Thursday, March 8, 2007

Santiago, Chile - Commentary

We tried to sneak out of Peru in the dead of night. Actually, our pick-up at the hotel was at 4:30 am for a 7:00 am flight to Santiago. However, our attempt to leave the country quietly was thwarted at the airport when our combined checked luggage was 16 kilos above our 40 kilo limit. We had been hovering around 44 kilos on our earlier intra-Peru flights but we now were lugging the bag we had stored at the hotel in Lima when we first arrived plus all the stuff we had accumulated along the Peruvian way. To make matters worse, for some reason this second international flight on LAN had a maximum of 20 kilos per person, well below the limit on our LAN flight from Quito to Lima. Despite our protests, the LAN agents insisted we pay a penalty. We did succeed in talking them into charging us for an excess of only 10 kilo which reduced the penalty to US $110. A sour note (no, not a Pisco sour!) on which to end our Peruvian adventure!

This 23rd day of our trip was pretty much invested in travel. Our flight was delayed slightly in Lima (probably because LAN had to load so much excess luggage!) and then we lost more time because of a change in time zones. As a result, we didn’t get to our Santiago hotel, a delightful Best Western in a residential area near the river and close to one of the city’s primary thoroughfares, until after 2 pm. We decided we were entitled to a nap and then an early dinner. Unfortunately, we discovered that Barbara either mislaid her wallet or it was stolen when she was paying for the “official taxi” ticket at the airport. Therefore, the afternoon was spent confirming that the missing wallet was not turned in at the airport and contacting the credit card companies. The latter was complicated by the fact that Liz was on her way to the University of California at Santa Barbara for her Ph.D. program interview and she was using one of Barbara’s credit cards to pay for her rental car, hotel and meals. Imagine Liz’s surprise when upon landing she received a call on her cell from the Bank of America Master Card agent! During the ensuing three-way conference, all was straightened out – BoA assured Liz she wouldn’t be rejected and us that we had a sufficient credit line to get through the rest of our trip. But forget the nap! Later, we took a taxi to a restaurant on Av. Providencia, the main drag, highlighted in the guidebook as a warm, vibrant “in” spot for actors, writers and businesspeople (the desk clerk at the hotel had dismissed it as “just a bar!”). It turns out Frommer’s was bang on correct about Bar Liguria. Although packed with a youngish, mid-week, after work crowd, we were lucky and got a table quickly. While the food was fine and made better by a great Chilean wine, it was the atmosphere that made the meal memorable, It was a beautiful evening, the streets were filled with people strolling and we decided to walk back to the hotel (Barbara was leery of taking an unfamiliar metro), tracing a map provided by the hotel. We turned at exactly the right street to make our way over the Rio Mapocho and, lo and behold, found ourselves in the midst of the Southeast Conference! There on one corner was the Club Alabama, right across the street was the Louisiana River Club and a huge Johnny Walker stood guard above them (see photos)! We allowed ourselves to be enticed into sitting at an outside table, enjoying a Cristal cerveza and soaking up the club scene. When we checked in at the hotel, we linked up with a couple from Australia, Ross and Veronica, also checking in and arranged to join a city tour the next day. All four of us apparently misunderstood the tour pick-up time and the hotel staff had to hustle us from breakfast and our room into the van that was transporting us to the larger bus. Feeling we were the victims of incompetence on the part of the desk clerk had a bonding effect and we hung together on the tour, which was interesting and informative. We began at Castillo Hildalgo, an impressive structure on a hill in the center of the city that provided a panoramic view of downtown (but not the surrounding Andes; they were shrouded in Santiago’s almost perpetual smog). An interesting side bar: on the grounds is a statue of a native leader wearing a feathered headdress – of course, the Chilean “Indians” didn’t wear such headgear! We made the required stop at the Plaza de Armas and the ever present Metropolitan Cathedral. At the latter, we learned to facts relating to my favorite order, the Jesuits. First, the Jebbies carved the tremendous cypress doors that open onto three naves; and second, in the third nave is the statue of St. Alberto Hurtando, S.J., the only Jesuit saint (other than the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola) mentioned our travels despite the powerful influence they had in South America. For me, the highlight occurred during the tour of the Plaza Constitucion area, particularly the stunning neoclassical Palacio de la Moneda, originally the royal mint but now the president’s offices, where we caught the tail end of the changing of the guard (both men and women are on duty). From the palace courtyard we saw the open window of the actual office where the President of Chile, a woman, works. We also saw the closed window of the office where the body of ex-President Allende was found after the infamous 1973 Pinochet-led coup. In pointing out the window, our guide commented derisively that the “official” cause of Allende’s death was suicide, making it clear that he and many others don’t believe the “official” story. The tour concluded at the Mercado Central, a huge market similar to those in Barcelona where fishmongers gleefully gut all manner of fish and greengrocers and butchers display their wares. The Mercado is home to a number of well-regarded restaurants with lunch menus filled with local delicacies. Unfortunately, the four of us succumbed to the advice of our guide who obviously was shilling for place where we ended up eating. While the fare was good, it came at a remarkably high price. Even more unfortunate, as we learned later, Veronica had her purse pick pocketed; in addition to credit cards, she lost several hundred dollars and a set of earring purchased that morning in an upscale shop. We believe the snatch was made in the market, not in the metro we later took back to the hotel. The metro, by the way, is terrific way to get about the city and the stations have some very interesting art! That night the four of us took David Cohen’s very strong recommendation to dine at Astrid y Gaston. It was a spectacular meal, beautifully presented and accompanied by another great Chilean wine (and we choose it well; as we left the restaurant we were presented with a bottle of Jim Beam Black; it seems there was a promotion going on!). Ross and Veronica, who are in their ‘70s, regaled us with stories of their adventure travel. For example, just a couple of years ago they were the clear seniors in a group that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and they earlier had traipsed through many of the jungles and mountains of South America. This excursion they were on a six-month round the world trip (the second couple we met on this schedule!) taking them everywhere. And they weren’t just strolling around – for example, the next day they schedule a trip to the highest elevation in South America and second highest in the world after the Himalayas! They are our heroes and we hope to visit them in Melbourne! A more pedestrian (no pun intended) plan lay ahead of us. I had reserved a car with Rosselot, a local agency recommended by Frommer’s (at a price far less than Hertz, Avis or any known brand) to allow us to drive from Santiago to Viña del Mar, the resort town on the Pacific, next to Valparaiso, the embarkation point for our cruise. The next morning the same remises driver who drove us to dinner the first night took me to the auto rental agency (he plans on coming to South Florida in the next six months and he wanted to know what it would be like to be an illegal!). When we arrived, the manager apologized because the car reserved for us had mechanical problems and it would be at least three hours (yeah, I believed that estimate!) before it would be available for us. He had, however, an alternative – a five-passenger Mitsubishi pick-up truck with air (but diesel, not regular gas)! Given the alternatives, including our interest in visiting vineyards on our way to the coast, I selected the pick-up. To learn how well we fared in our red pick-up, check our next posting on Viña del Mar and Valparaiso!

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