Monday, March 30, 2009

The Devil went to Santiago, Chile and all he got was this lousy posting


Destination: Santiago, Chile

Number of Days: 3

Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 0 Bus/Minivan - 1 Train/Subway - 4 taxi/car - 1

Where we stayed: Greenhouse - $40/night and not worth it, this place had very friendly hosts and a decent breakfast with free Wifi but it definitely could have been cleaner, especially the shared bathroom.

Favorite Restaurant: Gatopardo - amazing set menu, at least some times. For $10 you get a trip to their yummy salad bar, an entree, dessert, a pisco sour (the national drink), coffee or tea and a soda, draft beer or a glass of wine. The pork we had the first day was the best we have had in South America, it had this amazing honey sauce on it. The second day the choices weren't as great, it was either an onion quiche or congrio (eel). So make sure you look at the menu of the day before you go in.

Best of: Good views from the top of the Cerro Santa Lucia looking out over the city and beyond to the mountain tops.

Worst of: The city really has no feeling, good or bad. It's a big city that could exist anywhere in the world and other than the language spoken, you would not know the difference.

Something unexpected: The city was hotter than the beach, and on average always is. The Chileans have a strange dialect of Spanish. They blend words together and drop syllables making it especially difficult for us to understand.

Santiago is the capital of Chile and between here and Valparaiso/Vina del Mar nearly half of the entire population lives. A sprawling concrete jungle complete with an extensive subway and the transit hub for all of Chile. Unlike other places we have visited, Santiago seems to be missing something. It's not beautiful, charming or too cosmopolitan. Nor is it edgy, dangerous or appalling. Perhaps if we spent more time here, we might draw different conclusions, but given first impressions - this city lacks character; it refuses to be labeled or defined.

Our first stop after arriving by bus in the morning from Vina was to find some lunch. Gatapardo ended up being our highlight of Santiago, at least the first lunch there. After stuffing ourselves, we hiked to the top of Santa Lucia for a overlook of the city and to burn a few calories. After wandering around for a while checking out Barrio Lasatarria, one of the slightly more upscale areas with lots of bars and restaurants, we ended up right back at Gatapardo for a happy hour (pisco sours), which here lasts from 6-9pm. May seem late to us, but dinner does not start until 8pm around here and goes until midnight!

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We hopped on the subway and rode it all the way till the end of the rails the next morning for a tour of Concho y Toro (Shell and Bull) Bodega. This region of Chile is ideal for wine growing with little rainfall and lots of days of sunshine. The largest wine producer in Chile, Concho y Toro's most familiar label in the States is Del Diablo (The devil) and the facility is first class all the way. The grounds are spectacular and it was a different experience than most of the smaller vineyards we have visited in the States. The aging of the wine is controlled by a computerized inventory system that has a bar code on every barrel of wine giving all its vitals. The highlight of the tour (other than the obvious tastings!) was the original wine cellar. The Devil's wine got it's name when the owner, fed up with the locals breaking in and stealing his wine, made up a rumor that the devil lived in the cellar. Completing the hoax, a silhouette of the devil shines in one of the back corners aided by a well placed red light. Silly story, but it makes for a great name for a bottle of wine and made Concho y Toro what it is today.

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Back in the city, we made the rounds of the museums, plazas and government buildings. We checked out the Bella las Artes art museum. Ok, but nothing too special. The special exhibit was underground political comics from the dictatorship years of the 70's and 80's which would have been more interesting had we been able to understand not only Spanish, but the people and politics of the time. We took a stroll through the crowded Plaza de Armes, the heart of downtown, anchored by the massive Cathedral Metropolitana. We also took a stroll through the Constitution Plaza which sits in the shadow of the Presidential Palace, their version of the White House. Oddly enough the rest of the government is in Valparaiso. We finished our stroll through the financial district with poking our heads (well, just Jason) into one of the odd businesses known as Cafes con Piernas (Legs Cafes). While we assume they actually serve coffee, the draw is the strip club atmosphere complete with loud music, dim lights and half naked women. It seemed like the fitting way to end our time in this quirky city we still can't define.

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Having got our feel for the city, we packed our bags and headed back into Argentina. Next stop, Mendoza!

To see more photos of Santiago, click here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

One Completo with a ton of Mayo and a side of Amor! Vina del Mar & Valparaiso


Destination: Vina del Mar & Valparaiso, Chile

Number of Days: 4

Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 1 Bus/Minivan - 1 Train/Subway - 3 taxi/car - 0

Where we stayed: Hotel Florencia - $40 Nice and quiet part of town. Not too far from the beach either.

Favorite Restaurant: Nothing really stood out but La Flur de Chile (The Flower of Chile) was pretty good with their set lunch, schop (draft beer) and cheap copa de vino tinto (glass of red wine)

Best of: The sun peaked through our last day there, so we were able to enjoy the sunset on the beach with a glass of red wine (in plastic McDonald ice cream cups, but who cares)

Worst of: Not sure why, but tagging (graffiti) is so prolific here and no one seems to bother cleaning it up. Just makes the place look like a ghetto.

Random Side Notes: Chile is apparently a country for lovers and lovers of mayonnaise (mayonnaisa in Spanish). Couples here can barely keep their hands off one another. On the other side they smother, and we do mean smother, their food in mayonnaise (see "The Completo" below) This photo shows an incomplete section of mayonnaise in the local grocery store. It's at least twice as long as pictured. And Americans are the ones with poor eating habits...ok we still have that but the Chileans are making a run for it!

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All good things must come to an end and after half heartedly trying to get back on the boat for another pass around the bottom (without Antarctica) we waved goodbye to the Star Princess and new friends, Ady and Javier, and hit the road again.

The ship docked in Valparaiso, but we opted to head to the slightly quieter town of Vina del Mar just up the coastline. Actually, the two cities are practically the same. Connected by the same subway system and you can see one city from the other making it easy to travel back and forth. Combined with Santiago, these three cities make up nearly half of the Chilean population, just to give you an idea of how rural most of Chile is.

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We spent most of our time in Vina del Mar and preferred the atmosphere there a little better than Valparaiso (below). The town serves as the most popular beach resort in the country and it is geared toward weekend getaways from Santiago with a plethora of bars and restaurants right on the beach as well as the country's only Casino. We stopped in one afternoon and wasted a dollar each or so. The center of the older part of town is anchored by a huge hill and houses the rich and famous Chileans. There are several castles (think more modern than mediaeval) but are all privately owned. The outside is still impressive and the views they have of the ocean are something special. Most of the coastline is made up of huge rocks and the waves here are impressive. The entire coastline of Vina del Mar is lined with a boardwalk as we spent a fair amount of time walking up and down the boardwalk watching the make-out sessions, soaking in some rays and watching the waves crash into the rocks resulting in a sometimes impressive show. When the rocks gave way to the sand, a lot of people sunbathed, but not many dared go in given the strength of the waves and the temperature. Even the sand carvers were out looking for a few tips for their hard earned work.

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We took the first night off and walked to the mall where we took in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (in English, and a very interesting and entertaining movie) with real popcorn! Speaking of food, we also "indulged" in a gastronomic nightmare known to locals as the "Completo" It's a hotdog toped with guacamole, tomatoes, mustard and about two pounds of mayonnaise. We scraped off most of the mayo and still could not stomach this thing. My stomach is churning just thinking about it.

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Changing subjects, Vina del Mar is also home to the only Moah (Easter Island statue) in Chile not on Easter Island (Chile owns Easter Island). We spent our last morning checking out the Museum which had an interesting display on the island as well as the mainland culture and history. After our history lesson, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting on the beach, checking out the mall again, and catching another beautiful sunset complete with our glasses of wine.

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Not to be outdone by it's neighbor to the north, Valparaiso is a stunning town in it's own right but in a different way. Instead of the beaches and boardwalks, Valpo has the colorful neighborhoods that run up the side of the hill seemingly stretching out forever. The higher parts of town can be walked to, but it is more of an experience to ride one of the 17 funiculars (Ascensors, or big elevators) to the top for about a quarter. We took a day to check out a couple of the neighborhoods, strolling into the artistic shops that abound here. Apparently, the artistic feeling does not end with canvases and paper. The town is literally covered in graffiti (ok if done sparingly) and tagging (never good). On the walls, on the sidewalks, on the's everywhere! I guess it gives the town a little character, and perhaps that's why it exists everywhere, but I personally think it's overboard.

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Feeling satisfied that we had gotten our day at the beach, we took off the next morning for Santiago!

To see more pictures of Vina del Mar click here!

For Valparaiso click here!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cruisin' Around - Some random cruise pics!

We realize that "cruising" goes against the rules of independent travel. It takes out some of the spirit of adventure. It's easy, organized and a little more structured than some of us prefer. You don't have to worry about cold showers, the discotheque next door blaring Whitney Houston's "I will always love you" over and over until 2 in the morning or getting stuck with the dorm room above the Chinese restaurant which happens to smell like you are sleeping in a vat of fried oil (not that we have ever had to :-)). You don't have to worry about how many times the kitchen has used the same bucket of dishwater to "clean" with, fight the cats and dogs off of your meal, and you will certainly never order french toast for breakfast and get "fish" toast. It feels a little like cheating. The experience is vastly different and we both agree that you miss a little of the local feel when traveling by cruise ship.

I do, however, write this to point out their value to the budget minded as well. To have been able to see the Falkland Islands would have been the cost of the cruise in just flights alone. Getting to Antarctica in any other form would have been 4 times the cost. Even the cost of buses and flights to Ushuaia would have been time consuming and expensive. The cruise allowed us to go to all these places and stay close to our budget. Throw in the fact that it allowed us to take a break and have a "vacation" from our admittedly extended vacation, to travel in comfort, be entertained and eat well while doing so, they are certainly worth a look for all types of travelers.

We had 7 days at sea on this cruise (not including Antarctica, Cape Horn & the Beagle Channel). Here are some of the things we did:

  • Attended the cruise critic get togethers and tried on crazy penguin hats in anticipation of spotting penguins!

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  • Gambled the night away! Jason won bingo once winning $250 (minus $80 to play) and $150 in the casino (down to $40) so $200 to the good! As usual, Tracy lost $10 and called it quits.

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  • Saw beautiful sunsets!

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  • Attended lectures on ice breaking, wildlife and Antarctic living conditions!
  • Celebrated a birthday (Ady's 29th)!

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  • Danced the night away in the discotheque!

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  • Kicked butt playing and winning games like Jenga, Guitar Hero & a scavenger hunt (complete with celebratory champagne)!

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  • Viewed pricey works of art and considered adding to our collection of "prints"!

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  • Ate way too much (our favorites were lobster & crab)! We're paying for it now with our expanded waist lines...

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  • Attended fun musical shows, tango classes & Gaucho performances!

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  • And finally, made new friends!
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After enjoying our last few days at sea we arrived safely in Valparaiso, Chile on March 2nd. We transferred over to Vina del Mar and began getting used to the "norms" of independent travel once again! We're currently debating taking another cruise across the must be something in the free water.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Phew...boy those penguins stink! Up close & personal in Magdalena Island - Punta Arenas, Chile


Destination: Punta Arena, Chile

Number of Days: 1

Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 2 Bus/Minivan - 2 Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 0

Where we stayed: Star Princess

Favorite Restaurant: n/a

Best of: We were able to get up close to 60,000-75,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island!

Worst of: You don't want to get down wind of a bunch of penguins (or sea lions)...they STINK!

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It's not every day you get the chance to walk next to 100,000 penguins and when you get an opportunity like that you should jump at it! We did and I'm really glad because it was incredible to see so many of these creatures up close and personal. We were invited onto a small tour by some acquaintances from cruise critic and this allowed us to spend more time at the site and for less money than the ship was charging.

They are fascinating creatures, we both love to watch them in their burrows, waddling out to greet their friends, diving into the water or taking a stroll down the beach!

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Of all 130,000-150,000 penguins, this was was my absolute favorite!

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After our penguin adventure we stopped at a local sea lion colony as well! Naturally, their favorite meal is penguin so when you see one, the other is sure to be around.

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As a final treat we were given coffee with pisco (the local grape brandy) to help warm us up on the long boat ride back! After chatting for a bit with the crew they asked me if I wanted to sit with the captain and drive the boat! Luckily, we made it back safely!

To see more photos of Punta Arenas please click here!