Off to the coast of Chile

Trip Start Aug 11, 2005
Trip End May 22, 2006

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Friday, March 10, 2006

March 10 - 15 Valparaiso
Going There
Originally, we planned to come to Valparaiso for two days and then head over to Viña del Mar for another two days. We didn't know much about either place except that they were on the Chilean coast and we figured that we should definitely see the Chilean coast. We knew that Valparaiso was a major shipping port for the west coast of South America and we knew that Viña del Mar was a weekend beach getaway for many residents of Santiago. It was our Spanish teacher, Jesus, that suggested that since Viña del Mar was literally ten minutes away from Valparaiso, we should consider simply staying in Valpo and do a day trip to Viña.
"But isn't Viña del Mar prettier?" I asked. He agreed that it was, but that Viña del Mar could be any coastal getaway in any country, but Valparaiso was special. As soon as we stepped out of the bus terminal and onto the bustling street, we began to get a sense of what he meant.
Valparaiso is not a polished tourist destination. It isn't pristine in cleanliness, it doesn't have any tourist shops, and it has mangy stray dogs, loud busses spewing black fumes rushing in and out of traffic, horns why did we love it? For just those reasons and so many more.
As I mentioned, Valpo is a major shipping port. The entire "coast" of this city is lined with ships, shipping containers, high fences, and even a few navy ships that looked like destroyers, but what do I know? The city is nestled into the surrounding hills and as a matter of fact, the hills start about four blocks in from the coast. This flat area is the commercial center and is constantly moving and shaking (not literally, of course).
The rest of the city is built on the hills. Our city bus up to our guesthouse couldn't even go up the most direct route as it was too steep for its engine. These are big and steep hills yet dotted with homes up to about 2/3 to their summits. Walking up the hills would be a killer so the city had an ingenious idea: ascensors! These are one-cabin funiculars that carry about fifteen people per load up the steep slope. Back in 1890, these must have reached the top or at least the middle of the hillside neighbourhood. Today, it gets passengers to the beginning of the hilly environs.
We took the ascensor more than the city bus even though the city bus stopped right in front of our guesthouse. Why? The ten minute walk to the ascensor and another ten minute walk to the parts of town we'd be heading towards were worth it to get to ride the rickety old ascensor. Besides, who would want to miss the steep walk from the ascensor back to the guesthouse along the doggy-doo sidewalk obstacle course!
Villa Kunterbunnt (pronounce it very carefully)
Villa Kunterbunnt, what an interesting guesthouse! When we were let off of the bus two blocks away (language issues telling the bus driver where we were going!), we had a general idea of where to go, but couldn't find the house number anywhere. Using the process of elimination, we guessed that it must be the haunted-looking house on the corner. The huge iron doors should have told us that the place would be interesting. They had a huge face of a child painted on it which sort of reminded us of Chuckie from the horror movies. Dangling from a string was a plastic teacup. We gave it a tug and heard a cow bell ring somewhere behind the fence and gate.
The door swung wide open and we were greeted by Enso, one of the owners. His bubbly spirit made us feel instantly welcome. He brought us into the foyer and had us wait for a moment for his teenage daughter to show us the rooms.
While waiting, we took a quick glimpse around us. The beautiful original wooden floors, staircase, and balustrade were in gorgeous condition. The gleaming wood was set off by the trolls lined up on a beautiful wooden bookshelf. Yes, trolls. Remember those collectibles about fifteen to twenty years ago? Yup, those are the ones.
That was just the start of the decorations. Other than the plastic bathing babies all over in the old antique bathroom, complete with a claw-footed tub, there was no rhyme or reason to the décor of the house. To be honest, it was evident that every single eclectic item in this house was a treasure to the owners. Isn't that just what décor should be after all?
Our room was the tower room. This square tower stuck up out of the roof. From the street, it looked kind of creepy. Windows covered all four sides, allowing us a 360 degree view of Valparaiso. Lying in bed, we looked out to the bay while the three other directions looked to the hills. The door to our room was a huge trap door that we didn't even bother to close when we left for the day. It felt like we were staying in one of our aunt and uncle's homes.
Every morning began with a breakfast in the back garden. There must have been at least a hundred plants in small planters on shelves along the outer walls of the house. We were served a typical European breakfast: cold cuts, cheese, bread, and butter. Added to this was the continental breakfast of fruit and jam. Added to both of these breakfasts was an American breakfast of eggs cooked to our liking. Washing down the scrumptious feast was the freshly brewed coffee. We hadn't had a cup of good coffee in weeks; instant coffee is what is usually served here in Chile.
A Day In Our Life In Valparaiso
We spent our days browsing around the city. It doesn't have a lot of attractions, but we found ourselves always walking around the city for a few hours everyday. There are quite a few pretty squares including Plaza Sotomayor. Actually, this was the only place where we saw other tourists as it was close to the harbour where a cruise ship was docked.
Cruise lines not only travel up and down the western coast, but a few even journey south and around Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America. That would be a pretty cruise especially during the beginning of spring when the snow is still melting off of the mountains in Patagonia.
With not much touristy things to do, we felt like we were experiencing "every day life" of Chileans. As almost no one seemed to speak English, we struggled with what we'd learned last week to get our point across. Most times this worked out fine, but sometimes we thought we understood only to realize we hadn't. An example of this is at a restaurant that Enso recommended to us.
The sign at the door showed a "completa" (full-meal deal) of a starter, fish with a side, dessert and tea/coffee for 2300 pesos each (about $5). Great! Upon sitting down, the waiter didn't offer a menu. It looked more like a bar anyways, so we thought that they may only have one set meal per day. Well, the waiter spoke so fast. We had asked him to repeat a few times, but he would repeat it at the same lightening speed. Thinking that he was just telling us about the special, we gave up, nodded and said, "Si, por favor."
It wasn't until we received the food and then the bill that we realized that he hadn't said this at all. Somehow, fish and a side came out to 4500 pesos each. Almost double that of the special, without the starter or dessert and coffee. Huh? We tried to enquire, thinking that there may be some mistake. This is when the bartender passed us a menu. Apparently, the "completa" is a fabulous deal because right there in black and white was "Fish with a side - 4500 pesos".
We couldn't help feeling like we'd been duped. The waiter obviously knew we didn't understand and took us for more money. We wondered if he'd done it to get a bigger tip. Well, he didn't...a little shallow of us since we were really the ones at fault for saying yes when we didn't understand, but a little compassion from him would have been appreciated. So, we got took. It was only for about $10 so I guess we came out not too bad. A cheap lesson learned: We will not say "Si, por favor" when we have no clue what is going on!
We filled in our days spending some time getting our journal up to date and then another couple of hours uploading it to the website. We also caught up on replying to emails which seem to pile up so quickly. We had a few nice meals in the city at either lunch or supper time and topped off our daily menu with an empanada or a small Chilean pizza from the small bakery along our street in Plancha Ayya. Really, it is hard to believe that we spent four days bumming around Valpo.
On Saturday, the 11th, Enso recommended that this be the day we spend in Vina del Mar. Today, Valpo would be gridlocked due to a very special event. Chile has a new president, a woman for that matter, Michelle Bachelet. Her inauguration was being held in Valpo today. We heeded his advice and spent Saturday afternoon bumming around Viña. For the exciting rendition of our day there, you'll have to check out the next journal entry.
In our neighbourhood, there is a dvd/video rental shop. We have been able to rent as foreigners elsewhere so we thought that we'd give it a shot. Again, the language barriers made it very difficult. We finally understood that she was asking us where we were staying. She didn't know the name of the place, but knew the names of the parents. Enso later told us that her son and his daughter were friends. Once she had figured out the name, she needed their membership number and wanted us to call them to ask for it.
We both felt a little uncomfortable using their membership, but the lady insisted and called them herself. Our hosts generously told her the number and we walked away with a dvd. It was kind of fun having to try to understand each other and the lady was really tickled that we tried to speak Spanish. We returned each night for the rest of our stay.

More reasons to love Valpo
So we love the ascensors, we love the hills lit up with the streetlights and glow from inside the houses, the mix of architecture, but it is Valpo's overall character that we loved.
Within every two blocks:
· An internet café with high-speed internet
· A fresh meat butcher shop
· A botelleria (liquor store) in which there was at least one cat sitting on the counter
· At least three small convenience stores
· The little shops where everything is behind the counter forcing us to explain what we wanted. The shops reminded me of the old-fashioned general store counters like on The Waltons.
· At least five places to buy ice cream (hard or packaged)
· French fries that taste like they are homemade
· At least four places to buy empanadas
· Small booths on the sidewalk selling magazines, cigarettes, drinks and sometimes ice cream
Other quirks:
· Street vendors jump onto the city buses selling their snacks which could be ice cream, empanadas, cookies, drinks, and even lottery tickets
· Dogs everywhere...gross really
· The pretty squares and the Weekend Antiques Market
· Watching buskers, but our favourite was the couple dancing the Tango in the park.
· The amazing outdoor and indoor fruit and vegetable market
· The great fish restaurants inside and upstairs of the fruit and vegetable market
· Huge barrels of olives and so many varieties: We watched a family of kids dig into them as if they were eating potato chips.
· Corn on the cob (choclo...isn't that deceiving?) that is double the girth of Taber corn from southern Alberta.
· Circles of men here and there gambling on some type of dice game on the street
· A fantastic fish seafood meal for $8 that would put Café Lido in Bermuda to shame.
· How little English everyone spoke, but more importantly how friendly and kind they were to us when we struggled to try to get our point across.
· The propane tank refill truck drives through the neighbourhoods like a milk truck from days gone by. People do not leave out their empty tanks as people would have done with their empty milk bottles. How does the truck know where to drop off a new tank? A man stands in the box of the truck and with a stick, he beats a rhythm on the tanks. It reminded us of the ice cream man.
That's it, in a nutshell. Jesus was right, Vina could be anywhere, but Valparaiso is certainly special. We are so glad that we took the time to come to visit this unique city!
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