Getting through the airport and into town was a breeze, and we were thrilled to find our hostel and room were both fine. Housed in a converted 19th-century mansion, La Casa Roja is a large place with high ceilings, faded lounges, enormous kitchen and it´s own bar out the back. We had chosen one of the few double rooms with private bathroom (large and well-appointed) which also happened to be the quietest room in the house, according to the Australian bartender. As things can get quite rowdy at night this is a major plus – we even had a semi-private courtyard off our room to relax in the open air.
After the essential shower and unpack we were both keen to see something of the city, even though it was cold and gently raining. Joel had read of a famous bar in the city which sounded very interesting, so we walked into town to check it out and got our first taste of street life on the way. There is no discernible architectural style in Santiago, and while there are plenty of gems to be found noone can accuse it of being pretty. Roller-door shopfronts are the norm everywhere apart from the indoor malls just off Plaza de Armas, pretty colonial structures can be side-by-side with drably functional eyesores, and rows of soulless apartment blocks drift into the distance.
However the atmosphere at La Piojera was anything but drab and soulless; walking in there was like getting a punch in the face. Inside was a large cavernous room with exposed beams in the very high ceiling, dozens of people sat at the cluster of cramped, sticky and graffiti-covered wooden tables smoking and drinking, down the right side of the room was a long bar at which people drank, smoked and stood, and off to the left was a smaller room with more drinking and smoking going down. Everyone was talking loudly to be heard over the din and several traditional singer-guitarists wandered the room playing for coins, which added even more to the noise, but somehow it seemed like they all stopped and stared when we walked in. They didn´t actually stop talking, but for the first five minutes we were ogled by all and sundry as we stood and grinned like idiots to each other at the sheer culture shock we were going through. After the relative calm and familiarity of the city´s streets it was like stepping into another dimension. “La Piojera” means “The Louse Pit”.
We managed to buy a longneck of beer and sat down at the only spare seats in the house, somewhere near the centre of the vortex. The first bottle of beer was drained very quickly, then a second, as we gathered ourselves together and began halting conversation with the two young guys from the south of Chile next to us. Joel surprised me with a tumbler of the house specialty, terremoto, which is a fiery mix of cider, fernat and ice cream. You sip it through a straw and stir and stir and stir to mix the ice cream in thoroughly as it melts. And you do it all sloooowly, as it´s extremely powerful. It took a while to get the taste and I made mine last 45 minutes or so and still managed to stay on my seat, but it was touch and go for a while there…
When the guys next to us left a neighbouring table of five Chileans asked us to join them, and for the next hour or so we chatted and got some advice on where to go and what to do. Interestingly they all said we should be very careful and not trust anyone, as they said we would be ripped off somehow if we did. The warning didn´t apply to them, of course! By this stage the jetlag and booze was taking its toll, and we got a taxi back to the hostel and went straight to bed. Well, okay we might have checked out the hostel bar for a bit before retiring 😉