Tuesday, February 28, 2017

South American Adventure Part 13: Day 22

Day 22 – Saturday, February 18th – Return to the U.S.A.

Dinner was served soon after the delayed departure, and Allan and I both enjoyed the potato soup (accompanied by potato chips made from Chiloe Island potatoes – we sailed past this island for the Puerto Montt stop), and a good piece of beef accompanied by grilled peppers and some sort of Peruvian side-dish. The chocolate dessert was surprisingly unsatisfying.

“Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy night.” would have been accurate words to describe the flight from Santiago to Los Angeles. The region around the equator seemed particularly rough, and even though we were sleeping in our flat-bed seats, the seatbelts were firmly cinched over our comforters.

I think I slept for about half of the 10.5 hour flight, which wasn’t bad. Better still, the chatty man across the aisle slept for most of the flight: I think he and his wife skipped both dinner and breakfast, which enabled longer sleep. So, it was very quiet…except for the turbulence.

When I awoke, the plane was over Guadalajara, Mexico, and I could see the warm yellow lights of Puerto Vallarta in the distance. I ditched the comforter and got up for a break. That was the cue for the flight attendant to bring my breakfast: a deconstructed omelet. I say “deconstructed” because the omelet was nothing but eggs. In the dish were cubed bacon, mushrooms, and tomatoes. I suppose if you put it together you’d have the full meal deal. Still, it was warm and tasty. There was also a croissant, fresh fruit, and a corn muffin. At least the coffee was strong and served in a large mug. We like the dishes and glasses that LATAM uses. Contemporary and classy.

Eventually Allan woke up and had his breakfast (like mine, but without the corn muffin). I had enough flight time left to watch two episodes of “Family Guy” and then the Woody Allen movie, “Café Society”, starring Jesse Eisenberg. Even though Woody only narrated this one, his voice still seemed to come out of every character’s mouth. I’d give it a B-.

The movie was ending as we were nearing the Los Angeles area (I could see Catalina through the dense clouds). They were experiencing heavy rain and an offshore flow (wind blowing toward the ocean, rather than from it). This meant that our flight would be arriving over the Pacific, rather than over downtown L.A. In all my years of living in L.A. and more years of flying there, I never experienced this kind of approach. We landed on the south complex of runways and had to taxi for a while to make it to gate 132 of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, adjacent to the gate where we’d taken our LATAM flight to Lima. We left the plane at 7:00AM, about 35 minutes later than scheduled. The 787 really does leave you feeling fresher than other aircraft, although I still needed more sleep.

I’ll say this about the updated Tom Bradley Terminal: they know how to keep people moving. Arriving passengers use an upper-level walkway to get to the middle of the building (open and airy), and then you descend long escalators to get to the Immigration and Customs area. We had plenty of company: at this hour, the multiple QANTAS wide bodies had arrived from Australia (at least two A380s), not to mention many flights arriving from Asia. But from the time we exited the plane, went through Immigration (normal channels, not Global Entry), collected our bags (which came out late for “Priority” tagging), Customs (non-existent but slow), walked to Terminal 6, re-checked the bags with Alaska Airlines and got new boarding passes, went through TSA PreCheck security, and made our way to the Board Room, was one hour. ONE HOUR. (He means that’s really good J - AFK) The airport was packed with Saturday (and holiday weekend) travelers. LAX may not be as close to Seattle as San Francisco, but it does make for great international arrivals!

We hung out in the Board Room for about ninety minutes, enjoying some more coffee and the views of the tarmac below. The change in the normal airport patterns made for a lot of traffic jams in an already busy airfield. This would eventually affect us in our departure, as our arriving aircraft was late getting to Gate 64A.

We were ensconced in our usual seats (2A and 2C) on this Alaska Airlines 737-990 (N305AS) aircraft. The plane was full, as they all seem to be these days. While we were supposed to depart at 10:00AM, it was closer to 10:45AM by the time we pushed back. It took a good 20 minutes to taxi over to the north complex (the other side of the airport) before we took off toward downtown L.A. (instead of the normal Pacific Ocean departure).

The flight was uneventful, and though “lunch” turned out to be a fruit and cheese plate, the time passed quickly. I watched the verdant Central California countryside roll below us, eventually giving way to the snowy mountains of Northern California and Oregon. And I nodded off for a while. We landed into a typical Seattle winter day: cloudy and rainy. When the plane parked at gate C18, it was 1:30PM (45 minutes late) and our 18,000-mile, 3 week journey ended.

There was some confusion at baggage cclaim (the assigned carousel numbers weren’t being shown on any monitor), and Allan paid a whopping $5 to rent a baggage cart (at LAX they were free). We took a Lyft home, unpacked, and promptly took very long naps. For the record, Mike and Chuck flew Delta back through Atlanta, and arrived home about a half-hour before we did.

Overall, we felt this was an excellent trip, with the highlights being the natural wonders we saw (Penguins! Glaciers! Latin men!) and our time spent with Mike and Chuck.

We would do it all again… - In a HEARTBEAT! ;-) - AFK 

South American Adventure Part 12: Day 21

South American Adventure Part 12

Day 21 – Friday, February 17th – Santiago, Chile

(This entry written by Allan)

Today we started our day as we had the previous day – with breakfast by the pool. The sky was clear and the air was slightly chill but that didn’t matter. We knew it would be warming up later in the day and Steve and I both were smart and wore shorts instead of the jeans we wore Thursday.
Once again we had a walking tour lined up that started at 10:00AM and we were to meet in front of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. We walked across the river shortly after 9:00 and went in to the Metro station to catch the Red line. The subway here is easily navigable and I never felt bewildered or lost. For the most part the signage was good and we found our way quickly in the system. After one change of trains to the Blue line at Baquedano Station, we came out into the bright morning sunshine and cooler air at the Bellas Artes Station. 
There were two beautiful enormous murals on the walls directly across from (and perpendicular to) the mouth of the stairway leading out from the subway and I stopped briefly to take pictures of them.

We continued on to the museum where we met our tour guide Juan Miguel a few minutes later. Our group today was about half the size of our tour the day before and this was to be a very different sort of experience. This tour was named “Offbeat Santiago” and we were told that we’d be visiting several of the large “mercados” (markets) that the locals in the city would frequent for their daily needs.

Our first stop was the Mercado Central (fish market) which was housed in warehouse type building with lots of stalls and narrow walkways for customers to meander through. It was a very bustling atmosphere and we tried to make our way through without hindering the local merchants and their customers going about their business. One half of this place was devoted to an enormous open space with lots of wood and split up into various restaurants. It was incredibly beautiful and we just stood there for a few moments drinking it all in. We made our way out to the street and on to our next stop: La Vega.

La Vega is the fruit and vegetable market and is a large building that has two floors, connected by an escalator in the center of the market. The roof is a sort of strange aerated concrete design that’s topped by what looked like canvas sheets. This is to let in more natural light, which it does admirably. We wandered through this market fairly quickly and out another side and headed to the metro station to transit to our last stop on the tour: CementerioGeneral de Santiago.

As Steve mentioned elsewhere, the subway here is a very well designed, efficient transit system. We never had to wait more than three or four minutes for a train in the several times we used the system. The trains are clean, brightly lit, and open from one end all the way to the other end (no doors between the cars). Steve said the system reminded him of the Montreal subway. When we reached our stop, we all followed Juan Miguel like a flock of ducklings after its mother. He was a very good shepherd – looking back often and doing quick headcounts to ensure no one got left behind. We came up out of the subway into the bright, hot noonday sun and walked the short distance into the cemetery itself, and quickly availed ourselves of the restroom (Banos) facilities there.

CementerioGeneral de Santiago is one of the largest cemeteries in Latin America and as Juan Miguel explained to us it is not just a place of burial. It is treated more like a revered public park, where families will come on weekends to visits long dead relatives but also just to wander among the mausoleums and discover new things to see. I could certainly understand that. It was difficult for me to keep up with the group as I was enchanted at every turn by a new, stunning bit of architecture and design that had been erected here several or a hundred years ago. This is a singular, beautiful space and did not feel sad or morbid like so many of our cemeteries do here in the States. Colorful bunches of flowers were laid all around, and there were many different styles of design to drink in. It was a wonder to behold!

After we meandered a short time Juan Miguel gathered us all near one of the niches and explained that there is a local custom or belief that some of the dead, those who were young, innocent and died particularly violently, have power to grant favors to the living and are regarded as local “saints”.
If your request is granted you would then return to the grave and place a flower (or other small gift of thanks) there along with a written note or plaque thanking the spirit (I think he said they were known as “animato” or “animado”, but I could find no reference in Google). It is said if you fail to return and thank the spirit you will be cursed from that time forward…
After this most fascinating tale we were led to another part of the cemetery, where Salvador Allende is buried. He was the first democratically elected Socialist leader in the Americas and his Presidency only lasted for a thousand days. He was killed in a military coup staged by the Chilean Military under the leadership of AugustoPinochet. It is said that Allende committed suicide that day in the Presidential Palace as it was being bombarded by the Chilean Air Force, but our guide – Juan Miguel said that the country is largely divided in their belief of that story. Allende’s remains were exhumed a few years ago and not one but two different bullets were found in his remains – from two different guns, one of them his own rifle and the other unknown. Anyone old enough to remember the eighteen years that Pinochet ruled in Chile will also remember that he was a brutal dictator who was both revered and reviled by his own people till the day he died.
We ended our tour there in the cemetery and Juan Miguel gave us directions on how to get back out to the entrance and the subway station across the street. We thanked him and the four of us I believe all tipped him quite generously (deservedly so). It was a fitting end to our two days of walking and exploring this great city.

It was a bit before one o’clock now and we were all very hungry. We decided to make our way back to one of the restaurants Felipe (our guide from the prior day’s tour) recommended in the Bella Vista neighborhood, on the corner of Dardignac and Constitucion, not far from the tramway at the foot of San Cristobal Hill. It was a fairly short subway ride and walk back to this colorful area filled with nice restaurants and bars spilling out onto the sidewalks. Galindo was the name of the restaurant and it was packed when we arrived. We sat at a table in the middle of the bustling main floor just a few feet from the bar. It was slightly cooler inside than out and I was happy to sit for a while. 

I ordered empanadas pino (the classic savory turnover pie with beef with onions, egg, and raisins (!)) and tried to order papas fritas along with my meal, but the waiter seemed agitated and finally conveyed that the portion sizes were very large and the order that Steve placed would be plenty of potatoes for the both of us (which they were, of course). Steve ordered a steak and melted cheese sandwich which we had seen in several different permutations throughout our time in South America. Chuck had another classic Santiago dish that was like my empanada except it was made with corn meal in a cast iron skillet, sort of like a tamale in a pan, but with very similar ingredients to my meat pies. He said it was delicious. The Boyz (Chuck and Mike) ordered another bottle of Chilean Malbec (?) and commiserated over the fact that it would be their last of the trip…

After we finished our enormous lunch we decided we really needed to have a long walk so we headed east along Bella Vista, generally following the contour of the river in the direction of our hotel. This four lane busy road was sort of the “auto row” of Santiago and also had many small jewelry factories and shops specializing in Lapus Lazuli – a beautiful deep blue aggregate stone mined only if Chile, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We saw some very beautiful pieces in several of the shop windows, but resisted the urge to go inside to browse. The afternoon was getting on and we needed to return to the hotel to nap and pack for the trip home.

We returned to the hotel around 3:30PM and said goodbye to the Boyz, thinking we’d see them again before they left for the airport around 6:30. Alas, they, like us, were called out a bit early and after some drama checking out boarded their bus to the airport. We barely got down to the lobby in time to waive them off as the bus pulled away from the hotel and we were heading out for our last walk through the city.

Heading back across the river and toward our usual subway stop, this time turned right instead of left at Providencia and just walked for about ten minutes, drinking in the sights and sounds of the people hustling to and fro. I was more than a little sad, knowing this was our last stroll before we would head to the airport and soon after be winging our way home to the gray skies and cold temperatures of home. This was the first time we had taken a three week vacation that we were not ready to come home from after about the end of week two; we weren’t, either of us. We turned around and headed back to the hotel and vowed that one day we would return to this lovely city and to South America in general.

Steve had already finished packing and I was only a few minutes behind him when we got a phone call from the lobby that our car was here and why weren’t we downstairs? That would be because the call came forty minutes before we were to be picked up at 8:30PM! Steve said he’d be right down and I quickly finished up and ran around the room checking to ensure nothing was left behind before joining him with my bags in the lobby. He had already checked us out and we got into a minivan with another couple who had also been on our cruise and made our way to the airport; about a fifteen minute drive from the hotel.

The sun had just set and the sky was beautifully lit as we walked in the Santiago Airport. After a short bit of frustration we finally realized that the check in for Business and Elite class passengers for LATAM Airlines was on the fourth floor of the terminal building, tucked away from the rest of the noise and bustle of the crowds below. This was very reminiscent of our check in with Emirates in Dubai a couple of years ago and it was a lovely experience. Check in and security were both in this separate area with almost no line and no hassle at all. Our flight was scheduled for 11:50PM so we had plenty of time to chill in the business class lounge before heading down to the gate. The lounge was very busy so we headed upstairs to the second floor level which seemed a bit quieter. I think we were there for about eighty minutes or so before Steve suggested we get up and go check out the shops downstairs just to stretch our legs. I’m glad we did because after noodling around the duty free shop for a bit I found a new cologne I’ve been wanting to purchase by Paco Rabanne named: 1 Million. I had found this in a GQ magazine a few months ago in an insert and I thought it was a really nice scent. I purchased the bottle which used up the last of my Chilean pesos and we moved on to the gate to check our flight status.

This was the first trip I can remember where we had delays at every point on the back end of the journey. We were delayed due to the strike by port workers in Valparaiso, and now our flight to Los Angeles was being delayed. We had started the boarding process and gotten through the second security screening (after the gate) when we were told to stop and wait on the gangway… We waited… and waited… and waited. Finally we were herded back up the gangway and into the gate area without any explanation as to what was going on. We milled about the gate area for a few minutes and then went next door to another gate’s waiting area where we could sit for a while. After about another twenty to thirty minutes they started the boarding process again. It was now around 12:20AM and we were very happy to be getting on the plane – another 787 Dreamliner (!!!).

Monday, February 20, 2017

South American Adventure Part 11: Day 20

Day 20 – Thursday, February 16th – Santiago, Chile

We awoke to a beautiful morning, the sunbeams streaming over the Andes mountains across the valley. 

A good night’s sleep helped everyone, which made the mood for breakfast rather jolly. The Sheraton offered an expansive pool-side breakfast, with American-style food (scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, etc.) and European-style food (sliced meats and cheeses). They also had several self-serve machines to make espresso drinks (lattes and their ilk). And one large container of regular, hot coffee. (This recalled a story that our guide Claudio told us a few days ago in the Lake District: Chileans like Nescafé, which he said really means “no es café” or “this is not coffee”).

Mike had done some research on walking tours offered in Santiago (there are several) and we had to meet the Free Tour Santiago guide in front of the Cathedral at the Plaza de Armas at 10:00AM. Thanks to my reconnaissance work the prior night, we walked down to the Metro, got a Metro card for Mike and Chuck, then headed west on the #1 line to Baquedano, where we connected to the #5 line to Plaza de Armas.

The Metro system is very modern: like Montréal, it runs on rubber tires. In fact, the stations and layout seem very reminiscent of that system. Some lines have newer cars without doors between them, making for a very open and bright interior. There are five lines, and you just need to go in the direction of the line’s end-point (very much like Paris). The fares vary based on time of day. Standard non-rush hour fares are 660 pesos, or about US $1. You only need to swipe upon entry (it’s not a distance-based fare system like BART or the Washington Metro), so that means your Bip! card could be used for more than one person (as Allan and I did).

We arrived at Plaza de Armas, a beautiful, large shady square in Centro (Downtown). Like other similarly-named plazas we’ve encountered in Chile, the square was surrounded by fine examples of late 19th century architecture, in various pastel colors. There were also plenty of stray dogs, a known issue in this city. But few of these dogs looked unhealthy; they just seemed to lack owners.

Prior to 10:00 we met our guide Felipe, an engaging young man who spoke English with several different accents (sometimes he would use hard “r”s like Americans, other times “o”s like the British). Felipe’s normal profession is actor (he’s done stage, film, and TV), and February is his slowest month for work (mid-summer). Chuck and I visited the nearby public bathroom. They charged 500 pesos each (78 cents) for entry, but what you got was a clean, well-lit space with a smiling attendant. There have been many times I would have loved to have access to a public facility like this! – “It’s a privilege to pee!” - AFK

Before the tour started, we ducked into the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, which started construction in 1748 and completed in 1800 (the façade wasn’t completed until 1906). The large church had dark, cool interior featuring a beautiful painted ceiling, as well as a bright, ornate altar. There was also a stunning side-chapel painted in white and pastel blue. And surprisingly, there was no entrance fee.  Despite all the earthquake activity since its construction, the Cathedral appeared to be in excellent shape.

At 10:10, the tour started. Our group comprised about thirty people, a mix of ages and even some native non-English speakers (a few people from Switzerland). Felipe told us the history of Santiago, including the Mapuche natives who lived in this area. The Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, and by 1541 this had become the heart of the Spanish settlement. By the statue of Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, we learned that he had escaped Peru with a mistress (she was disguised as a servant) and set up shop in Santiago. Thus modern Chile was born.

Felipe pointed out the other beautiful buildings in the square, including the Correo Central (Central Post Office) which was originally the city governor’s office. Next to it was the Museo Histórico Nacional and its clock tower. Further down the street was the Municipalidad de Santiago (City Hall). In the bright morning light, these buildings were radiantly exquisite.

From the Plaza de Armas, our group walked over to the front of the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino, which Felipe told us houses an excellent collection of pre-Colombian Art. One of the stray dogs, a big black something or other, followed us on our route. When Felipe would pause and talk to us, the dog would plunk himself down in the middle. It was very sweet. – It really was J - AFK

We continued our walk through the busy downtown streets, seeing the Old Congress Building (the Congress got moved to Valparaiso by Pinochet several decades ago and the new building is nowhere as grand) and the Supreme Court Building.

Our next stop was at the Palacio de La Moneda, which despite its name, houses the President’s offices. The ornate neoclassical building was designed by an Italian architect in the late 18th century and was originally the official mint. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean Air Force bombarded the Palacio at the request of the Army. Their goal was to kill the first elected socialist president in the Americas, Salvador Allende, who had refused to leave office. Allende died that day (either by his own bullet or by several shots), and General Pinochet became the leader of Chile for the next 18 years. Felipe told us of how his own family survived those scary days of the military coup, and all that followed. One wonders if similar times aren’t in store for us…

It was a great day for walking through the tree-lined streets and broad boulevards. I never suspected that Santiago would be as beautiful (and just as European feeling) as Buenos Aires. Our group headed into narrower Calle Nueva York (New York Street), which felt surprisingly like Wall Street in Manhattan. In fact, it was designed this way, because the ornate Santiago Stock Exchange was located here (as well as the Union Club, bastion of the moneyed class males).

Along the route, I asked Felipe why his English was so good. He said it was because he attended the Grange School in Santiago, which features English-speaking teachers along with Spanish-speaking teachers. He also has an eleven year old daughter, and I wonder if she’s as charming as her papi….

On the way to the Teatro Municipal (Opera House), Felipe encouraged us to try a Mote con Huesillo from a vendor’s cart. According to Wikipedia, the drink is a “non-alcoholic beverage consisting of a sweet clear nectar like liquid made with dried peaches (huesillo) cooked in sugarwater and cinnamon, and then once cooled mixed with fresh cooked husked wheat (mote).” In practice, the vendor put the mote (which looked like small kernels of corn) into the plastic cup first, then a peach slice, followed by a several large ladles of the liquid. A spoon was provided to eat the soaked peach slice and the huesillo. I, of course, volunteered to buy one and report back (the smallest size cost about US$ 1). The drink was very sweet, but the mote had no flavor of its own. Still and all, it was refreshing. But did I mention sweet?

Before the group would move on to the next stop, Felipe would have a wrap-up sentence as the lead-in for the next destination that would end with “….and it’s in this direction!” I’m sorry we didn’t record it, because it was simultaneously dramatic and endearing.

We climbed up the street bordering the beautiful Santa Lucia Hill before we arrived at the swank, tree-lined neighborhood of Barrio Lastarria. It reminded us of the shadier, quieter parts of Greenwich Village: chic, but subtle. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant named Mulato (José Victorino Lastarria 307), where they had a deal: no entrée was more than 2,500 pesos and could be served and completed in the 30-minute window allotted by the tour company. We enjoyed an excellent empanada pino (the Chilean version of the empanada, stuffed with ground beef, onions, raisins, black olives, and hard-boiled eggs) along with water flavored with sliced apples and oranges. It was here that Mike and Chuck enjoyed their very first Pisco Sours!

Refreshed and revitalized, we continued our walk through the beautiful neighborhood until we come to the Museo Bellas Artes, the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts. The building, which opened in 1910, is a Neoclassical Second Empire design, with some Art Nouveau touches. You could plunk this building down in any city and it would convey “Art Museum”. They were also working on restoring large sections of the building’s exterior.

(One thing to keep in mind about this tour: we saw lots of places, but didn’t go into any of them. It provided a way to get oriented to the city and select places to return to).

We walked through the leafy Parque Forestal, which was lined by attractive apartment buildings and was filled with lots of those stray dogs. It was a hot day (why I wore jeans, I’ll never know), and the park provided a respite from the heat. The park was large and appeared, like most of the city, well maintained. We saw very little garbage on the streets, although there was a fair amount of graffiti in places.

When we reached Plaza Italia, we headed north across the Mapocho River into the Barrio Bellavista. This was quite a change, as it became grungier and more chaotic. This was the district where college students hung out and was more like the 6th and 7th Avenue faces of Greenwich Village (noisy and filled with stores and eating establishments). In the midst of this was a beautiful outdoor mall (Patio Bellavista, Calle Constitucion 30) with nice restaurants and shops.

Our final stop was outside the Santiago home of famed Chilean poet, diplomat and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Pablo Neruda. It was here that Felipe summed up his tour nicely with the story of Neruda. Since the tour was tip-based only, we made sure he was well rewarded for his excellent efforts.

Since we were already there, we toured the house, built by Neruda in the early 1950s for his mistress, and later wife and keeper of the flame, Matilde. Neruda certainly had an interesting life, being a diplomat stationed in Rangoon, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires. His poems have been famous the world over for decades. You can read the details in Wikipedia.

He named the house La Chascona, after Matilde’s curly red hair (chascona is a Spanish Chilean word meaning “wild mane of hair”). House isn’t the right word, as it was more like a multi-level complex of buildings. Neruda liked all things nautical, and there were touches throughout the house that brought this to life. For example, the dining room was long and low, with a narrow long table that made one feel they were aboard a sailing vessel. I have to thank our Seattle neighbor Valerie for recommending that we visit this house. It was fascinating, and the audio tour made the separate parts of the house feel coherent.

After we were done with touring the house, we were tired. After all, it was a lot of walking in the heat. We stopped back at the Patio Bellevista for some excellent gelato (and Allan had a fruit smoothie) and thought we’d take the funicular up San Cristobal Hill. But the line was long and we decided to walk back across the river to the Baquedano Metro station and take the subway back to our neighborhood (the closest stop was Pedro de Valdivia – anyone see a common thread here?).

We napped for a few hours, then returned to the Providencia neighborhood looking for a good restaurant for dinner. The prior night I had come across some nice restaurants on the Calle Orrego Luco, and as we walked down this street and checked them out, Mike suggested we go just a little further. And were we glad we did! We ended up at the French-inspired Le Flaubert (Calle Orrego Luco 125). The senior waiter Oscar beckoned us inside, and we had a spacious table on the back patio (though still covered).

We easily had the second-best meal of the trip (Don Julio in Buenos Aires being the best). For starters, I had a tangy gazpacho, Allan had serrano ham and melon, Chuck had rillette of duck, and Mike had the ceviche. All were excellent. For the mains, I had sliced beef with peppercorns (Lomo Robespierre), Allan had a shrimp curry, and Mike and Chuck had filets of beef (and shared a salad with shrimp). For dessert, Allan and I shared an excellent mousse au chocolat. It was a marvelous end to a marvelous day.

Friday, February 17, 2017

South American Adventure Part 10: Day 19

Day 19 – Wednesday, February 15th – Valparaiso & Santiago, Chile

At last, the final day of the cruise had arrived. We were docked at the same cargo pier that the Star Princess was in March 2010. The weather was beautiful, and it was nice to see the funiculars still operating in the port city of Valparaiso, which climbs the hills surrounding the port like San Francisco (albeit without a large downtown area).

While we were supposed to evacuate our cabins by 8:00AM, Mike and Chuck arranged with their stateroom attendant to keep theirs later. We ditched our bags in their room and made our way downstairs for one last breakfast in the Botticelli Dining Room. Allan suggested that we give my Valentine’s Day roses to Cary, the sweet Peruvian hostess who greeted us every morning. She was delighted. We also got a chance to say our goodbyes to our favorite wait staff, like Alex, Allan, and John (who waited on us for breakfast).

This port required buses to transport passengers to the cruise terminal, several kilometers away. The ship was being filled with provisions for the next trip around Cape Horn (and eventually continuing up the east coast of South America to the Caribbean and Ft. Lauderdale). Boxes of Skye Vodka, Dos Equis Beer, and frozen lobster tails sat on the pier, ready to be loaded into the cavernous storerooms of the Crown Princess.

We were assigned to the very final group to disembark the ship (Yellow 6, for the record), so we had plenty of time before our group would meet and be taken off the ship. Because we are all Platinum status with Princess, we could hang out in the Explorer’s Club lounge, which provided easy access to the Promenade Deck outside. Allan and Mike were updating their Facebook posts, so Chuck and I went outside to see how things were progressing.

But something was amiss: large protest signs were being hung on nearby containers (I saw the word “crucero” which means “cruise” and got a bad feeling about what was happening). And all worked stopped. The port workers (and bus drivers) went on strike. People who were in buses on the way to the cruise terminal were brought back and put back on the ship. We encountered David and Danny who had this happen to them – bad news, since they were scheduled to fly to Lima, Peru that afternoon. I have to say that this was one of the few times where I didn’t panic, because we had a Princess-arranged transfer to Santiago and a stay at the Sheraton for several nights. We had nowhere to be at any specific time.

Princess did an excellent job in keeping people informed (in both English and Spanish) during this whole event. Even if there was no news (and at first there was very little), they let people know that. About an hour into this (it started at around 9:15AM), they announced that the buffet was open and available. The staff who remained aboard were also nice and accommodating.

And still we waited. And Mike was sweet and got us some sandwiches from the International Café to keep us fed (because god forbid we don’t eat every hour on a cruise). According to the Passenger Services Manager, there were only 1,100 passengers left aboard, which means 2/3 were able to successfully get off the ship before the strike hit.

Shortly after noon, there was progress and the workers headed back to their jobs (what of the frozen lobster tails??!!). And people began boarding buses and leaving the ship (side note: the volumes of luggage had already been transported to the cruise terminal very early in the morning).

Our group was finally called at 1:30PM, and we made our way off the ship and on to the transfer bus. The drive to the terminal was surprisingly long, although we did get to see the Plaza de Armas and some of the lovely old buildings of Valparaiso. The warm Chilean sun shone on the palm trees and it felt good to be off the ship.

That good feeling was tested when we arrived at the cruise terminal. There were two cruise ships in port (the other being the Costa Luminosa) and the arrival crowds were swimming upstream against the departing crowds. Imagine hordes of people with luggage in long, snaking lines, both inside and outside the building. We didn’t have to reclaim our bags, as they were delivered directly to the Sheraton (a definite plus). We walked past a long row of buses to find the one assigned to our group. After 25 of us had shown up, the bus left (it was a luxury bus with comfy seats that normally seats around fifty).

We inched our way through surprisingly dense traffic (at 2:30PM) and were eventually on the highway that connects Valparaiso with Santiago: about 120 kilometers. Chile’s highways are well maintained, and the views as we traveled over (and under) several mountain ranges were beautiful. There was a bad drought here (terrible forest fires in the south several weeks ago that ravaged an area the size of Maryland) and most of the scenery was brown. But when we entered the wine-growing region, the area was green with acres of vineyards.

And then we hit a several kilometers long traffic jam on the portion of the road leading to the long tunnel that connects this area to the valley where Santiago is situated. There were several stalled buses and overheated trucks and cars. (We later found out that there was a crash between two semi-trucks in the tunnel). We inched and crawled, and eventually got through said tunnel, into the hazy valley (the Andes mountains are on the other side of the valley, but they weren’t clear against the horizon).

By the time we arrived at the Sheraton, it was after 5:00PM. This Sheraton is a large convention hotel, located next to a busy road which borders the Mapucho River (more on that later). We were cranky and tired and the check-in line moved slowly. Eventually we got our room assignment (we got put into 511, which faced the Providencia neighborhood and the Andes, Mike and Chuck into 345, which faced the beautiful pool area).

We freshened up a bit and met in the bar for cool drinks and surprisingly excellent pizza. The idea was to take a nap and then explore the neighborhood. Our bags were delivered to our room by the time we got back, which enabled us to do some unpacking. I should say it was a treat to have left the bags outside our stateroom on the ship and then have them show up the next evening in our hotel room.

Mike and Chuck bailed on going out, and so did Allan. I was so pent up by spending the day sitting and waiting that I went out by myself to explore the neighborhood. In essence I was doing some reconnaissance work that would save us time the next morning.

It took about ten minutes to get past the multi-lane roads and cross the river (good sidewalks and lighting). Once the bridge was traversed, Avenida Concepcion became a beautiful tree-lined street with a mixture of medium height office buildings and lower buildings that had other types of businesses (I found the closest Starbucks on that stretch). Eventually, the street crossed with a major boulevard, Providencia. The evening crowds were out in force, and despite my vague recollection of Chilean men, there were plenty of very handsome examples out that night (and every day after that!).

I just walked and walked, discovering the Manuel Montt metro station. I figured out how to buy a Metro card (called “Bip!”, pronounced “beep”) and load fares on it (660 pesos per trip – about US$1.00). I then walked in the opposite direction and came upon several tree-lined side streets with plenty of restaurants featuring outdoor dining. And they were quite busy, even at 9:00PM at night (they eat dinner late here).

Heading back to the hotel, I stopped at a mini-mart and picked up some cold drinks and snacks. I am frustrated by my rudimentary Spanish skills, but somehow managed to complete the transaction. Got back to the hotel at around 9:30PM, and slept well into the next morning.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

South American Adventure Part 9: Days 17 & 18

Day 17 – Monday, February 13th – Aboard the Crown Princess – Puerto Montt, Chile

We awoke to glorious sunshine and warmer temperatures as the Crown Princess was at anchor in the bay of Puerto Montt, the third-largest city in Chile. Puerto Montt lies at the northernmost end of Reloncavi Sound, and is the gateway to Chile’s famous Lake District (Los Lagos). The first thing I noticed (apart from the bustling modern town) was a large, lighted cross atop a nearby hill. Not only was it noticeable for its size and location, but also because the outline changed into a veritable rainbow of colors. We were later to find out that this hill is where Pope John Paul II spoke to the masses, and in commemoration they erected the Disco Cross.

Since we had a private tour booked that was scheduled to start at 9:00AM, and this was yet another tender port, Mike went down at 6:15 to get our tender tickets. But the staff were suddenly following policy and he only got one. By the time Allan and I dragged ourselves downstairs, the numbers were nearing 500. We chose a few nibbles from the International Café for breakfast and wait.

We were off the ship by 8:30 and arrived on shore on-time at 9:00, where our friendly guide Claudio was waiting for us. We loaded into his Kia SUV and drove through the busy port town. While it appeared modern and pleasant from the harbor, a block away the buildings were somewhat ramshackle.

Our first stop was in a residential neighborhood where an overlook provided beautiful views of the city and harbor. Claudio told us that most homes use wood for heat, which was surprising. Some even use wood for cooking. On the other hand, there are lots of trees in these parts.

From Puerto Montt, we continued north on the Pan American Highway, heading toward the Lake District. Our visit was focused on the third-largest lake in South America, Lago Llanquihue (pronounced yahn-KEE-hway). This lake is not only bordered by many towns, but also a series of volcanoes, Mount Osorno being the largest and most beautiful. It’s very similar in form to Mt. Fujiyama in Japan: a conical stratovolcano with a snow-capped peak (approximately 8,700 feet high). And while it was hard to see in the morning mist, it got clearer as the day went on.

In the early 1850s, Manuel Montt, then President of Chile, encouraged German, Austrian, and Swiss populations to migrate to this area of Chile. The scenery is very reminiscent of those areas, with rolling green hills, perfect for cattle grazing. It’s no wonder that this area provides most of the dairy products consumed by Chile. The immigrants also brought with them their language, customs, and architecture (as we would eventually see).

We stopped again at another viewpoint in these rolling hills, with the Lago Llanquihue shimmering below. This viewpoint was a memorial to the original German settlers, and listed the names of the first families to move to this area. Driving from here to our first stop, the winding road and green scenery reminded us of rural Western Washington. Very scenic, as it was a beautiful, warm day. Lots of bikers were out as well, enjoying the good roads and perfect weather.

We arrived in Frutillar (froo-tee-yar), a charming town of about 25,000 permanent residents. The lakeside featured a large beach with a promenade, and plenty of alpine-style architecture in the buildings lining the waterfront street. The charming town had a fair amount of summertime visitors, but it was still picturesque and tranquil. And those views of Mount Osorno were stunning.

Claudio left us at the German Colonial Museum, which featured a series of buildings set along the hillside, surrounded by colorful gardens and trees. Each building (the Mill, the Blacksmith’s house, the Farmer’s House) had some original furnishings, as well as informative photos of the people who lived there and what their daily lives were like. Allan was intrigued by the buzzing bees at the spacious farmer’s house. (There was one or possibly two nests of honeybees on the side of this building right next to the balcony on the second floor – AFK) We thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent here, and could have lingered longer if our time wasn’t limited.

My blood sugar was crashing at this point, so we grabbed a quick lunch across the street at Café Chocolate, where we not only ate chicken empanadas, but the finest walnut kuchen we’ve ever had. I mean, it was a dessert that we were still raving about days later. Seriously.

After lunch, Claudio gave us about 45 minutes to walk around the town and meet him at the lakeside Music Theater, a modern concert hall set perched on the lake. We took many, many photos of the scenery and buildings, as well as the latest in our series of quad-selfies (this time with Mount Osorno in the background).

From Frutillar, we headed south toward the larger town of Puerto Varas, also located on Lake Llanquehue. While this is considered the fanciest resort town in this area, I hated it because it had bad traffic, too many people crowding the sidewalks, and a lack of charm (except for the setting along the lake and a large 19th century church in the Bavarian style). Nevertheless, we managed to spend about 45 minutes seeing the town and buying some beautiful souvenirs. – Grouch…The town was very busy, yes, but it was lovely – rolling hills with verdant vegetation and beautiful flowers everywhere - AFK

The drive back to Puerto Montt was uneventful, but since Princess changed the “last tender time” from 4:00PM to 3:00PM, we had to hustle to make it back in time. Claudio did a good job of getting us back on time, and we managed to jump aboard a tender without waiting. By the way, the ship still didn’t pull out of the harbor until after 5:00PM. – This is quite true. It would have been nice not to have to rush back to the ship. We could easily have spent a few more hours in Frutillar… and had more of the transcendent Walnut Kuchen! J - AFK

We grabbed a quick bite in the International Café although we were sitting in the Vines wine bar. Vines had a fabulous server named Carmen, who we adored. After the snack, I had a short nap, and then hung out on the deck watching the tenders make their way to and from the ship. At one point, I looked down from our balcony and saw a sea lion cavorting in the water. Very cute (but no photo, alas).

Dinner was at our usual time (7:45PM) in our usual place (the Michelangelo Dining Room) with our usual waiter (Alex) and his assistant (Allan). The food was better tonight, although frankly it’s becoming a blur what we ordered and ate. I do know that we’ve been enjoying the Reservado Merlot from Concha Y Toro many nights.

It was a memorable last port of call, and as we headed back into the Pacific, the ship was back to its rock-and-roll motion. The motion isn’t the issue: it’s the creaking of whatever’s inside the hull that’s been keeping me up nights. I’m sure I’ll miss it after we’re off the ship.

Day 18 – Tuesday, February 14th – Aboard the Crown Princess – At Sea

The sunshine was hidden this morning as we made our way through foggy seas. Our last at sea day, and no agenda. We had breakfast in the Botticelli Dining Room, leisurely enjoying honeydew melon, corn-flake crusted French Toast, and copious cups of coffee.

Our entertainment this morning was a cooking demonstration by the head chef, assisted (and I use the term loosely) by Neville, the Maître d’. The chef, with his heavy Italian accent, was the “straight man” to Neville’s humorous (and frequent) interruptions. The chef made gnocchi from scratch (and made it look very easy), sautéed scallops on a bed of ratatouille, and finally tiramisu for dessert. The banter between them was quite humorous, and the chef wasn’t too thrilled when Neville threw a few gnocchi against the wall to see if they were done. This trick works with spaghetti, but not gnocchi. Tours of the galley were offered afterward, but we demurred: we’d seen it as part of several Chef’s Tables we’ve done on past cruises.

We enjoyed a short nap, then met the boys up on the deck for a cheeseburger. It was still foggy and cool, and there were few people out. This was Valentine’s Day, but Allan still managed to surprise me with a vase of roses delivered to our room!

The excitement of the day was a medical deviation that the ship had to make to offload a sick passenger. Ship turned east toward the Chilean coast and were met by local authorities near the town of Talcahuano. The passenger was offloaded (we didn’t see the specifics), and we turned around and made our way back to our original northerly track at a quicker 22 knot speed (versus the usual 19-20 knots).

We spent the afternoon packing, which meant revisiting items from the beginning of the trip (boarding passes to Buenos Aires, restaurant receipts, etc.) which always makes me wistful. Mike and Chuck, on the other hand, saw several whales. Even though we’re on the same side of the ship, we missed it. Probably because (wait for it) we were napping.

To celebrate the last day of the cruise, and because it was Valentine’s Day, we enjoyed our final dinner at Sabatini’s, the Italian specialty restaurant located in the topmost rear part of the ship. Allan and I have been to Sabatini’s many times, but this was a first for Mike and Chuck. Alas, it wasn’t the best experience we’ve had there. First off there was tremendous vibration of the entire room that felt like someone put too many quarters into the slot. Second, it was surprisingly understaffed. Not that the restaurant was packed (maybe half full), but even at that our waiter Czeslav was hurrying between several tables.

The food quality was very good, with a particular standout of Penne Con Brasato di Manzo (a braised short rib beef sauce over penne pasta) that was rich and flavorful. The chocolate tiramisu for dessert (with a scoop of espresso gelato) was outstanding. We also ate a few of the chocolates that Allan bought at Vassalisa in Buenos Aires nearly two weeks ago!

After dinner, we raced back to our cabin to finish packing and get the tagged bags into the hallway by the 11:00PM deadline (we made it by five minutes). It was then off to bed and our last night sleeping on the Crown Princess (for this voyage).