Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chile, Day 4

Halfway up Cerro San Cristóbal.

Another day in Santiago, another late start. Last night there was construction going on outside my window until after midnight – complete with an American or Canadian man yelling, with the occasional F-bomb thrown in, at the workers to shut up – followed by music in some apartment nearby. Then a laundry machine started thumping against my wall at 7 a.m., followed by more music blasting from outside. I lay comatose in bed until after 10, then decided to skip breakfast, slathered on some sunscreen, and went for a really long walk.

I was going to take the funicular from the Plaza Caupolicán, at the bottom of Cerro San Cristóbal, and then take cable cars to different parts of the park I wanted to visit, but the funicular was apparently closed and I never saw a single cable car during the two hours I wandered uphill (284 m) and through the Parque Metropolitano. Luckily it’s wasn’t too hot, and after 45 minutes of climbing up the switchbacks to the top of the hill there was occasional shade to protect me from overheating.

The park was stunning, and for anyone wanting some good exercise while in Santiago I really recommend walking through Barrio Bellavista, up the steep hill, and following the main road until it exits the park and becomes Avenida Pedro de Valdivia on the other side of the hill, in affluent and, at times, Pasadena-like Barrio Providencia. The roads in the park are popular with bikers and stray but friendly dogs, and on a clear day – unlike today – you’d have spectacular views of Santiago and its environs. Cerro San Cristóbal is dotted with small, well-maintained parks, including Jardín Botánico Mapulemu and Jardín Japones, as well as a wine museum, botanical garden, two giant and beautiful swimming pools ($10 entrance fee), and a fancy-looking restaurant.

Entrance to Jardín Botánico Mapulemu.

There was also a kiosk near the top that was a lifesaver for me: for $1.30 I refueled there with bottled water and a banana.

That horse was eyeing my banana, so I had to eat it fast.

The botanical garden and wine museum were closed, presumably because it’s the last day of the year, but the small gardens were open and they’re all free.

My main destination was the Japanese garden.

Heavily perfumed with wisteria, the Japanese garden was rather small, but it was also very tranquil.

The scent of wisteria hung heavily in the air. It was great.

At least it was until a group of about a dozen people sitting to the side of the garden started performing charades – then the tranquility was shattered. But it was still a nice place to go – it would have been perfect for a picnic.

I had no idea where I was when I got to the other side of the hill, so I decided I’d just keep walking and see where I ended up. Eventually the street I was on appeared on my guidebook’s map of Santiago, and I figured out how to get back to my hotel – though it took a good hour.

There was an impressive sculpture garden along the river on my way back.

Actually, I didn’t go straight back to my hotel but, since it was already 1:30, had lunch at Emporio la Rosa, which was on the edge of a park – Santiago is filled with parks, which are invariably clean, beautiful, and centered around sculptures or monuments (or both). I took a seat outside and ordered a smoked ham, cheese, and tomato sandwich (4000 pesos, or about $8) and a fresh squeezed orange juice (1600 pesos, or about $3.15). Both were good – I guess I was hungrier than I realized – and since Emporio la Rose is actually better known for ice cream than sandwiches, I also had a cone with a double scoop of pistachio and mojar chocolate ice cream (2200 pesos, or about $4.30). Kind of expensive, but hey, it’s my last lunch of the year and I skipped breakfast…Emporio La Rosa is at Merced 291. Tel: 638-9257.

Not long after this I decided that I really needed coffee, so at around 3 p.m. I went down charming Mosqueto Street and settled on Melinka Café, which has outdoor seating. (Santiago has so many restaurants and cafés with outdoor seating – I love this about the city.)

Although I ordered a double cappuccino, what I got looked more like a dessert, which I didn’t want after two scoops of ice cream. So I drank around that mountain of whipped cream and shaved chocolate and got my caffeine fix for the day.

When dinner rolled around, I found myself in the fix I was expecting – everything was closed for New Year’s Eve. After walking around Central Santiago for 20 minutes, I realized that the only places that were open were Chinese restaurants. So I settled on Restaurant Kuan Ming, about a block away from where I live.

I turned out to be the only one eating there – the place was much, much bigger than my photo shows – though they had at least six employees shuttling back and forth (only one was Chinese). I ended up ordering a congrio fuyon, what I thought was a vegetable soup, and a pisco sour.

Not what I'd call vegetable soup...

I’m finding out that in restaurants where people are very friendly, this is an indication of not very good food. It’s as if they think that by making me feel welcome and comfortable at my table I might overlook the fact that their chefs need retraining. Honestly, these people were so nice, and I wanted to like their food so much. However…My pisco sour came first, and it tasted very much like the salt-rimmed glass of a margarita. A more accurate name would have been pisco salty. I drank it all, but that’s only because it cost me nearly $4.

Pisco salty...

I immediately ordered a Royal Guard beer (it’s Chilean) after that, which was necessary to help counteract the additional salt that came from my entrée: the conger eel “quesadilla” – which turned out to be a conger eel omelet.

Egads, I can still taste the salt...

The problem with this was that it was basically just overly salty eggs. Like most fish cooked with eggs, the fish flavor was almost wholly absent. Again, all I could taste was salt. At least the rice was good. At the end of my meal, which cost 9600 pesos (US$18.91), I was given a complimentary shot of brandy. I’m fairly confident that Kuan Ming does better with other, more obviously Chinese dishes than with conger eel, so I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I’m giving them a bad recommendation. I’d go back if had to. I just wouldn’t order conger eel or a pisco sour. Kuan Ming can be found at Merced 551, and they do delivery. Tel: 639-5984.

I’m not sure what I’ll tonight for New Year’s. I’m tempted to sleep through it, though if I can stay awake long enough I’ll either climb up to the rooftop pool and look out for fireworks or else I’ll actually brave the crowds about five blocks from where I’m staying and watch the show in person.

Happy New Year Everyone!!

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Chile, Day 3

Like yesterday, I got a late start to the day. Unlike the day before, however, it wasn’t because I needed to catch up on sleep. In fact, I hardly slept. I woke up early and ended up screwing around on the Internet, and I didn’t leave my hotel until around 11:30. I still had about an hour left of beautiful, spring-like weather to avail myself of, and then it got very hot. Because it was so hot, and not good for hoofing it around Santiago, I didn’t do very much today. I did visit two museums, though neither was especially noteworthy.

The first museum I went to was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which is certainly impressive from the outside. Next year this neoclassical building will turn 100 years old, so I’m sure there will be interesting things going on for that. Until then, however, you’ll have to settle for a mostly uninteresting group of exhibitions, which fortunately rotate. Fortunately, too, the museum’s centennial is only two days away – at least it becomes 2010 in two more days – so it shouldn’t be too long a wait. They do have a fair share of works by famed Chilean artists Roberto Matta and Luis Vargas Rosas, but most of the exhibits I saw weren’t very interesting. There were a lot of grainy black and white photographs and videos from the 70s of buildings being torn down, and images of cities as seen from holes in dilapidated structures. The museum also had some modern art, which I personally always have a hard time with, and some replicas of famous European sculptures. One major downside is that there is no information in English, so I had a hard time understanding what I was looking at. The museum was free on the day I went, though normally it costs 600 pesos (US$1.18) for an adult. It’s located right next to the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, and is open from 10 a.m. – 6:50 p.m. (yes, that’s 10 til 7) Tuesday through Sunday. Tel: 633-0655. Web:

After this I walked across town to see the Museo Colonial de San Francisco, which is tucked off to the side of the much grander Iglesia de San Francisco.

This museum cost 1000 pesos (~$2), which isn’t bad for what it offers. What I liked best about it was its dark, dingy atmosphere – it clearly hasn’t figured out how to incorporate electric lighting, and its aged effect is heightened somewhat by the “garden” (i.e., tangled mass of greenery) in the large first-floor courtyard. Of course, I don’t think everyone appreciates a dingy museum, but hey, it’s my blog and I’m going to recommend the place.

The religious artwork and artifacts are rather interesting – the old lock collection is sufficiently surprising so as not to be boring – and to the museum’s credit they include English translations of most items on display. Another interesting thing about the museum is that it houses a replica of Garbriela Mistral’s 1945 Nobel Prize medal as well as correspondence between the Chilean poet and other individuals and organizations. The museum is located on Avenida O’Higgins 834 and is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10-1 and 3-6, and on Sunday from 10-2. Web:

After this I walked back to my hotel and downed about a liter of water. Once I’d quenched my thirst I decided to grab some lunch. Since I needed to use the Internet to reserve accommodations for next week’s trips to Viña del Mar and La Serena, I took my computer over to Café de Las Artes (see yesterday’s entry) and ordered a salmon, cream cheese, and tomato sandwich on olive bread and a fruit juice.

It was good – nothing that special, and certainly not “Chilean” (though I’m finding that typical Chilean food is harder to come by than typical Peruvian and Ecuadorian food was in Peru and Ecuador respectively). I hogged my table for about an hour, then ordered a dulce café: espresso with vaporized milk and condensed milk, the last of which seemed to be an entire can’s worth that sat on the bottom of my glass. It was insanely sweet, and I couldn’t manage to finish it. For all of this I paid 7350 pesos (~$14.50), which is kind of a lot.

It was around five o’clock at this point, so I decided to hit the rooftop pool that guests of the hotel have access to (it’s actually atop an apartment building next door) and read. I wasn’t the only one who had the idea of cooling off up there, though, and seating was a little tight. After about an hour up there I went to research coastal bus travel out of Santiago, and then I decided I might as well go have dinner. (Again, more time has passed than my blog readily indicates – I’m not the eating machine I’m sure I make myself out to be here…)

Feeling tired, and wanting to stay close to the hotel, I decided to give South American sushi another shot. There’s a place called Kintaro Sushi across the street from where I’m staying, however they didn’t open until eight. Since I had time to kill I went to a sidewalk café called Vuelta next door and nursed a cold mora berry juice (which, as always, was about 15% seeds) and read a little more.

Finally Kintaro opened and I grabbed a seat in the back and ordered an awesome beer called Cerveza Austral as well as a sushi combination that, in the menu photo, looked a lot more exciting than the sushi I was served.

The sushi was fine – a bit mealy at times, a bit stringy at other times, and not that flavorful – definitely not worth the $15 I paid for it. However, the people working there were really nice. The Japanese owner sat at the register drinking beer, which kind of cracked me up, and my waiter turned out to be from Huanchaco, Peru, and was excited to learn that I’d visited his hometown a few weeks ago. His English was great, which was nice, as I haven’t had a lot of conversations with people so far in Chile. Kintaro Sushi is located at Monjitas 460. Tel: 638-2448. Web:

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chile, Day 2

The painted wall outside of Neruda's former home, La Chascona.

Last night I finally got something like a decent night’s sleep. It’s good to sleep soundly every few weeks. But sleeping well meant getting a relatively late start to the day, and after a 10:00 breakfast provided by my hotel (see previous post, as it was exactly the same) I set out on foot for La Chascona, Pablo Neruda’s secret home in Santiago that he built so he could be with his mistress, and later his third and final wife, Matilde Urrutia. “Chascona” is not a Spanish word, or even a slang word found in Chilean Spanish. It comes from the Quechuan language and means something like “unruly hair,” which is often how he poetically and lovingly referred to Matilde.

The house itself is very playful – Neruda designed it himself and built it so that it resembled a boat, despite the fact that he couldn’t swim and was afraid of the water. Each section of La Chascona, built at different times as money permitted, furthered the boat motif, and the interiors indeed feel very boat-like. Neruda was El Capitan, and he even had navigation rooms with old maps of the sea on the walls. His Nobel Prize medal was also here, though many aspects of the original house, including running streams, are no longer here because Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s brutal former dictator, had his military destroy much of La Chascona, including Neruda’s vast library. Shortly after this, Neruda, who was in hiding at one of his other homes, died of cancer, and Matilde returned to restore and live in it. She died in 1995, 22 years after Neruda passed away.

It was a fascinating tour – you can only see it via a tour and not on your own – though I had to wait 90 minutes to get a tour with an English-speaking guide (who was excellent). There is a very nice café here, as well as a gift shop that sells knickknacks and Neruda’s poetry both in Spanish and in translation.

Casa Museo La Chascona is located at Fernando Márquez de la Plata 0192 (Barrio Providencia). It might be a good idea to call in advance for a tour reservation: (56-2) 777-8741. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. in March-December, and until 7 p.m. in January and February. Tickets cost 3500 pesos (US$6.89).

As soon as I left La Chascona I was accosted by more “students” trying to get money for school, but once I shook them off I decided to look for a café that doubles as a bookstore (or vice-versa). I found it just one street over from La Chascona – Mundo de Papel, on Constitucion 166 (open every day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.).

Entrance to Mundo de Papel.

Charming, tranquil back patio where I had lunch.

The bookstore itself is okay – as is the case in Chile, books in English are exorbitantly expensive – so I opted to eat rather than book-shop. I sat in a nice, tree-filled patio in back and ordered a goat cheese sandwich with pesto and fresh spinach, and a mixed fruit juice (banana, pineapple, mora berry, and orange).

Nothing special, but it was a nice change of pace.

Mixed fruit drink...full of straw-clogging seeds.

Both were quite good, though the juice was full of mora berry seeds. The meal ended up being roughly $7.

By that time it was already 2:45, so I hightailed it over to La Vega Central, which is the main fruit and vegetable market in Santiago.

La Vega definitely isn't as "prettily dressed" as Santiago's Central Market, probably because fewer tourists visit it.

Interestingly, one of the “students” trying to get money from me told me not to go there because it’s too dangerous, but I think she’s crazy – it wasn’t dangerous at all, and in fact people there seemed friendly and it was just over the river from the crowded, and well-secured, Central Market. In any case, I wandered through here breathing deeply the aromas of fresh fruit – I could smell the market a block away – and stopping occasionally to pet the friendly stray cats that were all over the place.

By this time I was pretty beat, so I returned to my hotel, downed a bottle of water, and then headed out to a café on the corner of Monjitas, where I’m staying, and JM de la Barra – Café de las Artes.

Entrance to Cafe de las Artes. Those seats are usually all filled up.

The staff here was very friendly, and spoke English much better than I spoke Spanish. Unfortunately they weren’t able to make a mora berry (blackberry) mocha for me, but I did end up with one of the biggest, sweetest mochas that I’ve ever had. They also had free wi-fi, which I used briefly to upload some photos to my blog. I could have stayed much longer, but without much to occupy myself I left after only about 30 minutes. The mocha was only 1050 pesos (US$2.07).

That's one beautiful moka.

By this time it was only around 5 p.m., so I decided to go see the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which was only a five-minute walk away. I’m usually not a big fan of contemporary art, but I wanted to compare Santiago’s contemporary art museum with those I’ve seen in the U.S. And aside from horribly loud construction going on in the first floor, it proved to be a lot more interesting.

Front of the Contemporary Arts Museum.

This was in the small plaza fronting the museum.

The exhibits here tended to focus on politics quite a bit, which made them meaningful on some level – as opposed to the self-indulgent, meaningless schlock I find characterizes much contemporary art in the U.S. – but it sometimes felt heavy-handed. They certainly used representations of “military America” and “corporate America” a lot – sometimes interestingly, and at other times unsophisticatedly. There wasn’t much being exhibited, but for an entrance fee of only 600 pesos (US$1.18), it was worth the visit.

On my way back to my hotel I passed a salon that looked better than most I’ve come across over the last few weeks.

I'm not sure where this salon was or what it was called...

Since I definitely needed a haircut, I poked my head inside and was met with curious smiles. Luckily my Spanish phrasebook told me how to say, “I’d like a shampoo and a haircut, please. Please, only a trim. And no mousse, gel, or other styling-goop, please.”

Not only did the stylist come through for me – actually, the woman barely cut anything at all – but I also got a long scalp massage that nearly put me to sleep. Why is that every other country gives scalp massages with haircuts, but not in the U.S.? There needs to be a revolution or something so that we can all enjoy what people in Chile, Japan, and Vietnam, and probably everywhere else, get to enjoy on a regular basis. In the end, my haircut only cost 4500 pesos (US$8.86), which is a great deal. In Hawaii I always paid $15 for a haircut, and that was by far the cheapest cut I could get without going to some haircutting chain and having some hack destroy my hair.

After that I was pretty tired out, so at eight o’clock (it doesn’t get dark here until around nine) I decided to go out for a quick bite around the Plaza de Armas. I was a little tired of seafood, and at the same time very curious about “el completo” – which is basically a hot dog made all fancy with various toppings. I ended up going to El Rincon del Portal, which I’d seen yesterday afternoon, and ordering a “Completo Italiano Gigante” along with a small glass of local beer.

There's a ton of pedestrian traffic passing by here, though I snapped this during a lull.

I'm sure people here thought I was weird for taking photos of a fast food restaurant.

For only about US$4.50 I got a good deal – a glass of beer and two hot dogs in a bun slathered with chopped tomato, avocado, and what I mistakenly thought was cheese (ugh, it was mayonnaise).

And even weirder for taking a photo of a hot dog and beer.

I added salsa to it, which gave it some needed flavor, and tried not to think that by eating this I probably shortened my life by a week.

After my next bite, I scraped off all the mayo I could.

El Rincón del Portal is at Portal Fernandez Concha 974 (right on the Plaza de Armas). Tel: 697-2269. They have all kinds of diner-type food in addition to “completos.”

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