Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chile in 5 days

Our wanderlust will bankrupt us. Honestly, I think we spend more money traveling than eating (which is curious, given that I continue to gain weight – I think I manage to gain weight simply by looking and thinking about food, frankly). Our frequent travels also raise suspicions among our non-State Department friends and other colleagues from different sections about how much we really work. Rest assured, taxpayers of America – we work. We work plenty when we are at work. We have simply chosen to go places every time there is a 3 or 4-day weekend, to which we tack another 2 or 3 vacation days, depending on where we want to go, which results in a nice, quick getaway.

So, we recently went to Chile. For one, they are the 9th largest wine-producing country in the world; for another, it was a $240 4-hour round-trip; and for thirds – there was a 4-day weekend which we simply could not let go. This was my first time using AirBnB and honestly, apart from the annoying service fee it charges, I was impressed. I found a lovely and rather cheap apartment smack in the middle of the city, the owner was responsive to my endless inane inquires and the apartment was exactly what it said it would be. This time around we decided to take an early morning flight on Saturday, which worked out well as we slept most of the night. Well, sort of. The previous night we went to a fabulous private rooftop party in Ipanema, where the hosts had built two massive brick ovens – one for grilling meat and one – for pizza. Naturally – why would you bother having just ONE measly oven when you can have two! The rooftop also had a swimming pool (of course), and a chic bar from which even chic-er drinks were flowing. With tears in my eyes, we left at 10 pm, since we had to get up at 4 am to get to the airport.

It was a mere 4 hours flight but for some reason it seemed like forever! Son woke up briefly as I carried him from his bed into the taxi to the airport, then perked up unnecessarily inside the airport, and 3 minutes after he sat in the plane and serenely buckled himself up, he was snoring again to wake up 10 minutes before we landed, fresh as a cucumber. The child was BORN to travel!

Santiago is a nice, modern city with a couple of older neighborhoods. There are several areas with excellent restaurants where the cuisine is innovative and frankly, delicious, especially when washed down with copious amount of pisco sour and ruby Carmenere. Our favorite was Barrio Lastarria, which is literally stuffed with amazing restaurants. I especially recommend Mulato, which is in the middle of a tiny square favored by street musicians. Thus, you also get excellent entertainment. Close to it, there is the so-called Paseo Barrio Lastaria, which is literally a massive courtyard in the open air housing a whole bunch of fabulous eateries. Each one has something different to offer and features cuisine from all over Latin America. Patio Bellavista in Barrio Bellavista is yet another massive congregation of various restaurants with a bit more modern feel.

Santiago has a lovely park in the middle of the city, which has a funky old “funicular” – an old tram that goes virtually vertically up the slope into the Parque Metropolitano with fantastic views of the entire city. The parque is actually quite huge, and has even a wine-tasting panoramic restaurant, which however is about a 20 min hike up and down and there wasn’t enough wine in the world to entice us to do that in the heat of the day.

This was the first time in my life when I actually decided to take organized tours in and around the city using the hop-on, hop-off bus company, which in Chile is called the rather non-inventive Turistik. Since we were going to be there for such a short period of time, and city is a bit spread out, we decided to live it up for about $38 or so per person and see the city in style, on the top of a double decker. We bought our vouchers excitedly, and the next day, armbands in hand, cameras and water bottles ready, we went to one of the bus stops that was closest to our apartment and began to wait for the big red shiny bus. Except that right at that moment about 300 people ran like mad people through the street and we realized that it was the day of the Santiago marathon (can someone explain to me why people run marathons???). Which, of course, meant that the street on which we were standing haplessly awaiting the damn bus was dutifully closed. As buses pass every 30 mins or so, we did not want to wait too much to get on one, and so decided to run for the initial stop of the bus, which wasn’t that far away. We figured that at least Stop 1 should be in operation. Except that it wasn’t – in fact, it was the starting and looping point for the stupid marathon. The Turistik office was nearby and soon after, I flew inside, all touristic rage and indignation, demanding my rights to get on board of the so-far unseen bus. The Diplomat and Son dejectedly were dragging themselves behind me, Son particularly unimpressed and bored with the whole adventure. I irritably lectured the calm clerk who sold us the tickets the previous day, telling him the stops were closed off, which he surely must have known yesterday and yet somehow omitted telling us. He feigned total ignorance and suggested we make a run for stop #3 on the itinerary, which was supposedly a mere 10 min walk from there (but the bus should be reaching there in 5). We ran faster than the marathon people, leaving many of them ashamed in our dust. We finally caught the elusive bus and embarked on a lovely tour of the city. 

The one advantage of this bus is that it will take you to the farther district of Sanhattan – yup, the name is a mix of Santiago and Manhattan, and the housing is more like fancy Arlington, but nevertheless, rather fancy. Through its midst runs the wide Vitacura avenue, which is filled with lovely restaurants.

The next two days we went to three more of Turistik’s trips, all with mixed results. We split a day between the beautiful Undurraga winery, where we were introduced to the intricacies of making Carmenere (and treated to yet another winery tour) and a trip to a ski resort high up in the Andes, where we saw several condors, the largest flying birds in the world. Both the Carmenere and the condors were spectacular. Then the following day we set out to what promised to be an exciting tour of Vaparaiso, Chile’s famed seaside city. Built on the 45 hills surrounding the ocean, Valparaiso boasts also 15 functioning funiculars (well, actually only 5 after the recent massive earthquake of 2010) and fabulous colorful houses alongside it capriciously meandering cobble-stoned streets. I was super excited to spend a day there as I love this style of architecture.

Now, you must know that each bus of Turistik comes with a tour guide, who seems to think that a minute of silence on the bus is a minute lost in our lives. On a 45 min ride to the Andes, that is OK. On a 2 hour ride to the coast, with a piercing high pitched female voice speaking bad English, it is not. On top of this, each guide wants to speak Portanol (as the majority of tourists are Brazilian), which is a terrible mixture of both Spanish and Portuguese expressed in repeating everything in both languages in rapid succession. Since we understand Portuguese and Spanish (by virtue of Portuguese), hearing the same info twice, and then one more time in terrible yet patronizing English was excruciating. On top of this, it turned out that we were going to stop at Viño del Mar, another smaller coastal town where apparently we were also going to have lunch. The guide strongly suggested we eat at the buffet at the local casino, and pretty much for the next one hour all she could talk about was how we were going to eat till we drop dead at the casino (her words, not mine). Call me fastidious, but we seceded from the group and had lunch at a nice tapas place. Overall, Viño del Mar did not excite us too much and we were impatient to get to Valparaiso. Off we went finally.
The bus began to climb up to the top of the hills and did a big loop around the neighborhoods. Then he stopped and to my utter horror, it turned out that we were going to go around in a group with Ms. Piercing Bad English as our guide. I pointedly asked whether we could meet the bus in an hour and was dismissed immediately like a naughty student asking to pee too many times in class. Then she yelled at me for walking on the street (vs. the sidewalk) – I had sinned in my desire to take a better photo of the fabulous colorful buildings. Then she took us to a funicular and ordered us to all cram inside, go down and stay frozen and wait for her (her words again) as we had to go down in batches. God forbid she left us 2 mins to enjoy the scenery from above the city. Once down, she gave us generous 10 minutes to walk around and be back or else…Valparaiso is beautiful and reminded me a lot of Marseille but with more color. Too bad we did not have a chance to really explore it better.

Overall, Chile was a lovely experience. The country is modern and well organized, and has fantastic wine and food. Naturally, we bought again 24 bottles of rather inexpensive Carmenere to continue our expanding wine store collection.

In other news, I bought a bike! People, where have I been all these years??? Last time I rode a bike was when I was 12. It is amazing, I can’t get enough. If I could, I’d go to the bathroom using my bike. For now, I just invent various unnecessary tasks for myself in order to go by bike. Except that I don’t have a bell, so errr, I am a bit of a menace on the road.