Brace yourself, this will be a long one….
The decision to go to Chile from Mendoza was based on a few facts:
- We had 1,000 Argentinian pesos ($77.00) left to our name and no more dollars to exchange, so we needed to go somewhere with a new currency that didn’t have the “blue market” and somewhere where we could get USD’s so we could go back to Argentina at some point.
- NYE is a HUGE deal for a Soviet girl like myself. Growing up in USSR, we didn’t really celebrate Hanukkah and we obviously didn’t celebrate Christmas. However, NYE was like a birthday, Hanukkah, Christmas, Easter – all rolled into one. My family was known for a huge “New Year’s Tree” (aka the Christmas Tree) and parties that went on all night long with tons of people/costumes/performances and gifts. I participated in this family tradition until I was at least 18 and always loved it. So, for me, NYE is REALLY freaking special (there better be a count down, there better be a silly hat and there better be a party that lasts all night long).
- The nearby choices were to go back to Buenos Aires and take a boat to Uruguay (a huge NYE party in Punta del Este, but ridiculously expensive especially when booked at the last minute) or hop on a 4 hour bus ride to Santiago, Chile and then go to Valparaiso for NYE (the second biggest party in S. America after Punta del Este).
- And lastly, I knew that a friend of mine, Irena, (the first friend that I made in US back in 1995, a Russkiy immigrant like myself) who now lives in New York would be in Valparaiso, celebrating the New Year.
Kieran and I knew nothing about Chile and in fact it wasn’t on our radar at all, but the beauty of this open ended travel is that you get to just show up places you would never consider and find out what they are all about.
To all of you who think that what we are doing is soooo cool and brave and blah blah blah … I won’t disagree; however, it is A LOT OF WORK…about 50-70% of the time is spent making sure the WiFi works (or as someone I know calls it FiveWives) so we can book our next bus/plane/train ride, making sure that we always have somewhere to sleep and in 6 weeks of travel I have packed and unpacked my overflowing backpack far too many times! Oh, and then there is the language barrier (for example, just right now I ordered what I thought was a salad and ended up with a sandwich). So, while in Mendoza, we spent a significant amount of time, researching Santiago and booking our bus, hotel, etc.
We took what was supposed to be a 4 hour bus ride to Santiago on December 29th, 2014. The bus ride ended up being around 7-8 hours as we had to cross the border. I am so glad that Kieran convinced me to take the day bus as you spend a significant amount of time standing outside (2-3 hours) in the cold waiting to get your passport stamped – they have got to come up with a better way to do this.
So, we get to Santiago bus station and take a taxi to our first “fancy” hotel in one month that I bid on via Priceline (the Marriott – woop woop). I bid due to pure laziness as I really wanted technology to make a decision for me since I was soooo sick of reading hotel reviews to make a decision on my own (note to self: never EVER bid again – although the deal was great compared to the actual rate, the hotel, which is considered a 4 star in Santiago was “special” – more on this later).
Taxi ride from the bus station was wonderful, until the cab driver decided to charge us more than the meter suggested (in fact, he didn’t want to turn on the meter until Kieran told him to do so) and was threatening to call the police. So, here we are, at the entry to the Marriott, everyone around us is speaking English and two exhausted backpackers (us) are about to go to jail? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. The guy knew he was ripping us off and the hotel staff knew it, but we were so over arguing about it and 4,000 Chilean pesos later (that’s really only about $6), I may have told the guy to choke on it and walked away. If you think that I am always the hot tempered one, I was actually rather tame in this situation while Kieran was ready to brawl out with this fella – Side note: the rare appearance of the Irish temper is HOT HOT HOT! (to be honest, I didn’t even know what was happening until the very end, but if someone upsets Kieran, which almost never happens, I am ready to kill).
That was the beginning of Santiago, but this little hiccup aside, Santiago was actually pretty AMAZING. When you have no expectations, you are bound to be surprised. It is a very expensive, tech savvy, modern city with huge malls and people dressed to impress (except for us).
Before I get to the next part of the Chile trip (Valparaiso), here are some of the recommendations/reviews of what we saw and where we ate in Santiago:
FOOD IN SANTIAGO:
- Los Cuates: a yummy Mexican joint that we just stumbled upon. It was delicious with lovely service.
- Quinoa: an awesome breakfast/lunch spot that we both LOVED also with great service (to those from the bay area, think Alana’s).
- Ciudad Vieja: this was a lunch/drinks suggestion from a local (gracias Felipe Baytelman). This place had the most delicious sandwiches and lemonade.
- Xoco Por Ti: a chocolate bar – do I need to say more?
- Huascaran: great Peruvian food which we just stumbled upon and loved!
- Tiramisu: a delicious pizza joint which is ALWAYS packed and so much fun! Highly recommend (we went twice)!
- Palettas: to those who are connected to me on FB saw me post a few pictures of this ice cream place. I wish I found it on day 1 and not day 5 – HOLY MOLY….what a concept!!!! Kieran doesn’t know this, but there are days when I may have had 2….SHHHHHHHHHH!
- Jewel of India: we haven’t had Indian food in months and this was rated as #1 on Trip Advisor. IS THIS A JOKE? For $55 we barely had any food, no alcohol and no dessert…ummm, there goes our 2 day food budget. But seriously, this place is so highly overrated – skip!
While in Santiago, we spent a good chunk of our time planning either the trip to Valparaiso or what happens after Chile which caused some stress and thus severe emotional binge eating, so there may have been a few trips to KFC and McDonalds (as my friend Maria would say – “ooooooopsie”)!
TO DO IN SANTIAGO:
- Cerro Santa Lucia: a beautiful green hill in the middle of the city which you can hike up and enjoy the views!
- La Moneda: a presidential palace which takes up the entire block – go on a weekday, this area is packed and looks like Wall Street.
- Parque Arauco: right next door to the Marriott, this is a beautiful modern outdoor mall with multiple restaurants and live music.
- Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights): I am seriously behind on my history lessons, but WOW. What a beautiful and touching museum. It depicts the atrocities that people of Chile experienced for 17 years while Augosto Pinochet was the dictator. If you want to learn about this history, it is very well displayed and free (just have to pay a few bucks if you want to listen to the explanations in English).
- Costanera Center: we spent the last 3 days of our Santiago trip at this mall as it was 1) fabulous 2) had my favorite ice cream spot and 3) awesome free wifi. This is a huge mall which is connected to the tallest building in S. America.
WHERE TO STAY OR NOT TO STAY:
During our 7 day stay in Santiago, we stayed at 3 different hotels. I told you, traveling ain’t easy!
- Marriott Santiago: my review says it all – just click the link! And to add, since the internet costs an arm and a leg at this “fancy 4 star hotel”, we didn’t buy the internet package. However, not so sharp employees downstairs, accidentally gave me the password which worked our entire stay for FREEEEEEEEE!
- Conchita Flores B&B: we booked something completely different and when we got to the hotel that we actually booked, the manager said “I have good news and bad news”. Good news is that we would still have somewhere to sleep, the bad news was that he would be taking us to a different sister hotel. Did I mention that you really have to learn to be flexible when traveling and try to do it all with a smile? So, we were moved to a different hotel, then throughout the stay we were asked to change rooms (it felt like we moved 6 times in 7 days in Santiago).
- WE Hotel: our last night in Santiago, we stayed at the WE Hotel and how I wish we found it sooner. It was lovely! Great staff, beautiful big rooms and a cozy bed. I just wish we didn’t have to get up at 4:30am to catch our next flight!
- The public transportation is soooo great! The metro is easy and inexpensive.
- The Starbucks always has free wifi with a password written on the board and every Starbucks shares the same password. You can be 400 feet away from a Starbucks and still be connected.
- GO TO PALETTA’S ICE CREAM!!!! Breakfast, lunch and dinner! DO IT!
- If you need dollars, Chile is the place to exchange your $ when going back to Argentina. First, we took out a bunch of Chilean pesos and then exchanged them for USD’s. Yay, we had $$$ again!
- If you are going anywhere for New Year’s Eve, make sure to take out money out of the bank days in advance as the ATM’s run out of money (also a new concept to us).
- Stay in downtown and close to metro, you will be using it a lot!
Onwards with the story…
After many back and forth messages with my friend Irena who was already in Valparaiso, Kieran and I decided to book our bus tickets (1.5 hour bus ride) on December 31st (9am) and to stay in Valparaiso until January 1 (6:30am). We also decided not to book a hotel for the night in Valparaiso as we had one in Santiago and just decided to wing it for the entire night in Valparaiso (very unusual for two control freaks who do not tend to sleep on the streets).
Known as one of the largest fireworks displays in South America, over one million of Chileans gravitate towards Valparaíso and neighboring Viña del Mar for New Year’s Eve. Valparaíso is often called “the Pearl of the Pacific” and it is a protected UNESCO site. It’s a port city, though no longer the most important port of the country. Still, commerce comes through here, as do some 50 cruise ships, often either on their way from or to Cape Horn and Antarctica. Valparaíso is famous for its picturesque colorful houses on steep hillsides.
This is where it gets fun! We get to the bus station in Santiago as we wait for our 9am bus. There are buses leaving every 5-10 minutes. As we watch the 9:10am bus leave and the 9:20 and the 9:27 and the 9:32 and the 9:45, you get the point, we wonder, what happened to the 9:00am bus (we got to the bus station at 8:30am)? As much as we tried to ask in our broken Spanish “what happened to the 9am bus?” no one knew and the bus station employees just shrugged at us. A woman who was supposed to get on the same bus saw us and allowed us to follow her back and forth like a tail as she asked employees questions. Then she turned to us and said “let’s hope”. For two people who adore the punctuality of German buses and trains, this “let’s hope” concept was new to us! What do you mean “let’s hope”!?! The 9:00 am bus arrived at 10:00am as we all exploded with renewed hope and excitement. The ride was quick and easy with tons of hitch hikers on the side of the road begging to be picked up and taken to Valparaiso for the party.
We arrived to Valparaiso around noon (did I mention that we had no hotel booked and were planning to be awake until 6:30am the next day?) and walked about 20 minutes uphill to a cute little colorful town. We sat at cafe’s, walked the streets with beautiful ocean views, ate ice cream and listened to street musicians.
At around 8pm, we walked over to where Irena and her friend were staying with a bottle of vodka (duh!) and cranberry juice and we were ready to party. Irena and her friend Vera met some folks along the way while traveling (Ivan from Russia and David from Australia) who joined us all as well. The pre-party went on from 8pm and well, it never really ended! We walked a few minutes up from Irena’s apartment and were in the prime location to watch the fireworks. At midnight, people are given 3 minutes to embrace their loved ones and then the fireworks show begins and lasts for 22 minutes. It is SPECTACULAR and the BEST that I have ever seen!
After the fireworks, most of us were no longer that sober and as we walked towards the street parties with thousands of people in tow, we ended up losing each other and we were never able to reconnect. Kieran and I luckily never lost each other and we ended up walking to a Welsh pub (Restaurante Brecon’s) where we met the owner earlier in the day who invited us back if we needed a place to hang and to get away from the craziness on the streets. So, here we are, at 3am, sobering up at a pub (rather than drinking) with 2 German families who we just met (I wish we took a picture together). The Germans were still going strong with pints of beer while the Russian and the Irish were quickly fading away.
So, what do 2 people do when the pub is closing and you still have 3 more hours until your bus back and nowhere to sleep? You walk around town completely aimlessly, eat hot dogs and watch drunk people act crazy.
At 5am, I was starting to get antsy and we decided to walk back to the bus station. When we got there, there were about 1000 people who had the same brilliant idea – let’s see if we can catch an earlier bus back to Santiago! And somehow, with my amazing Spanish skills, not only did I get us a 5:30am bus instead of 6:30am to Santiago but we also got money back as the earlier bus was cheaper – WINNING!
We got back to the hotel in Santiago around 8am on January 1st and were cozily asleep until 3pm. HAPPY NEW YEAR, ALL!
Next up … Kieran is off to Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia to hike for 10 days (silly goose), while I go back and try to reconnect with my abusive lover, Buenos Aires!
p.s. To those wondering, “will Kieran ever post again?”…I wonder the same…he is about 3 posts behind! Yep, I am calling you out, Donnelly!