Tales of Travel: Santiago

We stopped in Santiago for one night on our way from Santa Cruz to Mendoza, and another two nights at the very end of our South American adventure.

On our first visit, I wasn’t at all impressed. It was hot and dusty, and after spending time in smaller, quieter, cleaner places, I felt a little agoraphobic. I also came away harbouring two bruises from our short visit, which will come as no surprise to those of you who know me and my clumsy tendencies. One bruise was on my head (luckily hidden by hair), gained by walking into a metal signpost (possibly for a taxi or a bus – I don’t know…I didn’t see it…obviously); the other was on my foot, from a large tree branch falling on us while sitting in a park, just five minutes after bruise numero uno was obtained.

However, I was prepared to give Santiago the benefit of the doubt, and we went back with an open mind.

As it turns out, on our return I managed to trip over some non-existent mammoth obstacle and ended up with a wrenched shoulder, a badly torn hand (full of lovely Santiago pavement grime) and a bruised knee. I spent a sleepless night worrying about the baby, but in the morning, he was kicking about as usual. I should probably blame my general clumsiness and the shift in my centre of gravity , but it was hard to see past these incidents as the city being out to get me :/

There was nothing we specifically wanted to see or do in Santiago; we probably wouldn’t have even gone if we hadn’t been flying out from there. We decided to stay somewhere fancy and just relax for the last two nights of our amazing trip. Our 5-star hotel was out of the city centre in a very swanky neighbourhood (Louis/Georgio/Salvatore/Hermes, dah-ling?), and we spent a lot of time just chilling out by the pool or in our air-conditioned room.

Tall climbed up Cerro San Cristobel, which is essentially a big hill with a statue of the Madonna at the top; he said the views of the city were pretty good and not too smog-obscured. That’s one thing we noticed immediately about Santiago – the smog.

We went on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour on our last day, but it was too hot to go wandering, and as most museums are closed on Mondays, we spent our time seeking shade and downing ice creams like there was no tomorrow. And there wasn’t…well, not for us in South America, anyway.

At 11pm, we were buckled into our seats on a plane bound for Auckland. I was sad to be leaving South America, and to be putting our travelling days to rest for a while, but the prospect of going home, of seeing our families, of having a kiwi Christmas, and meeting our baby made my stomach twinkle with anticipation.

(December 2009)


Tales of Travel: Valparaiso

We flew back to Santiago from Mendoza, and immediately hopped on a bus to Valparaiso. It’s about 1.5 hours drive from Santiago, and couldn’t be more different as a city. It’s arty and bohemian, it’s gritty and has a brilliant vibe; it’s a university town (with 15 universities, no less!) and an artists’ town, and consequently, the unemployment rate in late 2009 was 16%.

We stayed in a B&B on Cerro Alegre, one of the hill suburbs that look down on the city. We were welcomed like family by the young owners; every morning, Rene would speak to us in Spanish only (he’d gone to college in the US, and his English was flawless), to encourage us to practise more, and his wife would speak softly to my growing belly.

Matching bellies

In Cerro Alegre, we wandered the twisting, narrow streets, discovering quirky shops, bars and cafes tucked into hidden corners.

Every street offered up an amazing array of  street art and graffiti, some of which can only be described as beautiful. We stumbled upon a little Thai restaurant, serving the most authentic Thai food we’ve tasted outside of Thailand.

(A canvas of this photo now hangs above our bed)

We went to the Manos Maestras market where we were impressed at the talent of local artists selling and exhibiting their handmade wood carvings, jewellery, textiles and ceramics. I went back for a second visit, and came away with a number of little treasures.

The city was an interesting place. We watched a gang of street dogs chasing cars; they were like teenage boys, egging each other on, playing chicken with the traffic, snarling insults at passers-by. We enjoyed café y tortas in the Plaza O‘Higgins, having navigated the smelly, dirty back streets near the port, and we rode the ancient, rattling ascensores up and down the hill to save our legs. It was colourful in parts, and drab in others; the vibrant hill suburbs seemed a world away from the gritty downtown areas.

We caught a bus to Con Con, about 30 minutes from the city, and wove our way to a local beach, having no idea how far or where we exactly needed to go. We watched a dramatic sea rescue, featuring life guards, the navy and a rescue helicopter, but weren’t able to ascertain what was actually going on.

And we ate at a local seafood restaurant that didn’t feature in any guide books or internet recommendations, Caletta de Membrillo, which turned out to be an absolute treat. We ate fresh fish while looking over the sea (the building is on a jetty, with the upper floors jutting out over the water), and chatted to Nelson and Sergio, old friends who were onto their third bottle of champagne, at two in the afternoon! We hid in embarrassment as Sergio encouraged a busking band to serenade and congratulate us many, many times on our nino/nina.

The buskers

I fell in love with Valpo, and wish we’d spent more time there; however, Santiago and our flight home to New Zealand were calling, so we had to make the most of our few days there. In the words of this street artist:

Valpo la yeah!

(December 2009)

Tales of Travel: Santa Cruz

From Pucon, we took another lengthy bus ride into wine country and Santa Cruz, where we spent $76,000 on two bottles of wine. Tall drank most of the $6,000 bottle in one night and then tipped the rest down the sink*.

Our guide book referred to Santa Cruz as an “attractive little town”, but unless we blinked and missed a some of it, we didn’t think it was anything special. The main reason you’d go there is to visit a winery or two in the Colchagua Valley. There’s a cross at the entrance to the town, which in itself is not unusual in a country where the church plays a such a huge part in everyday life – but this one is made from wine barrels. In Santa Cruz, you definitely have God’s approval to drink and be merry!

We were only in Santa Cruz for one full day, and chose to visit Casa Lapostolle, a beautiful boutique winery owned by the great-granddaughter of the guy who started making Grand Marnier. She has a larger, more “industrial” winery further down the valley, where they produce their mainstream (but still very, very good) wines, and this one, where they only produce two high-end varieties. While the vines themselves are 40-80 years old, the winery itself was built in 2003, and no expense has been spared. Every detail has been carefully planned and it is absolutely stunning.

(Photo courtesy of Casa Lapostolle)

The spiralling staircase was designed to emulate the swirling of wine in a glass; the ceiling of the tasting room is shaped like the inside of a french oak barrel; the cellar where the grapes spend the first year after fermentation has been lit to resemble and honour the Southern Cross constellation; the blasted granite rock forms a feature wall that runs the height of the building; the table in the tasting room has a glass top and you can sip your vino while looking longingly at the private wine cellar of the owner, which houses about 6000 wines and has room for 4000 more. If you pay for the US$900/night accommodation, you’re one of the lucky few who gets to enter the cellar….unfortunately, our budget didn’t quite allow us that luxury!

(Photo courtesy of Casa Lapostolle)

We tasted a delicious, crisp chardonnay (and I don’t usually like chardonnay, but this one was lovely), a smooth-but-peppery merlot, and a limited release merlot/carmenere blend which was DIVINE. The 2005 vintage was elected World’s Number One Wine by Wine Spectator Magazine in 2008, so we have high hopes for the 2007 vintage we purchased, which is “cellared” in our spare room for now.

Our sole purpose for visiting this part of Chile was for the wineries, and we weren’t disappointed. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I’m sure we would have taken the time to visit a few more, but Casa Lapostolle certainly made the trip worthwhile.

* That’s Chilean pesos, not dollars. For the entire time we were in Chile, we never tired of saying, “I’ve only got $20,000 in my wallet, do you think we should get some more cash?”

(December 2009)

Tales of Travel: Pucon

From Puerto Varas, we caught a “bus” (a rickety old minivan that wobbled and bounced all over the place) to Pucon, a lovely mountain town with Volcan Villarrica smouldering as its backdrop. Pucon is another popular backpacker’s place, with people flocking to the area for the usual adventure activities, as well as the nearby thermal pools. The town itself is pretty quiet during the day, as most people are off doing exciting, active things, but it has some lovely shops and a nice area by the lake front to relax in.

Beautiful Villarrica

Our first full day dawned bright and clear, and Tall headed off with 15 others to tackle Volcan Villarrica. I slept in (aahhhh), chilled out in the awesome backyard of our hostel (with great views of the volcano) and wandered into the town centre.

Mapuche Indians standing guard by the lake

Mid-afternoon, the sky started to look pretty black and I escaped back to the hostel before the clouds could unleash; just a couple of hours later, the climbers were back. Only half of them had made it to the top….and Tall was one of the them. He arrived back soaking wet (they got caught in a thunder/hail storm on their descent…apparently lightning + metal climbing spike + snow = scary) and said it was challenging but incredible.

Smokin’ hot lava

“Yeah, I climbed that active volcano right there…”

After the exertion of the day before (on Tall’s part, at least), we spent our second day being lazy, wandered to the black sand beach on the shore of the lake and generally relaxed in preparation for our next long bus journey up into wine country.

(December 2009)

Tales of Travel: Puerto Varas

The bus ride from Villa la Angostura to Puerto Varas took us across the Andes, into Chile. We left Angostura on a sunny morning, and were suddenly driving through snow-covered ranges as we ascended across the border. As the road wound down again, the snow melted away, and it was as though we’d had a trip through the wardrobe into Narnia and back.

Lago Llanquihue

Long before you arrive in Puerto Varas, you’re hit by the sight of the two inactive volcanoes (Osorno and Calbuco), at the northern end of Lago Llanquihue. Puerto Varas is situated on the southern shore, so no matter where you are in the town, you can almost always see the mountains. The evening we arrived, we wandered around the town and up to a nice, very Germanic, church. In front of the church was a small public garden with a whole lot of decorated and sponsored christmas trees – it was the first sign of the coming holiday that we’d seen, and it made me excited about our pending return to New Zealand.

Eek! T’was the season…

We hadn’t organised any tours or any sort of itinerary before we arrived (that’s the way we tend to travel; we wing it when it comes to what we’ll do, where we’ll go and where we’ll stay), and the one tour we wanted to do – around Lago Llanquihue, with stops at various towns and at the bottom of Volcano Osorno – was full.

Instead, we (okay…mostly I) decided to take a bus tour to Lago Todos los Santos (“All Saints’ Lake”) and take a catamaran to Peulla. We didn’t know much about the tour, but figured it would be good to do something, and that the boat trip would be good anyway.

Early the next morning, a big tour bus pulls up, and the guide starts talking about crossing into Argentina and needing our passports. Tall and I were looking at each other thinking, “Huh? what’s going on?”. It turned out that the tour company runs day excursions (phew) as well as full transport from Puerto Montt, in Chile, back to Bariloche, which is a popular way for people to cross from Chile to Argentina.

Petrohue waterfall

The first stop was to admire the rushing Cascada Petrohue, then it was back on the bus to meet the catamaran. The views of Volcano Osorno and Cascada Yefi (not my misheard Jeffrey, which I think is a much better name for a waterfall!) from the boat were nice, but other than that, it was a very sedate journey across the lake. The tour company were all about pushing their activities to do for the three hours is Peulla – Tall was put off the canopying (flying-fox styles) by the old ladies on the video, and the “jet boating” for “adrenalin seekers” was also suitable for the whole family, and looked decidedly unexciting. We figured that we’d have lunch and wander round Peulla, maybe buy some souvenirs, write postcards while sipping coffee in a café overlooking the lake…….

Peulla consists of two hotels, one restaurant (and I use that word very loosely here), one tour company, one school, and a handful of houses. No shops. No postcards. No cafés.

[insert three hours of crickets chirping and tumbleweed rolling by here]

22 weeks pregnant with Tiny, at a little waterfall in Peulla

After an excruciatingly long three hours (during which we s-l-o-w-l-y ate our cafeteria lunch, wandered to a little waterfall, and sat down to write a list of what we were looking for in a house when we got home), we got the boat back across the lake, saw Yefi and Osorno again, and then back on the bus for the two-hour ride back to Puerto Varas.

It was an unexciting place for us to visit due to the unavailability of the tour we hoped to do, but it was nice to do something different…and to realise that sometimes, winging it just doesn’t work out the way you hope it will.

(December 2009)