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CHILE
 
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CHILE

We arrived in San Antonio, Chile, having taken a cruise ship from Miami so we could enjoy one more pass through the Panama Canal. The canal is truly a marvel of engineering. That it is the major link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans only enhances the wonder that it was ever completed despite all the lives lost in doing so. While living in Guatemala we met the widow wife of one of the engineers involved in the project. Her stories of his adventures seemed almost unimaginable.

Our ship docked in San Antonio, Chile, a port city, the center of the country's huge fishery export industry. It has little to recommend it as a tourist stop except that it is the closest port to Santiago capable of handling cruise ships. We tried too late to get a car rental so hopped a cab to Santiago as we had already rented an apartment for a month to get to know the city and a bit about the country. We chose a young woman driver who seemed absolutely delightful. But for her lack of English, she would be a terrific personal guide to the country -- an excellent driver, an unimposing conversationalist and a very genuine human being. We are both fluent in Spanish so for us it was truly wonderful.

Our arrival in Santiago went smoothly and we settled in well on December 23 hanging our Christmas lights and tiny Italian Christmas ornaments, joining our neighbors in celebrating the holidays. And, celebrate is what Chileans do. They were up and at it for days, lasting from Christmas through New Year's and even beyond. Hanging lights of all sorts were strung from balconies near and far.

As it turned out, Santiago was experiencing its profound smog while we were there. I began and went through my days with deep coughing, burning eyes and feeling in constant need of a shower. The city is dirty, more dirty than any I have ever visited. There is unattractive graffiti everywhere. People were usually overweight and poorly dressed with an occasional exception that stood out in being so unique. Despite there being no protective ozone, no one wore hats, no one appeared to protect their children or themselves from the sun's burning rays. Most days it was hot and it was always dry. The Mapuche river running through the city is its sewerage treatment plant as it runs all the way to the sea. The city's sense of history seems almost nonexistent as so many small charming old buildings are left to decay to be finally torn down and replaced by one more high rise. Graffiti covers all of the first floors of buildings and with artistry undenied it has reached the second floor of many buildings.

With few exceptions, the country's interest in tourism is not evident in its capital city. Yes, there are places for the wealthy as there always are. Yes, there are hard to find tourism information offices. Yes, there are expensive car rental services and hotels that offer less than you would expect for the exorbitant prices they charge. Everyone walking in the streets of the city seems to be in a race to get somewhere although there is no where in particular to go and they walk at a speed enough to make me uncomfortable walking anywhere with other pedestrians.

Yet, people were kind to us. They were open to new ideas and we had more than one thoughtful, intellectual conversation in casual encounters, even with our taxi drivers who all seemed underemployed except for the old fellow that drove down a four lane one way road the wrong way. Harrowing, yes, but he was probably just too old to still be driving in any case. We did arrive back at our apartment safe and sound which had seemed unlikely given the givens.

We hired one of our drivers to take us around the city to show us the neighborhoods. He was very bright and passionate about Chile, although he was planning to take his family to Europe in the near future. Every 'neighborhood' he brought us to was but a few streets amongst the high rises and businesses that make the city. All historic and modern buildings were also covered in graffiti and traffic was more often at a stall than it was moving.

Crime seemed not an issue even as evident and confused foreigners negotiated city streets. It is not a place I would have been fearful in, even alone. Sadly, like everything else moderately developed, restaurants were outrageously expensive given the poor quality of offerings.

The highlight of our time in Santiago was visiting the new Museo Chileno de Arte Precolumbiano on the central square of the city. It is extraordinary from stepping in to experiencing all of the exhibits. This is a place not to be missed if you find yourself in Santiago. Try to go at opening hours so you have a little time to enjoy this wonder all on your own. Later it fills up very quickly with visitors from around the world who can be a distraction to your enjoyment of the exhibits.

The building in the photograph to the left is some sort of political enclave and the whole property is guarded by a 10 foot iron fence.

 

 

All that being said, we visited the vegetable market, La Vega Central, which occupies an extraordinary number of acres devoted to every need you might ever have. Again, people were more than kind and accepting of us as foreigners, but chaos reigned at great speed as fast as any pedestrian could achieve without actually running. Foods offered were plentiful and extremely fresh coming not only from Chile but from countries like Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico and more. In truth, you could eat in Santiago almost for free if you liked to cook. Ask anyone there what you may be looking for and they'll happily tell you where to find it. If you are just visiting Santiago you may enjoy dining in any one of dozens and dozens of Mom & Pop cookeries. If you are spending more time in the city, perhaps in a rental apartment, bring a shopping cart which you may fill to overflowing in minutes for just a few US dollars.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across the river from this market is the famed Mercado Central, the Santiago fish market. Pick your favorites and enjoy everything from the sea you can imagine. Do take a little care as we found less than very fresh fish on the occasions we visited. As well as in the vegetable market, this one has dozens of small eateries although we didn't find one more appealing than the kitchen in our apartment.

Our month was up in Santiago and it was time to head south. Doing so is easy on the Pan American Highway, locally known as Rt. 5. The roadway is in excellent condition and there are gas stations with small cafeterias offering good foods. Do make sure to turn on your headlights at all times, day or night. It is the law and though you won't be stopped by police along the highway, you will find very stiff fines on your credit card bill because there are overhead cameras on the highway. Also, if you are traveling by car, be prepared for high fees for highway use. Bring cash in small bills to make this a more speedy transaction. Sadly, you will see along the way many small chapels dedicated to those who have died on this roadway. Some appear to have been loaded busses who's drivers simply fell asleep, others were families lost in the same way and now and again there was a lone chapel maybe for someone returning from Santiago at too great a speed and after too many hours of sleeplessness.

The roadside towns were developed in a modern industrial fashion making the roadway more tedious than we had ever dreamed possible, even in the wine country immediately south of the city. We drove on through Rancagua, eventually settling in Temuco for the night at of all places, a Holiday Inn Express. Moving on the next day we settled in the river town called Valdivia which was pleasant, but not a place I can write much about. One of the highlights of our time there was sitting at a shared picnic table where we met a delightful family with two enchanting children. As with all people we met in Chile, this family was very open and friendly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there we drove on to Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquihue, one of the many lake towns in southern Chile. And, indeed there was a lake large enough I thought it must be the ocean. We stayed in an older hotel with a great view of the lake and the nearby snow capped volcano. The following day we took a drive to Ensenada highly recommended in a Fodor's guide as being one of the best in all of Chile. It didn't turn out to be all that interesting, but we did find the Parque Nacional Vicente Rosales, the oldest national park in Chile and then traveled on around the entire lake. One part of that drive was on a beautifully maintained dirt road through rolling hills of farm and cattle country. I will always remember that drive, though sadly it is being paved as I write this story so much will have changed if you choose to follow in our tracks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHILOE ISLAND ARRIVAL

One more night of R & R and we set off for Puerto Montt where you may, without reservations, drive on board the inexpensive car ferry to Chiloe Island. I dreamed of visiting this island for months and had outlined all of the outlying places to explore. As it turns out, the island is very developed with excellent roadways and all of the services you might expect, except for the internet. We got there and our first night settled into Ancud where our tired, but charming old hotel boasted of a restaurant and internet. In truth it had neither, but it did have a great view, a scrumptious local blueberry tart for breakfast and of course the kind and attentive Chileans we had grown to know and  respect.

From Ancud we drove on the Pan American Highway to the small and depressing town of Qemchi which had also sounded incredibly charming. It lies on the seashore, but having arrived, all we wanted to do was leave. We did visit the tiny market where you may buy fish, fine art, or artfully crafted woolens. As a knitter I fell in love with the skeins of naturally dyed wool, but in the end settled for a knitted soft white wool winter hat. We never did find the tourist office or see any hint of Isla de Aucar  with its "stunning wood bridge" access. I wish so much I could pay to preserve and restore the beautiful historical wooden homes and buildings in the town, but fear all will be lost to an admiration for things modern and American which pervades the country -- out with the old and on with the new. This is a small treasure of a town that I fear will soon be lost.

We drove on aiming to stay away from the Pan American Highway and found ourselves by a lonely beach with seals jumping and playing in the nearby sea. As it turned out there was no connection from here to there as we were informed by a wealthy Chilean enjoying his beach side property. We made an about turn heading back toward the Pan American Highway toward our next destination, Castro, the capital city of Chiloe. And, a city it is; busy and hustling and bustling as every where else we'd been in the country. In truth, we'd just about had enough of Chile and dreamed of spending the days before our Italy bound cruise in a place more peaceful and more beautiful. Nonetheless, we did drive through the fishing 'village' of Caleta Angelmó on our way through the city of Castro. It resembled nothing of a fishing village but a town deluged with the traffic of cars and busses, hawkers in the streets yelling for folks to eat in their respective restaurants or to buy crafts from any one of 100's of small shops offering whatever memento or souvenir you might ever desire. This was where we drew the line on Chile deciding to head off to Buenos Aires as soon as we returned to Santiago.

.On our way back north we decided to take an R & R break at the Sonesta Hotel in Osorno just south of Valdivia where I wanted to return to visit the Botanical Garden with a reported 1000 Chilean plant species. From Osorno,it took us about two hours going this way and that to find out that the garden is part of a university. Then it took almost an hour guided by six bright and delightful Chilean students to get us to the park entrance on foot. By then we were pretty hot and tired, sadly cutting short our anticipated time in the garden. This is the way in Chile which seems unprepared for visitors despite its desire for American trappings of modernization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VALDIVIA BOTANICAL GARDEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the road heading north toward Santiago we stayed a night in the town of Chillan. We ordered a room service meal of perfectly delicious steak and  a take out pizza recommended at the front desk where we had to sign a waiver of responsibility for anything eaten outside of the hotel restaurant as it was explained that our tastes might be different than those of their staff. And they were right, the pizza was terrible. We split the steak dinner as neither of us was very hungry and settled in for the night. And, as it turned out I took away a pretty upsetting intestinal problem from Chile which I am only now able to medically treat with years of experience living in Mexico and Guatemala. When in Chile do take a little special care of the foods you choose to eat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day we sailed on into Santiago taking two nights at the same apartment as before to make flight reservations for Buenos Aires.

One of the most important features of Chilean land I have not yet mentioned is the almost constant tremors you will experience. These lands are marked by active volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. As someone who always felt soothed by land, this was a new and terrible experience for me personally. Everyone in the country goes about their business never mentioning the seismic activity, but it is always there everyday. One of the students that guided us to the Botanical Garden at the university in Valdivia spoke to me of her grandmother who lived her whole life there unnerved as I was by the constant movement of the earth.

I write this as we are happily sailing to Italy, having spent a month in Buenos Aires in an apartment in a neighborhood  new to us -- Palermo. We dropped back to Recoleta while there to speak to the doorman at the building where we had stayed before. My husband Stassi asked for Guillermo on the speaker and when he said his name, Guillermo shouted "Pizza man." We had made a pizza for this kind fellow and his expectant wife and we were fondly remembered after eight years.

ESSENTIALS -- FOOD AND MORE

Arriving -- You can fly into Santiago or for about the same price as taking a cruise ship voyage from Miami stopping in several ports along the way.

Getting a place to stay -- Rental apartments are affordable and easy to find, but do ask about square footage as some can be almost claustrophobic.

Tipping -- It is a standard 10% in restaurants and 0% in taxis.

Transportation -- Taxis are terrific in Santiago. They'll take you where you want to go and rarely will it cost more than a few dollars.

Driving -- Take very good care to drive only during the day and to get off the road when you become tired. This part of the Pan American Highway is largely flat and straight and it can make the drive very tedious. Always wear your seatbelts and turn on your headlights. Headlights on is the law in Chile and you may incur a nasty fine if you fail to abide by it. Tolls are frequent and expensive on major highways and they get higher on the weekend. Bring lots of cash in small bills to make it more convenient.

Food -- Do take a taxi to the Mercado de la Vega where you will find everything you need. With a little more walking you will cross the river finding the now renowned fish market, Mercado Central.

Water -- Water is generally considered safe to drink, but the level of minerals may be unpleasant. I recommend sticking to bottled water to be on the safe side.

When to go -- Stay away from traveling in Chile in its summer months, December, January, and February. Air pollution is at its worst at this time of year and everyone is traveling because school children are out of school, making the serendipity of a voyage sometimes very difficult.

Dressing -- Clothing even in the capital city of Santiago is extremely casual so wear what ever you like and you'll fit right in.

 

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