Porto and the Douro Valley

Welcome to beautiful Porto! Sitting in northeast Portugal along the Douro River it is one of the oldest European centers with its historical core proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Think Romanesque and Gothic architecture, winding cobbled streets, thigh-challenging hills. Now I can appreciate all those squats done at the gym.

The main sights are all very walkable and yes we exceeded our 10,000, steps and many, many more daily!!

View of Porto from Gaia

First up was a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, or simply Gaia, across the river from the Ribeira district. We walked across the upper and lower levels of the Don Luís I bridge which connects the two area and provides fantastic views regardless of the time of day. The bridge was built by a student of Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, and is similar in style and design.

Dom Luis I bridge heading to Gaia

Gaia has many cellars, (locally known as ‘caves’), where the port wine is stored and aged. Hello, this is Porto after all! In bygone days the rabelo boats transported barrels of port from the vineyards in the Douro Valley upstream. Here we marveled at the multi-coloured facades of houses dating from the Middle Ages.

Back across the river we took in all the sights, enjoyed the cafes, alleyways, gardens, flowers, sculptures, fountains, plaza, etc., etc.

Made some new friends!

Never know what’s around the corner!

It would be impossible to walk around and not notice all of the intricate tile work that covers almost every building, church, train station. Like Port wine, Azulejos tiles are important part of Portuguese culture.  In northern Portugal, the tiles are typically blue and white.

The walls of the Porto Sao Bento train station is a great example and decorated with approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles.

Sao Bento train station

Clérigos Tower, a major landmark in Porto, was once the highest bell tower in Portugal, (over 75m), and is said to offer wonderful panoramic views at the cost of climbing 230 steps. We opted out of this challenge!

Clérigos Tower

Livraria Lello Porto, is considered one of the most beautiful and oldest bookstores in the world and rumoured was the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts Library in Harry Potter. The building itself is a piece of art with the red staircase and intricate carvings.

Inside the Livraria Lello bookstore

Majestic Cafe, is where Rowling also spent a lot of time and is said to have penned early book notes on napkins.

Iconic Majestic Cafe

Bob enjoying Francesinha, a Porto speciality sandwich containing cheese and a number of different meats in a tomato and beer sauce. He opted to forego the french fries that usually accompany it otherwise it would have resembled poutine on steroids!!

Bob’s dinner – Francesinha sandwich!

And dessert. So many delicious pastries! 

Porto at night is a beautiful sight – the view from Cais de Gaia is best, where you can see the whole city lit up. Cafes and bars are packed and street performers add a certain ambiance while strolling along the river.

A must see for everyone is a tour of the Douro Valley. Having a car made it so easy to tour this area with the entire Valley declares a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Douro Valley

Douro Valley

The microclimate here allows for cultivation of olives, almonds, and especially grapes, which are important for making the famous Port wine. Numerous Quintas look out over vast tiers of vineyards making the entire area a magical place. We wandered through the vineyards and finished off the day with a wine tasting of the white, ruby, and tawny port.  And yes, we have developed yet another guilty pleasure in life!

Great tour & Port tasting at the Quinta

There are several villages in the hillsides, the views are marvellous but the driving is not for the faint of heart, right Joanne? Switchback roads, with no or questionable guard rails make ascents/descents butt puckering. Oh how memories of Chile came flooding back.

Mateus Palace on the way to the Douro was an unplanned but serendipitous stop as were several other small towns along the way.

Mateus Palace & Quinta

We stayed at a lovely old refurbished hotel in Tabuaço, great base for heading out on the wine trail visiting the various spots in the Valley.

Pinhão is a small town is where we did the Rabelo boat tour on the Doura.

A small, lovely, still finctioning train station has azulejos tiles covering the outside depicting the valley and harvest.

Pinhão Train station

Shop across from Pinhao train station

Pinhão & Douro River

Barcos, was another beautiful medieval town steeped in history with friendly folks offering up tips on the village in Portuguese. Unfortunately all that good info was lost in translation! Portuguese is a very difficult language.

Town elders sit & chat in the town square

Time is a ticking so time to start heading south.

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Family, Friends and Play(a) Time

8 – 17 February 2018  [okay, so just a bit behind on the wanderings but catching up!]

We decided to make Mexico our travel destination this year with an ulterior motive in mind, let’s meet up with our adult kids to celebrate our son Mike’s 35th birthday, a milestone, for us anyway (how did he get to this age so quickly?). Planning got underway and the next thing we knew our longtime best friends were also planning a vacation in Playa around the same time. Let the fun begin!

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Bob & Ganesh on Quinta Avenida

It had been over 10 years since our last visit to Playa del Carmen, located in the Riviera Maya, and needless to say it has expanded exponentially in all directions. This is definitely a resort town with every North American franchise you can think of and no shortage of tourists. Yes, there is a bit of Mexican culture providing you venture off of the main walking promenade, Quinta Avenida or 5th Avenue. What hasn’t changed though are the white sandy beaches, warm turquoise waters and endless hot, sunny days.

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Enjoying the sun, sand & surf with our besties!

Getting to Playa a few days before our kids, we were able to reacquaint ourselves with the area, stock up on groceries, check-in to our Airbnb, and rent a car. Mike arrived first, followed by Lauren and her friend Jovana from Vancouver a few days later. They ran into the same standby problem we did and didn’t get their red-eye flight the night previous. 😞

Our dearest and long-time amigos, Brenda and Robert, arrived around the same time we did and although we don’t see them as often as we would like, since their move from Kingston, time stood still and as the saying goes, we picked up right where we left off, never missing a beat. Love you guys!! ❤️

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Mike’s first Mexican breakfast!
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Mike enjoying the suf.
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The girls finally arrive!
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Tacos & margaritas anyone?
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Mother & daughter!
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Father & son!

Lovely dinner out with family and friends followed by cake for the birthday boy.    🎉🎂🎈

 

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Is that you Lauren? Street art on building looks like our daughter!

 

Hitting the beach was the norm most days and we found a couple of favourite spots. The top things on the Birthday boy’s list were a visit to some Mayan ruins and swimming in a cenote. Since time was limited we opted to visit the Mayan ruins of Coba as Chichén Itzá was about a 3-hour drive away.

It was a very long, hot walk into the jungle to see the ruins, most of which are still covered by the dense jungle surrounding the site. At one time this ancient Mayan city was estimated to have had about 50,000 inhabitants. Coba’s claim to fame is the largest network of elevated stone walkways called sacbes (white roads) that were used to connect the multiple residential buildings.

We headed off looking for Nohoch Mul, the main pyramid of Coba, standing 42m (138ft) tall, making it the second tallest Mayan Pyramid in the world with a total of 120 steps to the top. We scrambled through the various ruins scattered throughout the archeological site eventually finding it.

Over the years, the steps have become weathered and eroded from use. Most climbers ascended up the middle, making use of the large guide rope. The steps looked far too slippery and treacherous and with the hot mid-day sun glaring down on we decided climbing to the top was not for us. We, as well as several others, watched other braves souls inched their way to the top with many crawling slowly down backwards!

 

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Indiana Jones & Lara Croft!

With over 6,000 cenotes or interconnected groundwater pools in the Yucatan Peninsula we took the advice of Tripadvisor and headed to Cenote Eden El Jardin, (Garden of Eden), just outside Playa and towards Tulum. It is an open cenote about 5m (15ft.) deep, with fresh, perfectly clear, cool water. There are platforms and rock ledges to jump off of; Mike was the only brave one and took the challenge to plunge into the water far below. Snorkelling provided some interesting underwater scenery and the day we visited a scuba diving rescue course was being held.

The name cenote means ‘sacred well’ and were revered by the Mayans. They settled villages around these spiritual wells, believed they were a portal to speak with the gods and used them for human sacrifices.

 

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Tres amigos! ❤️
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Family beach time

The long-awaited fam-jam/vacation was over in the blink of an eye. Everyone was heading off in a different direction, including us.

Our next stop was Oaxaca City in the beautiful state of Oaxaca.

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Quick stop in Puerto Morelos after dropping Mike off at the airport
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Adios Playa! Playa coast, resorts & a very nice looking golf course below

 

Marvellous Mérida

Pastel buildings, some faded and peeling, traditional Spanish colonial architecture, deserted streets with little traffic was the scene that greeted us as we made our way to our Airbnb in Mérida. Having an eagle eye view as our plane descended we could see the city sprawling below, not such a small place after all! We took a local bus from the airport and somehow found our way on the grid-like streets, not an easy task for Bob in particular. Somewhere between the horse-back ride to see the Mariposa Monarcha and the miles of walking in Mexico City the dull ache of sciatica blossomed full scale and was taking its toll on mi esposo! Perhaps it was the sudden change in altitude; we left CDMX at 2,200m (7,200 ft) above sea level to Mérida a mere 10m (30 ft) above sea level. Walking any distance was very difficult, so we hunkered down in our comfortable little apartment taking taxis and short walks, as the pain permitted, to explore this lovely city.

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Built on the Mayan city of T’hó, Spanish conquistadors, lead by Francisco de Montejo, renamed Mérida after the Spanish town of the same name. Carved Maya stones from ancient T’hó were widely used to build the many Spanish colonial buildings in the centro histórico area and are visible, for instance, in the walls of the main cathedral.

Much of the architecture in the city, reflects the opulent European influence of the time, with Spanish courtyards, French doors and Italian-tiled floors.

IMG_0450  The capital of the Yucatán State, the once thriving sisal industry made this area very prosperous and a center of commerce, not to mention culture. Agave plant fibre was harvested to make henequén, (rope), and many maquiladoras, (manufacturing plants), opened. However, with the invention of artificial fibres the plants closed, commerce suffered, the wealth of the city declined leaving behind remnants of a more affluent time. This is evidenced by the grand mansions along the imposing Paseo de Montejo. This wide boulevard, built during Mérida’s prime at the end of the 19th century, was the attempt of city planners to emulate the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City or the Champs Elysées in Paris.

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Paseo de Montejo

The Plaza Grande in Mérida is very typical of Spanish colonial towns: a wide green square or zocalo where people come to meet, hang out, and enjoy the shade of huge laurel trees. As with other cities and towns, the zocalo is framed on one side by a cathedral with the other three sides housing government buildings, banks, cafes, and restaurants.

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Cathedral de Ildefonso
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Plaza Grande & Cathedral de Ildefonso
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Polished marble tiled floors of Palacio Municipal
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Palacio Municipal exterior
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Roaming vendors in the square

One of the buildings framing the Plaza is La Casa de Montejo built in 1549. It originally housed soldiers but was soon converted into a mansion where members of the Montejo family lived until 1970. Nowadays it houses a museum and bank. The outside facade is remarkably well preserved and shows triumphant conquistadors with halberds standing on heads of the barbarians who are depicted much smaller than the victors.

 

As with any city, a visit to the market is a must especially after reading a brilliant account of the Merida markets. This sentence aptly summed up most Mexican markets we have visited: “It was chaos. Mérida had taken the jigsaw puzzle called “Shopping”, hacked up the pieces with scissors, stuffed them into a piñata, and then hit it with a rocket launcher.”

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Mérida gave us time to regroup and come up with a plan to try and deal with Bob’s back and subsequent leg issue. He needed a prescription for the same medication, (no, not THAT wonder drug), he took when dealing with a previous bout of sciatica. An American style private hospital with English speaking physicians was recommended by our Airbnb host, so off we went to the emergency department. Despite our initial reservations, we were pleasantly surprised by the efficiency and professionalism of everyone we came in contact with not to mention the ridiculously low cost of seeking such care.

Reflecting back we saw most of the recommended sights and feel we did the city justice. We did miss some of the evening activities as there seems to be something going on almost every night and our typical long walks were also shelved for the time being. Definitely not fun being laid up while travelling, but must say Bob is a trooper and made the best of this unfortunate situation.

Looking forward to connecting with our adult children and our long time best friends, we headed off to Playa del Carmen. Sun, sand, surf and hot weather might just be the right antidote for Roberto!!

The Tequila Trail: aka the fun side of the wall!

Last year it was all about the wine tours in Argentina, Pisco tours in Chile, so it was only fitting to embark on the Tequila Trail while in Mexico, RIGHT amigos? Who could pass up visiting Tequila, the town with the same name of Mexico’s most famous firewater and result of many regrettable late night decisions, excluding us, of course!

Rolling fields of blue agave, the type of agave used to make tequila and other related products, dotted the landscape as we made our way from PV to Guadalajara. Contrary to common misconceptions, the agave plant is not a cactus. It is a succulent that is actually in the lily (amaryllis) family.

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View from the bus when heading to Guadalajara, blue agaves as far as the eye can see
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Mature blue agave plants

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First a brief history on the origin of tequila.  The village of Santiago de Tequila was founded by the Franciscan monks in 1530. This order inhabited the area bringing with them the indigenous peoples who used the fermented beverage, known as pulque, made from the agave plant for ceremonial purposes, long before European contact. When the Spanish conquistadors ran out of their own brandy, they began to cultivate and distill this spiked succulent, around the mid-1550’s, however tequila didn’t become popular as a drink until after the Mexican revolution when Jose Cuervo first introduced it to the market.

Heading out by bus on a day trip from Guadalajara, our first stop was at the family run distillery called Tres Mujeres (3-women), a small-scale distillery producing organic tequila. Our education started here and continued as the day progressed.

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Fermenting tanks
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Distilling tanks

 

 

Tequila is highly regulated by a strict set of standards, i.e., where and how tequila can be produced, what is on the label, the type of tequila, and what can legally use the name tequila. Jalisco state produces most of today’s tequila followed by Michoacan, and to a lesser degree a couple of other nearby states. Any agave-based spirit produced outside of these designated areas cannot legally be called tequila, e.g., mezcal.

After lunch we saw the larger Jose Cuervo operation in the actual town of Tequila. Adobe buildings with red-tiled roofs and cobblestone streets make this a pretty little tourist destination, also designated as a ‘Pueblo Magico’. Several tequila factories with familiar names, surround the area and on weekends the Tequila Express train  transports the hoards of tourists from Guadalajara. We visited mid-week making the number of other tourists reasonable.

It takes quite the process to produce this product and needless to say we have a much better appreciation of this stuff. Who knew it takes 7 to 10 years for the agave plant to mature before being harvested, backbreaking work that is done all by hand, one agave at a time. A jimador slices off each spiky leaf using a coa, a very heavy and sharp tool with a rounded blade. The heart or piña (pineapple), a bare white/green ball, that actually grows underground, is exposed.

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Jimador with coa

The weight of the piña can be up to 75kg and depending on the size can produce 2-5 litres of tequila. The distillation process is similar to that of other liquors; first the piña must be baked in large clay or stone ovens for 36 hours to reduce them to a fraction of their original size. They become dark brown, and once cooled look as if they have been caramelized and are very sweet with the texture and consistency of semi-dried apricots.

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Truckload of piñas headed for the ovens
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Piñas up close
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Tasting the baked agave

After the soft pulp cools it is shredded and pulverized until the liquid is extracted. Nothing goes to waste, and the fiber or bagazo left behind is often reused as compost or animal feed, but can even be burned as fuel or processed into paper. The sweet juice, or mosto, is then pumped into large stainless steel vats, mixed with yeast and water and fermented. From there it is distilled to a clear liquid of 110 proof or 55% alcohol. It must be cut with water to obtain the bottling strength, around 80 proof, or 40% alcohol. Depending on the type of tequila, it is then barrel aged, resulting in the brown colour.

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Getting a BIG whiff of the finished product surrounded by aging barrels
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Tequila on-tap!

Part of the tour at our first stop included tasting plain agave, a sweet liquid similar to honey, each of the five types of tequila, plus tasting a couple of tequila based liquors, all before lunch I might add. During our “education” we were entertained by mariachis and we sang, hooted, and danced, and danced 💃 some more, like no one was looking, (at least I was), and of course Bob was taking incriminating videos,(private screenings only), while continuing to sample the juice… This is definitely the fun side of the wall!!!!

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The range of tequila/products we sampled

IMG_5686 Mariachi band that entertained us

image Time to boogie-arriba!

What we learned, and actually remember (just kidding), of our samplings-

1. White: aged no more than 60 days – ewwwww such a raw gasoline taste, definitely firewater.
2. Gold: uned, coloured and flavored with caramel, oak extract, glycerin, syrup, and other additives. Still a bit of gut-rot happening here!
3. Reposao: also known as rested and aged in wood casks for a minimum of 2 months with many aged from 3-9 months. The barrels mellow the and give a soft oak flavor to the agave as well as giving the tequila its light straw color. Things are starting to look up, margaritas anyone?

4. Anejo: aged often int white, French oak, or used bourbon barrels for a minimum of 1 year and up to 3 years. Now this stuff is starting to taste a bit smoother.
5. Extra-Anejo: aged over 4 years in barrels and a little bit of the alright! Of course it is the most expensive and costs mucho pesos!

So for all those tequila affectionatos out there, the bottom line is 100% blue agave tequila is the absolute best type to buy but depends on whether you want to mix it or drink it straight up. For my taste, a good margarita fits the bill any day, straight up not so much. Bob will drink it anyway he can get it, for medicinal purposes of course!

Below are some street scenes of Tequila.

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Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers), or Palo Volador (flying pole)

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Large bronze of Jose the Cuvera distillery mascot

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A Slight Change in Plans!

A chance meeting with Julie, an expat Canadian living in Bucerias, while enjoying a cerveza on the beach the afternoon prior to leaving Puerto Vallarta left us contemplating our initial travel plans. We were heading to San Miguel de Allende with a stop over for a couple of days in Guadalajara to break up the long bus ride. However, our plans quickly changed when told of the rich cultural experiences we would be missing by heading in that direction. Similar to our research, Julie advised that San Miguel was like a Mexican Disneyland for foreigners, (mainly retired Americans) and chilangos (those from Mexico City), with the foreign influence pervasive. Yes, it does have World UNESCO Heritage designation, impressive colonial architecture, and is it a major art Mecca, however there are apparently few sights in the compact centro historico when compared to other cities and towns in Mexico.

The beauty of the type of travel we enjoy is that we can change direction on a whim when potentially more enriching experiences present. Our appetites were whetted with visions of authentic Mexican towns, indigenous arts, crafts, architecture, and history, not to mention the once in a lifetime primo experience of visiting the Reserva Mariposa Monarca. The highlands of Michoacan are invaded annually by millions of monarch butterflies that make their 3,000 mile journey from the Great Lakes to hibernate during the cold Canadian winters.

So with that our travels now see us heading to the west central highlands beyond Guadalajara to explore some of the many ‘Pueblos Mágicos’ and do some butterfly voyeurism.

The Magical Towns Program is an initiative to promote a series of towns around the country that offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance. The Mexico Tourism Board acknowledges that Mexico’s magical element, and not only its sun and beaches, is what keeps many tourists coming back. Thus, they created the ‘Pueblos Mágicos’ program to recognize places across the country that imbue certain characteristics that make them unique and historically significant.

“A “Magical Village” is a place with symbolism, legends, history, important events, day-to-day life – in other words, “magic” in its social and cultural manifestations, with great opportunities for tourists.”

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Metropolitan Cathedral
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Teatro Degollado

Guadalajara is a huge metropolis, with well over 4 million people in the surrounding urban area. It is a cultural center of Mexico, and considered to be the home of mariachi music and sombreros. It is also known for tequila, but more on that later! The city’s economy is based on services and industry and is the communications and high-tech hub for northern half of Mexico.

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Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres
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 Governor’s Palace with Metropolitan Cathedral towers in background

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Staying in the historic downtown core, the oldest section of the city, we strolled through the many beautiful squares and public parks, exploring huge cathedrals and museums. The area is rich with history and was the base of Miguel Hidalgo, a leader in the revolution for the independence of Mexico. A huge fresco that literally stopped us in our tracks adorns the main interior stairway leading to the upper chambers of the Palacio de Gobierno. In one hand Hidalgo brandishes a torch while the masses at his feet struggle against the twin burdens of communism and fascism.

IMG_2188Also known for it’s temperate climate we found mornings and evenings cool and afternoons warm. Similar to other large cities, the downtown core is seething with people during the day, however the area clears out after business hours, except for those unfortunate homeless, and things begin to look and feel a little seedy. With the cooler evening temperatures and being aware of our surroundings we were more than happy to seek the refuge of our nearby hotel.

Next post, all you ever wanted to know about tequila, and then some!!!

Thinking of you down in Mexico…

Over forty years ago, Acapulco was our first travel destination as a couple. And as the saying goes, “it was love at first sight”, the Mexican people, culture, food, music, sunsets not to mention guaranteed sunshine were all we needed in those early blissful days. We have been back to Mexico several times to various locations enjoying riotously great times and making wonderful memories with family and friends over the years.

So here we are again, back in Mexico, kicking off our 2018 journey in Puerto Vallarta, not quite the “remote little fishing village” made famous when Richard Burton brought his soon-to-be-wife Elizabeth Taylor to the filming location of The Night of the Iguana’ back in 1964. Hard to believe our initial visit was 38 years ago and last visit to this area 15 years ago.

The landscape has certainly changed since our first trip when there was only a bumpy two lane road leading into the ‘old town’, at what seemed miles away from the airport.  The area was very rustic and undeveloped, however it has expanded exponentially, in all directions, and is a well-travelled haven for sun-seekers, with all the North American amenities one could dream of.

For the curious, our travels this trip will take us to various locations throughout  Mexico not previously visited with a side trip to Belize and perhaps even Guatemala. With no return ticket and a rough itinerary the sky’s the limit, so to speak. Staying closer to home this year also gives us the great pleasure and fun of meeting up with our adult children to celebrate our son Michael’s 35th birthday.

Our trip didn’t start off exactly smoothly this time around though….a mixup with the airport hotel left us scrambling for another the evening prior to departure and travelling standby, complements of our daughter, saw only one of us getting a seat  on our intended flight. Bob took the short straw, staying behind in Toronto but was successful the following day. I always wondered what it was like to meet a loved one at the airport!! What I know for sure is flexibility and not getting toooo fussed for whatever curve life decides to throw definitely goes a long way.

Familiar landmarks, such as the historic old town church adorned with its distinctive crown, the malecon (boardwalk), zocalo (town square) and the first hotel we stayed at on Playa Los Muertos have been revisited. The town is bustling, economy booming and unfortunately the culture we came to love has been swallowed up by commercialism and social progression. Sadly we are left wondering, can we find an authentic Mexico in our wanderings?

Despite this, lunching at an old haunt and favourite restaurant, La Fuente Del Puente and walking the back streets awakens a flood of sweet memories, melting away the  years.

Tomorrow we plan to hop a bus making Guadalajara our next destination.

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Santiago – The Final Chapter

“A big city with little to offer and dangerous” was the description we read on-line prior to our trip, so with that in mind we hesitated to even venture into the huge metropolis officially called “Santiago de Chile” and what an unfortunate mistake that would have been! Oh sure there are areas that should definitely be avoided, just like any big city, and we did experience the old “pigeon poop” ploy. For those not familiar with this scam tourists are sprayed with a mustard/water solution that looks like pigeon droppings; once sprayed you are quickly approached by a concerned local who offers to help you clean off the droppings, distracting you, while their accomplice comes up behind to relieve you of your wallet, watch, jewellery, etc. We were aware of this scam and were on to them the moment it happened and think they must have been novices since the sheer volume sprayed on both of us made it seem like the whole flock had air-bombed us. Oh the joys of being tourists who stick out like a sore thumb!

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Paris and Londres (London) district

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When the decision was made to head to Santiago we had planned to stay only a couple of days, but once there quickly realized there is so much to do, see and explore and ended up extending our stay. The weather this time of year is absolutely beautiful, and despite the fact that fall was upon us, we woke every day to sunshine, bright blue, cloudless skies with daytime temperatures in the mid to upper 20s, perfect by our standards.

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Trendy artsy Barrio Lastarria

Similar to Buenos Aires, the city is divided into barrios so staying in central Barrio Lastarria meant we were steps away from the subway and could walk just about everywhere in the city center. With European style cobblestone streets it is an enchanting area with a wide range of  hotels, restaurants, cultural centers, cinemas, bookstores, art galleries, and antique shops all making this small district an oasis for culture.

Santa Lucia Hill, a small lookout point with fountains and terraces, and the huge Parque Forestal were just around the corner. Bike paths are everywhere and every Sunday the city closes kilometres of streets along the Mapuche River with an amazing number of bikers taking the opportunity for a little exercise.

The focal point of the city is Cerro San Cristobal with a gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary at its peak that can be seen from most points in the city.  This “hill” is expansive and also houses a zoo, numerous parks, pools and gardens and is accessible by funicular and cable car or driving up the steep incline. We started our sight seeing at this point only to realize how huge and far-reaching this city really is.

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Cerro San Cristobol

Plaza de Armas is the site where Santiago was founded and is considered “kilometer 0”. This area has several historic buildings surrounding the square and regardless of the time of day the area is buzzing with street performers, tourists or people just hanging out. The city extends out from here and includes the various barrios, each with their own characteristics and vibe. Each day we would pick an area to explore and with map in hand would hit the recommended must see areas but also discovered hidden treasures not mentioned in the tourist books. We could have easily stayed in the city for an extended time and not get bored.

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Barrio Bellavista street art
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Home town boy in Santiago (Bryan Adams that is)

Day trips are relatively easy so one day we headed to what has become one of my favourite little villages, Pomaire, where we found great traditional folklore clay pottery made by the indigenous Mapuche. Dozens of shops line the main street some with artisans demonstrating their work. I was like a kid in a candy shop and could have easily brought a truckload home with me. The area is also known for its traditional Chilean dishes including huge empanadas. We finally tried Pastel de Choclo here, a corn pie with meat filling, good but not exactly one of our favourites.

We did do a little side-trip to southern Chile, just a 10-hour bus ride followed by a car rental. The weather in the south is definitely cooler, a bit rainy and fall like – guess it was just getting us ready for our “spring” weather back home. In this area of the Andes, we started to see a number of volcanos, some still active, age old forests and crystal clear lakes. Visiting these small villages really reminded us of Lake Placid and the Adirondacks.

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Pucon with smoking Villarrica Volcano in background

The area is also known for the huge number of natural thermal springs high up in the mountains, with water temperatures in some up to 45C. We spent a wonderful day in a rainforest environment enjoying the therapeutic qualities of the waters guaranteed to cure whatever ails you.

Heading back to Santiago we spent our last two days revisiting our favourite haunts and getting ready for the long trip home.

We sincerely thank you for following us in our travels and as always have really appreciated your comments. We look forward to future travels and adventures, (yet to be determined), after all it’s a big world and the clock isn’t slowing down. Until then Haste Luego!

Every story has an ending, but in life, every ending is a new beginning” ~Unknown

 

✨🌓 Star Gazing, Pisco and the Tropic of Capricorn

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Valle de la Luna

 

 

We got a tune in our heads and just couldn’t shake it – “We’ve Been Through the Desert in a Car With No Name…..”, okay so we’ve change the words of the song by America (circa ’71 for those not in our vintage) just a wee bit. Regardless, San Pedro de Atacama in Norte Chico (Northern Chile) is a place like no other and is definitely a backpacker and adventure tourist haven for those crossing the border from Argentina and Bolivia. Adobe buildings, desert, sand dunes, salt flats, mountains, lagoons, volcanos with a bevy of natural wonders all tied up with a multicultural vibe is what we found there.

Contrary to what we’re familiar with, heading north means hotter, drier weather and of course we couldn’t pass up experiencing the most arid desert in the world. Our sojourn to the north began in La Serena, an ocean side town with beaches, lovely neoclassical buildings, 30 plus churches and more statues paying homage to dignitaries than we could count with its major claim to fame as being the second oldest city in Chile.

Just south of La Serena is the port town of Coquimbo. The hallmark here, providing a remarkable viewpoint of the bay and beyond, is the “Cruz Del Tercer Minenio”, (Third Millenium Cross Monument) a huge cross 83m high and 40m wide built in 2000 on El Vifia hill 197m above sea level. The cross, with a lovely church and museum built at the base, commemorates the birth of Christ 2000 years ago and was dedicated/blessed by Pope John Paul II.

Staying half-way between the two cities we walked to both towns on consecutive days, 6km in either direction, (one way), and of course ended up doing the very steep uphill climb to the cross. We later found out later it may not have been the most savvy move on our part since the neighbourhoods are not considered safe for tourists. Bob even made a comment at one point that the graffiti looked like “gang tagging”. Guess our guardian angels were being tested that day!!

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Valle Elqui

A couple of hours inland found us in Valle de Elqui, home to fertile fruit farms and origin of Chile’s national drink “Pisco”. This is the only region where this “alcohol”, similar to brandy, is produced and is crafted from Muscat grapes. Since we are always up for a new experience we headed to Alba Winery, a 150 year old family run business and were fortunate to have a private tour followed by tastings of the different qualities produced. We learned the grapes are first made into wine then double distilled in copper stills. After 12-24 months the pure alcohol is mixed with ultra pure water to adjust the alcohol level to 40-45% proof. The popular cocktail made from the alcohol is called “Pisco sour”, delicious and definitely has the potential of being lethal! And yes, one of the finest vintages has found its way into our bag for the journey back home.

The area is also known for the cloudless clear nighttime skies and houses some of the largest astronomical observatories in the world. We went to a night observatory and spent 3-hours gazing at the constellations and stars we don’t see at home, i.e., the Southern Cross and Orion. What an interesting and educational evening, plus an added bonus was getting a great telescopic photo of the moon with our iPad.

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Heading further north by air, we landed in Calama, home to the world’s largest open pit copper mine (we regret we didn’t book a tour), rented a car and drove 1-1/2 hours, through the desert, to the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.

El Valle De La Luna, (Moon Valley), located 19kms from San Pedro has century old red rock formations sculpted into unusual shapes over the millennia. We hiked up several mountain sides to be rewarded with magnificent views of sand dunes well over 100m and various rock formations far below. No wonder NASA tested their lunar landing gear here, the landscape certainly does mimic the moon.

The Valle Del La Muerte (Death Valley) is aptly named as nada grows there, but does provide a great lookout point of spectacular rock formations and volcanos. Another big hike we enjoyed was at the 3,000 year old archeological site of Pukará de Quitor. The Pukará is a set of ruins of one of the last strongholds of the Atacameño people in their fight against the Spanish. About 3 km from San Pedro, the fortress, or what remains, is relatively easy to reach, but you can also choose to climb all the way to a viewing platform. Reaching the lookout after a 1-1/2 hour steep uphill hike, in the mid-day sun no-less (mad dogs and English men), we were treated to a very nice view of the valley in which San Pedro in located.

Lagunas Miscanti and Mininique are 110km southeast of San Pedro and are called Lagunas Altiplanicas since they are 4100m (~13,600 ft) above sea level. The two lagunas, part of the National Flamingo Reservation, were once one big lake, but have been separated by a lava flow from an eruption of the Mininiques volcano. The ice cold beautiful turquoise lakes are fed by subterranean waters and are home to Chilean flamingos, small ducks and Vicuña, a distant relative of the alpaca. It was refreshing to head to the mountains after driving the long straight roads in the desert heat, climbing gradually up the mountain sides. We lucked out and managed to enjoy the area in relative solitude, a small gap between the van loads of tourists that invade the area daily. It was only when descending these mountains did you realize how high we really were, especially when Bob put the car in neutral and coasted down hill for over 20km.

We once again experienced salt flats, “Salar De Atacama”, however while intriguing, were not as spectacular as those we saw in Argentina. All in all we did a lot of hiking and off road travel in this area, saw most of the must see sights, considered the bumpy roads our “Chilean massage” and thankfully didn’t rip the oil pan out our our little rental.

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Volcan de la Negro in background
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“Three Marie’s ” & me in Valle de la Murte

Our return plane ticket found us in the big city of Santiago. Given that a huge majority of Chileans live here, our taxi driver described it best, “Santiago is Chile”!

Wonderful Bohemian Valparaíso 🎨

It was love at first sight! Valparaíso more fondly referred to as “Valpo” is a port city that has a wonderful bohemian vibe and is home to some of the best street art we have ever seen. We had read that being a port city means petty crime is lurking around every corner and a place to best avoid. Like most cities there are some gritty areas, but we had no problem what-so-ever and were happy we didn’t heed the on-line naysayers, otherwise we would have missed one of the more  colourful, interesting and spontaneous spots in our travels.

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It also has a reputation as being a place of poets, painters and dreamers and is known for its maze of  brightly painted homes seemingly stacked on top of each other on the 42 chaotic cerros (hills) that ascend sharply from the Pacific creating vertical neighborhoods. We wandered up and down these steep hillside streets and alleys, walked up and down escaleras (stairways) and through the many the pasaje (passages) and rode some of the more than 14 ancient ascensores (funicular elevators) getting lost more than once. At times the street suddenly ended at a cliff top and we stared in awe at the views below. Every time we turned a corner we saw more imaginative street art on virtually anything that wasn’t moving, some with political statements, that has turned the city into a giant canvas.

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“The Donald” caricature

This World Heritage City, designated in 2003, has an ambitious urban renewal project underway where many derelict buildings have seen their faded architectural glory restored and are now boutique hotels, hostels, eateries, museums and nightspots. One area that was quite interesting is the Cultural Park, once the site of a 150 year old city prison. This area now has a wonderful modern structure surrounded by a park where various cultural activities take place. The prison itself provides space for artists to work on various projects. Perhaps our home town should take note for the former Kingston Penitentiary!

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Yet another political statement!
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Anonymous artist at work

Just next to the prison is the site of three cemeteries, one actually built back in the early 1800s for non-Catholics called “Cementerio Disidentes”. Back in the day if you died in Chile and weren’t Catholic, your bones couldn’t legally be buried in “holy ground”. Since many of the dead were sailors burials at sea were common. These cemeteries are in an interesting off-the-beaten-path location in Valpo and one of the best places to get a view of the gorgeous city below. Seeing common English and German names, even the odd name ending in “ski” could be seen on the headstones and mausoleums while walking through the serene gardens.

The city also has a great maritime history and was once a major route and stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and also benefited from the California Gold Rush as ships passed through the port to deliver supplies up the coast. Unfortunately the golden age of Valparaíso’s commerce ended when the Panama Canal opened. The port’s use and traffic decreased significantly, causing a major decline in the city’s population and economy. Things have turned around in the last 20 years due to the close location to Santiago, a push on tourism, Chile’s export of fruit and vegetables and the many cruise lines that use the port as the jump off point to Patagonia and beyond.

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Can you see the funiculars?

During our three days there we took tons of pictures. Attached is only a small sampling giving homage to this wild, wonderfully crazy, fun and funky town. Enjoy!!!

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Passageway outside our hostel

🍷 Vino Anyone?

Heading directly to Mendoza from Salta would have been too long a journey so we decided to make a stop-over in Córdoba for a couple of days. From what we were told Córdoba is nothing special and we were encouraged to bypass it, we are happy we didn’t heed this advice. We were also told about a quaint little German village close to the city that we might find interesting, so with that we booked our overnight bus tickets.

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Angel of learning

Geographically Córdoba sits in the center of Argentina and is the country’s second oldest and largest city. It is a major financial hub for the country and well know as Argentina’s main educational center with six universities and several colleges. The National University of Córdoba is the oldest university of the country and was founded in 1613 by the Jesuit Order. Because of this, Córdoba earned the nickname “La Docta” (roughly translated, “the learned one”).

The city has many historical monuments preserved from Spanish colonial rule, especially buildings of the Roman Catholic Church. At one point Bob pointed out that it felt like we were on a Catholic church tour given the number of well-preserved churches we visited mere steps from each other. I told him to “get over it, besides your halo needs a realignment!” 😇  This is so very different from our previous trips where pagodas, temples and mosques were the norm and churches few and far between.

There is great architecture in Córdoba, with the most recognizable historical building being the Jesuit Block, declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and consists of a group of buildings dating from the 17th century.

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Jesuit Block

Pretty much everything closes late Saturday afternoon and continues into Sunday in Córdoba. Our bus to Mendoza was a day away so we decided to take the advice we were given and took a local bus to the strange little town of Villa General Belgrano, about 1-1/2 hours from Córdoba. Perhaps it wouldn’t be strange if it were in Germany, Switzerland or Austria but it’s slap bang in the middle of Argentina, the land of tango and wine.

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Bob & the boys

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Since I love researching areas we visit, the following is a little background history to give some you context regarding this “quaint” little village. As the story goes, in 1932 two German immigrants bought land in Argentina and sold it off back home hoping to start a colony. Progress was slow at first but the population was boosted in 1939 when over 150 sailors arrived, part of the crew of the doomed “Graf Spee”. This German battleship had made a habit of sinking ships in the Atlantic before it was cornered in the River Plate by Allied cruisers early into WWII. The crew ended up in Argentina and pressure from Britain forced the Argentine government into dispersing them across the country. They received a mixed reception in different provinces but the governor of Córdoba welcomed them with open arms. In 1944 the governments of the United States and Great Britain demanded the men be repatriated to Germany but many avoided this by marrying local women or simply disappearing. With Argentina’s open door policy and Peron’s sympathy to the Nazi cause, several Nazi criminals and collaborators were welcomed to the country post WWII. This is still considered a painful and shameful episode in the country’s history.

Today the town continues to exhibit strong traits of the homeland although you would be hard pressed to find anyone who speaks German. Wooden Alpine architecture, carved wooden signs and shops selling large beer steins, craft beer, sausages, cheese and chocolate from Germany dot the Main Street. The town even has its very own Oktoberfest!

We decided to take the day bus to Mendoza, thinking that the countryside might be interesting; our first mistake, it is actually quite flat and unremarkable. Our second mistake occurred when we inadvertently booked the “milk-run” which added a couple of hours to the already 10-hour trip – ah, another lesson in the game of life!!!

Arriving in Mendoza around midnight, we were quite surprised to see people overflowing the sidewalks, cafes and restaurants. We are usually tucked away in bed at that hour, but here in South American the locals are just getting started, after all this is summer holiday time.

Mendoza is an oasis in the middle of the desert and was almost entirely rebuilt after an earthquake reduced it to rubble in 1861. The rebuilt city was well-planned and is centered around five airy plazas that were built to provide some safe open spaces in the event of another disaster. They have become the cornerstones of the city, especially on the weekends. At the most popular, the Plaza Independencia, ice cream vendors sell their goods, while kids run around and locals relax on park benches listening to the bands that congregate. City planners were very clever creating an extensive artificial irrigation system, which allows for greenery throughout the city as well as for the growth of grapes used to make its wines. Most streets have irrigation channels on either side, with bridges for pedestrian and traffic. These are periodically flooded with water diverted from the river. The trees and the wide avenues give the city a beautiful ambience. The other massive well used green space is Parque General San Martin, with almost 400 hectares of land and a small man-made lake.

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Easy rider

Mendoza is probably most well known as one of the main wine-producing provinces in Argentina with 70% of the national wines produced here, Malbec the most well known. The average annual temperature 14C, more than 250 days of sunshine per year and altitudes that vary between 800 and 1,200 meters (2,625 and 3,936 feet) are what give this valley its revered grape-growing qualities. Some traditional grapes we are familiar with, Malbec, Semillón, Cabarnet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, are grown here.

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Sorting the grapes
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Can you see the olive I’m holding?

Oh yes, we were definitely faced with a major dilemma; with over 100 bodegas we had to choose which wineries to visit. According to experts, Valle de Uco is the finest wine region in Mendoza, seconded by Lujan de Cuy and the third Maipu. We opted for middle ground with a wine and bike tour a bit closer to the city in Lujan de Cuy. Our tour started mid-morning (yes, wine in the morning) and we cycled and toured three different wineries throughout the day learning about the different grapes, growing methods, processing and of course tasted several in each. The area is also known for growing olives and we were treated to olive oil tasting as well, a nice bonus ! We finished the afternoon with a wonderful lunch with wine pairing, had a great time and met some nice folks from the US and Brazil. By the time we were dropped off at our AirBnB a siesta was definitely in order (aka wine coma!).

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Cheers!

We were close to Chile at this point in our travels and were ready to leave Argentina. Crossing the Andes was a much anticipated trip, see you on the other side!