Taunton, London & Copiapo: February 27 – March 5, 2017
South America was not on my 2017 travel plan till I discovered a possible doable hike to Ojos del Salado (over 6000m) in Chile. I found a 12-day hike with Aventurismo Expediciones from March 6 to 17. As I had to be back to Hong Kong in early April, I could only make a 36-day trip to Chile and Argentina with a brief stop in the UK on my way to Chile.Trip Plan
After reaching Kilimanjaro (5895m) last November, I am tempted to have another go at a 6000m peak. I have tried and failed twice in Ladak and Bolivia. After some research, I find Ojos del Salado in Chile (6893m), the world’s highest volcano, doable as it is not a technical climb and might be possible to hike without wearing heavy boots with double insulation. I wrote to a number of agencies and Aventurismo Expediciones which already had a group of three from Poland on March 6, was the first to respond. Maximiliano, Director of the company, was helpful and offered me a good price (US$1600). Without hesitation and expectations to reach the summit, I signed up as I love the amazing landscape and scenery at Atacama Desert that I visited in 1999.
Planning began last December. My original plan was to fly to Chile via Sydney or Madrid. In January, my travel agent discovered a new direct flight from Heathrow to Santiago. As a result, I booked two tickets: one with Cathay Pacific for Hong Kong – London and Madrid – Hong Kong and another for London – Santiago and Buenos Aries – Madrid. The tickets cost around US$2,500. In addition I had to buy a ticket from Santiago to Copiapo (over US$200 for an one-way ticket). After the hike, I plan to cross the Andes by road and visit Salta, Cordoba and Mendoza on my way to Buenos Aires. I would also visit Uruguay for the first time.
February 27 Monday: Hong Kong (GMT+8)– London, UK (GMT) – Taunton
I took the 9:40am flight and arrived in London on time before 3:30pm local time. So, I was able to catch the 4:25pm bus to Taunton. The journey took three and a half hours. I last saw Mrs Thorn, my godmother for her 90th birthday in 2015. Mrs Thorn had not been feeling well and could not eat for the past few days. My visit apparently cheered her up and we chatted till 10pm. I had a long day as I only had three hours of sleep the night before. I had a sound sleep till 4am. Not bad!
February 28 – March 1: Taunton
I had a peaceful rest for two days. It was a cold day. When I got up, I saw snow on the hill tops in a distance! Mrs Thorn was getting better and regained her appetite. I notice she gets exhausted more easily. But she remains in high spirit.
Whenever I am in Taunton, I enjoy taking a 30-minute walk to the town centre every day. Usually I spend a long time in my favourite outdoor shop before having a coffee in a cafe. In this way, I can get online free. Today, I stopped at Tesco on my way back and bought a roast pork knuckle for £4. The meat was tender and tasty and lasted for two days! I slept well and got ready for my journey to Chile.
March 2 Thursday: London
I got up at 5am and took a taxi at 6am to the coach station. The 6:25am coach arrived at Heathrow before 10am. I had a pleasant ride with good and free Wi-Fi connection. Then I took the Heathrow Connect (£20.70 for a return ticket) to Paddington. The express train would cost £37. I stayed in the Rose Park Hotel at the Talbot Square close to the train and tube station. After leaving my suitcase in a hotel, I had lunch with two former colleagues in China Town. The dim sum is surprisingly delicious. I had a great time chatting with Steuart, my boss in Brussels and Maureen.
Emily, a former colleague, invited me to dinner in her house in Dulwich. I took the train to Dulwich which is a lovely and residential area with parks and old houses. Her house is not far from the North Dulwich station. We had a great time chatting and Anson, her son joined us for dinner. Both love cooking. They prepared an excellent smoked haddock and risotto for dinner! For a traveller, nothing compares with delicious home-cooking!
March 3 Friday: London, UK – Santiago, Chile
I got up very early and checked out before 8:30am. As I only had free time before lunch, I decided to spend my time in the British Museum. I arrived shortly after 9am but the museum was not open till 10am. The Museum is a real treasure with fantastic collections. This time, I started with Room 1 on the ground floor which gives me a better idea of the collections in the museum and its Keepers and major donors.
I then walked up to Level 2 to look at the exhibits from Egypt and Middle East. After having visited many African and Middle and Near East countries in recent years, I am particularly interested in the exhibits on Egypt and Sudan. The good illustrations help me better appreciate the Nile civilisation spanning from Alexandria to Khartoum. I also looked at the next rooms on Persepolis, Iran and the Great Tomb from Ur, Iraq.
I left after 12:15pm and took the tube to Sloan Square to meet up with Betty for lunch. I am used to the simple and efficient metro system in Hong Kong and almost forget to spare more time for the London underground! Luckily, I arrived only 5 minutes late. We chatted for two hours (though we last met in Hong Kong a month ago!). I appreciate her help in putting a Hong Kong youth orchestra on tour in the UK in July in touch with China Exchange. We also explored opportunity for one more performance for the group. She is a wonderful and caring person!
My last commitment in London was tea at Hilton Paddington at 3:45pm with Ada, a former colleague. When the train was approaching Paddington, all passengers were shocked to learn that owing to emergency, the station was closed and the train would be going to Edge Road. What happened! I was worried as it was 3:45pm when I got off the train. How should I go back to Paddington? Walk? By Taxi? While I was pondering, another announcement came ‘Paddington station is now open’. I therefore hopped on a train. By the time I met Ada in the hotel lobby, it was 4pm. She was in tube station when the news of a fire came. She worried that I would be caught and might not be able to turn up. Luckily, I was only late by 15 minutes and we still had time to catch up for an hour.
Time to leave London! I took the 6:03pm train to Heathrow and rest in a lounge in Terminal 5. The plane was full and I had to sit between two men for 14 hours. The plane took off on schedule after 10pm. I could not sleep and watched four movies. The plane touched down in Santiago before 9:30am local time.
Chile March 4 – 18, 2017
March 4 Saturday: Santiago – Caldera
I arrived at the Santiago airport on schedule around 9:30am. As several international flights from Europe and the US arrived at the same time, the queue at immigration was horrific. Six counters were open and I had to wait over an hour in the queue. By the time I got my luggage and came out, it was 11am. My flight to Copiapó airport would not be leaving till 4 pm. Anyway, I checked in my luggage again and planned to spend the next few hours in the domestic airport. Luckily I found a lounge and was able to rest, surf internet and have a light meal. I also found a money changer in the airport and changed US$200 at the rate of a dollar to 625 CLP. In addition I had to pay US$1.5 as commission. I knew it was a bad rate as the rate at the bank would be around 660 CLP. But there was nothing I could do.
I had a pleasant and scenic flight and paid 4,000 CLP for a transfer to Hotel MonteCarlo on Carvallo Street in Caldera. The accommodation was arranged by Maximiliano but I did not know the rate a night till I arrived. For a modest and basic room, I had to pay 36,000 CLP a night for a basic room with breakfast. Not money for value!
I did not expect to meet Maximiliano till Monday. Suddenly he arrived with a sleeping bag, a mattress and crampons. I have a light down sleeping bag but not one for -25ºC. So I agreed to pay a rental of US$150. (Later it turned out to be totally unnecessary and waste of money). He looks young and healthy and I cannot believe he is 74. He was a teacher who began to run a mountaineering /trekking business after retirement. On the recommendation of the receptionist, I had a light dinner at a local restaurant with small scallops and a beer for almost 10,000 CLP. Not value for money at all! I was tired and went to bed early. Luckily, I had a good sleep.
March 5 Sunday: A Relaxing Day in Caldera
Caldera lying 75km west of Copiapó with an excellent harbor and officially founded in 1850, has been serving as the port for the productive mining district centering on Copiapó. In 1840 William Wheelwright of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company visited the region of Caldera and proposed a railway linking the port with Copiapó. The first railroad constructed in Chile linking Copiapó and Caldera was inaugurated on Christmas Day in 1851. Today, the mainstays of the economy are copper ore mining, cultivation of citrus plants for export, fishing and tourism.
I did not get up till the bells from the Church of San Vicente de Paul (1862) rang at 9am. I got up in order to take breakfast before 10am. I had nothing planned. I strolled towards Playa Mansa and the harbour. This small town was sleepy and almost empty.
I stopped at the Former Railway Station next to the harbour. Covered shed measuring 82m long and 32m wide, it has been restored with a passenger platform and three load lines. Some photos of the people and landscape in the vicinity were on display. The Paleontological Museum located in the same building shows the rich marine life in the area with displays of fossils of whale, dolphin, dugong, etc. I paid 1,000 CLP to visit the museum but did not get much out of it as all illustrations are in Spanish.
On the way to the main square where the church stands , I passed by the Tornini House Museum, a small private museum housed in a historical building which was first built around 1875 by the Railway Administration, later purchased by the British consul to Copiapó, Caldera and Peru. Finally in 1907, the building was acquired by Bernardo Tornini Capelli, serving for some years as vice consular seat of the Kingdom of Italy. It was closed. I went inside the church which was filled with Sunday church-goers. There is an image of the Virgin of Sorrows brought from Peru as spoils of war during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). I was cheered up by their singing.
My hotel is just a couple of blocks away on the same street. Back in the hotel, I asked the receptionist about an eco-tour by boat. The next departure would be 3:30pm. I had time for lunch and brought half a roast chicken from the eatery next door for 1,500 CLP. Delicious and great value!
By now I know this small town well. It took me less than ten minutes to walk to the pier. I paid 3,000 CLP for the excursion. I was delighted to be surrounded by families with young children who looked excited at their encounter with dolphins. The ride lasted 75 minutes and went as far as the lighthouse. A staff talked in Spanish and I guessed he was explaining the history of the town, the port and mining. The boat turned back after the lighthouse. I saw some cormorants on the rocks. But there was no dolphin. I wish the operator had provided me with some basic information in English.
I was soon back in the hotel. Mario, the expedition leader came around 6 pm. He explained the plan for the expedition and checked my equipment. He did not think my hiking boots would be warm enough and said he would get me a pair of boots with double insulation. He would pick up the next day between 10:30 and 11am.