After hopping on a ten-hour bus with the plan to get as close as possible to Bahía Inglesa, the “Carribean of Chile,” I arrived in Chañaral, a small coastal town that I had never heard of, nor noticed on my many scans of Google Maps trying to memorize my route. My first thought upon taking in the dark, semi-abandoned streets at 11:30 at night was, “how the hell am I going to find a hostel here?”
After asking around, I finally hopped in a taxi and was dropped off in an even darker area where the houses were more like small boxes and each one had fences lined with broken glass bottles cemented to the top, a common form of cheap security in South America. Two illuminated hotel signs provided a slight light to the streets. Inquiring about my choices, I quickly found that they charged much more than I was willing to pay. After two months of having never paid more than $7 for a bed in Peru and Bolivia, these places were charging $25-$30 for the night.
The sweet older woman and proud owner of “Hotel Paris” directed me around the corner to a ramshackle two-story house where I could find a bed for around $10. I was told that I had to wait for “La Señora” when I got to the house, so wait I did. But as I was standing there next to the other man waiting, I decided to try to peer inside to my newest home-to-be. I have to say first that this may not be a fair statement as I only really saw the living room and kitchen area of the house, but my first thought was “crack house.”
After a desperate attempt to find another option, I found myself once again waiting outside the worn down building. “What the hell am I doing? I can’t sleep here.” I thought to myself. But at the same time, the guy waiting with me was friendly enough and I did not want to appear stuck up. But after ten minutes of waiting outside and making small talk, I came up with a plan.
I walked back to the sweet old woman at Hotel Paris and asked about the possibility of a discount. I wouldn’t use her hot water to shower and I’d even sleep on the floor with my air mattress so as not to mess up the bed. She hesitated for a second, smiled and replied, “well… okay, since you’re a foreigner I’ll help you out.”
She took me to my room and then asked for the cash, half of her usual price. I gave her the “plata” and she walked away, returning with a TV remote and a clean towel and told me that of course I was to sleep in the bed and take a warm shower in the morning.
“Muchísimas gracias” I told her with a big smile on my face.
“De qué hijo?” (For what, son) she asked me, a classic line here, but warmer than ever this time around.
With that, I was off to some much-needed sleep after a night of camping followed by a night of sleeping on a CouchSurfing floor.
After my warm shower in the morning, I walked towards the door with all of my things ready to head to the next town over. Behind me a familiar voice called out, “you can’t leave without tea or coffee!”
I followed my new caretaker into the kitchen and had a seat as she prepared me coffee and then plopped a sandwich down in front of me. Here it was, the moment I always dreaded. “Lo siento, no puedo comer pan” I said and gave her a quick explanation of gluten.
“Well you aren’t leaving here with an empty stomach,” she replied, insisting on making me a pile of eggs.
Just as things couldn’t get any better, her husband walked into the room, happy to find out that he now had an extra sandwich and an “Americano” from “Oyo” to talk to. He sat down next to me and began to delve into international affairs. The conversation followed the basic premise that we’d better hope that the U.S. and Russia can make amends, or else the world is probably over, a conversation that locals always seem to want to have with me.
He then went into how sad it made him that the U.S. feels that they must have so much military power over the rest of the world and pulled out the daily newspaper, where front and center displayed a photo of USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier stationed off the Chilean coast for nuclear testing. Giving my usual ending line to the conversation in wholehearted agreement, “necesitamos la paz” (we need peace), I transitioned the subject to Chañaral with a slight bit of discomfort. This shifted to an even more solemn subject. Don’t get me wrong, he was a helluva nice guy and really very happy, but also well-informed which brings with it a desire for change.
Chañaral was in a bad situation. Just 7 months earlier, half of the city was wiped out by a flood that ran down from the mountains right into the ocean, taking many lives and houses with it. “Natural disasters are the norm here in Chile, there’s nothing we can do but accept it,” he stated.
Suddenly, he stood up and said “you’d better go, don’t want to miss your bus” and instructed me to follow him. He threw my bags in the back of a truck and said “hop in.”
On the way to the bus stop, he gave me an express tour of all of the damage the flood had done. An expanse of red dirt and some wood planks here and there was all that was left of houses and the lives of the families they attempted to shelter.
A solemn morning indeed, but not without its lesson and generosity. After being dropped at the bus station, here I am sitting on the bus feeling stupid for not giving this sweet couple a few more bucks for their generosity. After not having to buy breakfast nor pay a taxi to get to the bus station, this was officially my most inexpensive stay in the nicest hostel I’ve encountered so far in Chile.
Oh well, I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to take my money anyways. They were happy to take in a young extranjero as their “hijo” for the day, and hopefully they took something away from the experience with me too.