Chile - Feeling at Home in Valparaiso & Valdivia

Drawn to shades of pink on the streets of Valparaiso, Chile.

Drawn to shades of pink on the streets of Valparaiso, Chile.

Osvaldo Rodriguez - Valparaiso

Valparaiso

It’s a long, winding way down the Andes to Valparaiso, Chile, a coastal town two hours outside Santiago. The city’s hills immediately greet us with an energy and an air of San Francisco. A huge smile appears on our faces as we feel an immediate ease. After two weeks in Argentina, we missed the grit, the colors, and (somehow) a little bit of chaos. Valparaiso (and maybe all of Chile?) has it and more.

We spent two days in this bohemian town exploring and admiring the graffiti-covered corridors and cobblestone streets, the multicolored buildings and maze-like stairways. But one of the best things? Feeling the Pacific Ocean air again, and watching the sun set over it. Something about Valparaiso felt very familiar...

We spent two days in this bohemian town exploring and admiring the graffiti-covered corridors and cobblestone streets, the multicolored buildings and maze-like stairways. But one of the best things? Feeling the Pacific Ocean air again, and watching the sun set over it. Something about Valparaiso felt very familiar...

In the 1990s, the city decided to offer its walls to graffiti artists, giving Valpariaso its vibrant personality and amazing works of art. The ascensores (funiculars) bring people up the cliff for a couple hundred pesos, quirky by excellence. Stray dogs are everywhere, accustomed to the passerby, sometimes following in hopes of a fallen crumble of the empanada munched on the way to Pablo Neruda’s hilltop house. Most dwellings are colorful, but windows still bear iron bars as in all Chile. 

We treat our taste buds to their first pisco sours (abroad), ceviches, and lomo saltado. Valparaiso reminds us of home with its wooden structures, art, food, and soul. Only the sun and language remind us where we are. Stairs are painted nearby with the phrase that can summarize the town, and how we feel: “We are not hippies, we are happies.” The puzzles at the b&b are just a bonus.

We loved seeing moments like this around Valparaiso; A young girl in her own world, sitting in the sun atop the colorful stairway, enwrapped in the beautiful words coming off the pages in her book.

We loved seeing moments like this around Valparaiso; A young girl in her own world, sitting in the sun atop the colorful stairway, enwrapped in the beautiful words coming off the pages in her book.

One of Madie’s favorite murals around town.

One of Madie’s favorite murals around town.

“We are not hippies. We are happies.” The Valpo motto.

“We are not hippies. We are happies.” The Valpo motto.

The quiet waters of Valdivia, Chile.

The quiet waters of Valdivia, Chile.

Valdivia

A few days later, it’s already time to leave. We head to Santiago only to catch a flight to Valdivia, a town we found because of its cheap flight avoiding another 14-hour bus ride. It’s at the edge of Chile’s lake region, and is the heart of the country’s German heritage. The local brewery is called Kunstmann and the bakeries sell German pastries. We arrive on the 25th of December, to the warm laughter of Viella and her staff at the Airesbuenos Hostel & Permaculture.

Viella was in the middle of preparing Christmas dinner, which we feel blessed to join. She calls it the Orphan Dinner; it happens every year, with travelers and staff, all far from home and their own friends and families. We meet Belgian girls, a young Finnish couple, a German girl traveling solo. There are other locals who stop by for the festivities, including two 6th generation Chilean brothers, speaking a perfect German from their heritage.

We flew from Santiago to Valdivia on Christmas Day, and expected to make simple sandwiches for dinner since everything would be closed, but when we got to our hostel, the owner Viella was putting together an amazing spread of ribs, fish, salads, and sangria, for her friends and guests. After hours conversing with 6th generation Chilean Germans, a Finnish couple, and two Belgian girls, we blew out candles on the birthday shortcake. There is not much to the little fishing town, but the hospitality at this awesome permaculture hostel was unforgettable and we couldn’t have imagined a better holiday away from home.

We flew from Santiago to Valdivia on Christmas Day, and expected to make simple sandwiches for dinner since everything would be closed, but when we got to our hostel, the owner Viella was putting together an amazing spread of ribs, fish, salads, and sangria, for her friends and guests. After hours conversing with 6th generation Chilean Germans, a Finnish couple, and two Belgian girls, we blew out candles on the birthday shortcake. There is not much to the little fishing town, but the hospitality at this awesome permaculture hostel was unforgettable and we couldn’t have imagined a better holiday away from home.

Chile’s mixed DNA shows us all its beauty. The locals talk to us about the natives hoping for autonomia near the Argentinian border. We have a BBQ dinner of pork, fish, and too much wine. We blow out candles on Jesus’s layered berry birthday shortcake, ending the night on a strange note of summer and Christmas, like a jazz chord we didn’t know could sound well. Another bus ride tomorrow already, to climb a volcano.

Argentina - Traveling To and Through the Andes

Just one landscape from the glorious drive through the Andes, from east to west, Argentina to Chile, a haze of warm earth tones before the cool greens and blues.

Just one landscape from the glorious drive through the Andes, from east to west, Argentina to Chile, a haze of warm earth tones before the cool greens and blues.

Victor Jara - Te Recuerdo Amanda

Córdoba

It’s time for goodbyes with Tonya. Madie and I embark on a long journey of bus rides through the Andes, where we hop between Argentina and Chile for a few weeks. Our first 10-hour ride takes us from Buenos Aires to Córdoba, only a layover for us. We heard good things about Córdoba but are too eager to get to the Andes. The city does introduce us to two Argentinian phenomena: the Sunday ghost town effect, with only us in the streets, and the Monday banking madness, with incredibly busy roads, packed sidewalks, and long lines at the ATMs, which will all be empty only a couple hours later. Argentina still has 20% inflation; holding cash in your bank account is not a good idea. 

Quiet moments in Argentina’s wine country.

Quiet moments in Argentina’s wine country.

Mendoza

We’re on another night bus, this time in business-class airplane seats, to the city of Mendoza, the home of Malbec. Our budget is limited, so we opt for the place with free wine from 6 to 9 pm, and join the cheap tour with a guide named Miguel, a friend of the hostel. We’re immediately categorized as the SF wine snobs, especially the Frenchie who should have nothing to learn about wine. But we are taught two important things: organic wine is a gift from the devil (especially without sulfate), and after wine is made, the leftover hard paste is pressed once again to make the cheapest wine, usually in a box, for the perfect hangover headache. And yes, it’s probably the free wine we’re getting at the hostel.

Scenes from the wine country of Mendoza, Argentina.

Scenes from the wine country of Mendoza, Argentina.

The next day we hang out with Miguel, who is back at our hostel and helping set up the parrilla. He shares stories about life in Mendoza and Córdoba. He is a River Plate fan, and his team just won the Copa Argentina so there is a lot to talk about. He drives hours every week to support his team. He tells us about Argentina, Chile, his girlfriend, and his two dogs; about his friends from high school who graduated in Buenos Aires and work in the petrol plants of Patagonia. They make a lot of money there, but they don’t even have time for football, he says. So what’s the point?

The start of our 8-hour ride from Mendoza, Argentina over the Andes Mountains to coast of Valparaiso, Chile.

The start of our 8-hour ride from Mendoza, Argentina over the Andes Mountains to coast of Valparaiso, Chile.

The Andes

The third long bus ride in a week, this time by day as we prepare to cross the Andes. The scenery changes dramatically from the quaint wine country to the unforgiving dry and windy highlands. The Aconcagua’s snowy peak rises at 6,900 meters, amongst the jagged pink landscapes shaded in morning haze. We follow a vertical drop to a river below, reminiscent of canyons in Arizona and Utah. The plateau is bare, of small bushes and not a single bird in sight. The cold gusts at night prevent most wildlife from living here. Madie’s camera keeps clicking away, but the area’s solemn beauty is hard to capture. We get to the Chilean border, our first border crossing by land, huddled in our jackets to fight the icy chills. 

Along this passage lies Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia. Usually asleep during long bus rides, Madie gazed out of the window the entire 8-hour ride, watching the clouds pass by and mountains transform with every turn.

Along this passage lies Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia. Usually asleep during long bus rides, Madie gazed out of the window the entire 8-hour ride, watching the clouds pass by and mountains transform with every turn.

Argentina & Uruguay - Easing Our Way into South America

All you need is the sea and the sun.

All you need is the sea and the sun.

La Flaca - Jarabe de Palo

After forty days in France, it got too comfortable. Food, family, and friends - we were looking for a break with quality time. We got it and more. Hours of playing pâte à modeler, waiting for morning toasts to sauter, and watching monsieurs work on the roof next door with my nephew never got old (or almost). Now it’s time to depart, leave the freezing temperatures and head to another summer, the second leg of our trip: exploring parts of South America.

Overlooking the neighborhood of Palermo from Tonya’s balcony in Buenos Aires.

Overlooking the neighborhood of Palermo from Tonya’s balcony in Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We carefully (but not skillfully) avoid Brazil and its visa fees for US citizens, landing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after a 20-hour journey via Madrid. Despite their steep prices, we want to explore Argentina and Chile, head to Patagonia, even live a bit of outdoor adventure. But first, it’s a few days in the capital, home to tango, beef, and (real) football. A prepaid taxi takes us to Palermo, a tranquil neighborhood where we meet Tonya, a longtime friend of Madie.

Feeling at home in Buenos Aires. Seven years ago Madie traveled here with Tonya, who eventually moved to this beautiful city a few years later. Happy to finally be back, reminiscing about the good old days.

Feeling at home in Buenos Aires. Seven years ago Madie traveled here with Tonya, who eventually moved to this beautiful city a few years later. Happy to finally be back, reminiscing about the good old days.

For a few days, she introduces us to the proud Buenos Aires, with a porteño’s accent and the obligatory ‘sh’. On bicycles we visit its streets, museums, incredible La Recoleta Cemetery, and large Reserva Ecologica, set along Río de la Plata - the widest river on Earth (even though it’s really an estuary). It’s as if a Spanish city was dropped here, adding a few Europeans influences on its architecture. 

Street art and old cars in Palermo. This place feels familiar... like the old Mission District in San Francisco.

Street art and old cars in Palermo. This place feels familiar... like the old Mission District in San Francisco.

Our first chivito - a thin slice of beef in a sandwich with all the fixings you could possibly want.

Our first chivito - a thin slice of beef in a sandwich with all the fixings you could possibly want.

We take a ferry to the quaint Tigre, a mix of Sausalito and hippie town, of small canals, houses on stilts, and oddly large abandoned shipwrecks. But more importantly, we live a bit like locals, start dinner at 10pm (a little early), and stuff our faces with choripan, chivitos, and countless steaks at delicious parillas, doused in beer and Malbec. Wine is cheap and drinks without effort, so we double down on it, with an extra hookah for the pleasure of being friends and talking through the night. It feels oddly familiar and comfortable. A little easier, after six months of getting being pushed around in Asia (figuratively and literally). “A place where I could live,” I find myself thinking as we bike in the streets of Palermo looking for the next ice cream shop.

We took a 45-minute train ride north from Buenos Aires for the day, to hop on a water taxi that would bring us to a sleepy island where we drank beers, ate bife de lomo, and strolled along canals lined with hydrangeas and weeping willows. A perfect summer day.

We took a 45-minute train ride north from Buenos Aires for the day, to hop on a water taxi that would bring us to a sleepy island where we drank beers, ate bife de lomo, and strolled along canals lined with hydrangeas and weeping willows. A perfect summer day.

On our way back from a park, people are gathered for a (slightly awkward) Christmas parade, in the middle of summer of course. From the land of covered shoulders and legs, we are now on the continent of short shorts (with pockets peaking beyond the hem), platform shoes, and exposed lovers of all ages, lavishly exchanging saliva on the streets. And it turns out the mixed saliva produced the most incredible mix of DNA we’ve seen on our trip. If you’re Argentinian, Uruguayan, or Chilean (as we’ll come to know), you could be tall, blond with blue eyes, or a hairy short tanned fellow. People of all heritages: Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, or even French. The only ones missing are the natives. I’m told I look like a gaucho.

 
Beautiful horses of Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

Beautiful horses of Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

Uruguay

Only an hour ferry from Buenos Aires, we decide to take a trip to Uruguay with Tonya. Uruguay is the country without worry - a Switzerland stuck in South America, our walking tour guide will tell us later in Montevideo. One of the richest countries in the continent (second to Chile in GDP per capita) with the most progressive laws: legalized marijuana, same-sex marriage and more. They even have a day celebrating an ancient African goddess - just because it’s always good to have something to celebrate. Very few are getting married, so they decided to create fake wedding parties to add to the celebrations. To combat drug cartels, they chose to legalize drugs and educate instead. With its highly diverse population, the only common threads are its two religions: football (soccer) and mate (pronounced “mah-tay”), which they all carry around in the peculiar cup and sip from throughout the day. And of course, the twelve million cows surpassing the country’s population by four folds.

About 13 kilometers north of Punta del Este is a crazy white complex created by artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Built on the coastal hillside, it houses an art gallery, museum, cafes, and a hotel, and is a surrealist version of the houses in Santorini.

About 13 kilometers north of Punta del Este is a crazy white complex created by artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. Built on the coastal hillside, it houses an art gallery, museum, cafes, and a hotel, and is a surrealist version of the houses in Santorini.

We take a bus to Punta del Este, a resort town for Argentinians and Brazilians. We’re only passing through to visit Casa Pueblo, a Dali-like house by an Uruguayan artist, before another bus to Cabo Polonio.

Protected by the surrounding national park, Cabo Polonio is a jewel of tranquility in Uruguay. The only access is via a thirty-minute jeep ride over sand dunes and along a beach to arrive in a small makeshift town full of quirky cabanas constructed by locals. For us, the ride happens at night during the full moon. Its silver light illuminates the waves and trees, giving an eerie feel to the place. Many tourists coming to watch the stars, Cabo Polonio is one of the remote places in the world where you can see the Milky Way clearly.

The colorful Hostel Viejo Lobo in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

The colorful Hostel Viejo Lobo in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

Without access to electricity or running water, the small village was created by a community looking for a different life. Call them hippies, dreamers, or just smart people. Anyone can arrive and build his house, automatically becoming part of the colony. Many homes now have solar panels and windmills providing enough electricity to light the place at night. The plants of marijuana are in every backyard. Albeit becoming more touristic every day, Cabo Polonio keeps its charm thanks to the surrounding park preventing any serious hotel from setting up in town. 

In Cabo Polonio, this lighthouse is the only structure connected to the grid. That means the 100 or so people who reside in the Uruguayan coastal village live off wind and solar power. What a beautiful thing.

In Cabo Polonio, this lighthouse is the only structure connected to the grid. That means the 100 or so people who reside in the Uruguayan coastal village live off wind and solar power. What a beautiful thing.

For us, it’s the perfect place to make sangria with boxed wine, visit dunes and sea lions, and make new friends. Nothing like a cold windy day to get us all huddled in the room and talking. Germans, Brazilians, French, and the occasional American (Madie) and Russian (Tonya). Each with their own homemade dish made from the few ingredients at the grocery store. The bonfire is left to the real German men. A few days of sweet bliss and new friendships before we part again.

The only way to Cabo Polonio’s seaside village is by 4x4 over 7 kilometers of sand dunes. Don’t let the photo fool you. The seats up top are about 4 meters high.

The only way to Cabo Polonio’s seaside village is by 4x4 over 7 kilometers of sand dunes. Don’t let the photo fool you. The seats up top are about 4 meters high.

Local fishing boats at before sunset.

Local fishing boats at before sunset.

This hostel was our home for two nights... where all we did was eat sandwiches, drink sangria, swing in hammocks, stroll by the seaside, and meet super cool Brazilian and German travelers.

This hostel was our home for two nights... where all we did was eat sandwiches, drink sangria, swing in hammocks, stroll by the seaside, and meet super cool Brazilian and German travelers.

We head to Montevideo in another six-hour bus, just for one night with our new friend Pete Peters (which we’ll be surprised to learn later is not his real name). The free walking tour gives us a glimpse of Uruguayan life. Another ferry to come back to Buenos Aires, and a last wine-filled night with Tonya. It’s time to be just the two of us again, and head west over the Andes to Chile.


Links

In Buenos Aires we skipped the central part of the city, San Telmo, and Boca, since we planned to spend another week there on our way up from the southern tip of Ushuaia to work on a Bolivian visa. We (unfortunately) didn’t make it back, giving us just another reason to return again soon. 

  • We spent our time in the Palermo neighborhood, full of bars and delicious restaurants, including our favorite parilla Las Cabras.
  • MALBA (Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires) and La Recoleta Cemetery should not be missed.
  • Tigre is well worth the long metro and ferry ride, simply for a stroll amongst the neighborhood.

We only spent five days in Uruguay and wished we had more time.

  • Montevideo, the capital, is worth spending a day or two. Do not miss the free walking tour (ask your hotel).
  • Punta Del Este is an expensive, pretty resort town. The Casa Pueblo is worth heading to, if only for the nice restaurant with a view of the hotel.
  • Cabo Polonio was our favorite time there. A place of peace, good people and amazing landscapes.
  • Daily buses easily connect these three locations but be careful at which hour you arrive in each city if you need to make a connection. It is easy to stay stuck in a city nearby...