Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Winter in Conce

Concepcion on the Bio Bio River.
So it's winter time in Chile, and the question is - is it chilly in Chile? The answer is yes! It is also very rainy too. Being a long country, the weather can vary though - from zero rain up north to nothing but down south. A few weeks ago was the worst - a solid week of rain in Conce, and even Santiago had it's fair share. When it rains here, everything floods, houses leak, but the buses continue to drive extremely fast and dangerously. Lose paving stones splash dirty water back up at you, holes in the pavement mean wet feet, and a lack of gutter drainage means wet everything as the cars aquaplane by, leaving a dry spot on the wall with your shape. Rain can be fun and enjoyable, but not if you have to swim to work and nobody has heating in their homes, and you have washing that never dries.

The Saltos de Laja at sunset.
A Cueca girl.
My favourite house in Conce.
This week however, the sun has come out and it looks like Spring is on it's way in Concepcion - welcome to Tropi Conce! The locals call it this because the weather can change so dramatically here - from pissing down on your way to work, to sunny skies while you're at work, to rain again as soon as you leave the building to go home. To give you an idea of exactly how wet is has been here in July - Sydney gets 9 days of rain for 56mm, compared to 173mm here, which directly translated means 30 days of Sydney rain. Nice. Unfortunately the streets aren't built for this kind of rain, even though it happens every year - it's real gumboot weather! It can get you down - I firmly believe weather plays a big part in your happiness, but you need to find ways of beating it, and using it to your advantage, such as going on a big walk when the sun does come out - make hay while the sun is shining! I managed to visit some museums other cultural events while the weather was bad, but tried my best to get out when I could.

Traditional Cueca dancing - with the traditional stray dog sleeping in middle of it.
The glass buildings of Concepcion.
Art in the University of Concepcion.
So getting out of Conce has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. Most people visit Chile and see Santiago - the big capital with it's European architecture, tall glass buildings and bustling Capitilism - you could be in Madrid. They also go and visit the mountains in the south and deserts in the north - the country is amazing in this regard! There is the flip side though - the middle part, the real Chile, the part not many get to see. I have. Catching the micros (local buses) around town is one thing - always exciting/dangerous and I am always in fear of losing my front teeth due to the frequent brake slamming - but getting out of the city is totally different. Concepcion is more or less a decent sized modern city on the surface - tall buildings, shopping malls, trains and buses, starbucks and all the shops and plazas and glass and glam, but it's still South America and Chile, so there are the people that sit on the same corner selling the same junk everyday - from the guy that only sells smelly things you hang in your car, to the guy that comes on to the bus and does his 'chocolate buena' speech and sells small bars of chocolate for 100clp (20c) which taste horrible by the way, and the hotdog lady that stands all day in Plaza Peru, the restaurant and pub part of town, and sells fried rubbish which the students lap up.

Stray dogs waiting for a feed. Strays are fine - the owned dogs bite.
There are also the jugglers and performers on busy streets - they perform while you sit at a red light, juggling fire, knives, walking on stilts (and juggling), playing music (or washing your windows) or whatever trying to get either extra cash to pay for Uni education or just easy money. People like this would be called 'scivers' in the UK, 'bums' in the US and 'bludgers' in OZ, and told to 'get a real job.' In Chile, these are real jobs as many people don't have the opportunity or education (or sometimes motivation) for anything better. Most people live in small, cheaply built houses and apartments in ill-planned, soviet-style housing estates. In some suburbs the old houses dominate - colourful wooden shacks, all build closely together, all the same, but all a little different. There are horses and sometimes cows wandering an empty field, alongside kids kicking a football. Others, the newer ones, are brick and timber, but are real cookie-cutter houses, same colour and exactly the same design, and look very much like pre-fabricated, flat-pack coffee tables straight from IKEA. Both of these are quite depressing in their own way, and the government really needs to learn how to build communities, not just cheap housing for the masses. Some of these neighbourhoods would be called 'fabellas' in Brasil, slums and ghettos in English speaking countries. Chile is so beautiful, people say, and that it true of nature with it's mountains, forests and huge stretch of coast, but sadly where people live it is polluted, dirty and generally not pleasing on the eye.

There was plenty of water due to the rain - a silver lining to the crappy weather!
Saltos de Laja.
Jean-Luc and Peggy.
In light of this, I have done just that and got out of town to see beautiful things. A few small trips around Concepcion, and everything seems fine again. One weekend trip that I did recently was to a place called Saltos de Laja. Only 1.5hrs outside of the city and a 1,500clp ($3) bus trip, it is a great little town to visit. I use the word town quite losely, as there isn't really a town, more a row of touristy shops, a convenience store, a few restaurants and a spattering of rural houses, but loads of cabañas (cabins) for the tourists that come here for the waterfalls - the real attraction. There are 4 actually waterfalls, or cataracts, but the main one is seen as you pull in to town - it's hard not to just stop on the bridge and whip out your camera and start clicking away. Most people do this, pedestrians and motorists alike, but nobody is bothered as they are doing the same.

Couple taking a selfie at Ramuntcho beach, near Lenga.
More selfies!
It's a short walk to the falls through of lane of stalls selling a plethora of cheap touristy goods which has nothing to do with waterfalls, and small food vendors selling completos (Chilean hotdogs) and 'mystery meat' on skewers (which actually taste quite good!). Although I have never been to Niagra Falls, I have seen pictures, and this to me is a smaller version, also minus the boat that takes you round the bottom to get wet. You can, however, get close to the water on foot for a (wet) selfie, and even swim in summer when there is far less water. I spent the day with friends, walking around and just enjoying the view - we also visited the other falls, and we were completely alone as not many people go off the beaten track here, so it was an added bonus to just enjoy it with nobody taking selfies. Overall a great little stop for the day - we stayed the night in a cabin that could fit 5 people as was only 25,000clp ($50) a night. It had a small kitchen and table, but the best part was the log fire, which I must say we kept running through the evening and stocked it up before going to bed. Being Chile, we had two dogs keep us company while back at the cabin, who we named Jean Luc and Peggy. I have a tradition of naming dogs - it's whatever name pops in to you head at the time! Always nice to have a dog or two!

The fishing village of Tumbes.
The boats of Tumbes.
Tumbes, near the port of Talcahuano.
A local bus away and you're in small fishing towns around the city. Tumbes is one such place, and if you're in Conce, you should visit here. A small harbour filled with colourful boats, all with their own unique name painted on their bow (Don Juan I, Don Juan II... etc), it plays host to quite a large number of day-trippers - possibly more people visit it than people actually live here. Known for it's seafoood, you can basically only buy seafood and if you want empanadas, they will have to be seafood too. I bought a bowl of 'Pyura' which still to this day I am not sure what it is, apart from a red, squishy sea thing that closely resembles a mass of organs jammed into a shell. Yes, I ate (nearly) a bowl of it, cold and raw as it should be (apparently)... and got sick the next day. My rule is - just because you're on the coast does not mean the food is fresh, and you don't have to eat seafood. If you walk in the forest, you don't have to eat squirrel just because it's from there.

The beach in Winter.
A Turkey Vulture smelling for food.
A secret cove near Lenga.
Being Winter now, I am missing the sun, and every opportunity that arises I am out trying to get sunburnt. Well, not burnt, but some vitamin D at least. Last weekend was sunny and warm - 14c in the middle of winter! I jumped in a car with some friends and went to the beach. The beach itself, Ramuntcho, was an hour's walk from the parking lot of a small village called Lenga. You have to hike up and around some steep hills on a kind of penninsula (and mind the sheer cliffs), the peaks of this outcropping are also referred to as 'les tetas del Bio Bio' or 'The Tits of the Bio Bio.' The secret beach was a good find, and I only got there thanks to local knowledge. Chilling out on the sand, watching and listening to the waves but not getting in cose the water is always too cold, and having your emapanadas stolen by a stray beach dog - ah Chile! The water is always cold here though, that's a fact - the current that carried Nemo to Sydney is warm from the equator, then it goes down, sweeps along Antarctica, then up to Chile, cold enough to make your bollocks go back up in. Don't get me wrong - it may be cold, and not great for swimming - but it is a wonderful sight, and the wind and waves are very powerful and great to just watch from a distance. As far as wildlife in Chile goes, it's basically stray dogs and birds. The dogs not so exciting, but it is a bird watchers dream here - especially for larger birds. You see condors in the mountains and smaller birds of prey around the city and coast, and this day I saw a Turkey Vulture soaring over the beach smelling for food - yes, smelling, unlike the 'Old World' vultures that use their keen bird eyesight. I did wash my feet in the waves, so I was safe.

Looking out at the Pacific from Ramuntcho beach.
There are a few more adventures to talk about, such as my trip to the Piedra de Aguila (Stone of the Eagle) a couple of hours south of Concepcion. Cold, and snow in parts, it is a great place to do a bit of hiking and you get a great view from the top of the rock - volcanoes and oceans of trees. There are some other cool things to do around here too - like visit a real-working coal mine under the ocean (one of the few in the world), which is on the list. When Conce turns on the weather, it is lovely. When it rains, and gets all foggy, you even wish you were in Ireland for the weather. The rain is mostly over, and the weather will only get better, so more hiking and more trips soon! When the weather is good, Chile is a beautiful country!

A Conce sunset.

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