Monday, 2 March 2015

Santiago de Chile

I’m back on the road again, but this time for a pretty exciting trip - my first ever excursion to South America, travelling to Santiago, Chile as an invited speaker at ESO’s Planetary Science workshop.  This four-day event is intended to explore scientific overlaps between ground-based observatories and spacecraft exploring our solar system, so it was very easy to say yes to the invitation.  At the end of the week, several of us are flying to San Pedro de Atacama for a trip to ALMA, which promises to be a highlight of the trip.  I’ll be talking on Monday (Day One) about synergistic investigations of giant planet dynamics and chemistry (touching on planetary impacts, storms and global circulation), but I need to get there first.

Flight to Santiago

The trip to Chile involves an evening departure from London, a couple of hour hop over to Madrid, before catching a packed Iberia flight direct to Santiago.  I’m told it’s almost always an overnight flight from Europe, a trip of 6500 miles and 12.5 hours from 52N to 33S, landing in the early morning.  Santiago is the Chilean capital, nested between the Andes to the east and the coastal cordillera to the west, on the Panamericana highway.  My first view of the Andes came as we descended into the early morning Santiago, snow-capped despite the 30-degree summer temperatures of early March.  Escaping the airport was an ordeal - hundreds of people cram into the arrivals hall, screaming ‘Taxi taxi’ at you.  I’ve heard many horror stories of people being ripped off at this point (indeed, some of my colleagues accepted a ride only to wait hours for the van to show up), but I’d been advised to seek out one company, Transvip, to get me to ESO.  They were even expecting me, which made life much easier.


The taxi wound its way from the airport west of the city, spending a long time in extensive underground tunnels before emerging in the shiny and modern Vitacura district to the northeast of the city centre.  Sometimes referred to as ‘Sanhatten’ for its upmarket hotels, skyscrapers and restaurants, this is the home of ESO’s Vitacura office, next to the bicentennial park (Chile declared independence from Spain in 1810).  I stayed in the Hotel Director, along with may of the other conference participants, and we dined every night in various restaurants around the Alonso de Córdova.  I’ve never been been to a conference where I’ve eaten so consistently well every evening, with memorable locations including al fresco dining on fresh sea bass and seafood salad, and the Noi Hotel’s rooftop bar, where we drank pisco sours and Krass beer while the (upside) moon rose over the Andes.  Being with a bunch of astronomers, we spent most of the evening gazing upwards to the southern constellations, and remarking how strange Orion looked from the southern hemisphere perspective.

Exploring Centro and Santa Lucia Hill - Sunday

Given the packed conference schedule, I decided to go exploring in central Santiago on Sunday afternoon, despite the lack of sleep on my overnight flight.  A 30-minute walk down Av. Vitacura took be to the Tobalaba metro station, where I used my finest Spanish to figure out how to buy the ‘Bip!’ card to use the metro system.  Centro was 7 stops and 2 changes away from Vitacura, but it took no time at all and I emerged on the Plaza de Armas to explore the 19th century buildings and squares.  The Plaza is the heart of the city, containing hundreds of palm trees and bordered by the Catedral Metropolitana, built between 1748 and 1800.  I explored the Cathedral, including the subterranean crypt where former bishops are buried, and wandered north to the Mercado Central fish market, a bustling combination of smelly fish stalls and crowded eateries.  The pedestrian streets were packed with sunday-afternoon shoppers, and the whole place felt vibrant and friendly.

I strolled south east through the Centro district to find the Cerro Santa Lucia, a rocky hill that was transformed in the 19th century into a landscaped park laced with trails and steep stairs to reach the summit.  I climbed through the flowery gardens to fine Torre Mirador, a red brick tower at the hilltop providing excellent views of the surrounding city, including a view back towards ‘Sanhatten’ and the snowcapped Andes in the distance.  With that, it was time to descend to the Santa Lucia metro station and return to Vitacura in time for the conference welcoming reception (and a few pisco sours) at the ESO Vitacura office.

With all this exploring, I couldn’t figure out why my sense of direction was so screwed up, until it hit me.  The sun is in the wrong place.  This simple realisation made me laugh out loud - my northern-biased brain is so hardwired to use the sun’s southerly position to allow me to navigate, that the sudden shift into the southern hemisphere completely messed up my internal compass!

Tarapaca Vineyard - Wednesday

Our conference dinner was organised in the gorgeous surrounds of the Tarapaca winery in the Maipo Valley.  Nestled amongst the vines was a small hotel, with rooms named for the grape varieties grown there. We were given a tour of the fermentation plant and wine cellar, and stood  beneath the trees to sample various varieties including a rather tasty carmenere.  After presentations from NASA and ESA representatives on their hopes for greater collaborations between space and ground-based facilities, dinner was a vast barbecue served in the grounds.

Cerro San Cristóbal and Barrio Bellavista - Thursday

I managed to get back into Santiago on Thursday evening, using expensive taxis (we were ripped off by the Hotel) to reach Barrio Bellavista to ride the funicular railway to to the top of San Cristobal hill.  A 14m-high statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción sits at the top of the hill, overlooking the city below, and an easy climb from the railway station provided great views in all directions around the city.  In the evening light Santiago is a very hazy place, apparently due to the fact that the city sits in a basin between mountain ranges, and with no sea breeze to clear out the smog.  The Andes could just be seen in the distance, although photographs didn’t really do them justice.

A stroll down Pio Nono brought us past endless lines of noisy bars, filled with students from the nearby university.  Searching for food in the Barrio, we stumbled across the Patio Bellavista, a courtyard of upmarket eateries, and I ate lamb shank drizzled in a syrah and smoked bacon sauce, a superb end to our brief excursion to Santiago.

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