Photos from this trip can be seen here if you are a Facebook user.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Our vacation this year started at a normal hour. Curtis' co-worker Brooke got us to Portland International Airport on time for out 12:35pm flight to Dallas. We arrived in Texas at 6:25pm. Although we didn't go outside, we could feel how uncomfortably hot it was. We were very glad that Dallas was not our final destination. We had time to walk around this lovely and sprawling airport, which is one of the nicest I have ever seen.
After some decent Mexican food and a lengthy chair massage at the Brookstone store, we boarded our American Airlines flight to Santiago, Chile. It departed at 9:10pm and arrived the next morning at 7:10am. They fed us plenty, but the seats on the older jet were not very comfortable. I was surprised for an international flight.
Our first destination was Chile, a country with a coastline of over 3,000 miles (about the same distance as New York to Los Angeles)! Its average width is only 115 miles. It has a very diverse geography, home to both the driest desert in the world (the Atacama) and a slice of Antarctica. Interestingly enough, Easter Island and the Robinson Crusoe Islands belong to Chile. Frommer's guidebook describes Chile as having a "firmly entrenched democracy (corruption is relatively unheard of here)" and continues to call it "one of the safest and most economically prosperous countries in South America."
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
This was the first time for both of us on the South American continent. The Andes Mountains were amazing and I was glad to be able to see them for quite a while before we landed. We arrived at Santiago's airport and were immediately shepherded to customs and immigration. First things first, though. Chile charges citizens of certain countries (Albania and the United States among them) a reciprocity fee. Our guidebook said it would cost $100/person. The current fee is $131/person. Supposedly, our country charges this to Chileans who enter the United States and they just want to be fair.
We then walked passed the masses of waiting cab drivers, all eagerly vying to take you wherever you want to go. As it was winter in Chile, we were able to watch the sun rise. The snow-covered Andes Mountains made an absolutely stunning backdrop. Most of the time, the temperatures were in the 60s and very pleasant. At night, sometimes it got down to freezing.
We stopped and looked into ground transportation and saw that we could both take a shuttle service to our hotel for $18. On the way, we drove past some very scary-looking shanty-towns on the side of the highway. TransVip dropped us off at the Windsor Suite Hotel. Our hotel was a stone's throw from Cerro Santa Lucia, a park landmark and very high hill in the middle of downtown Santiago. The location was perfect, actually. From here you could walk to all the sights of the city. It was also quite close to a subway stop.
Santiago is home to more than five million people and nearly one-third of all Chileans. It was early, so we figured that we would have to leave our luggage and come back. Turns out that it was no problem at all for us to check in early. Breakfast was still going on, so Curtis and I enjoyed a feast of meats, cheeses, canned fruit, and breads. This turned out to be a typical breakfast for each of our hotels in South America.
Curtis has a Chilean co-worker who was in Santiago for the summer with her children. Bernice asked if she should have her friend, Francisco, a massage therapist, pay a visit to our hotel. When we learned that an hour-long massage was only $30, we said sure. He was to arrive around 3pm, so we ventured out of the hotel for bottled water. We also had our first chicken empanadas, which we instantly liked.
We also found an ATM and withdrew Chilean pesos. The exchange rate was $1 to 500 Chilean pesos. It began raining outside, so we stayed closer to the hotel and explored a large, covered artisan market.
Chile had a lot of stray dogs wandering around. Some looked horribly filthy, but others looked like they just walked away from a cute dog contest. While some appeared to be healthy, others were obviously diseased and close to death. As much as I love dogs, I never touched one of them. It seemed odd that in the interest of public health that the government didn't round them up and euthanize them. None were violent or mean.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
This hotel was decent, but the hot water wasn't plentiful. Bernice traveled to us and had the hotel breakfast with us. She had some paperwork to do downtown, so we walked with her to the government building, and then wandered off to see a few things. We saw Constitution Plaza, home to the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential work palace and site of the 1973 coup that put Augusto Pinochet into power.
We saw the Plaza de Armas, the city's main square, planned for in 1541 by the city's founder, Pedro de Valdivia. We found the best bargain of the trip near here – a vendor was selling ties for only $2. We found a couple that we liked.
The highlight of the day was a long dinner with Bernice and her sister, Pam. Pam works for Experian, which she told us outsources work and calls to Chile. She used to be a concierge at the Santiago Ritz Carlton and was a wonderful resource on what to see in Santiago and Chile. She gave us plentiful maps and guides.
We ate at a place called Como Agua Para Chocolate in Bellavista, the city's bohemian neighborhood. Curtis and I shared a giant helping of Mexican fajitas. Our desserts were almost too beautiful to eat. The conversation was wonderful and we all had a blast.
Bellavista is graffiti-covered and a neighborhood made up of narrow streets. By night, the clubs and bars open and it is home to the city's nightlife.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
We again enjoyed the hotel breakfast. Curtis and I had been told by Pam to go to Cerro San Cristobal in Metropolitan Park (a large park with over 1,800 acres!) early in the morning or at sunset to see the best views of the sun reflecting off the Andes. We decided to hit it this morning, walking through Bellavista to the old funicular.
The car we rode on had a plaque that said that Pope John Paul II had been on it. This made me feel safer as the old transportation system went into action and carried us up the steep mountainside. There was one stop for people to get off at the zoo, but then we were at the top.
The view was stupendous. I can't even guess the distance that one can see from the top. Santiago can be seen sprawling in all directions. Away from downtown, one could see clusters of skyscrapers in parts of the city that we would not even explore on this trip. We had the only Magnum (ice cream) bar of the trip as we walked around the hill. We visited the sanctuary and the giant Virgin Mary statue (72-feet tall). Unfortunately, the teleférico (cable car) was closed. Here's what the view looked like from up above.
When we descended, Curtis went for another massage while I went on another city walk. I explored some neighborhoods and found the University of Chile. They had a plaque inside with a lengthy list of all of the presidents of the country that they counted as alumni.
Friday, July 3, 2009
At 8:45am, after eating the hotel breakfast, a TransVip shuttle picked us up and returned us to Santiago's airport. We picked up a rental car from Alamo – a Chevrolet Swing, a tiny little thing – and began our drive to the coast. We splurged and got a GPS for $12/day. We knew that Valparaiso is a steep city consisting of 40 or so hills. Since we didn't know how to find our hotel, I thought it was imperative that we have the GPS. Unfortunately, the GPS didn't acknowledge our hotel's street name.
Along the way, we stopped in a small village at a place advertising empanadas. We apparently stood out quite a bit. All of the locals just stared and stared. True, we were the only ones wearing shorts, but still. Instead, we bought bottled water and then went to a roadside cart. A woman made us sopaipillas (fried dough) on which we applied hot sauce. Curtis also had coffee. Our total bill was one dollar. We were amazed during this trip at the buying power of the United States dollar. We were quite pleased. We also explored a local cemetery, which was quite neat.
We made it to Valparaiso, the GPS taking us to a street near our hotel. As expected, the coastal city of hills was a labyrinth. We kept running into dead ends and having to turn around. Fortunately, it was daylight and we happened to stumble across our hotel, the Hotel Ultramar. Although purely in a residential neighborhood, it was super nice. A recently re-modeled villa, it was open, extremely modern, and had free street parking. We put our bags down and went out exploring. Later, when the heater didn't work, we got upgraded to a room with a marvelous view of the ocean.
Valparaiso was gorgeous, a city of buildings painted in colorful pastels. It is also a very impoverished city. Our friends in Santiago discouraged us from staying in Valparaiso out of concerns for our safety. The city has a lot of simple structures made out of sheet metal. Graffiti and stray dogs were rampant.
Due to the steep hillsides, there are approximately 40 elevators throughout the city that move people up and down. We walked and explored the city. Curtis went into a tattoo parlor and felt that he needed to get a tattoo right then and there. My fear tactics got him to give up on the idea.
For dinner, we went into an empty Chinese restaurant. We still weren't used to having dinner so late, so we ate alone until the very end. I saw a roach scurry across the dining room floor, but I was undeterred.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
We took a road trip today to the neighboring city of Viña del Mar. This is a much more upscale city than Valparaiso. Still, stray dogs roamed everywhere. We parked in a river bed that had been converted into a city parking lot. We walked the clean and modern city, which was much better maintained than its neighbor. At a street café, we ordered roast chicken and steak. A cute stray dog waited nearby, patiently awaiting table scraps.
We walked across the river to a giant and glamorous casino. Instead of going in, we hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us on a city tour. After that, we were quite cold, so we got back in our car to take a Pacific Coast Highway tour. Along our route, we saw fruit stands offering all varieties – three kilograms for $2. Amazing.
Our trip took us along the stunning Chilean coastline.
We stopped often to admire the sights and to take pictures. We saw Reñaca, a very popular beach. We continued north and saw many, many resorts and condominium developments in all stages of construction. We drove back to Valparaiso and found our hotel again. We walked to dinner at El Mastodonte, where I enjoyed filet mignon and mushrooms for $6.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
We woke up at 7:20am. Headed out early, stopping for gas before our drive back to Santiago. The route to the airport was well-labeled. Alamo was SLOW checking the car back in. They said we had a scratch on the hood (we didn't), which was still no big deal since we obviously had the full coverage. I think it was their chance to have the car repaired while someone had coverage on it.
We checked in for our Air Canada flight to Buenos Aires. It was delayed while they checked on some engine problem. Our two-hour flight was uneventful. It was nice hearing English again and having something similar to American-style customer service.
Argentina is over one million square miles, which makes it the eighth-largest country in the world. Prior to landing, it was announced that Argentina required all deplaning passengers to don face masks. The flu scare was alive and well and they didn't want to take any chances. Many North Americans on the flight thought this was a good photo op. Unfortunately, I set off some kind of temperature alarm during their walk-through medical screening. After being re-checked several times, I was allowed to continue.
We arranged a private car to our hotel and paid in dollars. We drove right by the Mormon temple, which was surprisingly close to the airport. It began to rain and soon our cab driver exited the freeway, unexpectedly. Ever cautious, I was a little afraid. Soon it started hailing – violently. Several cabbies and other cars tried to take shelter under a gas station. We tried to get pictures, but the pictures didn't do justice. These were the largest chunks of hail that I have ever seen.
Our hotel was top-notch and in the ritzy Recoleta district. While Curtis relaxed, I filled out some postcards. We decided to get out and see the city. We took the oldest subway system in South America. We saw no open ticket booths, but the gates were wide open, so we walked on and rode to our destination. Had we been able to buy a ticket, the cost was $0.30.
We watched a large gathering (we think soccer fans of rival teams gathered in the same plaza) that was being observed by riot police. This was near the neat obelisk. We found a great dinner in a small restaurant district. I enjoyed my lamb and potato slices and Curtis said his steak was good. That night, we went to a dance club. We didn't stay long.
Monday, July 6, 2009
We slept until noon, missing the hotel breakfast. Then, we dealt with electrical issues, as in we didn't have any. I had to shower upstairs in a different room, as the bathroom was too dark to occupy.
We got our bearings and explored the Recoleta cemetery, where Eva Perón, arguably one of the most famous (or at least well-known) Argentines was laid to rest. The tombs here were very elaborate and super fancy. I was surprised to see that some, though, were in complete and utter disrepair. Looking in, you could see the coffins, no longer protected by their edifice. Some of these tombs were deep and one could see several layers of rich, dead Argentines. The main tourist attraction here is the final resting place of Eva Perón, wife of former Argentine president Juan Perón.
We took a cab from here to the Abasto Mall, a large and sprawling shopping center. The cab driver was extremely friendly and talkative and I enjoyed the banter. He even complimented me on my "Castellano," the word for the Spanish that they speak in Argentina. He told us that his business was suffering as a result of the flu epidemic. He told us that all schools (including universities), courts, and theaters in the country had been closed as a precaution. He told us that traffic was unusually light.
While food prices were awesome, prices for goods such as clothing were comparable or even more expensive than in the United States. We saw many international name brands here. At this mall, most of the prices were quoted in dollars. Today, we dropped off laundry. It was $20 for five loads. [We got it back the next day, nicely folded, although they didn't do a good job of matching socks.]
We walked around Puerto Madero, a really nice port district. Full of upscale restaurants and clubs, it is the place to be in Buenos Aires. We saw the Teatro Colón, a very impressive theater. We also saw the widest boulevard in the world, the noteworthy Avenida 9 de Julio, which boasts 20 lanes of traffic! I think we used three different crosswalks with traffic control devices to get across the whole thing!
Luckily, we stumbled upon a Spanish restaurant called La Rioja. The food was stellar! This place is definitely worth looking up when we return to Buenos Aires. We had an appetizer of hams, cheeses, and olives that was to die for. We then shared their paella valenciana, which was superb.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
After a breakfast at the hotel, we walked around downtown some more. The shopping district is huge and a lot of it is pedestrian-only. We exchanged more money today (which requires a passport here). Looking at our itinerary, we determined that we would eliminate Mendoza. It ended up being too far of a drive, so we opted to have an extra night in Córdoba. I also knew that because we used hotels.com, we would not have a cancellation charge as long as we called this morning.
We found a call center and I made the call. I was so pleased with the customer service that I received. Not only did he cancel the reservation without a fee, but the rep also extended by one night our hotel rate in Córdoba. And he found that the rate had gone down since I booked online, so he gave us the lower rate. Amazing American customer service. The more I travel, the more unparalleled it seems!
We took colectivo 152 (a colectivo is a shared car or bus that runs on a set route) to Boca, Buenos Aires' storied Bohemian neighborhood. All of the buildings in the area are painted brightly in fluorescent colors. It cost us each $1,20 ($0.30 US) for the ride. Transportation is dirt cheap here!
Boca is a neat tourist area, complete with outdoor cafes with tango dancers on Caminito, the main passageway. The dancers invite people up to dance with them, take photos with them in dance positions, etc. There are guys working the streets whose sole job is to drum up business for the cafes. They were rather aggressive.
We sat at one of the cafes and enjoyed the tango dance show. We feasted on the mixed grill, which had several different kinds of meat. Curtis had the blood sausage (which they translated as "black pudding,"), which I refused to try.
Walking around the area, I stopped for a brief second to look at pictures on our camera (I think our memory card was full). A police car pulled up next to us and asked if we understood castellano, what the Argentines call their language. Skeptical of foreign police, I indicated that we spoke a little. The officer encouraged us to move back onto the tourist beaten path, as we were at risk of being robbed. We heeded the advice.
We saw lots of artists out peddling their work. Some were painting in the street. We struck up a conversation with a vendor representing Carlos Sosa, billed as el pintor sin manos (the painter without hands). Sosa has some kind of palsy or paralysis of the arms/hand and paints with the brush in his mouth. It was amazing to even think about. We talked about pricing and looked at several of the works, purchasing one.
We bought another piece of original art from someone else after our first attempt to negotiate down the price was swiftly accepted. Walking back through the area, I saw a sign indicating that it was Carlos Sosa's studio. I stood in front of it and asked Curtis to take a picture, since we bought one of his and I liked his story.
Just then, we heard a voice shouting at us, trying to get our attention. It was the artist, inviting us to come in to his studio/home. This great and humble man welcomed us in and introduced us to his children. He showed us his work shop and told us all about his work. It was fascinating. He also told us that due to the flu scare, business had been bad. He said it had been 29 days since he sold a painting. [Hearing that, we obviously bought a second one.] He showed us that he was down to his last 30 pesos.
His talent is great. The fact that this man is severely disabled (he only walks with great difficulty) makes appreciating his art even easier. Also in Boca, we sampled Argentina's national drink (we later learned that it was prevalent in Uruguay, too), yerba mate. I'm not a huge tea fan, so I didn't particularly care for it. In Boca, we spent a total of 630 pesos (roughly $158) on art.
We went back to the neighborhood of our hotel and picked up our laundry. We then wandered and saw the night vendors on Avenida Florida. We took pictures of La Casa Rosada, Argentina's presidential palace. Dinner was at La Chacra, a place I vowed to email Frommer's guidebook about. It billed itself as Buenos Aires' most typical restaurant. This place is all about the beef. There is a stuffed cow near the front door to greet people on the sidewalk. People can also see large cuts of meat cooking on an open fire.
The expansive menu has a diagram of a cow and shows where all of the different beef cuts are from. We had an awesome meal. We both enjoyed great steaks and provoleta, a large grilled cut of provolone cheese. Fantastic!
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
We took a hired car to the Jorge Newberry airport for 45 pesos (about $11.25). We had arranged through Priceline.com for a rental through Alamo. When we got there, Alamo had some dumb limit of 200km per day. Since we were going to be doing some serious driving, our Priceline reservation wasn't going to cut it. All calls to Priceline were unsuccessful.
We checked around and ended up getting a better deal on a car with GPS and unlimited miles through Hertz.
We investigated airfare prices to/from Uruguay (too expensive for last-minute purchase), but then drove in heavy traffic to the Buquebus ferry terminal to get our boat tickets to/from Uruguay. Due to a very large and serious crash, it took hours just to get out of Buenos Aires.
Outside of the city and in a rural area, we were startled (okay, I was scared) to see people with banners blocking most of the freeway. They had burning tires and had slowed all traffic down to one lane. Curtis rolled down his window and was handed a flyer about disgruntled cargo workers being laid off. It was scary but also very Latin American. There were no police to be seen.
We made it to Córdoba by evening. Most of the route from Buenos Aires was on a two-lane highway (Route 9). With big, slow trucks, Curtis spent a lot of time passing vehicles. We passed through towns with names such as Morrison, Armstrong, and Bell Ville, which should have been called Ballville. It is home to several soccer ball factories.
We checked into the lovely Amerian Hotel (an Argentine chain), which was smack dab in the center of downtown. It was a nice place. We checked in and then headed out on foot for food. We ended up settling on a $2 pizza. Food prices were amazing.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
We slept in, then enjoyed the hotel's breakfast. It was some sort of holiday, so everything was closed. There were still street vendors out and about, so we looked at their goods (mostly pirated DVDs) and saw some very neat cathedrals. We saw most of the University of Córdoba and the historic center. At a café, I discovered my love for licuados, a smoothie-like drink made from milk and peaches.
This delightful city turned a former women's prison into a beautiful community-gathering spot called El Paseo del Buen Pastor. Right by an old cathedral, this place had fountains, lawns, and community space. Hundreds of young people flocked here to have mate with each other. Love was in the air!
Walking on, we discovered Parque Sarmiento, which had a small amusement park in it. We enjoyed seeing the simple rides and the little kids enjoying them so much. We walked to see the river, which wasn't very impressive. We did have different stray canines accompany us. We befriended a young Argentine schoolteacher named Dario and together enjoyed döner kebaps.
Friday, July 10, 2009
After partaking of another hotel breakfast, we checked out and headed out with the car to find a money exchange. After changing some money, we drove to Rosario. On the toll roads, some of the tolls were so cheap we wondered why they even bothered. We arrived at 4:45pm and checked into the local Howard Johnson. We stopped in at a bakery and once again were astounded at their amazingly low prices.
We then explored the city on foot. We could have used some more time here, as it turned out to be a beautiful city. We particularly enjoyed Belgrano's crypt and the tomb of the unknown soldier (complete with eternal flame) monuments near the river. We had an early dinner (we were the first ones to show up, around 8:30pm) at La Estancia, another grill place. We sure enjoyed our steaks in Argentina. We had to go to bed early.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
We woke up at the ungodly hour of 5:20am and were on the road just after 6am. The GPS apparently didn't work that early in the morning, so we were on our own to head back the 170 miles to Buenos Aires. Fortunately, signage was good and we found our way.
Our complaint about the GPS not working got Hertz to not charge us for it. We then took a taxi to the Buquebus terminal, where we were early enough to take an earlier ferry (10am instead of our 11:30am reservation). Immigration checks for both countries were handled right in the terminal and took only seconds. Frommer's guidebook lists Uruguay as having "the best medical care system in South America." It is further described as being "one of the most peaceful and corrupt countries in South America."
We took the fast ferry across the Atlantic Ocean to Colonia, Uruguay. After a quick customs inspection, we joined a fancy bus for the two-hour ride to Montevideo. I enjoyed looking out the window and seeing the countryside. We saw both shanties and nice homes before we made it to the capital.
At the bustling bus terminal, we exchanged money into Uruguayan pesos (about 23 pesos to the U.S. dollar). We took a cab to our extremely humble two-star hotel in Montevideo. This was a place I took a gamble on online at $28/night. I really shouldn't have. This place was dank, obscure, and quite frankly, a little scary. The surly desk clerks collected the key each time we left. The building was old and the bed and fixtures in the room had to have been at least 30 years old. It was definitely the yuckiest hotel we've stayed in.
Downtown Montevideo resembled a ghost down. There was hardly any traffic and not that many people out and about. We found a grocery store open and bought water and snacks, then walked down to the legislative palace, which was gigantic. We walked around the city some more, including to La Rambla, which wasn't anywhere near as cool as the area with the same name in Barcelona. We saw the ocean, not a whole lot to see.
We found another grill place (we thoroughly enjoyed our carnivorous selves this trip) and enjoyed sushi, then steaks. Curtis and I both read a couple of David Sedaris books on this trip, so we retired early and read.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Neither of us felt great this morning. My skin itched. We worried about the flu, bed bugs, etc., since the hotel was so nasty. We didn't have consistent hot water. We were concerned about staying another night, but not concerned enough to spend the dollars to switch to a nicer hotel. We told ourselves we were camping.
We had breakfast at an outdoor café in the city center, then walked the main street up and down. Next we went to the old city, which had some amazing architecture. Most things were closed, except for Burger King and McDonalds, both of which I was disappointed to see. The Mercado del Puerto (port market) was very neat to see. We sat outside and ate some more paella, which was filling.
Later that evening, we went to a ballet show. The tickets were obviously subsidized, costing us only $4 for an evening's entertainment. Not knowing anything about ballet, we still enjoyed it. It was nice being out with the elite of Montevideo. The nights here were cold and our waterproof windbreakers barely kept us warm.
Monday, July 13, 2009
We checked out of the scary hotel and took a cab to the Buquebus terminal, where we spent our last pesos on breakfast (empanadas, licuado, and coffee for Curtis). We arrived back in Buenos Aires with plenty of time on our hands. Since we had luggage with us, we had to take turns exploring the city. I think we each got 90 minutes to walk.
I checked out Puerto Madero again and was surprised to see a "Queen of Holland Plaza" near the ABN-AMRO building (a huge Dutch bank). There were lots of international companies in this area. I walked and located the bus terminal where we needed to catch our bus to the airport. Curtis then had his turn walking around.
Instead of catching a cab, I convinced Curtis that we could walk. Bad idea. I took one wrong street and we over-walked it. Suddenly, we went from being hours early at the bus terminal to possibly missing our bus and our flight. Ugh. A bus 30 minutes later still had seats and we were able to get on it without any trouble. We made it to the airport and were happy to be on our 9:30pm from Buenos Aires to Dallas.
Tuesday, June 14, 2009
We made it to Texas at 6:05am. The temperature was already way too high. We were glad we didn't have to leave the building. It's always nice to be back in the United States again. We arrived back in Portland at 11:05am and were picked up by our friend Lee, who had been house-sitting for us after he returned from a trip to Fiji. Our first trip to South America was quite the adventure. It was another great and relaxing vacation.