Four border desk staff for about a hundred vehicles waiting to cross meant that we ended up getting to Leo's at around 9:30pm after a sketchy time at the bus station where a couple of guys working in tandem tried to divert Gilly's attention in order to potentially steal some of our luggage whilst I was getting food. Fortunately she was savvy enough to give them short shrift - one of the guys banged on the window, miming that he wanted the time so she showed her watch to him. Then he banged again, whilst another guy who was pretending to be on the phone sidled closer to our bags. I think the idea was that she was supposed to engage with the guy behind the window, whilst the other made off with our stuff. When she didn't bite though, the two guys conversed briefly and then left. Always worth being vigilant at bus stations (and anywhere, for that matter...)
Leo lives not far from Bellavista, just south of the river, and walking distance of lots of great places to eat and drink. Not that we needed this, since he cracked open a bottle of fantastic red when we arrived and also had food on hand. Even better, he had a very friendly cat named Cuajinais, who had the most incredible blue eyes.
Leo was working the next day so we took advantage of a free walking tour nearby, which was run by a French-Canadian guy, and was a little disappointing. He told us very little about the city or its history, instead just taking us to different places (mostly the main markets in Santiago) to take pictures.
In fairness, the market food was amazing - especially the fruit. The blueberries were the best I've ever eaten and the juices were equally good. Like everywhere in Chile, you have to ask for only a small amount of sugar though, or you'll be given four heaped tablespoons...
After the market, we did visit another cemetery, but it wasn't a patch on Recoleta in BA. That said, there were a couple of interesting mausoleums taking influence from Egyptian and Incan culture.
This is also the resting place of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected leader who was overthrown by Pinochet when the military took control of the county (helped significantly by the US and supported by Thatcher) and subjected it to a junta which lasted 17 years, and resulted in the murder of thousands of civilians - mostly Allende's supporters. Chile was, and still is, torn between the effect of Pinochet. Some believe that his actions resulted in a much more stable economy for Chile (which is what the US wanted, as well as the removal of a Marxist president), whilst others argue that the means taken to achieve this are unforgivable. It is still a controversial topic of debate for Chileans.
Aside from the obvious political issues, Chileans are incredibly generous. The sheer amount of earthquakes they suffer frequently leads to homelessness and injury, and the marketplace sellers often send food to the victims.
This national generosity was highlighted perfectly when Leo took us out in the evening to Galindo for our first pisco sour, and also a pastel de choclo. This is a Chilean national dish made of creamed corn, onion, chicken and raisins, before being put in an oven to get a crust. It was a lot sweeter than I was expected and very filling. Not sure I could eat a whole one (they are HUGE) but it was definitely something to go for if you're starving! When we were about to pay for all of us, Leo refused and then insisted on covering our meals - given he had also put us up for two nights, we were a little speechless. We arranged to meet up with him on our final night so we could attempt to repay him!
Since we were rapidly approaching my birthday, we decided to splash out on an AirBNB for a few nights. They were actually pretty reasonably priced given the city's capital status, so we got four nights in a spotless high-rise apartment apartment with en suite, about twenty minutes' walk from the centre.
After moving in, we went to the Museum of Contempory Arts, the adjoining Museum of Fine Arts and then Castillo Forestal for a superb lunch, before heading to the Museum of Visual Arts. This last place had a bizarre exhibition created by an obsessed fan of Titanic, who had tried to recreate the film in some sort of shot-for-shot pastiche/homage, using multiple actors, stop-motion, plasticine, cardboard and other oddities. It was hilarious and bizarre in equal measure.
It was a day to celebrate as Fran was joining us in Santiago, accompanied by her boyfriend Ant who had finally returned after conquering Aconcagua - the tallest mountain in South America. Pisco sours and ceviches were consumed at Chipe Libre before we moved onto another bar in Bellavista for a bottle of red. We were all exhausted, so agreed to meet up again the following night.
We took a metro to the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos the following morning, a centre based over three stories which tried to make sense of the senseless slaughter of the Pinochet regime, as well as having a recording of the last speech Allende made before he committed suicide in La Moneda Palace before it was bombed. If you're in the city, it's a definite must-do. Every country has its dark history and places like this are important in helping future generations try to understand them and hopefully not repeat the mistakes.
The Costanera Centre was next on the agenda to try and find me a replacement beard trimmer, but despite having five floors (and being the tallest shopping centre in South America to boot), I had no luck. So instead we had a walk around a nearby park where kids were enjoying the weather and the water attractions, before heading back to see La Chascona - one of the three homes owned by the legendary poet (and Nobel prize-winner) Pablo Neruda. He was something of a collector of oddities, and his house was quirky in all the right ways. I love nosing around people's houses, and the amount of character on show seemed to reflective of his personality - as the excellent audioguide confirmed.
Speaking of birthdays, it was mine the next day. Gilly had booked us into two winery tours in the Maipo Valley to celebrate, and Fran and Ant were also along for the ride. We hit Cousiño-Macul first, established in 1856 and one of the bigger vineyards in the country with four red and four white varietals adding up to 6 million litres being produced each year. We tried a Sauvignon Gris, an unusual wine, which Gilly didn't like but I thought was passable, a Cabernet Sauvignon rosé called "Gris" which tasted very strange to all concerned, a 2014 reserva Carmenére (Chile's local red grape - I'm definitely getting into it), and finished with a 2012 Antiguas Reservas Syrah which was superb. Cousiño-Macul also produce a red which won some sort of "world's best" award, but given the amount of medals thrust upon wines at the IWC each year, it's very much down to taste. Ant opted to by a bottle of Finis Terrae which the guide assured us was a superb wine, and he generously offered to share it later that day.
Meantime, food was in order and it came courtesy of Amigos Del Mar which was in walking distance of the winery. Some superb scallops made up for a tasty if slightly weird crab pie, and from there we headed to Aquitania. The map suggested it was less than 2km, but this didn't take into account the blistering heat along main roads with no shade, so we were a little groggy by the time we finally reached the vineyard. Thankfully, the wonderful Barbara was on hand to refill our water bottles and then took us up to an open-air veranda to admire the vineyard, while she filled us in on the background of the place. It's a 25-year old boutique winery, and compared to the 6 million litres pumped out of Cousiño-Macul, Aquitania only produces 15,000 cases of wine per year. Luckily, the quality is stunning. We tried a 2014 rosé, followed by a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and ended on a 2014 Syrah. I loved them all - particularly the rosé which was dangerously drinkable in the heat. The bodega was beautiful, and we got to taste the wines in the garden - Barbara topped us up a number of times, which was much appreciated!
We headed to Santiago Backpackers to catch up with Fran and Ant, and play some more Monopoly Deal whilst sampling the bottle of wine Ant had bought earlier. It wasn't good news - despite letting it breathe for 45 minutes, it seemed to be lacking something. It was perfectly drinkable, but Ant was devastated about how average it was - probably rightly so, given it cost him around £18. I guess this is why buying wines blind is a bit of a lottery! We had to shoot off not long after for my birthday dinner. Gilly took us to Laminga where I had ribs and spicy mash, with some Carmenére, all fantastic. Gilly's lentil dish wasn't quite as good, unfortunately.
We were all exhausted after the wine and the heat, so called it a night. For our final day in the city we went to the cultural centre and saw a great exhibition on the samurai, replete with armour and history, as well as an oddly hypnotic video on how samurai swords were made from scratch.
Leo's new Couchsurfers weren't around in the evening, so we met up with him and went out to Pizza Bella for some thin-crusts and some craft lager where we repaid his earlier generosity. He then took us to La Piojera where he introduced us to the terremoto (earthquake). This is where the drink was originally created and it is like a meal in itself. It's made from white wine (the cheaper, the better), pineapple ice cream(!) and topped up with fernet. If you want the "ladies'" version, grenadine is substituted for fernet - although given this makes the drink sweeter, more drinkable and therefore a lot more dangerous, I'm not sure "ladies" is used pejoratively here. Put it this way - I managed, somehow, to drink one earthquake and it was a struggle. I didn't feel particularly drunk...I just couldn't fit any more liquid in. Ice cream in a cocktail...what? Fran and Ant joined us an hour later where they both tasted their first terremoto too and were equally perplexed. Still, it's two and a half quid and you'll get absolutely battered after two of them, so it's definitely an option for a cheap night - as the locals who photobombed us can attest!
And so our time in the capital was at a close, and we were all going our separate ways - Fran and Ant were heading south to Patagonia, we were taking a bus to Valparaiso, and Leo....was going home. I had no expectations of Santiago, but a combination of friends old and new helped make our time there very memorable.