Tag Archives: Chile

Puerto Arenas (Feb. 19)

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Billed as the “southern most city on earth” (a designation contested by Ushuaia and its neighbouring naval base), Punta Arenas overlooks the Strait of Magellan and is quite beautiful.

European immigrants, largely from Spain and Croatia settled here in the mid 19th century although unsuccessful attempts were made three centuries earlier by the Spanish. Facing the harsh climate and lack of supplies, they finally gave up. Evidently a similar attempt at colonization some 80km south resulted in Puerto del Hambre being dubbed Port Starvation or Famine Port.

Now a vibrant city of 150,000, it’s European origins are reflected in lovely colonial mansions, monumental statues (to Magellan and O’Higgins), grand avenues, and it’s large central square filled with araucaria trees.

We found the square bustling with entertainers and perhaps 50 small stalls selling local souvenirs. A young drum corp (complete with scantily clad girl walking hat in hand amongst the crowd) and a strange (but fun) fellow dressed as a chubby dancing couple entertained as tourists browsed penguins and sheep (glass, wooden or stuffed) and all types of woollen goods and knickknacks.

We walked about 10 blocks past familiar names such as Scotiabank (a bit of Canada in every city we have visited) and Winnipeg (a shoe store!) to the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello. This museum, founded by Salesian monks, has a large taxidermy collection of indigenous animals (in addition to a few mummies and shrunken heads) on the ground floor but the most interesting was the cultural history upstairs. Here we learned a lot about the indigenous people and how they were essentially wiped out after the arrival of Europeans. Not only were their food sources and land overrun but they were determined to be savages and “sub-humans” (a few were even put on display in a cage at the Paris Exhibition at the turn of the century). Sadly, their demise was primarily caused by diseases, brought to them by their self-pronounced “saviours”.

Museo Regional Braun-Menendez highlighted the other side of life in Peurto Arenas…that of the wealthy sheep farmers. The mansion, built just after the turn of the century, has beautiful inlaid floors (you are provided with cloth covers for your shoes as you walk in), French and British furnishings, and every modern convenience of the day. In an interesting twist, you can walk out the back door into the garden and then immediately down the steps into the servants area. This includes a huge kitchen and pantry, a large food storage area (including cava for the wine), a bedroom and well-equipped bathroom for the cook and housekeeper (evidently 8 other staff lived off site) and the boiler room and coal storage area. A real upstairs/downstairs view of yesteryear southern Chile.

Chilean Fjords (Feb. 17-18)

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Two days at sea usually means hankering down in the library with a good book, going to the gym for some exercise and (if the weather is conducive) a swim and some sun on the deck. This far south the latter is out of the question except for the one brave man we saw doing laps as we got up at dawn to view our first glacier.

Cruising through the fjords is amazingly beautiful – snow-topped mountains on either side, incredibly blue, crevassed glaciers cascading down into the water and a relatively calm sea full of “burgy bits” that have broken off the ice. Those bits shimmer like diamonds on the water because there is much more ice underneath the surface than above and the reflection al,out sparkles.

The captain cruised into an inlet and turned the boat around 360 degrees for over an hour in order for all to see first major glacier and the second followed later that day. We were rocking and rolling that evening as he returned to the Pacific to progress further south and enter the Strait of Magellan.

Chacabuco (Feb. 16)

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Located in the Valdes Peninsula, a UNESCO designated nature reserve, this is the main port in the area (assuming this role after a series of landslides clogged the Port of Aysen in the mid 60s and subsequent damage from volcanic eruptions in the 90s).

The town itself is unremarkable but its position, at the head of the Aysen Fjord and surrounded by the Andes, is quite spectacular. We walked the length and breadth of it in just over an hour and, with the exception of the large canine population that barked and followed us along the way, it had the feeling of a ghost town. Houses are close together and most claddings and yards are quite unkempt although a few reflected pride of ownership. A high percentage were up for sale but, even with my penchant for real estate, I didn’t check them out!

Puerto Montt (Feb. 15)

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Encouraged by Manuel Montt, the President of Chile in the mid 1800s, the German government sponsored immigration to this area and Puerto Montt was founded in 1853. Hence, the port and surrounding Lakes District have a distinctive German flavour.

Driving into Puerto Varas on the huge Lake Llanquihue, the houses and shops have a Bavarian look but the backdrop of volcanos is uniquely Chilean. The beautiful, Fuji-like snow-capped peak of Osorno seemed to follow us all around the lake, while the now almost flat peak of Mt. Calbuco that erupted just ten months ago was often shrouded in cloud.

The ash from that recent eruption covers a large swath of the countryside and it’s easy to see why tourism has dropped in the area. However, there are still bus loads of tourists, both local and foreign, as well as backpackers getting supplies for their trek up to the craters and further into the Andes.

All six on this private tour were Canadian and, when told that we would be visiting the very special Petrohue Falls in Vicente Perez Rosales National Park, we expected a high cascading waterfall. It is, however, a chute-type with water tumbling over various levels of volcanic rock. Add to this the backdrop of Osorno volcano through the trees and varied colours in the water and it is truly quite spectacular. A little further on in the park, past lava flows hardened long ago and Coihue trees unique to Chile, is Laguna Verde, a small emerald coloured lake (due to a combination of minerals and algae).

Our last stop, on the opposite end of the lake was Frutillar, another Bavarian-style village colonized in the late 19th century, which has a modern theatre with a wrap around walkway overlooking the lake. Tony and I especially enjoyed a series of cartoons depicting various composers on the walls inside.  They were by Swiss artist, Jacques Truffert

Valparaiso (Feb. 13)

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We almost came to this city about 10 years ago when Tony was invited to speak at a conference but circumstances changed and he had to turn them down. I was glad to have a second chance. Unfortunately, however, we had so little time and it was tough to choose between touring the city of “Valpo” (it’s nickname) or the capital city, Santiago (just 100km away) or the wine area of Casablanca Valley. Those of you who know us well will probably guess – we chose the valley!

This is one of the downfalls of cruising – you really just get a glimpse of the region, there’s not nearly enough time to immerse yourself in the culture, get lost in the backstreets, or hike in the hills to get beyond the tourist locales. It does, however, give you a taste and a feeling for areas to which you would like to return. Central Chile is one for me.

As our group of seven neared the Casablanca Valley, the vegetation began to look familiar and even more so as the slopes became covered in vineyards. If there had been a lake along the valley it could have been the Chilean “Okanagan”. Our tour guide provided comprehensive background on the region, the wine industry, and it’s short history (the area was deemed too chilly for viticulture until the late 20th century).

Indomita Winery, a white “castle” on top of a hill, was the first stop. A massive estate that bottles a number of brands with grapes from their vineyards in the Casablanca Valley (primarily Sauvignon Blanc) as well as warmer regions of Chile (Carmenere, Pinot Noir, and various blends). We were given a tasting of three and enjoyed them all, purchasing two bottles to take back to the ship. This winery exports all over the world but, unfortunately, the only brand that they ship to Canada is Saint Alicia. It was later explained to us that any Chilean wine with “Saint” in its name is their lowest quality brand. Sad, but a good rule of thumb when choosing wines from this region.

Our next stop was a small boutique winery called House. I loved the architecture of the low, modern building, quite a contrast to Indomita. We had a lovely lunch, not quite spoiled by a waiter who got the wrong orders for two of our party and they were offered their meal as we were about to leave the restaurant. We agreed that “we all make mistakes” but their suggestion that it was somehow their fault and lack of apology was disappointing.

We then had an exceptional tour of the winery by a fellow who was obviously going “above and beyond”. He took us into the vineyards, explained the corporate history and philosophy, then showed us the pressing and fermentation rooms and into the area where they keep the finished product. The winery was the first in the valley, started by a fellow determined to prove the naysayers wrong. He not only showed them that you can grow grapes in that climate, his winery (now owned by a conglomerate) is still a testing ground for new and different varieties as well as creative technologies.

Adapting an old technique with new technology, they use egg-shaped reinforced concrete “barrels” to ferment the wine. The shape ensures that there are no dead corners, providing uniformity of composition and the temperature difference of around 1°C between the top and bottom of the eggs is said to enhance the slow, continuous flow of the liquid. Unfortunately, I neglected to get a photo of these eggs, but I did take a shot of their display board. Just outside this area were some large clay pots similar to those that would have been used by very early vintners.

Ending up in the wine cellar, we learned that this particular winery is too small to do its own bottling, so they send all of their product to a sister company in the Maipo Valley to be bottled and returned. Their production is so small that they do not export, in fact all of the wine they make is sold out of this location (in addition to wines from others in the company). Their own “Mancura Gran Reserva”, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc, & Merlot, was delightful and, given the small quantity produced, we were amazed that it was less than $10/bottle. Two more for our cabin!

As we left House we were surprised to learn that our guide through the winery was actually the husband of our tour guide. Having learned of our lunch disappointment, he was determined that we would be pleased with the rest of our time there.

We also received another treat – a short operatic performance from our guide before heading back in the van. Our tour guide moonlighted as an opera singer!

Although sad that we missed seeing the highlights of both cities, we were pleased to have had the opportunity to get a glimpse into (and taste of) the Chilean wine industry.

Coquimbo (Feb.12)

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This port is at the so called “waist” of Chile, the narrowest part of the country between the ocean and the Andes. Coquimbo is next to the larger city of La Serena and both are popular tourist centres due to their white sand beaches and pleasant climate.

While we waited (literally) hours for the shuttle to take us into La Serena, we walked over to a bustling market. A large area offered a multitude of goods (including swords that looked like they were taken right from some poor swordfish) and, further on, a crowded fish market with small restaurants above up rickety stairs. It was here that I wished that my gut was not quite so sensitive because I would have loved to try one of the huge variety of ceviche dishes on offer beside whole fresh fish.

Once in La Serena, we wandered down a busy shopping street to the main square, Plaza de Armas which was teeming with families enjoying the small market stalls, sketch artists and snack kiosks. The recommended museum, the former home of ex-President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, was a peaceful respite which included not only photos and memorabelia from his time in office, but also local art indicative of the area. Videla was president in the late 50s to early 60s and helped draft the country’s current constitution.

The broad avenue on one side of the square is significant for the marble statues all along the centre Boulevard. They are copies of famous nude Greek statues, donated to the city by Italy. Locals have dubbed it the “Park of the Bare Behinds”.

We drove close to the ocean between Coquimbo and La Serena through a large, relatively barren area scattered with just a few tall apartment buildings. The first few floors of each of these buildings were boarded up. It was a bit of a puzzle until the guide informed us that there had been a tsunami just five months previously. Earthquakes and tsunamis are so common in this region that they are just an accepted part of life.

Just before leaving the port our ship was “attacked” by a pirate ship laden with local tourists.  Captain Hook threatened us in Spanish over a loudspeaker and his crew or captives (not sure which) waived and shouted “hola”!

Iquique (Feb. 10)

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Our first port in Chile and quite an interesting one it is. It was such a contrast in both architecture and civic pride. This city of about 200,000 people takes pride in its history and culture and, although still a work in progress, they are restoring many of the buildings and wooden sidewalks to their original splendour. It was reminiscent of a western movie set – except the wooden buildings were of colonial style, some baroque.

The main square as bustling with locals as well as tourists and at one end was the magnificent “Teatro Municipal”, built in 1889. As we wandered onto the stage, I felt that I could hear the echoes of audiences enjoying the opera singers, actors, and mimes featured on old billboards in the lobby.

The local museum was interesting, although a little gloomy (actual mummies were in the first few exhibits). Here we wished that we had learned Spanish, but we could still get the gist of the information boards by virtue of its similarity to English. The historical photographs also gave us a flavour of the history. Thanks to the excellent shipboard lecturer, we learned a great deal more about the Pacific War which put Iquique in an historical perspective.

Founded in the 16th century and part of Peru until the end of the 19th century, development was rapid after the discovery of large deposits of sodium nitrate (saltpetre).  Similar to the gold rush, foreigners streamed in to take advantage of the area’s riches.

Charles Darwin visited on the Beagle in 1835, noting that the city was “very much in want of everyday necessities such as water and firewood”.  These basic supplies must still be brought in from great distances – giving me an even greater appreciation of the wooden buildings.