Rule number one of travelling: expect the unexpected.
That January 2, we thought we were taking an easy, predictable day trip. The goal was Valparaiso, a city where we had stayed twice already, a one-hundred-kilometre bus ride from Santiago. This time, we didn’t want to stay overnight since accommodation is scarce and expensive. The plan was straightforward: hop on a bus, arrive two hours later, enjoy the picturesque hills and murals and hop on a bus back to Santiago.
The first part went just as planned. Even though we had gotten up later than expected, we caught the noon Turbus to Santiago, scored the front seats in the double-decker bus and enjoyed the scenery. Bonus: Mark is actually easy to travel with now and he loved the two tunnels through the mountains.
“Should we check what time the last buses leave?” I suggested when we arrived in Valparaíso.
The bus station was packed but I wasn’t surprised. Valparaíso is one of the spots where Santiaguinos spend New Year’s Eve and predictably, everybody was going home to the capital.
“Santiago agotado” the sign said on the window of the bus company that just brought us to Valparaíso.
I asked anyway. “Are there any seats left for Santiago? Like, later in the day?”
Nope. Agotado means agotado—or “full,” in case you didn’t get it by now.
There are buses almost every hour to Santiago so we hadn’t expected that issue. We asked other companies—same, all the buses were full.
We stood there, like idiots. There are worst places to be stuck in the world but still, we had nothing with us but a day bag.
Just outside the bus terminal, we saw several “unofficial” buses leaving to Santiago. Phew. A collectivo would be plan B, then.
Not that worried anymore about the ride back, we walked to Plaza Sotomayor and started climbing Valparaíso’s steep hills and do all the things people do in the city—checking out the murals, avoiding the piles of garbage, take shortcuts and get lost.
Soon after, we heard the loud sound of a siren.
“Tsunami,” Feng joked.
“Giant monsters coming,” I added so that Mark would climb faster (it worked!).
We reached several viewpoints, took pictures, bought Mark the classic ham-and-cheese sandwich and took more pictures.
“Uh… I think I know why we heard a siren,” Feng said.
He pointed to one of the hills. On a clear day like this, the giant cloud of smoke was unmissable.
A big one.
The grey cloud became orange, then red and the strong wind was blowing the column of smoke towards us. Every few minutes, we were hearing the sound of firetrucks coming to the rescue. The sun turned yellow, then red. On one side, the sky was blue. On the other, it was a hot infierno.
It was one of these moments where you see stupid tourists taking pictures of a major disaster and think “eh, get out, idiots!” Of course, this time, we were the dumb tourists. We were safe where we were, though.
By the time, we walked down back to Plaza Sotomayor, it was clear that it was a major fire. The bomberos were jumping on every vehicle they could find, including SUVs.
We left the fire behind us and took the subway to Viña del Mar, where we had planned a stop at the beach. But again, we needed a ride home and when we asked around at the bus station, we got lucky and scored a couple of seats in a bus leaving at 6 p.m. Sorry Mark, no time for the beach.
The three of us squeezed on two seats and headed back to Santiago.
It’s only later that evening that we learned it had been a massive fire and it was all over the news. Poor Valparaíso…