Part 2 – From Argentina to Chile and back again!
From the beauty of snowy Patagonia, I set off on a bus to Chile. I crossed the border to Puerto Natales, boarded a flight to Santiago and then took another bus to my coastal city destination; Valparaiso. I had heard from some backpackers in Buenos Aires that it had the largest beach fireworks display on New Year’s Eve in South America (second only to Rio de Janeiro). So, with no further research, I imagined a town with clear water, and a white sandy beach in walking distance from my hostel… I was completely wrong!
I arrived at my hostel and found myself in a room with 3 non-English speaking guys, so I felt pretty alone and started to worry about my options for New Year’s celebrations the next day. To lift my spirits, I decided to go freshen up – I went for a shower, only to discover there was only cold water! I have to mention that everything was x3 the normal cost because of the time of year as well! Safe to say ‘Valpo’ was not making a good first impression.
I thought I should shake it off and explore the city anyway, so I started walking down to the port, when I saw a line of locals formed outside of an empanada store. That’s always a good sign of a delicious food spot! So, even though I wasn’t hungry, I decided on buying an empanada. I got my ticket and was waiting for my empanada to be prepared, when I noticed a guy out of the corner of my eye who kept looking my way. Of course, my first thought was “what a creep, stop looking at me!” He eventually came over and asked me where I was from. We started chatting and when our empanadas were ready he asked if I wanted to go somewhere and eat them, so we went to these cool stairs overlooking a bit of the city and continued chatting.
Being the genuinely friendly South American that he was, he then took me to a rooftop bar to look over the city and have my first Pisco Sour (the national cocktail). That’s when I first took in the beauty of the city and the people. After a Pisco Sour, Jamie invited me to a New Year’s party the next night with a whole bunch of other gringos; success!! Things were looking up.
Valpo is a kind of “hipster” city with street art on the buildings and cool little restaurants in side alleys, and with its steep hills it reminded me of San Francisco. The only thing that did shock me was the number of stray dogs there; it is actually a huge problem and every step you’d take, you’d see more and more of them, none of which looked healthy. It was quite a shock as I had never experienced anything to that extent before.
As long as you are ready to party and have a good time ALL night (and morning) I cannot recommend Valpo enough for New Year’s. It was absolutely incredible! We started at Jamie’s friend’s apartment building; he was right, there were about a dozen people there; almost all gringos. We had a dinner together and a few traditional Chilean Pisco Sours to get the evening started. From there, we did as all those do in Valpo for New Year’s and we took the party to the streets! We went to a balcony overlooking the city, the neighbouring city and the coastline, joined by hundreds of others, to watch the firework display at midnight.
We also met up with 3 English guys that I had met in Buenos Aires, a German girl who I met on the plane the day prior, and more gringos from her hostel who we had met the night before… It’s amazing how you can make such a good party when you get a huge bunch of backpackers together, who barely know each other! The fireworks display was absolutely amazing! It was massive, full of variety and it felt like it went forever; absolutely awesome! The party continued into the early hours of the morning through a number of different plazas around the city, with all types of live music, DJs, people, cultures and vibes. It was 5:30am, and I was following a brass band parade down the street with thousands of others, dancing and celebrating, when my eyes started to shut involuntarily; time to go home!
New Year’s Day was all about recovery for the entire region of Valparaiso, and so the beaches of the neighbouring city, Viña Del Mar, were flocked by thousands. Although everyone was tired, in true South American style, the parties continued with street markets and venders, people fishing off the balcony, buskers, music and dancing. The next day I moved my stuff from Valpo to Viña to continue living the beach life, because who wouldn’t want to stay in a city called “Vineyard by the Ocean”!? … Even if I never made it to a vineyard while I was there. I met up with Jamie and his friends again to play beach volleyball and swim, and then they took me to the next city, Reñaca, for some sunset sandboarding in the dunes overlooking the coast. To say that I epically failed would be an understatement, but what a view!
Surprisingly the food in the more southern countries of South America lack a lot of spice and flavour, however there are still a lot of delicious foods to try. I love learning about the food culture in every country I visit, so I decided to book a Chilean cooking class. We started the class by doing my favourite thing; visiting local fish, meat and fruit and veg markets to pick out our menu and ingredients. Then we went back to the headquarters, put some Chilean music on and started to prepare the dishes. We cooked a 5-course meal consisting of Pebre (salsa) with bread, ceviche (a lemon-cured fish dish – delicious!!!), Beef Empanadas, Cazuela (a beef bone stew), Pastel de Choclo (Corn pie), and Leche Asada (baked milk dessert). It took hours to prepare and we were all starving by the time we finally got to eat it, but it was worth the wait! While we enjoyed the Pebre, we learnt how to make Pisco Sours (again for me!), and of course we enjoyed each meal with a different Chilean wine.
After spending some time on the coast and making some amazing new friends, I made my way to Santiago to stay with a Colombian friend who I had worked with in Perth. People had told me that Santiago was a cool, but ugly city. I can’t understand those comments. I fell in love with Santiago (as I do with every new city!), and like most South American capital cities, Santiago is located within a range of mountains, which is so different from the river and coastal-dwelling capital cities we have in Australia. It may be because of this contrast, I found it so beautiful.
In Santiago, I explored the entire city, visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (very eye-opening to the brutal and unbelievable political history of Chile), went to an outdoor cinema, hiked up San Cristóbal Hill, and ascended up Sky Constanera for a 360˚ view of the city while the sun set. I was also lucky enough to have my friend drive me to the Andes, to experience the beautiful landscape there. Another place on my list of cities to return to, but next time in Winter for skiing season!
Anyone who knows me, will know that I have a passionate love affair with wine, which is why I decided I had to go back to Argentina! I took a windy but breathtaking bus ride through the Andes to a place called Mendoza, renowned for its amazing wines, in particular the Malbec; a recent personal favourite of mine. That night I met an English friend that I did tango lessons with in Buenos Aires, and got her tips on the city over a glass of wine. The next day I did a walking tour, as I did with every new city I visit.
Travellers Tip: Most cities around the world do “Free Walking Tours” which, as the name suggests, is a tour of the city by foot, that usually goes for about 2-3 hours and is free! You just pay a small tip at the end of the tour. Along the way, you usually see the most famous sites, you learn about the history of the city and country, get to know the area, and meet new friends; very handy for a solo traveller wanting to enjoy wine in the company of others.
I used this tour to recruit people for a bicycle wine tour in Maipú the next day. The group somehow ended up with 18 backpackers from around the globe! We caught a bus to Maipú (pronounced “my-poo” which still makes me giggle every time!), hired bikes for the day, and set off to the furthest winery, to then work our way back by the end of the day. The goal was stopping and sampling as many wineries as possible along the way. Yes, the riding of bikes became interesting by the last few wineries. But what a great way to get around and do a wine tour! It was such a good day!
The following day I thought I would be a little classier and go on an organised small wine tour to the Uco Valley, where the more expensive wineries were. WOW is all I can say! Wineries amongst the Andes – not a bad view to do wine tastings! Amongst the tastings and tours of the wineries themselves, we learnt about the history of wine in Argentina, in particular the Malbec, which was actually taken to Argentina from France because they considered it so bad. This is actually the origin of the word Malbec; ‘Mal’ meaning bad, ‘Bec’ meaning beak; in other words, they thought the wine left a bad taste in the mouth! Amazing that it is now considered one of the best red wines in the world.
While in Mendoza I also went horse riding through the Andes at sunset, followed by a traditional Argentinian asado (barbecue) with of course, matching wines. All of this wine made me feel the need for a spa day spent in thermal springs amongst the Andes. Yes, Mendoza was an expensive city to visit, but well worth the splurge!
Next on Alicia’s adventures:
I fly to the Atacama Desert at the top of Chile, through the Bolivian salt flats, ride Death road (and survive!) and work my way towards Machu Picchu.