One of the most exciting aspects for me in particular regarding our adventure was that it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean – in fact, it was my first journey into a significantly different time-zone. So, when by our third evening in Chile I still hadn’t suffered any apparent symptoms of jet-lag it made me sceptical about the whole concept. That evening, following our long bus journey from Santiago, we were spending the night in the coastal city of Antofagasta before catching our next ride to Calama the following afternoon. Dido was still sort of vegetarian in those days (she ate some fish) and often got a craving for pasta, and as luck would have it, our Lonely Planet guide recommended an Italian restaurant as being the best place in town. After almost a day on a coach eating nothing but snacks, we were both ravenous and ordered extra large portions of pasta and we must have been about half-way through our respective plates of spaghetti when I was struck by an acute attack of something known as “delayed jet-lag”. The last thing I remember was feeling as if I’d been given a sudden heavy dose of anesthetic gas. Then, the next thing I knew, I was staggering into the street with my arm over Dido’s shoulder with Bolognese sauce all over my face. According to my mortified wife, I had fainted head-first into my pasta, and the maitre d, assuming I was drunk demanded that we leave – immediately…

7 Jetlag


We had one night in Calama to kill before catching another bus to our final destination the next day, San Pedro de Atacama. Following our expensive dining fiasco of the previous evening, Dido opted for a hostel described as “modest” even by our Lonely Planet Guide. Perhaps, because it was called Residencial Splendid, we hoped that it might not be all that bad, which only goes to show that one should never be deceived by a mere name. The Splendid was utterly awful. The rooms were filthy and more like prison cells than holiday accommodation and as for the state of the bathrooms – well, I’ll leave that to the reader’s imagination. But by far the worst feature of our night at the Splendid, was the bed itself – a grubby, smelly, piece of foam rubber, suspended in a steel bed-frame, devoid of support of any kind. The picture below describes exactly what happened when we got into bed, and that our extreme discomfort was accentuated by the fact that during the night icicles formed from the light and on the metal window grates due to the freezing desert night air of Calama…

8 Residencial Splendid - in name only!


The breakfast turned out to be about as “Splendid” as the sleeping arrangements. As we took our table in the dingy breakfast room we were confronted with a pot of hot water, a jar of instant coffee and two slices of dry toast. When I asked the lady of the establishment – a stocky little woman with unkempt greasy grey hair, a cigarette stub apparently glued to her lower lip, and wearing a grease splattered pinny –  if there was any butter, she grunted in the affirmative. Then, to my amazement and horror, she went over to the neighbouring table where an elderly man in a dressing-gown was eating his breakfast and took the piece of toast from his hand, picked up his knife and scraped all the butter she could from it. She then came back to us and spread his butter scrapings onto my toast…

9 Splendid breakfast included




On our second night in Santiago we were taken out to supper by one of Dido’s contacts at Sename (Chile’s National Youth Service – responsible for the protection of the legal rights of children and adolescents, among other things). He had helped Dido plan her trip from the UK and would be her main facilitator while we were in Chile. A warm and exuberant young man as I recall and, accompanied by his equally charming fiancee, he gave us a lovely night out on the town. This was to be the first of many enjoyable dining experiences throughout our long trip, highlighted by our host’s impromptu collaboration – on vocals and percussion – with a passing guitar-playing serenader. What the performance lacked in fine harmonies and tunefulness  it more than made up for with sheer gusto and enthusiasm…

4 Accompanying the serenade


The next day we went to the Sename HQ in Santiago for a meeting with our host of the previous evening. The two things to bear in mind at this point in the proceedings are that Dido’s Spanish was still embryonic and we were a young European couple entering a complex devoted to issues related to parent-less children. However, neither of these two key factors prepared us for what was about to happen when we found ourselves sitting in an office opposite a smiling, affable woman who we assumed was our friend’s secretary. We must have been sitting with this kindly lady for about five minutes exchanging what we thought were pleasantries – her in pigeon English and Dido in pigeon Spanish – when the office door finally opened. But, instead of seeing our friend, a grinning nurse (at least she was wearing a nurse-type uniform) walked in holding a bonny baby boy in her outstretched arms. Before we knew or understood the mix-up in progress, Dido found herself with said bonny baby boy sitting on her lap smiling expectantly into her eyes. Then, after a moment or two we realised that we had been misdirected to the adoptions section of the building instead of our contact’s admin’ office. Eventually, our friend appeared and cleared up the confusion. But, as we left her office, the lady, asked us if we wouldn’t like the baby in any case, even suggesting that we could pick him up at the end of our stay in Chile. She was serious…

5 One to Go!


Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a  driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…

6 The Tramaca experience