Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt 10: 2013 NFC Championship

There was a time when I loved the NFL. I still do, but not nearly as much. I don't know when my NFL interest peaked. It probably had already crested by the time the 2013 NFC Championship Game was played, on a cloudy, but calm night in our Northern NFL outpost in Seattle. But it was still near its apex. I will say it was the last time I truly enjoyed the sport in its entirety, the game before the victor here (Seattle) romped over Peyton in his last great season. The following year, Manning started great and suddenly lost it in Week 12. The next year, his team won the Super Bowl, but he was a shell of himself. Since then he retired, and Brady won another Super Bowl and will win another MVP (and who are we kidding, another Super Bowl). But this was a different time. Manning was the best QB in the NFL. Had a clear line of sight on the GOAT title. Brady hadn't won a Super Bowl in 9 years. I could sit back and enjoy a game. And man did I ever.

That said, I didn't watch the game live. I watched it in its entirety a few hours after it started, if not finished. That's because I didn't watch the Patriots @ Broncos AFC Championship before this. I couldn't. I did not think I could handle it. I watched The Godfather Pt. 2 instead. When that was over, I checked the score on - one of the most nervous few seconds of my life was when that page loaded - and saw the Broncos won. I was overjoyed. And then I watched football.

The 2013 NFC Championship was in a way preordained. The Seahawks and 49ers were the two best teams in the NFC that season (quick shout-out to Carolina, who went 12-4 and lost to the 49ers in the divisional round). They were the two hottest teams in the NFC the previous year. They had two of the next-generation type QBs, two dominant defenses, and played a fun little game of 'Anything you can do I can do better' in the offseason, with the Seahawks answering the niners signing of Anquan Boldin by trading for Percy Harvin a few days later. When the season started it felt like this is how it would end. And it did.

In 2007, 2009 and 2011, the NFC hosted the 2nd Championship Game on Championship Sunday. Each one was a classic, three of the 10 or so best NFL playoff games I've seen period. A consistent throughline in each was the setting adding to the overall quality; the atmosphere helping to build up the moment. The best example was 2007, in a Lambeau Field that was -3 degrees, -27 with wind chill. But even 2009, with the ridiculous atmosphere in the Superdome, and 2011, with the rainy haze in Candlestick, one of the last Cathedrals in the NFL prior to it being torn down, the atmosphere played a role. And while there was no weather, there was noise, and there was isolation, this game being played in some tucked away corner of our country.

What also helped set the tone of the game was its defensive nature. I've always been open for my love of defensive football - one of the reasons that I've enjoyed this season outside of the Patriots continued annoying brilliance is the comeback that defenses made - and even in a year that still holds the record for most points scored, defense mattered in a big way. The 49ers and Seahawks staged a ridiculous battle of defenses, with the Seahawks secondary matching point for point with the 49ers incredible front-7. The scoring was mostly all driven by turnovers, or miraculous plays by Seattle (a patented Wilson scramble 15 yards behind the LOS and 50-yard launch, or a 4th down bomb for a TD, or Kaepernick's general brilliance in those days). Every first down seemed a minor miracle. Every play was an opportunity to be wowed by defense.

There were so many amazing moments in that pulsating contest. The sacks, the incredible play by Navarro Bowman to strip a ball while having his ACL torn (cruelly, the play was called dead and the fumble did not count), or the subsequent 4th down stop. Of course, the capper was the Richard Sherman play, but more on that later.

What struck me most about the game though was how this is the type of football I wanted to see, the type of football that just seems more emblamatic of what the sport should be. I rewatched the game the following day with my parents who were travelling earlier that weekend (it was MLK weekend, I believe), and they had an observation that was fairly astute: this seemed like a different, more serious, more intense game than what the Patriots and Broncos played earlier that day. And of course it was. In that other game, the Patriots hit Peyton one time and he had 400 yards passing. The QBs didn't combine for 400 yards passing in this one, and not for a lack of trying.

The atmosphere was just different. The dark field as night descended in Seattle, mixing with those dark Seattle uniforms and the classic look of the 49ers, mixed together to form a potent cocktail. The energy in the stadium was as well. Seattle cheats in a way, creating a stadium that literally was built to make it sound louder than it really is, but cheating has its benefits. 

The game ended the way it should, with defense ruling the day. That last 49ers drive was so perfectly set-up. They were down 6, 80 yards from stealing the NFC Championship. Immediately they were forced to convert a 4th down, and they did it by having Kaepernick roll left, throw across his body, to Frank Gore, probably the 4th option on the play. It took those sorts of miracles to just get 1st downs. The drive continued with Crabtree catching two passes (ironically, Crabtree had a really good game, making the Sherman - Crabtree banter all the more ironic), and the 49ers found themselves about 20 yards away with 30 seconds to go. And then Kaepernick got greedy, and Sherman made a ridiculous play to tap away the ball on a deep fade, and of course a Seahawk was right there to snatch it, as it always seemed like they had 13 guys out there on defense. And just like that, one of the great playoff games of our lifetimes was over. 

Of course, it wasn't just over. There was a little Sherman-ness left to go, with his memorable interview, but given that I found that whole affair way overblown no need to recount it here. All in all it was a continuation of the game, one with a ridiculous level of intensity throughout, with two teams constructed over a three-year period to play in that game.

This game effectively closed a chapter of the NFL book. The 49ers fell off the next year to 8-8, a year that ended with Jim Harbaugh running off to Michigan, and a number of players retiring. The Seahawks continued to be good, but even for them they were never this good again. The Pacific Northwest has been the site of numerous other great games, including the OT NFC Championship Game the next year, but no game felt as important, as meaningful, as perfect for that city and that stadium.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Year End Trip of 2017-18, Day 12: Santiago

Day 12: The Long Goodbye

We only had a few specific tasks for the final day of our vacation (sad-face), a few touristy, a few more relaxed. We had nine or so hours to play with after checking out of the Radisson Blu in the Dohesa suburb. My only real goal was to re-test my initial love of Santiago from yesterday, see if I was right in my initial opinions. Luckily for us, we did see enough the strengthen that judgement.

Our first destination was the Plaza de Armas; the most famous and serene of the many Plaza de Armas that found their spot at the center of pretty much every Chilean city we visited. We finished parking in another one of Santiago's beautiful underground garages and walked to the Plaza. I had three thoughts that immediately entered my mind. First, was how prominent the Cathedral was. Second was how green it was, with lush trees in the middle of the square. Third, how clean the entire square was. Santiago is classicly Europe in many ways - it is the city that most people think Buenos Aires is.

Many buildings border the Plaza de Armas. A few were intended sites for us; the first being the Correa hotel, which back in the day was the hotel international journalists stayed in during the military takeover conflict of the country. Next door was the old house of Pedro Valdivia, a large mansion now converted into the Museum of National History. It is a free museum (most in Santiago were), and a quick run through, but far better than the two semi-disappointing art ones from the day before. It started from the beginning of European exploration, through Spanish rule & settlement, to the many twists and turns from democracy through to Unionized socialism, to republican rule to finally Pinochets reign. The only downside was the information was all in English, but it was a good chance for me to try out my Spanish - it's gotten quite good over the last two weeks. The best part of the museum is it was a relatively quick stop, in and out in 30 minutes with gaining a better understanding of Chile's varied history.

The final stop at the Plaza de Armas was the Santiago Cathedral, a well ornate house of worship. We had the good fortune of walking in during a mass service, allowing my parents and I to catch the last 40 minutes of the service. Given the mass was in Spanish, and there were a few other tourists walking around the perimeter past all the side altars, I decided to do the same and take pictures while listening to the service. Probably not the most Christian thing to do, but we didn't have enough time to finish mass and then see the church. Had to multi-task a bit.

Our next stop was a block away from Plaza de Armas. It was the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art; basically a museum of old pre-European settlement art for all Central and South America. This museum was unlike the others in that it was more formal, had a price attached (a reasonable ~$3 USD), and English explanations. The basement was a large open hall with black walls explaining the aboriginal history of Chile, which is incredibly varied North to South. The rest of the museum actually forces more on the rest of South and Central America (including Mexico), as a tribute to the heritage of all the indigenous people across Latin America. They had a special exhibit also about the people that inhabit the Atacama desert in Northern Chile, the dryest in the world. The whole museum was extremely well curated.

It was nearing 1:30 and we needed lunch, so we took a quick cab over to Barrio Italia, slightly East of the city center. Barrio Italia is somewhat the city's artsy, hipster district, something of Santiago's mini-Portland. Our restaurant Casaluz was at the edge of this district, but showcased much of the Barrio's flair. The decor was trendy, the restaurant had a beautiful little patio area in the back, and a slew of 20/30-somethings out for their Saturday brunch. We ordered an octupus starter with lavender and pureed potatoe, a merluza with sauce, and braised lamb with diced potatoes. All the dishes were plated excellently, and constructed beautifully. Casaluz was a great final full meal.

To both walk off the meal and experience more of the district, we walked down Barrio Italia's main road (conveniently titled Avenida Italia). The walk was informative in realizing how nice this area of Santiago was. The restaurants were all as trendy and cozy as Casaluz. The coffeeshops the same. The middle had a series of deep buildings that housed dozens of small boutique shops, something I saw a lot of in Portland. The difference is Portland is a fairly rich city in the US. Santiago is a city in Latin America. The fact that they can support this type of area is really impressive. Barrio Italia is not a place that particularly appeals to what I like (despite having a nice coffee and going to a few gourmet food sops), but a sign of Santiago's excellence as a city.

Our last bit of tourism was Santa Lucia Hill. Santiago contains a few hills, with Santa Lucia the one in the heart of the city. The Hill itself is maybe ~150 feet high, with the ascent being fairly easy on the main route (there are about 50 different pathways in all directions). The main trek up passes through Castillo Hidalgo (closed, but looked nice), and then up to a landing area with a fort, a few statues and a few great views. But the real challenge is further up, maybe another ~50 feet or so, mostly by steps, up to the final Mirador look out point. The walk up is totally worth it, as the views show how sprawling a city Santiago is, and how overpowering the mountains are. One view to the North gives you the city's taller hill (San Cristobal - we didn't go because the funicular up was broken), but beyond that was mountains all over the perimeter of the city. And in each direction were further layers of mountains, with snow-capped peaks peeking out in the distance. Santiago is truly settled in a beautiful location.

We ended up having about an hour to kill before needing to head back to the airport, and I proposed we go to Bar Lugiria, one of the last places on my list. It would give us the opportunity to get a bite to eat with dinner on the flight being probably close to 1:00 AM, and it would give us a chance to see the only other notable area within the heart of Santiago we hadn't visted yet: La Providencia. In the end, the restaurant / Bar was nice. We sat outside, because the inside looked a bit small (if still nice), but we didn't realize the "back room" was giant, open aired and packed. Anyway, our food was fine (mussel soup and lamb chops), and the beer was good. Providencia is a quieter neighborhood, if a bit workmanlike, but still far more European in styling than other Latin American city I had been to. For a last piece of tourism, it was great.

We then drove off to the Airport, with the only drama not being able to locate a gas station to fill the tank at - this may be Chile's biggest issue, the complete lack of gas stations. This is a bigger issue in Patagonia where there are 3-4 hour drives with 1-2 gas stations present, but even in Santiago it caused a senseless nervous moment. In the end, we were able to drop-off the car, check in and fly with no issues.

Our time in Santiago was in some ways representative of this whole trip, even if the urban city was so different than the open roads and wondrous terrain of Patagonia. Chile is a 1st world country with a few lasting 3rd world problems. It is a country that has embraced tourism, but one where the world hasn't yet embraced it. A great thing as crowds are still very manageable - I have doubts that will be true in another decade.

I plan to do an A-to-Z type review of this trip, the most substantial bit of tourism I've done since my Round the World Trip nearly five years ago, so I'll save my overall thoughts a bit for that, but like the entire trip, Santiago was clean, stunning and fun. I know judge cities by a few elements that all add up to answering two questions: 1 - how high will it go on my list of favorite cities (Santiago will be very high), and 2 - how much do I want to go back, and I want to go back immediately. And that applies to both Santiago, and Chile at large.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Year End Trip 2017-18, Day 11: Santiago

Day 11: Santiago, a Beautiful City

So far we had spent two nights in Santiago, and even a meal or two, but had really not spent any time in the city. That would change for these last two days, before this vacation comes to its depressing end. From the little I had seen of Santiago by night, it seemed stunning. After spend a day there, I am in many ways blown away by the city as a whole.

Our day started after parking in one of Santiago's numerous truly high quality underground garages, by walking through Parque Forrestal, which goes from Santiago's little museum square down to Plaza Baquedano hugging the river. The green was great as it provided a good amount of shade on a hot day. Each block was also some monument and sculpture, a commonality shared throughout Santiago.

From there we went to Mercado Central for a quick seafood lunch. This was actually the one slight disappointment in the city. Unlike the central market in Panama City that we loved, including for its delightful fresh seafood, the one in Santiago seemed a bit too touristy. The place we ended up picking was omnipresent within the market, getting a soup of 'mariscos' (mussels, shrimp, squid), and a ceviche done Peruvian style. Neither was great, not awful, and it was a quick in and out job giving us a good amount of time to traipse through other parts of the center of the city.

We walked south from the Mercado Central to the Barrio Civic, where many of the city's government and public structures lie. All this area is pristine, with wide open streets, good security presence limiting hawkers and other fares, and just perfect white, ornate buildings showing a hidden might of Chile. We walked first to the large Plaza Constitucion, with ornate buildings on each side, and the Palacio de La Monedo, in white, on the south face, guarded by security, On all sides of teh plaza, which itself is green with large trees and ferns (Santiago is a very green city) are statues of various Chilean leaders. On the other side of the Palacio de La Moneda, is another open plaza, with another statue, but what makes this area really cool is what is underneath.

Chile's president in the Mid-2000s made improving Santiago's cultural centers a key priority, so they created one, a beautiful stone and concrete 3-level open area with museum-quality exhibitions, shops selling fairly high-quality cultural fare, multiple cafes, and just a good vibe. Two blocks East of this was the financial area, with their own version of wall street, and a few other inner roads connecting the main internal thoroughfare (Avenida Alemada) with the plaza, that are pedestrian only. This inner part of the city was unlike anything I've seen in Central and Southern America, and can compare easily with many European cities.

What may need to improve to match the major European cities, however, are the museums. We are going to a few more tomorrow, and to be fair they aren't played up as huge tourist attractions, but they were a bit fallow so far. The one's we mainly checked out today were housed in teh same building on the West end of Parque Forrestal, housing both the Art museums showcasing contemporary and fine arts. Neither were large collections - which is nice given a huge collection with lesser quality would have been grating. The contemporary art museum was forgettable. The fine arts one had some interesting elements. First was a series of Roman sculptures done by Chilean artists at the turn of the 20th Century, as replications of the actual ones. Teh second was a whole collection of interesting photography or textile based artwork. It was a nice break from the sun, and what Santiago lacks in museums it has in spades in other areas.

Nothing may have been a better sell for Santiago than how fun it is to just drive around. The city has tons of major roadways, both multi-lane throughfares and highways, crisscrossing the heart of the city. Most parts of the city are extremely drivable with limited traffic. All of this is extremely good for the views. Santiago is a mixture of posh residential areas with modern looking apartment buildings and palm trees in the medians, with European buildings and urban maw. All of which has sightlines of hills and mountains, layer after layer, in all directions.

After retiring back to the hotel to freshen up, we all headed out for our last full family dinner of the trip (my sister and her boyfriend leave back tomorrow morning), where we had to call an audible after no one realized our reservation at 040 Restaurant was at 8PM and not 9PM. We settled on Barrica 94, a somewhat trendy restobar at the southern edge of Barrio Bellavista.

Santiago has many little 'barrios' or villages throughout the city that have their own life, and Bellavista is one of the more popular restaurant and bar sections, definitely the liveliest at night. Barrica 94 is situated within Patio Bellavista, a nice little block with many restaurants on its border, all with second-floor terraces that empty out over and above the Patio. Barrica was a really nice spot, with all the normal Chilean fare. We got a couple plates of well cooked empanadas, somehow a dish that had eluded us, and them mains of Merluza with grapefruit sauce, braised lamb and a Chilean lamb stew - all Chilean staples. The food was as good as the view, a really nice last group meal.

Being already in the popular night area, I stayed in Bellavista to end my night. There were a few options on my list of places to go to, but most seemed way too crowded to bother (it was a Friday night). The place I ended up was not on my list, nor even in Google. It was a really nice spot that was half full so I'm guessing it was new. It was a beer heaven, however, with about 50 different local Chilean options, of which I tried 4, mostly all stouts. Chile's beer culture is really strong. Despite being more known as a wine country, the beer side of the house has made great strides in recent years from what I gathered. They have variety of options and styles, and all the beers I've tasted were all good.

The night ended around 2:00 with an uber back to the hotel. Bellavista was still swimming with people milling about, each bar full of music and joy. Santiago itself was a bounty of joy the whole day, a really nice city, clean, modern and bright. Add in a food and alcohol culture to match most cities, and you get something quite special. We'll do more tourism work tomorrow, and hit a few more restaurants, and if it keeps up, Santiago may fly up my list of favorite cities.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Year End Trip 2017-18, Day 10: Colchagua Valley

Day 10: Winin' and Dinin'

This day was given to my sister and her boyfriend, to winophiles who took to Chile naturally when planning our day in the wine country. Our destination was a couple of the wineries bordering the town of Santa Cruz, deep inside the Colchagua Wine Valley, one of the main wine regions within Chile.

The drive to the wine country itself was a journey of increasingly pictuaresque sites, manicured rows of vines draped across the plains and the low hills behind them. The drive down to Santa Cruz also gave us another experience with Chile's brilliant highway system. The only complaint is they are largely two lanes at most, but the road quality is perfect and the rest stops well maintained and fancy, truly better than most American highways.

The roads around thee Santa Cruz area were a little more primitive, one load pathways with trucks and tractors slowing down traffic, but hidden behind them were perfect estates of wine nirvana. Our first stop actually was for lunch at the winery restaurant at Viu Manant Winery. The restaurant was named Rayuela, and coupled as the #1 restaurant in the Santa Cruz region per tripadvisor. The setting was perfect, with the five of us seated underneath a large fig tree providing the perfect shade and pathway for wind to make the hot day actually incredible pleasant. The location was excellent, with pots of fresh herbs, figs growing on the trees, the rows of vines in the distance.

The food met its reputation, with us sharing a nice pumpkin soup and fresh Ceviche made peruvian style, this time with the added Peruvian element of large lightly cooked corn kernals. Our mains were hake, strip steak and a lamb shank, all cooked well, accompanied by truly giant side portions of creak corn and spicy mashed potatoes (normal mash with an added mystery chili). The food was great, and the we needed the added sustenance with the wines to come.

Both wineries we went to for tours, Viu Manent (where we had lunch), and Del Monte, mandated a wine tour to accompany the wine tasting. Del Monte, a little more simplistic, had its wine tour consist mostly of a long drive through the vines on a tractor carraige, including up the hill a bit, and then a quick tour of the manufacturing facility, and then straight to tasting - four wines, three red and one white. I'm nowhere near intelligent enough about wine to comment at all on the quality.

Viu Manent was more bulked up. The tour had the same element of carrying us in carraiges through the winery grounds, but instead of a tractor it was horse-drawn. Their tourguide had a natural command of English, including a perfectly metered sense of humor. Their run through the manufacturing facility was more exhaustive. To boot, they also gave us one additional wine (one white + four red). Again, no need to show my ignorance by commenting on the taste or fill.

We then went to the town of Santa Cruz, which is more like what I had in mind for Chile, and in many ways reminded me of Queretaro in Mexico where I was on assignment. Nowhere near low-income for the country, with a decent city center, but signs of poverty and 3rd world littered (no pun intended) as you go away from the center. Our hotel was bordering the Plaza de Armas (every good Chilean city seems to have one of these). Our dinner was not, and the drive over there did give some increasingly nerve-racking moments of "where the hell are we going?". Luckily for us, the destination was as quaint, small-town perfection.

Dinner was at Etiqueta Negra, though after a large lunch and multiple wine tastings, we weren't in the mood for a full dinner. Etiqueta Negra is a true mom-and-pop operation, stationed mostly in the back of an unassuming house. The patio that housed the seating area was under a nice canopy, with the sides built up with flower pots and greenery. In the distance was the receding sun combining with the night sky to produce a type of purple I hadn't remembered seeing before. Even counting our venture through Tierra del Fuego island, I may had not felt more remote previously, but also more at peace.

The trip to Santa Cruz can be a multi-day affair for those wine inclined. I'm sure my sister and boyfriend could have done that. Given the setting, the small-town nature that I have a particular inclination for, and the seamless perfection of the look of a well maintained winery, maybe for me as well. At this point, there has been no part of this trip that I would not want to repeat again at some later date.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Year End Trip 2017-18, Day 9: Valparaiso, Vina del Mar & Santiago

Day 9: A Different Type of Coast

This will likely be a short entry, saying this in advance. It's been four, now five (in calendar terms) years since I've last done a true trip diary like this. There's a few select differences between that and this:

* Back then, I was travelling largely alone, and was able to spend my alone meals writing. Now, I'm with my family and doing this largely late at night out at some bar when my family is asleep

* Back then, the trip was 105 days long. No joke. It started in late February and ended in early June. This will have 11 or 12 entries, but is the longest tourism focused trip I've done since.

Anyway, some days are more action packed than others. The slower days usually made os due to travel. The sheer size of Chile necessitates this as much. This was necessarily that, as the day both started and ended in Santiago, a sparkling city that seems to be the pearl of South America to me. I say that with two caveats, one being my list of major South American cities to compare it to is limited to Lima and five hours in Buenos Aires, and the other being I've spent less time in Santiago than in Buenos Aires at this point. Anyway, in the intermined time between morning and night, we went West towards the coastline, with the final destination being Valparaiso and its northern posh sister city Vina del Mar (at this point, I will also mention I'm nowhere near smart enough to type the names of these cities with their proper Spanish punctuation: the 'i' in Valparaiso is accented, and the 'n' in Vina del Mar has a tilde). Before those was a wine tasting in Casablanca, and a beautiful tasting menu dinner at 99 Restaurante in Santiago. It may not have been the busiest day, but still an extremely valuable one.

The first stop on our journey was the Casablanca wine region, to Emiliano winery right off of Route 68, one of Central Chile's numerous wonderful highways (truly, the road conditions in this part of Chile are startling). The Emiliano winery was well manicured, with a lily pond and beautiful trees creating shade around a nice building housing the wine tasting bar. We sat outside for our wine tasting, enjoying the pristine weather and more than pristine views. The views are just incredible, with rolling high hills of well kept vineyards as far as the eye can see.

The wine itself was good - at least to my admittedly amatuerish knowledge. Contrast that to my sister and her boyfriend, who are at the extremely knowledgeable end of 'amateurs'. We played a fun game where each of us had a sip and tried to guess the notes and/or flavors. I was actually fairly good, ascertaining correctly that one of the wines had a grapefruit citrus flavor and another a raspberry note, but I chalk that up to fairly good palette for flavors from my cooking; I had no ability to describe the strength, aftertaste, tannic levels, etc. The entire wine tasting was accompanied by a great wine and cheese board, which made the whole experience quite enjoyable.

We then continued on our way to Valparaiso, running slightly late for our lunch at Espiritu Santo, which is one of Valparaiso's highest rated restaurants, near the top of one of the city's many hills. Valparaiso is a coastal down due West of Santiago, billed as a hippy paradise and a more low-key hang than the Metropolitan capital. The restaurant, which some blogs my sister and I read called it one of Latin America's best, was amazing, especially given its reasonable pricing. We feasted out with a ceviche, tuna tartare and squid salad appetizer grouping, all so perfectly cooked. The ceviche more in a Peruvian style with Leche del Tigre, and the Tuna accompanied with well cooked vegatbles. The squid may have been the best, with squid ink as the salad dressing.

The mains were about as good, with us all splitting both a seafood stew of tuna steak, langostinos, baby clams and scallops, all cooked well in a Portuguese-style broth, and a perfectly cooked hake. When I mean perfect, that was about as well cooked and seasoned a fish as I had tasted in Chile, and the seasoning was basically just citrus acid. We capped the meal with a lavendar-infused dulce de leche, again made just divine. The whole meal at Espiritu Santo was excellent, making the whole trip to Valparaiso worth it, which was a good thing given the rest of the town wasn't as expected.

Valparaiso is a city of hills, and I think we should have resigned ourselves to that area, instead of venturing down to the area at sea level. The hills were all adorned with beautiful artistry in the grafitti paintings, a true sight. We visited one of Pablo Neruda's houses, which has become a Chilean hipster hang. The views from Parque Bismarck were incredible, showing a sprawling coastline well built up, including multiple ports, one being a naval shipyard. The problem, I guess, was venturing down.

It isn't that central Valparaiso is not a good city, but compared to the idyllic view from above, and our past experiences throughout Chile, it is more of a disappointment. It connected more with what I expected Chile to look like, or rather Latin America. There was a nice square (Plaza Sotomayor) in the heart of the city that was nicely built and had some ornate statues and buildings, but there was a hawker market and a throng of humanity. The entire city seemed more industrial and, openly, poorer. We drove the coastal road (Calle Errazuriz) up through Valparaiso and out to its northern neighbor Vina del Mar, and then got a second surprise.

Vina del Mar is basically an American coastal town, if not a European one. It has beautiful hotels, wide streets lined with palm trees, white, clean buildings. It was a whole different world. We all joked this is where the monied people of Valparaiso moved out to, including the owner of Espiritu Santo that we chatted with at the end of the meal. Vina del Mar was like a whole different universe. I fully plan on coming back to Chile, preferably sometime soon, and Vina del Mar would be on my list.

Our drive back to Santiago was uneventful, the only memorable moment in reality being our bathroom break at a gas station rest stop - but remove all images that that description would conjure. It had a gas station, but the restaurant at the rest stop was ornate and fancy. The adjoining cafe moreso, with a beautiful mural showing a map of the central part of Chile. If anything, this was a restaurant + cafe that happened to have a gas station.

Back in Santiago, we rested up and ventured out to the central part of the city for our dinner at 99 Restaurante. Santiago has a vibrant culinary scene, spearheaded by Borago, a restaurant on the World's Top 50 list published by San Pelligrino. We were unable to get a reservation there, but scored ones at the #2 and #3 Santiago restaurants on the expanded version of that list, Restaurante 99 being one of them.

The dinner was great. The restaurant tasting menu centers around local seafood and local ingredients. Instead of going through this in paragraph form, I'll just go with bullets through the various courses.

1.) The amouze bouche of Chilean soft bread filled with pumpkin sauce and a piece of rare tuna over black-rice creaker, both melt in your moth delicious and a great way to start the evening

2.) First Course of a bowl of baby-neck clams, with the bowl containing about 20 of these cute little buggers, all served under a beautiful oregano-fused broth

3.) Second course of two giant (and I mean truly giant) rock oysters, one prepared with Leche del Tigre (commonly used in Peruvian ceviche), and the other served hot with chili, this was likely my favorite course, for the absurdly large oysters if anything else

4.) Third course of a soup of the 'forgotten ingredients' including a Chilean crisp kale, apple, rock-fish and leek; a perfect palate cleanser

5.) Fourth course of a take on mushrooms featuring four different mushrooms found mostly in Southern Chile - the true treat here being the plating, with a constructed bell mushroom with a crisp, flaky cap fitted over a cylinder of toasted potato skin with creamed mushroom inside, all over a mushroom puree with two other grilled mushrooms - an exquisite dish

6.) Fifth course of a fish 'crabcake on a stick', which is what it says, this was probably the biggest miss of any dish, but the fish was cooked well

7.) Sixth course of a small slider-sized fish burger with black brioche bun and squid ink and potato puree as the two sauces, with a key ingredient of fermented vegetables which was a good companion to finish the dish.

8.) The first dessert was truly special, called 'the red pepper', which came out looking like a medium sized red pepper on its side. When you take a fork into it, it opens up as you realize the skin is really caremilized coating, and inside is lemon sorbet with pieces of real bell pepper and strawberry. Amazing dish.

9.) The second dessert was a dulce de leche meringue which was as delicious as it was sweet.

10.) Final course was a poppy-seed sorbet with cherries, again just divine.

On the whole, the meal at Restaurante 99 was divine, a great way to end our first true day back in Northern Chile.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Year End Trip 2017-18, Day 7: Torres del Paine

Day 7 - Views on Views on Views

12 years ago, my family and I went on a trip to Alberta, and visited Banff National Park. The highlight of that visit, among all the others, was the small hike to Morraine Lake, a stunning setting of a glistening lake with seven peaks above it. It was such a picturesque view that I had picked it as a screensaver on my desktop before even visiting there, without any knowledge of what it was. I think I typed in 'beautiful scenery' in Google or something like that. Until today, that was the most beautiful scenery I had visioned with my own two eyes. Maybe Table Mountain or Cape Point in South Africa came close, but it wasn't Morraine Lake. I don't know if the neverending series of views in Torres del Paine National Park do indeed top Morraine Lake, but it comes close.

Torres del Paine is a large National Park tucked into the southern end of the Southern Ice Shelf, with glaciers, mountains, forests and laker and rivers, encircling its premises. It is one of the premier destinations for tourists in Patagonia, those coming mostly from Puerto Natales, the largest nearby city a good 90 minutes away. The park is fun for the serious hikers, with 4-day and 7-day trek options around its mountains that make up the center of the park, and for gawking more sedate tourists happy to drive through it. Being us, we opted mostly for the latter, with a couple of mini-hikes included, and it met all expecatations.

The biggest variable going in was the weather. It was rainy the night before and the forecast called for the same. With the rain in this area brings low clouds that could have obscured most of the natural beauty of the park. Instead, we got a day mostly devoid of rain apart from the odd drizzle, and while there was some cloud coverage that obscured the nominal Grand Torres peaks, it was high enough to leave the other main attractions viewable. It truly was a blessed day weather-wise.

After completing the 90 minute drive into the park, we entered it from its Northern entrance near Lake Amarga. This fortunately gave us the chance to view the Grand Torres peaks somewhat as they more easily are viewed up north. The first two stops on our drive and hike through Torres del Paine were actually both before officially entering (in terms of paying the entrance fee ticket) but are basically parts of the park and were great appetizers for what was to come. Lake Amarga was pristine - the shade of blue throughout Torres del Paine is purely Caribbean-esque. The competing colors of the blue of the water, the green of the forest and rolling hills, and the black and white of the mountains is a potent visual cocktail. The second spot was Cascada del Rio Paine, a multi-leveled mini waterfall, with four different viewpoints all better than the last. At this point we had all roughly taken 50-60 photos, in various poses and various lights. And we were then about to enter the park.

When we finally entered the park, the real fun began, as the full majesty of the central mountain formations started to take hold. They are essentially always towering over the drivable part of Torres del Paine park (the hiking trails essentially circumnavigate the main mountains and are totally separate from the driving sections). The main features overtime would become the Cuernos (Horns), a pair of peaks with smaller sub-peaks, and then the Cerro Paine Grande, a Table-Mountain esque peak with more snow covering. It is an imposing sight, but an impossibly stunning one, and as we drove southward across its face during the day, each angle of the mountains was better than the last.

The first stop once we entered the park was another lookout, overlooking Lake Nordjenskold, another pristine blue lake well shaped, with the brilliant mastiff peaks above. Truly, this was a day for picture after picture. Following Lake Nordjenskold was a drive further down the ring road to the viewing point ('Mirador' as they are known in the park) for Salto Largo, a waterfall that connects two lakes within the Torres del Paine park. The real view of the waterfall, however, was by backtracking a bit to one of the offshoots of the main road, and then a short hike to the Salto Grande Viewing Point. From there, you see the waterfall in all its glory, and more important the first truly stunning view of the Cuernos, the Cerro Paine Grande, and the Torres peaks somewhat masked by clouds. The closest comparison I could make was the background of the Sound of Music movie cover, combined with the blue water of the Caribbean and the chill of South Ameirca. It was perfect.

The next about 90 minutes were all various views of these peaks, truly omnipresent within the parks limits. The best may have been during the stretch beyond the Salto Grande where the road returns to sea level (or more accurately, lake level), where the road hugs the circumference of Lake Pehoe, arguably the lake with the most picturesque blue of all of them, and one of the two actual hotels that lie within the park resides (both have rooms on average above $500 USD / night). The view from Lake Pehoe was the one that immediately strruck me as a more special, more unique version of Morraine Lake.

Our final stop within Torres del Paine was Lago Grey, arguably the most popular normal location within the parks limits (normal as in reachable mostly by car). Most people would do this first, in that they would enter from the South entrance. Instead, it was last, and I don't know if we saved the best for last, but certainly saved the toughest for last. The hike from the parking lot of Lago Grey (home of the Grey Glacier on the north end of the lake, reachable just by boat or from the true hiking trails) to the final view point takes about 45 minutes each way. it involves an up and down traipse through forests, a long walk over a sand bar borne out of Lago Grey (apparently recent or confusing enough that on Google Maps it shows up as water), and then a mini-hike up the island in the middle that gives you the best vantage of Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier.

The views throughout are nice, with the final view showcasing the sprawling Grey Glacier, which is a good deal away, and more than that, the first view in a while that showcased some of the mountains that are not the main ones. The Eastern part of the park is essentially bleeding the line between Torres del Paine Park and the larger Southern Ice Shelf, so we get more snow-capped mountains, more mysterious views, and one perfect white mountain rising up from the Glacier, appropriately named 'Ice Mountain'. It was a truly stunning sight.

By the end of our day, the 90 minute drive out of the park and back to Puerto Natales was filled with the fulfilling memories of a day well spent and well valuable, and the empty feeling that this is the end of a period in our lives. Not to be dramatic, but Patagonia exceededd all of our expectations in every way. And Torres del Paine was the culmination. I don't know if it will be more lastingly memorable as the Glacier Trek, but it will be more representative of what this trip was. We are not a family well endeared to the outdoors, and this part almost exclusively took place outdoors. The town of Puerto Natales was enveloped in cloud and fog, but Torres del Paine stood strong and gave us mostly a dry day. It was a great capper to a great week in Patagonia. I'll leave knowing I definitely want to come back.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Year End Trip 2017-18, Day 4 & 6 - Driving to El Calafate and Puerto Natales

Day 4 & 6 - Traversing the Steppes and Mountain Shadows

The two intermediate days of our trip that I have yet to chronicle were similar in ways, in that they mainly were spent driving from Point A to B, one of the sad realizations when those points are a few hours apart, across country lines. Both of the drives did have interesting elements worth chronicling, however.

The main one was the staggering beauty at times during those drives. There were a mixuter of scenes, from roaring steppes as far as the eye can see, with sunlight bathed across the plains through minimal cloud coverage, to the animals that roamed these areas, from seemingly millions of sheep, as fat and cute as ever, to Guanaco's and the few rheas that we could spot between the brush and shrubs. 

The second was probably the strange, if actually quite effective, border patrol that Chile and Argentina institute. Our road crossing was the 'Rio Don Gullerme' crossing, between Cerro Castillo on the Chilean side (about 45 minutes north of Puerto Natales), and Cancho Carrera on the Argentinean side. The space in-between, about 20 or so kilometers, is essentially no-man's land. Given that, no country decided that land and the roads inside it were worth tarring, leaving pot-hole ridden dirt roads. 

Each border requires you to park your car in the line-up (for us, luckily, few cars were around), and going into a building first giving all your passports, then the car information that shows you are permitted to drive that vehicle in that other country. Then, the same exact steps happen in the same order at the other crossing. If anything, it is uniformly quaint compared to the time-suck operation between the US and Canada road borders, and is a great way to snap up passport stamps in quick order.

The road conditions on the hole were probably the 3rd commentable point, in how varied they were. The roads on the Chilean side were nice, concrete highways, if a bit small in there being just one lane on each side. Argentina was another story. We were warned a few days earlier to take a slight detour on the way to El Calafate, driving straight from the border to Esperanza (about 150 km), and then up to El Calafate, instead of take the new road that connects the two legs of that triangle. While this would add roughly 90km the drive, it would also avoid Argentina's treacherous dirt roads. The fact that that dirt road was a marked, international highway, is the more interesting part. These, we thought, would be fairly busy roads, and we were definitely wrong, as there was only sparse traffic. Given the road conditions, I'm not surprised.

The final takeaway is the total lack of life outside of animalia during those rides. There were only a handful of actual towns we crossed on all of the drives, both the 7 hour journey from Punta Arenas to El Calafate, and the return 4-hour journey back to Puerto Natales (which is one of the towns on the longer drive). There were even fewer gas stations. The lack of gas stations is so notable it is basically a commandment in Patagonia to fill gas whenever you run across one, with the implication that the next bunk could be hours and hours away. The whole isolation was just another sign of how different, how hauntingly special it was to be so far away from home.

The meals during these days were a mixed bag as well. On the drive back from El Calafate it was literally a mixed bag of goodies from Don Luis, a semi-upscale looking panateria on El Calafate's main jaunt. We got a mix of sandwhiches, empanadas, and assorted breads and sweets that served us well. During the drive up to El Calafate two days previous, we had timed it to be able to stop in Puerto Natales on the way. I did some quick last second Googline and identiified Cafe Antimana, a superbly rated spot for a quick bite.

Cafe Artimana lived up to reputation. It was an impeccably designed cafe inside, if a bit small, but with little touches ;like the light fixtures made out of kitchen appliances like cheese graters. The food was very good. We shared a perfectly seasoned Pumpkin Soup, and then two plates, one being a lamb tenderlion - which continued the run of good lamb, and a 'Plato del Pobre' (Plate of the Poor), which is a beefsteak, potatoes and fried egg, made with a little more flair than than those were done back in the day. Both dishes were hearty and well made, allowing us to need minimal sustenance on the rest of the drive.

The dinners each day were also quite good, both taking place in that cities final destination. In El Calafate, it was actually a journey to get there. We met my sister's boyfriend who was joining the trip that day and had flown there directly. The three of us were supposed to go to a steakhouse named Mi Rancho, but we had to push our reservation back, and while on the phone they agreed, it seemed they had second thoughts and the place was close. Our audible was to go to the highly rated Buenos Cruces, which is an impeccable mom and pop operation that served great food.

It was an incredibly homey place where the two waitresses (one of whom is a co-owner with her chef husband) seemed to know all the other guests. We had a few dishes that day, including pork shoulder (very good), a braised lamb shank (even better), and a guanoco meatloaf (another great guanoco dish - continuing a theory that cute animals taste amazing). After dinner, I went to La Zorra Taproom, which honestly could deserve its own post (I may don one especially about the various night-time bars I went to). La Zorra was designed like a perfectly American craft brewery. It was really well laid out, and serfved great beer, and was absolutely packed, despite me arriving at 12:30 and leaving at 2:00. It was a place I just had to come back to.

In Puerto Natales, it also coupled as New Year's Eve. Our hotel 'Hotel Costaustralis' was having a New Year's Eve set-meal dinner in their restaurant that was excellent (I got guanoco carpaccio as a starter, lamb chops as a main, and a dulce-de-leche pancake as a dessert, all good, and all plated really nicely on slate0. When New Year's hit, they served us all champagne. The night ended somewhat early, at 12:30, as we all had to get up early for our full day at Torrest del Paine to come, and man was that a good decision.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year End Trip of 2017-18, Pt. 1: Travel and Layovers, Argentina Style

I haven't taken a full family trip in many years. To be fair, I'm making a few exclusions with that statement, excluding domestic trips, weekend trips, and our family trip to India to end 2015 (India is many things, a vacation? unsure). The last one, in my skewed way of parsing the meaning of 'family trip' was in 2010, when we all went to Greece together. It's been a while. And that streak will finally end. Of course, us being us, with four working adults now, we all didn't take the same flight, with my sister joining in tomorrow, and her boyfriend on the fourth day. But this starts with as all trip diaries should, the flight(s) to get there, and the fortunate layover in Buenos Aires in between.

The trip will encompass 11 days spread between Argentina and Chile, most of which being in Patagonia. Following the short layover in Buenos Aires, we will be in Punta Arenas for two and a half days, then El Calafate (home of the Perito Moreno Glacier) for two and a half days, and Puerto Natales (nearest out-post of Torres del Paine National Park) for two days, before heading back up to Santiago and the Colchagua Wine Region for four days to end the trip. This first entry is about the flight(s) to Punta Arenas, and the layover in Buenos Aires to start.

American Airlines.... Not so bad

Buenos Aires is very far from New York. It takes about 10 to 10.5 hours to reach. I had to spend this time on American Airlines. I try to spend as little time on international medium and long haul flights on any american airline as possible. I'll get a slightly longer flight from Santiago back to New York on LATAM to end the trip, so at least I don't have to experience it again. However, after actually experiencing it, I have to say that American surprised me.

As a snotty United frequent flier I was slightly miffed to not be in 'Group 1' for a change, but we entered the plane early enough, got enough overhead-bin space, and relaxed into our fairly comfortable seats, with an HD personal AVOD TV, and decent recline. What I love about flights 10+ hours is you can eat your initial meal, watch a movie, sleep 6 hours, and then watch another movie. I did all of that the way I wanted. The food was decent, with Orzo and Chicken as a dinner, and a blueberry muffin with yogurt for breakfast. My first movie was Skyfall, which somehow I missed years ago (very good), and the second was Logan Lucky, which sure I've seen before but is slowly rising up my list of guilty pleasure movies.

My only complaint with the American flight at all was the ridiculous temperature of the cabin. It was freezing. I have no idea what the reason was, but the cabin temp was calibrated all wrong. The only similar experience I'd had was on EMB-145 jets on short-hops in winter, where I'm half certain the issue was the plane was too small and the walls too thin to keep the cold air out. It shouldn't happen on a 777-200ER. There were a few huge positives however with AA. First, comes the ridiculously cold beer they served. One of the coldest I have ever had on a plane (maybe the internal cabin temp helped here?). Then came the quality of the screens, about as close to real HD as I have seen in an economy cabin. On the whole, American's service was a pleasant surprise, and although due to convenience and current status, I won't be leaving United soon, but that was a truly pleasant surprise.

Other Travel Escapades

My other two flights were rather milquetoast, if efficient. They were both short, a two-hour jaunt from Buenos Aires to Santiago, and a three hour schlep from Santiago down to Punta Arenas. The first flight was on LATAM, and it was a strange mix of international and domestic service. On the international side, we had a large plane for a 2-hour flight (B767-300ER), and AVOD (I watched, big surprise, Ocean's 11 after finding nothing else too inspiring). On the domestic side, the 'food' they gave was a seriously uninspiring. Having taken an overnight flight on LATAM last year (Lima to New York), I expect my 11-hour flight from Santiago to New York will be a whole lot better.

As for the domestic flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, it was on a Chilean low-cost airline, Sky Airlines. It was a truly no-frills service reminiscent of AirAsia, an Asian low-cost carrier that I took one too many times on my Round the World Trip in 2013. They charged for water (it was cheap, at least), and didn't have any seats that recline. They had decent enough legroom, a fully adequate internal cabin temperature (something I will be much more alert for going forward). I slept for most of the flight, which I hope to do equally so on the flight back.

The airports I had to experience were all interesting to various degrees., One feature I really liked in both Buenos Aires and Santiago, the two places we had to go through immigration, are their immigration lines had automated boards at the front which told you which kiosk to go to. Buenos Aires airport was somewhat uninspiring for a city its size (in my limited experience with Lima airport it was slightly more advanced). That said, Buenos Aires airport was opening a new terminal which could quickly improve things. Santiago airport was similar, though we were mostly in the domestic area which understandably is less built up than the International side.

Punta Arenas airport was similar to the old Bangalore Airport, more of a warehouse than an actual port. Not a huge surprise given Punta Arenas is a fairly small city, but it is a tourism hub. The real issue so far was with the rental car people. We had booked an SUV with Europcar, all set to go, but when we got to the counter we were informed that if we are taking the car into Argentina, we had to apply for a permit that for some reason took Europcar 4 days to turnaround - days we didn't have. While this was indisputably our fault (we should have found out about this issue), the Europcar lady seemed almost gleeful to tell us that she could not give us the car in adequate time. Again, as a snotty frequent traveler, I was seething - moreso because this was not Hertz or National, the two car rental groups I usually use and can therefore pull some strings with.

We ended up getting a last-minute rental with some local vendor for cheaper. The only downside was that it was a manual car, and only my dad knows how to drive a stick-shift. We agreed that the roads of Argentina and Chile would not be the best place to attempt to learn, and that my Dad would, sadly, be the sole driver for this part of the trip. Given that both AVIS and Hertz had no available cars large enough, it could have been worse, as we could have spent half-day scrambling to figure out how to get to El Calafate in Argentina, but the random local RECASUR car rental company came in well.

Buenos Aires

Layovers are a strange beast. There's a lot of different components to weigh when parsing out the value of having 7-8 hours in a city. What helps these matters is having an airport easily accessible from the city center, and a quick immigration process. Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires was neither of these things - and due to this despite arriving at 10:45, and departing at 6:20, we really had only about four hours to play with.

Our first stop was to grab lunch - trekking out to the Puenta Madero part of Buenos Aires that borders the city's river. Estilo Campo was the restaurant, a true meat-house. Given I would have only one meal in Buenos Aires, that seemed apt. Estilo Campo had a range of meat offerings, both a list of steaks (fairly expensive, even after converting), and a list of meats fresh from the spit. We decided to eschew the steak, and go with the spot, somewhat convinced by the splayed lambs over the spit-fire at the entrance. We got a lamb and a flank-steak from teh split, and beef 'rose-meat', and all three were fairly good, if a little tough. The meal was quite good - oddly a place my parents went to when they went to Buenos Aires 12 years earlier with some of their friends. Only issue was it took a little long, leaving us with a little less time to see some of the city.

What we ended up doing was essentially go through a driving tour of the city. We had a number of carry-on bags we had to lug around, propping up the idea of booking a cab to ferry us around and hold the stuff. Luckily for us the random cab driver we could get to agree to this proposal was a nice enough guy to give us a good tour. We saw the main areas around Avenida 9 de Julio, including the Congress, the Palacio de Justicia, el Teatro Campo (a place I would have taken a tour of had I had more time), and various other European-looking buildings that encompass the heart of Buenos Aires.

My first impression of the city during the drive from the airport was fairly negative, with it looking a bit poorer and less developed than I had envisioned, but after Lima, or Split, I should have learned better than to judge by these quasi-central locations. The heart of Buenos Aires was very reminiscent of Europe - wide esplanades, monuments and splendid architecture, all with little lanes and alleys jutting out from all angles. My time in Buenos Aires was limited - my main goal was to get a feel for the city and assess how likely I would be to go back - and I definitely think the city hit those marks.

Our final stop before heading back to the airport was an outpost in The Recolata, a more upscale neighborhood in the center-north part of the city. The Recolata's main tourist attraction is the graveyard that houses the grave of Eva Peron, among other less famous dignitaries. The graveyard was insane, a tight area with incredibly ornate graves stacked right next to each other like very fancy row-houses. Eva Peron's grave itself wasn't too impressive to stand out from the crowd, in that sense. Neighboring the graveyard was the adjoining church, which was somehow a basilica despite being far less ornate or 'special' than the Catedral Metropolitan. We ended our quick stay in Buenos Aires with a coffee in a restaurant with outdoor seating in the main square - a perfect way to end the day.

Overall, I of course wish I had more time in Buenos Aires, but I definitely accomplished what I set out to do. All I wished for was to experience what Buenos Aires is like - in no way expecting to fully make an impression on its long list of sites. I now know I need to go back, and better yet I would want to. I also got a good second view of layover logistics. My last real layover that I fully utilized was four years ago on my round-the-world trip, where I had two separate layovers in Singapore, but those were nearly full day affairs. This wasn't. It was a constrained set of time, and given the challenges those provided, I have to say we did quite well.

Year End Trip of 2017-18, Day 5 - El Calafate & Perito Moreno Glacier

Day 5 - Glacial Trekking

We came to Patagonia with a lot of high expectations, and nothing had been built up more than the Perito Moreno Glacier, a key tourist attraction in Argintenean Patagonia due West of El Calafate. Two of my cousins passed along the highlights of Patagonia consistently, and both of them singled out Perito Moreno Glacier as a high point, as a once in a lifetime experience. Few sites when built up so substantially, especially by people that have traveled as extensively as both of them have, live up to the billing, but the glacier if anything exceeded it.

The drive to the glacier is a great aperitif to the enjoyable tourism meal to come, as the scenery surrounding both El Calafate, with the idyllic Lago Argentina to the north, and the endless Patagonian steppes to the South, and the creeping Andes Mountains off in the distance, combines to form an effortlessly beautiful cocktail. There were so many moments during that drive we wanted to stop and pull over, but we had a further destination in mind that needed to be reached: the glacier.

The entrance to the glacier park is fairly understated, well aways away from the actual Perito Moreno Glacier. It costs $500 Argentinean Pesos (~$27 USD) to enter, an amount more than worth it. That isn't the end of the drive, however, as ~20km of twists and turns still lie ahead, but at least that stretch of road does have the great luxury of adding in small sites of the beautiful glacier to behold. The first glimpse was a photo opp lookout about halfway in, where you first see the giant glacier overflowing between two mountains, with a lustrous mix of white and blue. As you advance towards the actual glacier area, the views get more clear, and more staggering.

The complex itself is set up nicely. There is a lower parking lot, with a restaurant and dock for boat cruises past the 'Northern Face' of the glacier, and a constant series of shuttle buses back up to the upper lot, which has the entrance to the manicured walking trails that give increidble views of the glacier across the frozen river. It is really hard to explain, so instead, let's show:

These were all views from the walking trails, series of cantilevered walkways that traipsed up, down and around the cliff-face and woods across from the glaciers. The number of places during that trail that prompt audible gasps and delight are in the dozens. You can easily fill a few hours just talking pictures at each moment that fits your fancy. Given my family's proclivity for photos and trip documentation, we probably would have, but my sister, her boyfriend and I had a time limit, as we had to make it for a 4:15 PM mini-trek up the glacier itself.

The wooden staircase trail is eaisly the most accessible part of Perito Moreno Glacier park, and gives a complete glacier experience. There are a number of trails, all color coded with enough signs to never fear getting lost. The park describes each trail in a few ways, one of which being level of difficulty, but having cut across three of the five, the suggested level of difficulty seemed fo have no correlation with how difficult it was. Still, it was incredibly well set-up and gives a range of viewpoints of the glacier.

The best part of the trail is the moments where you get to see ice calving off of the glacier face into the lake below. We saw a couple of them (not as many as normal since it was a cloudy day). It starts with a loud gunshot, the crack of the ice. Then comes a brief period before it falls off where we all look around to see where it is coming from. Then it happens, the fall, the crumble, into the water. Then, maybe the most amazing part, is the long lasting reverberations in the water, the ripple out to the shoreline. It all takes 20-30 seconds, and it is mesmerizing.

Had the day ended there, it was a job well done. Instead, the best was yet to come with the glacier trek. I'm generally not one for trekking, but this was an opportunity I could not possibly pass up. We took a boat over the the mountainside bordering the glacier, then walked across to the edge of the glacier where it meets the mountain, and were form-fitted with crampons on our shoes to be able to spike into the ice-face and not slip. 120 minutes later, when we took them off after the tour ended. I kind of felt I wanted crampons on my shoes permanently.

It is really hard to describe both the feeling and the views while trekking the glacier. It was a circle route about 90 minutes, up and down through the peaks and valleys of a corner of the South face. Two guides led the way, both helping us all up and down, and leaping across the ice to carve out a more teneble path where there was build up. The whole experience was both surreal and everything I could have imagined.

The most amazing part was just looking around at mounds of ice, varying levels of blues, crevices that went on forever, little streams of fresh glacial water in all directions. The guides helped us spot the true beautiful sites to make sure we all got an adequate number of hundreds of pictures. From afar this area of the glacier looked plain and flat, but trekking up and down and you see how vurvy and jagged it can be.

Throughout the trek we were able to scoop up little pieces of ice to chomp on (by 'we' I say mostly 'me'), but at the very end the tour includes a little sustenance as well, as we are all invited to a little whiskey on the rocks - glacier ice being the 'rock'. Given the conditions, the setting, the surreal feeling of it all, it may have been the best whiskey of my life.

It was a real downer in a way when it ended as I'm sure I just experienced the highlight of the trip. We made it back to normal ground, and headed back to El Calafate around 9:00, just in time to shop a bit and head to our dinner at La Tablita, a classic Argentinean Parilla grill restaurant. Despite the late timing, the restaurant was buzzing - we had to wait about 15 minutes for our 10PM reservation. The food also took long to come, though it was worth the wait mostly.

Parilla grills are all about meat. You basically order different meats that are cued up over the spit or grilled and served alltogether. We ordered lamb, rump, pork tenderloin and a rib-eye for all of us to share. They're cooked simply, with no added flavor or anything. Just hte natural meat, and it was all really good. The lamb may have been slightly better in Chile, but the two beef cuts were divine. I could not recommend La Tablita enough.

After dinner, not yet ready to end our time in El Calafate, my sister, her boyfriend and I went to Borges y Alvarez Libro Bar, a beautiful little spot on the main road (90% of El Calafate business is on that road) that is modeled after a library. It wasn't nearly as packed as La Zorra Taproom but still quite crowded. I got a local beer (Eurek Negra - essentially a stout), which was quite good. Overall have found Argentina beer quite good. After I got a few more pints at La Zorra, still buzzing when I left around 2:30, and called it a night.

It was a short, action packed day in El Calafate, which is a true little jewel of a town and tourist destination. The glacier met all expectations, and the trek passed them easily. Few days on any vacation have ever gone so well, been so fun, and been worth so much as a memory.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Year End Trip of 2017-18, Day 3 - Punta Arenas & Tierra del Fuego

Day 3 - Tierra del Fuego

In each of our three main tourist destinations during this trip, there is one day more or less dedicated to a single tourist attraction. The first of which is a day-long tour of Tierra del Fuego, a large expanse of land south of Punta Arenas that winnows down towards the depths of South America. The trip encompassed a lot of driving, but also a lot of history, and more than anything marvelling at the strange odd scenery on plains that make up this remote corner of our globe.

The beginning of the trip was actually mostly a repeat of yesterday, going back to the same pier where we took the ferry to Isla Magdalena, but this time we took the adjecent boat, a larger, fancier ferry that was destined for Porvinir. Our tour group's van was housed below deck. The boat ride took two hours, a nice opportunity to sleep for a bit. Our earnest, smart, an all around baller tour guide Juan ("Johnny" to the 8 of us on the tour hailing from the US) took a bit of this time to give us a geography and history lesson as well of Isla Tierra del Fuego, a large piece of land split between Chile and Argentina (quite acrimoniously, we would soon find out). The two hours seemed quicker than expected, and before we knew it, we were boarding the van on the Porvinir side.

Porvinir was a great starting point for the various bits of history that were a throughline for the entire day. First was the tales of the aboriginal peoples that once lived throughout southern Chilean Patagonia for thousands of years. These peoples were left mostly unfettered until the late 1800's and early 1900's, when the Spanish came in and summarily wiped them out. There were a few monuments in Porvinir to these people, the Sel'knam, memorializing their history, but the real place of honor was the tidy little museum to the history of the Sel'knam, the Spanish conquest, the Gold Rush that brought in, oddly enough, a slew of Croatians to the region, and the wildlife that still calls it home. The museum was well manicured, and our less well-manicured, heavily bearded guide was there to fill in the details.

The second throughline was the wildlife. The most prominent native wildlife was by far sheep, dotting so many of the vast expanse of plains and farms. The next was the Guanaco, the singular animal that would split off through evolution to the Llama and Alpaca; with the Guanaco being a smaller version of its two more notable relatives. Third was the rhea, an emu-like figure that was far too sparse to ever get a good look at. The real key was the King Penguin, but more about that later.

The next part of the trip was mostly a drive to the King Penguin colony near Cameron, part of the hilariously named 'Useless Bay' when translated - called so due to its shallow waters making it incompatible with most ships. The drive did allow us to see the flat view of Tierra del Fuego, mesmerizing in its isolation. It was, in a weird way, so unlike anything I had seen before.

The King Penguin colony was the real hit of the tour.. Despite seeing penguins just a day earlier, seeing the larger King Penguins was just an amazing experience. We could not get as close (King Penguins are fairly scared of human interaction), but their size was impressive nonetheless. They were set up near the water of Useless Bay, behind a well manicured entry-way. The wind was howling at its finest in this area, a clear message of just how close to Antarctica we were getting. The Kign Penguins were not as movile as their Megallenic cousins, but more stately and regal. Many were incumbating eggs beneath their down-feathers. Others were sleeping upright. A few were fighting and even mating.

Despite the distanace, our tourguides handy tip to combine a cell-phone camera and binoculars to get a close-up was an inspired bit of genius to enliven the experience. He really was such an asset during this trip. We learned more about his background alter during one of the endless drives, but for now he seemed to us to be part Zoologist, being able to dole out so many facts and stories about the Penguin colony and their activities. Penguins are fascinating animals, from their ability to spread self-created oil on their feathers allowing them to dive up to 300 meters in the ground, to the stories of how female penguins would stay with the same mate for life, unless one of their eggs doesn't hatch and they switch over from male to male finding the previous not verile enough. The howling winds cooled the atmosphere, but his stories and well of knowledge heated it right back up.

The rest of the trip included more driving, better scenery, views of the Straight of Magellan, and a whole lot of history. Our tour guide, who effortlessly switched back and forth from Spanish to English, seemingly majored in Patagonian history. The best part was his long story of Jose Menendez, a quasi-fraudster who swindled his way to owning basically all of Southern Patagonia, and then swindled it away. The last true stop on the tour was his deserted 'Estacionmento' (essentially, an outpost), which also had a shipwreck that was cool to waltz around, but cooler to learn was a boat that was intentionally crashed to salvage for its wood.

The final part of the trip included a shorter boat ride across the Straight of Magellan at its northern entry-way, a 20 minute ride through choppy waters where the Atlantic and Pacific currents wage daily battles. The tour ended with a bit of personal story-time, with the tourguide giving us a family history intertwined with the differing opinions and memories of the Pinochet regime, all this during the drive back to our hotel. In this he mentioned having worked in the US for a few years, but coming back to Chile. He claimed happily that he loved his job, giving these tours each day, and the next day he would be running a tour of Torres del Paine park out of Punta Arenas, one that would start about 5AM and end at 9PM. He sure does love his job, and given how much he knew about each site we saw and the general history of this region from ancestral through modern times, I buy it.

We returned from our tour just in time for dinner, which we had at Sotito's Restaurant, a fancy place bordering the Straight of Magellan. The view was divine and the food nearly as good. We had a bit of a rough start with the waiter, asking for an English menu only to realize that the English menu was paired down to include only a few options that they felt would be appetizing to 'English' people (including an Italian section that is not included in the real menu), and then asking for the Spanish one back, but by the time we ordered and got our food it was all good. We ordered a lot of dishes - some would say too much - but each was good. The star was the fresh King Crab, a specialty of the area. Other top choices were the roasted lamb, and a fried Merzluna fish. Everything was fresh and good.

My night ended at Bar The Clinic, which I picked mostly because it was down the road from dinner. It was a nice bar, with a more tourist-heavy crowd than Bar Bulnes the night before, with more of a classic bar/pub menu and drink selection. I returned to our hotel around 1:00, and not all that ready to leave Punta Arenas.

In the end, Punta Arenas is a strange town. It is the biggest city in this part of the world, certainly one of the few that have enough of an economy outside of tourism to survive independently. It is the largest gateway from a transport sense to this part of the world in Patagonia. But the main tourist attraction it houses, the expansive Torres del Paine and southern islands, aren't as stunningly picturesque as the places to come./ But the lasting sense and value of Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine really are its remoteness. I was further South than I probably will ever go, and that sense of unique isolation never escapes.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.