Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Travels Part 1: Chillin' in Chile

Santiago, Chile
My flight touched down in Santiago just before sunset. After more than 15 hours of traveling, I was exhausted, but nonetheless claimed my heavy travel pack, hopped in a taxi and headed towards my hostel.

Peering out the window to catch my first glimpse of Chile’s capital, all I could see were barren, treeless hills and murky skies. I made small talk in Spanish with the taxi driver to learn about where to go, what to see and most importantly, what beer to drink while I was in his country.

The first thing that struck me about Santiago was the streets—they were perfect, pothole-less and clean. The second thing I noticed was the cars—they were mostly new and appeared to be in compliance with actual smog laws.

I could have been back in California.

The taxi dropped me off in front of Andes Hostel and I lugged my pack inside. The place appeared to be an old apartment building converted into a hostel. It had a large common room with a bar, pool table and computers for internet access.

After dropping my bags in my room, I went downstairs where people were hanging out near the bar and sipping Chilean wine. I bought a beer and joined the group. About half of them were Brazilians who only spoke only Portuguese and Spanish, but luckily my Spanish skills were now at a point where I could socialize non-awkwardly in Spanish.

Over the next few hours, the group grew as more and more people from the hostel joined the fray. As I usually do in Latin America, I stuck with beer to keep my wits about me (it’s not safe to get wasted out of your mind here) but alas, the Brazilians offered me a shot of some kind of Brazilian hard liquor and it was goodnight Teacher Mike.

The rest of the night turned into a something closely resembling the plot of The Hangover and involved karaoke, convoying over to a local club and me wooing an American girl with tales of danger from my time helping poor children in the slums of Bogotá.

Luckily, though, no tigers were abducted.

I woke up the next morning in my bed in the hostel with a massive hangover and my contact lenses nowhere to be found. After a long, hot shower and two cups of coffee, I rallied and forced myself to go do something touristy.

Plaza de Armas, Santiago
I took the Santiago subway to the Plaza de Armas, the city’s main historical square, and checked out the famous Cathedral and the National History Museum. Again, I was impressed by Santiago’s cleanliness and orderliness, a breath of fresh air from Bogotá’s typical cluttered and chaotic streets.

The next day I set out to visit the Cerro San Cristóbal, a large hill in Santiago that was supposed to have a great panoramic view of the city. Although I had looked up how to get there prior to leaving the hostel, I soon found myself walking on a deserted street far away from anything that could have possibly been a tourist area. I figured I would eventually run into something if I just kept following the hill, and soon entered Santiago’s posh Bella Vista neighborhood. Hopelessly lost in a sea of million-dollar homes and expensive European cars, I figured it was better than being lost in the south of Bogotá.

At the top of Cerro San Cristóbal
I finally came to what appeared to be an entrance to Cerro San Cristóbal and I began the uphill hike.

The path offered an increasingly beautiful view of the city and was filled with strolling couples, families and dog-walkers. After forty minutes of heading uphill, I finally made it to the gondola I had originally been searching for—on the other side of the hill from where I had entered. I was in a tourist zone marked with gift shops and food stands. Tourists milled about, taking pictures and admiring the view.

I saw a giant statue of the Virgin Mary further up the hill and figured it would be a good place to go, so I continued upward. When I got to the top, I was rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city. As it had rained the previous day, there was a crystal clear view of the cityscape. The distant snow-covered mountains created an unusual but beautiful contrast with the snowless city below.

The next day I took a bus to the coastal city of Valparaíso. After getting ripped off by the taxi driver going from the bus station to my hostel, I went inside just as it began to rain. Pata Pata Hostel was unlike any other hostel I had stayed at before. For starters, it was run by a family and had a three and one year old running around. Also, the hostel manager actually took the time to tell me about the city and where to go and what to see. He even remembered my name throughout my stay.

At the hostel I made friends with three European travelers, Camille from France, Anna from Germany and Nick from the United Kingdom. I spent two fun-filled days with them exploring Valparaíso and nearby Viña del Mar.

Me and my European entourage
The first day, we checked out a beach just north of Viña del Mar called Concon. The beach reminded me of the beaches of Northern California and I nearly tripped over an unseen decomposing dog. Later, we went to Viña del Mar and sat down at a restaurant called Tierra del Fuego to drink some wine on a deck overlooking the ocean.

Looking out at the glistening waters and enjoying a glass of fine Chilean wine, I thought to myself, I could get used to this.

After polishing off a bottle of wine, we decided to order another and stay to watch the sunset. We watched as the skyline changed from baby-blue to red-orange and finally to a velvety blue. To call it beautiful would have been a gross understatement.

The life
That night I went with my new European friends to a fancy restaurant a few blocks from the hostel. If you are an American and have never eaten a meal with Europeans, then I must warn you—for them it’s not just about eating; it’s about critiquing, in real-time, every little gastronomic detail throughout the meal. As I sat there eating a steak like a hopeless barbarian, my European friends discussed the subtleties in taste of their meals.

The next day we set out to explore Valparaíso proper. The city is built on a series of cerros, or hills, and closely resembles San Francisco for this fact. Multiple ascensores or elevators, rest throughout the city to help pedestrians get up and down the steep hills. Many buildings are painted with multiple bright colors, giving it the look of a hippy stronghold.

The sunset
We meandered the city for a few hours then sat down to eat lunch at a seafood restaurant. Although I am not particularly fond of sea food, as I was the American ambassador to this international group, I sucked it up so as to not embarrass my country. Just as the previous night, the meal was more of a crash course in gastronomy than a mere nutritional acquisition.

After lunch, we continued to explore the city and ended up at a café overlooking the water, sipping steaming coffee to fight the chill as the sun began to set over the Pacific. I glanced at my watch and felt a pang of dread as I realized I would soon need to leave my new friends in order to catch my flight to Peru the following morning.

I waited to catch the last possible bus back to Santiago so as to have more time with my friends. We shared one last bottle of wine and then I had no choice but to go. Although we had only spent two days together, we had quickly bonded and it was hard to say goodbye.

Coffee with new friends
For me, it had been nice to spend time with people I could relate to. Living in Colombia and Bogotá in particular can be incredibly lonely for a foreigner and I hadn’t felt such contentment in a long time.

Reclining in my seat on the bus back to Santiago, I put on my headphones and closed my eyes, feeling lucky to have met such great people, seen such beautiful country and had such a great couple of days.

Tomorrow, I would be boarding a plane to Peru, to my next adventure.

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu awaited. 

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