Our odometers are on fire as we fly south down Chile’s highway 5, the country’s only continuous North-South route. It’s flat, smooth and fast. To save a little time, we’ve chosen a straight line over more pleasant forays to and from the Pacific coast; we don’t want to be in a rush during the last week of the trip. Here are some of my impressions of Santiago and central Chile as seen from the freeway.
Let’s start with the bad.
Santiago de Chile is intersected by countless multi-lane speedways. This ancient colonial city replete with cultural monuments, architectural treasures and gorgeous parks is somewhat marred by poor urban planning, making it loud, stressful and dangerous. The ride south out of town was among our most harrowing of the entire journey, easily ranking alongside L.A., Ensenada and Acapulco, all three of which nearly killed us.
Chile is the wealthiest South American nation, and it’s expensive. Thanks to hyperinflation in recent years, the price of basics like bread, eggs and oil has doubled, along with just about everything else. While the average Chilean earns a fraction of the average Canadian income, a trip to the grocery store here actually costs more in real dollars than we’d ever pay in Montreal.
English is everywhere. English-only billboards line the streets and highways, restaurants have English-only menus and businesses have English names and slogans. While in many Latin American countries there seems to be a kind of prestige or mystique associated with the English language, we’ve never seen its unapologetic idolization on this kind of scale. Yes, Chile enjoys close ties with the US, but the amount of English plastered all over the place is way out of proportion with the number of people who actually use or understand the language (as this photo suggests). I see this as a kind of window into what Quebec might have looked like without Bill 101.
Now for the good!
This sliver of a country carved out between the Andes and the Pacific is a fruit-producing giant – check the country of origin next time you buy blueberries or pears! The price of fruit that’s in season is ridiculously low, a nice change from Argentina. Also, because the road is so built up, we’ve recently slept in vineyards and pear orchards, which has meant a free 2-pound bag of nature’s candy to-go each time! Wild blackberries are also in season right now and grow along the highway shoulder. For breakfast lately we’ve been enjoying a delicious and nutritious hot oatmeal and blackberry stew, helping us to put in some huge days.
2. Beer and wine
Chilean beer. Wow. I hadn’t had a really good beer anywhere in Latin America until we got to Santiago. Everything between Mexico and Argentina tries to taste like a Budweiser. Some of Chile’s microbrews, like Mestra and Kuntsmann, could easily go toe to toe with Montreal’s finest, and that’s saying a lot. Stout! Amber Ale! Luckily, beer is also oddly affordable. Chile, like Argentina, also produces some really good wine. While we haven’t sampled the top-end stuff, we’ve found some surprisingly well-balanced and very drinkable young wines in the $3 range, which is totally incongruous with the price of everything else in the grocery store.
3. Ruta 5 Rest Areas
Hot showers, good water, free camping. While the traffic and lack of suitable camping spots could have made our adventure on the 5 a terrible chore, instead we have clean clothes, clean bodies and a safe place to sleep each night. Rest areas are placed about every 50 kilometers on alternating sides of the highway, and see a lot of use from truckers and Chileans on road trips. We appreciate these spots all the more given that gas stations in Chile charge to use the bathroom, and as Canadians we get all huffy when we have to pay to pee.
4. The People!
Everyone we’ve met has been kind and generous, if slightly more reserved on average than in Argentina. But it’s hard to make friends on the freeway; we’re looking forward to getting to know the country’s people a lot better once we get off this monster road.
I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who’s been behind us from the beginning. We deeply appreciate your support and encouragement. A special shout out to Dumoulin Bicyclettes, who sent us a care package to Santiago de Chile with tires, a pump, some pedals and other bits to help keep our bikes rolling all the way to the end of the world.
Not many people in this world get the chance to follow a dream. Now that we’re in country #15 and the end is almost in sight (less than two months to go!), we’re more aware than ever that each day on the road is a precious gift to be savoured, and that this whole mad adventure will soon be memories.