Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The South American Experience: Valparaiso, Chile

[NOTE: Prior episodes covered Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Iguazu Falls.]


Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

We woke up.

We ate the breakfast buffet in the large hotel dining room.

We packed.

We took a taxi to the small airport.

We waited.

We flew to Buenos Aires.

We hired a car to transfer us to the international airport across town.

I fell asleep for 30 seconds.

We passed through security and customs, and were back in the terminal where we first arrived on the continent, where we had waited for our flight to Uruguay.

We killed time.

I paid $8 for a salami sandwich. "It's good, but it's not $8 good," I told Matt. Its quality was well beneath the salami sandwich we purchased within Iguazu National Park. And my can of Pepsi cost $2.

We finally boarded the flight to Santiago. Three babies took turns screaming during the flight, defeating any small chance I had of napping while en route. In four separate attempts, an English-speaking man across the isle begged the Spanish-speaking gentlemen in front of him not to lean his seat all the way back. The leaner shrugged, seemingly sympathetic yet stubborn. I had a leaner in front of me, but didn't complain. Because, you know, I'd flown on a goddamn plane before, and knew that such annoyances came with the territory.

We landed, and managed to be first in line at customs. Customs said we needed to pay the entry tax, which was handled in a different line.

The entry tax was $131. "It's good for the life of your passport," the agent informed me, which did little to reassure me of my new passport stamp's value.

Back at customs, now at the end of the line, the customs agent stamped my passport. Rather than turning to one of the many empty pages, the woman chose place the Chile stamp on the same page as my recently acquired Uruguay stamp -- overlapping its logo, in fact.

We hired official airport transportation, another car, for the hour's drive west to Valparaiso. Before stepping into the vehicle, Matt and I decided to grab some Chilean Pesos from the airport ATMs. Without knowing the exchange rate, I decided to rely on the ATM's default amounts for withdrawl. The maximum default amount was 90,000 pesos. I pushed the button. Glancing at the reciept, I saw that my account was at approximately 3,400 -- much lower than it should have been. How much money did I just withdraw? What the hell is the exchange rate here? What kind of ATM suggests you remove thousands of dollars with one push of a button? What happened to my checking account? Was my identity stolen in Uruguay or Argentina? Fuck!

Utilizing text messages to Googlers back in the states, Matt determined that we were not carrying gigantic sums of money. The exchange rate was around 450 pesos to every one dollar, meaning that the missing amount of my checking account balance was not located in my pocket. Where is my money? Did some Uruguayan streetrat hack my account? Fuck!

The scene from the car was Californian: mountains and vineyards through a haze. The land was rural, with only a few groups of houses within view of the highway. "Houses" may be a stretch, as most were tiny, with tin roofs. Most of the billboards advertised processed meat, but I also saw one for rebar. No shit, rebar. Steel bars with which to reinforce concrete. Rebar. As if to say, "Hey, poor Chilean grape-picker! Why not upgrade from that shack to a large, reinforced concrete dwelling?" Or, "Hey, trucker! Yeah, you! The one headed for the coast! You know what you're missing? Rebar. Think about it."

Within the city limits, our driver rolled down his window at a stoplight and spoke with one of the many pedestrians, getting directions to our hotel, the Robinson Crusoe Inn. A few blocks later, we had left the flat streets of the coast. Ferrari avenue rose before us like a mountain. The drive pushed ahead in low gear, inclined near 45 degrees, and stopped in an s-curve to again ask for directions. Reoriented, he thanked the passerby and released the clutch. The tires squealed as he pressed the gas, coaxing the car up the remainder of the incline, now even steeper than before. No dice. He backed up to gain momentum.

I should have mentioned this before: the street was lined with interconnected buildings, wide enough for only two-way traffic. It was anyone's guess if it was a one-way or two-way street. Also, the corners were blind. Is there any way to convey that the corners were extremely blind? Like, blind from birth? The point I'm trying to make is, even without the steep incline that made it feel like the car was ready to tumble backward hood-over-trunk, Ferrari avenue felt dangerous.

Ferrari avenue the next morning, looking less dangerous but just as steep.

The tires caught, and the car successfully passed through the s-curve. We turned right, then right again, went a few yards downhill, and stopped. We'd arrived at the inn, situated near the top of a hill on another narrow street.

The inside of the inn was a contrast to the city we'd driven through. The lobby was full of furniture and wall hangings, like an upscale Applebee's.

Photo via Tripadvisor.

Each room was named in the spirit of the inn's namesake novel -- we were placed in "Selkirk's Courtyard", on the ground floor. The window was large, but almost completely, tastefully blocked off. Just how bad was this neighborhood?

The maid asked if we'd like to see the terrace. The three of us climbed the wooden stairs to the top floor. (I think it was the 2nd floor, but it was more like a 3rd story, given the high ceilings and open plan.) The terrace was one wide, split-level room with windows on all sides. Outside, it was dusk, and the low, brightly painted buildings covered every inch of the hills that rose above the ocean. It was like San Fransisco, built with tin, compressed around one small bay. I exhaled the nerves I'd accumulated on the drive to the inn. Despite the terror of the drive, the city's questionable character, and my missing checking account balance, I started to relax.

Matt and I quickly unpacked and went back to the living-room-like lobby, where we met the inn's owner, George. Born in Santiago and raised in Phoenix, he started his life in Valpariaso several years back, after "falling in love with the city." He asked his maid to make sure Cafe Turri was open late on Sundays (it was), and recommended we dine there. He handed us a map, explained how to ring the bell by the front door to be let in after business hours, and gave a final word of advice to Matt. "Watch your backpack," he said. Matt latched the clip that connected the pack's shoulder straps.

We walked down the dimly lit street, wondering how much we'd curse its incline on the journey back. After 100 yards, the street became a steep staircase. Fifty steps later, the stairway became a landing. Another stairway led to the left, and one continued straight ahead. Matt stopped just before reaching the landing.

"There's like 5 cats down there and it's freaking me out."

The landing, sans cats. Found via Flickr.

We eventually reached sea level. Never truly understanding the directions George gave us for Cafe Turri, we abandoned hope of finding it. Walking through a plaza bordered by small cafes, Matt led us to a small place called Cinzano. Matt had the balls to order a sandwich containing green beans, and that gamble paid off big. My pork sandwich was far inferior. Pictures of maritime disasters hung on the walls. Electrical wiring hung exposed, as if some recent disaster forced a sloppy renovation.

When we failed on our first attempt to navigate back to the inn, I executed my first and only freakout of the vacation. I was tired from the day of traveling, I was missing a significant amount of my liquid assests, and I was confused in a strange new city of questionable repute. I felt that Matt wasn't displaying an adequate level of concern for the situation. He felt that being lost for 5 minutes was not an emergency. Indeed, we were back on track after our successful second try, and I calmed as we hiked back to our room.

I think it took another 24 or 36 hours to figure out my checking account problem -- hours during which I constantly considered asking George to let me use his office computer to access online banking.

"Check your ATM reciept to see if the balance is in dollars or Chilean pesos," Matt suggested.

I looked. I didn't have 3,400 dollars in the account, I had 3,400,000 pesos. I relaxed.

Valparaiso, Chile

I woke to a the sound of percussion from outside. I later learned the source -- a truck selling canisters of natural gas. It was a two man job. The driver drove slowly through the neighborhood, and his partner stood in the truck's bed, banging the canisters like drums. The ice cream truck method.

Breakfast was cooked by George in the kitchen, and served to the few groups of guests upstairs in the terrace. We enjoyed our eggs and grapefruit while looking out toward the port, toward the tin roof next door, where a cat explored.

"This city is like a cat's wet dream," Matt said. "Do you think there are cats here that have never walked on the ground?" (And later, "Jesus Christ, I'm 30 years old and I'm saying shit like 'a cat's wet dream'? What the hell is wrong with me?")

George suggested we head to Pablo Neruda's former home, now a museum. We walked a few steps out of the inn, where a neighbor's dog startled us by charging its fence. Matt and I continued to move up the hill. The city was far less menacing than the day before, but no less disorganized. The sloppy wiring at Bar Cinzano was merely a microcosm of the area's philosophy on electrical cables.

We found Pablo Neruda's house, and tried unsuccessfully to slide in with a touring group. The guide stopped us, explaining we needed to buy tickets. Of course, Matt and I hold a strict "don't pay for anything that involves poetry" philosophy, so we split and enjoyed the free architecture view.

Navigating toward sea level, we saw the Heroes monument, a tribute to some sailors that died in the Battle of Iquique, which you'll remember was a small but significant conflict in the 1879's War of the Pacific. Passing the port and its small shops, Matt and I utlized one of Valpo's signature turn-of-the-century funiculars to reach the naval museum.

Since it was light outside and I wasn't terrified, finding Cafe Turri was a far simpler task than it was the night before. We dined outside, overlooking the port, again, because that's how you dine in Valparaiso. Dining any other way is just silly. Matt had swordfish, and I had sea bass. Chilean sea bass in Chile -- just another feather in the hat of my long tradition that started with Boston cream pie in Boston.

It was late afternoon, so tradition called for us to return to our rented room to shower and watch reruns of "Gilmore Girls" and "The O.C.". I should have mentioned that our room -- excuse me, "Selkirk's Courtyard" -- featured only one bed. Matt was uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping beside me in that bed, so he spent the previous night in his sleeping bag on the floor. I suppose that would make our room seem pretty not gay. But if you stepped in after the maids cleaned it on Tuesday, the room would seem pretty not not gay.

I believe our late lunch allowed us to skip dinner that night and head straight to Bar La Playa, which Matt's Lonely Planet guidebook touted for its cheap beer and long bar. We navigated the long, steep stairway down to the landing. There were many fewer cats compared to the previous night, but one stood out. Matt noticed a ragged black cat that appeared to be a body double for Special Agent Jack Bauer, the "junkyard cat" featured in my favorite episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia", "Bums: Making a Mess All Over the City".

The bar was located in the financial district of the city, a locale that would have terrified me 24 hours earlier. The city charmed me since then, however, so I was in good spirits as we made our way down a dark street fit for a Jack the Ripper film. A low entrance opened into a standard pub, with wooden furnishings and a long bar. Posters of Hollywood icons spotted the walls, lending the place an inviting charm, with the exception of the poster of a "Pretty Woman" era Julia Roberts, which stuck out like a Julia Roberts on wall of attractive Hollywood icons. Also charmingly standard: a small TV showing a South American soccer match (tied zero-zero? Weird!) and an English-speaking douchebag with a shaved head hitting on an English-speaking woman way out of his league.

Not only was the guidebook was right for once about the long bar, it also nailed its prediction of cheap beer. I recall calculating a $.30 peso per liter rate on the way home, with a margin of error at +/- "kind of drunk". (We drank 3 or 4 liters of Escudo and paid 3300 pesos, about $7. I think.)

The city was quiet as we stumbled home, save for two young gentlemen pissing along one wall of the long, steep stairway that led back to the inn. Valparaiso was kind of awesome.

The stairway in daylight, as seen from the cat landing. Photo found via Tripadvisor.

Valparaiso, Chile

I woke in my soft bed, and Matt in his hobo nest on the floor. Matt especially enjoyed the final egg breakfast George prepared for us, but I remained partial to the previous day's omelette.

We were excited for another day of exploring the city's hidden passageways and absurd stairways. As we walked a few steps out of the inn, the neighbor dog charged its fence, barking, and startled the shit out of us. Again. The city was full of stray dogs and cats -- most were lazy or undernourished enough to spend their days lying around, but we were adjacent to the lone awake, mean animal in Valpo. That dog was the worst.

Later that afternoon - note a dog under every bench shadow.

Deciding to walk away from the hills, toward the flat area of town, was a bad move. Sure, that area of the map was littered with the word "plaza", but Plaza Italia and Plaza O'Higgins were generally lousy, consisting of standard statues. Many were garnished with graffiti (a South American standard, but Valparaiso's art scene took graffiti to new heights. The kids seemed to love it, and I'll admit it was the first place I'd ever visited where the graffiti seemed to add to the ambiance rather than detract from it.), and some bore the evidence of the town's substantial pigeon population. Chile's congress was modern and forgettable, and the university buildings we similarly uninspiring. On the plus side, Matt and I were able to buy bus tickets for the next day's trip to Santiago, and I saved approximately $.10 by slipping in an out of a park's pay toilet undetected.

Walking all the way back to the port rather than attempting to board the light rail, we looked through the tiny port shops for souvenirs. When Matt found a nice looking T-shirt, I followed suit to buy my own. The saleswoman pointed to the shirts' tags, which indicated they were made in Chile, several times. Why she thought that Chilean craftsmanship was a selling point, I can't guess. Maybe she assumed her peoples' great work on the loom was the stuff of legends back in the states, but I didn't know and didn't care about the brand. I picked up a shirt and an adoreable stone penguin carved from lapis luzuli.

I realized our pledge to explore the city's hills was ambitious as we climbed to the cemetery, which stood atop one large plateau. A sign banned pictures, and though no one was around save for two gentlemen performing much-needed renovations, I heeded the request, photographing no sepulturas, only vistas.

The morning's hike had generated a powerful hunger, so we trekked back down to the plaza that held Bar Cinzano. Regretting our missed opportunity to eat at a German restaurant near our hotel in Buenos Aires, we chose to dine at a place called Hamburg. Matt and I agreed to share a liter of beer with our lunch; however, the dark German beer we ordered was on tap, not served by the bottle. That, plus the language barrier, resulted in one gigantic mug of beer for each of us. My sausages were bad and hot-dog-like. The beer was good. Too good.

Despite Matt's appearance, this photo was taken prior to downing our beers.

Any hope of continuing our assault on the city's slopes were drowned by those dark, heavy, delicious liters of beer. Instead, it was back to the inn for rest, a shower, and Harrison Ford vehicle "Random Hearts". It was a bad movie with a worse title, but it met our veiwing requirement: English with Spanish subtitles.

The night was again spent at Bar La Playa, where we drank more Escudo while sitting at the long wooden bar. It was much more crowded than the previous evening, because there was a special event. We spoke with the event organizer, a short, pleasant, bilingual man who had spent several years in California, where he "fell in love with a Mexican girl". Our converstaion was cut short, as he had to head to the microphone across the room to MC poetry night. The verse was not the night's highlight. That's not a knock against the amateurs in the room, obviously, because I couldn't say what any of the works were about (though I did detect that rhyming wasn't requisite). The ghost of Emily Dickinson could have freestyled and it wouldn't have been the highlight, because nothing could beat casually turning on my stool, glancing around the room, only to whir back to Matt in a restrained shout: "Holy shit there's a fucking cat in here!".

Valparaiso's day belongs to the canines, Valparaiso's night belongs to the felines, and awesome belongs to Valparaiso.


*Be prepared to walk a lot of steps.

*Don't be intimidated by the city's appearance, stray animals, or dangerous cab rides.

*Get a good map that shows stairways and funicular elevators.

*Budget 2 or 3 days here, concentrating on wandering the hilly neighborhoods.

*The Robinson Crusoe Inn is a bit pricey, but safe and cozy.

The inn. Photo via Tripadvisor.

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