faux-euro buildings and boulevards in Buenos Aires, but I’m a sucker for cities nestled in between mountain ranges.
At 11:30 pm it was time to head back to SCL again for our 1:35 AM flight to Punta Arenas. In our eagerness to get to Puerto Natales as early as possible, we’d booked the earliest flight. Seems logical, no? Perhaps it would be except for buses don’t start running from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales until 8 am, so we spent 3.5 lovely hours splayed out on the tile floor in the Punta Arenas airport trying to sleep. I dozed off here and there, but between the snoring of friends who shall remain anonymous (ahem, GENE MAK) and creepy soundtrack music blaring from the loudspeaker all morning, let’s just say I didn’t make it to REM.
I had heard that the drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales left a lot to be desired but when we finally boarded the bus at 8, I was completely content to stare out the window for 3 hours. We drove past rolling fields that were turned a stunning gold by the rising sun, small mountains, and deep blue lakes. I counted 9 rainbows and about 100 times that many sheep, often dyed pink or blue to indicate their owner.
The town of Puerto Natales itself fascinated me a great deal. The city was initially settled by European immigrants – a mix of British, Welsh, Germans, Croats, and Spanish – before the thriving sheep industry lured Chileans to move in as well. While the sheep and fishing industries are still important parts of the economy, modern day Puerto Natales survives off of tourism. That said, the town does not feel inauthentic. For every souvenir shop and hippy-vegetarian coffee shop, there are toy stores, lingerie shops and appliance warehouses – not exactly normal tourist swag (or maybe I’m travelling wrong…) Every afternoon boys and girls in school uniforms swarm the streets, which are overrun by stray dogs and street vendors selling dried fish and octupus. The most of the houses are one-story blocks, constructed from corrugated steel and painted bright colors which make for a beautiful contrast with the tawny grass they sit in.
The city lies on an expansive turquoise lake – the “Sound of Last Hope” – so named because it was one 1570 explorer’s last hope of locating the Strait of Magellan. The water stretches all the way to Torres del Paine, our final destination. I found it hard to wrap my head around what it must have been like to stumble on such a stunning landscape, which would demand the awe of even the most desperate, dejected crew.
After listening to an informational talk on Torres del Paine at our hostel in which the speaker insisted we eat every hour or else we’d die and yelled at me for asking him to repeat one of the distances between campsites (maybe he hadn’t eaten that hour?), we scoured the streets in search of gear. Between us we bought about 15 kg of dried fruit and nuts (looking at almonds made me a little squeamish but due to their high protein content I forced myself to be brave), a pair of hiking boots, and a fanny pack (purchased to have easy access to my camera but I’m told they’re very de mode in Santiago, so 10 points for me).
Bank runs also became a fun game. In an even more comedic turn, George had lost his ATM card to a ravenous machine in Buenos Aires (the machines fully swallow them here instead of just asking you to swipe them) and Gene’s ATM card was rejected by Chilean machines. Oscar was the last bank-member standing and for the entirety of the trip we relied on him for cash withdrawals. Unfortunately, given our situation, not a lot of places took credit cards and thus we needed to take out a considerable amount of cash – more than Oscars card would allow at one time. When we were able to extract money from the machines it felt like a grand victory, like we had won the lottery or a huge slots jackpot. We hugged and laughed and danced and then, much to our chagrin, realized it was our money not new winnings.
Since this is already a monster post, I’ll stop here for now and write a post on Torres del Paine, and then finally San Martin de Los Andes as soon as I can. Also I like suspense.