A Travellerspoint blog

Mendoza

My last hurrah in Argentina

sunny 20 °C

When I was doing my trip planning for Argentina, I had ruled out going to Mendoza because it is wine country. I am not a sommelier or a big drinker and I figured I could check that box by hitting a few wineries around Santiago (also a famous wine producing area). I changed my mind, not for the wine, but for the food. Overall, I really like Chile. The people are wonderful (men give up their seats on the bus to the old ladies), but the food (wine excepted) has been really hit and miss. I have had mediocre meals in recommended restaurants and been unimpressed many of the local specialties. The grilled fish is lovely, but the sea food dishes are overcooked (think rubbery shrimp and pastey clams and mussels). They do delicious salads and an amazing brisket (mechada or beef steak stewed in wine, tomatoes and onion), but chicken and pork are also overcooked and tough. I tried the famous eel, and found it meaty and tasteless.

Flying back from Easter Island, I kept thinking about beef tenderloin and sauces that do happy dances in my mouth. Decision made. Mendoza is a mere 6 hours away from Santiago and the drive required several hours driving through the spectacular Andes mountains. On the Chile side, there was one section of the road with 60 switchbacks! On the Argentina side, there were different colours in the hills - red, purple, green and yellow. It was really pretty.

Mendoza is a city of about a million people. It is very relaxed and clean with walking streets and 5 plazas (or parks) with different themes, vegetation and fountains, all in the centre of town. It was nice to just to sit in the park and read a book. The wine producing area, is just outside of the city, in an area called Maipu. There are 600 wineries in the area. One day, I took the bus to the heart of Maipu, rented a bike (they gave me a little map of the highlights) and designed my own tour. There was not just wine to sample, the region produces olive oil, tapinades, jams, raisons, liqueurs and even chocolate. There were industrial wineries with metal tanks and traditional bodegas owned by a family for 5 generations. It was a treat! The down side was riding a crappy bike on the highway with buses and trucks bearing down on you, but I distracted myself with the shady tress, and tidy vineyards lining the roads.

Another day, I spent relaxing at the Cacheuta spa in the foothills of the Andes. Le Nordik watch out! This place had outdoor pools with views of the river and mountains. There was a natural sauna in a cave, a mud bath section, and a shallow pool with rocks to massage your feet. That was a very good day!!! Oh and the food? It was worth the 6-hour trip for beef tenderloin that melted like butter and wonderful desserts. Even the tapinades for the bread my mouth water. I discovered a new wine (for me), a white of all things - Torrontes!! It was so different and so good (clean and light, but not fruity, sweet or bitter). It made me want to order fish!

So ends my 3-month adventure. It has been a great run and it went so fast, but I am tired. I am back in Santiago and fly back north tonight.

Posted by Caro369 16.04.2012 08:35 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Easter Island

Jagged coastline, the immutable sea and moai

sunny 28 °C

I had a lovely week on Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui). The island is small (about 25km long and half as wide) and extremely isolated. It´s closest neighbours are far: the mainland of Chile (3700km to the east) and Tahiti (4000km to the west). It was a 4.5 hour flight from Santiago (check out the map on my blog)! Given this isolation, people have taken to calling Easter Island the "end of the world" (move over Ushuaia). Legend has it that Rapa Nui was colonized by a Tahitian king about a thousand years ago and Rapa Nui's people are of Polynesian descent (same cultural group as Hawaii, Tahiti, and the Maori in New Zealand). I attended a few dance shows and there was similarities to Hawaii in the music, the costumes and the style of dance (gyrating hips and soft arms). Not that I know much about the Maori in New Zealand, but the locals had similar tattoos (the black swirls and curved lines).

People rave about the island being "paradise" with a mysterious history. At first, I have to say, I wasn´t feeling it. The island was pretty, very green (lots of grassy hills/extinct volcanoes), but not exactly lush (few trees and no jungle). Easter island is famous for its moai (very different from other Polynesian islands). These are enormous statutes carved from basalt, which are on average 4m high and 15 metric tons each. The moai were set up on platforms in groups along the coast of the island with their backs to the sea. Carbon dating suggests that this of practice carving statutes started around 1100 AD and continued until the 17th century. The Rapa Nui people (like many indigenous people of south america) were nearly wiped out by disease in the 18th century and much of the historical record was lost (including how to read Rapa Nui's written language). Tradition suggests that a platform was built in a place of honour in each village. The statues represented tribal leaders or spirits and they "watched over" the village. About 300-400 years ago, things started to fall apart in paradise. There was a period of tribal warfare (probably due to scarce resources) and most of the moai were pushed off the platforms and left face down on the ground. Over the last 50 years, foreigners have restored various platforms and moai, rebuilding some of the majesty of the past. Today, the island is a giant open air museum. My first few days were spend driving around with a tour group visiting the various platforms in dramatic settings (e.g., set off by a white-sand beach and palm trees or framed by the green hills and sea) This was very cool, but I must admit, I wasn't seduced by the magic. The moai are enormous, but they don't look it. The are positively dwarfed by the backdrop of cliffs, sea and coast.

Ahu (platform) with moai and pukao (hat)

Ahu (platform) with moai and pukao (hat)


Ahu Tongariki

Ahu Tongariki


Ahu Tongariki (from the front)

Ahu Tongariki (from the front)


Rano Raraku

Rano Raraku


unrestored platform

unrestored platform

I finally came around. I had to get out of the car and start walking. The island of Rapa Nui was created by 3 erupting volcanos (now extinct). The rugged coast is composed of jagged, bubbly black and red rock (hardened lava) forming coves, caves and little peninsulas that jut into the sea. The sea! The waves batter the coast constantly throwing white geyers of spray into the air at each collision, but the coast seems un-perturbed. The rock is still as pointy and jagged as the day it was formed. The restless sea constantly changed colour from grey to turquoise to deep blue (somewhere between royal and navy) depending on the weather and the time of day. I fell in love with the rugged beauty of coast and the power of the sea. I could just watch the fireworks created by crashing waves for hours!

Coast 1

Coast 1


Coast 2

Coast 2


Coast 3

Coast 3


Lake in crater of Ranu Kao

Lake in crater of Ranu Kao


Sunset

Sunset

The Rapa Nui economy was clearly built on tourism, but there was a small and charming feel to it. The countless small hotels and restaurants were family-fun. The handicrafts were hand-made and not imported from China. Thankfully, no starbucks or macdonald's to be found. For example, I asked for a taxi one day and a woman drove up in her car with a small hand-drawn sign in the window. I never thought I would say this, but I am sick of tuna (grilled, cerviched, sashimied). No more!

I am sad to report, my 3 month adventure is winding down. I am spending my last week in Argentina. This afternoon I arrived in Mendoza. I look forward to couple of very nice meals in wine country.

Posted by Caro369 08.04.2012 17:59 Archived in Chile Comments (4)

La Serena and the Elqui Valley

The night sky, the beach and very strange Chilean papaya‏

sunny 22 °C

Last week, I headed 7 hours north (towards the equator) and to my absolute shock, it became autumn. I had to put away my sandals and dig out my hiking boots for the cool evenings. For a few days, I set up shop in Vicuña in the sunny Elqui Valley. This is a fertile agricultural area producing grapes, avacadoes, oranges, papaya, pomegranites, etc. This surprised me given the soil was dun coloured and the hills were covered in enormous cactii. It was harvest time, so all of the trees were loaded with fruit, including the cactii. The grapes were not for eating (god forbid), but for producing the local brandy, pisco. I had tried Chile's national drink (Peru also claims it), the pisco sour, on several occasions and had assumed that pisco was sweet. When samples were provided during my tour of the local distillery, I was stunned to realize that pisco (at 35% proof) tasted more like a whiskey than liqueur. There was also an artesanal flavour to the area, where locals sold dried fruit (i.e., raisons figs and papaya), nuts, jam, sweets and various handicrafts at roadside kiosks. I did a little mountain biking trip through surrounded by gentle hills and peaceful grape vineyards. It was very relaxing.

The Elqui Valley has another claim to fame. Northern Chile (from the Elqui Valley to San Pedro de Atacama) is apparently the best place on earth to observe the stars. On average, there are only 30 cloudy nights a year. Other countries (e.g., US, EU) have invested billions of dollars in building telescopes in this area. I was lucky. I visited Mamalluca Observatory on a clear night where there was a new moon (i.e. no moon). I am useless at astronomy and was floored by the luminous night sky made fascinating by the lesson on constellations provided by our knowledgeable guide. I saw the southern cross, orion's belt and the milky way. It was quite funny. The guide pointed out several "clouds" which I would have just thought were normal clouds. He indicated that they were sky fixtures (umm, galaxies). Sigh. I didn't pay enough attention in school!

Afterthe Valley, I headed west to the coast and La Serena, hoping for a little bit of beach time. I got to La Serena and it was 5 degrees colder than the Elqui Valley. Sigh. So much for beach time, (or I thought)! Nahh, all was not lost. I discovered that after lunch (2pm) or so, the sun came out and it was warm enough (23C) to sit in the sun and enjoy the crashing waves. The beach was really long! I walked along the water for about 1 hour, and did not make it to the end!! Oh yes, the strange Chilean papaya. It didn't look like a regular papaya, but it smelled ripe so I bought one anyways. It was disgusting and sour and had the texture of plastic. Turns out, chilean papaya needs to be boiled with sugar to taste like something worth eating. Live and learn!

Tomorrow, I am off to Easter Island!!

Posted by Caro369 28.03.2012 19:55 Archived in Chile Comments (1)

Valparaiso's Faded Charm

Colourful murals and charming houses in the hills are a highlight

sunny 23 °C

I arrived in Valparaiso (about 2h north of Santiago) last weekend. This picturesqe city by the sea has 2 faces. In the hills there are brightly coloured houses flanking a maze of ascending and descending cobblestone streets ending in blind alleys and lookout points of the sea. These windy, climbing streets are also connected by shortcuts and staired passages decorated with colourful murals. It was a delight to wander, though you had to be careful. Some of those staircases were just a little too faded and quiet, even in the sunshine. El plano (the flat part of the city between the sea and the hills) and the port is more run down and grittier. The buildings are more classic with late 19th century and an art deco feel. But this is not enough to save el plano... every street and public square smells like pee, and in addition to the business men in suits and naval officers (Valparaiso is a major naval centre), are the beggars asking for money and other shady people who seem to be watching to see how tightly you are holding onto your bag. The people in nearby Viña del Mar hate Valparaiso calling it dirty and dangerous. Viña was definitely cleaner and more upscale, but it lacked Valparaiso's faded charm and I was glad to get back to my lovely sunwashed hostel in the hills.

Mural in Valparaiso

Mural in Valparaiso


houses in the hills

houses in the hills


Lookout point

Lookout point

In the mid-19th century Valparaiso was a strategically placed port servicing ships moving goods from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans around the southern tip of South America. In its heyday, Valparaiso was a major banking centre and the site of Chile's first stock exchange. It was also a key service centre for the northern nitrate mines (a key ingredient in gun powder). Unfortunately for Valparaiso, the world changed post-1914. The opening of the Panama canal eliminated the trade route up the Chilean coast and the invention of artificial nitrates undermined the market for the natural product. Valparaiso went into a nasty decline. Since Valparaiso has reinvented itself a centre for the arts. I heard this and saw all kinds of galleries and workshops in the hills, but I was disappointed with the crude and overpriced jewelry and paintings on display. I don't know, maybe they send the nice stuff in Santiago.

I sadly said farewell to Valparaiso yesterday and headed north in La Serena. It is a little chilly for the beach, so I have ducked into the hills of the Elqui Valley. It's harvest time! I am currently in Vicuña.

Posted by Caro369 23.03.2012 12:31 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Summer Returns

The highs and lows of Santiago

sunny 30 °C
View Argentina, Antarctica and Chile on Caro369's travel map.

Earlier this week, I fled Patagonia for a scorching taste of summer in Santiago. It has been 32 Celcius for 3 days! I use the word "fled" because there had been 2 solid days of miserable rain. I felt enormous sympathy for the 4 or 5 people who I had met in Natales who were hiking/camping in Torres del Paine, but was oblivious to the broader implications. I arrived in Punta Arenas (the town from where I was catching my plane) on Monday. I got off the bus (in the rain) and with head down and heavy pack on, I started walking downhill towards the hotel I had picked out. I didn't get far. Muddy rain water was lapping at the curb at the end of the block. Then I looked up, and saw the waves of water coming down the street 3 blocks down. Apparently there has been a lot of rain in the Chile side of Patagonia this year and the 2 days of straight rain were the last straw. After finding a hotel on higher ground, I walked towards the river and discovered the source of the muddy water. The river had risen so high (licking the bottoms of the bridges), that at one point it had over flowed its banks and had diverted itself into one of the streets. The locals milled around in the rain, gawking and taking cell phone pictures as a couple of men with heavy equipment worked to re-divert the river back to its rightful place. Yikes!!

I was very glad to get to Santiago. After kayaking in the rain on day 1 (there were flamingos!) and getting thoroughly soaked wandering around Punta Arenas looking for a hotel and food on day 2, I was starting to get a cold (sniffle). I am happy to report that sun, orange juice and chicken broth work miracles.

Impressions of Santiago. I initially wrote it off as Buenos Aires' very poor cousin, but after a few days it has grown on me. Nevertheless, love I do not feel. Santiago has a number of lovely European-style buildings (interspaced with grubby street markets and run down office buildings) and there are wonderful walkways landscaped with shady trees and fountains (but the river which is framed is a muddy brown trickle). There are a couple of pedestrian areas with fantastic patios and restaurants, but the shopping is just plain bad. I have never seen so much badly cut (expensive) polyester in my life. I found a couple of nice items, hidden among the dowdy old lady tops and the revealing classless hooker clothes, but they were far from cheap.

View of Santiago

View of Santiago


Downtown Santiago

Downtown Santiago



As to highlights, I really liked Cerro Santa Lucia. Normally, parks with trees, yeah nice (yawn). In the early 19th century, a local mayor turned this hill into a welcoming park with shady trees and a castle! It isn't really a castle, but castle features have been built into the hill. There is a beautiful fountain and various stairways to landscaped terraces. There are even a couple of turrets with gorgeous views of the city. It is very cool! Apparently, 100 years ago, the park was the place to be. Families of all income levels would flock there on the weekend in their Sunday best to have picnics. Today, it is very popular with teenagers, who come to find a quiet corner (and there are many) to make out.

I am also enjoying the wine. I was told the wine-producing Maipo Valley was near to Santiago. No, not really. Santiago has grown fast that it has swallowed up parts of the Maipo Valley. Some of the local wineries which were actually in the country 40 years ago, not any more!! You can actually take the subway (and then a short taxi ride) to a couple of them. I gave this a go yesterday! I could see the vineyards from from windows of the subway car.

I arrived in charming Valparaiso a couple of hours ago. There is a spectacular view of the colourful buildings on Alegre Hill from my hotel room. I plan to do some sightseeing, eventually. I am starting to get tired. I think I will sleep in tomorrow.

Posted by Caro369 17.03.2012 13:07 Archived in Chile Comments (2)

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