bikeroad-1280We’ve always been a little dismissive of initiatives that temporarily close city streets to motor traffic. Most of those we’ve seen seem to be unsatisfactory and slightly ill-considered, their limited scope offering little in the way of encouragement to novices who may be interested in riding on a regular basis. London’s annual Sky Ride, for instance, is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

London would do well to follow the example set by the Chilean capital of Santiago, where the authorities have realised that these sorts of initiatives require commitment if they’re to have any kind of benefit. Every Sunday from 9am until 2pm, a variety of major roads right across the city are closed to traffic; along with runners, walkers and pram-pushers, thousands of cyclists take advantage. You can (and we did, on bikes borrowed from our hotel) ride all the way from upscale Las Condes in the east out to Parque Quinta Normal in the west; the equivalent, in London terms, of coning off a car-free route from Canary Wharf to Notting Hill. The width of the highways – these aren’t little-used backstreets but main roads – means there’s room for both thirtysomething athletes putting some kilometres into their legs and 30-month-old toddlers just learning to stay upright.

cerroriders-1280Crucially, this happens in a city that’s bike-friendly every day of the week, where bike paths run alongside the river and cyclists ply the main roads with little worry. Riding the funicular railway to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, which offers panoramic views from 300m above the city centre, we expected to find hordes of tourists taking in the sights. There were a few, but they – we – were outnumbered by about 150 cyclists, who’d all ground their way to the top of the hill in what appears to be a ritualistic Saturday-morning leg-stretcher. We liked many things about this comfortable, cultured, friendly city, but perhaps nothing surprised us more than the healthiest urban cycling scene we’ve seen since we arrived in South America.

 


 

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Ruth visited Santiago in 1992, three years after General Pinochet’s 16-year military junta lost power following the referendum detailed in Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated film ‘No’. The difference, then to now, is gigantic. Although successive democratic administrations eventually continued, at least to some extent, with the free-market reforms introduced by Pinochet’s government, the country’s course towards the 21st century had yet to be plotted in 1992. Ruth saw a country in transition, though no one at the time knew quite what shape the new Chile would take.

That transition is now complete, and most observers consider the result to be one of the soundest and most stable countries in Latin America. Unemployment is low, the economic growth rate is strong and inflation is under control. (The comparison with Argentina, where the economy appears to be crumbling in front of us, is midday to midnight.) Santiago feels like a modern city, proud of its history but keener to look forward than back.

Despite the country’s current economic success, changes are afoot. Amid a surge of resentment at creeping inequalities in Chilean society, the governing centre-right party looks likely to lose power in today’s presidential run-off election to Michelle Bachelet, a socialist who previously served as president from 2006 to 2010. (Update: Bachelet did indeed win the election, collecting 62% of the votes in a two-horse race with Evelyn Matthei.) Bachelet’s promises include major tax reforms and a new constitution; among those elected to serve in her coalition are several radical leaders of the student protests that dominated the news here a year or two ago and sowed the seeds of the current government’s downfall. (This typically excellent Economist article offers a crisp summary.)

museo-1280Left and right are pretty polarised here; but to outsiders such as us, lingering reactions to the 16 years spent under military rule never seem far away from today’s arguments and ideologies. Opened by Bachelet in 2010, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights offers a fascinating, sobering walk through Pinochet’s 1973 coup against the administration of Salvador Allende (the statue in the photograph above is Allende), the suffering caused by Pinochet’s government and the unusual way in which it ended. When Pinochet called a one-question referendum asking the public whether they wanted him to continue his dictatorship, he lost. But more than 44% of voters voted ‘yes’. Politics here is complicated.

 


 

desertandes-1280We’d planned to cycle over the Andes to Santiago before riding north up the coast of Chile. However, not for the first time, we’ve changed our minds and our plans. Last Friday, we left our stuff in Mendoza and took the bus to Santiago. Then, on Thursday, we returned to Mendoza, this time on a bus from the remarkable Chilean city of Valparaíso, to collect everything and prepare to get back on the road. Yesterday, we started heading north not through Chile but through Argentina, beginning a 1,400km ride towards the towns of Salta and Jujuy.

We’ll mostly be following Ruta 40, which runs the length of Argentina and is one of the most iconic highways in South America. The towns are small, the road is apparently in good order and the desert scenery should be spectacular. Dauntingly, though, we’ll be riding along it at the worst possible time: December and January are the hottest and wettest months of the year, and we’ve been primed to expect 35°C days broken up by the occasional monsoon. It should be an interesting Christmas.

from Villa Media Agua, SJ, Argentina