Usually you would think that a flight leaving just shortly after midnight would be a red-eye, that you'd be on the plane long enough to get at least four or five hours of sleep. At least that's been my experience flying across the US. But as we've learned over the last few months, things just happen differently in South America. We needed to get from Puerto Natalaes in Southern Chile to Valparaiso in Central Chile, about 1800 miles away. We could take a 36 hour bus all the way up the very long, very skinny country, or we could fly. We opted to fly.
Puerto Natales doesn't have an airport, so the first order of business was to take a three hour bus journey to the Punta Arenas airport. We hung out there basically all day watching people coming and going, waiting to be let through security and into the tiny gate quarters…and listening to people get into a heated argument over seats in the terminal…
Quick side story - this was ridiculous. Two people set their giant backpacks down on the floor near a couple of seats in the waiting area outside of security and then went across the terminal to have dinner at the sit-down restaurant. Who just leaves their bags unattended?? We are SO not in the US. When another group came along and sat down in those seats, the restaurant-goers stormed across the terminal to yell at them. Lots of French was tossed back and forth, and from what we could gather, the restaurant people claimed that their backpacks were saving those seats for them, and that the other group needed to get up and move. The people who sat down in the "saved seats" basically told them to go to hell and to sit somewhere else, pointing out that, #1, your bags do not save seats for you (especially when you are all the way across the terminal, and why did you leave it here in the first place?), and #2, there are empty seats all over the place, go find somewhere else to sit. Jake and I pretended to stare at our computers but were really listening intently - we love a good eaves dropping session! These two groups were at it for quite a long time, one even getting out of the security line to go and get one final word in. Absurd! If you ask us, everyone was in the wrong here. And it was pretty entertaining to watch.
Ok, back to the airport. Like I said, we spent a lot of time there because our flight didn't leave until 12:05am! And unlike other midnight flights I've ever been on, this one was only slightly over three hours long. We were due to arrive in Santiago just after 4am. Well that's a pretty inconvenient time to try to get to Valparaiso by bus. So Jake came up with a perfect plan - use our Holiday Inn points to book a room at the hotel next to the airport! After collecting our bags we literally walked across the pickup/dropoff lanes to the Holiday Inn. By 4:30 we were asleep in a giant, comfy bed, and slept for at least five hours before making our way to Valparaiso. Ahhh sweet sleep!
The next day, happily well rested and clean, we figured out the bus system, taking the airport bus to the main bus station on the outskirts of town, and catching another bus to drive us an hour to the coast, where the colorful city of Valparaiso was waiting for us. We arrived in the early afternoon under a hot sun at a bustling bus station, right next to the very busy market where vendors sold beautiful fruit and vegetables from their truck beds. We grabbed our packs and walked down the main road to our Airbnb apartment where our host, Danielle, was waiting for us. The apartment was great - three bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room, balcony, and kitchen - and was in a perfect location, just about a 10 minute walk to the main attractions of town. Danielle recently moved to Valparaiso from Santiago specifically to be an Airbnb host! Her place was so popular and the business was so lucrative, that she quit her job and just rents out the two spare bedrooms full time. She often works with local wineries selling wine, but other than that she hangs out with her friends at the beach! Tough life!
The other bedroom was rented out two to Aussies, Lucy and Alice, of Cultivar Wines. They had been living in Chile for months learning about the amazing wines from the skinny country, helping with harvest in several different regions, and picking out wineries to include in their first container shipment of Chilean wine back to Australia. Their mission with Cultivar Wines is to bring pure, clean, undoctored wine produced from family-run wineries tending to some of the oldest vines in the world to Australia. Here's a snippet from their website:
This is a humble project. Like many of us winos, we celebrate viticulture and winemaking stripped bare and we see wine as an artisan food project, part of the good life. By championing dryland zero-input Chilean agriculture, centuries-old vineyards of indigenous cultivars, and the communities and families that tend to them, we can all work towards having a positive social and environmental impact. These are wines of intent.
Needless to say, I hit it off with these fun winos right away. Their energy, enthusiasm, and eagerness to share their knowledge and their bottles made for very entertaining evenings consuming glass after glass in the living room. True professionals, they would spit. True vacationers, didn't. Jake and I had originally hoped to go wine tasting in the region, but my research showed that planning a tasting trip would be rather difficult and expensive, so we had decided to take our tasting budget to the grocery store and buy as much different wine as we wanted. We were still buying the cheap stuff (and it was still awesome), but it sure was fun comparing the low budget, easily available wines from the grocery store to the expensive, rare bottles without labels they were bringing home from the vineyards they'd worked on. Given that Danielle was also in the business and eager to explore more bottles, we all had a really good time. I love how wine always brings people together!
We had three full days in Valparaiso, and we took full advantage, filling each day with fun activities. Up first, like always, a free walking tour with our guides, Priscilla and Alonso through Tours4Tips.com. We wandered all over the very hilly city learning about things like the standard kind of bread found all over called pan batido (Chileans are the second largest consumers of bread in the world, behind Germany), and the 2010 earthquake the destroyed the main market building near the bus station, displacing all of the merchants and leading them to set up stalls and truck beds in alleys and on the streets. We wandered around the fish market where I chatted up some of the local fishermen, and up small alleyways and back staircases where we found fantastic street art. We walked by a transformed prison where political prisoners were held during the Pinochet dictatorship. The building is now an arts exhibition and cultural park, and the prison cells were hollowed out to make space for dance studios, culinary arts kitchens, painting studios, and more. Alonso and Priscilla told us that prisoners would be held at the prison, and taken onto navy ships to be tortured. They also spoke briefly about the day Pinochet took power - the people of Valparaiso woke up to the entire Navy pointing its guns at the city, ready to pull the trigger. Before coming here, Jake and I knew very little, if anything, about the dictatorship that brutally controlled Chile for 17 years. We had no idea of the human rights violations that took place here, or the fear that the Chileans lived with. And we had no idea that the US had anything to do with coming to power. We learned a whole lot more about this time in history while in Santiago, so I'll come back to this in a little bit.
When researching the best activities in Valparaiso, I happened to come across a cooking class with Chilean Cooking. Given the incredible reviews on Trip Advisor, and the fact that we love cooking classes, there was no way we were passing up this opportunity! Overall, it was a fun experience and I would definitely recommend it, though not as highly as some of the reviews do.
We met our chef instructor, Inés, and the other participants - Daniel and Ana (he works in the film industry is from Austria, she is a flight attendant who acts in her spare time and is from Colombia, and they live in Atlanta), Chris and Alex (a couple from the UK on a seven month trip), and two interesting French ladies on vacation (I didn't catch their names, and they didn't offer them, typical Parisians! JK. Kinda.). Together, we decided on the menu and then headed to the main market to buy all of the groceries. I would have loved this part had Ines described the items we were seeing - instead of making the market trip educational, it was really just like we were accompanying her on an errands run. I would have been interested to know more about the vendors she always shops from, or the spices we were picking up, or the interesting looking fruits that I've never seen before.
Grocery bags in hand, we all made our way to the kitchen where the cooking would commence. We donned our aprons and chefs hats and looked expectantly at the bottles of wine waiting to be consumed. That's one of the best parts of cooking classes, right? The wine drinking? "No wine until you're done with chopping everything. I don't want you to cut yourself because you've been drinking," Inés told us. Booo! Doesn't she know this is how I cook at home, with a nice healthy pour of adult grape juice? Safety first I guess.
We had a lot to prepare, so it was time to get to work! As a team, we created empanadas, pastel de choclo, ceviche, pebre salsa (to eat with the pan batido), and pisco sours! And, as promised, as soon as the knives were no longer needed, we cheersed with delicious pisco sours while we snacked on the bread and salsa. The ceviche was a different style than is served in Peru - instead of chunks of fish, it's kind of like the consistency of canned tuna. Preparing the fish for the ceviche was my job. I was instructed to use a fork to pull the fish from the tendons and skin, against the grain. "Doing it this way," Inés explained, "allows the lemon juice to cook the fish faster. With the chunks it must sit in the citrus for at least an hour, this way we only need it to sit for 30 minutes." I was skeptical of the time saved since it took me near an hour to prep all the fish, but no matter, it was delicious! And we enjoyed it with a lovely Chilean Sauvignon Blanc from the nearby Casablanca region. With the beef empanadas and pastel de choclo that came next, we drank the typical Chilean red, Carménère. Delightful! We finished the evening with fresh fruit and honey for dessert, chatting with our new friends over the leftover wine and pisco sours.
For our last day in Valparaiso we indulged our tummies with lunch at J Cruz M, famous for its "chorillana", a giant plate of fries, beef, onions, eggs, and salsa! I had read all about this heart attack dish on several food and travel blogs, so we had to give it a try. And while J Cruz M is tucked away up an alley, it's by no means a secret. We waited in line for about 45 minutes until they were able to find a space for us at one of the communal tables. The décor is hilariously strange - trophy cases that lined the walls held dolls, figurines, boat models, trophies, and picture, ropes and other boat paraphernalia with more dolls hung from the ceilings, and the owner wandered around with his guitar serenading everyone.
We devoured every last French fry on the plate and rolled ourselves down to the docks for a lancha tour (lancha means small boat). We were eager to see this hilly and brightly painted city from the water. We boarded the lancha with about 20 other tourists (all Spanish speaking), and got an hour long ride down the coast and a great view of the ginormous seals sunbathing on the buoys (I know they're seals because they don't have ears). Even though the tour was given only in Spanish, we were able to understand a bit here and there, but really just spent the time enjoying the view of the steep streets winding their way up the mountains and hills. It kind of looked like an ant farm! As we walked hand in hand down the marina after disembarking, laughing about our day, we happened to pass a churro stand. Since we definitely didn't eat enough at lunch (ha!), we indulged ourselves a bit more with a bag of fresh churros. Talk about a great day!
On our last night, Danielle invited us out with her and her friends to their favorite bar, Cinzano, the oldest pub in Valparaiso. "It is very typical," she told us, "You can come dance with us!" We weren't quite sure that we wanted to go out, and we were definitely sure that we didn’t want to be hungover the next day. After much debate, we realized that this is why we were traveling, and gosh darn it we're going home in 4 days! GO OUT! Danielle's friends came over for some drinks around 10:30, and then we all piled into her buddie's white construction van and drove down the road to the bar. We had been told by our walking tour guides not to hang around this neighborhood at night as tourists have been known to have some trouble walking around late. But since we were with five locals and very much aware of ourselves and our surroundings, we didn't feel that we were in any danger. We spent the night enjoying a couple local beers, watching Danielle and her friends dance the Cueca (a dance that is supposed to look like a male chicken pursuing a female chicken, the lady carries a scarf and waves it around like it's her fancy feathers). It was an interesting part of the culture that I'm so glad we saw - the dance is quite old, and to see people our age doing it regularly just shows how alive and how strong the Chilean culture is. Jake and I stayed on the sidelines, not wanting to show off what bad chickens we would make, and made a new friend, Manuel. He explained the dance to us, asked us all about our trip, about the US, and about the kinds of beer we like to drink. He told us all about his work, his Japanese girlfriend who lives in Osaka, and how much he misses her. Manuel is a super nice guy and really helped make our night even more fun. And update - he's moving to Osaka to marry his girlfriend! :) Danielle's buddy drove us home when we were ready - there was no way we were going to be able to stay up until 4am with them! What a perfect way to cap off our tour of Valparaiso.
We definitely enjoyed our time in this beach town. The colorful buildings, the street art, the welcoming people - there's a certain charm here. Beneath the dirt and the grit is a pretty and lively city.
Retracing our steps from four days prior, we found ourselves in our final destination of our entire trip. We stood on the balcony of our cute Airbnb apartment, listened to the traffic below, and let that sink in - we were basically done with our around-the-world adventure. In four days we would board a plane bound for the US.
But we had things to accomplish in Santiago before heading home - we had walking tours to take, and wine to drink, and sandwiches to eat! So let's get to it!
First stop, the grocery store. While we weren't planning on cooking every meal in our apartment (we wanted to indulge in our last few days), we were certainly going to cook breakfast and drink loads of red wine. So we took ourselves on a tour of our neighborhood, very close to downtown, to the store. Grocery stores in South America were all a little funny to me - most locals buy their main meats and produce at the markets from stall vendors, not giant American-style grocery stores, so the stores always seemed a little, I don't know…fake, maybe? Insincere? Can a grocery store even be insincere? I digress. This store was a really nice one, and looked like something we would find at home. As we perused the wine selection I couldn't get over how incredibly inexpensive all of the delicious Chilean wine was! As such, we bought four bottles to consume over the next four days - Cab, a blend (Cab, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot),andtwo Carmenères. One of those bottles of Carmenère was special - it just so happened to be the most expensive bottle in the store, and even came in a gift box, and it was the equivalent of $9.50. Amazing.
As we watched the sun go down from our balcony we discussed our first impressions of Santiago. Both of us shared the same three thoughts:
- This place is LOUD! Street noise here is out of control!
- Like all of South America, stray dogs are EVERYWHERE.
- Air quality sucks big time. The layer of smog that rests on top of the city is so thick that you often can't see the nearby mountain range.
We took two walking tours during our time in Santiago. Since the city was so big and we didn't have much time, we wanted to get the most out of it. Also, there wasn’t a whole lot to do there for tourists, so we decided to fill our time with education about the city! The same company that operated in Valparaiso has a Santiago contingent, so we followed our guides from Tours4Tips on the Santiago Offbeat and Highlights tours. My favorite part of the Santiago Offbeat tour was wandering around the giant La Vega Central market, where most of the city buys fresh fruit, veggies, cheese, and meat. The place was crazy busy, packed with little ladies dragging their two-wheeled carts around and huge men pushing heavy pallets of food around every corner. On the wall of the parking lot is an old mural depicting the people of Santiago at La Vega, with the words "Despise de Dios, esta La Vega." meaning "If God doesn't provide, La Vega will."
From there we all got on the subway and headed to the General Cemetery of Santiago, where all of Chile's presidents are buried, including Pinochet. A fun fact about the cemetery: The Catholic church allowed Protestants to be buried there, so long as they were separated by a cement wall measuring 7 meters by 3 meters in the ground, to ensure that the Catholics did not rest too closely to the "heathens". The cemetery is the final resting place of over 2.5 million people, with space for a whole lot more. As we walked through the section where children are buried, we learned that family decorate the graves of their children for holidays and usually have a birthday party at the grave every year. As we looked at the decorations that were still up from Christmas, we noticed that many of the children shared the same years of death, 1973, the peak of countrywide hunger before the military coup that put Pinochet in power.
As we made our way to the final resting place of one of Chile's saints, our guides told us about animitas that we had seen all over Chile, and all over South America. Animitas are typically little houses placed where someone died, like the size of a doll house, and act as shrines to the dead. If a road must be built or fixed where an animita is, Chileans will build around it. If they absolutely must move it, they'll hire Peruvians or Ecuadorians to do it because the Chileans won't touch it! Apparently disturbing an animita is very, very bad!
When we stopped at the local saint's grave, we learned more about local lore. Chileans believe that innocents are given a seat next to God in heaven when they die, so praying to them is like getting a shortcut to God. As such, tons of people flock to this grave every year to pray for miracles. When their prayers are answered, they return with a plaque that says "Thank you" with their name and the date. The saint's grave was covered with plagues, papers, pictures, and flowers thanking him for granting the favor.
As we meandered down one of the many streets in the cemetery admiring the giant tombs, our guides told us that, in order to show their power and importance, families would try to build the tallest tombs. But in the most seismically active country in the world, that wasn't a great idea. After most of them were destroyed in earthquakes, families took to decorating their tombs with icons of power from cultures around the world, like Egyptian sphinxes, and Mayan and Incan figures. Like the cemetery in Buenos Aires, the Cementerio General de Santiago is full of fascinating architecture and stories!
The other tour we took with Tours4Tips, the Highlights Tour, focused on the main important structures of the city, like Plaza de Armas and La Moneda, the presidential palace. When it was constructed, each of the four sides of Plaza de Armas was devoted to the four most important things to the developing city: religion, administration, commerce, and residents, marked by the cathedral, city hall, the market, and the post office. The area is now mostly populated with Peruvian and Haitian immigrants, as Chileans moved out of the city center into the growing neighborhoods of Santiago. Of the four original buildings, only the cathedral and City Hall are still used for their original purpose.
We made our way through the city, admiring the street art of INTI and other famous artists. We outside La Moneda, the old mint that was turned into the presidential palace, to hear the story of the coup from our guides. Like I said before, this was not something that we learned about in school. Jake and I had no idea the hardships that Chile went through, no idea how scary it was to live in Chile for so long. And based off the stories we were told and the information we received, we had no idea about the USA's involvement. Here’s what we learned:
President Allende was the socialist leader of Chile during Nixon's time in office and the Cold War. With the agenda to shut down socialism and communism around the world and remove Allende from power, Nixon stated that he "wanted to make the Chilean economy scream." So Nixon paid a newspaper in Chile to spread negative propaganda about Allende. Additionally, the CIA paid the Chilean Truckers Union to strike so no food or supplies would be distributed through the country (since it was a socialist country, all food and supplies went through Santiago to then be evenly distributed among the people by delivery trucks). Since the truckers weren't driving, people starved to death, including children (like we saw in Cementerio General). On September 11, 1973, at the rock bottom of his acceptance ratings throughout the country, Allende was going to announce a referendum to see if the people of Chile still wanted him to be president. That same day, however, a military coup was carried out by Pinochet, the top military official who had been appointed by Allende. At 7am, that morning, Allende received word that the Navy had taken Valparaiso, and all guns were targeting the city. Allende went straight to La Moneda to contact his advisors, but by 8am the Army had closed most of the radio and television stations in Santiago, making it near impossible for Allende to reach his loyalists in the military. At 9am, Allende was asked to surrender, to hand over power to Pinochet. When he declined, the Army bombed La Moneda, reducing the building to rubble. Just before the bombs fell, Allende gave his last speech on the radio. As he gave his final words, bombs could be heard over the air, exploding in the background. He was found dead in his office with two bullet wounds, one in his chest and one in his head. Forensics states that he killed himself, but most think the assessment is false. Most think he was murdered. The military marched through what remained of La Moneda and killed any survivors. By 2pm Pinochet assumed power and reigned as dictator for 17 years. Under his terrifying rule, 3000 people died or went missing (but that's the "official number", rumor has it that the real number is much, much higher), and over 40,000 people were tortured for suspicion of communism. In 1980, Pinochet called for a referendum, so he could run for president and rule the people as an elected official, to give his reign credibility. Funny, he ran unopposed. Funny also that people were permitted to vote more than once. As the elected president, he could, and did, officially rewrite the constitution, implementing the opposite of socialism with the help of "The Chicago Boys", Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. Together, they widened the gap between classes. In 1988 Pinochet called for another referendum. This time he did have one opponent, Patricio Aylwin, who was permitted to advertise his campaign for 15 minutes per day. The election was a close one, and Aylwin won with 54% of the vote. Pinochet's final order of business before he left office? He made himself a permanent senator.
It's a fascinating history. One I'd like to learn more about. From what we did learn, it seems like the US created the conditions for the coup, that the US helped put a monster in power. But there are two sides to every story and I'll need to do some research into the subject to understand it.
That wasn't the end of our education about the coup. We also made a stop at the Human Rights Museum, where the we learned about the atrocities conducted under Pinochet's rule. The museum reminded us of the Terror Museum in Budapest - it was very well done, and quite a sobering experience.
I promise we didn't just wallow in the sadness that was all of these human rights violations. We did fun stuff too! We explored the Santa Lucia Mountain and it's strange castle on the top. We wandered through the hipster Bella Vista neighborhood and treated ourselves to a fancier celebration dinner, in honor of our trip, at a highly rated restaurant called Galindo Unfortunately the food wasn't as good as we had hoped, which put a bit of a damper on our whole celebratory vibe. We made up for it over the next few days, though, with fantastic Chilean staples - the completo Italiano and churrasco sandwiches! The completo Italiano is a giant hotdog topped with homemade mayo, avocado, and tomato, the colors of the Italian flag, and it's the best hotdog I've ever had. I really think that all future hotdogs I eat will have to have these specific toppings. But the best thing we ate in Santiago was definitely the churrasco from Fuente Alemana. Anthony Bourdain strikes again! He visited Fuente Alemana on his show, No Reservations, and our mouths were watering as we watched him dive into his incredible looking sandwich. We found ourselves in the German-inspired restaurant around lunchtime and were lucky to have two seats open at the counter. The three-sided counter faces the cooktops where tons of pork is grilled, fried, and boiled in juices before being loaded onto perfect buns and topped with mayo, avocado, and sauerkraut. I can't describe how tasty it all was, especially when washed down with a local brown ale. Oh man, I want one of those sandwiches right now!
Another treat - we got to have lunch with Daniel and Ana, our friends from the Valparaiso cooking class! We happened to overlap in Santiago for an afternoon and took full advantage. We indulged our bellies at a great Peruvian restaurant in the ritzy neighborhood of Lastarria with pisco sours and ceviche. This is part of what makes travel so fun - meeting up with new friends we met somewhere in a totally different place. Being able to share these experiences with new friends makes it even more worth it. And, thank goodness we had lunch with them the day after we arrived - they introduced us to the Emporio La Rosa ice cream parlor. The ice cream was so delicious that we ended up going back every single day. Hey, it was the last few days of our extended vacation, we'll do what we want!
And that was that. We memorialized our last moments in the city with more ice cream before heading to the airport. With one more deep breath on the balcony (and one more glass of wine) before locking up, we stared out over the place that, once foreign to us, had become familiar. Just like all of the cities we lived in, just like the 25 countries we visited over the last 10.5 months. We made each place a home for a short while, and now it was time to head back to the US, to find our next home.
Home. Here we come!