South America: Around Cape Horn on Regal Princess
Day 11: Tuesday, Disembarkation in Valparaiso, Post-Cruise Stay in Santiago
Our last sea day went by all too quickly, though after nearly two weeks of cruising we were looking forward to being on dry land and, truth be told, heading back home to New Jersey. In fact, despite the fact that we'd had a wonderful cruise, we almost felt a little pang of regret for planning an overnight stay in Chile's capital city, Santiago. We were tired, and not just a little worn out, but the hotel was already booked -- so we set out for our last bout of exploration figuring if nothing else it would be a welcome pit stop on the long road (and flight) back to "real life."
Sadly, disembarkation day is one instance where independent travelers are not rewarded. Those booked on Princess post-cruise tours got to disembark the vessel first, followed by people with transfers to the airport for flights home. There was no early walk-off option. Literally hours later, holders of pink tags -- those who'd made their own arrangements -- were called. We were the second to last group off the ship, and I can now say as an eyewitness that when the last passenger walks that gangway, the crew really is just about ready for the next group of cruisers; the ship was sparkling, and the barbecue was set up. The only up side to our extended stay onboard was that by the time we got to the luggage holding area, there were so few pieces left, it was easy to spot ours (though it doesn't hurt that my bag is Pepto Bismol pink, either).
After grabbing our belongings, we met our pre-arranged driver James and asked for a quick peek at Valparaiso before heading out to Santiago. Valparaiso is a bustling, working-class city, with ramshackle buildings and streets that speak to the days before the Panama Canal was built, when many ships stopped over on trips around the horn. The city is situated half on a plane, half on surrounding hills; Mike and I thought Ushuaia was San Francisco-hilly, but compared to this tilted town, Ushuaia's as flat as the Arizona desert.
There are a few museums and plazas of interest to travelers, but the international airport is in Santiago, the Chilean capital, so most people organize their pre- or post-cruise activities there (Valparaiso is actually a good 85 miles from Santiago). However, a quick tour through neighboring Vina del Mar en route to Santiago revealed that those passengers who instead chose to stay closer to the water were onto something. Vina del Mar is quite the opposite of Valparaiso, a summer home for Chile's well-to-do and one of the country's most fashionable beach resorts, often called Chile's Riviera.
As we drove into Vina del Mar, one of the first sights to catch my eye was the Clock of Flowers, a working timepiece created with seasonal blooms (the climate is ideal for gardening, which is why it's also sometimes referred to as La Ciudad Jardin, or the Garden City). Hotels lined the streets upon which horses clipped and clopped, pulling carriages as if in New York's Central Park, but there's plenty to do besides relax. There's Casino Vina del Mar, the largest casino in Chile, and the Fonck Museum, which houses one of the most important Easter Island collections in the world, including the only genuine Moai statue in continental Chile (Moai are statues carved of compressed volcanic ash).
I fell asleep on the 90-minute ride from the Valparaiso/Vina del Mar area to Santiago, but Mike nudged me awake as we started to near the city -- he knew we were getting closer because signs for Chile's Maipo Valley vineyards were popping into view. If we were staying for more than one night, we would have toured a few wineries. Instead we settled for shopping in one of the city's wine shops (and shop we did; before we left, we picked up a cabernet sauvignon and merlot made entirely from organic grapes).
We exited the highway and I braced myself for a long journey through town, similar to our ride through Buenos Aires' contrasting poor and rich neighborhoods, but after just a few blocks through an urban park and down a small street lined with cafes and even an Irish pub, James pulled over at the Hotel Orly and popped the trunk. Mike was smiling, and I somehow understood. There was something about this city -- which we'd only been in for about five minutes -- that made us feel at home, though I still can't quite put my finger on what that "something" is. We felt comfortable and safe. That's not to say we ever felt otherwise in the other cities we visited, just that here, it was a more palpable sensation. It was almost as if we'd been there before in a past lifetime, and knew our way around.
The Hotel Orly was another gem we found using online sources like tripadvisor.com. The hotel is in Providencia (like Buenos Aires, Santiago is made up of many neighborhoods), a district with wide streets and beautiful homes that's blessedly compact. We were able to easily walk to restaurants and bars -- and our hotel was literally across the street from a subway stop. Hotel Orly is a boutique hotel in a renovated mansion with a cozy lobby and glass-roofed patio, and French-influenced architecture (our room had French windows, which were perfect for letting in light and air, and snapping pictures). And, just like the Art Hotel in Buenos Aires, it was a steal with rooms starting at just $72 per night.
We dropped off our bags and freshened up as quickly as we could because we felt this enticing pull beckoning us back outside. We took a stroll along the main drag, Avenue Providencia, for a few minutes and hit an ATM and cambio (money exchange place) before returning to Cafetto, an open-air cafe just outside the Orly, for lunch. We had grilled chicken sandwiches topped with avocado and a fried egg -- we noticed that in South America, eggs are a prominent ingredient and used in ways we've never thought of before (even the empanadas have chunks of hard-boiled egg inside) but will certainly try at home.
After lunch we walked several blocks north toward Parque Metropolitano, which extends up a spectacular mountain range (why does everything involve so much climbing!?). We made it as far as the Japanese Garden, which is a replica of a Japanese ceremonial garden, but I was expecting something a little larger and grander and we saw all there was to see of the garden in about two minutes. I was frankly more intrigued by the views over the cliffs of the city, which is huge, sprawling 120 square miles with a population of more than five million. Mike noticed that you could just about make out the outline of the Andes through the smog.
When we returned to the hotel, the folks at the front desk recommended a seafood place for dinner just three blocks away from the hotel called Mare Nostrum, and called in our reservations for 9 p.m., which gave us time for a quick nap.
Knowing that Mare Nostrum would be our last dinner out for awhile, Mike started the night off right with yet another a Pisco Sour (and said it was the best one so far), and we shared a bottle of Chilean merlot. The cuisine here is classified as Peruvian -- the owner is from neighboring Peru. Fish is the main focus of nearly every dish. We started the meal off with seafood-stuffed mushrooms and a warm shrimp ceviche. I ordered Chilean sea bass in a delicious creamy sauce with mushrooms, and Mike had a fish I'd never heard of before called kingklip (I tasted it -- it reminded me a little bit of halibut, sweet and meaty). Against our better judgment -- we were already so full we weren't sure if we'd be able to walk back to Orly -- we shared moist chocolate tres leches (three milks) cake.
Next Day: Exploring Santiago
We woke up early for a full-day city tour that we booked with the help of the front desk ($63 per person). Our guide Margarita and driver Roberto picked us up at the hotel and drove us into downtown Santiago. Over the past few decades, the country's political landscape has been an utter rollercoaster, from traditional socialism in the 1960's to extreme Marxism in 1970 to a military regime begun with a coup in 1973 and voted out of power in 1989. Chile is now under a stable democracy.
The seat of the Chilean government, Palacio de La Moneda, was originally a mint (moneda means coin); it was partially destroyed by aerial bombing during the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. Though reconstruction and restoration was completed in 1981, Mike spotted some bullet marks that still exist in the ornate facade of the building. The palace itself is not open to the public, but we entered the courtyard that runs through the middle of the building. Margarita was extremely knowledgeable and talkative, but wasn't up to sharing very many personal stories from the time Chile was under Pinochet's rule, so we didn't press.
We walked to the heart of the city, Plaza de Armas, which dates back to the city's founding in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia. Local artists were selling paintings, but Mike and I are planning to make our own collages for our bare walls with the pictures we've taken once we get home. The Metropolitan Cathedral, on the western side of the plaza, stands on the same spot where the first church in Santiago was once built. There are three other important buildings -- the post office (which was once the government building), the National Museum of History and the town hall. Many of the buildings in the square reflect old colonial Spanish architecture, but here's an interesting tidbit: In 1985 an earthquake destroyed much of this downtown area, and the buildings were rebuilt to look "old" in the classic architectural style.
By the time Margarita whisked us around town to Club Hipico, Santiago's famous Jockey Club where horse races are held every Friday; Santa Lucia hill, offering a view of the city including the gigantic national library; and famous winemaker Cousino-Macul's French rococo mansion-turned-museum, Palacio Cousino, we were starving. But after rubbing elbows with so many tourists, including many folks we recognized from Regal Princess, we wanted to go someplace off the beaten path for lunch.
Roberto didn't hesitate, and headed straight for Roy Sar, which is where locals go for empanadas. It's a small, no-frills series of rooms that look like they could be in someone's house; there was no air-conditioning, but a warm breeze blew through an open window. We shared a huge meat-filled empanada and Pastel de Choclo, a typical Chilean dish. Pastel de Choclo is a corn and meat pie prepared with sweet creamed corn, ground beef, eggs (surprise) and raisins, and served in a casserole-style dish. Don't knock it until you've tried it -- it sounds like an odd combination of ingredients, but we cleaned our plates and Mike's since downloaded a recipe from the Internet.
Side Note: One thing we have attempted to recreate at home is the Pisco Sour; we brought home a bottle because we weren't sure if it was available in the U.S. (it is, we've learned, but not widely). The basic recipe is three parts Pisco -- just to remind you, it's a brandy made with the skin of white grapes -- to one part freshly squeezed lemon juice, with sugar and ice to taste. It was pretty darn strong so I fixed up our batch with a little bit of store-bought sour mix.
We ended our tour at San Cristobal, the main hill in Parque Metropolitano, which we accessed via a rickety funicular that makes several stops, including one at the park's zoo. At the top of the hill stands a statue of the Virgin Mary that is illuminated at night and visible from pretty much every point in Santiago.
What goes up must come down, and there are two ways to get there. Instead of the funicular, we rode back down on a cable in a little bubble-like car -- imagine those sky rides that connect far ends of amusement parks and boardwalks, but completely enclosed, claustrophobic and extremely hot. Margarita and I sat on one side of the little bubble, sweating, watching Mike (who told me today is scared of heights -- you learn something new every day) across from us white as a ghost, while tree branches whacked our car on all sides as we glided up, through the park and down to street level. Mike was relieved when the doors slid open and was the first to jump out.
Margarita and Roberto brought us back to the hotel, and since James wasn't coming to pick us up to head to the airport for another hour or so, we sat down at Cafetto for one last glass of wine. I ordered that along with a fruit salad and a chocolate croissant -- completely in Spanish. And the waitress understood me! I was feeling pretty smug about my prowess until she returned and began rattling off a string of words like a speeding bullet. Apparently she thought I was fluent, and I was really just a fraud. My cheeks flushed -- and Mike sat back, grinning -- until I eventually gathered what she was trying to tell me (there were no chocolate croissants left, but would I like strawberry?). "Si."
On the long flight home, I had some time to reflect on our journey and really take stock of what we learned.
Actually, what we didn't learn is more notable. I wish we had taken some time before our trip to brush up on our Spanish. There were a few Abbott and Costello-esque moments with various locals ("$80? I thought you said $18!"), and if we had a better grip on the language, we may have been able to immerse ourselves even further into the cultures of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. That's not to say we weren't able to get by -- and I wouldn't discourage any traveler from visiting the region just because he or she solely speaks English -- but being able to speak more clearly with more South American people would have added another layer of personal enrichment to the experience.
In a region this exotic, it is important to research ports ahead of time and weigh the pros and cons of booking ship-sponsored tours against going it alone. In a city like Puerto Madryn, for example, the real attractions are outside of the city, and Princess' shore tours were an affordable, convenient and safe way to get around. In Puerto Montt, we were able to see three attractions -- the falls, the volcano and the city of Puerto Varas -- all during one port call. However, we were grateful to have the day to ourselves in Ushuaia, and hiring a cab driver to take us to the park afforded us extra time for a romantic lunch. One port where we wish we'd flipped the switch was Punta Arenas; our day was pleasant, but we felt we missed out on experiences outside the city limits. Next time we'll visit the "pinguinos" in Otway Bay (or, if we win the lottery, fly to Antarctica).
Sailing on the 15-year-old Regal Princess gave us a taste of what "classic" cruising was like, before spas needed their own zip codes and the number of dining options onboard any given ship reached double digits. This isn't an itinerary or a ship I'd recommend for families, unless your children are really adventurous travelers and are interested in nature rather than a state-of-the-art kids' center. In fact, the average age skewed much older -- partly because of the exotic nature of the itinerary but I'd say even more so because of the length of the voyage. Let's face it: Americans on the whole do not get as much vacation time as, say, Europeans, and it is hard for anyone other than retirees and hot shots to take a full two weeks off from work.
Finally, even though Mike and I live together, I was nervous about us spending so much time away from home, cooped up together 24/7 in small hotel rooms and a balcony-less cruise cabin. I needn't have worried -- first and foremost we're friends, and Mike is my perfect travel buddy because we complement each other so well. Because of me, he tried a few things he may never have otherwise (like soaring above Santiago's park on the sky ride, despite a fear of heights), and because of him, I made a conscious effort to slow down my pace of life -- which is so often frenetic -- and just sit and see the scenery, smell the air and smile at those who welcomed us into their countries and cities with open arms.
And that was the whole point, wasn't it? To wander a little bit outside of our comfort zones, and push ourselves to do something we wouldn't ordinarily?
Indeed, we left for our Regal Princess cruise around South America as tourists. But we came home as travelers.