Thursday, March 1, 2012


We flew all night, twelve hours from Chicago to DFW to Santiago, Chile. We dragged our weary bodies through the Comodoro Arturo Marino Benitez International Airport (SCL), with one thought--to get some rest. But first, to get into Chile, you much purchase a visa, but only if you come from U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia or Albania. Albania! Something about reciprocity. For U.S. citizens, the visa costs $140 per person. they charge Albanians only $30. Don't ask!

In case you were wondering, there are several theories about how Chile got its name. It may have been from the native Quechua word meaning "cold" or the Aymara word meaning "snow". So it's been chilly there for a long time. In any event, the Spanish conquistadors led by Diego de Almagro in 1536 got the name from the locals, and they called themselves the men of Chile.


Our hotel sent a driver to the airport to pick us up. We booked a room at the San Cristobal Tower which is the classy part of the next door Sheraton Hotel. We arrived there at 11:30 A.M., but check in is at 3:00. We could have walked around town, but there's nothing much to see within walking distance. The clerk agreed to give us an early check-in for 50 bucks, and we needed rest, so we agreed. The room was quite large, and they set the mood with classical music playing as we walked in.

They provided a free local newspaper, El Mercurio, all in Spanish. I can speak and read some Spanish, and I was able to read that Romney won the Florida primary and that tourism was up in the Chilean wine country. Usually, I turn to the sports section first, but all they had was futbol (soccer).

After a short rest, we went down to the pool to look for our friends who were flying in from all over the world. We would be traveling with 3 other couples whom we met on previous cruises--Mike & Dorothy from Long Island; Lach & Regitze from Australia although Regitze is really Danish, from Bornholm Island, Denmark; and Rune & Tured (Trudy) from Norway. Regitze, Rune & Trudy did not have to purchase visas. The Australians had never met the Norwegians, but Regitze, speaking Danish was able to converse with them in their native tongue, and they became fast friends.

We learned a few Scandinavian words to improve our vocabulary. Skol is the Norwegian word for "cheers", or "salud" or "l'chiam" when you're toasting over drinks. Since we were to do a lot of drinking on this trip, we did skol quite often. Chile's signature drink is the Pisco sour, a tasty and popular drink, made with Pisco brandy (a Peruvian grape brandy), lemon juice and sugar. We had several around the pool with our friends. The Norwegian word for beer is "ol". The "o" has a slash through it but my keyboard doesn't recognize it. It is pronounced "aaeerrll". Glemdeh is Norwegian for forgetaboutit. Its great to learn a new language, but there's not a lot of demand for Norwegian speakers in South America.

Prices are high in Chile. Chile has a lot of millionaires because the Chilean peso is 500 to the dollar. So a million pesos is not much more than a buck fifty. (Actually it's about $2000, but who's counting). The hotel served a cheeseburger which was good but cost about $15. For a cheeseburger, a small pizza, 2 ice teas and 1 water, we paid 28,000 pesos (about $56). They tried to charge Mike 75,000 pesos ($150) for 2 buffets, but he objected, and the hotel reduced the price. It wasn't clear if the original price was a mistake.

There is a large and prosperous middle class in Chile, but like in most countries, there is a great inequality with a large underclass. Back in the 1970's, with the alleged assistance of the CIA, they overthrew the leftist Allende government and brought in a group called the "Chicago Boys" to run the economy. At first impression, you'd think a bunch of cigar chomping guys in fedoras from the First Ward came in to run things, but actually, it was a group of economists trained at the University of Chicago under Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. They brought in market reforms, and today, Chile is one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America.

Our three days leading up to the cruise were packed with tours--wineries, hiking in the Andes, and a tour of Valparaiso. Santiago wasn't covered, although we drove through much of it. Despite being a modern city of 6 million, there's not all that much exciting in Santiago. They are building the tallest building in South America, the Costamera Center, near our hotel. When completed, it will be 300 meters high (about 1000 feet). Like most other major cities, Santiago has shopping malls, and McDonald's, as well as the government buildings comprising the capital of Chile.

We wanted to experience what passes for nightlife in Santiago. So we climbed into 2 taxis (ladies in one, and men in the other) to take us to a local restaurant, Los Muchachos Buenos for a full dinner and floor show featuring singing, traditional Chilean dancing, Chilean folklore groups and a live orchestra. We had reservations but agreed to eat there anyway. It turned out to be a good deal. A $35 tab brought us cocktails (Pisco sours), seafood plate appetizer, choice of steak, salmon or chicken, a half bottle of wine and a fruit plate dessert. The show was entirely in Spanish, and we couldn't understand most of it, but the audience participated enthusiastically. This place is popular with the locals, but there were also quite a few non-Chileans in the restaurant, and the maitre d' brought flags to their tables. We represented Norway, Denmark, Australia, and of course, the USA.


We motored down to the Casablanca Valley, not far from Santiago. This is the heart of the famed Chilean wine country. Driving through the town of Casablanca, I was reminded of the Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name with famous lines like "I'm shocked, shocked, that there's gambling going on here", and "Play it (again) Sam". Well that's in the other Casablanca, which incidentally means "white house" in Spanish. I have stories about THAT also, but we'll save that for another day.

We visited three wineries, all of which were founded in recent years. The first was Veramonte which was founded in 1990 by Agustin Huneeus, whose family also owns 2 vineyards in Napa. Veramonte has 420 hectares surrounded by 4500 hectares of native forest. A hectare is about 2.47 acres, so we're talking a lot of land. The vineyard is beautiful with tall palm trees and rosebushes flanking the grapevines. The purpose of the rosebushes is to protect the vines. Any pests coming through will attack the rosebushes first and thus give the farmer time to take action. I especially enjoyed a red Carmenere wine which is native to Chile. Their Cabernet sauvignon is very good also.

The second winery we visited was Indomita Vineyard identified with a huge sign on top of a hill. It has 200 hectares cultivated for the production of white wine for export. We ate lunch there with a choice of menus (meat, fish, vegetarian, Mediterranean, and Chilean). I chose the Chilean menu and was served beef filet topped with pastel de choclo, a delicious corn cake with olives, mushrooms and raisins. They served us a different wine with each course. Fortunately, we didn't have to drive.

While we were eating, a group of 40 raucous Brazilian businessmen sat down to eat at the next table. Their English was limited, but they were friendly, and in the spirit of the day we began toasting our respective countries. Mike taught them to yell "Go Giants" in celebration of the upcoming Super Bowl. I don't think they knew what the Super Bowl was, but with all that wine, they were celebrating everything.

The last winery we visited was Casas de Busque which was started in 1993 by the Cuneo Family, originally from Italy. It produces Pinot Noir, Syrah and Carmenere. It is more of a boutique winery and produces just 70,000 cases of wine a year.

At each stop, we walked through the vineyards, admiring the ripening grapes in the warm Chilean summer. There are large and small grapes used for different purposes. Rune, with his dry Norwegian sense of humor, said the small grapes were used for "half bottles"! Ultimately, that day I drank more wine than I had in the last 5 years, and I was feeling good.


The next day, we drove 2 hours East into the majestic Andes Mountains. The first half of the trip was on a paved highway. The last hour we drove on a dusty gravel road to the foot of San Jose de Maipo Volcano in the El Morado National Park. It is snow capped above the 16,000 foot level with the San Francisco Glacier, a beautiful and popular attraction for hikers and mountain climbers. I thought I was going to leave my heart there, as we huffed and puffed, hiking for about an hour above the 12,000 foot level amidst gale force winds. We were rewarded by the spectacular scenery. It was a strenuous climb, and half of our group chose to stay by the van which was parked by a small farm. They raised horses, goats, pigs and free range chickens. The pigs ran among us and wallowed in the dust, as pigs are inclined to do. It was windy and dusty and exacerbated by a road construction crew digging up the road. We were happy to leave.

We doubled back to the Banos Colina Hot Spring where we changed into our bathing suits for a dip in the warm water. There are several natural pools arranged as outdoor terraces. The water temperature in the various pools ranges from 25C to 60C (77F-158F). You probably want to avoid the 158 degree water. The mud on the bottom of the pools is supposed to have therapeutic value, and the ladies covered themselves with it. Whole families of the locals came out to bathe in the mineral waters. At that altitude (about 9000 feet), it was cold when we climbed out and we quickly covered ourselves with towels. We sat down for a picnic lunch, but we had to hold down everything because of the gale winds. We broke out some more wine to toast to a beautiful mountain vista. Skol!


We checked out of our hotel the last day and drove down to Vina del Mar, the luxurious Chilean resort town by the ocean. It's about 75 miles from Santiago, and on the way there, our guide taught us the Chilean national motto--Viva Chile Mierda! Chilean have a sense of humor. "Mierda" is the Spanish word for "sh*t".

We arrived early in the morning at Vergara Park (Quinta Vergara) which was the estate of the founding family of Vina del Mar. The house had been damaged by an earthquake and was not open to the public. However, we strolled through the verdant gardens, admiring the wide assortment of brightly colored flowers. A few blocks away they brought in a moai statue from Easter Island as a tourist attraction. We took photos, so now we don't have to go to Easter Island which is 2000 miles from anything.

On the beach, they built a world class hotel casino which we visited but didn't gamble. The beach was full of callipygous Chilean girls, sand sculptures and street vendors, not to mention gourmet restaurants.

Close by is Valparaiso, the major seaport of Chile. It is built on hillsides. The streets are very steep, reminiscent of San Francisco (the city, not the glacier--well that is steep also). The houses are very colorful, with bright yellows, greens and blues. We rode the funicular railway down the mountain.

One of the major attractions there is the house of the famous poet Pablo Neruda. It is a popular 5 story museum on a hillside with narrow stairways. It is probably not ADA compliant, but it attracts a lot of tourists. The house was called LaSebastiana after its builder Sebastian Collado. Neruda purchased this unique house because of its panoramic view of Valparaiso. You pay a lot for location. Neruda was a Spaniard who moved to Chile and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. The walls were decorated with photos of Neruda with friends like Picasso and other prominent bon vivants of his era.




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