Coast of Chile: Vina del Mar & Valparaiso

Trip Start Jan 28, 2008
Trip End Feb 08, 2008

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Hotel Orley

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ingrid here doing Graeme's blogging as he takes a break from all the hard work of carrying his little black note book around with him, or at least his pen! Today we  leave for Vina del Mar and Valparaiso - twin cities on the west coast of Chile.

A shuttle bus picks us up from the hotel and delivers us to our coach - a large air-conditioned bus with excellent, comfortable seats and modern bathroom facilities. We are the only English-speaking passengers, however, since this is a bilingual trip, the tour guide translates everything well while looking at just the two of us - (kinda makes us feel a bit special: edit by GW). We set out along the new auto route that has been operational for only the past two years, and includes two very long tunnels.
Both are under under the river (one of them is 4.5 K). The route also connects with the International Airport, approx. 20 minutes west of Santiago. There are 1.5 million people in Santiago Central and over six million in Sanatiago proper - it is not a small city although it certainly has the ambience of one. We are taking Route 68, the main Highway. Santiago is situated in a valley between the coastal mountain range and the Andes. The general landscape appears to be very arid, almost desert like in places, yet very green in arable areas that are irrigated with water from glacier melts. The valleys of various Chilean regions are areas of great abundance and provide all of the local vegetables and fruit. Produce represents the second biggest export for the country. Copper being the biggest and most important. Chile is the biggest producer of copper in the world today.
This fact is substantiated visually as we pass several open-faced copper mines. One of them we were told, is the largest open mine in the world today. Along the way, we also pass quite a number of wineries, as well as large fruit orchards that consisted of mainly citrus fruit trees, as evidenced by roadside stands containing lemons and oranges. Other regions of Chile produce many other fruits and vegetables for local consumption as well as for export.
So when I purchase produce from Chile at my local supermarket (Supermercado) or vegetable vendor, I will be reminded of this area.  GW add-on in italics - The site-line is a running film of brown hills, kneeling down into desert sage-brush, contaminated by the constructed tunnels and then vista'd by the glorious orchards of grape vines - the Casablanca Valley. Here there are 4,000 hectares of vineyards. Our eyes rest on a fervent and festive green. As our tour guide explains it, Vina del Mar is the modern part of the twin cities and Valparaiso the historical part.  Each has a distinct character that we enjoy very much. We enter through a summer mist, heading for the 15,000 seat amphitheater.
It is used this time of the year for the annual world famous music festival attended by participants and patrons from all over the world. It is officially called Festival internactional de la cancion, de Vina del Mar, or The Vina del Mar International Song Festival, in English.  Because it IS this time of the year, it is closed for set up. Accordingly, our tour operators have to come up with some alternative or risk the
Mutiny of the Bounty - in this case, the 'bounty' would be gross over-deserved gratuities that they extort out of jelly-kneed tourist types with pale faces. (Just kidding, there is no pressure, but I am sure they are well aware that in order to get a reasonable tip, they must do well in presenting a full program. We continue our trip along the coast southward to Vina del Mar, stopping for a visit to the local museum where a statue from Easter Island had been placed many years ago...
Easter Island is 3700 kilometers from here or a 5 1/2 hour flight!  'Tis a long way to go to see some statues that are replicated here; however, that is only an excuse as we did every calculation possible to make sure we went. It wouldn't fit on our time, finance or conscience budgets!  ;-D   Unfortunately, the museum itself is also closed since it is a Monday. But, the sly operators have a response to that also. In addition to the two statues outside the museum, they now offer us some 'window shopping' at the "store over there..." and wow, what a gallery/shop it is. It is by far the best art, souvenir and artifact store we have seen from trinkets to valuable pieces of art in gold, bronze and gem stones. 
You guessed it, we enter a local retailer where we purchase items made of silver and Lapis Lazuli - the national stone - as well as copper and brass.
All of the artifacts are produced by native Chilean craftsmen. They are absolutely beautiful, and we are taking onto the bus a large copper, brass and Lapis mask for our 'travel wall' at home. (See photo) For those wondering, the retailer is on the corner of Norte and Oriente. Our next stop, to make up for not seeing the amphitheater is the Sausalito Soccer Stadium, which is considered a heritage building. It deserves this honour primarily because it hosted a world-cup soccer game in 1962 (see photograph of wall mounted plaque). Soccer is huge in South America and the stadium is still in full use today. It was part of an outdoor center that also included a lake for rowing and swimming. Graeme and several other female soccer fans, manage to walk onto the grass areas of the stadium.
Our guide had told us that we would not be able to do so. In any case, the caretaker obviously thought our bus load of people worthy of walking on such hallowed ground and invited people to come onto the grass area. At least that is what Graeme is telling everyone...  Not unlike Ottawa's Landsdowne Park, the stadium looks over a greenbelt/water site that in of itself makes the Sausalito Stadium look like a sagging nag put out to pasture - until one gets inside that is. Anyway, the lake looks man-made but isn't. Populated with the sparse palm trees, more palm bushes and inundated with mostly other tropical foliage that takes its turn to bloom and blush throughout the year .
A calm surrounds the Stadium that belies its known rowdiness when a game is on. Across the lake is a mooring, or an adobe or...? There appears to be no road there or back. One wonders at the solitude of it.  We are told that Everton of the English Premiership has played here and because of that the local team from Vina del Mar was named after the team: 'Everton'.  And of course, it goes without saying that Pele played here...
  We are also told that "The Santiago Wanderers Football Club (from Valparaiso)", the oldest football team in Argentina was founded in 1892 by the British. As we leave the area, our guide points out a large number of new apartments built along the steep hillside. In fact, most buildings in this area are attached to the side of rather steep hills.
What is unique about them is firstly, they are steep and narrow streets. Secondly, they are also accessible only via funiculars that transport the residents to the lower street level. The photos attached will demonstrate this.  As we found, when reaching Valparaiso, funiculars appear to be part of virtually every city block, (not as ubiquitous as trees which dominate the cities and towns, but there sure is a bunch of them), and have been in operation for many, many years. We drive along the coastal road firstly to Vina del Mar and then to Valparaiso, an important port city that is home to the Chilean Navy. It is the port also for cruise ships anchored prior to sailing around Cape Horn to Rio de Janeiro.
We actually have neighbours who will be here tomorrow for just that trip; but alas we will miss them... We pass through a busy downtown area, skirting modern high-rise buildings that have wonderful views of the ocean. Along the way we pass a 'condiminia' dedicated to Queen Victoria. It is designed and constructed with moats, internal lagoons and in one complex a building is constructed with a Palm Tree growing in between the 7th and 8th floor ! (See Photo next). At this point, our guide tells us that Martin Higgins made Chile independent in 1818 and that he was Irish. Just goes to show you that once you let in a Spaniard or a Brit, they will let anyone in!  ;-D 
Prior to departure from the hotel in the morning, our concierge had advised us that we might need a sweater or cardigan on the coast. The twin cities are impacted by the cold current from Antarctica; this current brings cold water up along the coast that mixes with the hot air and creates substantial morning haze.  And, yup - that there is. We reach the beach of Vina del Mar with the sky still leached and the sun seemingly impeached. We see children attached to bungee cords bouncing on a trampoline attempting to break through the haze and let the sun free.
We pass a floral clock built into the hillside like the one in Vancouver BC (Stanley Park) or in Geneva, Switzerland on Rue Mont Blanc opposite lac Geneve.  It fits as well here as the other two and I am sure there are more in the world. The history of this clock though, is worth its significance: it was planted to celebrate Chile's World Cup. It is here that I lose one of my camera batteries and realize how short a shelf life the two remaining batteries can have. That is to say, particularly when one is snapping photos at the equivalent of a bride's blink rate while waiting for the wedding march.
Despite the guider's guidance, I cannot find a store that sells batteries or re-chargers. Reminds me of attempting to buy stamps in BA, it does!  This beach is hard to describe. It is different. Sure all beaches are different.... but there are categories: white sand, cool sand, no sand, black sand, and pebble sand; big rolling, surfing, pounding waves; little piddly, spitting ripples; in and out tidal waves; and then are lake beaches, ocean, river and stream beaches. They can have Brighton piers, huge salt or fresh water pools constructed within them; they can have stages for performers, bandstands, tennis courts, volley ball nets, football nets and baseball diamonds.
They come in all sizes.  They become a tourist attraction for the poodles and the topless like Nice/Cannes; or a scammers delight such as Rio or Western Coastal Mexican beaches. But this one is different. Is it that the sun isn't shining through yet and the haze gives it a Western English year-round complexion?
Or is it that all of the housing and shops are on the other side of the road cantilevered up the side of the hill?  Or is it a bit of everything? It is different this Vina dal Mer.
  Most of us rush out of the bus for a breath of fresh sea air and the opportunity to place our hands or feet into the ocean - and, yes, the water is on the cold side (that is, if you are not from Vancouver and used to Polar Bear dipping in mid summer).
Vina del Mar is a beach town that is home to well over 100,000 holiday visitors during the summer. Many people from Santiago stay here at that time, which is in full swing in January/February. After the brief stop we drive by a large Casino built in the style of Casinos in Monaco, and as our guide explained, while there are 13 steps, most serious gamblers avoid the 13th step since it is representative of bad luck. We also pass a building with a castle-like turret described as a once proud home that is now a government heritage building. The road we are on, Avenita San Martin, is to us like the French Riveria. I would call it, The Ordinary Person's Riviera. 
On our short hop to Valparaiso, we encounter the 'indigo and citrus' mood colors of the buildings: residential and commercial. We see much more of this in the small towns of Chile than in Santiago or in Argentina. We stop for lunch in Valparaiso, at a very nice Seafood restaurant right at the harbour front and after lunch had 30 minutes to explore the area on our own. You may have realized that Valentine's day is close and my daughter Jennifer who used to live in Brazil, but never got to Chile is in my thoughts.
So what better way to send her a Valentine gift than to have someone make up their boat to permanently look like they have congrats Jennifer on it. With the added touch of a maple leaf and voila, Jennifer has a bit of Chile inside her.  (Again, see photo below - sincerely undoctored! But no, it was not of my doing; we truly saw this little fella in the harbour.) Anyway, back to the beach: the haze typically does not burn off until early afternoon, something that turned out to be true. But, coming from Ottawa in February there was nothing that truly warrants taking a sweater along except to block the air-conditioning on the bus!
We continued our journey up one of those steep roads that culminated in an area comprised of 5 roads crossing. AND, it is called the 'five road crossing'.  It certainly was a bit of a feat for our large tour bus to negotiate these tight steep streets and torturous corners. We stop at the top of the hill where we have a superb view of the harbour and surrounding vista, and also are able to take a funicular car down to the street-level below.
This is an old version and, while fairly large, holds only 10-15 passengers safely.  The floor planks are made of wood, and we can see the cliff and street below through the planks as well as through the windows, as we were being transported down the steep slope. It isn't scary, but then there was no wind, no snow, no ice and no terrorists !  Valparaiso was discovered by the Spaniards, but never founded. It and San Antonio are the two largest ports; Valparaiso is the Capital of the region, hence the confusion with where the elected legislators meet.
We now are seeing the Tower of Francisco Church which was the lighthouse for the coast for many, many years. 95% of the residents live on hills 'hanging' as they describe it. Hence, all the Funiculars. We are now out of the bus and walking the town center which comprises four square blocks. We are told that the bus took us through enough to see 20% in total. The city is a military port and that explains the presence of the Navy Headquarters building as prominent as a stage in a theatre with the mezzanine being the dockyards and the ocean feeding them.
We have a short stop at one of the homes (he had three) of one of Chile's most important poets, recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, and elected Senator, Pablo Neruda. The home was also closed for the day, but we knew that we would be seeing another on the following day and truly getting into the contributions he made to and for Chile in his lifetime.  Neruda was famous throughout the Spanish speaking world and gained much acclaim in English as well. Here is an example of his poetry about the sea - his primary topic. Everything was wrapped in a metaphor of the sea, the sailor or the ship. 
The poem is entitled,  Enigmas:

You've asked me what the lobster is weaving there with his golden feet? /I reply, the ocean knows this. /You say, what is the ascidia waiting for in its transparent bell? /What is it waiting for? /I tell you it is waiting for time, like you.  /You ask me whom the Macrocystis alga hugs in its arms? /Study, study it, at a certain hour, in a certain sea I know/. You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhal, and I reply by describing how the sea unicorn with the harpoon in it dies./You inquire about the kingfisher's feathers, which tremble in the pure springs of the southern tides?/ Or you've found in the cards a new question touching on the crystal architecture of the sea anemone, and you'll deal that to me now?/ You want to understand the electric nature of the ocean spines?/ The armored stalactite that breaks as it walks?/ The hook of the angler fish, the music stretched out in the deep places like a thread in the water?/
I want to tell you the ocean knows this, that life in its jewel boxes is endless as the sand, impossible to count, pure, and... among the blood-colored grapes time has made the petal hard and shiny, made the jellyfish full of light and untied its knot, letting its musical threads fall from a horn of plenty made of infinite mother-of-pearl.
I am nothing but the empty net which has gone on ahead of human eyes, dead in those darknesses, of fingers accustomed to the triangle, longitudes on the timid globe of an orange. I walked around as you do, investigating the endless star, and in my net, during the night, I woke up naked, the only thing caught, a fish trapped inside the wind. (Pablo Neruda: Translated by Robert Bly)  
To walk tomorrow through this poet's home, to look from his bed over the infinite tidal waters and to imagine the moon piercing beneath for a moment to reveal the nocturnal secrets will be as exhilarating as reading the words of the poems; perhaps it amounts to the same thing.

Then it was back to Santiago for us, past colorfully painted houses that cling so precariously to the hills, and past all the funiculars that chug determinedly up and down the steep inclines.  Well, look at the rest of the photos and let them elaborate on what we've been saying....
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gwaymar on

Re: Re: Errata...
p.s. My most embarrassing error is the one about Easter Island statues; I certainly didn't mean to say that those were the ones that were replicas! (gulp)


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