Monthly Archives: February 2014

It is Chile down here too!

For the first time in our entire trip, drinking took precedence on our agenda.  While we’ve enjoyed trying the local specialties now and then, we’ve made sure not to spoil our experiences by being irresponsible or joining those tourists that are a menace to locals.  This, however, was different.  We were entering one of the most famous wine regions in the world and what better way to truly experience it than to visit bodegas by bicycle?

(Wine bottles at Familia Di Tommaso)

We were quite excited for Mendoza, Argentina, where we could kick back and spoil ourselves with high quality, super cheap wines while contemplating the past ten and a half months and the encroaching normality of life.  We lucked out with what must have been the best hostel in the city (and the cheapest), where many free and inexpensive activities were offered.  We started out with a quick walking tour where we learned enough about the city’s history of very destructive earthquakes to make us a little uneasy.  Apparently while rebuilding the last time, they didn’t take the time to make the buildings attractive because they expect them to all be wiped out again soon (comforting, eh?) and only a few newer buildings utilized the earthquake-resistant technology.  Don’t worry; there are plenty of green spaces strategically placed throughout the city to attempt survival while all the buildings come crashing down!

That night we participated in an “asado” at our hostel. Asado is their term for BBQ.  Argentina is known for these and for their delicious meats, so we had to try it.  We had a really great night eating very good food and chatting with everyone late into the night.

We didn’t want to do a package winery tour because we wanted the freedom of spending as much or as little time at each stop as we liked, so we had to catch a city bus to a nearby small town where several good wineries were concentrated.  As we were getting off the bus we met three others with the same agenda, and the bike rental shop grouped us into one group, so we went with it.  We are so glad we did, it was a really great day!  We were with a married couple from Scotland and a lady from Buenos Aires.  At the first bodega (winery) we were the only visitors when we showed up and an owner offered us a full tour in Spanish.  The girl from Buenos Aires also spoke English, so she spent the next hour translating perfectly down to the most technical vineyard terminology.  We couldn’t have been luckier!  By then we were all hungry so we decided to eat lunch at the winery restaurant before doing the tasting.  Three hours later we were still only at our FIRST winery!  The food was good, the wine was great, and the views were beautiful.  The Scottish couple had to hurry back, but the Argentine decided to stay with us for the rest of the afternoon.  Our next stop was a much larger, better known bodega.  Touring the antique facilities was really cool and very different from the smaller, much more modern winery we had just come from.  We only had time for one more stop – an olive plantation!  We got to try all kinds of olive toppings on bread, fresh olive oil, vinegars, and jams.  We also got two shots of their flavored liquors (we passed on the Absinthe).

(Riding toward our first bodega.)

(Wine tasting at Bodega Mevi.)

We had such a fun time that day that we decided to do it again the next day.  This time it would just be the two of us and we wanted to check out as many wineries as we could fit in.  We were not only enjoying it for ourselves, but we were also kind of on assignment to find some good wines to bring back to Missouri for family.  (It was a good thing we took that free wine tasting class at our hostel and learned a little something, for their sake.)  Let me tell you something about riding this route in Mendoza.  First of all, it is a long ride on a bike between each one being that wineries require huge vineyards to grow their product.  Secondly, Mendoza happens to be one of the hottest places in Argentina, and oddly dry being that grapes need a lot of water.  They still use the ancient canals for diverting water to the fields from a reservoir.  Thirdly, the sun is intense, which is why they are able to produce the wines that they do (they even have to provide shade to some of the plants to reduce sweetness).  That first day on bikes was hot, but that second day was about 102 degree Fahrenheit and we biked roughly 25 miles on pavement.  That’s what you call determination!  We began at a much better olive plantation where we fell in love with the most delicious balsamic vinegar we have ever had.  The next bodega was a very cool family-owned one called Familia Di Tommaso that had the oldest vats in the Mendoza area because they were the only ones that survived the last large earthquake.  These vats were made of brick and used to contain the juices as they fermented and became wine, before being aged in oak barrels.  These old ones are no longer used in that manner (they now use stainless steel) but are still used to store the filled wine bottles to keep them cool.  We even got to walk inside one of the enormous vats, down a spiral staircase which they installed after it was retired, to the basement level.  After a few more wineries we ended up returning to the one from the previous day that we had spent three hours at.  We bought a case despite not knowing how we were going to carry it back on bicycles.  Luckily they offered to deliver it to our hostel for free. Score!

(Bryan tasting a delicious Mevi wine.)

(Enormous vats at Trapiche winery. Hint, you can find their wine in the U.S.)

We had enough heat those two days so we spent a third day of tasting at our hostel.  We chose wines that we could buy in town with some recommendations.  That was quite a fun day, as we spent much of it Skyping and messaging family and friends.  That day we also had to make one last money exchange transaction so we could purchase the other bottles we had picked out to bring back with us.  In Argentina there are two different exchange rates – the official and the “blue dollar”, or black market. The locals prefer to exchange their pesos for U.S. currency to secure their wealth as the Argentine Peso is much less stable, but the government tries to restrict access and so the black market exchange has emerged.  That day we went back to the known exchange location, which we had used the first day in Mendoza, and all the exchangers we recognized were lounging around at cafes.  Odd, but we thought maybe they take lunch breaks too, so we came back a couple hours later only to find most had gone home and there were military men at the entrance to the shopping center where some of the exchanges occur.  We still made the exchange, but instead of doing so on the sidewalk as we did the last time, we found only one office open that we knew to exchange and we took a slightly smaller rate for the extra risky service in the back room of his office.  We were a little worried for the exchangers, but of course the soldiers knew exactly why these “gringos” were going in there and they didn’t seem to mind too much.  It was all for show but it was kind of exciting!

(Our favorite Malbec at Tempus Alba.)

We had two reasons for heading to La Serena in Chile after our final excursion crossing borders: Pisco and the night sky.  Pisco is just one of many things that Peru and Chile are always butting heads about.  They argue about which country made it first, which is best, and who makes the best Pisco Sours.  Since we really love Peru’s Pisco and Pisco Sours, we had to try the competition.  The majority of Chile’s Pisco is grown in the Elquie valley, a freakishly man-made agricultural haven.  La Serena is North of Santiago and not too far South of the Atacama Desert (our first stop in Chile and the driest place on Earth).  The terrain is also not that different from the Atacama.  The one major difference: a single river.  The only river.  The dammed river made it possible to grow in the narrow desert valley, which was a really weird sight.  As we were driving through on our Elquie Valley tour, we were overlooking these pinkish-grey, dusty mountains with sharp squares of bright green plots filling the bottom of the valley and slightly creeping up the sides.  Bryan was excited to stop at the dam so we could check out the giant reservoir in the desert, until we found out that the area had been extra dry for the past few years.  The reservoir was only at 8 (EIGHT!) percent of its capacity.  I feel for those people who set up shop in an area with such terrible odds of survival.  For the time being, though, the vineyards and plantations appeared to be getting enough water.

(Reservoir at 8% of its capacity. Look for the lines to see how low it is.)

(Green patches of vineyards in the desert.)

As we were driving down the valley, our tour guide pointed out two observatories that we could just barely see far off on distant mountaintops.  The first was Tololo, the most famous, with 8 telescopes and a radio telescope.  The second was especially exciting because it is still being built and will be pretty amazing when finished.  The LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) is a project by Google and several universities that will potentially be like Google Maps, but of the sky, and will be capable of things that current observatories are not.

We stopped at the old home and schoolhouse of a famous Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, who was the first person in all of South America to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.  At a Pisco distillery, we were surprised to find out that Chilean Pisco tastes nothing like Peruvian Pisco.  We had heard that the Chilean Pisco was better from multiple foreigners, but we have to disagree.  It was like Moonshine.  In contrast, Peruvian Pisco still has flavor, much like wine but with higher alcohol content. We enjoyed an upscale lunch on this tour and met a couple from Concepción, the city that was devastated by the 2010 earthquake. They were fun to talk to as they had unique perspectives – she being a tv newscast member and he a newspaper journalist.

(Antique filtering mechanism at Pisco distillery.)

That night we went on a tour of Mamalluca observatory.  Due to being research facilities, most of the other observatories are closed to tourism, and so Mamalluca was built for the tourists.  It definitely was for amateurs and education, but it was much better than we expected.  We started off in a dome with a high-powered, automated, refracting telescope and I got all giddy when the guide punched in the numbers for a star/planet/cluster and the telescope would spin to a specific spot and the dome would follow.  The views were phenomenal!  We saw many interesting things including Jupiter and the four largest moons and a colorful gaseous cloud.  We then went outside to a large, simplistic, reflecting telescope which we used to see closer stars, clusters, and the moon.

(Powerful refracting telescope and rotating dome.)

(Jupiter and its four moons)

(Simple reflecting telescope)

(Our moon through the telescope.)

When we were checking out of our cute hostel in La Serena, we were telling the owner how much we enjoyed sitting in the beautiful garden, eating the fresh fruit off his trees, and drinking the juice he made us from those trees.  He was so happy he took us into his leather workshop (he also taught people how to make leather sandals) and we each made bracelets for ourselves with four leaf clovers stamped into them.  We’re still wearing them and so far our luck has been pretty good!

(Bryan making a leather bracelet.)

South of La Serena was the beautiful and popular coastal town of Valparaiso, also a UNESCO world heritage site.  We weren’t so sure if we wanted to see another coastal town, but we had the time and it was highly recommended by the mother of our host in Buenos Aires.  We are so glad we did because we were very pleasantly surprised!  The city was a very important stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Straits of Magellan.  That is, until the Panama Canal was built. It was a very prosperous city and there is much evidence of that in buildings and infrastructure, but the city felt the drop very quickly and very hard when the Canal opened, and many of the beautiful buildings fell into disrepair.  It was quite interesting seeing the inside of a home fit for a king, that looks like it came straight out of England, but has been completely abandoned.  I felt like those marble staircases and angel bas-reliefs were being wasted.

(Marble staircase in abandoned mansion.)

(Weathered building in Valparaiso, Chile.)

Valparaiso is built on steep hills and features historical funicular elevators (inclined cable cars) that were built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make travel by foot much easier.  At one time there were 26, but there are maybe 16 still standing and 8 or less still running.  The beautiful city is also known for an artistic culture.  We visited the home of another Nobel Peace Prize (only the second in Chile), Pablo Neruda, a famous poet/collector/politician.  Although we knew nothing about him, his home was impressive with 5 levels built into a hillside, some of the best views in the city, and filled with his collections of antiques and art. We also checked out an area of town known for graffiti art.  Several years back a graffiti competition was held, and that sparked a never-ending culture.  It is so welcomed that most business owners pay local artists to do something on a portion or all of their storefronts. Much of what we learned about the city came from a “Wally Tour”, a type of tour for tips.  It was the best walking tour we have done and we highly recommend it if you are in the area.  In our hostel we met a friendly couple from New Zealand who we spent the better part of three days with.  They were great company and it was nice to be able to enjoy the sights with others.  On our last night there, we bought some Chilean wine together to do our own tasting.  Great fun!

(Our favorite graffiti art pieces.)

(Abandoned funicular elevator.)

(Wine tasting with our friends from New Zealand.)

Our very last city outside of the U.S. (that sounds so sad) was Santiago, the capital of Chile.  We had received an invitation from a Couchsurfing host on the outskirts of the city, but we never met him.   He didn’t plan well for having surfers, and didn’t tell us until right before our arrival that he was working until very late.  After figuring his schedule just wasn’t going to work for us, we found a hostel.  In Valparaiso we had enjoyed the Wally Tour so much we decided to do the two different versions offered in Santiago.  The next afternoon we joined the “city basics” tour where we saw all the major historical buildings, neighborhoods, and the hill where the first observatory was placed (until the city grew around it and light pollution became too much).  That day we were also witness to an important moment in history when the International Court of Justice made the decision on a long running maritime dispute between Peru and Chile.  The coast of Chile is pretty much straight North-South, but Peru’s coast starts out farther West and curves in toward Chile.  If you draw a line perpendicular to each coast to determine the territorial waters, the territories overlap.  Chile stated this was settled in a treaty from the 50’s (of course it was in their favor), but Peru disagreed.  On that day, the Court ruling split up the disputed area.  Chile lost some of the territory but was able to keep its coastal area, while Peru got more territory farther out.  I’d say that’s pretty fair, but not everyone thought so.  That day on the tour we unexpectedly walked through the unhappy crowd near the Cathedral we were aiming to visit.  Unfortunately, this caused the Cathedral to be closed with military guards.  It really wasn’t a large crowd, but I guess it was enough for the government to take precautions.  You can see illustrations and read about the dispute here:

(Unhappy crowd after International Court ruling on maritime border dispute.)

(La Moneda presidential palace, reconstructed after military coup bombed it in 1973)

The next day we took the Wally Tour that visited the less traditional areas outside the center such as the enormous fish and produce markets and a unique cemetery.  The cemetery began as Catholic-only and then was later opened to everyone (and the angered Catholics went elsewhere).  Families began building mausoleums and it turned into a competition between the rich to outdo other families with bigger, fancier, crazier designs.  We could see how this competition morphed from size alone to making miniature replicas of world famous structures and then into unique designs.  Clubs and organizations followed suit, allowing people to be exclusive members of societies even in death.  We had heard mostly negative comments about Santiago but we actually thought the city had a lot of beauty and we were pleasantly surprised.

(Thirteen family members in one grave.)

(Earlier family mausoleums.)

(Mausoleum competition getting serious.)

Our last day in Chile was quite uneventful and our farewell even less so.  We spent the last day car shopping via the internet for cars in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We had a day to find and buy a car before my family arrived for a week vacation in the Keys.  We are so thankful we had the opportunity to spend a week uninterrupted with family after being gone for so long, which also helped us ease back into culture and life in the U.S.  After the time in the Keys we were able to drive through the Everglades and to spend some time with a very good friend of mine from my hometown who I haven’t seen enough since high school.  We sadly didn’t get to spend as much time with her and her family as I would have liked due to encroaching winter storms.  That drive back to Missouri from Southern Florida was my biggest culture shock.  In South America or Asia by bus it probably would have taken three days or more, and we did it in 20 hours.  Thank goodness for our efficient highways!

(Packed for the trip home.)

As we were leaving our hostel in Santiago, a part of me felt like we were missing a big farewell party somewhere; a celebration of our achievement with hugs and well-wishes from all the friends we have made along the way; something to acknowledge how monumental the moment felt for me.  Instead, we received a simple “Chau!” from the front desk.  As we rode the bus to the airport, I thought about the sadness of a great adventure coming to an end, about how much we have learned over the past eleven months, and about how nice it will feel to be surrounded by family and friends.

Now, after three weeks of being back in the States, people ask how it feels for the adventure to be over, but the only answer we have been able to give is that it doesn’t feel like it’s over.

I guess we’re just entering a new chapter.