Category Archives: South America

Chile: Patagonia

November 25-30, 2013 (Monday-Saturday)

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We spent five nights in the Torres del Paine area of Chilean Patagonia.  The scenery is jaw-dropping and our activities consisted of two full-day hikes, a scenic tour of the whole park, some lighter walks and an afternoon horseback riding.  Since we booked Chile when we planned to maintain gainful employment and take no other major trips for the year, our accommodation at Tierra Patagonia was a massive splurge.

Our early morning flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas afforded superb views of the Andes mountains at sunrise.  I could not get a good look out the other side, but I think it is preferable to request seats on the left side of the plane when facing the front.

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Punta Arenas airport is small with one terminal, and we were met promptly by a representative from Tierra Patagonia.  Over the next four hours we became acquainted with the 12-person Ford vans that would be a constant presence during our time in Patagonia.  We also met our new friends Kenneth and Dawn from North Carolina and Karl and Amanda from Chicago.

Kenneth and Dawn provided the two best lines I heard down there.  First, they dubbed the delicious cereal bars that Tierra Patagonia makes “Guanaco logs.”  Second, Dawn said that Kenneth refuses to call it the NASDAQ and instead refers to it only as the NADSAQ.  It goes up or down, and you cannot control it.  Brilliant.

Light lunches were provided and we stopped halfway at a roadside restaurant for coffee and baños.  If you are going to nap, it would be preferable early in the trip as the views become progressively better.  It is nearly always windy, and the landscape is rugged with sparse tree cover.  Parts of the drive are near the ocean (on either side) and we made a quick tour of Puerto Natales, a neat town of about 20k with several outdoor outfitters and accommodation options.  It is the last substantial outpost before Torres del Paine, and one could probably organize tours and treks from here.  The Singular hotel is nearby and while I am not sure the desirability of this location given its distance from the park, I heard great things and especially regarding the cuisine.  When hiking the Base del Torres, we saw a couple from there so day trips are doable and it may be convenient to certain other attractions.

Closer to Tierra Patagonia is the tiny outpost of Cerro Castillo, at the border with Argentina and where the road splits off to El Calafate where I am told the Moreno Glacier is wonderful.  A bit beyond here the road turns to dirt, and we would not touch pavement again until our return trip to the airport.  The entrance to the hotel property is unassuming, in keeping with the structure’s design to blend into the landscape.  A few minutes driving on a rougher dirt road passing many sheep and lambs and the occasional rhea or rabbit and we arrived at the hotel, set back a distance from Lago Sarmiento.

Note that Tierra Patagonia is actually outside the national park and driving times to certain excursions are longer, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage.  See my comparison vs. Explora below for more on this.

This place is truly spectacular.  And it will be difficult for me to limit my use of that word when describing the next few days.  The hotel is a modern, undulating wood building with incredible views from the public areas and all guest rooms of the Paine Massif across the lake.  Styling reminds me of Scandinavian with light woods and clean lines.  Our spacious room (#32) was on the second (top) floor.  I believe all the rooms have amazing views, and I think the main decision is whether you want to be closer to the entrance, lounging and dining area or closer to the hot tub, pool and spa.  WiFi is available but only in the common area.  Tierra Patagonia is all-inclusive, except for a few excursions and of course spa treatments.

Food

Breakfast is a nice spread of fruits, meats, cheeses, toast and jams and scrambled eggs and cooked ham.  It is more than adequate though not over the top, i.e. there is no omelet station nor raw bar etc.  Lunch at the hotel is a proper three-course meal, though if you do a full-day excursion your lunch will be packed and ample to satiate any appetite but less luxurious.  Dinner is also a proper three-course meal with three options each for appetizer and entree and two options for dessert.  The appetizer options always include one soup, one salad and something else, perhaps a tartare or carpaccio.  The entree options were typically some combo of pasta, fish or meat, plus always a vegetarian option.  Dessert is either fruit salad or some tart or dairy based item.  Overall, I would say the food was very good and at times great but not consistently great.  I am being rather picky given the extreme pricing, but this is not the place to come for the best food of your life.

All alcohol is included except for certain premium brands, which we never even considered.  The house pinot noir was excellent and the carmenere was very good.  I enjoyed the Austral Calafate Ale which has a slight blueberry flavor, like the calafate bush.  There was a specialty cocktail each day, usually pretty tasty.

Excursions and General

There are morning and afternoon half-day excursions, as well as full-day excursions.  As one might expect, weather is a big factor down here.  Clouds and wind can have a major impact.  Some visit for days and never see the iconic Torres (for which the park is named) fully exposed.  Calm air seems an even greater rarity.  We were lucky and enjoyed clear views to start and a couple other days.  Lakes and rivers feature prominently, some more green/grey and milky from the glacial silt and others turqoise blue like tropical seas.  Clouds often appear like UFOs with oblong shapes and flat, darker bottoms.

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I was surprised to learn that neither the elevations nor latitude are what I had imagined.  The park sits around 51 degrees south, the equivalent of parts of Europe.  It is nowhere near the Antarctic Circle.  It is also pretty much at sea level.  Thus, the mountains are spectacular and some rise 10k feet, but that means the highest peak is only about 10k feet.  The tops of the Torres are no higher than Guadalupe Mountain in Texas.

Laguna Azul

Our first afternoon we chose the Laguna Azul excursion.  On the drive we saw countless guanacos and stopped at the Laguna Amarga, a salty lake tossing about in strong winds.

The Salto (waterfall) Paine backed by the Torres was magnificent.  At Laguna Azul we walked around a bit, saw some interesting birds and learned of the calafate bush which serves as an amazing shelter from the wind.  Inside a hut was coffee, tea, hot cocao and pisco sours, with a tip requested in return.  On the ride back to the hotel we saw a rhea (aka ñandu) running with an adorable baby about the size of a chicken.  We also saw several flamingoes down here, which was quite surprising as I had associated them with warmer environs.

Base del Torres

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Tuesday was a glorious day so we wisely decided to get straight to the most famous hike in the region.  Look at the amazing reflection in the Laguna Amarga and the contrast between yesterday (windy) and today (calm).

Laguna Amarga calm day
Laguna Amarga calm day

After a 45 minute drive we arrived at the Hotel Las Torres (more in the accommodation section below).  Here and stretching well past the Campamento Chileno is the only private property inside the park, and what an astounding piece of real estate it is!  Fortunately the owners do not exact a toll on those passing through.

The trail crosses a river on a suspension bridge with a max capacity of two before ascending to the top of a hill and then descending to the Campamento Chileno.  On the river just past here we saw a lovely male Torrent duck, so named because it apparently can swim up waterfalls.

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We then hiked through forest before coming to the most challening part where the path becomes exposed and rocky.  At the top is a small lake and stunning, head-on views of the Torres.  We ate lunch here and fortunately the setting was so majestic that the brutal winds did little to dampen our enjoyment.

On our descent the trail was even more crowded.  I cannot fault others for doing the same thing, but this is not where you come for solitude.  It is difficult to recall a more crowded trail I have seen.  Of course in this area layers are key, because a lightweight shirt may be appropriate for the ascent while a jacket, hat and gloves are desired at the top.  I think the stats are 11.3 miles roundtrip and 3k vertical feet.  Some difficult footing and strong winds make this a harder hike than the numbers suggest.  We began at 9:45 am, summited at 1:30 pm, descended just before 2:30 pm and returned to the van at 5:10 pm.

Estancia Las Chinas

Wednesday got off to a rocky start as most excursions were canceled due to the wind and there was a bit of miscommunication between ourselves and the hotel.  We ended up on a half-day excursion in a van with just ourselves and Jocelyn (Josy) and saw more of the area east of the park.  Big, unpopulated valleys with nobody else other than a couple gauchos.  We passed a herd of cattle being moved from Hotel Las Torres to their summer pastures and then met Jose, who invited us to spend more time since he is always alone out here.

Though we never did the hotel’s exclusive excursion to a ridge where condors are often seen up close, today we saw about 10 flying nearby.  The younger lads have less white on their wings, and Josy said these giant birds can live 50+ years and may commit suicide when old and weak by plunging head first.  We ended our drive at Estancia Las Chinas and crossed a wooden bridge over the milky Baguales River lined with wind-gnarled trees.  We walked up the hillside in heavy winds and saw guanacos, a horse carcass, massive views and zero humans.  This felt very “Patagonia” to me.

Estancia Lazo Horseback

Jenni was sick a bit of our time here and not that interested in horseback riding, so she rested up while I went on an afternoon excursion to Estancia Lazo.  I am not much of a rider but decided to brave the cold, windy weather for this unique experience.  On the hour-long drive there I saw Lago Sarmiento from a different side.

The horseback tour was by Laguna Verde, and we ascended to a lookout though it was fairly socked in so mostly the scenery was forest.  After two hours, I was thrilled to see an owl up close and get off that horse and into a heated van.

Paine Massif

To give Jenni an additional recovery day, we postponed the French Valley trek and instead did the full day tour of the park.  I am happy we did so because it was a perfect day and the scenery was spectacular, enhanced by some snow at elevation last night.

Plus, I had indulged heartily the night before with Kenneth, Dawn, Karl and Amanda.  We stopped at some viewpoints and then walked a short way to Salto Grande, a nice waterfall in an incredible setting backed by the Paine Grande and Cuernos.  Paine Grande has four separate peaks, including the highest point in the park, and it is partially covered by hanging glaciers.

This is where the Mirador Cuernos hike starts and is just past the boat (that we would take tomorrow) to Refugio Paine Grande, the starting point for the French Valley and Grey Glacier treks.  From here we continued around Lago Pehoe to a classic lookout above Hostaria Pehoe, next crossing the Weber bridge and lunching inside by Rio Serrano, the most developed area of the park.

I believe one may kayak around here or take a zodiac to Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest in Chile.  Lunch was a great spread of meats, cheeses, soup, lox, quail eggs, etc.  And some glasses of carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon.  One of the delights of a day mostly driving is that wine is anything but verboten.

After lunch we drove to Guarderia Lago Grey where we walked across another wooden suspension bridge on the Rio Pingo to a short path leading to a huge gravel beach we crossed to arrive at a path cut into the rocky hillside ascending to the Grey Glacier lookout.  Quite the spot, with a massive glacier across the lake, icebergs floating nearby and in-your-face views of Paine Grande and the Cuernos.  Josy treated us to some calafate sours, a maroon take on the pisco sour.  Legend has it that he who drinks the calafate sour will return to this land.

There is a boat ride offered here that takes you up close to the glacier but I think it costs $110/person.  Word is that especially if you have seen the Moreno glacier in Argentina then this is not worthwhile.  On the drive back to the hotel I asked to stop at Explora to check out Salto Chico and get a better sense of the property.

More on that below.  I strongly recommend the full day tour to anyone with enough time, as we saw so much of the park and it was beautiful.

If I could not spend Thanksgiving eating turkey, watching football and drinking scotch with my family, then this is how I would want to spend it.  A little FaceTime with Mom’s side at Leslie’s house was nice, as was the Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks to make me feel at home.

Thanksgiving dinner
Thanksgiving dinner

French Valley

For our last full day we did the French Valley trek, another classic.  Josy again led us, and we were joined by Iana and Rich.  In another small world occurrence, they are both New York based restructuring professionals and we have some mutual friends.

Boat to French Valley
Boat to French Valley

On the drive to the boat Jenni, from the left side of the van, had a legendary spotting of some baby grey foxes on the right side of the road.  The driver backed up and we enjoyed just about the cutest creatures I can imagine!

We took the 9:30 am boat across Lake Pehoe and hiked a trail past wildflowers with views of the Cuernos, the French Glacier and turquoise blue Lago Pehoe.  The hike ascends modestly until the Campamento Italiano where it steepens heading up the valley towards the Campamento Britanico.

We enjoyed a nice lunch spread (hot soup, veggie skewers, hard boiled eggs plus individual sandwiches and snacks) on a boulder overlooking the glacier and valley.  After this we continued a bit but did not reach the top as we conservatively turned back at 2:30 pm to ensure we did not miss the 6:30 pm boat back across the lake, after which you are stuck until the morning.

Josy had brought a cooler to wait for us at Refugio Paine Grande, and cold Austral cervezas went great with conversation about skiing in different geographies.

Accommodation in the Area

There are a host of options, including the basic decision whether you want to trek from one refugio (or campsite) to another or sleep in the same bed each night with daily excursions.  For more avid trekkers, the classic route is the “W”, which I believe goes in whichever order from Refugio Grey to Paine Grande to the French Valley to Base of the Towers and ending at Hotel Las Torres.  There is no single way to do this and various hike and accommodation combinations are possible.  You could arrange this on your own or go with any of several operators offering assisted treks, ranging from help booking lodging and meals to fully guided treks.  Really serious trekkers can opt for the full Paine Circuit, a 7-11 day adventure where I would assume solitude is on offer for the non-W portions.

If you prefer to stick with one base, there are several different areas to stay.  I cover Explora and Tierra Patagonia below.  It seemed like Rio Serrano is the most developed area, but that is a very low bar.  Names of properties I recall include Tyndall, Rio Serrano, Paine Cabins and Lago Toro, and I think a new lodge is being built by the river.  There is more grass here and lovely views of the Paine Massif.  Hotel Lago Grey is on the lake but you’d need binoculars to see the glacier well.  Hostaria Pehoe is an older place but the location looks spectacular, jutting into the lake in between Explora and the mountains.  Camping Pehoe is nearby.  My friend Leila stayed at Hotel Las Torres and liked it a lot, and this would be the ideal location for maximizing your chance of catching the Torres on a nice day.  You walk out the hotel and onto the Base del Torres trail.

Anyway, the thing to remember is that trails are somewhat spread out and roads go around lakes and mountains rather than through them, and some accommodation is accessible from the road while other requires a boat ride and/or hike.

Tierra Patagonia vs. Explora

As best I can tell, if you seek the all-inclusive luxury experience then you are deciding between Explora and Tierra Patagonia.  We strongly considered the former, but Explora is much less flexible in that it requires either a four or eight night stay and only beginning and ending on specific dates.  I did not see the inside of Explora so cannot offer a completely informed analysis, but my understanding is that Tierra Patagonia is nicer.  The main advantage of Explora is its location inside the park, perched above Lago Pehoe with extraordinary views of Paine Grande and the Cuernos.  These mountains are so much closer here, and it is a more awe-inspiring view.  When on Explora’s property you really feel that you are set amidst the grandeur of it all, whereas at Tierra Patagonia you visit for the day and then enjoy expansive views from a safe and luxurious distance.

Explora also has its own boat leaving right from the property, which means access to the trailhead for both the French Valley and Grey Glacier treks is delightfully convenient and entirely independent of the operating schedule adopted by the boat concessionnaire to which all others are subject.  I believe the “public” boat runs only twice a day.  Given that these are two of the three most prominent portions of the W-trek, this is nice.  That said, on the day we trekked the French Valley, I found the experience of waiting around and taking the public boat among such an international crowd to be very enjoyable.  It is also worth noting that the trailhead for Base del Torres may be equidistant from Explora and Tierra Patagonia (check this).

The hot tubs and pool at Explora require quite an outdoor walk in what is generally cool and windy weather.  Far worse, they are down the hill and facing the wrong direction.  I must have seen some annex or there must be some other regulatory or safety justification for not locating these features to enjoy one of the best views anywhere in the world.  Otherwise, I hereby demand the immediate drawing and quartering of the designer.  Truly baffling.

Interior design, comfort and food aside (I know that is a big aside, but I simply cannot compare those aspects), the glaring advantage of Tierra Patagonia is that its location allows for more off-the-beaten-path excursions and means the visitor simply sees more of the area.  I found the vast expanses of earthen toned land and hills with virtually no signs of civilization other than the occasional estancia or gaucho to be a substantial part of the appeal.  Some excursions are exclusive to Tierra Patagonia, owing to the vastness of its property and arrangements it has made with other owners.  Around Explora we saw zero wildlife, whereas around Tierra Patagonia we saw hundreds of guanacos, tons of sheep and lambs, rhea, lots of birds, an armadillo, etc.  And had we been staying at Explora, we never would have seen those baby foxes on the way to the French Valley.  Shame on you if you can put a price on seeing baby foxes.

In general, wildlife seemed much more abundant outside than within the park.  The silhouette of a guanaco standing atop a hill searching for pumas does not get old.  Sadly we did not see a puma, though there was a group staying at Tierra Patagonia solely to photograph pumas and I heard they saw many on their independent, early morning excursions.  The lambs are adorable, and it is endearing to hear the local guides refer to sheep as “cheaps.”

Guests and staff were supremely friendly.  We made many new friends and it was touching how many people inquired whether Jenni felt better after knowing she had been sick.  Ditto the staff who brought her a three-course meal in bed on the worst night, after which just about every one we came across asked how she was.  The crowd is predominantly American, moreso than I expected.  Most are interesting and well-traveled, just as I expected.  Many guides are from Punta Arenas, though Spain, Australia and Turkey (as Jenni would say, woot woot!) were also represented.

On Saturday we left the hotel at 10 am which meant a good few hours in the airport before our 5:45 pm flight to Santiago (and 30+ hours of travel time back to Los Angeles).  We spent no time in Punta Arenas, though I would imagine this small city of 120k has some interesting aspects.  One of our guides said that Sotito’s is the place for king crab.  Penguin trips are available to Otway Sound onshore or Isla Magdalena offshore, and perhaps others.

Additional Thoughts

The owners of Tierra Patagonia also own Tierra Atacama and the Portillo ski resort.  I think they may offer some packages when combining more than one location.  Tierra Atacama is in a little town in the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth.  Some others had stayed there and loved it, even suggesting the excursions might be better.  I think it is at substantial elevation and one excursion is being taken by car up to about 17k feet and then hiking to the top of a volcano.  One guest said the geyser excursion is a must.

Torres del Paine is quite a haul but the reward is worth the effort!

Chilean Patagonia

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When I said Chile was far, I was misinformed. Patagonia is far. For your understanding, to get from our hotel in Patagonia (Tierra Patagonia) to Los Angeles we had to drive four hours, take a three-hour flight to Santiago, wait five hours for a six-hour flight to Panama City, and then take another six-hour flight to LAX. Woah. I’m writing this post as we begin this fun journey, so in a mere thirty-something hours, I’ll be stateside! (For less than 48 hours before we’re off to Asia mind you. AHH!!!)

But this remote destination is WELL worth the extra effort. Patagonia is full of sublime natural beauty, so other-worldly to me that I kept catching myself saying “it looks unnatural,” for instance, the anti-freeze colored icebergs and glaciers, the variations of turquoise and milky green colored glacial lakes and rivers, and the tropical looking red bush flowers and wild orchids.

We stayed at a phenomenally beautiful hotel in the Torres del Paine region of Chilean Patagonia. It’s incredibly expensive (booked before we decided to quit our jobs of course) and we had a few opinions on this (in a nutshell, worth it. The hotel could improve on some organizational issues, but altogether the staff is eager to please and the beauty of the area and the hotel is top notch).

The hotel is stunning, impeccably designed and situated in a most incredible location. The building itself blends in with the surroundings such that you can’t even detect it from across the lake unless you know what you’re looking for. Likewise, it’s interior is brilliantly done. Each room has a five-star view of Paine Massif, including the three towers and Admiral Nieto in front. The common areas too have windows spanning across the large space offering panoramic views of Lake Sarmiento and the mountains behind it while you dine, drink, and make other general Patagonian merriment. We were lucky and got several days with clear enough skies to see the towers in all their commanding glory. The hotel is long and narrow, so that everyone and everything is focused on the view, and the windows along the hallways towards the back open up at ground level so that you can watch the sheep (or cheeps as they call them here) and the too stinkin’ cute baby lambs munch away right before your eyes. Also, the rabbits.

Hotel shuttles picked us up at the airport for the four-hour drive to Tierra. The drive starts out beautiful – remote feeling as you pass through vast fields of shrubbery dotted with an occasional sheep (cheeps), these emu/ostrich looking birds called rhea, small flocks of flamingos in little ponds, and then these curious little creatures that appear to be a cross between a prong-horn deer and a llama, called guanacos (the “g” pronounced as a “y”). As you get closer and closer to Tierra the views get more and more breathtaking, as does the frequency with which you spot wildlife. The clouds too are beautiful. So many look like UFOs for some reason, I have to assume its related to the strong winds in the area. Before arriving to our final destination, we passed through Puerto Natales, a town of about 20,000 people about an hour from our hotel, and then past a tiny little town that borders Argentina. So I saw Argentina at least! We shared the shuttle with two other couples that were very nice and both wound up doing the biggest hike with us the next day. They were our first friends made at Tierra. While I hadn’t anticipated as much mingling with the guests, the place really affords the opportunity to get know the other guests as you go on excursions together and drink at the bar together. People who go to Tierra Patagonia tend to be awesome (if I do say so myself). We really enjoyed this aspect and hope to keep in touch with those me met.

The food at Tierra Patagonia is plentiful. Lunches and dinners on site are three courses, served with wine (or whatever you please). The quality of the food is hit or miss, some of the dishes (actually almost all the pastas) were fantastic, others were disappointing. One of our favorite snacks were dubbed “guanaco logs” by Kenneth and Dawn, two of our fellow vacationers. They appropriately named these sticks of cereal and nuts after where it is they look like they might have come from. But no worries, they don’t taste it. I also love the galletas they give you. It’s basically like a vanilla oreo dipped in chocolate, mmm mmm mmm. The wines are great. We especially liked the pinot noir (Coralillo 2010). There were also specialty house cocktails every night which Alan thoroughly enjoyed (though I’d advise steering clear of the Baby Alpaca). I got a cold so didn’t take as great an advantage of the imbibing options, but Alan made sure we got our money’s worth ;).

We arrived at the hotel on Monday just in time to grab lunch, which we ate quickly in order to get on a half-day excursion and take advantage of the pristine views afforded on that day. We did the Blue Lagoon tour, which gave us a great introduction to the area. We saw many more of the sheep, guanaco and rhea (including a baby one who ran like a little chicken), checked out a beautiful waterfall – Cascade Rio Paine, and stopped to see the view over Laguna Amarga.

After the tour we checked out the hot tub. It’s outdoors and of course has that phenomenal view, but the winds are so intense that the water laps up any part of your body not in the water and your wet exposed head gets cold fast. The lowest winds we saw on the weather report throughout our time at Tierra were 20km per hour, the max were said to be about 100km per hour. These aren’t just some light breezes… that’s real wind. Word to the wise, hit up the hot tub on the 20km/hr wind days.

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The next morning we headed out for the big hike – part of the classic Patagonian “W” hiking route– the base of the towers. This hike forms the easternmost prong of the “W.” We rushed through breakfast, getting on the van at 8am, and getting to the start of the hike at about 9:45. We lucked out with incredible weather, even seeing Laguna Amarga on the way so still that it created a perfect mirror image of the towers (just the day before it was as choppy as an ocean).

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The hike is divided into three sections. The first is relatively steep before it descends almost all the vertical you’ve gained, until you get to a camp area. Then you walk through a relatively flat, forested area, where we saw torrent ducks in the river, which can apparently swim up waterfalls! The last part is about 45 minutes of a steep climb up big rocks that is challenging and cold with the winds that get stronger up near the top. The work is awarded, however, by the picturesque view of the towers against a turquoise glacial lake. We ate our packed lunches at the top and trekked back to the van. All in it’s about 11.3 miles, around 3,000 vertical feet. It took our group maybe 6 and a half hours plus an hour or so at the top for lunch and pictures. I was impressed how speedy everyone, especially given that I was the youngest by maybe as much as 25 or 30 years for some of our hiking partners. It’s a tough hike, and my knees were killing me by the time we got down. I thought the hardest part was the last 100 yards, when the van was in view but the winds had picked up so strong that it was like walking through water neck deep. Oh how happy I was to get in that van, open a cold drink and eat my chocolate.

I had a feeling I was getting a cold, and this hike made it a reality. I felt too sick to do a big hike the day so we had opted for a full day tour primarily spent driving and taking pictures, no serious walks. Turns out pretty much every excursion was cancelled that day because it was so windy that it was dangerous to enter the park. Apparently a car accident had happened on a windy day a few weeks prior in which two people died. Since we found out late that our tour was cancelled, the two of us went on a somewhat impromptu excursion with our new guide, Josy, to an area outside the park that was less windy. On the way we saw a real gaucho riding his horse in the vast fields of nothingness. Our driver knew him and so he stopped to say hello and asked if we could take a photo with him. He obliged. We also saw men on their horses and with their dogs moving a large herd of cattle to an area with “better grass.” It’s really fascinating to watch. We later saw others doing the same with the cheeps. We also saw several condors, and Josy told us how they commit suicide when they’re ready to die! They just fly way up and then stop. What dark creatures. The van stopped at Estancia Las Chinas where we walked for a bit among the guanacos and nothingness. We didn’t make it far as the winds were epic and I was feeling ill.

I sent Alan off in the afternoon to try out the horseback riding while I took a nap and read my book in bed. I wound up having my dinner brought to me in the room and ate it in bed, in my robe, after which Alan went out to enjoy dinner and lots of cocktails of the day with our newfound Tierra friends. While it’s never fun to be sick while traveling, I most certainly enjoyed the five star indulgences to get me through it. I also really loved how sweet everyone was (staff and guests!). Everyone asked about me, how I was feeling, whether they could get anything for me.

Still not feeling 100% the next day we opted to stick with the full day driving tour that had been cancelled the day before. I would highly recommend this tour. While it’s not super active, you really do get to see so much of the park and from various angles. Well worth it.

The views were great this day, but it was still super windy. We had seen much of the eastern part of the park before, and this tour offered us some stellar sightseeing of the other side. We got incredible vantage points of the Admiral Nieto Mountain, the Cuernos, and Salto Grande (the second of three waterfalls in the park). We ate our feast of a picnic lunch at a restaurant in Rio Serrano (they feed you well at Tierra, that is for sure). Our bellies full, we drove to Mirador Lago Grey where we did a short hike out to the viewpoint to look at the massive grey glacier and the icebergs. Josy treated us to a toast of calafate sours (pisco with calafate (like a blueberry) juice). Legend has it if you eat the calafete you will return to the land, so it looks like we’ll be coming back to Patagonia. I wouldn’t complain.

We opted out of the “navigation” that leads to Grey Glacier as it didn’t seem like the views changed all that much and it costs an additional $110 a person. Thus, in no rush on the way home we stopped at Explora, Tierra Patagonia’s competition. We had looked at both when booking, and I feel we made the right decision. While Explora has one of the best views of any hotel I’ve ever seen, we thought Tierra seemed superior in design (based solely on seeing Explora’s exterior, as we didn’t go inside), wildlife nearby, and opportunity to see more of the park that you might not venture out to if you stayed at Explora. Also, the pool and hot tub at Explora are way down in the back where the views are far less impressive. Not to mention I would not want to make that long walk back with cold wet hair in the brutal winds here. We also walked over to the waterfall on the property, which was of course beautiful but the least impressive of the three in the park.

Back at the hotel we face-timed with family to hear how their Thanksgiving dinners were back home. There was no turkey for us this year, but it’s hard to complain when you’re being served a three course dinner while looking out at this:

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::view from the dining room::
::thanksgiving 2013 at tierra patagonia::
::thanksgiving 2013 at tierra patagonia::

Our last day we did the French Valley, which is essentially the center prong of the “W” trek. I made a pretty epic spot of a group of baby foxes on the side of the road. Also known as a pile of cuteness that is almost too much to handle. I’m adopting a fox as soon as we get back to America. I simply must.

In order to get to the start of the French Valley trail you must take a navigation (read: boat. Kinda weird to me that they call it a navigation), that takes about a half an hour. The hike is beautiful. You walk through a relatively easy stretch that is about 7.5km of up and down hills through a forest (much of it burned in a 2011 fire) to arrive at a camp. After that the trail becomes more steep and you get spectacular views of the French Glacier. I think we hiked about 18-20 km all in, though less elevation that the base of the towers. Sitting on a rock overlooking the glacier we ate our packed lunches and Josy also pulled out some hot soup, vegetable skewers and hard-boiled eggs for us to munch on. Again, we were not left hungry at any time. Back at the base as we waited for the navigation we had some cervezas and sodas.

Alan stepped up his animal sightings and found us an armadillo on the drive back. We were ever on the hunt for a puma but to no avail. We did remember watching a Planet Earth or something like that which showed a puma chasing a guanaco in Patagonia.

The sun sets so late here, it’s deceiving. In fact we had to be reminded to sit down for dinner at last call at 9:30 our last night.

We debated trying to get up to Punta Arenas early our last day to see the town or view the penguins, but opted instead to not rush, and just enjoy our last few moments at this luxurious hotel before heading off on our 36-hour journey home.

Quick reading update: I finished Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. It was of course good, but not her best. Also read a good chunk of it while I was out of it on cold medicine so maybe not the best judge. I did start reading A Piece of Cake and I can’t put it down. It’s incomprehensible what she was put through. Really eye-opening and gives you an insight into some of the injustices happening in our country.

Chile: Valparaiso, Viña del Mar, Casablanca

On Sunday we decided to take an all day tour with enotour, and I am very glad we did so.  We chose this tour because it offered a nice balance of the coastal cities with a winery visit at an affordable price (39k pesos each) in a small group.  Private tours and unemployment make strange bedfellows, and I prefer to avoid 50+ person buses…

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Indomita Winery

I did not realize how many different wine areas are accessible from Santiago, thus deciding you want to do a wine tour is only the first step.  The Maipo Valley is close to the city and where the famous Concha y Toro winery is located.  I believe one could take the train there and then walk, and La Bicicleta Verde is a popular company offering bike tours.  Uncorked also came recommended but their tours are far more expensive.  The Colchagua Valley, Aconcagua Valley and I am sure others are alternatives to the Casablanca Valley where we visited.

Enotour picked us up at our hotel promptly at 9:30 am in a large van with a total of nine tourists, a driver and our excellent guide, Andres.  The group was diverse with passengers from Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Israel (a Birthright executive).  On the way to the coast we stopped at a touristy place to sample chicha, which Jenni noted tastes a lot like apple cider.

Chicha de uva
Chicha de uva

Our guide informed us that copper is Chile’s most valuable export, and other majors include agriculture, seafood, wine (with the UK and China the biggest buyers), wood and lithium.

A couple hours from Santiago we arrived to Valparaiso and passed the feria on Argentina Ave and the national Congress (interesting that Congress is in a separate city from the President and Court) before departing the van at Sotomayor Square to walk a while

Argentina Ave
Argentina Ave

I was quite impressed with Valparaiso.  The colors are so vibrant, both the structures themselves and the ubiquitous street art in the roads and alleys covering the hillside.  There are several funiculars and we took one up to the fine arts museum.

Valparaiso was a major international port and commercial center, particularly before the devastating 1906 earthquake and opening of the Panama Canal which diminished the importance of being the last big port before Cape Horn.  This is less true today, but it remains a tourist destination owing to its history, architecture, bohemian character and nearby surfing.  Some homes are wood but covered outside with zinc plates to protect against the elements.  Cats are all over.  I believe Lautaro Rosas is a high-end street, and the Hostals Casa Valparaiso and the Casa Aventura seemed well-located.  The Palacio Astoreca is a boutique hotel with the Alegre Restaurant.  A brief tour was a treat, and I think this area merits a night or two.

From Valparaiso we drove a short way to Vina del Mar, which is more modern and home to Chile’s first casino.  Valparaiso is often compared to San Francisco, and Vina would be more akin to Miami (though much slower paced) with its condo towers lining the beach.  There is a Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center with a nice terrace on the water, just outside the central city area.  Horse and carriage rides are available, with a concentration between the casino and the river.  We saw the Reloj de Flores and outside the Museo Fonck sits one of only four Moai in the world not on Easter Island.

There are a couple well-regarded universities in the area.  Andres explained these are expensive, with tests taken at the end of high school determining what school you can attend and how much of the cost will be government-funded.  He also said he lives in Vina and commutes by bus every day to Santiago to lead tours.  I am inspired by these stories of hard work.  As we began the drive back to Indomita Winery, Elton John played.  Every time I hear Your Song, I think of Eric singing it to Jen at their wedding, and this makes me happy.

It was about 3 pm when we arrived at Indomita Winery, so be sure to take a snack if you do this tour as lunch will come very late.  The nine tourists sat together and enjoyed good conversation (mix of Spanish and English), wine and food (my salmon was great) backed by live saxophone.  I was very pleased with our group.  The Spanish family travels a lot and interestingly offered several recommendations for US national parks.  The winery is a modern white and glass building on a hill with great views over the vineyards and valley.

After a long lunch, the wine tasting included in the tour began.  Most of the group sat in a nice room, while Jenni and I were relegated to the front patio as the only two requiring English.  Score another for the ethnocentric, monolingual Americans.  Our punishment was an outdoor, private tasting.

First was a white blend of late harvest Gewurtztraminer and sauvignon blanc.  Next a pinot noir that I liked a lot.  Our pourer explained that pinot is sort of in between typical white and red, hence it is known as the Michael Jackson of wines.  We finished with a leathery cab.   I had high expectations as I recall years ago Streiff told me that his parents enjoyed their trip to Chile and its wine, and those Streiffs know travel and wine.  I was not disappointed.  It was a great day and I hope to return one day to visit more of Chile’s wineries.

Toll booth mini-mart
Toll booth mini-mart

Chile: Santiago etc.

So, Chile is far away from LA. Like, real far. I hadn’t quite grasped this in my mind (the whole, Earth being round and big thing, not just east to west, but north to south), but it took us two six-hour flights, a four-hour layover and a five-hour time change to get down here (not to mention Patagonia, which is another 3 hour flight from Santiago and then a 4 hour drive from the airport!).

Partly to remember this myself, partly in case can we one day choose flights for reasons other than price, I think I’ll mention my (decidedly unexciting) thoughts on airlines as I fly them (so feel free to skip to the next paragraph should you care, as you might, less than two shits about my thoughts on Copa Air). We took Copa Air on both legs down to Santiago. Fine airplane, the one from LA to Panama was nice, with personal TVs for each seat, and plenty of space, they also give you free wine, lots of food, and they carry guyaba juice (guava) – my fave! The flight to Santiago was on a smaller, less luxurious plane (no personal TVs), but fine nonetheless. They let us carry on my backpacking backpack as a carry-on (which we were not able to do with LAN). LAN kinda sucks.

After making our way through immigration and customs, and paying our reciprocity fee of $160 PER PERSON (ouch! – though it is valid for entry to Chile for the life of your passport, so make sure you get a new passport before you go to Chile if you ever intend to come back. Or just be a non-American/Albanian/Mexican/British person), we grabbed a cab to our lovely hotel – L’astarria Boutique Hotel. Oh, the joy of a hotel paid for back when we were all fancy and employed. The place is super nice – in a great part of town, quick walk to a number of great options for food and nightlife, beautiful room (with a massive porch!), a lovely garden/pool area out back where you can enjoy your huevos in the mornings, and a fresh chocolate on your pillow every night. Also, they give you a little scroll with a quotation on it when you check in. Mine read, “Como todas las drogas, viajar requiere un aumento constante de las dosis.” Loosely translated this means: “Like all drugs, travel requires constant increasing doses.” Very apropos, L’astarria! As Alan and I realized during a minor splurge on our U.S. road trip, we do like the finer things in life (at least on occasion). This was no exception.

To kick off our trip, we walked over to Bocanariz for a late dinner and some Chilean wine tasting. They have an extensive wine list, I believe entirely composed of vinos Chilenos. They have suggested flights with a tasting of three wines, or you can create your own (as we did) by choosing from glass or tasting pours of 35 wines. All together I think we tried 8 wines. Wines were superb, food was good but not amazing. We really enjoyed The Casas Del Bosque Reserva Sauvignon Blanc (2012) from Casablanca, the Montescano Refugio Pinot Noir (2012) from Casablanca, and the Apaltagua Enero Carménère (2011) from Colchagua. Carménère is one of Chile’s signature wines and we have been ordering lots of Carménères since. Someone told us that the Chilean winemakers are fighting with France over labeling their wines as Carménère (how do like them apples Champagne?). Oh, and our waiter’s name was Juan Pablo. For all my Bachelor/Bachelorette watching ladies out there, can I get a “JUAN PABLO”!? Ah, Juan Pablo.

While in Santiago, I impressed Alan with my sprench (franish?), which is my ability to understand and speak (limited) Spanish based solely on my knowledge of French (and years spent living in LA?). I keep getting mistaken for someone who speaks Spanish/a local? This makes me happy, and I can pass it off much of the time, but I really hate that moment where they start speaking Spanish really fast and I have to sadly say “no hablo espagnol.” I even made Alan speak to me only in Spanish at times, and challenged myself to translate song lyrics I’ve sung along with forever, but never understood. Conquered: Levanta Levanta, tienes que bailar. Makes me wish we were practicing our language skills a bit more on this trip. Certainly won’t be doing much of that in Asia, unless I can quickly pick up Sinhalese or something. Odds are not looking good.

I’m pleased with how safe I feel in Santiago. Walking home at 1am, the streets were full of non-threatening, happy young people. In fact, we heard later that Chile has the lowest crime rate of South America. The city felt surprisingly similar to LA in ways, but for the cab drivers peeing on the streets and the homeless guys passed out on the riverside with a full size television at their feet.

The next morning we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast on the lovely terrace to the restaurant, which has a little pool and a garden. There’s almost a jungle-esque feel to it, all tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the streets. I was also reminded of how much I like the random fruit juices you get served at breakfasts internationally – mango, raspberry, mmm. What’s up with the lack of fruit juices in America. Who decided we must stop at orange?!

We decided to spend our day in Santiago doing our own little walking tour. We passed the River Mapacho, which looks like something out of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (so brown!). We wandered all around town, stopping to ask locals on occasion where to find certain things, all of whom were super friendly and eager to assist. Hit up the Mercado Central (lots of fish), a market with lots of meat, then Mercado Vega (vegetables and other things). Went to the Plaza de Armas square, which is surrounded by a church and other beautiful buildings. There was a large fountain in the middle in which a handful of children were happily playing. On our way out of the park we heard music coming down the street and stopped to watch a rather impressive parade that we gathered was for premie babies. Batukada played drums impressively in the lead, and a lot of really cute kids came following by with shirts and posters reading, “Yo So Prematura.”  On Matt’s suggestion, we popped back over to the Mercado for some bebidas fruitas. I ordered a passion fruit and mango smoothie, Alan smartly ordered the same with the addition of banana.

Then headed over towards San Cristobal where we hiked the short walk to the top. On the way we passed through Bella Vista area that was colorful and happening. Maybe it was the jet lag and/or dehydration and sunburn (what a tourist rookie move), but the climb was more strenuous than I’d anticipated. Actually, I later found out that the smog is so thick in the city that people occasionally have difficulty breathing here (coming from LA I find it difficult to imagine I’d notice much difference, but who knows. We’ll see what happens in China). The views from the top are lovely (albeit smoggy, but we Los Angelenos are not surprised by this). It looks like they host concerts up there sometimes. Going down, we took the funicular. Chile has a lot of funiculars. I don’t think I had ever heard that word before this week.

We walked back on Constitucion, which had a lot of nice restaurants with outdoor seating where people were enjoying pisco sours and vino to their heart’s delight. We couldn’t pull the trigger on any one place and so walked back over near our hotel to grab snacks. We ended up at a mediocre spot and shared some food (massive portions so we wound up taking the leftovers and giving them to a homeless man) and two pisco sours – one pica and one normal. I still don’t really understand the difference, but I did enjoy the piscos.

We chose the Clinic for dinner after fighting some serious jet lag. We ordered a bottle of Carménère that we’d tried the night before at Bocanáriz. It was a different vintage, and less delicioso, but still bueno. Unsure what to order food-wise, we asked the waitress if there was anything typical/traditional of Chileno cuisine and she recommended the house specialty – costillar ahumando – which consisted of ribs (of which animal she wasn’t sure, though it turned out to be pork), and papas which we chose to order spicy (piquante). I’m not certain what exactly was in those potatoes, but I’m fairly certain it was a mashed sweet potato with paprika and pepper and it was mui delicioso. The ribs were so-so, but the whole meal went very well with our Carménère.

::bathroom art at the clinic::
::bathroom art at the clinic::

Jenni’s Random Thoughts on Chile

Like many non-American countries, one cultural difference here is the pace. Much much slower. Slower walking, slower eating, though to be fair I think one restaurant we went to the waiter went home and forgot to tell someone else to cover our table (seriously), so perhaps our view is skewed by this.

I do get the sense that they take the time to love here. Maybe it’s the romantic nature of Latin culture, maybe it’s the perfect spring weather (remember, seasons are reversed down here), maybe it’s all the wine and pisco, but I saw a lotta people making out in Santiago. You don’t really see that anywhere in America, other than bars and clubs late night. And it ain’t quite so pretty. I saw people making out in parks, at a table at a restaurant mid-day… I saw lots of people holding hands, and I saw lots of people gently guiding their mothers and grandmothers through the bustling streets.

Every time it would get a bit cold, I’d habitually say, “it’s a bit chilly.” Alan thought this pun was amusing, and I thought it amusing that it amused him.

Dogs are everywhere and they are quite large for homeless dogs (Jenni speak for strays, but that sounds so inhumane). They (generally) look and are quite friendly. Except for one that snarled at a market-goer for coming too close to his bone. Also, there is no dog poo to be found in the streets. I don’t understand how it’s possible that in New York City I have to watch my step to avoid stepping in dog shit of pet owner’s pups, yet these homeless little hounds know how to hide their business. Also, I found Ryder’s long-lost Chilean cousin.

We didn’t see many Americans in or around Santiago, which was somewhat surprising. Nobody was in the line for the reciprocity fee (required for Americans, British, Albanians, and Mexicans) at the airport with us, there were no other Americans on our tour to Paraiso Del Mar, and we didn’t really notice any while wandering around town.

Outside Santiago

The next day we took a tour (through the company Enotour) up to Paraiso Del Mar, Vina del Mar, and a vineyard in Casablanca. We were picked up in a van at 9am, stopping to pick up a handful of others before we drove a few hours or so out of Santiago. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with the group, which was eclectic. We were the solamente Americanos, together with a Mexican pilot, a Mexican-American woman now living in Idaho (near where we camped in Coeur D’Alene!), a family from Spain, an Israeli who works for Birthright, and her colleague from Argentina. The non-Americanos were proud of us for traveling the world and knowing our own country, unlike many Americans they’d met on their trip. We did, however, get a few awesome travel tips for spots in the U.S. we’ve yet to hit. My Spanish did not impress our tour guide, though I’m still proud to understand the amount I did having had no lessons or even spending much time in Spanish speaking countries in my life. However, due to the fact that I was the only non-Spanish speaking guest, Alan and I were shunned from the group wine tasting and received a private English version on the porch.

::selling provisions (palta) at the toll booths::
::selling provisions (palta) at the toll booths::

We made a quick first stop at a restaurant on the way to try some “chica” made from grapes. It tasted like apple cider to me. Here, we also learned that pisco is made from grapes and diluted with water. There is a debate as to whether pisco is really from Chile or Peru, our guide was adamant that it is Chile. Juries still out on that one, though we did learn that the difference between a Peruvian pisco sour and a Chilean pisco sour is caused by the lemons – which are big and sweeter in Chile and small and sour in Peru.

Next stop was Paraiso Del Mar. Paraiso es mui bella. Me gusta mucho. Winding narrow streets up the hillsides with the most colorful houses. There is amazing street art on the walls and alleys and staircases, and the buildings themselves are a bouquet of brilliance. Our guide informed us that one cannot change the color of the homes here. Again there were lots of stray dogs, but also cats now. Vina Del Mar was a bit more modern of a city, and I was less impressed with this one, though it was still charming. There is a working clock made of flowers (a gift from Germany), and there are horse drawn carriages taking tourists around.

For our wine fix we went to the Indomita vineyard in the Casablanca Valley, which is known primarily for its white wines, and also pinot noir. Perhaps the best thing I learned in this tasting is that they call Pinot Noir the Michael Jackson of wines, because it’s kind of white, but kind of red. We also tried their late harvest half Gewurtztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, and a Cab (mui leathery). We enjoyed the nice lunch here with our group while listening to some live sax (before being sent outside for our private English tasting).

Back in Santiago we met up with Matt for drinks at Nolita. Such a funny, small-world connection. Matt’s girlfriend, Liz, used to work for my dad, and Matt is from Alan’s hometown, went to school with Alan’s brother, and knows their mother. Matt is living in Chile for a year, and he gave us lots of great tips on the area.

Chile: Santiago

Hello from Hong Kong!!  And now, back to Chile…We spent two wonderful days in and around Santiago (I will cover the “around” tour part in a separate post).  It is a large city but very manageable and relaxed.  We arrived Friday evening, walked around all day Saturday and did a full-day tour on Sunday to Valparaiso, Viña del Mar and the Indomita Winery in the Casablanca Valley.  Highlights in Santiago included hiking up Cerro San Cristobal, walking around the Mercado Central/Vega and Plaza de Armas and wine at Bocanariz.  Valparaiso was enchanting with its colorful buildings and alleyways set amidst the hills right on the sea.

Cerro San Cristobal
Cerro San Cristobal

Our trip down was long but smooth, though one of these days I need to actually visit Panama instead of just flying through.  I think have been in that airport for at least three roundtrip journeys in the last few years.  The greeting in Chile is less than cordial as Americans must pay $160 per person to enter.  Be sure to do so before entering the immigration line.  This is called a reciprocity fee, I guess because America does not roll out the red carpet for Chilenos.  The entry stamp is valid for the duration of your passport, so we are thankful each of us has 9-10 years remaining validity.  There is an ATM just beyond customs.  An official taxi costs 17k pesos (the exchange rate for our visit is about 520 pesos per US$) and with no traffic (and excellent roads everywhere we’ve been) we arrived at Lastarria Boutique Hotel (LBH) in 20 minutes.

LBH’s location is superb.  Lastarria is a central neighborhood filled with cafes, bars, restaurants and boutiques.  LBH is on a quiet side street just a block or two from Parque Forestal and the happening Lastarria street.  Our junior suite (#12) was pricey and not huge but well-decorated with a nice bathroom (modern + rain shower) and large balcony with quality lounge furniture.  Breakfast (fruit, pastries, eggs to order, fresh lattes and cappucinos) is served in an attractive space on the second floor or on the terrace overlooking the courtyard with pool.  LBH is stylish without trying too hard.

At reception is a bowl filled with miniature scrolls each concealing a quote.  Mine: “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson.  Jenni’s: “Como todas las drogas, viajar requiere un aumento constante de las dosis.” Translated as “Like all drugs, travel requires constant increasing doses.” – John Dos Passos.  If only I could relate.

Friday night we walked to Bocanariz which is a very popular wine bar and restaurant on Lastarria.  They offer flights and 35 wines by the glass and an array of tapas and larger plates.  We loved the wine, especially the red Apaltagua Enervo Reserva 2011 Carmenere from Colchagua Valley.  The food was good and the scene energetic yet refined, with a young crowd of friends and couples.  We sat in the middle/bar room at a high wood table with clean lines and carabiners for hanging a purse.  Juan Pablo memorized our order from the English menu.  The herringbone-esque scuffed wood floors evoked an eccentric ballroom past its prime.

Walking home after 1 am we felt entirely safe, as we did at all times in Santiago.  The violent crime rate is very low, much moreso than your typical US metropolis.

Saturday we walked through Parque Forestal, passing the Museo de Bellas Artes and a Veet-sponsored yoga session.  The Mapocho River rushing through the city is brown as Willie Wonka’s but probably does not taste as good.

First we visited the Mercado Central which is moderately sized and loaded with seafood vendors, plus some fruit stands and several dining options.  We heard El Galeon may be the best of these.  Seafood is prevalent in this narrow nation with a coastline of nearly 3k miles.

Nearby Mercado Central are the Mercado de Abastos Tirso de Molina and the Vega with meat, produce and goods.  The former has many dining options.  We got fresh fruit smoothies for 1k pesos each at a stand run by a guy from Phi Phi, Thailand.  Water/ice in Santiago is generally safe to drink.  There are lots of stray dogs here and most appear very healthy.  We heard neighborhoods often care for them.  One looked exactly like Ryder.

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I can’t tell which is Ryder?!

The markets are surprisingly relaxed, and I felt this way about Santiago in general.  The population exceeds 5 million but it feels mellow.  While there are vestiges of a developing country, it is generally more akin to Buenos Aires or Madrid than Rio or Andean cities.  Prices are surprisingly high (except for avocados and wine) and most restrooms have those fancy dryers that make your hands look like a Shar-Pei.

Just to avoid any confusion, the markets seem relaxed, but I do not mean to suggest they are the same as what you might find in the US.  When was the last time you saw something like this in America?!

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From the markets we walked a few blocks on the pedestrian-only Paseo Puente to Plaza de Armas, the heart of the city.  There were some street performers, a fountain with kids swimming, Santiago’s main church, the national post office and the natural history museum.  A parade for premature babies (who knew?) preceded by batukada drummers livened the scene.

We walked through the colorful, bohemian Bellavista neighborhood to the base of the funicular at Cerro San Cristobal.

A road then walking / mountain bike path ascend to the left and 45 minutes later we were at the Virgen Maria statue enjoying great views of the city and surrounding Andes mountains (though air quality is sub-optimal).  Food and beverage is available.  For 1,950 pesos each we descended on the funicular past the zoo.

The Aubrey Boutique Hotel is right here and I believe Pablo Neruda’s house is, too.  Plaza Camilo Mori had another public piano, confirming this is an international trend.  Constitucion and Pio Nono streets are lined with bars and restaurants, and the Patio Bellavista has many more plus shops, albeit expensive and touristy.

Back in Lastarria we had a very late lunch at La Junta in a courtyard-like area, the same place as Nolita where we met Matt for wine and tapas the following night.  The food at La Junta was unremarkable, but we did try our first pisco sours of the trip.  We split a Pisco Pica and a Pisco Normal, the former being the more Peruvian version and the latter more Chilean.  The Pica has egg white and the lemons from Peru are smaller and more sour, versus the larger and sweeter lemons of Chile in the Normal.  My pork sandwich was big enough for three, so I ate one-third and gave the rest to an appreciative old man begging in front of the church.

It was on tomorrow’s tour that we learned about pisco, but since we are on the subject…It is alcohol made of grapes and may be 120 proof before water dilutes it to about 80 proof.  There seems to be some controversey regarding what is proper pisco, and our guide said there is a controlled appellation regime (like champagne) where pisco must come from a few valleys in Chile.  On other Chilean beverages, chicha here is made from grapes instead of corn as in Peru and elsewhere, and the terremoto (earthquake) is red wine with pineapple ice cream and pisco.  Sadly we missed this one.

At night we had hoped to visit the Vitacura neighborhood for rooftop drinks at Noi, but instead we stayed closer to home.  Matt made us feel much better about this when he said that Vitacura is very nice with fancy hotels and restaurants, but it lacks the character found in Lastarria, Bellas Artes, Bellavista, Providenica, etc.  Character is not lacking at The Clinic, a lively and well-known political satire bar in Bellas Artes named for the London medical clinic where Pinochet was captured in 1998.  The ribs we shared were good, and even better was the picante traditional puree which looked like sweet potatoes but I am not sure of the actual ingredients.  It cost about $45 with a bottle of Carmenere.

The Clinic
The Clinic

The temperature was about 80 degrees during the day but it cools at night.  I thought it was funny each time one of us said “it’s chilly,” and Jenni was amused that I felt this way.

While we did not come close to seeing the whole city, it seems to me that staying in Lastarria or the neighborhoods surrounding it would be your best bet.  These include Bellavista, Bellas Artes, and Paris-Londres with its cobblestone streets.

My mom’s friend Margery recommended Opera restaurant in the area and her daughter, who lives in Santiago, also noted Tambo (Peruvian) and Mamboleta bar.  Matt lives in Santiago now and in one of those small world instances that I relish, we connected because he is from Longmeadow and his long-time girlfriend Liz used  to work with Alper.  Matt was super helpful and wrote us the email below (edited by me to avoid some repetition as we took much of his advice!) in advance of our visit, and also mentioned Manquehue for a more serious hike in the city, the rooftop bar at the W for good views and scene, and Emporio La Rosa for creative ice cream flavors.

-Very tough call re: wine tour, but I’d have to say it’s worth it. A friend of mine runs a hugely popular biking tour of vineyards called La Bicicleta Verde. They offer half-day trips, so you could still get the best of both worlds! If you want to do a traditional wine tour of Casablanca (the wine region), I hear that Uncorked is a really good company– a lot of people who do it continue onto the coastline to visit Valparaíso, a really artsy, bohemian port city.

Restaurants and Bars:

-Astrid y Gastón for fine dining. Gastón Acurio is a Peruvian chef that’s known for having the best line of high-end restaurants in Latin America.

-The Clinic…I would recommend it as a lunch spot.

-Noi in Vitacura is the best rooftop bar in Santiago with some breathtaking views. I would suggest going here for some pisco sours (the Chilean national drink) and watching the sunset. [NB I think Matt believed the W was closed but it just reopened, so he might say that is the best rooftop bar]

-Cuatro y Diez is a great low-key, intimate bar in Bellavista where you can go to see live music (mostly spanish folk music). They start playing around 11pm.

-Café con piernas (Coffee with Legs) is a tradition in Santiago. There are a number of standing-room-only coffee shops in Lastarria and Bellas Artes where you’re served by women in short skirts. It sounds chauvinistic, but people aren’t phased by it here (a lot of the customers are actually women).

-If you want the “local” experience, head to La Piojera. It’s a divebar where you’ll meet a lot of really interesting characters. They basically only serve Terremotos

Activities:

-As far as museums go, there are a lot to choose from, but I’d say that Museo de la Memoria is the only one worth going to if you’re only spending a couple of days here. You can find much better art in other Latin American cities, and Museo de la Memoria gives you some really interesting insights into Chile’s recent past under the military dictatorship.