I think I understand why so many of us in the United States ignore our neighbors in South America. The continent is not marketed as well as Europe and the perception exists that Europe has more or better antiquities.
Simple fact? It’s true. There is no Eiffel Tower or Vatican City in South America. But to skip the gems that do exist to our south is a big mistake. If you’re looking for an alternative to the high exchange rate of the euro, give the southern hemisphere a Google. See what kind of deals, and adventure, you can uncover.
One goal of this trip is to celebrate our anniversary in August 2009 while on vacation. I’m hoping for off-season airfares since it will be winter below the equator. Once I discover the favorable exchange rates, there is no turning back. The only decisions are how far, how long and where. Of course I need to maximize the number of countries we will hit since I am working towards my 100th country.
A friend who had family to visit, made a trip to Chile and Argentina during the South American summer. With her guidance, I confidently start to make plans. In Chile, she suggests a trip to the coast, either Valparaiso or Viña del Mar instead of staying in Santiago. The drive to the coast looks easy enough. Looks the same as driving in the States. My planning juices are flowing as things start to fall into place.
First, a search for flights. I spend hours on Kayak.com playing with itineraries. Normal people search for the most direct flights but it cannot be denied, I am not normal. At one point I find flights with a stop in Bogata, Columbia going down and Lima, Peru coming back but when I attempt to book it, the flights are gone! Dang! I’ll have to pick up the country of Columbia another time.
The best I can do for the first leg of the trip is US Airways from Charlotte to Miami switching to LAN Airlines from Miami to Santiago with a 3 hour layover in Lima, Peru. It will be long enough to have dinner but more importantly, it counts as another country even thought we cannot leave the airport. That will have to be another trip.
I really loathe Miami International Airport. I don’t know what it is but every time I fly through it, it is never a pleasant experience. This trip is no exception. We arrive from Charlotte at 3:25 pm on US Air but can not check luggage all the way through to Santiago. We race from the gate to the terminal. We divide and conquer. Mike goes to baggage claim to wait for our bags. I go to the ticket counter and fall in at the end of a long line. Mike appears in the crowd with our bags and we re-check them on LAN and go through security again. All this before our 5:15 pm departure. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to make us tax all of the extra airport services of baggage claim, ticket counter agents and security when we’ve already gone through that in Charlotte when we could simply walk from gate to gate.
The one nice thing in Miami is our first introduction to LAN. After worrying if we will make the flight, a helpful agent offers us seats on a non-stop flight to Santiago. She is puzzled when we insist on staying on our original flight with the stop in Lima.
When we finally get to the gate, it’s every traveler’s nightmare come true. The gate area is jammed packed with kids. It turns out that this is the end of the South American equivalent of Spring Break in Florida and everyone is going home. It looks like the flight is going to be 40% adults and the rest are children. To add to the misery, the flight is jam-packed. As we wait to board, all I can think is “kill me now.” This is about to be the flight from hell. Nothing could be further from the truth.
LAN is THE airline to fly to South America. They go everywhere and their fares are competitive while their service flies higher than everyone else. I never eat airline food but this is some tasty fare with good Chilean wines for FREE! Every seat has its own TV with tons of programming to keep everyone entertained. We can play games against people in other seats if we want. Everyone gets a pair of eye shades and ear plugs. The seats are not overly cramped, even in coach. The kids are distracted, making this a flight full of happy, quietly entertained people.
With three hours to kill we go in search of someplace to hang out. We find a little Italian restaurant in the terminal. Nothing fancy. We share a delicious dish of fettuccine with very fresh tomato sauce and mushrooms. A couple of lemonades and dessert round out the meal.
(Yes. We are in Peru eating Italian. Good Italian. We’ve had bad Italian in Rome where Mike inspired a Vito Corleone stare from a waiter after hubby insisted in broken Italian that the chicken was “non e fresco.” Excellent Chinese in Rome and memorable pizza in Stockholm.)
After dinner we do a little souvenir shopping. A pair of earrings caught my eye on the way in and I know that if I don’t seize the moment and buy them, I will regret it. In addition to visiting Macchu Picchu, I have always wanted to fly over the Nazca Lines in Peru. The earrings are a silver version of the lines that depict the heron. Gotta have them.
We pick up a hat and some bookmarks (easy to pack) and it’s time for our next flight to Santiago. On paper it looks long – leaving at 1:05 am and arriving at 5:25 am. But it’s really only a little more than two hours because Santiago is 2 hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S. That was something we had a hard time wrapping our head around. Our west coast destination of Concón, Chile is on the Pacific Ocean, yet it is two hours ahead of the east coast of the United States.
As we descend into Santiago it’s still dark out. Budget Rent-A-Car doesn’t open until 7:00 am so there is plenty of time to get through immigration and customs. Visas to gain entry into the country cost $131 each. It is a piece of paper stapled to our passports and is good until these passports expire. Mine is good until 2014 so I need to plan my trip to Easter Island before I need to renew my passport!
Our focus turns to getting some Chilean Pesos . The ATM is not working. No stores are open this early on a Sunday morning so we wait. Finally someone arrives and opens a kiosk. I was hoping I could get extra cash back if I paid with my credit or debit card but that didn’t work. The clerk did take $10 American and gave me change in pesos so at least we had a bit of cash in our pocket. We would keep our eyes peeled for another ATM on our way to the coast.
As the sun starts to rise, we can see the dirty air hanging over the city. The backdrop behind the schmutz are the gorgeous Andes Mountains. Years ago, I was a ski reporter and set up contacts with Valle Nevado and Portillo ski areas outside of Santiago. I wonder where exactly they are. That discovery will need to wait for another trip.
A little after 7:00 am, with the mountains at our back, we leave the airport and head west on Ruta 68. It will take about an hour and a half to get to Concón, which is north of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.
It is really foggy and we can barely see the lines on the four-lane highway, let alone the surrounding countryside. It reminds us of when we lived in the Bay Area and the marine layer would sit on top of San Francisco until the sun got hot enough to burn it off.
With little warning, out of nowhere, a toll booth pops up. Luckily I have the change I got from the kiosk at the airport. A few miles later, we come to another toll booth. They take the last of our pesos. My friend didn’t mention these, but she was not driving when she traveled this road.
A little further we come to another toll plaza. Flat broke with local currency, we try to give them U.S. dollars but the toll attendant dismisses that idea. They make us back out of the booth, in the fog, and park on the right shoulder. Mike runs across the lanes of traffic (luckily they are pretty empty at that time on a Sunday morning.) He stands in the vestibule of the toll building where they change a few dollars and let us through the last toll – not that we know it’s the last toll.
As we get closer to the coast, the fog starts to burn off. This allows us to catch glimpses of vineyards and even a couple of wineries. It’s still a bit grey as we arrive at the Radisson Acqua Hotel & Spa.
It’s a Sunday morning, off season – still winter in the eyes of Santiaguinos – so the hotel is not busy. The hospitality is immediately evident when they give us a room where we can shower and nap while we wait for our upgraded room to be cleaned.
And, boy is it worth the wait. The room has a clear balcony for maximum view. The waves of the Pacific are crashing over the rocks just below. Magnificent. Wait, that’s no longer the ocean waves, those noises are our stomachs growling. Our last meal was last night in Peru and it’s nearly noon. We want food!
And we don’t want just any food. Since we are on the coast of Chile, we want Chilean sea bass. The clerk at the front desk points us south along the coast to downtown Concón. He recommends a couple of places, La Gatita and Emeterio. Both are on the ocean side of the street.
We opt for La Gatita (The Kitten). There’s not a lot of room between the front door and the oncoming traffic. The place is packed and we squeeze into a table for two, arriving just before the line for tables snakes out the door. We are looking forward to some fresh fish.
With our sketchy Spanish we manage to convey that we want Chilean sea bass and to our astonishment, are informed they do not have any. We think it’s on the menu but clearly our Spanish is not good enough to know for sure. We’re bummed. The waiter recommends another white fish and for a lack of a command of the language, we go with it. It was good but not what we wanted.
Reenergized, we are ready for a drive south to Viña del Mar. I have always wanted to go to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and see moai – the iconic big heads – and the Museo Fonck has one. The roads are clearly marked and it’s easy to navigate around this seaside city.
The museum is inland a bit, in what appears to be an upscale neighborhood. A small converted house holds artifacts from Easter Island. Being goofballs by nature, we must strike silly poses with the big head outside. This just fuels my fire to visit these guys in their natural habitat. For now, I settle with a replica moai for my desk at work.
On the way to the museum, we pass a big shopping area that looks quite chic so on our way back towards Concón we backtrack to investigate.
At the top of a nearby hill we stop to take in the beach and ocean below. With our fill of sea view, we descend into the Mall Marina Arauco parking garage.
I snap a photo of where we park so someone can direct us if case we get lost looking for our rented car.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to go to local supermarkets. I don’t mean the quaint ones for tourists. I mean the super mercados, the Wal-Marts of the world. One of these monsters is just inside the door and it’s packed. I’m always interested in new spices and ingredients and wish I had a kitchen to play in.
Once we get our fill of sights and smells, we decide to cruise the mall. It turns out to be a typical suburban mall. LAN happens to have an office here so we stop by to make sure our flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina tomorrow is on schedule.
On this trip, we are going to be flying a lot of miles on LAN and want to make sure we join their frequent flyer program. Up until now, we hadn’t been able to enroll so we take the opportunity and sign up.
After our long trip from Charlotte that started early Saturday, fatigue is setting in. In typical Jill and Mike fashion, we push our vacation hours to the limit and hit the wall. Since it’s late afternoon in the winter, we know the sun will be setting soon and don’t really want to be driving exhausted on unfamiliar roads at night.
We drive north to the hotel just in time for the most spectacular sunset ever! The sky turns an incredible combination of purple, orange and red. Perched, nearly-exhausted on our balcony, we sit and admire the show.
Once the sun has set, the temperature plummets so we close the sliding glass door and decide to head downstairs for dinner in the hotel.
Taking a brief detour, we settle into a couch in the bar with a pair of Pisco Sours, made with a South American liqueur that is made from distilled grapes. It’s a local favorite. Thoroughly happy in an exhausted daze, we stare, mesmerized by the lights of Viña del Mar twinkling across the water and listen near listlessly to the rhythmic waves crashing below us.
When we can muster the energy, we go downstairs to the dark and nearly empty restaurant. Since we’ll only need to stumble upstairs after dinner, we order a bottle of Chilean wine. Too “tired” to decide on dinner, instead, we graze with a bowl of onion soup and a couple of shrimp appetizers. The service is attentive, the wine is tasty and the food is good. Eventually the sleepyheads wander back upstairs, tuck into bed and quickly fall into a dead sleep serenaded by the surf.
Monday morning we go back to the restaurant for a leisurely breakfast. Back upstairs, we need to get ourselves ready to check out. The tab for the room, dinner, drinks and breakfast comes to $215. With that view, it’s a bargain!
By 10:00 am, we are on the road back to Santiago for our 2:00 pm flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. This time, we have plenty of pesos for the tolls. The sun is out and it’s a gorgeous day so we finally get to see the countryside that was shrouded in clouds on the way in.
The scenery does not disappoint. Near the ocean, there are steep hills that are brown and scrubby, reminiscent of Southern California. We start to see more green as we continue east passing palm trees that cling to the cliffs. They give way to rolling hills dotted with vineyards. Unfortunately we have a plane to catch and it’s too early to imbibe.
As we approach Santiago, the air and the landscape turn brown. The smog is chokingly thick and almost obliterates the stunning mountain backdrop. We miss our turn-off for the airport and have to go into town to turn around. This is exactly the reason we leave plenty of extra time for the trip. Luckily we don’t have to travel too far to fix our mistake.
Before leaving the car, we take pictures showing we’ve returned it in perfect condition so there are no surprise charges when we get the bill. Call me a cynic but I’ve read too many horror stories of charges for damage after cars have been returned and the poor renters have no proof that they are not to blame. Better to take the time now, than battle endlessly later.
Back at the airport, we can now explore the shops that were closed when we arrived. We pick up a few small boxes of chocolates shaped like my beloved moai and some more bookmarks (My souvenir of choice these days. You never know when you might be reading eight books simultaneously or need a small memento as a gift.) We are just beginning our trek through South America so I don’t want to be too weighted down.
Once again, we arrive at a gate full of teenagers on a school trip to Buenos Aires. The same thought as I had in Miami strikes me again but we are flying LAN so I know they will be occupied by the onboard entertainment. As the plane ascends over the mountains, I scan the smog covered Andes looking for ski areas that I yearn to try.
I settle in for a pleasant three hour flight. On this leg, we are spending only one night in Buenos Aires. Tomorrow morning we are flying to Ushuaia, Argentina in Tierra del Fuego – the southernmost city in the world!