Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tour de Vino

The winner of the Tour de Vino doesn't get a yellow jersey, just purple teeth. And everyone's a winner.
We mounted our steel horses equipped with only a map and the desire to drink a lot of wine. Our epic quest took us to bodegas all over Maipu, a small town in the Mendoza region. Each vineyard we pedaled to was unique, some practicing techniques that haven't changed in a hundred years and others using the latest technology. We sampled Malbecs, Cabernets, Syrahs, and Tempranillos, practicing our wine vocabulary between glasses. We set out to visit all the wineries but by the third vineyard realized that slow and steady wins the race. After several bodegas, we required food to soak up the wine and went to a secluded restaurant called Almacen del Sur. There we ate an array of delicious picadas accompanied by, of course, a bottle of Malbec. In our wine stupor, complete with giggles and a lot of biking with no hands, we slacked on our camera duties for the final wineries. Later, as the sun set, we returned our bikes with smiles on our faces and bellies full of wine.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Touring Renacer

A taxi dropped us off on a dirt road lined with tall yellow Alamo trees where we entered the beautiful Renacer Bodega, a boutique winery owned by a Chilean family. Thanks to Clay's aunt Sara Matthews, we met Pato whose father started the vineyard 7 years ago. Pato went to Emory and was working on Wall Street before returning to Mendoza to help run Renacer (wise choice!). We toured the facilities and even got to make our personal blend of Malbec, the grape that Mendoza is known for. Pato taught us a lot about wine and entertained us all weekend as we explored the beautiful wine country at the foot of the Andes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Valpo Amigos

In Valpo, we had the pleasure of hanging out with some interesting and fun porteños who showed us the true Chilean way of life. First we met Nahuel and Yasna who live in La Poblacion Obrera de la Union, called "La Pobla", which has a rich history. Then we met Jorge who is a volunteer firefighter and showed us around the Cuerpo de Bomberos (Fire Station) before taking us to his family's traditional homestyle restaurant. Jorge and his friends showed us a great time in Valpo with long dinners and even longer nights.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ode to Valparaiso

streets in Valparaiso
come as close to poetry
as pavement can

long lyrical verses
ascending cerros
short exclamations
punctuated by panoramic

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Los Wanderers

Valpo is a great place to attend your first South American futbol game. Every porteño (person from the port, in this case Valparaiso) is crazy about the sport but the games still maintain Valparaiso's overall chill vibe. Valparaiso's team is confusingly called the Santiago Wanderers. They are the oldest club in Chile, started by British immigrants in the 1850s, which explains the English name. Our friend Jorge says that if you are not a fan of the Wanderers you are not a true porteño.

We met Jorge at Plaza Pinto and got a ride with his friend Susana to the game. On the way we enjoyed one of the best sunsets of the trip. When we arrived, the stadium was glowing under orange and pink skies. Estadio Playa Ancha is a bowl-shaped cement coliseum built into the side of a hill which holds 18,000 fans. The seating is divided into two sections, Pacifico and Galeria. Pacifico seats are on the sidelines while Galeria seats are behind the goals and both sections are general admission. We had accidentally purchased the more expensive tickets for the Pacifico seating, so Jorge and Susana talked the guards into letting us into the Galeria, explaining that we were gringos who bought the wrong tickets. Entering the stadium we were surrounded by fans with green and white team flags around their shoulders or waving them in the air. We were prepared with our green shirts showing our porteño pride. We sat right next to the dividing fence and the military guard between the two sections.

When Melipilla, the visiting team, took the field everyone whistled- this is how you 'boo' in Chile. When the Wanderers appeared the whole stadium broke out into song, "El Himno de Los Wanderers". We were given a copy of the lyrics the day before at the club house where we purchased our tickets though we had failed to memorize the words. There are no ceremonies before the match starts, no announcement of lineups, no national anthem. They just warm up then start playing.

When the match began La Hincha took over. La Hincha are groups of die-hard fans who hang green and white banners with their group names all over the stadium. The largest of the groups is Los Panzers, who sat right behind the goal. The rest of the stadium was pretty tame and spent a lot of time watching Los Panzers. They start out with chants accompanied by a large drum. Then come the fireworks and flares. About 20 minutes into the game a section wide mosh-pit broke out and turned into a real brawl. We were safe many sections away. The military guards appeared on the scene and tried to separate the fans. The older fans whistled their disapproval at the Panzers and the military.

Meanwhile, the game was still going on but was in a bit of a lull. After a fast start by the Wanderers they appeared to be getting tired and slow even before halftime. In the second half they got their energy back but Melipilla appeared to be the better team. Melipilla started getting some calls and more importantly a lack of calls which would have benefited Los Wanderers. Jorge was incensed by the refs and became our section's main heckler and comic. When a foul was called on a slide tackle by a Wanderer, the Melipilla player rolled around on the ground acting like he was in grave pain. Jorge shouted (in Spanish) "In the meantime you can eat some grass, Cow!" The whole section loved it. The joke is that Melipilla is a small town in the country where there are more cows than people.

With about 15 minutes left in the match -there's no clock in the stadium so you just use your wristwatch- Melipilla's best player, #10, had a breakaway, faked out the goalie and scored the game's only goal. The place fell silent, then everyone whistled. After that the Wanderers got sloppy. The game ended with most of the fans filing out. Everyone was disappointed but no one was distraught. The friends Jorge ran into would comically frown then quickly snapped out of it to make plans for the night, which wasn't even young yet. On the way back to the car I said to Jorge, "Que lastima, las vacas ganan" (What a shame, the cows won).

Galloping on the Beach

Riding horses on the beach has always been a dream of mine. I love horses and have been looking for opportunities to ride in South America, the home of the caballero and the gaucho.

We took a bus to a deserted beach town an hour north of Valpo called Concón where we were instructed to wait for our ride to Ritoque Expediciones. At la hora Chilena (everyone in Chile arrives about 30 minutes late) a small chubby man pulled up in a neon blue sports car with music blasting and a virgin mary hanging from the rearview. I thought, this is no gaucho.

Luckily, he was just the transportation and a few minutes later we pulled into a farm with a beautiful view of dunes and creeks, free roaming horses and humble stables. There we met our guides, Cristian and Jose, and I knew we were in good hands. Cristian was a handsome stout man with full leather chaps over blue jeans and a beret typical of gauchos. Jose also wore chaps but he had a wide brimmed straw hat and on his boots were spurs the size of hockey pucks. Cristian spoke great English and Jose, not a lick. They demonstrated how the Chilean saddle works and told us what to expect from the small, portly Chilean horses. The saddle was comfortable and the reins were made of woven rope ending in a leather strap used for whipping. The stirrups were the most alien of the outfit - wooden clogs that fit half your foot and were typical for the northern region of Chile where riders need protection from brush. They handed us small chaps to fit around the bottom of our legs to protect us from the horse's sweat. Then we mounted our horses. My horse was Pompero which means "of the Pampas" and Clay's horse was nicknamed Killer but only for comic effect.

We left the stables and descended into a beautiful landscape of hills and streams. We crossed several creeks with still white herons and cautiously grazing cows. We climbed the white Ritoque dunes which, once deep within, looked like a never-ending desert. After so many ups and downs on the sand, the horses were soon sweaty. The sun was descending in front of us, casting sharp shadows along the spines of the dunes.

Cristian told us about his nomadic life as a horse trainer and guide; an endless summer moving between companies in North and South America. He grew up on his family's large estancia "Dos de Enero" in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Down there, the philosophy is to break a horse as if you were one of the herd and to treat them like the social roaming creatures they are. Later, he showed us pictures of the estancia on his iPhone complete with hundreds of cattle and horses and the Torres visible from the property. He said he didn't remember the first time he rode a horse; that as soon as he was walking he was riding. He was a true gaucho.

After a short break we were leaving the dunes and descending to the beautiful serene beach. The sun was now setting over the Pacific and only a few fisherman remained. The waves crashed almost in silence as we trotted into the water. Soon we began to gallop and it was exhilarating. Holding onto Pompero, both of us deeply breathing the fresh salty Chilean air, I felt free. Giddy laughter echoed as Clay filmed the gallop- a welcome distraction to the rapidly moving animal beneath him. We galloped parallel to the ocean with the sun warm on our shoulders and the smiles never left our faces. It was perfect and my dream had come true.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ascending in Valpo

The neighborhoods of Valparaiso are scattered on cerros (hills) that surround downtown and overlook the Pacific Ocean. After a day at the office or a trip to the market, porteños who don't want to climb the steep streets home hop on one of the 15 ascenors that pull them to the top. The ride hasn't changed much since the inclines were built in the 1880s.

Monday, May 11, 2009


We walk out of the Nuevo Mundo Hostel in Ancud, Chile and ask the staff for the best way to get to Fundo Lechagua, an "organic farm" just 10 minutes outside of town where we plan to volunteer for a week or so in exchange for accommodation and food. The local delivery man overhears our question and says he's heading that way. Just hop in the back of his truck. It seems like a good sign. We ride out, enjoying the beautiful weather and passing tranquil beaches. The truck pulls into a driveway across from a local discotheque where there is a locked gate and barbwire fence. "Fundo Lechagua," he says. We jump out, thank him and pry open the gate.

The place looks deserted, and like its been deserted for a while. There are a few dilapidated shacks with dogs chained up outside and an old Fiat that hasn't moved since 1980. As we stagger around, greeted by some loose mutts of different sizes, we see Rosa, a 4'10" old, thin Chilean woman with skin like a paper bag and 3 inch platform sneakers on her feet. We smile and introduce ourselves explaining that we are here to work with Juan for a week. She nods her head, "si, si," and we ascertain from her quickly-spoken Spanish that Juan is not here yet. She takes us into the bigger house where the front door is blocked by a large, dirty -but very friendly- chained-up dog. We enter a filthy kitchen with an old wood-burning stove, a makeshift sofa, some grease filled skillets, and random piles of food scraps. Above the stove dangle some old, dry reddish-brown sausages and some knotted rope that we later discover is not cable cord since it smelled just like the pork links. Rosa says, amongst other indiscernible things, "Es tu casa." So we show ourselves around. From the kitchen the house opens into an attractive, though empty main room built with blond wood beams in an Asian style. The walls are decorated with Chinese bamboo hats, cheap Miro reprints and sketches of Chilean caballeros. We figure out that Juan lives here, when he is in town, and it was him who probably left the random rabbit skins, sheep skins and animal skulls around the house. We find the sleeping quarters and choose from a collection of brown mattresses in several unfinished, dusty rooms. An interesting note about the bedrooms: the locks are only on the outside of the doors. When we return from putting down our bags, we tell Rosa, who is now cleaning up, that we're going to take a walk.

We see a lot of barnyard animals: chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs and cows. The fields are overgrown but it's great to see the cage-free animals, or, at least, their cages are mangled so they get to roam where they please. The scene is pretty nice: gray and white geese waddle around flapping their wings, a turkey sits on top of a fence, friendly dogs monitor the property. We spot adorable brown and tan striped piglets, at least 30 of them, all chasing their mommas and squealing for milk. We watch them for a while and walk to the end of the farm and back several times, avoiding the return to the house. When we do return, Rosa is sweeping up the big room. She tells us that she spoke to Juan and he's arriving the next day at 10:00am. We ask if there is anything we can do to help. "What can you do?" she responds. Not sure we want to volunteer for just anything, we say that Juan mentioned moving and planting vegetables and fixing fences. Somehow this provokes Rosa who then launches into an hour long rant about her relationship with Juan, the difficulty of her job, her husband's ailments that prevent him from working, and some stories of past WWOOFers who were no good. We probably understand about 13% of what she's says but she is standing in front of us holding her broom and never breaking eye contact, so we just sit and listen. She divulges a sad life story, describing the tragic loss of her mother to cancer, followed by the unexpected death of her brother who she was very close to. We think she might cry at any moment as she speaks of her now lonely existence on the farm. We try to be supportive though we say little. When her story is interrupted, we decide to go for another walk.

This time we see other workers returning from another part of the farm. We approach them to say hello and introduce ourselves but they just kept walking. Temple takes pictures while Clay attempts to engage a small wrinkled man who is feeding the pigs with milk from a large plastic trough. He offers to help carry some of the milk but the man isn't interested. We follow him as he rounds up the pigs to corral them back under the broken fences of their pen. We ask a few questions and get a few short answers. Soon the man disappears.

The sun has set and we are now in the cold house. After Rosa says, "Hasta manana," and shuts the door, it becomes clear that there is not going to be a communal European dinner like Juan had described. Luckily, Temple has an emergency stash of food for just such an occasion. We begin to cook (the water a lovely earth tone) but the fire won't catch. Many attempts later, we decide to knock on Rosa's door to ask for help. After sticking her bare hands into the flame, she shows us her secret: burning plastic bags gets the fire going. That's when Fundo Lechagua lost its organic certification. We eat our rice dinner and are in bed before 7:30.

From our first moments on the farm, we started shortening the time we wanted to stay. "Let's give it 4 days" became "2 days should be enough" to "I give it until lunch tomorrow." We wake up the next morning. It's May 7th, Clay's birthday. Over breakfast- one apple and some mushed cereal bars from our packs- we discuss the pros and cons of staying. Clay eventually says that all he wants for his birthday is to leave. We pack up our bags and walk out of the house. We close the gate behind us and begin walking down the road. Temple says, "I've never really hitchhiked before," as Clay sticks out his thumb at the first passing car. It stops: a little white Ford with a baby car seat driven by a pretty journalist. We open the door to U2's "A Beautiful Day" blaring from the speakers. We get in and enjoy a beautiful birthday ride back to Ancud.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Human Cargo

At 9:30pm, we boarded the Navimag ship through a large cargo hold and we realized this was far from Carnival Cruiselines. One other couple, Nick and Anne, had also signed up for the 4 day journey from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt; the other passengers were all truck drivers. As we sailed through small Chilean islands and icy channels, we spent most of the time in our small, two bunk bed cabin or in the comedor (mess hall) where we ate our meals and watched violent movies with fellow passengers. One evening was spent constrained to our beds as the ship fought against the rough seas of the Pacific and all equilibrium was lost. The few that attempted to eat dinner that night struggled to keep their soup in the bowl and their chair in front of their plate. It was entertaining to say the least. Luckily for us, the first mate had sea sickness pills and we were able to sleep through the night. After surviving the 12 hour squall, we enjoyed the next two nights, playing Scrabble and cards with Nick and Anne, and sporadically venturing on deck to see the islands dressed in fog and inhale the aroma of the salty sea.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Trekking Torres del Paine

In Puerto Natales, a town in Chilean Patagonia, we rested up while a two day storm of incredible wind and rain raged outside our hostel. We packed our tent, sleeping bags, a stove and plenty of food and woke the following day to clear skies as we headed to Torres del Paine National Park. We planned to do the majority of the "W" circuit (see map below) which traverses the best trails in the park. We would leave out the first leg which goes to a glacier, and start with the trail up Valle del Frances, followed by a hike around Lake Nordenskjold, then up the Valle de Ascencio, for a morning sunrise at the base of the Torres before descending to the bottom. We took a boat to the trailhead where, luckily, we were the only people starting towards Rio Frances. It was wonderful to walk in silence among Lenga trees with leaves in every shade of yellow, orange and red- it is now Autumn in Chile. After so much rain and ice melt from the glacial mountains, we constantly crossed streams, rivers and muddy bogs, challenging each other to stay dry while jumping from rock to rock. Our first night we were alone at Campamento Britanico and after a hot dish of Chilean style Ramen noodles, we were soon huddled in our tent. The next morning we awoke encircled by stark rock faces and a raging river shining under a beautiful sunrise. That day we would hike for 10 hours, always up or down the hills, with wet feet, but always smiling and reveling in the magnificent snow capped mountains, waterfalls, vegetation and multicolored skies of the park. It was definitely our hardest day, as most of the last section was a steep uphill climb. We arrived at Campamento Chileno and, exhausted but proud, we set up camp in the dark. The next day we woke up at 5:45 to hike two hours to the base of the Torres for sunset. With headlamps, we hiked in pitch black darkness, crossing bridges over raging rivers and feeling sure that the pumas were watching. We reached the top for a cloudy but nevertheless thrilling sunrise. The rest of the day would be mostly downhill and spent reflecting on the amazing ground we'd covered in three days. After over 20 miles and 23 hours of hiking, we felt we'd experienced Torres del Paine in all its glory. We are so thankful for the gorgeous weather, the trustworthy though not always obvious trail signs, the abundant and delicious drinking water, and the infinite blue skies and fresh air.

View Torres del Paine in a larger map