Away in a stranger (country). Christmas and New Year in Chile

If anyone has a better pun for the title please feel free to leave a comment.

The arrival of Christmas coincided with our arrival in Chile, having earlier made the decision that the Pacific coastline would be an ideal place to spend our first ever Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere.

We arrived in Santiago on 19th December following our flight from Mendoza. Chilean customs are known for their zero tolerance approach to bringing certain foods into the country. What you are and aren’t allowed seems to be a topic of much debate. As it turned out we lost dried kidney beans, raisins and Amber’s leftover lunch but managed to keep flour, curry powder (phew) and pasta.

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The view from our apartment in Santiago. That’s not a fresh morning mist obstructing the view of the Andes, it’s pollution

We were only staying for 3 days in Santiago to break up the journey from Argentina and given we would be back in the capital for an extended stay in January we had a relatively relaxed time. After a visit to the Zoo, a bit of Xmas shopping and a lot of earthquake chat (we became convinced that there would be an earthquake, Claire at one point even thought our apartment block was swaying – too much wine probably) it was time to get the bus to Horcon, about 150km north west of Santiago.

A good friend back in the UK had recommended Horcon having spent a couple of weeks there about 10 years ago. What we realise now is that a lot can change in 10 years and also what may have appealed to a young buck backpacking solo around South America may differ slightly to a fast approaching middle aged family of 3. On arrival what we found was a quaint, dusty, slightly scruffy fishing village with remnants of a hippy past (mainly in the shape of elderly people selling beads and shells). Often when somewhere is described as a “fishing village” it’s essentially a backpacker coastal town with a few seafood restaurants. Not so in Horcon, which remains very much a working fishing village and not much else.

In the morning the beach was buzzing with life – old wizened fisherman using pack horses to bring their catch ashore while village residents haggled at makeshift stalls over the fresh fish. We really enjoyed the atmosphere. Amber loved watching the horses as well as all the dogs and birds attracted to the smell of hundreds of dead fish. That said we were also grateful that our accommodation for the week was in a cliff top condominium overlooking the village. As such we had the opportunity to escape the noise and smell as and when we wanted. 

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Fishermen, birds, horses and a lot of fish in Horcon

We had a great week here. With a gym, pool and playground on site as well as a peaceful beach on the other side of the cliff there was little need to stray far from home. We even managed to source a turkey (to cook, that is) from a nearby town, so Christmas day itself was complete with a full dinner and punctuated with a number of Skype calls to close family. We missed the quintessential Christmassy-ness of the British festive season, but with turkey, family (albeit on video), bubbles and a few little gifts for Amber it was a pretty decent attempt at recreating that in Chile. 

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A fair attempt at a Christtmas dinner

On the 29th it was time to move on to Valparaiso, a city just 50km south down the coast. We would stay here for another 6 days including New Year’s Eve. The famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described Valparaiso in the following way:

“Valparaiso, how absurd you are … disheveled, you never finished combing your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you”

A promising description and I for one was particularly excited about arriving here. Valparaiso was the one place I always imagined being in on the dark winter mornings in the UK while we mulled over the idea of travelling through South America. Even thousands of miles away the city had a strange allure, thanks to quotes like the above, guide books and comments from people who had been there. After a week in the city our expectations were more than met. Valparaiso was wonderfully chaotic with a decidedly edgy undercurrent. Particularly around NYE, but at other times as well, it really did feel that you could have been at a UK festival, just one with sunshine and Spanish. 

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Street art, staircases, hills and ingenuous architecture characterise Valparaiso

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Street art highlights in Valparaiso

I’d like to say we took full advantage by partying into the night but alas no. It’d be easy to blame Amber for that but in reality we are 1) a bit past it, we just can’t summon the same levels of stamina and enthusiasm we used to and 2) really quite content with our nights in and 10pm bedtimes. No, really we are. That said, within the confines of our daily routine and our fast advancing years we gave a decent account of ourselves. This included mini pub crawls on both NYE and NYD and keeping Amber up to an eye watering 8:30pm on both nights. Rock and roll.

Gallivanting around two of the hills where all the action is (Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion) was loads of fun – cool bars, a great selection of craft beers and plenty to keep Amber occupied. This included a great coffee house called Leche which had a wonderful play room at the back and some unusual but very well received model horses and cows in one of the bars we visited which kept her entertained for ages.

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Enjoying the festival atmosphere on NYE

Our accommodation in Valparaiso was as chaotic as the city itself. On arrival we were immediately terrorised by the hosts’ two pet dogs. Having been chased, hassled and barked at by dogs across Argentina we thought we’d put our canine issues behind us but Valparaiso raised the stakes a few notches. Not only were there two dogs living on our property, but the entire city was accompanied by the constant background sound of frenetically barking dogs. At times the loudness of the barking we could hear from our living room was frankly ludicrous. Because of the geography of Valparaiso – the city practically spills down multiple hills towards the bay – the sound travels much further, creating the perfect environment for a cacophony of barking dogs. For the first time ever, we missed the simple pleasure of being chased down the road by a lone guard dog in Mendoza.

Aside from the dogs we encountered a number of other problems with the accommodation. For one, discovering upon arrival that our hosts were using the advertised second bedroom as a storage room. In a moment of classic Britishness we apologised for them having to clear a room that we had paid for. We even bought them biscuits to say thank you. Ridiculous.

Anyhow the trials of our accommodation only added to the slightly unhinged feel of the city. We had a fantastic time seeing the sights and through a friend even got to spend a couple of days with a Chilean couple who lived in neighbouring Vina del Mar. On the second occasion they kindly drove us out to the Casablanca valley to visit the Casas del Bosque winery. This was a great day and we even managed to learn from our past mistakes and NOT spend a disproportionate amount of our budget on a bottle of wine. Our wine tasting ability however remains at best amateurish. 

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Trying to turn water into wine at Casas del Bosque

So maybe we didn’t quite make it to midnight on NYE but we celebrated hard at 9pm when the UK hit midnight, danced around our living room like lunatics for a couple of hours and then sometime around 11pm flopped into bed while the rest of the country carried on partying (and were still going when we woke up the next morning, ahh those were the days). All in all it was a cracking end to the year and indeed the first half of our trip. As pretty much everyone has said already 2016 was a year to forget for many reasons. When we look back at it though we’ll have the memories and joy of this trip to overshadow the darkness and for that we will always be grateful. Happy New Year (better late than never).

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Nothing like necking a bottle of hot sauce to see in the new year

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4 thoughts on “Away in a stranger (country). Christmas and New Year in Chile

  1. Hi Claire James and Amber! I love the blog of your Christmas and New Year activities, I’ve grown accustomed to the ease with which you manage to celebrate the festivals with British phlegm and panache. Way to go! Great to hear you got some turkey for Christmas Day and managed to stay up til 11:00 on New Year’s Eve! Happy New Year to you all and hope you continue to have a blast out there on your adventurous travels. We’re all lot in admiration for you all and enjoying the tales of your exploits. Lots of love from the Highlands, Jeni & John XXX

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  2. Yo! Love this post. It was fabulous to Skype you on Xmas day (this did choke dad, bless him!) and New Year’s Eve dancing around your appartment! Meant a lot to me. Love you all 😍😘

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  3. Pingback: Chile – why we loved it | wanderlust and baby

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