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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Coastal Chile...the land of sunsets

We rolled into Pichilemu – Chile’s premier surf town – a couple days ago. A smallish town of about 12K along Chile’s mid coast, it’s a nice place to hang out and take in some Chilean culture. Although, everywhere we have been in the past week or so, has seemed all but abandoned, including here. It’s that “back to school, summer’s over” feeling. The tourist info places are all boarded up. The up side, however, is that there is always lots of space wherever we go, and often have the place to ourselves. Just us, and the odd lunatic surfer. Man that looks cold! Sitting in our down jackets watching the sunset the other day, and watching the end-of-day surf dudes doing their thing, Amy says “you couldn’t pay me enough to be in that water”. I reluctantly agreed. The average water temp here, summer or winter, is about 13 degrees...nippy!

From Isla Negra we cycled down the coast a ways to the village of Mantanzas, a tiny out-of-the-way place, but a beautiful up-and-comer in the Chilean surf scene. The place was deserted except for, as mentioned, a few lunatic surfers donned head to toe in 6-mm wet suits. I think the surf missions here these days are 95% beer and good food, 5% surfing.  On our overnight stop to get there we were reminded of just how much more expensive Chile is than everywhere else we have been. The cheapest place we could find was 90 bucks. Whoa! There goes our daily budget up in flames...actually two daily budgets! 40 bucks/night is the new “cheap” here. Good wine is still affordable though...thank god! (we would have to leave immediately otherwise)

So Chilean culture...not exactly sure what to say just yet. Definitely the most “developed” of the bunch of countries that we have been through. Hardly any bombed-out concrete, and virtually no abandoned burned-out cars. Houses are pretty much complete, and include microwaves. The beds, and bathrooms, in particular are a few notches above what we’re used to. Showers are steaming hot and tend to come right out of the display cases in home building stores.

Avocadoes or palta here in Chile, as previously mentioned, are plump, delicious, and cheap, and appear to be their national food. The primary palta delicacy appears to be the infamous completo – a hot dog smothered in guacamole, mayonnaise, and other fine toppings. My 2-for-1 completo deal the other day sat in my stomach like a pound of nails for the rest of the day. However, following suit, Amy’s infamously delicious wine-snack-plates have evolved away from olives and cheese (Argentine specialties) to guacamole and veggies...”when in Rome...”

A fascinating aspect of Chilean life, somewhat reminiscent of Argentina, is the daily schedule. Thankfully, they don’t seem to follow the Argentine 11-pm dinner and 3-pm bedtime schedule. As far as we can tell, bed time is more or less normal. Mornings, however, are very slow. Ridiculously so, given my tendencies towards early-rising. 8 am is pre-dawn here. Not a soul up. You have the world to yourself (my favourite time). 9 am...might be able to find someone up. 10 am...should be able to do business, but depends, no guarantees. Our theory is that it’s a combination of it being dark until 8 am, and, the houses are so freakin’ cold that no one wants to get up when it’s dark and freezing (Amy is loving the freezing house thing...NOT). The result is an entire society waiting until about 9 am to get out of bed. Moral of the story: heat your house, so you get an extra two or three hours of productive time in the morning!

And then there’s “onces”. Haven’t pieced together the full story on this one yet, but from what we can gather, it’s “tea time” at about 5 or 6 pm, where Chilean’s typically sit down at the kitchen table and have tea and bready/cakey snacks. Basically it’s dinner – lunch, at about 2 pm, is their main meal of the day. They seem to have inherited this “tea time” ritual from the British who immigrated here in the 1800s. Interestingly, once means “eleven” in Spanish. Even more interestingly, no one seems to know where the origin of the term once came from. There are theories, but none of them really add up as you’re listening to a Chilean tell the story. My rudimentary google research tells me that it comes from the British “elevenes” which is a morning tea time back in the motherland that obviously got shifted towards the end of the day here in Chile, and into the more traditional afternoon “tea time” time slot. Regardless, the end result is us gorging on a huge plate of pasta and a fine bottle of Cabernet while the Chileans have a cup of tea and a biscuit with jam. Silly gringos.

So now what? We believe we have hit the southern extent of our mission, and are now looking north towards warmer climes. Time to turn around and go back, as it were. Our good-weather days are definitely numbered. Amy’s down jacket has become glued to her body. From here, our plan is to make our way to the big smoke of Santiago, Chile’s capital and main megatropolis, and chart a course back to our homeland...with a few stops along the way that we haven't 100% worked out yet. As always, more on that soon. Hasta la proxima baby.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Headin' south

“Headin’ south”...sounds good to Canadians. But going south here means going away from the sun and in the direction of winter. The weather is still pretty nice: sunny 20-degree days, nippy at night though – but fall is definitely in the air. Funny thing in countries like this, i.e., it’s cold enough that anyone would consider it cold (e.g., 4-degree nights), but because it’s not Canada cold (e.g. -30), it seems that no one bothers to design or build “warm” houses. The result of drafty, non-insulated houses without a central heating system is that the houses are freezing most of the time. On a sunny afternoon, it’s no exaggeration that inside the house is colder than outside the house. An American guy teaching English in Valpo summarized it by saying “the only times you aren’t freezing here in the winter is when you’re in bed, or in the shower.” Needless to say, Amy’s not a huge fan of the “freezing house” scenario.

The riding out of Valpo has been good, if not uneventful. The terrain is arid and rolling. Not overly awe-inspiring, but not dreary either. The first place we targeted was the town of Casablanca – center of the Casablanca wine valley, and home to Chile’s best Chardonnys, Sauvignon Blancs, and Pinto Noirs – a good cold-climate wine area. We were pretty stoked to get back into wine country, and were really looking forward to checking out the Chilean wine tasting scene. But, like the winds of Argentina, Chile has a different plan for us.

To be fair, we had been warned. Everything we read, and everyone we talked to, said the same thing: wine tasting in Chile is expensive. But, hey, how could that be? You walk in, taste a bit of wine, walk out. Right? Wrong. For some inexplicable reason, the Chilean wine tasting model is unlike everywhere else we have ever been, and costs anywhere from 15 to 40 bucks per session. I’m, there has to be more to it...we’re missing something. But nope, first place we went to...the standard 5-sample tasting, nothing special, had me digging in my pockets for 36 bucks (and, we actually “split” one tasting, it would have been 72 bucks for both of us). This, in a country where 4 or 5 dollars buys you a fairly decent bottle of wine! My linear scientist mind cannot get around that one. Someone is on crack back at head office. So anyway, our plan A, to spend the next month or so wine-touring, has been suspended until further notice. The only wine tasting we will be doing is the kind that involves buying bottles in the grocery store. We can afford the 4-dollar tastings J

With our tails tucked between our legs, we rode out of Casablanca and onto Plan B. Essentially we are continuing south, hit some coastal towns, drink some grocery store wine, watch some sun sets, take stray dogs for walks (no choice, they just follow you), until we run into winter. At the moment, on the Ruta del Poeta (Poet’s highway), we found a nice cozy little hostel, Conexion del Poeta Hostel, run by a friendly Chilean woman named Sandra and her 4 street dogs (actually we think another one joined the gang in the past couple days, so now there’s 5). The draw here is basically a quiet, out-of-the-way place on the coast, and, of course, poets. Chileans really celebrate their poets, and specifically Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His oceanfront house is now a museum and just down the road from us.

Being on the coast, and specifically the Pacific coast, means big sunsets. It’s been nice to just relax and watch the sun go down over the infiniteness of the ocean here...while enjoying a 4-dollar bottle of Cabernet Savignon, of course. Cabernet Savignon is to Chile what malbec is to Argentina. Cabernet is Chile’s grape.

To be honest, so far Chile has been underwhelming. The cost of everything – at least twice Argentina; restaurants/cafes are almost Canada prices – is shocking coming from all of the cheaper countries north of here. We think our days of grabbing a cortado in the plaza or splitting a bottle of wine on a patio are over. So far the highlights are avocadoes (which they produce en mass and are delicious) and perhaps normal wind patterns (i.e., no major headwinds thus far).

So that’s it. Our target at the moment is the surf town of Pichilemu, a few days ride from here, which should be good for sunsets and ocean/surf culture. Unfortunately, however, not swimming and water sports unless you own a 6-mm wetsuit. The water here is freezing. We, and the rest of the world, can thank the Humboldt Current for that – a huge ocean current that brings cold water from the south up and along the entire coast of Chile, basically cooling off the entire country from south to north. As always, more on that that soon. Chau.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Valpariso, how absurd you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.
 - Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and Noble Prize winner.

The fires have calmed down. In all, approximately 3000 homes were destroyed and 15 people were killed. It will go down as one of the worst tragedies to hit the city. And this is a city, and country, wracked by natural disaster after natural disaster. Earthquakes are as common as getting a cold here. The last one – a monster at 8.2 – hit just a month ago. Then there was the really big one 4 years ago which killed over 500 people and caused billions in damages. Oh, and then the huge one in 64...earthquakes and disasters are just a way of life here it seems. For the moment though, everything appears to be back to normal, including the sale of wine, which was temporarily suspended during the “state of emergency”...what?! can’t buy wine?! It was a tough blow J

So Valpariso, or just Valpo to friends. A common theme here in South America, it’s one of those places with an illustrious past, but has lost its former glory in the modern era. Before the Panama Canal went in, ships travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific had to go around the bottom of South America, otherwise known as the notoriously dangerous Cape Horn. Valpo was the first port encountered on the Pacific side, and was therefore of huge importance in the shipping world. Since the canal went in, in 1914, that strategic significance has obviously been diminished to a large degree. However, Valpo, population 280K, is still an important city in Chile, seat of the country’s legislature, and a major naval base for the Armada de Chile.

The main draw to Valpo for us gringos and other travellers is the old city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Valpo is also officially recognized as Chile’s cultural capital, and home to the nation’s poets and artist communities. Valpo’s uniqueness is centred around the 42 hills, or cerros, that the old parts of the city are built on. Each cerro has a name and forms a distinct neighbourhood complete with a labyrinth of twisted streets and cobbled back alleys. A highlight of the maze is a series of turn-of-the-century funiculars (cable car/train that runs up and down cliff areas), known locally as ascensores, combined with strategically placed stairways (escaleras) that provide access to the cerros.

The result of all of this is a historic and gritty port city with an artistic bohemian flare to it. The standard traveller mission is therefore to simply walk around and navigate the spaghetti-like myriad of streets, stopping once in a while to admire the views and take in the vibe.

Gritty, edgy...among other descriptors. Part seedy port, part cool seaside town, part artist colony, Valpo is an interesting place. The first thing you notice is the graffiti art. It’s everywhere. Some of it is just tagging bordering on vandalism, while other stuff is amazing and simply brilliant. For those of you familiar with the Rick Mercer Report, walking around Valpo is like a day of Rick’s Rants. Then there’s the “St. John’s look-alike” city. Turning corners here and seeing the stacked rows of multi-coloured houses, ocean in the distance, makes us shake our heads and wonder if we’re back in Newfoundland. Amy’s line for Valpo is that it’s a gritty St. John’s. Pretty close.

Speaking of gritty, it’s definitely that. We are actually quite shocked at how gritty, and downright dirty, things are. As our first taste of Chile, and coming from Mendoza, we were expecting something a little more refined. Ah well, it is a port city after all. But one thing, speaking of rants: what is with all the freakin’ DOGS?!! To cite a good Newfoundlander saying, the place is maggoty with ‘em. I believe the correct term is “street dogs”. They’re everywhere. Sleeping, lying around, and, obviously, sh---ing wherever and whenever they get the urge, creating a mine-field sidewalk situation. It’s a bizarre spectacle unlike anything we have seen...and we’ve been through the rest of South America which surely has the largest stray dog population on the planet. The craziest thing though, is that upon study, one notices that unlike the scraggy flea-bitten varmits elsewhere, the street dogs here are large, healthy, well-maintained, and affectionate. They look and act like pets. Then, upon further study, one notices the piles of dog food – yep, dog food – scattered around here and there. They’re being fed! Then we notice the lady in front of us in the grocery store buying the 8 bags of dog food, and the guy beside us complaining that people should be buying food for poor people, not dogs. Ahhhhh, it all makes sense now...yet very very bizarre and disgusting since the poop-and-scoop rule has yet to come to South America. I don’t think they want to hear what my solution would be J

So anywhoo, our week in Valpo and transition into Chile is almost over. Our accom, basically a 2-bedroom apartment that we have had mostly to ourselves, has been fantastico. Tomorrow we pack up and head south through wine country and along the coast. The wine, while a tad more expensive than Argentina, is obviously quite amazing. The whites, especially, appear to be fantastic. We haven’t really gotten into it yet though, and are looking forward to some more wine country, Chilean style. You really can’t get enough can you? As always, more on that soon. Saludos.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Adios Argentina...Hola Chile!

It was cold, windy, exhausting...pretty much perfect! The ride over the hump from Mendoza was everything you would expect from a ride up and over the Andes – nothing short of spectacular. The 430-km mission took us from Mendoza, Argentina at 750 m elevation, up to the Cristo Redentor (“christ the redeemer”)Pass, and the Argentina-Chile border at 3200 m (a 4-km long tunnel actually), and then back down to sea level and the city of Valpariso, Chile.

Spread over 5 days and a fairly gradual ascent, the route itself isn’t that demanding. At this point, we are so used to going up that big climbs aren’t a huge deal. The biggest issue by far is weather, and specifically WIND! The first two days were blissfully non-windy, and in fact, included tail winds (for the first time since we can remember). Lulled into a premature sense of ease, we were thinking it was going to be a cake walk. But no, the headwinds of Argentina were not done with us yet. On day three, followed by day four and our final ascent to the pass, we were blasted by stinging-cold gail-force head winds. Come on, it just couldn’t be that easy! The good news is that our patience in waiting for good weather back in Mendoza paid off and we had blue-sky days with unlimited visibility. In spite of the winds, the scenery surrounding us was everything you would expect from the world’s second-highest mountain range and made for an incredible journey.

Once at the top, then through the border – a bit of a gong show, but within an hour we had all our stamps and were on our way again – it’s down down down right to sea level. Our target destination was Valpariso, a quintessentially Chilean port city – and yet another UNESCO world heritage site – along Chile’s ridiculously long Pacific coastline. The down was one of those “start with a down jacket, end with a tank-top” affairs. It was a fun roll down. The best part was immediately on the Chilean side where a series of about 30 huge switchbacks winds down the road (or up..depending on your direction obviously) about 1000 m vertical in 10 or so kms. It was like being on a ride at the carnival. Just hold on and roll! Amy looked like a little orange bullet.

Although it was 90% down, the final days were still long and exhausting. Yesterday, rolling into town and getting our first glimpse of the Pacific, we realized a few things. It’s the first time we have seen the ocean since leaving northern Peru back in early November. And, astonishing once realized, we had just crossed the entire width of Chile on bikes in a day and a half. We also broke our record for the most kms in a day and clocked in at 146 km for yesterday’s ride (previous record of 144 km set in Cuba). All in all, an incredible and memorable experience.

So adios Argentina. It was a good shift. Just a few days shy of 3 months, it was definitely feeling like home. Amy was still saying “I could live here!” right to the last minute. Indeed, the land of steak and malbec will go down as one of our favourite places on the planet. This, despite the worst summer of rain in a generation. How does that song go?...”don’t cry for me Argentina...”

Argentina trip stats:

kms on bikes: 1606 km
Number of riding days: 21
Avg. kms per day: 76
Number of flats: 4
Number of tire replacements: 1
Number of days cycling into insane headwinds: 21 +/-
Cheapest accom: $0 (wild camping)
Most expensive accom: $40
Avg. cost per night accom: $22 (cheapest so far)
Highlights: steak and 2 bottles of red wine daily
Highlights: Cordon del Plata mountains
Highlights: cheap everything’s a long list...

Amy’s top pros/cons on Argentina:

         +                                                                  —
food and drink                                                inconvenient siesta
QT with parents in Mendoza/Potrerillos           headwinds
friendly Argentines                                         rains of Mendoza

Rob’s top pros/cons on Argentina:

         +                                                   —
steak                               HEADWINDS!
wine                               ridiculous daily schedule (siesta, etc)
bidets                              no street food

OK, onwards, Chile! Not much to report at this point. Just got into town yesterday. One thing has however been confirmed: Chile is WAY more expensive than Argentina! We are actually going to have to look at the price of things before buying them (not the case in Argentina, you just know it’s going to be cheap). Oh, actually, one rather large item. Valpo (as we gringos refer to Valpariso) is burning. Literally. Surrounding brush fires have encroached the city and have burned up about 1000 homes and killed a dozen people. The city has declared a state of emergency and smoke, ash, and sirens are the common theme at the moment. Kind of a surreal feeling for us since we are jubilant and celebrating our successful arrival, but obviously aware of the currently terrible situation the local residents are in. As always, more on that and the sights and sounds of Valpo soon. Chau.