It’s amazing how one’s expectations of a place colour how it looks when you first arrive. Like so many cities in the world, the area around the bus station was nothing short of ugly. We walked the several blocks to the hotel we had booked and were dismayed to find a somewhat shabby motel with disgusting carpets on the floor. We used the excuse that I have allergies to things that live in carpets, and asked to leave our suitcases at the hotel while we went in search for another place to stay. I am thankful Anil was willing to trudge around the core and we were rewarded with a pleasant hotel where rooms faced onto a green garden full of trees and flowers.
We were shown a room with carpets. I think they like to show their ‘upscale’ rooms first, but when we asked about a room without carpets, we were shown a simple room with a floor with wooden beams that must be decades old. It was wonderful, and the receptionist even juggled the reservations so we could stay in the simpler room for both nights. After what we had seen, it was heaven. When we went to collect our suitcases, the woman at the first hotel was warm and friendly and seemed delighted we found another place to stay. She even gave us a kiss on the cheek, the Chilean way of greeting and saying goodbye.
Anil spotted a lovely restaurant a couple of blocks away from the Montecatini I Hotel and we made a note to have the set lunch there the next day. Instead of a big evening meal, we headed to a diner where Anil ordered a chicken sandwich to wash down his Knutsman beer and I had my first completos. One would never know from the name that it is really just a large hot dog smothered in onions, tomatoes, avocado and green chilies. I took a picture of our meal for you to see – have you ever had a hot dog with avocado? Chileans love avocado and smear it on everything. They even have avocado sauce in bottles that sit next to the ketchup and mustard at every fast food place.
We chose to stay in Copiapo so that we didn’t have two long bus journeys back to back. We set off after breakfast to see the town on foot and were pleasantly surprised at what a lovely little mining town it is. We started off by visiting the town square, the Plaza de Armas, and we read that the trees growing there are 100 year-old pepper trees. I had never seen a pepper tree before and it was fascinating to look at the bulbous growths around the base of the tree and the bright red pepper corns in amongst the leaves. When we rubbed the leaves between our fingers we could smell the pepper on our hands.
There seems to be less graffiti in Copiapo than anywhere else we’ve been and it was a treat for the eyes to walk along the streets and be able to enjoy the buildings without every available surface being defaced by tags. I noticed something unusual about the garbage collection as we walked through the residential neighbourhoods. The city has built special wastebaskets that sit high above the street so that stray dogs don’t ravage the garbage bags before they can be collected. Brilliant! On one street, we noticed small plastic bags tied to the trees at about eye level. This was one street where there were no baskets so the residents made do anyway.
We read that the first railway to be built in South America was a small line from Copiapo to the coast; built in order to transport the gold, the silver and later copper to awaiting ships. The railway station is no longer in use, but the exterior is carefully maintained. We walked to see the station and then further on to the School of Mining where we visited the first locomotive to operate on the line. It was a sight to see. Both Anil and I love railways and we enjoyed seeing the engine, the baggage car, the first-class car and the second-class carriage.
On the way back to the town centre, we stopped in to see a huge home that was built by one of the silver barons. The house is an interesting blend of European and Oriental styles. It reminded me a lot of some of the Buddhist temples we saw in Sikkim. The gatekeeper allowed us to climb to the top of the interior circular staircase for a great view of Copiapo from the roof. It was time for lunch and we had an incredible meal at the restaurant that Anil spotted the day before. We couldn’t believe what style they displayed when they presented the food to us. We could have been anywhere in a five-star hotel instead of a little adobe building on a residential street corner.