Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Concepcion on a Honeymoon (Not Conception)

I woke up this morning to the sound of seagulls calling out to one another. Then came the smell of smoggy air - a smell I haven't experienced since being in the industrial city of Xi'an, China. That heavy, gritty air that feels smokey as it enters your body. We had heard that pollution can be bad in Santiago as it's in a valley, but that's only in winter. For me, Concepcion's air was the reminder that we are in an industrial belt of a developing country.

It was probably good, in a way, that this is where we are ending our trip - with little desire to stay and explore the city more. We partook of the extensive breakfast at the hotel (included, as it always seems to be in this part of the world), and prepared for the long journey home. Once packed, we booked our last illegal Uber for a while and headed to the airport (with one of us sitting in the front seat, of course!).

Originally I thought we should be at the airport three hours early, but then Mindy reminded me that this first leg of our journey was a domestic flight, and we only needed to be there two hours early. Good thing!

We got to a nearly deserted airport and strolled right up to the counter to check in. Earlier, we had tried to drop this first leg of the flight - catching our connector out of Santiago (and missing out on Concepcion!). Delta airlines (and all the online research I did) told us that if we didn't show up for the first leg, our whole flight would be cancelled. That memory was firmly in mind when the attendant at the Concepcion airport (who luckily spoke English very well) informed us that she couldn't even check us in for our flight out of Santiago; we'd have to do that upon landing after picking up our luggage and dragging it through the airport. Not impressed at all.

Upon landing in Santiago - despite being assured by airport staff that we didn't need to retrieve our luggage (I had a hard time clarifying for them that the luggage wasn't tagged to be passed through) - we made our way to the Delta check-in desk to find that it was closed. And wouldn't open for another three hours. The Santiago airport is not a very compelling place to spend an afternoon, so we walked across the street to a hotel and took up residence in their restaurant lounge. We ordered tasty food and drinks, and had access to clean washrooms while we waited for this next leg of our trek home.

Back in the airport, we were looking for interesting races to tackle this year. The American couple sitting across from us interrupted at one point, apologising for eavesdropping, to ask us about racing, as they do a lot of adventure racing. As we got chatting with them, another couple wandered over to say that they, too, were runners, and we swapped stories with them as well. Another example of running bringing people together!

Our flight was uneventful, and after a brief stopover in Atlanta, we were finally back in Toronto on a Wednesday morning. Mindy's mom picked us up at the airport to drive us home, and then I headed into work. Let's see how things are after a couple weeks away!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wait for (e)ME!!

Do you recall the first Home Alone movie - the scene where the family was racing through the airport with luggage flying everywhere, boarding the plane practically as it pulled away from the gates? That was Mindy and me this morning, only our "plane" was a bus, and we weren't heading to Paris, France.

We left De Blasis B and B this morning with what we thought was plenty of time to catch the bus...except we went to the wrong bus station. (A miscommunication with our hosts.) traffic was worse than I had expected, and so time was a little tight - we had about 10 minutes until the bus' departure time to exchange our vouchers for tickets and load our bags. I was a little tense. Then I asked someone to direct me to the desk for EME buses....."Not here," he said. "That's at the other bus station." This other station was a mile away!!!

We raced back out to the street and flagged down the first cab we saw. "The other station. As fast as you can go." I stammered in my broken Spanish. He asked for money up front and I offered him 3,000 Chilean pesos (the veritable "fortune" of $6 Canadian). Given that this was about twice what the cab would have cost, he seemed highly motivated. Until - as far as I could tell from my map app on my phone - he turned down the wrong street and took us the long way around. My heart sank. I tried calling the bus company, but no answer. (Had they answered, it might not have helped with my limited handle on the language.) My stressed brain was trying to threaten me with thoughts about missing our flight home tomorrow as I watched the minutes tick by. The other part of my brain reminded me that - although we had spent the money on first class bus tickets - there were more (not as nice) buses that we could take later today. It would only be a waste of money...

Around the time that our bus was scheduled to leave, the cabby pulled over and pointed us down a one-way (opposite way) street toward the bus station. He had taken the fastest possible route, provided we could run the last bit. Mindy took off to find the bus while I trailed behind with two big suitcases. I watched her cross the street and followed her into the terminal. She was coming back out as I entered, telling me that we had to go to the other part of the terminal across the street. What terrible luck!! Mindy was off again with me following as quickly as I could. I got into the bus station and....I couldn't see her anywhere. Oh jeez!

I guessed that she might have gone down the first hallway, and so I turned. I found the EME bus counter and pleaded my case. The representative sprang to action, radioing the bus and telling me to follow her quickly. "Where is your wife?" she asked. I looked helpless. "I don't know." We arrived at the now empty platform for our bus as I looked around wildly for Mindy. Another passenger, waiting for a different bus, asked me if I was looking for my wife, and gestured down another passageway. The EME staff member and I raced through there to see Mindy walking with another EME representative toward the bus that had already left the station. The group of us raced across the parking lot and down the street to where the bus was lurching to the side of the road. We made it!!

The staff at EME were so kind and helpful, and we found our way to our premium seats - as nice as first class on an airplane. (They even provided snacks and drinks, included in the price of the ticket!)

Santiago is set between two mountain ranges - the Andes and the Cordillera, so for the first while, our view from the bus was of mountains on either side, with the landscape in between showing the dry semi-desert that characterises the wine regions. As we proceeded south, the mountains receded and the terrain became more lush; we could have been driving through Ontario!

Finally, we arrived in the city of Concepcion, and (discreetly) took an Uber from the bus station to our hotel.

Dressed in running clothes to explore the city, our first discovery was that garbage collection is by horse and cart!

We made our way along one of Concepcion's urban parks - which we were assured is daylight. For my part, stick a palm tree in the picture and it looks stunning to me!

Concepcion is set along a major river that affords some picturesque views.

(If you look out the opposite direction, you see a lot of industry...)

Running (quite literally) out of things to see in Concepcion, we detoured on the way home to check out the main square, full of people (who - with good reason - stared at us in our running clothes).

According to Trip Advisor, Lo Que Mas Quiero is the top restaurant in Concepcion. We tried to make a reservation before we left Santiago, but were assured that on a Monday night it wouldn't be a problem. We then tried to make a reservation from our hotel but no-one answered the phone. (We later learned that they close between lunch and dinner.) We took a chance and just showed up. 

Surprisingly, the restaurant manager speaks English fluently. This made it much easier for us to plead our case for a table and, after waiting about 20 minutes, being seated. While we were waiting, the manager asked if we wanted to go for a walk and come back. We asked whether there was anywhere nice nearby...she thought for a moment, then shook her head. "I wouldn't recommend you go out around here at this time of night." The manager seemed perplexed why Concepcion had made our honeymoon agenda; rather than explain the attempt to change our flight, we just brushed it off highlighting the cool things nearby (not in Concepcion) there were to see. As it turned out, this restaurant may have been the best thing about our jaunt to Concepcion!

With full stomachs and tired feet, we made our way back to the hotel for the night.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Not Another Tour (please)

I was really angling for a tour into the mountains today. Maybe horseback riding and checking out some of the traditional "cowboys" who live in the rugged Andes. Maybe hiking in to check out some natural hot springs! Instead, Mindy suggested the most logical option. "Why don't we just enjoy our last day in Santiago? Sleep in, walk around the markets, eat at a nice place for dinner?"

Um...yeah. That made a lot of sense!

We ran back up San Cristobal hill (this time, without company) and then wandered through the streets of Santiago.

In the Bellavista neighbourhood, we saw some of the most impressive panhandling I have ever seen! Even I gave them some money.

Being our last day in Santiago, I went for the traditional Chilean drink/snack - sweet peach juice with wheat berries, corn and an apricot.

It was interesting.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Drunk Driving (on a bike)

Back in Santiago the first time, we had tried to take a bike through the old Cousino Macul vineyard - an active vineyard right in Santiago, surrounded by the sprawling city. As that didn't work out (somehow we ended up on a Portuguese tour instead), we were eager to sign up for this tour of biking and drinking wine!

We arrived at the Cousino Macul vineyard and found a row of green bicycles lined up, each with a basket holding a wine glass and bottle of water.

We rode into the vineyard with our tour guide and another couple who were there for the tour, stopping periodically to enjoy the scenery, learn about the grapes and the wine, and sample!

With a few tasters in us and the vineyards well explored, we retreated to the bodegas ("buildings") where the wine-making magic happens. The naturally cool and dark rooms have thick timber doors and high roofs to maintain a constant temperature and encourage fermentation.

(At least, that's how they used to do it. Now they use temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, but those pictures just aren't that romantic.)

The cellars below the tank rooms house the wine in casks.

At the far end of the cellars, behind lock and key, sits the private collection of the Cousino family. Caked in dust, some of the rarest and most expensive wine in the world spoils there every year due to not being consumed. What a travesty!

Once done at the wine cellars, we took a table in the Cousino Macul courtyard for the final tastings. In honour of our honeymoon, our guide brought out the premium wines offered by Cousino Macul! Before we left, we made sure to stock up on more Cousino Macul wine to remember this day back home in Ajax.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Beach Day!

Our last day in La Serena - we decided not to join the Elqui Runners tomorrow morning - and so we had great plans to enjoy a day at the beach! Or a morning. Turned out that by the time we got ourselves out of bed, gorged on breakfast and packed our bags, we had about an hour at the beach. It was fun to play in the waves for an hour, anyway!

In Europe, Mindy's introduction to bus travel was a noisy and smelly overnight bus with some loud and drunk neighbours and the reek of the driver's cigarettes. I guess there's one every trip! We had limited options for our bus drive back to Santiago, and in retrospect I would say the one we took was the wrong choice. It was filthy! The seat-backs were short and uncomfortable for my six-foot frame. (I have more sympathy for my 6'5" brothers on airplanes now.) The washroom, which thankfully I didn't have to use but Mindy did, was foul. Ugh! Hours later, once we had grown accustomed to this new standard of travel, I was entertained when a woman boarded the bus at one stop to see drinks and pastries to the passengers, and then disembarked an hour later down the road. I suppose she will attempt to market her goods on another bus heading the opposite direction for a lift back.

Of course I would have preferred a cleaner, better quality bus. Then again, it's useful, I think, to see how much of the world lives. Besides, as Mindy and I talked about it, this was training for travel to other parts of the world which are even dirtier, like India!

Finally back in Santiago, we made our way to our eclectic guesthouse for the night. Owned by an artist and decorated with her productions, this bed and breakfast had a certain bohemian feel, enhanced by the friendly hosts (who tried to insist that we either sit down and have a drink with them, or that they would join us going out for dinner). Maybe it was just the relief of being off that bus, but I was immediately hooked!

...and only temporarily so. Despite the cool artwork on the walls, our stuffy room's small, sagging, single beds and awkward bathroom (with no proper door) was not enhanced by the noisy guests smoking and talking just outside. We opted not to have our guests join us for dinner, and found a lively street for dinner.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pisco Tour!

The area around La Serena is really known for two things: penguins and wildlife around the Isla Damas sanctuary, and the beautiful Elqui Valley. As it turned out, it was our good fortune that we took the penguin tour yesterday as the tour was cancelled today due to rough weather at the coast! (This bad weather was localised, and had no effect on us as we headed north and in-land to the valley.)

Of course, we started again with a long bus ride; this time our first destination was a papaya plantation!

Well, a papaya store, anyway, with one sad looking plant out front. When booking the tour, we had been warned about getting too excited about this first stop. Inside the store, we tasted papaya jam and papaya honey - with assurances that the fruit was all locally sourced Though we couldn't taste it, Mindy and I also were tempted by a locally-made cherry-based liqueur: Guindao.

A small store, so a brief visit. We carried on to the Puclaro dam to see an unlikely lake in the middle of the desert.

The Elqui Valley is so arid that the vineyards don't even have to use anti-fungals on their grapes (making South American wine more environmentally-friendly than I realised). In fact, part of the reason grapes grow so well here is that grapevines prefer dry, rocky, marginal soil.

However, this area wouldn't be so productive if it relied entirely on the less than 3 inches of rainfall each year, and so the Puclaro dam was built to take advantage of the massive rains every seven years.

This is the beginning of the seven-year dry cycle, and so the lake is at it's most impressive, with cacti down the mountainside meeting the edge of the water, and a thick belt of green down the middle of the valley below.

We watched fish leaping out to catch insects at the surface, and even saw someone water-skiing on this water reservoir! As the Andes become a less reliable water source (melting ice caps) and weather patterns become less reliable, the fragile Elqui ecosystem will be among the first to suffer.

Walking back to the car, we stopped at one of the many market stalls to buy a copao fruit from the copao cacti that were everywhere. (The copao look vaguely like the exceptionally slow-growing saguaro cacti in the Arizona desert, and so I was confused how there could be so many! Turns out it's a different plant.) This tasty fruit was reminiscent of a sour kiwi, and so we bought another for later (which ultimately got squished in our bag and thrown out).

Next on the agenda was the town of Vicuna - the "busy metropolitan centre" of the sleepy Elqui Valley. The designated tour stop at this point was the museum to Gabriel Mistral, Chilean poet and diplomat, but as all the explanations and recorded tours were in Spanish, Mindy and I spent more time wandering around the main square; as usual, I was drawn to the main church to see what devout Catholicism had stationed here.

Finally, the namesake of the tour: a Pisco vineyard and production centre. Akin to whiskey, pisco can be made the easy and cheap way for a harsher blend, or in a careful and controlled manner for a premium product. The Aba Pisquera is one of the top pisco vineyards in the region, making a craft pisco according to the most stringent standards. Economic realities being what they are, this means that Aba Pisquera pisco doesn't sell much product in Chile, opting instead for the more lucrative export market. (Canada is one of the main importers of this pisco, though not the LCBO in Ontario.)

We wandered the stunning vineyard with mountain views in the background before retreating to the naturally cool fermentation rooms where giant casks house the developing product.

Finally, the tasting room to try the standard, premium, and smoked pisco on offer. If this is a premium, smooth version of pisco, I can only imagine what the cheap stuff is like! A miniature shot hits hard! Nonetheless, we bought a bottle for pisco sours in the summer in Ajax. (One of many things I love about travelling is collecting an assortment of regional liquors and liqueurs. This Pisco joins the Guindao from the papaya store and Grappamiel from Uruguay.)

Back to the town of Vicuna for lunch, we had some fantastic traditional Chilean food - for us vegetarians, it was another corn dish. (I had ceviche and fried fish yesterday, but this baked corn dish was compelling.) We wandered around Vicuna a little more after our meal, but this small town had little to offer beyond the main square, a few market stalls, and another church.

We also noted that, here in the desert, they watered the pavement as much as the grass...

On the way home, we stopped at a final look out to appreciate the incredible beauty of the Elqui Valley (fittingly paired with my beautiful wife).

Back in La Serena, Mindy and I went for another run along the beach with a pack of wild dogs in tow. We came upon the Club Elqui runners and made tentative plans to join them for a workout on Saturday morning - if we are still in La Serena. Maybe we'd find some more incredible sights and people on another group run?