This year, in observance of Lent, I’ve opted to forgo winter. To help me realize this sacrifice, I bought a one way ticket to South America.
Although I wanted to start my 4 to 6 month trip in Buenos Aires, for some unbeknownst reason it’s hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly there from the US through a series of one way tickets via Lima and Santiago.
From scouring online travel forums, it seemed the most generally accepted amount of time necessary to truly appreciate Lima was “just buy a connecting flight to Cuzco.” The highest praise I’d heard in person from another backpacker was that “at least you probably won’t get mugged in daylight in the nice areas anymore. It’s gotten a lot better.”
Arriving around midnight, I paid an extra $1.50 to have somebody standing outside arrivals holding a sign with my name. The driver from the hostel tried to speak to me in English but I had no freaking idea what he was trying to say, but communication greatly improved after he finally switched to Spanish.
While in Lima, I made sure to take the bus downtown, an adventure in and of itself. I was having trouble figuring out how to load money onto my Lima metropolitano transit pass, but the man behind me in line talked me through all the steps. All the Peruvians I’ve met are so ridiculously friendly and helpful to stupid gringos.
Downtown, I visited the tomb of conquistador Pizarro (I’ve gotten the impression that he’s a lot more popular in Spain than here) and made a beeline for the catacombs at the Monasterio de San Francisco. Every 10 minutes or so they have 40 minute guided tours of the monastery and catacombs, mostly in Spanish with the occasional English guide.
Judging by the accents of the others in my group, I think I was one of the few non-Peruvians visiting on that holiday. Granted, my first four days in Latin America were holidays so that may or may not be typical.
The highlight of the tour was in all certainty the catacombs, though more because of a seven year old girl brought along by her forceful mother than anything else. The girl looked like she was caught between hyperventilating and a full scale panic attack when the guide calmly announced, “And this well is 10 meters deep with skulls! Have a look when you’re done with the wall of legs.”
The hostel in Lima, which I chose solely because the reviews said the airport pickup was on time, seemed to draw some interesting characters. An Australian in my room was acting weirdly sociable when he excused himself to snort a line of cocaine on the dresser, after which he continued the conversation as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
A pleasant city full of cafes and spacious parks, Santiago is home to a full third of Chile’s population. The public transit is phenomenal, but with a quiet hostel in an upscale central barrio I was able to walk almost everywhere. The one place I took the metro to was the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights). Recently opened and with free admission, it is dedicated to the victims of the military Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990.
The museum was pushed for and inaugurated by President Michelle Bechelet, who as a young woman was sent to a concentration camp and tortured by the Pinochet regime for being on the political left. She was able to flee Chile and eventually became a physician before pursuing a career in politics after the return to democratic rule.
The exhibits on life under the military dictatorship were poweful, especially the memorial to the young children executed by firing squad as “enemies of the state.” My only complaint was that in the international reactions section there was no mention of US support for the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government and installation of the Pinochet dictatorship, which likely wouldn’t have been possible without American aid.
Two and a half days in Santiago was plenty, and I opted to spend my last two days in the hilly Pacific coast town of Valparaíso. Just 2 hours and 2500 Chilean pesos ($3.85) away, it was a great choice.
Now off to Buenos Aires to begin my 14 week journey by bus, boat, and foot to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego!