Mar 26, 2012 in Chile

Chile is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the great tectonic band where about 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes happen. Before I moved here, I’d experienced four earthquakes, one tiny one in Guatemala, two moderate ones in the UK, and one on a previous visit to Chile. Since I arrived here six months ago I’ve felt five more and I’m starting to get used to how often they happen. I felt two at Paranal on my first shift there, and then in January I felt my first one in Santiago, when my building wobbled startlingly.

Every earthquake feels different. On Saturday morning I was woken at 4.30am by the building shaking again, and it felt like all the motion was vertical. The previous quake had felt completely side-to-side. There were two distinct pulses of shaking, and the building creaked eerily in the quiet night. I got up and went out onto my balcony, and all around I could see lights coming on in apartments. I tried to check sismologia.cl but found that the website was down. This happened in January as well. Any earthquake large enough to be felt triggers a wave of people wanting to know how big it was and where it happened. Eventually the website came back up and I found out that this had been a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, centred just 30 miles from Santiago. No damage reported, no casualties, only a slight irritation to be woken up so early. That evening I met up with some friends, some of whom had been here in 2010 when Chile suffered one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. We all talked about what we’d felt.

Then on Sunday evening after a quiet day, suddenly I felt the familiar shaking starting again. At first I could hardly believe it, coming just a day after the last one. We’d been talking about how long earthquakes seemed to last, and as the shaking started I looked at a clock because I was curious to know how long it would go on for. The shaking and noise grew, and as I looked out of my window I could see all the windows in other nearby buildings wobbling crazily. Car alarms started going off, and dogs started barking. But I didn’t feel worried or inclined to hide under a table or leave the building, until I heard some of my neighbours hurrying out into the corridor. If they’re panicking, I though, then perhaps I should. But then, after a full minute of shaking, the quake stopped.

Once again, sismologia was down, and it stayed down for a while, but soon enough I found details on the USGS earthquake page. This one had been greater than magnitude 7, and was one of the largest earthquakes of 2012 so far. It was easily the strongest earthquake I’d felt, and for some time afterwards I kept thinging that the building was shaking again.

The earthquake was centred near the coast and the next concern was whether there would be a tsunami. Before 2004 I guess most people wouldn’t have thought too much about this risk, but now we’ve all seen terrifying footage of what they actually are. In Santiago there was obviously nothing to worry about, but a friend on the coast in Viña del Mar was having her relaxing weekend away ruined by trying to work out whether she should head for the hills or not. I did my best to help but found that my vocabulary had crucial gaps in it. “Coastguard (blank) tsunami along the cost of Chile”, I read on one news website. What might that blank mean? Fears? Flees from? Washed away in? I looked it up, and fortunately found out that it meant “rules out”. A couple of hours later the sea was apparently seen to recede dramatically and an evacuation was ordered, but it turned out to be a false alarm.

So we were all safe, and despite the size of the quake there was little damage and no deaths, although an elderly woman died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.

Of course it’s only a matter of time until the next quake. As long as there is no damage and no casualties, I think earthquakes are quite cool. I like the weirdness of feeling the very ground below shaking violently. I find it incredibly impressive and awe inspiring. But magnitude 7 is probably about the limit for this. The 2010 quake released more than 300 times as much energy as this one. That, I will be happy not to experience.

Balcony view

Nov 20, 2011 in Chile

Balcony view

One thing that I really notice here is how dry it is. The humidity is always low, my clothes dry in minutes when I take them out of the washing machine, and in the two months since I arrived, it’s only rained once in Santiago – a slightly drizzly evening in early October. London in comparison is damp and dank and I wonder how I didn’t have permanent prune skin when I lived there.

Today it rained for the second time. I was in the centre of town, going up Cerro San Cristóbal and then walking around Bellavista and Recoleta, and enjoying another hot sunny day. But in the eastern suburbs there was some kind of shower. I got back to Las Condes to find that the sun was shining but the streets were wet, and clouds were roiling over the mountains. I headed back up to my apartment and watched the retreating rainclouds being lit up by the evening sun.

New job

Oct 03, 2011 in Chile

New job

I’d submitted my ESO job application just a little bit less than a year ago and it was already ten months since I’d been offered the job and accepted it. And finally it was time to actually start. Wanting to make a change from my notoriously poor time-keeping in the UK, I got up very early and arrived at 9.30am.

The first day was a bit anticlimactic though. A spot in an office will become mine, in due course, but for now I’m in a visitor’s office. No-one else was visiting today, so I sat in the quiet office on my own, didn’t meet anyone, didn’t speak to anyone, until 6pm when I went home. At least I caught up on all the e-mails that had been piling up since I left the UK.

Cerro San Cristóbal

Oct 02, 2011 in Chile

Cerro San Cristóbal

Cerro San Cristóbal is the highest point inside Santiago and it’s always nice to go up there and see the views of the city surround by the mountains. I went up again, late on a Sunday evening, taking the lazy route to the top on the funicular railway. The place is always crawling with cyclists, and as soon as my bike arrives from Europe I can’t wait to tackle this hill. It’s about 300m from street level to the peak, a bit more of a challenge than my cycle up Highgate Hill used to be.

I like the atmosphere at the top of San Cristóbal. You can hear the noise of the sprawling city but it feels very calm and tranquil. I sat and watched the sun set and the lights of the city come on, then headed back down to the streets.

Plaza de Armas

Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

Plaza de Armas

Back in Chile it was a beautiful summery day. I had only an afternoon and a morning before heading back to Europe. News from home was that it was the coldest winter for years, and London was in chaos as a few inches of snow caused a kind of mass panic. All that was thousands of miles away and I found it hard not to feel a little bit of schadenfreude as I relaxed in the warm sun. I sat in the Plaza de Armas, enjoying the relaxed vibe. An eccentric old man sat down next to me and started chatting. It was good to practice my Spanish, and at first the conversation was quite sensible, but later it became more surreal and confusing. When I could no longer understand what he was saying, I got up and left.

My trip ended badly. I got ill on my last night, and felt horrific the next morning. I felt so bad that I thought I might not make it to the airport, but after a morning doing nothing but sipping water I decided to give it a go. I threw on my pack and staggered out into the heat of the day. I managed to walk in the wrong direction for a few minutes, turned around wearily and shuffled along to the Alameda. As I reached it I felt horrific, and ended up having to throw up in a bin. Two passing tramps asked me if I was OK, then asked me for some money. I wasn’t feeling charitable and I think I told them to piss off and leave me alone, or something like that. I sat down, took some deep breaths, and then found the airport bus.

At the airport I could hardly stand up, and I slumped against the check-in desk, deathly pale and shaking. I thought I probably looked like I was a heavy drugs user on a major withdrawal, and wondered if I’d have problems at security, but luckily I got through with no problems. And whatever was wrong with me passed within a few hours. By the time we landed in Europe I was feeling pretty OK again. I thought I was hearing things when the pilot said it was -8°C in Paris, but sadly I was totally compos mentis and it really was 40°C colder than it had been when I got on the plane. The short hop back to London took us over a countryside under deep snow. It was a brutal transition. Even before we landed I was longing to go back to South America.


Dec 14, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009


South America, to me, was hallowed ground of a kind. It was the last inhabited continent that I visited, and my first trip there was a long, epic voyage, which I’d planned for years and that will probably always be my greatest travel experience. So in a way I was wary about going back a second time. It could never match up to the times I’d had before.

I was going back for work. We had some time on the telescopes of La Silla, and my presence was required as a relatively experienced observer to make sure nothing went terribly wrong. Our run was just before Christmas, so I left behind a chilly London, sat on a plane for 15 hours, and then emerged into a hot, sunny Santiago.

It was fantastic to be back. I’d liked Santiago from the moment I first arrived here, on a night train from Temuco in December 2005. This time we stayed in the fantastic ESO guesthouse, in the wealthy suburb of Las Condes, and the day we arrived was the day of the 2009 presidential election. The election meant that everything was closed, and we had a look round the quiet streets of Las Condes.

The next day, things were back to normal. We went into the city centre and had a look around. One thing I hadn’t done when I was here before was go up Cerro Santa Lucia, a small hill near the city centre. So we went up, and enjoyed the awesome views of mountains in the hazy distance.


Dec 05, 2005 in South America 2005


The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I’d been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn’t manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me “Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one”. Knowing about how South Americans describe steak, I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate. It turned out to be horribly tasty.

Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago’s Estacion Central at 7am the next morning. There were not many people in the huge airy station building, and it didn’t feel anything like as dodgy as big city train stations often do. I liked Santiago straight away when I found a cafe on the station serving real, delicious coffee and good cakes as well. Suitably caffeinated I set off to work out the metro system, get into some accommodation and then explore.

After a pleasant afternoon ambling around the pedestrianised streets of central Santiago and sitting under the palm trees in the Plaza de Armas eating ice cream, I walked later on to Cerro San Cristóbal, an Andean foothill rising high over the city to its north. A funicular railway runs to the top and I headed up there, staying to watch the sun set. It was a beautiful warm evening, and I found it difficult to get my northern hemisphere head around the fact that it was early December.

I spent two more days in Santiago, and I didn’t really do very much. The next day was a Sunday, and the centre of town was tranquil and quiet. There was a market along the pedestrianised streets, where I found some english-language paperbacks. I had long since read all the books I’d brought with me at least twice so I was glad to find something new to read, even if the least trashy book I could find was by Michael Crichton. And on the Monday I managed to buy a whole Saturday Guardian, for not so much more than it would have cost in the UK.

While I was in Chile, political activity was intensifying in advance of upcoming presidential elections, and Santiago was humming with demonstrations, leafleting, campaign stands and speeches. Having failed to stand up for the late Salvador Allende against Carlito in Chaitén, I was pleased to find a Communist Party campaign stand doing vibrant business in Santiago. I bought a Communist Party mug, made a small donation, and felt that my conscience had been assuaged slightly. But it took another blow when I got into a lengthy conversation with a dapper old gent in the Plaza de Armas, who was if anything more pro-Pinochet than Carlito had been. “Just another few years of the dictatorship would really have sorted this country out”, he said. His view was that socialism had failed because the people hadn’t really believed in it, and that most people were relieved when the military took over. But he was without any doubt from the wealthy classes, and I wondered if the majority of people really had been relieved when the air force bombed the presidential palace and Allende died in the ruins.