Wednesday, January 19, 2011


On our descent from the Andes into Santiago we saw one of the more popular ski resorts that was still operating in full swing, Portillo. The ski season in Chile goes from June to the end of August or early September as these are the peak winter months below the equator. We already knew this as we had already anticipated all the way back in Africa that we stood a good chance of getting to ski while in Chile. Why Chile? Chile has some of the best ski hills in the world. Dude, it’s the friggin’ Andes, hello? So as we passed Portillo a big huge grin came to my face and as I looked out of the bus window at the white powder the only thought that came to my mind was, “I’ll be back”. So as I dreamed of carving the foreign slopes of Chile time seemed to pass quickly and about 1 ½ hours later we pulled into the bus station in Santiago.

Santiago de Chile as it is formally called is the capital and economic center of Chile. Like Buenos Aires, it is a place that has everything. The only difference between the two is that Buenos Aires is a much more sheik and art nouveau type of city. It’s like this if I may: Buenos Aires could be considered the sexy, sophisticated rich girl while Santiago would be the ugly stepsister. One is decorated with all that life has to offer and all the latest stilettos while the other has the same pair of high heels she wore back in high school with the soles having been redone about 15 times. In other words, Buenos Aires is a city with lots of class while Santiago is a bit on the blue-collar side. That’s probably the best way to describe it. And it is not because they want to be blue collar or don’t want to be a white-collar town. Argentina has had way more time to develop than Chile or maybe I should say they got a huge head start. Chile is just now coming into its own. It has taken them longer to do so for one main reason: Political dictatorships, military coups’, corruption, strife and indecisiveness coupled with widespread poverty at a much grander scale than Argentina during their colonizing days has taken its toll on the country. Translation: They didn’t get there shit together until much later. In fact, they are still way behind most other South American countries but the good news is that they are now on the right road going in the right direction. It’s just going to take them a long time to catch up provided they don’t take any steps backwards from here on out.

Santiago happens to be right smack in the middle of the country. One of the most interesting things about Santiago’s location is that it is possible to get up early in the morning head due east about an hour and hit the best slopes on the Andes all day. Then after you have had your fill of the white stuff pack it up head due west about 2 hours and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean in shorts and t-shirts. It’s one of the very few places on earth where you can ski and surf in style all on the same day. Chile is an interesting country geographically speaking. It has over 5000 kilometers of Pacific Ocean coastline and spans almost the entire length of the western coast of South America. Yet it is at best only 250 kilometers wide at any given point of the country. One of the main reasons for most of this unique geo-formatting is because the Andes (the longest mountain chain in the world) set a natural dividing line back in the day when Chile fought for and gained their independence. Santiago’s history is very fascinating as is the history of the entire country of Chile and is so worth knowing if you ever visit. I will post the historical overviews just as I have done for all the other countries we have visited on our journey around the world, eventually, should you be interested. Until then, I strongly suggest everyone read up on them on your own if you get a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

We planned to only spend a couple of days in Santiago. There was really only a couple of things to do there. Eat as much of the local traditional food as we could and walk it off in the plaza areas, let your food digest and do it again. So with that in mind we set off on our mission. But before we did I decided to do a little research. For those of you who know who Anthony Bordain is, I remember seeing an episode of “No Reservations” in Chile on the Travel Channel before we started our trip and drooling over the food he was eating. So off I went to the nearest Internet cafĂ© to find out just exactly what he had when he visited.

Before I start I will issue you a warning: the next few paragraphs could cause extreme hunger pains. After creating a list we set out to find and devour all the good food that was to be had in Santiago. We set out first to find the famous Lomito sandwich. This is an iconic mountain of pork Chilean gastronomy courtesy of the German immigrants who came to Chile many moons ago. Picture this: Pork that has been marinated in the sweetest pork sauce to the point where it basically would melt in your mouth. Grab a bun, put a mountain of juicy dripping pork on top, add tomatoes and a ton of mashed avocados and melted cheese and then smother with mayo. Cap it with another bun and voila, the much sought after Lomito. Devour and then chase with the best German beer of your choice. So good! I could have eaten 12 of these in a row.

Next stop would be El Hoyo restaurant (translation: the hole in the wall, appropriately so as the place was a little shoddy inside) better known as pork heaven. In case you haven’t already noticed, Chileans love their pork. The place was in the estacion central neighborhood, which was kind of a sketchy area to be in. But as long as you taxi to and from the area and don’t walk around at night there you’re fine. We arrived around 7’ish with a huge appetite for what was in store for us. We purposely made sure we were hungry before we got there and it was a good thing we did. As soon as we got in we realized that it would be a while before we got seated. The place was packed like a sardine can. After we signed in we went up to the bar to find some seats to wait. There were none so we just stood next to the bar like everybody else that was waiting. I decided to order a drink that Bordain had while he was there. The Teremoto (translation: the earthquake. Basically pineapple ice cream with white wine, very tasty). After drowning one the wait was still the same as it was when we entered the place so I decided to order a pitcher of the stuff to pass the time. Immediately, a local at the bar decides to be friendly with me. He was an older gentleman and appeared to be highly inebriated. He noticed that I was speaking in Spanish with the bartender and asked where I was from. Before we knew it we had a crowd of people wanting to yak with us. By now we had drowned a few teremoto’s and the hunger pains were starting to set in. A very nice couple that was in front of us that we were having drinks with and chatting it up with invited us to their table so we graciously accepted. Finally, it was time to eat. In true Bordain fashion we ordered the pernil, arrollado, blood sausage and mashed potatoes. The pernil is the pork leg cooked to perfection in a baste and simmered until it falls off the bone. The arrollado is a tube of cured pork wrapped in pork skin that sits in a broth for an undisclosed amount of time so that it melts in your mouth. Add this medley of meat in your mouth with an occasional bite of blood sausage and smother with mashed potatoes and your mind, body and soul become transformed to visions of flying pernils and arrollados around your head. Sublime! So we gorged ourselves while getting to know our new friends. They did not speak any English so it was a very eventful night. After another pitcher of earthquakes we decided to call it a night. So we said goodbye to our new friends, exchanged contact info and wobbled to the taxi. To my surprise the guy decided to give me a parting gift to remember him by. I had mentioned to him that we were headed to Peru and was looking forward to buying a beanie like the one he had on. He takes his hat off his head and said: I just got back a few days ago from Peru and bought this while I was there. I would like to give it to you as a gift if you will accept it. I have only worn it once before. Please take it with you. What do you say to something like that? Touched by the gesture I graciously accepted it. We all hugged it out and we promised that if we were ever in Santiago again that we would meet them for another teremoto and pernil. It was a great night!

The next stop on our oversized Chilean gastro quest was a market called La Vega Central. It is a market that is over 100 years old and has every imaginable food item you can think of. We were in search of some very specific ones. Santiago is a very centralized city so it is fairly easy to get around by walking or taking public transportation. La Vega was close enough to walk so we decided to do exactly that since we were by now carrying a few extra pounds on us. We stopped to see some monuments and churches along the way that were tourist spots to check out to take some pictures. After working up an appetite we headed to food town, again. This time we would start off with a Mote con Huesillo (translation: cooked barley with peaches in a cup with peach juice) a local favorite. That did nothing but make us hungrier for more so we headed to La Vega Chica which is a smaller centralized area of La Vega Central. You have to understand this is a huge market. You could probably fit around 10 Costco’s in this market area. Huge! After finally locating our destination we searched out our next delight: Caldo de Pata (translation: Pork hoof soup, that’s right pig’s feet with veggies, yum!) After taking a look at it we both decided that the feet were not that appetizing after all and went with the pork, chicken and beef stew mixed with corn and veggies. Equally as delicious. I was planning on eating the Pastel de Choclo or Chilean corn pie (Chile’s version of Sheppard’s pie) but I had too much of the Beef Caldo so I took a break from eating for a while. Perhaps tomorrow I can finish my food tour of Chile with the Chilean corn pie, as it was the last one on the list. For now, it was time to walk the plazas again. There was still one more item on the Bordain list to experience but that item was not in Santiago, it was in Valparaiso which is where we were headed next. Our food tour of Santiago had finally come to an end and boy was I glad. One more jumbo-sized meal and I might have to buy more travel clothes. Whew! Now you might ask why we never made it back to Portillo to do some skiing/boarding or to one of the closer resorts? Portillo ended up having only some of the runs open and did not have any decent powder and I found out that the other resorts were all already slushy because it was near the end of the ski season. So even though I had been hopeful for months before we even got to South America that I would be able to ski the Andes I would have to come to terms with the fact that I arrived just a little too late or so it would seem. Little did I know that a pleasant surprise would be awaiting me much later down south.

After careful review we decided that the best way to see Valparaiso and Vina del Mar was to rent a car. Both are sister cities and lie side by side. There is no clear dividing line between the two. Basically the way you know you are on the other side is because the signs change. You are now in Valpo. You are now in Vina. That is until you become acquainted with them both. The most telling tale that you are in Valpo vs Vina is the architecture. Valpo is much older that Vina and is built on hilly slopes right by the ocean. Valpo is Chile’s version of San Francisco. There are lots of historical buildings to see and up and down streets to negotiate in the process. What does all this equal? Fun, I tell you, fun. Vina is basically an expansion of Valpo. It was founded much later and for one sole reason: as a playground for the rich folk of yesteryear of Chile and other nearby countries. Today it is a playground for everyone and gets extremely packed in the summer. Lucky for us we were there during the dead of winter so no crowds to deal with. Yippee!

After renting a car at the Santiago airport we headed toward the ocean. About an hour and a half later we arrived in Valpo. Since we had our own car the opportunities to do stuff were endless. We decided to have a warm lunch and a hot latte since it was wintery cold and plan out some strategies. So as I navigated, Katie drove us to the beachfront of Vina del Mar. After a quick brainstorm session we decided that it was best to make Vina our base and do day trips to Valpo for some fantastic sightseeing. So off we went in search of a place to stay. We figured finding a place to stay would be rather easy since we had our own car but as it turned out we spent the whole day looking for a place to crash. To our surprise, all of the hostels that we went to were fully booked for the next 4 to 5 days. It was a good thing that we did have a car because we end up doing a lot of driving. I have to commend Katie’s driving skills here because she did such a great job taking us around Valpo and Vina and getting us acquainted. And she did it with so much patience and ease. I would have surely ended up rolling the car into the boat docks in Valpo going up and down those steep hills. After five or six near misses we finally found a place to stay in Vina, where we had originally planned to stay. The area was perfect. It was very centrally located and within walking distance of all the cool restaurants and bars. The only downside was that it was one of those places where seniors gather for the annual reunions for whatever reason which meant that we were surrounded by Lyons club bingo player-type seniors partying it up in the convention hall almost every night. But who are we kidding, that is why the room was available for us. No one else under the age of 45 would take it. It was a small price to pay for the premium location.

Once settled in we ventured out to get acquainted with our new temporary home. Vina del Mar means “Vinyard by the sea”. Vina is the most heavily visited tourist destination in all of Chile including Patagonia. Why? Simple, because it is a party beach town destination in the summer where pristine white sandy beaches await the many minions of locals and foreigners alike looking to bask in the sun and have some fun and because it is the place where most of the festivals take place most notably the International Song Festival in February and the Vina del Mar Film Festival in November which served as the first gathering sight for Latin American filmmakers in 1967. There aren’t any historical sights to see in Vina but there are a bunch of posh areas to hang out at and soak it all in. Vina is what I would call the Santa Barbara of Chile. Even though it was wintertime the beach was nice. Weather in Vina is similar to CA in the winter. After all, they also have the luxury of having the Pacific Ocean coastline at their footsteps. So we soaked in a few rays and got a little more acquainted with the main beach drag. The real reason we were here was to see Valpo. Vina was just a bonus.

The next day we set out to see the sights in Valparaiso. Valpo is largely known for its bohemian culture, colorful houses and buildings and its beautiful seaside panoramic views. Visiting Valpo is all about roaming the chaotic hilly street sides and mingling with the locals and taking in the breathtaking views in the various hilltops. There are multiple hillside neighborhoods and they are all called Cerros. Each has their own unique colorful buildings some of them with murals on a wall. The idea is to just walk around and try and see them all. This is a hard task to accomplish because it seems like almost every building has a rainbow of colors to offer along with a painted figure. I think it would honestly take 3 days to see them all. Some people have actually done it. We managed to see and experience maybe half of Valpo’s bohemian culture during our stay. Such a cool ass place.

After getting our fill of Vina and Valpo we headed back to the airport in Santiago where we would catch a bus going south. Destination: The Chilean Lake District or more specifically, Pucon. We still had lots of time to kill before we had to be in Peru so I did some poking around in the Lonely Planet to see what else we could do in Chile at this time of year and boy did I come up with a gem. The Lake District is the last area before you get to Patagonia. We thought about going to Patagonia but it just cost too much to get there. It is so far down south that it only makes sense to fly there to be able to have any time to see anything and that was just out of our acceptable price range. It didn’t really matter in the end because the Lake District proved to be one of the most eye-catching places we would see on the entire journey. It was like Lake Tahoe on crack. So many beautiful mountainous areas with fields of green and lush forestation and about a 1000 lakes that surround you. As if that wasn’t enough to stir up your wild side they also had a live smoking fire breathing volcano right smack in the middle that you could ski on or climb to the top and maybe get a glimpse of some of the red stuff.

After about an eight-hour bus ride we pulled into the bus station in Pucon. We were immediately greeted by what would eventually be our new resident landlord, German. He was cleverly waiting at the bus stop for unsuspecting tourists offering rides to go and see his gorgeous hostel and for a very good reason. Once you saw it you would never want to leave. As it turned out I decided that I wanted to see a few other places before I went to see his. That’s kinda what my motto is. I like to always know what I am getting for my money even if it means that I have to spend an hour or two figuring out if I am being corn-holed or not. Call it peace of mind if you will. So I took his biz card and hailed a taxicab. After making the rounds and getting a better idea of what the place had to offer I was not impressed so I decided to go check out German’s place. Upon arrival I knew that this was the place I wanted to stay at especially after seeing an hour or so worth of lackluster hostels for way too much money. It was nestled in a beautiful area near a stream with a bird’s eye view of the volcano and the room was on the second floor and had a window with a panoramic view of the stream and the volcano. Now I guess you are going to say that I should have listened to German all along, right? Wrong! We were greeted by German’s mother-in-law because German was still out hustling up more customers at the bus stop.

After sizing me up a bit she gave me the five-cent tour. The room she showed me was on the second floor in the main building and had a panoramic window view of the volcano. In hostel terms, it was the equivalent of maybe a presidential suite. It was the best room in the house. I asked her what the damage would be and she gave me a number that was way outside the range I expected. I think she took one look at me and decided that I was a good candidate to make an example of for her son-in-law. Shocked by the price tag I told her it was way too much and asked if we could see something a little cheaper. Dejected, she takes me to a room in another building off the beaten path. The room is dark, freezing cold and has two single beds instead of a double. I asked how much and she gives me a stupid number again. At this point I am frustrated because I really like this place but have decided that it is just too expensive for us to stay here. So I thank her for showing me the rooms and tell her that we just cannot afford to stay there for that much so I ask her if she can give me a discount if we stay for a long time. She says, what is a long time? I say, about seven maybe nine nights. She says, hmmm? How much will you pay? Now I know I have an outside snowballs chance of staying here. I say, I’ll give you half of what you asked for. She says, let me call German. After a conversation of what sounded like half Spanish and half Portuguese she comes back and says can you pay a little bit more? I say, no, I can’t afford more. So she says, I’m sorry I can’t give it to you for that much. Right about this time German shows up with no new potential customers in the car. He remembers me from the bus stop and greets me with a warm hello. He asked if I am going to stay and I tell him I can’t afford the room at what his mother-in-law quoted me. He asked her how much she quoted me and then gave her a funny look. At this point German and I both realize that I have been taken for a ride by the little old lady. He asked how much I would be willing to pay and I told him that I would give him half of what I was quoted for the room with a view. He says, how long will you stay? I say, a long time. He says, ok. Welcome. And that my friends is how it is done. I got the room for a lot less than I was even prepared to pay for it. The moral of this story is: When renting a hostel, if you are greeted by an old lady always ask if she is the mother-in-law and if the son-in-law owns the place before making any deals.

We ended up spending almost two weeks in Pucon because we loved the place so much and were having so much fun we just couldn’t leave! It was so peaceful and beautiful and had such an element of tranquility that just penetrated all the way to inner core of your bones. We hiked and biked the most glorious mountain trails, skied and snowboarded down a live volcano, soaked for hours in various steaming hot natural mineral water baths, celebrated Chile’s independence day with German and the rest of the people staying at the hostel and made some amazing new friends in the process. It was one of those places that are just one in a million. The volcano was my pleasant surprise that I mentioned earlier. I did not expect that there would still be lots of snow on the volcano let alone that they actually had a few ski runs on the damn thing. Really? I could not believe it when they told me at the ski shop that the season was still alive and well. Yippee! I would get to ski some after all. I am so glad we decided to go there because the whole trip would just not have been the same without it. It added so much to our overall journey. Without it there would have been a big hole in our travels not just because of the great times that we had but also because of the lifelong friends that we walked away with. Shout out to all my Brazilian friends Oswaldo & Co.: Guys, thanks for eating all of our food in the fridge and not telling us and making up for it by inviting us to play games with you and letting me eat all of your food. Awesome! Also a shout out to Raed: You are simply the best, brother. I hope we can get together soon and climb more volcanoes and eat more fish together.

So after getting our fill in Pucon we packed it up and headed north again. This time our destination was the desert north of Chile and a place called San Pedro de Atacama. After a fairly uneventful bus ride we settled in to one of the local hostels. San Pedro was the antithesis of Pucon. You have to understand that Chile spans almost the entire length of South Amerca (over 5000 friggin’ kilometers long). The northern tip is completely the reverse of the southern tip. Crazy, huh. The best way to describe San Pedro de Atacama is that it looks like the Sahara desert and Mars all rolled into one. It was a very interesting place. We wanted to stop here because we were told it was one of the best places on earth to do some stargazing and because it would be our launching pad into Bolivia. It ended up being much more than that. The best part of San Pedro for me was definitely the stargazing. There were many outfits in the middle of town that had a tour every night so it was pretty easy to set something up. After packing us all up on a bus, they drove us out to an observatory that had lots of big telescopes to check out the sky with. We were greeted by a French guy who happened to be the PHD professor who had been given all this money to come out here and study the stars. I’m still not sure what was more fun, listening to him crack jokes while he taught us tons us stuff about stars and planets or actually being able to see Jupiter and the Milky Way(the actually stars in this galaxy) as if they were as close as the moon. He was one very funny guy. Wicked stuff I tell you that made our minds spin out of control. It is mesmerizing to see up front and center just what a tiny little speck in the universe we really are. We spent about 3 or 4 days in San Pedro. We also took a tour to see some of the world’s highest geysers elevation-wise and some super high elevation salt lakes that were without a doubt out of the world. This was one of those places that looked something like Mars only with geysers and beautiful crystal blue salt lakes. It was a crazy, wicked terrain with freezing temperatures. We had to get up early as hell to see them blow but it was worth it in the end just to walk around this strange place. We also did a day trip to see some of the neighboring towns and villages which was kinda cool. They also had sand dunes that you could board on but we passed on that since we got our fill in Africa and Pucon. Part of this day trip we did was to a riverbed/stream area that had these wicked, what the hell are they called, thorny bush things? Oh yea, cactus. Some of them were like two stories tall. Huge, I tell you, huge cacti. There were some cool areas along the stream that had caves and stuff that we hiked as well which was a lot of fun. All in all, San Pedro ended up being a perfect ending to a wonderful time in Chile. We spent about a month there and had a blast. I will most definitely be back in Chile some day before I die.

So after hanging out in the desert for a while we packed it up again and headed for Bolivia. This time it would not be on a bus though. The only way to get to Bolivia from San Pedro is through the famous Bolivian Salt Flats (the highest salt flats in the world at around 4000 kilometers high! Geez!). So that would mean crossing over on a jeep all the way through. Oh what a journey this would be.


Kitt Baker February 6, 2011 at 12:23 PM  

Hi, great tips for visiting Santiago, the chilean capital, located at just few kilometers away from some of the best ski resorts in Southamerica. Because of the height of its summits, more than 3,000 meters, the snow conditions are excellent during almost all the ski season, that goes from june to october. Beautiful pictures!
Chile Ski Resorts

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