Sunday, June 17, 2012

A ´Cozy´ Cabin

....Unfortuantely going to Mendoza, Argentina´s capital of wine-making, was
not in the cards for me. After I said farewell to Carl since he was going back
up to the states for his Dad´s wedding, I hopped on the first bus with
front row seats to view the awesome passage into Argentina. While we got
all the way to the border, we were turned around because of heavy snow
conditions high up in the Andes. I was disappointed and a little annoyed (it was not
the most comfortable of buses) and found myself back in the same hostel in

   Fortunately, I had a back-up plan. Before leaving for South America my mom had recently gotten back in touch with a long-lost relative, who just happened to rent out mountain villas around Santiago! She had told my mom before I left I was welcome to use one of them if they were available. Carl and I were too busy in our travels, but this now seemed like the perfect opportunity to use it. Luckily I had the good fortune to meet two British girls in the hostal the day before, and it wasn´t 10 minutes before I had arrived from my failed trip that I bumped into them again. They seemed game and I said I would try to see if the place was free tomorrow. We went out that night in Santiago where I met one of their friends, Tim, who had moved
to the area, along with his Chilean girlfriend. We had a great time, and I invited them to the cabin if they wanted to come as well.

   This turned out to be my best idea so far, as the cabin was extremely difficult to get to without a car or a cellphone, both of which Javi, the Chilean girlfriend, had access too. As we made our way up into the mountains through a thunderstorm, I could not have been happier to have two people who knew the area drive us all up there! The entire way we were comparing this situation to a horror movie (A dark and stormy night, a couple of young things go up to a cabin in the middle of the woods know one really knows much about, etc.), which only got worse when we actually got there. We had taken an extra half hour or so to buy groceries but it turns out the housekeeper, Nancy, had to wait outside for us in the freezing rain until we arrived, and she was none too happy when we finally rolled in. After shoving the keys in our hand she made her way back home, and only telling us as she was shutting the door that there was no heat in the house and we would have to build a fire.

    Seeing as none of us were particularly experienced at making a fire, especially in a furnace, we were a bit on edge for the first 10 minutes in the cabin, shivering in our wet clothes and trying to get the damn thing started. Luckily the two Brits had a bit more experienced than me, and we were able to have a roaring fire that heated up the whole cabin (not to mention filled it with smoke for awhile as well). Javi and Tim had brought a portable barbeque and in the end we had a general feast with lots of wine as well. The speakers in the cabin could only play CDs... the selection was pretty horrible but we had a great time making fun of the songs playing. We stayed up quite late and managed to continually freak each other out, joking that Nancy was still waiting outside, clawing at the windows :-)

   The next morning Tim and Javi had to leave, and the three of us were stuck in the cabin with nothing much to do except read and watch the rain outside (the same storm that had blocked me out of Mendoza was bringing some of the heaviest rain throughout Chile all year, apparently the situation was much worse in Santiago). We lazed around and kept the fire going, but mostly it was a good chance to get some serious reading done which I hadn´t had time for in awhile. While we tried to get the heat working, we eventually found out there was no gas and there wouldn´t be any till tomorrow, we decided to boil water in the teapot and us that to wash ourselves instead of using the freezing cold water.

     The next day the rain finally stopped and we were able to go out and explore the area. However, we hadn´t made it two blocks when a horde of puppies attacked us with their cuteness. We spent a good hour at least sitting and playing with the puppies. We got many an interesting look from the locals and the owner tried to sell some of them off to us (which we totally would have accepted if we thought we could take care of them at all). There are many cute pictures of us and the puppies (which I´ll have to post later). The puppies got so tired from playing with us that they all fell asleep on our laps, which was 10 times as cute as before. Finally their mother managed to goe them inside and we continued on.

   We finally came across the main attraction of the area, Las Cascadas de Las Animas, which turned out to be a big amusement nature park but with access to two pretty spectacular waterfalls. After hiking up quickly we decided it would be way too expensive to do anything else. We decided the area was nice, and the cabin had been fun, but that tomorrow we should try to leave (especially because the gas STILL wasn´t working!). After another great meal (kudos to the girls, they really knew what we were doing!) we called it another freezing night, and the next day hi-tailed it out of there. The ride back in the colectivo was spectacular, as we hadn´t been able to see the valley during the midnight thunderstorm when we arrived.

    The epilogue to this interesting, albeit luxurious side trek was that in Santiago Tim and Javi invited us to have a drink at the rooftop terrace of ´The W´ one of 5-star hotels in Santiago so that we could see the whole city at night. It was a strange experience and the inside of the hotel was as interesting at
the view, but it was great to see Tim and Javi again, and I hope our paths will cross again soon!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Partyin in Valparaiso Pt. 2

    After the hilarious clowning show, we headed back to our hostel for a good meal and a ´blackout´ hour (no electricity or water but complete with malt wine and candles). We had a great time with the other visitors and got to practice our spanish quite a bit. When the staff tried to put the lights on after the hour was over, the whole hostel insisted we keep it off, as the atmosphere was so good. We made our way out to the clubs again, but actually followed some of the locals to a place called ´El Gato en la Ventana´ which was an excellent place that performed live andean music, had great drinks and lots of dancing. I got to try my first terremoto, Chile´s appropriately-named local drink that is extremely sweet to hide how much alcohol was in it. It wasn´t my favorite, but I was glad I tried it. We spent the night dancing to the band and having a great time.

  The next day I decided to take a walking tour of the city, it was run by a local and totally based on tips, which I really appreciated. I got to learn a lot about the history of the city and many stories of the surrounding neighborhoods. I knew this city was not the safest in Chile (robberies and muggings are common, even among locals) but apparently a lot of the city that tourists don´t have reasons to go to are downright dangerous. There was huge staircase we went by called the ´Escalera de la muerte´ which apparently is not just named for it´s grand number of steps. We got more backstories of the street art all over the city... apparently if you don´t let a local artist paint on your house, you will get tagged by gangs instead and the house will look pretty awful, so it´s kind of an obligation in the city, (though most residents consider it a privelage). We also learned about the legendary Valparaiso Downhill mountain bike race (I would definitely recommend watching this video to get an idea:

    After the tour, the guide recommended and excellent place to get the (in)famous Choriallana. It´s meal usually shared by two people that is comprised of french fries covered in steak, covered in onions, and finally covered in fried eggs. Many people lovingly call it ´a chilean heart attack´. It was delicious and I warned myself that I should only try it a few more times. This, as well as the Pastel de Choclo (I would describe it as a corn pot pie), were my favorite non-seafood dishes I had in Chile and hope they´ll both make it to the states on day. After a night in the courtyard filled with a riotous game of Jenga (seriously... it was intense) we headed back to the El Gato en la Ventana and had another excellent night of dancing and partying. However, we stayed up long after the bars closed to see people already starting to protest for the memorial day tomorrow.

   The holiday being celebrated when I was in Valparaiso was one filled with contention. It´s dark history starts with the actual event it commemorates, which is the day when the Bolivia destroyed a naval ship near the atacama desert in the late 19th century. What this holiday fails to mention is that the fighting started because Chile overtook the desert and its rich copper resources when Bolivia, who was the current owner of the area, wanted to tax Chilean companies for mining it. In the end Chile won the war and now the majority of the desert, along with its copper, belongs to Chile and is the country´s main export...  but it is also one of the reasons Bolivia is currently so poor. However, more recent events were what had instigated the current protests, as many of the left-wing residents of chile are against the corrupt educational system that usually keeps the lower classes of Chile from ever having the chance to receive higher education. Since on this holiday Pinochet ordered the execution of students who were protesting the same problem decades ago, the protest during this holidy has become quite large among the student population. I found out some of the people staying at my hostel had come specifically to watch or participate in the protests.

   After resting for a few hours I arrived back at the plaza to see the protest in full swing. It was another great contrast with Chile´s marines marching by in a parade for the more apathetic masses and the students chanting only a few blocks away. We got to see the president give a speech in the city, but we didn´t listen very long as he is not a popular politician. We decided to head to ViƱa del Mar, Valparaiso´s rich sister city, to escape the crowds in the afternoon. This sister city was nice, but extremely boring, rich and quiet. The beaches and miniature castles built on cliffs were quite interesting, but that was pretty much it, and we quickly made our way back to Valparaiso. After a chill night of relaxing and another impromptu barbeque, I decided it would be best to leave the next day. The hostal staff and other guests were sad to see me go, but I was off to try and see Mendoza!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Partying in Valparaiso pt. 1

So where were we? Ah yes, Valparaiso... probably my favorite city I´ve been to on this trip.

    This place really took me surprise. I knew it would be interesting city, but I was completely mesmerized by the shapes that comprised the roads and the buildings, and street art covering all of it. It reminded a little of San Francisco, but the roads continued to wind and criss cross until you could completely lose track of where you were. The city was placed right along shimmering bay that yawned out into the Pacific, and the weather could not have been better; each day was cloudless and breezy and the nights were cool and calm. For me, the contrast of the aging beauty of the city with it´s current state of disrepair was what made it most appealing. Ever since the Panama canal was built the city lost its value as a sea port and all the rich European-wannabees were replaced with a poorer working class. However, the city seems to have never lost its touched and remained a vibrant, and fertile place for all kinds of art, many of which we got to experience while visiting. To see a beautiful mural painted on a house fallen into desrepair, next to an beautiful mansion with walls shaped to match the curve of the hill, and belwo all this an open and used trash pit is what really drew me to this city.

   After making our way up one of the city´s many winding hills, we came upon a hostel called Patapata. Although it wasn´t in the guidebook, a young couple walking out of the place could not stop raving about it, and since we were a little worn out from trekking uphill with our bags, we thought it would be a fine choice. The place was cramped but friendly and had a nice courtyard covered by trees. The ohter travelers seemed gregarious enough and one of the staff members, Jorge, made it his job to make sure we always knew about the most interesting things happening in the area, as well as the best places to get a delicious cheap meal. After eating a full course $2 lunch at what looked more like a convenience store than a restaurant, Carl and I decided to check out some of the city. After wandering up and down the roads staring at the street art and taking in as much of the epic views of the city as we could, we started to make our way down to the fish market, in the hopes that we could make ourselve another delicious seafood dinner. Unfortunately it was closed, and in my attempt to take a picture of the city, we were hounded after by two men desperately trying to get us to follow them into an alleyway. It was annoying, but eventually they realized we weren´t in the mood to get mugged and trudged off.

      As we continued to make our way through the city, we came across one of the functioning ascensors, elevators into certain neighborhoods. Valparaiso is built on a very steep hill, hence the winding streets, but at one point the city decided to build around 20 wooden diagonal elevators so residents wouldn´t always have to trudge up and down for their groceries. Like most things in this city, most of the ascensors were broken down and did not look like they were going to be fixed any time soon. But we were lucky enough to stumble upon one of the few working ones. We took it up for a mere $0.50 and found ourselves on a patio with an excellent view of the city. We got our picture snapping urges out of our system and began enjoying the surrounding neighborhood as well.

    We eventually made our way back to Patapata where Jorge had decided to invite a local band to play in the courtyard. Carl and I worked up the barbeque and made some shish kabob while listening to this very indie band. It was a lot of fun and we made friends with many of the backpackers and Chileans who were vacationing for a 3-day weekend. After a few more communal libations, the locals and Jorge introduced us to Valparaiso´s excellent nightlife. We all had a blast and were easily up past 5am (which became a reocurring theme in this town).

    The next morning, after a notably good breakfast, Carl and I hit the streets of Valparaiso again. We eventually came across one of the old cemetaries that was filled when the city was still incredibly wealthy. It had the panache of some of the cemeteries I had seen in Paris, but with a Latin American/Sea-side twist. We spent a good hour wandering around this slowly decaying site, peering into masoleums with broken angel statues and cracked but still beautiful stained glass windows. After having a stand-off with a pack of dogs (while I´ve had a great experience with stray dogs so far, Valparaiso definitely had a problem with turf fights between the packs) , we came across a cultural park with some amazing exhibitions of local artsists. The work was quite impressive and totally free to the public, I felt incredibly lucky to have access to so much wonderful art directly from the city, and wished I had a reason to stay in this city for much longer than would be reasonable for my trip.

    We eventually made our way to Plaza Bismark as Jorge had told us there would be an incredible clowning show at the TeatroMuseo (which of course I couldn´t say no to). After getting another amazing view of the city from the plaza we were excited to see the ´museum´ filled with clown puppets and carnival cannons, from which we got some pretty amazing pictures (take a look at Carl´s profile on facebook to get an idea) After enjoying the museum itself, we sat down on the back bleachers for one of the funniest shows I´ve seen in quite awhile. The clowns were amazing, and managed to sneak in a ton of adult comedy without the kids sitting in front understanding it in the slightest. Carl and I even got a little bit of attention since we were the only gringos in the audience, with the clowns hitting on us in English across the room. There were many moments where we almost fell off the risers from laughing so hard, and they managed to keep up some great skits for a good 90 minutes. It turns out they tour around the world quite consistently, even though they´re based in Valparaiso, and so I hope I´ll be able to see them again in the near future.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Sleepy Santiago

Well hey there!

   It´s been awhile hasn´t it? With a combination of fighting tooth and nail for the internet along with having too much fun on the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, I have finally made it back to calmer days in northern Chile... at the moment I´m relaxing at the desert oasis that goes by the name San Pedro de Atacama... but more about that when I get caught up with this blog here. Now, a little about Santiago.

   I spent quite a bit of the time in this South America metropolis, and while I always wanted to leave I found myself returning to it again and again. This city was a grand mix of beautiful and unpleasant. While the streets were clean and the traffic as friendly as you could hope for in South America, the air was filled with smog being captured by the Andes. Also, while many of the streets were lined with stately colonial buildings, these were fast being replaced with modern architecture that would be better if left on the drawing board. While the city was pleasant and enticingly relaxed, it was easy to become bored and turn your back to what the city had to offer, often since the Santiagans themselves being disinterested and disullisioned with the place. However, this international metropolis was a treat if you knew what you were looking for and you got to know some of the locals. By the time I left, most people from the huge hostel I was staying at knew my name, and we would waste nights away chatting in the bar.

   Speaking of our hostel, the place was interesting enough to tell you about. It used to be an old mansion when the district we were staying in (Barrio Brasil) was one of the most expensive places to live. After being handed over to a private school, and then getting turned into a nunnery, it fell into disrepair until someone decided it would work well as a hostel. I have to agree with them for the most part, it had a very nice feel. The place was huge, and each dorm room, even though it had 8 beds, had plenty of space to spare. The kitchen was also the biggest I´ve seen so far and the backyard was complete with outdoor bar, pool, and ping-pong table, which we definitely used. While this place used to be a party house, recent complaints from the neighbors and low season crowds made the place a little calmer, which I actually enjoyed. The rooms were also extremely cheap, which I did not have a problem with, and the hostel always knew where to go out for nightlife each night.

  While the museums here were quite nice, there is nothing too particularly exciting to say about them: they were big, they had many interesting exhibits, and they reminded me a lot of Europe. I spent a good day or two enjoying them, but found  the actual streets of Santiago and its surrounding parks much more interesting. I would spend whole days wandering around with no particular destination in mind. Among some interesting things I found were: an Ampitheatre on top of hill with a view of most of Santiago, numerous mind-altering murals around the city, a huge local market filled with amazing fresh fruit and horrible clothes, a building that looked like a palace from another world, and a restaurant that served 30 different types of empanadas (unfortunately not all of them were good).

   When we thought we had enough of the Capital for a little while, Carl and I decided to book it to Valparaiso, the self-proclaimed cultural center of Santiago... but more on that next time!

P.S. Here´s what Santiago looks like... IF there´s no smog (which there almost always is)