Sunday, December 28, 2008

Santiago, Chile, November 25-26, 2008

We left Toronto Monday night as a mix of light snow and cold rain fell over the city. Winter was beginning to tighten its frozen grip on the city, so it was a great time to escape to sunny South America.

Our overnight flight left at 11:55 p.m., scheduled to take 11 hours from Toronto to Santiago, Chile. In the middle of the night, however, we hit a big storm over Panama and, after bouncing us around for a while, the pilot decided to take a 200-mile detour out over the ocean, which added another hour to our already lengthy journey. But it did smooth things out enough to allow us to get a couple of hours of sleep. Not quite enough, however, to prevent total exhaustion upon our arrival at noon on Tuesday.

It’s funny though how visiting a foreign country for the second time is both good and bad. The bad side is that it’s less exotic or foreign. The good side is that it’s less exotic and confusing, especially when you’re completely drained and can’t even think in English, let alone Spanish. When you know you’re way around – and we were quite familiar with the Santiago airport as you’ll see below – you’re less likely to panic, make mistakes, or fall prey to the ever present touts.

So this time, instead of immediately joining the lengthy lines at the Immigration booths, we knew that we had to first find the hidden counter to purchase our “Reciprocity Visas” for $132 US and then join the Immigration queue. And we had our cash ready this time.

The last time, we had arrived in the middle of the night from Lima, Peru, and joined the Immigration queue where they promptly sent us back to start all over again at the visa counter where they demanded $75 US in cash. This was a big problem because the banks were closed at that hour and we hadn’t planned on US currency to manage this unexpected toll. Luckily we had enough US bills hidden about us to just make up the fee.

The delays that night, however, meant we couldn’t make our connecting flight to southern Chile and we had to spend a cold night sleeping on hard, steel benches in the Santiago airport. We reasoned at that time of the morning it made no sense to pay $30 to take a taxi downtown to find a hotel and then turn around and come right back to catch a 7 a.m. flight, for which we would have to line up at 5 a.m. in order to make sure we got seats. So we got to know the airport and all its cleaning, security and food stall staff quite well.

No such problems this time, and even though our flight was delayed we sped quickly through the chaos that surrounds most airports. As an added bonus, we felt quite comfortable hopping on the airport bus for $2.50 Cdn instead of taking an expensive taxi.

At this point, some of you may be wondering what we’re doing in Chile when we were planning to go to Argentina. Quite simple really, Santiago is just across the border from the Mendoza wine region which is our first stop in Argentina. So instead of a $500 flight from Buenos Aires, we can take a $30 bus right across the stunning Andes Mountains that separate the two countries. We have planned this trip during the day to be both awed and terrified by the steep, winding roads and passes through the mountain peaks.

But back to Santiago, the capital of Chile and home to 5.5 million. It’s spring here and the air is full of the sweet scents of flowering trees and fresh fruit at the open air fruit stands. The sky is blue and this very modern city is surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks. The climate here is very temperate with warm days (around 20 to 28 Celsius) and cool nights. Very comfortable!

Everywhere we walk, and this is a very walkable city, we are surrounded by parks and flowers of all kinds, including purple flowering Jacaranda trees, red Bougainvilleas, and orange Ceibos. Under large trees, the ground is covered with stunning Acanthus mollis, and an incredible array of exotic tropical plants that we struggle to grow back home as houseplants.

The parks are also filled with new sculptures and outdoor works of art. The Chileans are making up for that dreadful period of artistic suppression and violence that marked the Pinochet era, a time when many Chileans fled to Canada, Australia, and Sweden. Like the Renaissance after the Dark Ages, art seems to be springing up all over the city.

Although it’s quite warm here in the city, a short 45-minute ride will take you to some wonderful ski hills in the surrounding mountains. Go the other way towards the ocean and you’re in the middle of lush vineyards growing in an arid desert. A little further on and you come to the beaches of Valparaiso on the Pacific Ocean.

To cap off our first day in Santiago, we connected with Pasi, a friend we met this summer at the wedding of Necla’s son Mark in Toronto. Pasi and her boyfriend Luis treated us to a fabulous dinner at a typical Chilean restaurant called La Casa Vieja, where we enjoyed Pisco sours, fresh fish “a la plancha” and Chilean wine. Her son Alejandro and an exchange student from California joined us for a very pleasant and informative evening. It also gave us a chance to attune our ears to the staccato style of Spanish spoken by the Chilenos.

The next day, Alejandro joined us at the bus station with his recommendations for a long-distance bus company for the seven-hour trip across the Andes. After the exchange, we took him to lunch at a lovely patio restaurant that featured German-style beers and ¨Kuchen¨, a Chilean version of German desserts that you can find all over Chile, especially in the south, which was opened up by German immigrants in the 1800s. We were entertained by the Chilean folk singers and dancers you can see in the first photo (by the way, you can click on the photos to enlarge them).

Tomorrow we’re off to Mendoza.

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