Tuesday, February 28, 2017

La Serena

We enjoyed our last breakfast at Quiral Boutique Hotel this morning, then began the six-hour bus journey to La Serena, far north of Santiago.

(We looked a little less enthused five and a half hours later - still on the bus.)

Chile is a thin country, and so much of the drive was either through desert mountains or along the stunning coastline. It was pretty easy to while away the hours heading north.


Uruguay has achieved a 95% reliance on renewable energy, and it appears that Chile is taking note.

The Mapuche people - some of the original inhabitants of what was eventually Chile - had a tradition where the men would paint themselves like spirits in dark and white stripes, naked, and then wake the women up in the middle of the night to scare them. (I would be scared, too, if the neighbourhood guys woke me up in the middle of the night and danced around me naked!) Graffiti meant to recall the Mapuche traditions is fairly common outside of the downtown Santiago neighbourhoods where we've been staying.

Always on the lookout for dogs wanting attention, Mindy found a friend on the walk from the bus station to our La Serena hotel!

Shaking the bus ride out of our legs, we went for a run with purpose - to the Ecoturismo office (top ranked tours in La Serena according to Trip Advisor) and to check out a local market where I tried a traditional bread snack. We were probably already odd-looking clients in our running gear.

As we were booking the tours, I couldn't help but confirm - repeatedly - "This is an English tour, right?" 

Our run concluded just before the stunning sunsets that are a highlight of every clear day in La Serena.

At dinner, Mindy shared her meal with one of the local strays.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Brazilian Hospitality

Bom Dia! Como você está?

You won't be able to read that if you don't understand Portuguese. Neither do Mindy or I. This posed quote the challenge for us as we spent the day on a Portuguese-language tour to see the Chilean cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar.

No,this wasn't our idea of an adventure, immersing ourselves in order to start learning the language and enjoy the beauty of Brazilian culture. Rather, I had been explicitly clear with the tour operator on Saturday evening when he called me at the hotel to let me know they didn't have space on the English-language tour on Sunday for Mindy and me (that we had already booked). 

"Can you take a Spanish-language tour tomorrow?" he asked hopefully; "otherwise we will have to refund you your money".  

"Neither my wife nor I speak Spanish", I replied, "so we wouldn't gain anything from such a tour. Do you have availability on the English-language tour on Monday? We can change our plans and do that, instead."

"Yes, we can put you on the Monday tour."

Excellent! The tour itinerary looked pretty stellar: two wineries, the twin coastal cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, and a lunch at a high-end restaurant. We were excited that timing had worked out, and with the impromptu run with Team Mora yesterday, it really seemed that everything had lined up perfectly. 

Mindy first noticed that the tour driver who picked us up in the morning seemed to have a weak (VERY weak) handle on English, but she theorized that we would be joining another English group. Or maybe the guides were at each destination? Optimistic thinking, as it turned out. When the driver said something to us in Portuguese, then stared uncomfortably at us as we stared uncomprehending back at him, one of the other participants on the tour translated to English for us and told us that they were all Brazilians on this tour, including the driver. Um.....??!!

From that point, the guides explanations were translated (more or less) through a combination of the imperfect English among some of the participants on the tour, as well as a translation app on one very kind woman's cell phone. At one point, the guide spoke at length as we were driving, gesturing first to one side and then the other. When he finished, a very kind woman on the tour told "They used to mine silver here, but now the mines are closed." It was not the best way to absorb the details of the region, let alone ask questions. 
Mindy and I felt very out of place.

Tours are about more than the words, though, and the language barrier didn't prevent us from enjoying the stunning setting of Emiliana biodynamic winery in the Casablanca Valley.

The alpacas fertilize the soil and eat the leaves, exposing the grapes to more sun (to make them sweeter). Southbrook biodynamic winery in Niagara on the Lake uses sheep for the same purpose. (Of course, they are also aa good tourist attraction at Emiliana.)

If only I could taste everything!

Stunning! And so is the winery building!

We didn't learn until several days later that an overflowing handful of grapes is all that is required to make a bottle of wine...

(In Mindy's defense, our tour guide brought several handfuls into the car for us to eat, so the precedence was set.)

The next winery.....was generally forgettable, including the name. Kind of a tourist-trap shop selling all kinds of stuff. The good part was that they continuously replenished the long line of tasting glasses set up at the bar, and one could ("theoretically") go back several times. We never learned anything about the wine, so it wasn't your classic tasting, but it was tasty!

As we entered Valparaiso, we saw a reminder that Chile is on the "ring of fire" - more or less the circumference of the Pacific Ocean, where earthquakes are common.

Pablo Neruda's house was next; or one of his four recognized houses, anyway. Pablo Neruda was a poet, possibly a painter, and probably a politician. (So it goes when the tour is conducted in another language.) This house, now converted into a museum, is closed on Mondays, so we crowded around the gate for a moment, then climbed back into the van.

The main square in Valparaiso is dominated by a statue of.....somebody. Not sure who.

At this point, with the help of one of the English-speaking guests on the tour, we told our guide that we would dessert his tour and find our own way home from Valparaiso (there are regular buses back to Santiago). Our guide seemed quite concerned by this and exacted a promise from us that we would stay with them until lunch, at which point he would try to find an English tour that could take us on. It seemed reasonable, and so we agreed.

Ultimately, it was a good thing that we did, because this tour we were on stated to get better pretty much right after that. We carried on to an artisans market in Valparaiso, set up on a high hill overlooking the harbour.

Look closely, and you will see these gentlemen are playing checkers (or something like it) with bottle caps for pieces.

Panhandlers seem to work a little harder in Chile than, say, in Toronto. Not only do you have your usual "squeegee kids", you also have others that try to earn "tips" like buskers.

While Valparaiso is gritty, covered in graffiti, and feels old, Vina del Mar feels like another "mini Miami". The two cities are only 8km away, connected by a highway along the coast. 

Though the view was stunning, it was at this point that we realised we wouldn't be able to get the classic shot of Valparaiso - colourful houses clinging to the cliff edge overlooking the port.

Lunch was good, but Alberto, our guide, was unable to find an English tour to take us on. We felt a little cheated, now out of Valparaiso, having missed a walking tour of the city, and still isolated among the Brazilians on the tour. 

I was unhappy as we made our way back into the van, until the driver mentioned the next stop - a real moai from Easter Island! Very cool! Mindy and I had wanted to go to Easter Island as part of this trip, but timing didn't work out. This way, we would get the next best thing - to see a real moai!

Breathtaking to see one in real life - this carved stone statue depicting a god of the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island from 500-1000 years ago. Unfortunately, like so many things, there's another side to this. As a sign of goodwill, the Chilean government had given moai to various countries over the years. One of these "redistributed" moai was given to the city Vina del Mar. As the Rapa Nui gained a voice in political affairs, they demanded the return of these moai which were taken without their consent. Countries all over the world agreed to return the moai to Easter Island. But not Vina del Mar. They have kept this valuable artifact as an important tourist attraction!

According to our itinerary, the tour was over, but Alberto - sensing that Mindy and I were a little underwhelmed by the day - had another trick up his sleeve. He drove us well off the usual path to a rocky outcropping where he knew we were likely to see sea lions!

He can't speak English, but in a lot of ways, he was an ideal tour guide for today!

We finished the tour with a last look over Vina del Mar, and then drove back to Santiago through the stunning mountains as dusk moved in.

Back in Santiago, we found a lively collection of restaurants for our dinner, set to the tunes of the nightly DJ.

And then Mindy made a friend on the way back to our hotel.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Running: A Universal Language

We tried to book a tour for today, but the English tour was full. As a result, we had an unscheduled day to explore Santiago. What better way than to run?

Though Santiago is a large and sprawling metropolis, it has an impressive parks system with paved and crushed cinder paths for running. As we made our way through Parque Forestal - the park system that runs parallel to the river through the city in the posh Providencia neighbourhood - we spotted a pack of runners up ahead. Mindy chased them for social's possible I had a competitive urge to catch them as well! We followed them to the base of San Cristobal Hill, an 830 metre climb in the middle of Santiago. Immediately, they welcomed us to join them (and a few random stray dogs) on their run.

The paved route passed a zoo, and then we followed our new Team Mora friends onto the dirt trails. (Past a sign that read "Do Not Enter - Danger".

The views of the city, with the Andes in the background, were spectacular! (And afforded us ample opportunity to catch our collective breath from the steep trails.)

The peak of San Cristobal Hill is a massive outdoor church, with a church in homage to the Virgin Mary at the top.

A more traditional church also sits near the top.

The running crew gathered for a photo near the peak, unusually quiet at this early hour (as we later learned).

I had little difficulty keeping up with the group as we climbed, so I was not worried when a Belgian couple asked if I could show them a trail route down the hill. They were slower than Team Mora's runners, but I can catch up, and I remember the route...except I almost didn't. I nearly took this Belgian couple down the road route, turning back a few steps past the hidden trail entrance. Phew! 

Having set the Belgians on the right track, I started racing down the switchbacks to catch up to my crew (including Mindy). A few turns later....I still didn't see anyone. I should have found someone by now...? I asked someone if he spoke English; when he said he spoke a little, I asked whether he had seen runners come down the hill ahead of me. His face lighted up as he said "Yes, this way to run down the hill". I felt relief for a moment, until I thought about what he had said. Maybe he thought I was asking whether this route was good for running down the hill? I stopped the next group of people and asked whether any of them spoke English. One of them confidently (and fluently) replied that she did.  "Did you see a group of runners come down this way a few moments ago?" I asked. "How big a group?" she probed. When I explained it was at least 8-10 people, she assured me that she hadn't seen any.



I had a cell phone with a map, my wallet, and a good idea how to get back to the hotel. While I was confident Mindy would find her way, she had made it clear that she was relying on me for directions as we headed out. I pulled out my phone in case one of the other runners with Mindy tried calling, then turned around and raced back up the (steep) hill. How many routes down San Cristobal are there? I wondered....

Quickly enough, I saw Mindy running down the hill toward me, accompanied by Raul, the head coach of Team Mora, (I later learned that Mindy said she would find me herself, but Raul had none of that and generously insisted he would help.) Grateful and relieved to have been found, Raul led us on a shortcut to catch back up with his group. It was only then that we learned from Raul that the loop for today was 20+ km, including several more climbs and trails. Wow. I didn't expect that when we headed out from the hotel this morning!

Sure enough, we found Team Mora and rejoined the group as Raul led us into more dirt trails along the steep edges of San Cristobal Hill. To avoid any risk of getting lost again, I split my time between two of the stronger (and English-speaking) runners in the group - Gustavo and Anders. Gustavo, an engineer, talked about wanting to come work in Canada, but he has to work on his English first. While his English is very good, I can see that technical jargon may prove a new challenge. Through Gustavo I also learned about the impressive resume of Raul, our fearless leader: 28:50 for 10k, and 2:20 for the marathon. Damn! That is seriously good!

At the bottom of the hill with Anders, Gustavo, Carolina, and Mindy again!

We ran Team Mora back to the park where they start their runs, and gave a round of high-fives as each runner finished (in classic Chilean fashion, lots of air kisses were shared to say good-bye, but I was spared those sweaty kisses). Then Mindy and I slowly jogged back to Quiral Hotel Boutique, from where we had set out three hours earlier. Though breakfast had ended long before, we found one table set for us and breakfast set aside, as they hadn't seen us eat. So thoughtful!

We spent our afternoon lazing around in the beautiful hotel garden and wandering the streets of Santiago, checking out various markets and vendors. 

At a Canadian dinner time, we lined up at Galindo restaurant - the highly recommended spot for traditional Chilean food - for dinner. Sizing up the line, Mindy asked the gentleman in front of us whether there was anywhere else nearby that could offer similar fare. Though we were in one of the restaurant districts in Santiago, he said "No, not this good."

Looking for the vegetarian options in a restaurant that specializes in the traditional food of a meat-centered cuisine is limiting. We found the two options and ordered one of each: a humitas dish, similar to what we had yesterday with Gabriela, and a bean stew. 

I was tempted by the traditional Chilean desserts, but having had ice cream on the walk to the restaurant, I passed on more sugar. As it is, ice cream is practically a Chilean specialty now, with the way they love it!