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Snow to sun in a few hours. The first week was much needed relaxation at the house of F’s parents, where my friends F and B and their daughter D are here; I timed my visit to meet them (not to mention abuse their hospitality!) It was great to laze around their pool for a few days, taking siestas in the heat of the afternoon and eating fresh food and being with friends.

After a week of this it was time for a trip – we hired a car and B, F, her sister N and myself headed off for a week. We ended up travelling 1200km south, as far as Castro on the island of Chiloe, off Chile. South of Santiago, the weather and scenery get more and more Mediterranean … the huge peaks of the Andes march in the distance parallel to the road, and we passed beautiful fields, yellows and greens and browns rich in a bright, clear sunlight. We travelled around the Lakes District, a popular holiday and adventure spot for Chileans. Visited a stunning emerald pool fed by waterfalls; ate huge slabs of beef in a restaurant (where the owner’s family treated us to their holiday video, including film of the family killing a calf – sorry any vegetarians out there); had various car adventures (got hit in the back at a stop sign by a bad driver – fun for the girls at the police station – blew a tire in a national park and with the help of friendly passers-by got it changed); clambered over the lava foothills of the Volcan Villarica; soaked in hot thermal springs at Menetue. Onwards to Puerto Montt and then to a ferry to take us over to Chiloe, seals playing in the water and the Andes a long line heading south on the horizon. Stayed a couple of days at the very relaxing seaside town of Ancud, ate curanto, a huge local speciality of shellfish, potatoes, pork, sausage and chicken and drank excellent pisco sours (new favourite drink); drove down the island to another smaller ferry and across to the little island of Achao; back to Chiloe and the town of Castro for dinner of crab chupae, yum – great seafood in these parts, in fact excellent food everywhere – back to Ancud and then the mainland and stayed at Frutillar, a beautiful village on the lake, very German due to early settlers; swam in a clear cold lake with the white cone of Volcan Orsono looming in the background. Perfect weather the whole trip. Shopped in colourful, noisy and interesting markets and bought a new travel hat for the desert. F and N did most of the talking to hotel and restaurant staff but B and I are slowly picking up bits of Spanish as we go; I have to work hard as I’ll be on my own in a few days – though I’m getting better than the time last week I asked someone “When is the bathrooms?” Sometimes I can even pick out a few words and get the gist of what someone is saying!

All in all a wonderful week – a hell of a lot of driving for B and I on sometimes challenging roads but we saw lots and had a great time. The day after we got back we had a perfect birthday gathering for B at a house on the outskirts of Santiago owned by a friend of F’s family – with the lights of the city spread out below us ten people gathered around a table outside, eating steak, black pudding and salads and drinking pisco sours, beer and red wine. B had his guitar, I was supplied with saucepans, and a girl there was a guitar player and singer, so the guitar was passed back and forth and we played Beatles songs and Chilean folk songs into the night.

Back in Santiago, and I stayed at a beautiful flat in Las Condes with friends V and T. I never knew I knew so many people in foreign lands!

I’ve been into the city a couple of times (and drove through it on the way home and lived to tell the tale) B and I spent half a day wandering the streets and visiting the old presidential palace, the main Plaza de Armas and the old cathedral. Yesterday was a long day by myself, tracking down a bookstore that stocked English Lonely Planets (which cost me a bundle), visiting the oldest church in Santiago, the Iglesias San Francisco, wandering the beautiful gardens and fountains of the Cerro Santa Lucia, a landscaped hill in the city centre, visiting the Pre-Columbian Museum, and buying an adaptor for my shaver! The weather is beautiful but gets very hot in the early and mid afternoon. Luckily it is dry and any shade is very cooling. Everyone stares at me as I’m such a strange looking typical gringo. In some cases this is not always so bad, as Chilean women are absolutely gorgeous, and I have been told I may look quite exotic to them!!

So, next I’m flying out of Santiago in a few days up to the port city of Antofagasta. V knows a travel agent there who can give me a hand. The plan is to take a bus out to the desert to San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama is the most ‘perfect’ desert in the world, utterly barren but apparently stunningly beautiful. From there I will bus up to Arica, near the Peruvian border, and take a very steep train trip northeast into Bolivia and to La Paz. Whether I see some of Bolivia or head west to Lake Titicaca and Peru is a later decision. All a pretty standard ‘gringo trail’ itinerary, but then there are reasons why it’s such a popular route, and it will be good to meet other travellers, especially with my incredibly bad Spanish ..

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