Spring in Santiago!

11 Dec

For all the running around they put me through at their Embassy in New York, the Chileans more them redeemed themselves at Santiago International! While American and Canadian passport holders had to slug it out in a serpentine queue at immigration, I simply walked into an empty counter that said ‘Others’, got my passport stamped, and was on my way in no time, leaving behind the more ‘privileged’ lot, and having the last laugh while doing so 😉

This was my third foray into South America, and just like the last two, a rather brief one at that! There were several reasons to justify such a ridiculously short trip – I had very limited vacation days left; I’d managed to get a steal of a fare (details of which are best left out ;-)); my friend Lino was going to be there at the same time; and last but not the least, it was spring in the Southern hemisphere!

The trip was short for sure but the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that I experienced over those three days were as rich and varied as I’ve come to expect of this amazing continent. Spanning a sleepy little town, a historic port city, and of course, the capital, Santiago, here are 10 highlights from my trip, narrated as they happened.

#1. The road to Limache. Like most other countries in South America, Chile too, sadly, shrugged off its passenger rail network over the last few decades. Instead, they replaced it with a super-efficient bus system serving every nook and cranny of their rather lengthy country. Turbus and Pullman were products of this development, and are today the largest nationwide bus companies. From the Pullman terminal in Central Santiago, we set off for Limache, some 100 km and 2 hours away, over the Andean foothills.

IMG_5938As far as road journeys go, I would rate this as one of the most scenic I’ve done! Not for the vistas it has to offer, nor for the thrill of being on a twisty, steep mountain road – but in fact for the drastic change in landscape and the variety of flora that comes packed into those short 2 hours! Arid hills and desert shrub make way for verdant pine forests, then it’s back to hillsides dotted with cacti, over to palm lined vineyards and avocado plantations – all this to the backdrop of  the mightier, snow-capped Andean peaks!

#2. Conversations and Piscos at the Duque’s. Limache wouldn’t normally figure on a visitor’s itinerary, and that’s precisely why I don’t pass up on the opportunity! Lino’s family hails from Limache and Lino knows a thing or two about the town. Better still, his cousin is Alcalde or Mayor of the town and I get a guided tour of its expanse (relatively speaking!) and all its prominent sights – it is the most personalised tour one can hope to get, and I am treated like a true guest of honour!

After dinner, we call on the Duque’s, who’s house in Limache dates back to 1856. Part museum, part film set, it is one of the most exquisite homes I have seen – one that has survived several quakes and still bears the scars of their most recent one. Antiques and relics abound within, and the creeper decked courtyard sports an old fountain and period furniture. I am torn between admiring the place and playing with their ever affectionate canines. I can’t help but think – Hollywood would be hard pressed to art direct this any better!

Spring evenings can get chilly in Limache and while the Duque’s house lacks central heating, it is more than made up for by the warmth of Lino’s family. Pisco Sour is served – a drink claimed by both Chile and Peru to be their own – and conversations flow effortlessly into the night…

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#3. The Port of Valparaiso. 45 km to the southwest of Limache lies the town of Valparaiso. A road does exist between the two, but a faster connection is made, for a change, by rail! About 20 minutes before we reach the terminal station of Puerto, I get my first glimpse of the Pacific (from South America i.e.), and the waters are by far the most gorgeous shade of blue I’ve laid my eyes on, anywhere in the world!

Valparaiso is home to Chile’s largest port and the coastal strip adjoining the port is pretty much the only flat stretch of terrain in town. While commerce is transacted there, the bulk of Valparaiso’s population resides on the cerros or hills – steep ones at that – connected to the bottom by a series of Ascensors or Funiculars. Up to 26 Ascensors served the town at one time, and Ascensor Artileria is one of 12 remaining today. Dating back to 1893, it connects Plaza Wheelwright at its base with Paseo 21 de Mayo at its summit. The paseo or terrace commemorates the War of the Pacific and also provides the best vantage point to marvel at Valparaiso’s superb location and challenging topography.

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#4. Local flavour at El Membrillo. For lunch, we take a long walk along the promenade of Av Altamirano, with nothing but ocean and sky – and some Pelicans – for company! Lino guides me to his local favourite – El Membrillo – and soon enough the feast begins. As an aperitif we are served Borgonia, a house drink made of Strawberry, Vino Blanco and Asucre. Ceviche served on Clam shells makes up the Hors d’oeuvres, and I accompany all of that with Cristal, one of two big Beer brands in Chile!

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As a side I get a Seafood Empanada, accompanied by a surprisingly spicy Salsa! And then it’s time for the main – Merlusa, the local catch for the day, fried to flaky perfection, served with a salad and rice. All of the above for the princely sum of 4000 Chilean Pesos or about 8$ !!!

#5. Riding the Trolley Bus. After a leisurely Latte at the very charming Cafe del Poeta, we stroll across to the bus stop on Plaza Anibel Pinto. Valparaiso operates the largest fleet of vintage trolley buses in the world, which along with it’s Ascensors are considered city icons!

Like true enthusiasts, we let several trolley buses pass – the Swiss ones, the newer American ones, the most recent Chinese ones – till the right one arrives, a Pullman Standard trolley bus, built in Worcester MA in ’52!

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The smell of canvas seats, the old lights, fittings and fixtures, that typical twitching sound from the trolley poles powering the vehicle on – all make for a sensory overload. Add to that our route, cutting through the narrow lanes of a historic port city, and this is well and truly a ride back in time!

#6. Restaurant Hamburg. The story goes that a German sailor dropped anchor in Valparaiso a couple of decades ago and wanted to start an eatery where he could have all the German food he craved. He also needed a place to display his collection of maritime memorabilia from around the world – the result was Hamburg!

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It’s kitschy interiors include everything from ship’s bells to captain’s hats, historic photographs to shipbuilders plates, from life buoys to medallions and seals. Hamburg is nothing short of a museum, an institution in it’s own right, and at the very least, merchant sailor’s heaven! Apparently, it has good food too!

#7. Sunset at Viña del Mar. Along the bay, some 20 km to Valparaiso’s north lies the seaside resort of Viña del Mar, literally ‘Vineyard by the Sea’! Although technically a part of the Greater Valparaiso area, it is Chile’s fourth largest city and one of it’s best known tourist attractions. We don’t quite make it to its famed beaches but we do manage to beat the crowds on Av Peru nevertheless, and get to the promenade in time for sundown!

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The ridge that separates Valparaiso from Viña del Mar can be seen in the distance, and perfectly silhouetted in the foreground is Castillo Wulff, an early 20th-century castle. While relishing the scene, I glance at my watch – it is 8:30 in the evening. The sun would have set in New York some 4 hours earlier!

#8. Plaza de Armas. As far as South American cities go, Santiago appears relatively new and modern, boasting a sleek public transit system, wide roads and sidewalks and several high-rises – the result of a series of earthquakes and the subsequent rebuilding of the city. Architecturally, it pales in comparison to Buenos Aires, and lacks the quaintness of Bogotá, but there is one area in the city that has all the trappings of a Latin American capital – the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas!

Back in the mid 16th century, Pedro de Valdivia founded the city in what was then considered to be the centre of town or centro. Many centuries later, he still commands the best views of the Plaza he built, albeit from his statue!

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Catedral Metropolitana, the oldest building on the Plaza (left of pic) dates back to 1745, and is quite the masterpiece within. The Correo Central (central post office) and the Museo Histórico are other noteworthy landmarks, with the rest of the square surrounded by sundry 19th century civic buildings. In the centre of the Plaza, as tourists pose for pictures, locals tout their wares and troupes perform the national dance, Cueca.

#9. Espresso at Cafe Haiti. Just south of Plaza de Armas is Ahumada Paseo, a wide pedestrian only affair, akin to Av Florida in Buenos Aires, and in many ways retail central as far as Santiago goes! As with any retail destination, it has its share of eating and drinking establishments too, and among them is Cafe Haiti.

Chile is not a Coffee producing nation, sourcing most of its beans from neighbouring Colombia and Brazil. Nevertheless it still has a unique Coffee culture, one that is best represented in this Cafe. With an all male clientele, pretty hostesses sporting short skirts and high heels, and some excellent coffee to boot, Cafe Haiti brings it all together! And with only standing room provided along its granite and chrome counters, it truly is a Coffee Bar 😉

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#10. Seafood fest at Donde Augusto. North of the Plaza is Mercado Central, the city’s oldest seafood market. A cacophony of fishmonger’s greets us, as we make our way through the narrow, crowded passage. We emerge on to the atrium – a magnificent wrought iron construction dating from the late 19th century – under which sits the culinary bastion, Marisqueria Donde Augusto!

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The atmosphere at Donde Augusto can best be likened to a carnival – where the chaos and colour of Crawford Market meets the aura and sophistication of Covent Garden! We settle into our seats – getting a table is not a problem as Lino knows one of the waiters well – and take in the festive spirit around. Chilean Sea Bass (the trade name for Patagonian Toothfish!), the pièce de résistance for me on this trip, is served, and tucking into it in these surrounds is nothing short of magical 😉

Three days, three different places, three distinct experiences – all of it with  ‘local’ flavour, courtesy my good friend Lino! A great way to end a very memorable 2010!

Nos vemos el año que viene!

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A full set of pics can be seen here.

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