Part 7 – Glacier Country – Chile
March 26, 2009
Dateline: Santiago, Chile
Latitude at Santiago South 33.25, Longitude 70.33 West
Today we left Buenos Aires, Argentina to fly to Santiago Chile, a distance of 710 miles. In Chile, we will join 7 other couples for a 10 day trip, with 3 of them joining us at the airport in Buenos Aires for our 10:30 a.m. flight. Our route took us over the highest peak in South America, called Mt. Aconagua at 22,831 feet above sea level. The mountain itself is on the border between Argentina and Chile, but the actual peak is in Chile. We arrived at 11:45 a.m. in the same time zone as Eastern Daylight Time. Upon arrival we had to pay what they call a reciprocity fee of $134 per person. It seems they are charging US citizens the same fee that the US charges Chileans to enter the US. I don’t know who started it, but that’s the way it was so we paid up, grabbed our luggage and headed for the bus to the Santiago Sheraton where we would meet the rest of the group, most of whom had arrived overnight from Atlanta in the wee hours. The exchange rate is 550 pesos to the dollar and we cashed in a few hundred dollars to tide us over.
Chile is famous for remote places such as the Atacama desert, the Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), and remote islands such as Easter Island, which is 1,240 miles from the mainland. There are also closer in remote places such as the Juan Fernandez Islands where there really was a shipwreck and a marooned man, after whom Robinson Crusoe was patterned. There are vast wildernesses in Patagonia and the Andes, dotted with hot springs and volcanoes in a number of national parks. Adventure opportunities abound here from mountain climbing to surfing. Chile is known for its exports of wine, fruit, and seafood. The widest point of the country is only 221 miles, but the length is 2,700 miles. It has 2,085 volcanoes, of which 55 are active, along with countless glaciers. It has 12 great lakes on the Andean plateaus and 1,000 island archipelagos
Chile is very much a land of extremes, having one of the earth’s driest places – the Atacama, and also, if not the highest place, then certainly the steepest. They have terrain which goes from sea level to 23 thousand feet in fewer than 60 miles. They also have lush valleys similar to those in California in climate and crops, the most prominent of which is the Central Valley. And like California, the ground every bit as shaky and prone to earthquakes. Santiago, the capital of Chile and home to six million residents, is at the latitudinal mid-point between north and south of the country.
Chileans are primarily mestizo, a mix of indigenous and Spanish descent. Some of the more interesting indigenous people were the Atacamenos who mummified their dead, and the Diaguitas who had the disconcerting habit of taking their wives to the grave with them (ready or not). The Incas only got as far south as Santiago and gave up on conquering the tribes of the south, but they only were in Chile for 40 years. Their only real lasting contribution – was the 3 Paths of the Incas (whom you may recall were very big on building paths) through the desert, the coast and the altiplano (high plains of the Andes).
The first European here was Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed through the Straits later named for him in 1520. Next came a series of Spaniards looking for treasure, but they didn’t find much. What they did find was a lot of resistance from the locals in the south, the Mapuches and other tribes (more on them later.) Wars continued with native people in the South for most of the next century and there was certainly an abundance of chaos. Spain had trouble controlling Chile despite sending some of their best lunatics. Take for example, Dona Catalina de los Rios y Lisperguier (nickname La Quintrala) who supposedly poisoned her father, cut off the ear of one lover, had another lover murdered while she watched, had servants and slaves killed or mutilated as the notion struck her. Even La Quintrala was no match for the Mapuches, but of course she had to deal with the distinct disadvantage of constant attrition of her employees.
And the church members were also running amok – fights between different orders, name calling, gambling and womanizing – (actually this sounds all too familiar – some things just don’t change). Independence from Spain came about in 1811, primarily due to troubles back in Madrid and an inept governor who allowed a group of Chileans to form a junta to rule themselves as long as they proclaimed loyalty to the Spanish king. At the same time, the junta formed an army, established trade with other nations and set up a national congress and more or less slipped into self-rule while Spain was otherwise preoccupied. Of course this didn’t last long – about two months to be exact – before there was a power grabbing coup. Then the Spaniards woke up and invaded in 1813 trying to get their colony back, but the genie was out of the bottle. About that time a military hero with the unlikely name of Bernardo O’Higgins (seriously – he had a Chilean mother and an Irish father) strolled onstage to become their version of George Washington. The Irish were welcomed here in those days as allies since they shared a common enemy with Spain – the English.
After several reversals, Bernardo and his Army won the war for independence in 1818 and he became “director supremo” continuing to fight the Spanish with other countries to get them out of South America all together. There ensued a rather rocky road to the democracy they enjoy today – coups, strikes, wars with neighboring countries, economic collapse, depression, right wing dictators and left wing radicals. Finally elections were restored, but only as recently as 1989. Their first female president, Michelle Bachelet, was elected in 2006, So far so good – Chile seems to be thriving.
We met our other friends by the pool at the hotel where a fabulous lunch awaited us in the form of a great buffet, including a whole lamb roasting spread-eagle (or spread-sheep I guess I should say) on a spit. There was some speculation as to whether the adjacent oleanders which had been blackened by the heat from said roasting lamb, would or would not result in poisoning a person, but there were no signs of illness after consuming it so apparently not. There was also a grill slightly smaller than a school bus where every type of meat was being cooked. The tables were laden with mounds of fresh fruit and there were all sorts of vegetables and sinful desserts. After shamelessly stuffing ourselves, we had a restful afternoon and all met for dinner where a lesson we already knew was learned once again. The lesson is that when you have a party of 16, asking for separate checks will guarantee unbridled chaos to follow. After our waiters tried for approximately an hour to get our bills straight and were still unsuccessful, we surrendered and paid whatever was on our respective bills.
March 27, 2009
Dateline: Puyuhuapi, Chile
Latitude at Puyuhuapi 44.24 South Longitude 72.38 West
Today we traveled south from Santiago to Puyuhuapi, (pronounced Poo-you-whap-ee with the accent on the “whap”), located in the Aysen region of Patagonia. Our flight was to a small regional airport at a town called Balmaceda. The name Aysen (also spelled Aisen and pronounced Eye-Sin) comes from a description of the area by English speaking voyagers who had rounded Cape Horn, and recognized this place as where the “ice ends”. Phonetically that became Aysen. We again had a flight with beautiful views of the Andes, with many peaks over 20,000 feet from the left side of our airplane, and occasional glimpses of the coastline and the Pacific on our right. Our plane stopped in Puerto Montt and we almost lost Gary since he was sitting up front and the rest of us were in the back. He didn’t get the memo about an intermediate stop. Fortunately it is a small airport and he realized he was by himself once the tarmac cleared and none of us had disembarked. We were met by our large and quite comfortable tour bus, dedicated to the 16 of us, along with a few other travelers, which is a good thing because we were to be on this bus a very long time.
It was rainy when we landed and it continued to rain. We met our guide Daniel who told us that there are 2 seasons in this area: Wet and Very Wet. He said the average annual rainfall is 4 to 5 thousand millimeters which is around 160 to 200 inches. We boarded the bus, and our baggage was stowed, including one bag lost on the International flight, but which was miraculously reunited with Leo, its owner, shortly before our flight left Santiago. This was a good thing since Leo is quite tall, and if he had to borrow from the rest of us, he would be wearing very short pants. Although, given the amount of rain and puddles we were to slosh through on this day, short pants might have been just the thing.
I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of traveling to Patagonia – the name is so exotic and the clothing of the same name leads you to believe you’ll be well equipped for the rugged terrain ahead. It is far more beautiful than anything I had imagined, but the rugged terrain part was quite accurate. There are miles of thick forest, roaring rivers, steep snow capped mountains, with glaciers peeking over the high passes. Our ultimate destination was the Puyuhuapi Lodge which is northwest of Coyhaique (pronounced Coy-hi-kay with the accent on “hi”) in the Province of Santa Cruz. While the land is vast, it is very lightly populated – 90,000 people, with half of those living in Coyhaique. The Aysen region has and abundance of fresh water with approximately 4,800 rivers, offering some of the best fly fishing country in the world. (or so they say – more on this later) Scattered throughout the countless fjords are approximately 2800 islands, almost all uninhabited. Daniel said there are very few unemployed people, like fewer than 10, and everyone knows who they are and helps them out. Crime here is unheard of since everyone would immediately know who did it. This area is primarily cattle country, but timber is also a big industry.
We stopped at Coyhaique for lunch at a restaurant called El Reloj (translation is the Clock – the same word for wrist watch) and enjoyed a delicious soup and crepe which was perfect for rainy day, plus some good Chilean wine. The town sits beside a lake that was once a glacier in the 1800’s and it steams in the middle where hot springs bubble below the surface. After lunch we travelled along the Simpson River on the Austral Road. We left the paved road for some segments with the road map showing dashes versus solid lines for our route, which we came to learn means that rugged is going to be taken to a whole new level. We drove past precipitous cliffs both above us and below with much evidence of recent and ancient earthquakes and rockslides. In the late afternoon we came to a washed out bridge at a place called the Piedra del Gato (Cat’s Rock) which is now truly a bridge to nowhere with the lanes, as narrow as goat paths, shooting off into empty space with the river gorge many, many feet below.
The roads were full of vast potholes which made the trip to the back of the bus to use the bathroom a challenge. And it was somewhat entertaining to glance back to see who might just be sitting on the throne when the door flew open after a jolt from a serious pothole. At least the exposed person was among friends – sort of good news, bad news story.
There was evidence all around us of an old forest fire. Daniel said that after a war between Chile and Peru/Bolivia in 1879, soldiers were paid with land. All they had to do was clear it, which they did by burning, and they could have as many hectares as they could clear. This ended in the 1920’s, but the forest still has not recovered. Few big trees have emerged from reforestation and there were many burnt logs and stumps still in evidence, but somehow they didn’t distract from the misty Brigadoon-like setting. There was lush vegetation and waterfalls at every turn – and there are plenty of turns (298 of them on this stretch of road). Many waterfalls are seasonal – somewhat diminished when it is Wet, vs. Very Wet, we suppose. For much of the drive there was a sheer rock wall to one side and a sheer drop off on the other. We were surrounded by craggy peaks, new mountains, relatively speaking which are very different from the smooth older ones we see in the Eastern US. These are more like the Rockies in the American West.
We stopped for delicious biscuits at a small village en route which may have been named Campo Grande, but I have to say between using the facilities and munching on the biscuits and honey, I could be mistaken about that. However, since we’ve only gone through 2 villages in the many hours since Coyhaique, I have a 50/50 chance of being right. We began following the Cisnes River (Cisnes translates as swan) on Route 7. The name “route” is loosely applied since this is a gravel road and there are no signs of the swans, but then again it’s getting dark and they could be out there.
We have seen a number of glaciers nestled in the “V’s” of the mountain peaks on our route. Patagonian Chile has 64 glaciers. Daniel told us there were four Ice Ages in this area, with these glaciers the remnants of the last one which was approximately 25,000 years ago. The first was 200k years ago, the second 160k years ago, and the third 60k years ago There are basically two types of ice on the glaciers – glacial and snow. The clear blue glacial ice is frozen water left over from the last Ice Age. The dirty white ice is frozen snow which has fallen on the glacier and has frozen there. Per Daniel, the Ice Age came on so fast, in Alaska that scientists have found fully preserved mammoth remains with grass still in the creature’s mouth and throat – perhaps the first case of flash frozen food.
We thought we were arriving in the afternoon, but we actually arrived well after dark – pitch black, major league dark. Actually Daniel and the bus driver were the only ones who were sure we actually had arrived since there were no lights anywhere. We more or less felt our way down to a dock that they promised us was there, where we boarded two boats to cross the fjord to reach the Puyuhuapi Lodge on the other side. This trek to the water’s edge was accomplished despite a gale force wind (my estimation, not the National weather service standard) and a driving rain. Our boat had to turn back and wait for the second boat since we were told the “radar” was not working.We supposed they must have needed to ascertain where the shoreline was since there was no river traffic to worry about. This fjord is not all that wide and the hotel had the only lights around, but it was tucked into a little cove and not visible. With the changing tide our captain pronounced “Ahora o Nunca” (now or never) and we set out and bounced our way across the fjord in the dark. We could only assume that if we didn’t depart “ahora”, the tide would take us somewhere out in the Pacific, far from our destination.
Despite the shaky embarkation and crossing, we had a great welcome of pisco sours and caipirinhas. We were encouraged to get into fluffy white terrycloth robes and go to our welcome Spa Experience, which included a brief orientation followed by a soak in one of the hot spring pools. This was not just any hot spring – this was an Olympic Size pool with little surrounding pools of varying temperatures. Then we went to dinner in the lodge for a good meal, barely recalled due to fatigue and languor brought about by the bus ride and the hot springs respectively. We went to sleep with our balcony door open to the soothing sound of the rain drumming away.
March 28, 2009
Dateline: Puyuhuapi, Chile
We realized when the sun came up that the rooms have fabulous views of the fjord and surrounding mountains. Well ,we had to kind of imagine the mountains due to the low hanging clouds – but just like good friends, you don’t always see them, but you always know they are there. The landscape and the climate is very much like the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest – so temperate in fact that there is fuchsia growing wild here.
The Puyuhuapi Resort and Spa has a rather intriguing slogan that goes like this: “Un Secreto al Sur de Silencio” which translates as A Secret South of Silence” It’s a secret in that few people know it’s here, it’s south for sure, and was silent until we got here. All true, but how do you go south of silence? Maybe it’s like those Incan myths – they are meant to be spiritual and not intended for any of that analytical type scrutiny. One thing was for sure with the arrival of the16 of us, the silence was indeed in shattered. It is entirely possible we were those boisterous people that hotel patrons usually call the front desk to complain about.
After a hearty breakfast we reported to a small garden shed-like room to pick out our rain gear for the day which was comprised of voluminous ponchos and somewhat ill fitting rubber boots, that were sort of like clown shoes, since they tended to be somewhat bulky. Boots are essential, given that the trails are perpetually muddy. We later learned that muddy would prove to be understatement – we almost lost our friend Alison in a mud hole which was up to mid-calf and still sucking her downward when she was pulled to safety by her fellow trekkers.
The mud was a mild distraction, however, as we took the North Trail through a fairyland forest with moss, tiny flowers, big elephant ear-like plants called nalco as best I could tell, which is probably not right since no amount of Googling can get confirmation. Anyway, their giant leaves were large enough to shelter a small family. There were towering trees, including many unusual species such as cinnamon, well over a century old, covered with moss and lichen, giving the appearance of an enchanted forest where a whole tribe of Hobbits could live undetected. The forest floor was carpeted with an assortment of giant ferns, exotic plants, and tiny blooms, some almost microscopic, and all slurping up the moisture. We found it to be similar to Olympic National Park in Washington State, minus all the ancient old growth timber.
After our trek we had lunch at the lodge and then visited the outdoor spas, a series of natural thermal springs along the banks of the fjord with steam rising and blending into the mist of the colder air. Given the proximity to the fjord, it was possible to have a soak and then take a plunge into the icy waters of the fjord, but we only watched in shock and awe of those intrepid spa-goers who did so. The temperatures varied from pool to pool so you could pick your comfort level, depending on which spa you selected. Many of us had spa treatments in the afternoon – I selected a milk bath with a Jacuzzi so active I actually kept looking to see if it had churned any butter while I was lounging. It was quite relaxing and sent me packing back to our room for a recovery nap. Gary picked a wine bath with the same fizzy element and had a similar nap-inducing experience. He swears he did not taste the waters, but he hoped it was an inferior vintage that did not make the grade in the tasting room.
It continued to rain so we had card games and cocktails before dinner in the lodge, watching the clouds and the mist out on the fjord fade to darkness. And when it gets dark here – it is a black, really black kind of dark. We are housed in groups of individual lodges that are only a very short walk (climb) from the main lodge but we have to pick our way carefully along the flagstones. There is lighting along the walkways, but it really doesn’t stand a chance against the dark. The lodge provided umbrellas for going to and from the dining room, so the object is to make sure you leave for your room before all the umbrellas have gone before you. Again the sleeping was spectacular.
March 29, 2009
Dateline: Puyuhaupi , Chile
We awoke to clouds in the morning, but by the afternoon, bright sunshine emerged and the scenery became even more stunning and breathtaking. Local wisdom says that in Chile you can have all four seasons in the same day and today we can see this for ourselves. Gary and our friend Skip had a fly fishing adventure scheduled, so they set off right after an early breakfast.
The rest of us were doing a trek to the Hanging Glacier in Queulat National Park. The glacier does more or less hang over the waterfall, although this was not always the case. Our guide, Daniel told us that in the 1800’s the glacier covered the gorge we crossed and the trail we hiked up and in fact extended all the way to the fjord where the Puyuhuapi Resort is. As recently as 1975, the glacier was in the gorge and on this trail. It is retreating so quickly that it provides clear evidence that the earth is warming, regardless of the cause or the consequences. We took a short boat ride to Rio Union and then boarded a bus to the national park. Once on foot, we crossed a huge gorge with a roaring river below on a swinging bridge. Only 4 people are allowed on it at one time which doesn’t do much to inspire confidence in the structure, but they say no tourists have been lost here yet. The river here is chocolate milk brown from all the silt that is disgorged by the glacier action. From the bridge we could see the glacier at the top of a waterfall in the distance; however, we were seeing only a fraction of it. The bulk of it is in the high valleys in the peaks above us. Our walk took us to within a half a mile of it. We saw the two types of ice quite clearly – the brownish white of years of frozen snowfall and the underlying aquamarine of compressed ice from the original glacier formation. In 1975 the waterfall we were seeing was about 13 feet high. Today it is 300 feet high. Daniel told us that this glacier is actually trying to advance ( i.e. there is forward movement), but it is melting so much, it loses all the ice it gains over the winter and then some.
We were fortunate enough to see a calving, where a chunk of the glacier broke off while we were there. We actually saw it first and then heard the crash of it a few second later. The concussion is often so great that it stuns the fish in the river below and they come floating to the surface, which for the birds circling above, is like winning the lottery every day. So from their perspective, this global warming business is not such a bad thing.
As for the fly fishing expedition, the report that came back was that fishing was good, but the catching was bad. The outfitter had some good equipment, but he had one XL and one L. Skip and Gary are both XXL kind of guys, but Skip, deciding he is the daintier of the pair, very graciously offered to take the L. We have pictures of the guide trying to shoehorn Skip into what we came to call Fisherman’s Spanx. (For my male readers, Spanx is a brand of under-clothing designed to make women look skinnier.) Although Skip looked at least 10 pounds lighter, he has declined to switch to size L spandex clothing on a permanent basis. The streams were too murky for the fish to take the bait so Skip and Gary retired to a small lodge for lunch, where fueled by good Chilean wine, they proceeded to concoct the fish stories that they planned to tell the rest of us. The lunch and wine were so much more satisfying than the fly fishing, they decided to not “mess with success” and that they should keep at this endeavor until it was time to return to Puyuhuapi in the late afternoon.
For the rest of us, it was an equally leisurely afternoon napping, reading, cards, and of course the spas. The lodge had kayaks available, but it looked pretty damp by late afternoon so our group remained lethargic for the most part. At dinner tonight we met Lucia, a friend of Alison’s who was totally charming. From Lucia we learned a new phrase in Chilean Spanish, espereme un minuto which is used to mean roughly Wait a minute, hang on a minute, etc., but literally translates as “Wait me a minute. We had dinner at the lodge and fell into bed early with a 6:00 a.m. wake up call looming the next day.
March 30, 2009
Dateline: Chacabuco and the San Rafael Glacier
Latitude at San Rafael Glacier 44.24 South, 72.38 West
Today we traveled by boat to our destination – the San Rafael Lagoon and Glacier and then on to the fishing village of Chacabuco to spend the night. We had to have our bags out at 6:30 a.m. for a departure at 6:50 (a.k.a. 0:dark thirty) on a large catamaran called the Patagonia Explorer. Fortunately no one had to invoke the “wait me a minute”phrase for the departure. The San Rafael Glacier covers 4,600 square kilometers and is a thousand meters thick at its deepest point, a thickness supplemented by 600 feet of snow per year. Once at the glacier we were as at 44.24 degrees south, and still we are about 10 degrees north of the southernmost tip of the South American continent, Cape Horn. It was mostly sunny as we motored out of the fjord and into Laguna Los Tempanos. (Lake of the Ice Floes) which made the already impressive scenery truly spectacular. There was no lake here until the last 30 years when the ice retreated, although despite its name we saw only stray chunks of ice here and there instead of floes.
As we travelled the length of the lake, we concluded that Puyuhuapi and the Aysen area of Patagonia are definitely on our Top Ten Most Beautiful Places in the World. As the day progressed, we expanded that to include the San Rafael Glacier area and the austral fjords that lead to it. The trip took on a mystical quality with the alternating mist, sunlight and clouds playing over heavily forested mountains. The water was as flat as a mirror with our vessel generating the only ripple in its surface. Then as special icing on the already fantastic cake, we encountered several schools of dolphins which swam beside us from time to time. We also saw the black necked swans that are very common in this area. The scenery had that same “Wow Factor” as did Puyuhuapi. Around every bend was another ethereal scene, with the sun emerging from time to time like a benediction. It proved to be an excellent time and place to reflect on and to count our blessings.
We eventually passed a tiny fishing village clinging to the rocky shoreline. There was so little land with no soil to speak of, they had their cemetery across the channel on another island. Since it was an 8 hour trip to the glacier by boat and we would not arrive at the Port of Chacabuco and our hotel until after 11:00 p.m., there were about 5 meals served on the boat, all basically okay, but not gourmet. We had breakfast lunch and dinner, as well as an afternoon and evening snack. The Chileans call snack time “onces” meaning the elevens, and, as I understand it, is sort of like happy hour. Onces usually is between 5 and 7 p.m. and, as originally observed was more like the British “Tea” (little cakes, little sandwiches, perhaps crumpets, or maybe not) It is intended to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner which is usually eaten around 9:00 p.m. in these parts. It is said the name actually came from British custom of having a late morning snack around 11:00 a.m. and it sort of evolved to consumption of a local liquor at men only clubs in the olden days. The liquor was called aguardiente, which I would think would translate as “tooth water”. Correct or not, I think the “tooth water” moniker to describe a liquor of choice could catch on, as in Toothwater and Tonic, Toothwater Martini and so forth.
None of the meals were a highlight (especially the lowlight huevos revueltos which should have been scrambled eggs. However, I have to find out if revueltos can also mean revolting which was also true of these same eggs.) They were served, well, a little on the rare side – like barely out of the chicken. However, we were not here on this boat or in this place for the food, so we continued having a fabulous time.
There was plenty of leisure time on the boat so when we were not gagging on the eggs, we played card games. Our first glimpse at the glacier confirmed for us that the trip was worth every minute of travel and countless undercooked eggs. The glacier was simply magnificent. Sections of it were the usual white shades, but the blues ranged from aquamarine to sapphire and all shades in between, with the shifting clouds and sun making the colors change dramatically. The cold weather here rivals the highest altitudes of Peru and is damp too boot, so deck strolling required getting all bundled up. Those baby alpaca hats Sharon and I bought in Peru came in handy and we appreciated their sacrifice. I did note, after getting wet in a brief rain shower, my baby alpaca hat gave me a distinct “Tina Turner on a bad hair day” look, but it was quite glamorous while I was dry.
One of the most memorable events of this trip was going out in little inflatable zodiac-type boats to see the glacier up close. We wore life jackets of course, but the water is so cold they are merely a formality so they can recover your frozen body and ship it home (my words, not theirs). While we kept a safe enough distance, we were thrilled to hear a crack and a roar followed by a huge splash and we were close enough to feel the swells generated, which seriously rocked our boat. We watched as the sea birds swooped in to collect the dead or disoriented fish stunned by the concussion. The glacier itself is massive at the water’s edge – 120 feet above the waterline and 230 feet below. It also calves underwater which is kind of dicey for small boats – you don’t want one of these to come surging to the surface under your inflatable boat like a submarine in an emergency surfacing drill. It was quite an adventure to be motoring among icebergs from car to house size with 80 to 90 per cent of their bulk underwater. When we returned to the catamaran, we engaged in a tradition of the Patagonia Express by having our own onces with whisky on the rocks served over ice chipped from icebergs recently calved. If whiskey was not to your liking, you could have your tooth water of choice.
We stayed at the glacier until dusk and motored north again to Chacabuco, arriving well after dark. Our hotel was the Loberias del Sur. I can’t seem to come up with the translation of loberias, but given the décor, I thought it must mean sea lions or seals. Sur, of course is south. We regret that it was too dark to see much of the scenery, much less spot any loberias, so that will have to wait until tomorrow.
March 31, 2009
Dateline: Santiago, Chile
We took the bus for the drive from Chacabuco via Puerto Aysen and Balmaceda. We made a short stop, for some shopping in Puerto Aysen – a long stop would be superfluous since the town was so tiny and the shops so few, but it was nevertheless charming. On our bus ride, we had the opportunity to learn more about the area. For example, the name Patagonia came from Magellan. Patagon was the name of a giant from a Spanish novel, although many thought it was a word that meant “Big Feet”. This seems quite feasible since when Spaniards first came, they saw tracks in the snow made by the indigenous people (Tehuelches) who were using snowshoes made from guanaco hide. Spaniards concluded that the inhabitants of the area had monstrously big feet. Magellan also might have though they were giants because the average Tehuelche male at the time averaged 5’11 and the average Spaniard only 5’1. So they may well have been giants from the Spaniards’ perspective. The land defined as Patagonia is twice the size of California, but it is much more sparsely populated. (1.5 million compared to 34 million). We took an afternoon flight back to Santiago and rechecked into the Sheraton.
We had the rest of the afternoon and evening at leisure so Gary and I took a walk to the surrounding neighborhood of Providencia to get a feel for the city. We crossed a bridge over the Mapocho River which has been tamed and channeled by concrete much like the rivers in southern California. The low humidity, and scrubby hillsides are comparable as well. Santiago only averages 12 inches of rain per year and that comes in May-September (winter). This part of Santiago is very mixed between modern glass buildings and more traditional European architectures with broad leafy avenues and a lot of outdoor cafes. It seems popular with the local after work crowds. We had a quick dinner at an outdoor pizza restaurant and walked back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s winery tour.
April 1, 2009
Dateline: The Maipo Valley, Chile
Today we boarded a small bus for a four hour drive to south of the city of Santiago to the upper Maipo (pronounced my-po with the accent on “my”)Valley which runs alongside the Maipo River, and was a little dry this time of year. En route we had the chance to learn about the history of wine making in the area.The first “spirits” were made the the indigenous people, the Mapuche (pronounced Mah-poo-chee, with the accent on “poo”), which was about 4% to alcohol. Their methodology was a little bizarre. They apparently didn’t have a good source of yeast since they found it necessary to use the yeast found in saliva to start fermentation. No word on who spit in the first batch to determine that this would indeed work. It would make an interesting story – perhaps some irritated serving girl spit into an obnoxious customer’s unfermented beverage of choice and he liked the result.
The local vintners actually have the Spaniards to thank for bringing in the first grape cuttings. They needed wine for mass and it certainly didn’t hurt their recruitment efforts with converts. The locals had to like this particular enticement, and the fact that no spit was involved in the making of this product would seem to be especially attractive. There was a local 8% alcohol beverage called chichi, but it was not made from corn (as in Peru), but from grapes and was a forerunner of pisco, which is a white brandy made from Muscat grapes. Local wines typically have an alcohol content of about 14%, and due to the heat, grapes ripen quickly. Originally, the wine was stored in cow skins with the hair on the inside for whatever reason. And even more strange was the practice of keeping the tail on to assist in draining the bags. I didn’t even want to know how that worked.
The area where we are going was first occupied by the Mapuches, who had a leader that they called the Toki. If he was killed or when he died, they just picked another – none of this royalty business for the Mapuches, but this earliest democracy was squashed by the Spaniards who had the nasty habit of putting Mapuche heads on spikes (no longer attached to torsos) to intimidate the others. The area was more or less in a constant state of warfare from 1536 to 1880 when the Mapuches fought the Spanish tooth and nail, mostly between Santiago and Puerto Montt.
A Spaniard named Valdivia was told he could keep any land he could conquer and manage to hold on to, so with a motley crew of 150 he founded Santiago in 1541. There was an uprising by the indigenous Mapuches, but they were defeated in a day long battle by Spaniards, which included Valdivia’s girlfriend, Ines De Suarez who donned some chainmail and apparently acquitted herself admirably. The bad news was that everything they had was destroyed in battle. Valdivia tried to spread civilization by establishing other cities and essentially enslaving the indigenous people to farm and pan for gold. However, his troops were stretched too thinly and there were several uprisings. He was killed in battle by Mapuches – supposedly captured and tied to a tree and forced to swallow molten gold (no doubt an exaggeration, containing more poetic justice than truth). Even after the revolution when the Spaniards went home in the early 1800’s, the Mapuches fought against the new governments that followed.
Our visit today was to the Santa Rita Winery, founded in 1880 with imported machinery and enologists from France. The imported French Oak barrels were the key to flavors created – a vast improvement over the cow hides with the hair inside and the cow tail spout. No word on whether the so called“bung hole” , where the wine comes out of the oak barrel has any connection to the cow tail of old, but we can only hope not. We toured the winery which had a small Andean Museum with artifacts, pottery, and weaving from various indigenous cultures. After the tasting of several excellent Medalla Real Wines, we had lunch in the Dona Paula Restaurant at the winery .The restaurant is named after Paula Jaraquemade, a woman who hid Bernardo O’Higgins and 120 soldiers from the Spaniards during the rebellion from Spain. Santa Rita is the largest vintner in Chile with 5 wineries. The one we visited was in Alto Jahuel, where they make 19 million liters per year. We also visited the Bodega Uno, one of the oldest cellars in Chile at this same vineyard.
We returned to Santiago on the same route, part of which was on the 2,700 mile long Pan Am Highway which we were on earlier in Ecuador and which stretches from Alaska to Puerto Montt, several miles south of here. Chile has only 110 miles of the Pan Am,, but it stops far short of the southern most tip of the country at Punta Arenas. Tonight we had dinner at the Fabula restaurant, located in an old house, recently renovated in a residential neighborhood. The dinner special was called Ropa Viejo (which translates as old clothes), but is actually a beef stew kind of dish that is pretty tasty. We returned to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s city tour.
April 2, 2009
Dateline: Santiago, Chile
Today we toured the city of Santiago with our guide Jean (the French version of John) and our driver Gabriel. En route we commented on the number of dogs running around the city off leash. Jean told us that there are a number of stray dogs, but that they are very well fed. Apparently Santiago people take the attitude that the dogs belong to everybody, versus nobody, so everyone feeds them. Santiago has almost no wind since it is blocked by the Andes to the East and hills to the West so smog is an occasional problem, but we didn’t experience much on our visit. Many local cops here ride on little Vespa like lime green motor scooters with lime green vests and the locals refer to them as the Ninja Turtles. At various intersections they also have interesting street entertainers who collect money from people at stop lights. For example en route into the city we saw a juggler with a clown nose tossing knives in the air standing on a box in the middle of the intersection. It certainly keeps the routine commute interesting.
We started our tour in the Old City which included watching the changing of the Guard at the Government Palace. It is called La Moneda, which translates as the coin. The name is appropriate since this palace was originally a mint. It doesn’t exactly seem palatial with air conditioning provided by window units, but the elaborate guard ceremony is worthy of a palace and provides a distraction from the Rube Goldberg effect of the palace’s cooling system which is probably cost effective, but not too attractive.
One of the most famous of the residents of La Moneda was Salvador Allende, who was elected by a left-wing coalition in 1970 on the platform of providing a pair of shoes and free milk to every school child in Chile. However, there was a military coup in 1973 and the far right took over from the far left. Salvador was last seen alive in a helmet, wielding a machine gun given to him by Castro as the bombs fell on La Moneda. Allende was later found dead inside and it was said to be a suicide, but with all the bullets flying, who could tell? I was envisioning their taking his weapon from his cold dead hands and thought that it was too bad he was a leftist –otherwise he would have been a great poster-man for the NRA.
The coup brought the dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet and the usual round of torture, killing and repression of all individual freedoms ensued. Pinochet finally fell from power when he allowed a vote of confidence election that he was so confident of winning, he didn’t bother to rig it. Pinochet managed to stay in power officially until 1989, at which time democratic elections were restored. In 1998 he was detained in Europe and charged with crimes against humanity, but was later ruled mentally unfit to stand trial – just another wacky third world dictator, which is actually a pretty sizable club.
From there we went to the main square of the old city called the Plaza de las Armas to see the Government House and to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral. En route we saw a cloister and church founded by nuns who got stranded here while trying to reach Quebec. We went inside the cathedral, but we got a little distracted at this point because there was a major protest outside in the Plaza de Armas and the surrounding streets. Students and teachers were demanding lower tuition, government funded education and financial aid and there were all sorts of riot police to ensure things didn’t get violent. When we emerged from the
cathedral, we became inadvertent participants, mingling among the sign-wavers and slogan chanters. As we gawked, plastic barricades suddenly started flying and that’s when the water cannons came out and people started running for cover. Our guide directed us into a nearby museum and the door was barred behind us. But by this time the excitement was pretty much over so we didn’t miss much. We did a walk by of the historic home of a local wine family, the Cousinos who established a winery called Cousino Macul, one of the oldest in Chile, but once you’ve been part of a riot, historic homes seem pretty tame.
Our guide seemed anxious to get us out of the city center with all the dispersed protesters, and so he took us to the top of Cerro San Cristobal to see city which sprawls for miles. Atop the hill is the Santuario de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception) with a 46 foot high statue of the Virgin Mary. From there went to lunch at a charming little place called Pueblito Los Domenicos and had the opportunity to shop in a wonderful crafts market. That night we had dinner at another great restaurant called Pinpillinpausha. I may have inserted a few extra letters in here, but it translates to something like “butterfly in the bush” in some language other than Spanish. Dinner is served late in the city and thus it was close to 11:00 when we returned to the Sheraton.
April 3, 2009
Dateline: Valparaiso, Chile
Latitude at Valparaiso 33.03 South, 71.36 West.
Today we traveled over the Coast Range and through the Casa Blanca (White House) Valley to the port city to Valparaiso and the neighboring resort city of Vinas del Mar Vineyards by the Sea) with a visit to Casa del Bosque (House in the Forest) en route. The Casa Blanca Valley was very reminiscent of Napa in climate and ambiance. We all said, (or at least we would if we all spoke Spanish), que lindo (how beautiful). As we drove, we noticed the same sort of roadside shrines for those lost in accidents along the roadside that we saw in Peru and Ecuador, but these were even more elaborate, little dog-house like structures, often decorated with shiny things (e.g. hubcaps, glass bottles, etc.), One even had tires cut in half and stuck in the ground forming little arches of rubber fencing around the “doghouse”.
Since we were visiting just at the start of harvest time, at Casa del Bosque, we had the unique experience of actually going into the vineyard’s fields and tasting the ripened grapes right off the vines. We also had an excellent grape and wine lesson. We learned that unlike wine grapes, table grapes are kept out of the direct sun so their skins do not become thick and tough and to ensure that they do not ripen too quickly since they often travel to distant markets. They are also typically trained to grow on a pergola so they are shaded by their own leaves and then they are picked from below. White grapes are grown in cooler regions near the coast and red are grown in the hotter regions. The climate here is just right since they have a nightly fog and warm sunny days. Their little grape tasting crop had all the varieties, but the fields were primarily red grapes. The growers want the wine grapes to get maximum sun (more sun means more sugar content) and are not concerned with skins or time to market, but they do pay attention to the region where they are planted, Some varieties call for an early pick and others for a late pick. Tannins are in the skins and the vintner can take them out or add them in, depending on the desired taste.
Our grape tasting, like our wine tasting that followed went from light to heavy. We tasted Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and a regional wine and grape called Carmenere, exclusive to Chile. It was once thought that this grape variety was extinct (a blight wiped out the European crops) but vines were later found and propagated in Chile. Both wine and grape are fabulous. Carmenere is most comparable to Malbec in Argentina, and is similar in some respects to cabernet sauvignon, but lighter. We found it remarkable that the vintner’s assistant could describe accurately for us what taste and what sensations we would have in our mouths with each wine.
After the wine tasting we continued on to the coast while enjoying the fertile valleys we travelled through. Eighty per cent of the land in Chile is mountains and they have a sizeable desert area so arable land is a precious commodity and they make the most of it with a bountiful harvest. In this area they grow, in addition to grapes, avocados, olives, berries , and citrus – each the most delicious imaginable. Raspberries are so plentiful here they make juice from it to serve with breakfast.
We stopped for a delicious seafood lunch at a quaint little place called Delicias del Mar right across the road from the ocean at Renaca Beach. Having lunch right on the beach was not an option since there were waves crashing on the rocks and occasionally over the sea wall. There was also a dramatic surf display on a big rock protruding out of water called Monte Mar (the translation is Sea Mountain, but it is nicknamed Michael Jackson Rock since it started out black, but is now white thanks to sea birds) There were plenty of sea lions on the rocks, but so distant that they were merely dots on the horizon. We could hear them, but thankfully not smell them since this can spoil a good lunch if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction and it was indeed windy.
After lunch we had a brief visit to Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but we were running short of time due to too much sampling at the winery and too much dallying over lunch. The city is named after a city in Spain whose name means “valley of paradise”. Valparaiso experienced a serious earthquake in 1988 with 300 dead and they had to do extensive restoration to their historic area. Copper mining is the number one industry in the hills above the valley and the city is the main seaport for the country. The city is built on steep hills – very San Francisco like, perhaps without the glamour, but not without the charm. There are Victorian gingerbread houses in pastels in many neighborhoods, while in others there are more eclectic
styles in all the colors of the rainbow and then some. All the houses, regardless of style, seem to be clinging to the hillside for dear life. There are a number of funiculars (called ascensores) in the city that people who live there use daily to come and go. We rode one to the top of Cerillo Artillerano (Artillery Hill) overlooking the commercial harbor and from there we could see the whole city and up the coast line to Vinas del Mar in the north. We returned to Santiago for dinner at the Mestizo Restaurant in Santiago. We had another wonderful meal, but most of us passed on the conger eel that our friend and hostess, Alison suggested we try if we wanted a true taste of Chile.
April 4, 2009
Dateline: Lima, Peru
We had a leisurely morning, packing up our dirty clothes and preparing to leave Chile on an evening flight. We walked to a restaurant called Divertamiento, an outdoor café for a casual lunch. We lounged around the pool at the Sheraton and left in the late afternoon to catch an 8:00 p.m. flight to Lima. We thankfully had reservations at a hotel on the airport grounds since we checked in after midnight. We set our alarm for 4:00 a.m. to catch the next leg of our return trip.
April 5, 2009
Dateline: Miami, FL
We had a 6:30 a.m. flight to Miami to catch our connecting flight to Atlanta so we were really glad to have spent the night literally across the street. The flight was long and uneventful (always a good thing), and it gave us time to reflect on what we’d seen and done over the last six weeks and do the math on how far we travelled. Not including tour vans, boats and treks on foot it came to 18, 510 miles and yes, every mile was absolutely worth it.