Monthly Archives: January 2013

Watching the sunset over the beaches

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Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile

6-8 January 2013

Variety is the spice of life - even with colours

Variety is the spice of life – even with colours

From the beginning of the planning of this trip, I had always envisaged that I would end the South American portion of my trip with a visit to the beach for a few days of rest and relaxation. I picked a small community called Reñaca, just a few kilometres north of the twin cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso. I thought I had picked very well, when I arrived at my accommodation, resting on a small escarpment a couple of blocks back from the beach, with panoramic views of the city, the coastline and Oceano Pacifico, just 300 metres from the centre of town, and at a dirt cheap price.

I was very excited, so at 5pm on the day I arrived, I excitedly bounded down to the beach for a swim. As soon as I dipped my toes in the water, a nerve-jangling tingle shot through my body. My body motioned in involuntary spasms, forcing me to recoil out of the water. I realised I had made a rookie error. The water was unbearably cold, around 13°C, and amid the 32°C air temperatures, it felt like an electric shock the moment it came into contact with my skin.

Colourful artwork in Valpo

Colourful artwork in Valpo

I wondered why it was so cold, and was later told it has to do with the oceanic currents. Here, the water circles the South Pacific in a counter clockwise direction, bringing up along the Chilean coast cold polar water. Amid further research, I discovered that this is a problem on the west coast of every continent.

Nevertheless, I laid on the beach for an hour or so, realising that while the beach was there and very popular, the water was completely useless. This disappointed me.

The next day, I slept in, and went for a daytrip down to Valpo, as the locals call it. Valparaíso is an old port city, famous for it’s colourful architecture, fascinating hilltop suburbs, and amazing artwork on the side of their houses either painted by the residents themselves, or commissioned to be painted by others. I was lucky enough to witness one being painted on the wall of a residence. “¿Permiso un foto?,” I ask, putting my poor grasp of Spanish grammar on full display as I ask if they would allow me a picture. They were happy to oblige.

Local artists painting new artworks

Local artists painting new artworks

It is not a great distance from the water’s edge to the foothills, barely a few hundred metres, and the CBD expands along the coastline. Funiculars are the primary mode of transport to these barrios from the commercial city centre. In a small way, it is kind of like Wellington, with a few dozen more funiculars, and about 400,000 fewer New Zealanders.

No guesses where the inspiration for this café name comes from

No guesses where the inspiration for this café name comes from

While in Valpo, I chanced upon the second best coffee I have had on the continent. It was at a little café called Melbourne Café, owned by an enthusiastic Australian and Melbourne AFC supporter, who has no qualms about sharing his love of Australian Rules football with the completely clueless locals. But I am noticing a trend, the best coffees I have overseas always seem to be at places owned by Australians. Maybe I’m doing this wrong.

But there was one thing I very much enjoyed about my beachside escape, that reminded me of something I miss about living on the west coast. The sunsets, simply glorious.

View from the accommodation

View from the accommodation

...and by night

…and by night

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Santiago – putting the civil in civilisation

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Santiago, Chile

3-6 January 2013

Santiago Stock Exchange

Santiago Stock Exchange

The city is beautiful, bustling and beguiling. It is also the first place I felt like I could comfortably live. Many barrios, such as Providencia where I stayed, were tranquil and exuded order, and the streets were clean and lined with delicacies from all over the world. Make no mistake, Santiago is very much in the first world – and my mature perception of the city reflected that.

Santiago de Chile is the first city on this adventure so far that strangely felt like home. I arrived late on my first night. I asked about nearby options for snacks late on the Thursday night, and I was referred by the receptionist to a nearby petrol station, which looked just like home. When I got there, it had the usual assortment of packaged goods ready to be thrown into the microwave, just like home, but with a few regional variations. I opted for the microwaveable soft beef tacos, and just like microwaved service station food at home, it tasted awful.

The next day, I went for a walk through the city centre. The shops and offices felt like they would go on forever. After an erroneous mental currency conversion led me to accidentally purchase earphones priced at $280, I walked off the shame, taking advantage of the 9pm sunsets.

This amphitheatre atop the hill is probably the hottest wedding venue in town

This amphitheatre atop the hill is probably the hottest wedding venue in town

I made my first voluntary act of exercise on the trip so far – a walk up Cerro San Cristóbal, a roughly 300 metre high hill perched just to the north-east of the city, to visit the Virgin Mary perched atop. The view from the top was magnificent and really gave the sprawling city some perspective. A beautiful courtyard exists at the foot of the giant statue, and preparations were afoot for what would be a spectacular wedding with an unrivalled view.

Santiago is a place of law and order, and the Chilean police force, the militarised caribinieros, are one of the most uncorruptable police forces around, and unlike most countries in South America, a bribe is more likely to get you into a jail cell than out of a traffic infringement. Their presence is visible, but in a reminder to always have your wits about you, it was actually here that I witnessed my first real crime in South America.

While casually dining at a Japanese restaurant and observing the happenings on a street, a young man grabs a backpack, throws it over his shoulder, and makes his escape. He runs, very fast. The two lady victims make loud noises to draw attention to herself and run after the criminal. Two men turn around, quickly work out what is happening, and give chase quickly overtaking the slower women. It was a little bit Benny Hill-esque, but I never got to see the outcome.

Two men play chess in Plaza de Armas

Two men play chess in Plaza de Armas

But all this was temporarily set aside, when late in the evening while departing the Salvador metro station to complete the journey to my accommodation. I was greeted with the calming tranquillity of an illuminated water feature midway through it’s performance. I stayed and enjoyed the serenity for some minutes, as children, seniors and whole families alike marvelled at the impressive lighting display, transfixed by it’s wonder.

¿Vino tinto o blanco?

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Mendoza, Argentina

31 December 2012 – 3 January 2013

8pm New Years Eve - Plaza Independencia, where absolutely zero celebrations are taking place

8pm New Years Eve – Plaza Independencia, where absolutely zero celebrations are taking place

Mendoza was cracked up to be a great destination for vino and adventure. Unfortunately, I visited the city of about 850,000 people at very much the wrong time.

I arrived on New Years Eve, and shortly after arriving, met a friend in the big park in the city centre, Plaza Independencia late in the afternoon.

The place was eerily quiet. There number of people hanging around the city centre were very few. It is almost impossible to describe the bizarre sensation of knowing it was NYE, but not having anything to show for it. No shops were open. Not even the McDonald’s that claimed to be open 24 hours. Or the supermarket. The petrol station had an attendant working the pumps, but the store was strangely not open – it was outrageous that even microwave cheeseburgers were not an option.

Resorting to our own celebrations

Resorting to our own celebrations

Eventually after quite some time walking the deserted streets, we found a string of restaurants. However, none of them would sell what I wanted – all limiting their offerings to outrageously priced set menus for the fin del año.

So we started dining at one of the cheaper ones about 9:40pm. Slightly over an hour later, we got our food; quite ludicrous considering they only had two options that night. And then I started to feel sick.

Of all the ways I had envisaged spending New Years Eve, an option that wasn’t on my short-list was diarrhoea, faintness and low blood sugar. No other time on my trip had I wanted a simple cheeseburger, or a chocolate bar, or a soft drink, yet not had anywhere at all to buy it. Luckily, my hostel sold the latter at least, so by 11:45pm, I was curled up in bed trying to sleep away the illness.

Luckily, it’s not like the city had a celebration I was missing.

Where were the townsfolk? I later found out that the mendocino way is to celebrate profusely on Christmas Eve, leaving New Years as the quiet time with family. However, for those still after a fiesta, many people on acreage host their own parties around the pool in the absence of any organised celebrations courtesy of the municipality.  A lack of local knowledge killed it for us there.

Due to my unfortunate illness, I decided to re-neg on the rafting trip I had planned for New Years Day. So I may never know what it is like to white water raft down a freezing cold river of melted glacier. Alas, more regrets.

That meant that by the time I was up and feeling better in the afternoon, I had more time to enjoy the city. But it was quite boring. Everything was still closed, save for a couple of kioscos, where I stocked up on enough water and junk food to last any apocalypse, without knowledge of when the hundreds of other stores, supermarkets and restaurants would re-open.

Without any alternatives, like any good bum, I found a good park bench in Plaza Independencia, and read a book for a few hours.

Cry me a river

Cry me a river

The next day was better, on January 2, the streets were buzzing, shops were reopening and across the CBD, you could feel life returning. But I wasn’t to spend any time here, because I was on the way to Maipú to ride a bike and drink some wine. It was glorious, a beautiful summers day. Temperature in the low 30’s, very low humidity, and the vista of vineyards and distant snow capped mountains. Perfection.

The Mendoza region is famous for it’s Malbec wine, a variety somewhat stolen from the French that the Argentines have gladly declared their unofficial national grape. But regrettably, I did not partake beyond a small sip as I am not entirely partial to vino tinto – that component of the tour was wasted on me. Luckily, I was always offered a vino blanco or cerveza as an alternative.

Odd one out

Odd one out

The tour entailed visiting three vineyards, at one of which we enjoyed a lunch of very filling empanadas and other pastries, as well as a micro-brewery and a chocolate house that also specialised in liqueurs. Of course, samples were had at each.

Mendoza is actually quite a surprising destination. There is quite a lot in the surrounding area, especially for wine lovers and adventure seekers. But circumstances conspired against me, and all in all, in the end it seems I spent three days in Mendoza to go on a bike ride for a few hours, which seems a bit wasteful.