POSTCARD FROM THE SOUTH
How do you convince two friends to go with you somewhere they’ve never been before? The promise of adventure and good shopping made the decision for Mary a lot easier than it was for Dave, to whom we could not use the word “adventure”. After some negotiations, in which we set budgetary limits to Dave’s satisfaction, both were persuaded to join us for our trip to Chile.
Having been warned about the security at LAX, we arrived in plenty of time to join the long line of people with similar concerns, all waiting for Lan Chile to open their desk. (The people at Lan (Linea Aerea Nacional) we’re not too concerned, as they did not show for another hour.) During this time, a woman came up to us from the back of the line, adopting Miki, telling us about her concerns regarding her return to Chile. Miki tried to be reassuring, though we’re not sure she succeeded, as we did not see the woman actually on board the plane.
After clearing three security checkpoints, (more about this later,) we made it onto the plane. One thing I have to say for the Chilean airline: they feed you well and they feed you often. Before reaching our final destination in Puerto Montt, we would receive lunch and three separate breakfasts. (They must have known that breakfast is my favorite meal of the day.)
We had an hour stop over in Lima, Peru, where Miki was seized with Inca fever, and insisted we visit the airport stores, reputed to have wonderful gold jewelry. Dave, who was more than happy to stretch his long legs, joined his wife Mary, already leading the charge to the Inca horde. Mind you, this is occurring at two o’clock in the morning. In Peru, you have to clear security leaving the plane, as well as getting back on (in case you’re trying to smuggle gold into the country, rather than relieving it of its excess.) The checkpoint proved to be a bit of a problem for Dave, who’s backpack set off the suspicions of the airport security guard. The x-ray showed what looked like a pair of scissors in David’s pack, which he steadfastly denied having. Being a radiologist, however, he could clearly see the offending object on the screen. Removing each parcel from the pack, and passing it separately through the x-ray machine, it was discovered that Mary had packed small scissors in a bandage pack she planned on using in case her feet got blisters. Now ask yourself the important question, “How did the three check points at LAX miss the scissors so easily found in Lima?”
While this little detour did not cause us to miss our flight, it did keep the Inca gold intact for the next group of tourists.
We arrived in Santiago at 7:00 in the morning. A little tired, a little cranky, we hussled over to the local LAN terminal to catch our flight to Puerto Montt. As advertised, someone was waiting for us with a van to take us into the city. Actually, the van had it’s own driver, separate from the man who met us. The Chileans like to keep as many people employed as possible.
Our hotel, the Antupiren, was billed as a four star establishment. While the place was clean and the rooms adequate, whoever had done the review must have been closely to related to the owners. Walking around town, we found a beautiful place right on the ocean, at two-thirds the price of our first hotel. Needless to say, we did not stay beyond our first night at the Antupiren.
One of the first tasks any traveler faces in a foreign country is the need to obtain some of the local currency. We found a large bank, and were directed to the desk of a pleasant young woman who agreed to change money for us. Interestingly, she was only willing to change cash, but not traveler’s checks. While Dave and I were changing our money, Mary had sat down on a nearby couch, and was falling asleep. Her snuffling must have distracted our bank assistant, for she had mis-entered the amount of money owed to us. Miki, no doubt kept more alert by hunger, noticed and corrected the problem. She also managed to obtain a recommendation from our local banker regarding a good place to eat. As things turned out, the restaurant recommended to us was in the lobby of the Hotel Vicente Perez Rosales, which was to be our home on our eventual return to Puerto Montt. (The name Vicente Perez Rosales kept cropping up throughout our stay; we eventually figured out he was the founder of the city.)
Fortified with local money, Dave and Mary crashed at the hotel while Miki and I went for a walk. Miki, who loves maps, found the tourist agency open, and collected large stacks of maps and information regarding the local area. This now being the off-season, the two young ladies working at the agency were more than delighted to find someone interested in their wares.
Dave and Mary, having returned to the land of the living, were now experiencing hunger pangs. They were a little dismayed to learn that the restaurants in Chile do not start serving dinner until eight or nine. We managed to keep their attention diverted until 8:30, when we became the first guests in the hotel dining room. It is a little uncomfortable to be outnumbered by the serving staff in a restaurant, but we were hungry enough not to care. The food was excellent, and eventually three other tables were occupied by tourists such as us. One of the waiters sat down at the piano and began to play old standards for us. Encouraged by our applause, he offered to sell us tapes recorded by him. While he added to the enjoyment of the evening, we felt more comfortable in leaving him a generous tip than in taking his tapes.
In the morning we were transported to the airport for our flight to Balmaceda. Mary was reassured on seeing a Boeing 737 on the tarmac, instead of the DC-3 she was afraid to find. Balmaceda is in the middle of nowhere, 4 km from the Argentine border. The place is a veritable wind tunnel, to the point that the plane seems to be shaking sitting on the ground. We later found out that this was the reason for choosing the airport location. It seems that the air is very thin there, and the jets needed the wind to get sufficient lift to clear the tall Andes.
The far southern parts of Chile are accessible only by ship or plane. The glaciers of Patagonia literally cut across the country to the ocean, making the building of roads impossible. Our plan was to sail through Chile’s inland passage to Laguna San Rafael, one of the most spectacular glacier bays in the country (if not the world.) Representatives of the Skorpios, our ship, met us at the Balmaceda airport to take us on an hour bus ride to Coyhaique, a small city in the south. We had five or six hours in town waiting for other passengers to arrive before we were to be bussed to Puerto Chacabuco, our place of boarding the Skorpios.
Since the world is very small, it happened that Miki had an acquaintance, a Latvian woman named Biruta, who lives with her husband, Ivan, in Coyhaique. Miki had not seen Biruta since she was ten years old. Their families were friends in Chile. Miki’s mom had kept in touch with Biruta’s sister in Maryland. When Miki wrote to the sister to tell her we’re going to be in the area, Biruta was contacted by email, and prepared a grand reception for us. We were met at the Skorpios office by the family, including her daughter, Veronica. Veronica, who speaks excellent English, toured Dave and Mary around town, eventually meeting us at the family ranch. Biruta and Ivan are both pharmacists who sold their pharmacy a year and a half ago when the big chains came into town. Ivan, who trains and jumps horses, introduced us to two of his beautiful mounts, Vikingo and Gitano.
We knew we were in for a special afternoon when we drove up in front of their house and saw a man in a chef’s hat preparing our lunch. Veronica soon arrived bringing not only our friends, but also her two daughters, Barbarita and Andrea. The youngest daughter soon adopted Dave as her third grandfather. We had a wonderful lunch and a delightful afternoon with people whose hearts were warm enough to melt all the glaciers of the South.
By the end of the afternoon, the clouds began to roll in. All too soon we had to say goodbye and get back on the bus to the port. A soft drizzle had started as our bus made its way over the Andes, making a requisite stop at a collection of small shops filled with the handwork of local artisans. Soon we were passing through Puerto Aysen (Darwin came through here on the Beagle, writing in his journal that this was the place the ice ends, which in the native vernacular became Aysen.) arriving at the Skorpios close to dusk. The ship is the largest all wood-hull boat still in operation in the world. The keel of the boat is made from one single giant tree. There were 43 of us passengers on board, though the ship takes a maximum of 78. The cabins were surprisingly large and comfortable, and the food was excellent. There was an open bar throughout the three days of our cruise, so I’m surprised I recall as much of the trip as I do.
The passengers were from all over the world; only one Chilean couple, a physician and his wife. (They had actually lived in the United States for a number of years before moving back to Santiago.) Sharing our dinner table (in addition to Dave and Mary) was a delightful couple from Italy, Johnny and Pinina. He regaled us with his opinions of the world, while her English continued to improve with each day of the trip. I learned about their lives and homes in Italy, along with the fact that she loved to dance. (This was well demonstrated on the last night aboard the ship, when we closed down the dance floor.) We also had the chance to meet three friends from the Boston area, young women traveling together for the first time in South America. Judy and her friend work as financial analysts at Wellington mutual funds, while their friend, Missy, has the now unenviable position of being an Andersen employee. It was fun to watch the energy and enthusiasm they invested in this trip. Miki was able to give them some useful advice regarding the remainder of their travel plans after the cruise.
If we experienced nothing else on the trip other than seeing Laguna San Rafael, the trip would’ve been worthwhile. Words cannot do justice to these mountains of ice floating in a tranquil bay like so many monuments of Baccarat crystal. The shades of blue, aquamarine, teal and green suffused with apparent inner lights, changing with each cloud formation against a backdrop of the dark mountains transected by the blue-white glacier; these are memories to hold for a lifetime. We boarded all steel boats, navigating between these glacial leviathans, amazed at the miracles nature had created. We paused at one of these ice sculptures while a crewmember chopped chunks of ice into a bucket, then served it in glasses filled with Ballantine’s; thirty thousand year old ice served with 30 year old Scotch!
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower, making it one of our favorite times to travel. We stopped in Quitralco, a pristine lake dotted with small islands, surrounded by rain forests and natural hot springs fed by the nearby volcanoes. Miki and the gang immersed themselves in the hundred degree waters, hidden from my camera’s obtrusive lens by the rising curtain of mists from the pool. We hiked up the Mirador, a lookout point 600 meters above our dock. From there, we were rewarded with a magnificent panorama of unspoiled forest and the mountains surrounding crystal clear waters. The sun cooperated by sending shafts of light through the ever-swirling clouds, illuminating the ethereal scene below. Amazing to us, the people from Skorpios had left a Coke machine filled with soft drinks free for the taking by those who made the climb to the top. Anywhere else in the world, you would have paid a hefty price for such thirst quenching relief.
It was a small culture shock to leave the voyages of the Skorpios behind and reenter civilization. On our trip back through Coyhaique, we by chance ran into Veronica and her husband Alex. He’s a good looking young man (as Mary pointed out several times,) who holds several jobs, including that of pilot, flying tourists around Patagonia. We were glad to meet the other half of the team that produced such beautiful children, as we had already grown fond of Veronica and the girls.
Back in Puerto Montt, we called Ana and Hernan, friends who were in the area vacationing on their sailboat. We hoped to get together with them for dinner. Unfortunately, they were having engine troubles on the boat, and were three hours away waiting for spare parts to be flown in from Santiago. We thus had dinner in the dining room of the hotel, the food being accompanied by our now well-known piano player. We were just finishing our main course, when who do we see walking in? It is none other than Johnny and his wife, having seen us sitting in the window of the restaurant as they were driving by. They joined us for drinks, sharing with us details of their trip since we last saw them. At the end of the evening, we promised to visit them soon in Italy. We warned them, that unlike some people, we really do follow through on these threats. We hope they believed us, or soon they will be very surprised.
We rented a four-wheel drive Toyota, and the next morning we were on the ferry heading over to the island of Chiloe. Miki, who does not do well on open the bodies of water, was worried about the ride. When she asked, “ when does the ferry leave?” she was surprised to learn we were already halfway there. Chiloe is a big agricultural area, as well as a center for fishing. We saw a number of picturesque fishing villages, ringed by houses on stilts, called palafitos, to keep them dry with the fifteen-foot tides. The sides of the houses are covered with hand cut wooden shingles in all different patterns, and are painted bright colors common to this part of the country.
One of the pleasures of traveling with Dave is that he notices all the details of the construction and the machinery around you, and points them out to you in case you were not paying attention. We spent one night in Chiloe in the small town of Dalcahue at a beautiful hotel recommended by Ana, La Isla. The hotel was recently built, and constructed of gorgeous natural woods. This became more understandable when we learned that the owner also owned the local lumberyard.
We were surprised to get a phone call in our room from our friend Ana, checking up on our progress. We soon got another call from Eva, Miki sister, also checking up on us. How could we go wrong with all these guardian angels looking after us? As it turned out, we had another piece of good luck in running into an American couple that just visited the lake area to which we were headed. They gave us a recommendation for a hotel in Frutillar, the Elun Lihue, which turned out to be excellent.
The next day we left Chiloe with overcast skies, but by the time we reached Puerto Montt, we were rewarded with sunshine and a rare clear view of the volcanoes. We stopped briefly in Angelmo, where we stocked up on souvenirs for all those not fortunate enough to be with us. During this time, I kept warning Dave and Mary to be careful of their personal belongings, especially their backpacks, as pickpockets were common in this area. I was forced to drive this lesson home by removing Mary’s camera from her pack, and giving it back to her later when she was frantically rummaging around looking for it. We would have felt terrible if she had actually had something taken from her. Fortunately, none of us suffered any unexpected loss on the trip. That day we ate lunch at a German restaurant, Kiel, sporting a nautical theme, and a garden with the largest hydrangeas any of us had seen in a mixture of copper, red, blue and pink colors. After lunch, we stopped along the road for a photo opportunity. Apparently we got more than just a good shot, as Mary began sniffing on getting back in the car, only to discover the offending odor to be coming from the bottom of her own sneakers. Tourists do have to be very careful as to where they step.
Frutillar is a small German town on the shores of Lago Llanquihue. It’s a large glacier formed lake with the volcano Osorno on it’s opposite shore. The hotel Elun Lihue (means to “replenish force” rather than any Hawaiian origin) is located at the end of the lake. The place was recently remodeled with beautiful woods throughout. Every room has a view of the lake. The couple who run it used to vacation in the area for 20 years before buying the hotel. Miki noticed the Harvard sticker on their car. Asking about it, we learned they have five children, all professionals, one of whom is currently working on his post graduate degree at Harvard. They made a wonderful dinner for us, and the breakfasts were outstanding.
I hadn’t mentioned it before, but Dave contracted a virulent respiratory infection on arrival to Chile, which he promptly shared with Mary. Spending as much time as we did in close confined spaces such as the car, it’s not too surprising that the night we arrived in Frutillar I would develop fever and chills. So while the group hiked around the Saltos del Petrohue, I spent the day sleeping, looking at the lake, and drinking hot tea. Fortunately, my illness passed in just over a day, while Miki, the youngest of us all, managed to escape unscathed.
We hiked around the lake for the good part of the day, and in the evening met with Zinta and Peter, two more figures from Miki’s past. Zinta is another daughter of the Latvian contingent in Chile, whom Miki hadn’t seen since Peter and Zinta’s wedding over thirty years ago. They now live in Osorno, though Peter works in Puerto Montt refurbishing boats for charter fishing. Being an ex-Navy man, Peter had a lot of colorful stories to share with us about life at sea. We drank pisco sours (to which I developed quite an addiction; fortunately Miki got the recipe from Ivan who served us some excellent ones) and strong espresso, finishing the evening with some good German kuchen.
The next morning we left Frutillar behind, along with our flu bug, which we inadvertently gave to Patricia, the young woman serving us in our hotel. I felt sufficiently bad about this to leave her the rest of my cough medicines along with a tip. (Quarantine sick guests!) Sunrise was beautiful, but then it began to cloud over, as it does frequently in the South. We did catch a glimpse of the volcano on the way to the airport.
There were not a lot of people waiting for the plane to Santiago, raising Miki’s hopes of a relatively empty flight. However, as we boarded the plane, most of the seats were already full of people coming from Balmaceda and Punta Arenas. I was again impressed with the service on Lan, getting a full lunch, complete with wine and liquor on the 75 minute flight.
Santiago was hot; 28 degrees Celsius when we landed. Eva was waiting for us with Ana’s Jeep, a courtesy we truly appreciated. We managed to squeeze in our ever-expanding luggage along with our five ever-expanding bodies, leaving Eva’s duffel tucked in between David’s legs. The knees of us old folks are not designed to be locked in place for any length of time. Somehow, we managed to survive the two-hour drive to the coast, blissfully shortened since the two tunnels and the toll road had been completed. Along the way, Mary asked, “Are there any vineyards around here?” Eva replied by pointing out the windows at the rows of grapes growing along both sides of the road. Dave was impressed by how tall the vines were, allowing a man to walk underneath and pick the fruit.
We arrived in Vina del Mar without further incident, and amazingly enough were still able to move our legs on getting out of the car. Vivi, an architect, and one of Eva’s classmates from the German school, has a beautiful condominium overlooking the ocean. She was nice enough to meet us there, show us around, then give us the keys for the next two days while she and her son drove back to Santiago. Dave, who before this trip questioned the wisdom of traveling to South America, began to inquire into the price of these units, and whether we should buy one there. Three pools, a tennis court, an exercise room, billiard tables, and panoramic ocean views; this was something to which a person could easily become accustomed. We walked down by the water to a small restaurant over-hanging the rocks. The pounding surf was all the accompaniment we needed to the delicious seafood dinner Eva ordered for us. I don’t think Dave and Mary ever ate machas before, little razor clams baked with a covering of Parmesan cheese. Being good sports, they each tried one with the look of barely concealed apprehension on their faces. The following ones, however, disappeared at an increasingly rapid rate, washed down with glasses of Escudo, one of the excellent local beers. That night we slept like kings, lulled into dreams by the timeless rhythm of the waves below us.
Sunday morning found us feasting on fresh fruit and coffee prepared by Eva. We then drove over to Valparaiso, Chile’s main port, to visit Adriana (Nani), another one of Eva’s classmates. Valparaiso bears a lot of resemblance to San Francisco, being built on hills next to the ocean. There are funiculars and steep steps, twisting narrow streets, along with bright hued buildings and old churches. Adriana and her husband Luis live near the top of a hillside in a house they themselves built, with incredible views of the surrounding city. Dave had a field day inspecting the saws, routers, and assortment of power tools used in building the house and its furniture.
Our birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time. Since Mary was celebrating hers, we decided to take her to a revolving restaurant on top of a high-rise building overlooking the harbor and the city. Eva again ordered lunch for everybody. It turned out to be a memorable three-hour meal, made so by the combination of the wonderful food, marvelous view, and friendship shared. After lunch, we walked around the city, and even persuaded Dave and Mary to take a ride in one of the Victorias, the horse drawn carriages popular with the tourists. Miki gave instructions to the driver to give them only a short trip around the area, as we had to be moving on. The driver took this as a signal for his best Ben-Hur imitation, whipping the carriage around the corners of the park at top speed. As the Jimmy Buffet song goes, “we do it for the stories we can tell.” Having survived their carriage ride, we rewarded Dave and Mary with dessert of Napoleon and Café Helado in an old patisserie on the Calle Valparaiso the girls used to visit when they were kids. (If that doesn’t raise your blood sugar above 500, nothing will.)
As much as we hated to leave, we had to get back to Santiago on Monday. We stopped for lunch on the way at Lomitos, a chain restaurant along side of the toll way. Our fast food places could learn a lot by visiting there. The place was clean, beautifully landscaped, serving good food at reasonable prices. There was an adjacent artesanal, where you could buy local handicrafts, along with a playground complete with animals for the kids. Dave, known for his fondness for ice cream, had the opportunity to indulge in a rainbow of flavors.
In Santiago, Miki had made arrangements to get together for lunch with her friends from the pharmacy program at the university, followed by a dinner with her gang from her 12 years at the German school. She was practically giddy with excitement at the prospect of these reunions, which I felt were best held unimpeded by my presence. Besides, Dave and Mary had never seen Santiago, and I didn’t feel it was fair to leave the city without Eva and I showing them the sights. So while Miki gushed and hugged and enthused with her friends, we toured Santa Lucia, the Moneda, the Cathedral, and the new pre-Columbian museum. The latter was new to all of us, and definitely worth the visit. Naturally, you can’t tour with our group without stopping for a little spot of refreshment, so we did. Dave, having satisfied his sweet tooth, and not having a car available to polish, decided instead to have his shoes shined. There were a number of places on the street to accommodate his needs, though judging by the reaction of the shoeshine folks (Dave had one for each foot) few had seen size 13 wingtips in the city.
Eva is an excellent tour guide, whether for historical sites or shopping malls. She instinctively knew that Mary, while appreciating the finer points of baroque architecture, would not be completely happy if she left the country without an appropriate “good deal.” So it was that our tours of the museums and churches were interspersed with visits to many of the fine malls to be found in Santiago. This effort did not go unrewarded, as Mary carried home an ultra soft black leather jacket, which by US prices, was a steal. Dave, whose appreciation of bargains leans a great deal more toward cars and power tools, had to be content with the reassurance that he saved himself a bundle with Mary’s sartorial birthday present. He smiled, though I’m not sure I convinced him 100%.
Tuesday evening, Ana and Hernan invited us for dinner at their home. They have a beautiful house filled with exquisite accent pieces into which we were welcomed with great warmth. Ana, showing her Italian heritage, prepared a memorable meal for us. I tried to show my appreciation by having a second helping of everything placed in front of us, without appearing like I had just been rescued from a raft lost at sea. We had a chance to chat with their sons and feel as though we were truly a part of the family. At the end of the evening, Miki showed up wearing a smile that I doubt left her face since the beginning of her reunion. It was great to see her so excited amongst her friends.
All too quickly, our two weeks in Chile passed with the speed of the wind blown clouds. It was a great trip, with the forging of new friendships and the reestablishment of old ones. Having Dave and Mary along added a lot to our enjoyment, and they certainly got to see a country and its people that I’m sure changed their perception of Chile. A smile is a light in the window of the soul indicating that the heart is at home. On this journey to this magic land of fire and ice, ocean and stream, we encountered so many warm smiles we in many ways felt like we never left home.