Santiago

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Santiago is not only one of the most modern and industrialized cities we’ve come across in South America, it is also one of the most scenic. It WAS apparently considered the most beautiful place to live in the world… before all the smog settled in. Sadly, the smog is Santiago’s downside. We did managed to catch the city during the end of an extra long weekend, which meant no cars and factories working for a few days, and clear, sunny skies for us to enjoy! But unfortunately this is an uncommon occurrence for the city.

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Over our three nights in Santiago, we actually had to stay at two different hostels. Apparently the long weekend made for very full hotels and the closed pass between Chile and Argentina left people stranded an extra couple of days. On top of that, some hotels were actually closing for the WINTER at this point. But on our second and third night we stayed at this adorable hostel run by a tiny, old woman we simply referred to as “grandma” from the second we met her. She didn’t speak a word of English, but blabbered on to us in Spanish as of we were her long lost grandchildren coming for a visit. Everyday she wore a tiny pin of a Canadian flag on her shirt, and seemed so excited that we were actually from Canada! She was 
aaaaaaadorable!!

 

Once again, we were completely unproductive in the city: it was wonderful. We walked around the downtown core the first day and were surprised at how green and active Santiago really is! A huge green park runs right through the middle of the city and continues for kilometers! Patrolled by mounted police, the park is full of bikers, runners, rollerbladers, picnickers, families, dogs and everyone else under the sun it seems! It wasn’t crowded ever, but it was definitely well loved. From the park you could see the Andes Mountains looming in the distance. They were gorgeous and covered in snow and reminded me a lot of the North Shore Mountains from home. We did meet a girl who moved to Santiago and she said she was in the city a whole week before she knew the mountains were there. Apparently the smog is usually so bad they are completely invisible… How sad.

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We also heard that you haven’t truly experienced Santiago unless you’ve taken a nap in the big park. So, as stressful as that sounded, that’s what we did, 2 days in a row! We checked out the city sites, smaller parks, cafe’s, a small castle nestled in the city center, then lay down and took a nap! The architecture was beautiful and colonial and there were very few modern looking high-rise buildings (which I was expecting from such a major city). It managed to keep it’s quaintness, even though it houses about 1/3 the population of Chile! 
After nap time in the park, it was vino time at the hostel. The upstairs balcony had a great setup of comfy couches where we stretched out and continued our ongoing crib tournament. We ordered takeaway pizza the first night and spent hours enjoying the final hours of sunlight from the deck.

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On our second evening, we discovered the Bella Vista district, which was full of touristy restaurants and cafe’s. It was tucked down a pedestrian-only alley and opened up into three major squares, each filled with three levels of restaurants on all sides. Great food, huge selection and awesome for people watching the night away. Although we tried to avoid it, we were both craving steak and ended up having a wonderful meal at a fancy steakhouse right in the middle of the square. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re backpackers.

 

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn to start our bus ride back to Argentina. The pass was finally open again, and we booked ourselves a day bus (anything to avoid overnight buses still). The scenery between Santiago and Mendoza is unbelievable. This is the Andes mountain range at its best! We drove through snowy passes and cruised by mountains that were surprisingly similar to the views between Banff and Jasper. Gorgeous, overly dramatic mountain ranges that you could never tire of if you lived there! So glad we decided to travel during the day!

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Valparaiso

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We had finally made it to the coast of Chile. Back at sea level and next to the wide-open ocean for the first time in months… I was ecstatic! You could smell the salty seawater as we drove through town in the taxi. Valparaiso is such a beautiful seaside city. It’s built into the natural hills of the landscape, has a massive port for the city’s fishing industry, and if you go just a few minutes out of town in either direction, there’s fresh seafood and sandy beaches!

 

We spent the first afternoon strolling the cities slopes. Valparaiso was the first place where we realized that it is actually autumn… In May! The leaves are changing a beautiful yellow colour, and crunchy brown leaves cover the sidewalks. The mornings and evenings were brisk, but the afternoons were still full of sunshine and heat! Personally I find this really neat, that autumn can happen in May. For Adam, it totally freaks him out. It’s been over a week since we arrived in fall weather, and he still can’t stop talking about how unnerved he is by the sudden change in seasons. I egg him on by stomping on every crispy leaf we pass with a satisfying crunch and then talking about everything fall related: the colours, the weather, the fall boots I spot at every shoe store… I find his weather frustration infinitely entertaining. But even Adam admits that it’s a great time to end our trip.

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Valparaiso, Santiago and Mendoza are utterly stunning in Fall colours!
  Our second afternoon in Valparaiso we went on a self-proclaimed graffiti crawl. The city is absolutely chock-a-block full of beautiful works of graffiti. Not just tags and amateur scrawling, but real works of unique and innovative pieces of art. The graffiti covers nearly every blank space of wall in the city, and we had a great time searching out our favourite pieces and photo-bombing the city.

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Near the end of our afternoon we ran across the Museum of Pablo Neruda, a famous poet and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. I used to love reading Neruda’s work in school, so was eager to check out his museum. The museum was actually Neruda’s house at one point in his life. He lived for many years in Valparaiso in a gorgeous, 5-story house, high up on the hilltop of the city, with a fabulous view of the ocean. Of course it was interesting seeing where the poet lived, wrote, spent time engrossed in thought etc, but what was the most fun, was checking out the house itself. Firstly, the architecture of the place is beautifully unique: rounded rooms with large open windows, a floor to ceiling, urn shaped fireplace, a spectacular view of the city from every room in the house… This was prime real estate. But secondly, Neruda was the most amazing collector of antiques and artifacts. He was fastidious with his decorating, and when he found an object that he wanted, he stopped at nothing until he obtained it. Paintings, maps, statues, plates, desks, you name it! Each piece had a history and a place in Neruda’s home. We must have spent over an hour, listening to the audiotapes and exploring his home before finally moving on. We both walked out of the place wishing we could become antique collectors… Guess I’d need a house first.

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After our “exhausting” afternoon taking photos and exploring museums, we decided it was time to relax. We found this great restaurant by our hostel that overlooked the water, where we sipped on a bottle of chilled white wine and watched the sun descend over the water.

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At 6 we met up with Mark and Oli, who had finally finished their bus trip down from the North. It was their final night, so we decided to celebrate Adam’s birthday one night early and head out on the town together. We had some pre-bottles of wine at their stunning hotel with an awesome view and then went back to the restaurant we had found in the afternoon for some food. (Adam and I had the crab-stuffed ravioli in a cream sauce with truffles that was honest-to-God the best ravioli I’ve eaten in my life!). By our third stop I lost track of the bottles of wine. Although we woke up with pictures of each label, there’s no way I could have properly rated them in our ongoing wine log…needless to say, Adam and I both spent most of the next day’s afternoon in our room recovering.

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On our final day in Valparaiso we went to the beach. The forecast had called for rain, but when we woke up it was sunny and gorgeous! We took the metro out to Portales station and walked up and down the waterfront. From there you could see the entire city of Valparaiso; from the ports to the towering city behind them. The beach was beautiful and sandy, and covered with great looking, fresh seafood joints. After checking out the fishermen on the docks, and watching them feed the group of sea lions below, we picked a place to eat and decided to camp there ALL afternoon eating platters of seafood and sipping on wine. This was one of my goals since day one: seafood and wine on the coast of Chile. So that’s what we did!

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We started with a delicious seafood soup. It came out in a steaming hot, stone bowl, and the water was still boiling inside! The soup was full of prawns, muscles, scallops, and squid, and had fresh herbs and some veggies in it as well. We mixed in a couple scoops of their freshly, homemade, spicy seafood sauce and the thing was to die for! We had endless garlic bread to go with and a lovely bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. After we sat around and let the soup settle, we ordered prawns. A plethora of prawns!! We had one massive bowl of prawns, sautéed in butter and garlic, which came out as steaming hot as the soup. Then we had a cold, avocado shrimp cocktail which had slices of fresh avocado under a mountain of prawns, topped with a light mayonnaise dressing, displayed on a bed of lettuce. We picked away at these dishes for a loooong time, still indulging on the endless bread, before we realized that there was no way we could order a main dish. They did not skimp out on the number of shrimp they offered in each dish, and we were both stuffed by the end of it. We settled up, moved back outside to the beach, and lay down on the sand to let our stomachs digest and to watch the waves. I could not have though of a better way to spend our last day in Valparaiso. This was definitely vacation mode… And luckily, it is only a short hour and a half bus ride to Santiago!!

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Star Gazing in The Valley of the Moon

As soon as we stepped over the border into Chile, our travels ended and our vacation began. We decided that, for the last 2 weeks of our trip, there would be no more running from city to city every other day, no more crazy tours, just good food, good wine and lots of relaxing! San Pedro was the start of this.

We had finally made it back to warm weather. Very different from the morning’s freezing geysers, by the early afternoon, we had descended thousands of meters and ended up in the hot desert. San Pedro de Atacama is an adorable town, of just a few blocks, in the middle of the desert: a little oasis in an otherwise dry world. The place felt like it was straight out of a western film. Unpaved roads, horses walking through the main street: I felt as if a tumbleweed should blow through the place at any moment.

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We spent the afternoon sitting in the sunshine and eating good food. Finally tried to get some colour after 2 months of cold weather! As the sun went down, we decided to grab a couple bottles of wine. Although we were a little shocked by the difference in price between Bolivia and Chile (I’m pretty sure Chile is the most expensive country in South America) we managed to find some cheaper versions at the minimarket. We sat out on the patio with some snacks with our new Aussie friends and enjoyed being back in wine country until our star gazing tour began.

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Stargazing was the one thing we wanted to do while in San Pedro – and it was incredible! We had a small group of 4, the two of us and a couple from Brazil, and our two guides. We drove out to the Valley of the Moon, where a massive telescope had already been set up for us. It was freezing out, but, with no cities or lights around for miles, the stars were unbelievable! We spent two hours learning about the southern constellations and the names of the stars. We got to see Saturn so well through the telescope, that even its rings were clearly defined! We saw young stars like Sirius, that under the telescope looked EXACTLY like the most beautiful diamond I’ve ever seen. It is bright white and sparkling and, as people who love shiny things, Adam and I were totally sold! Then we checked out Beetlejuice, a red star that apparently is actually dead and gone, only its light is still reaching us from millions of miles away. Our guide had an incredibly strong laser pointer with him to properly point out which star he was talking about (which was helpful with so many millions of stars up there). We saw Mars, the Southern cross, all the astrological signs that could be seen during this time of year. In fact, I think the only thing we didn’t see in the Valley of the Moon was the moon itself! Apparently it was hanging out in the Northern Hemisphere somewhere… The tour was super informative, really fun, and to top it all off, the tour came with free wine!! What more could you ask for really!

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When we arrived back in San Pedro at quarter to midnight, the sleepy town was already shutting down. So we went to bed early and prepared for another day of nothing.
 The next morning, all we accomplished was dragging ourselves to a cafe on the edge of a beautiful little main square. We sat there eating, reading and drinking banana milk shakes all afternoon until it was time to take our hour bus ride to Calama.

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From Calama, the next morning, we had a flight down to Santiago… Yes, I repeat, a FLIGHT! We finally got our act together early enough to book a flight instead of taking yet another 24 hour bus ride South. To top it all off, the flight, with all taxes in, was actually $4 cheaper than the bus! Win/win situation!!  Mark and Oli were slightly less fortunate than us and had to suck up the bus ride while we slept in a comfy hotel room, left 10 hours later, and still arrived in Valparaiso 8 hours before them… Sorry guys. But after four months of buses, this was by far the most exciting mode of transportation we’d been on in a while. Less than a 4 hour trip from the North, to the beautiful coastal city of Valparaiso!

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