Chile turned out to be a land of great promise and, through no fault of its own, tantalizingly little delivery. We had, after the careful choosing and planning, which has been our practice everywhere, scheduled a foray into, so we expected, the incomparable Atacama Desert, an area of lunar landscapes on a high plateau, as bone-dry as any desert in the world, and, being in the superior star-viewing Southern Hemisphere, therefore perhaps the premier professional and amateur star-gazing and investigation site the terrestrial earth offers. Several of the largest optical reflecting telescopes are there, as well as the Paranal Observatory’s stunning ESO Hotel for its scientists, the site of the climactic battle scene in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. In addition to three days in the desert, visiting three distinct landscapes, we had arranged to go on a most-of-the-night stargazing expedition with an astronomer who provides the telescopes and the know-how to make intelligible and meaningful what we see. The journey to the Atacama was Gideon’s first among equal-firsts in desire of all that we had planned for the year – though he now maintains it was always his clear number one. So, imagine his bitter disappointment, and Sarah’s and my (considerable without being bitter) disappointment too, as we also held the Atacama in high prospective regard, when we cancelled the journey owing to an unexpected intrusion.
X-ing out the Atacama came after we had already put the kybosh on our planned ascent to Cusco and Machu Picchu, which was meant to be our first South American stop, after our time in Zealandia and Oceana. Curiously, I had never been overly excited about this portion of our year, despite all the historical and sojourner myth, lore, and celebration enveloping Machu Picchu. I’m not all that enamored with ruins, particularly of the excavated varieties. But then, if I found Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England, beautiful, lyrical, and mesmerizing, which I (and Sarah and Gideon) had on a trip several summers ago, then why would I not expect the same in still more heightened form at a site reputed to be among the best if not the best of this kind that our planet’s distant past offers? Well, many things are worthy of public introspection, but I suspect this is not among them. It’s enough to note that my dampered expectations never got put to the test, and we flew from Melbourne directly to Santiago, a delightful city of eight million and, contrary to our original itinerary of using it as a hub to the spokes sequentially of Cusco, the Atacama, Valparaiso, and after ten days all told in Santiago, Patagonia and then…, we touched down in Santiago and never left, until we bade farewell to South America for good, as far as our current journey was concerned. This also means that we never went on our expected star-studded adventure in Patagonia, another great disappointment for all of us, as we had as good a stretch of a trip awaiting us as any planned, including a four-day journey by ship through the southernmost storied waters to glaciers, penguins, hikes, and peaks, and then the, or at least a, capstone of extended hiking in Torres del Paine National Park.
The upshot is that we spent close to three weeks in Santiago in three Airbnbs. I had had few firm notions about the city and its built fabric before arriving – except that it was culturally rich, a major city, and a major Latin city, which given our program of urban exploration meant that it offered considerable promise. We quickly discovered that Santiago is a gem, and a lucky place to be marooned.