Back to School: Thai Cooking Class

Friday was one of the most enjoyable days in my travels – cooking class! I’d decided to go with Thai Farm Cooking School since my Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned that class was actually on the farm outside of the city, and the website was good. They didn’t disappoint!

I was picked up in their song-theow and met the other participants: three folks from the US, a lady from Hong Kong, and two young Dutch women. Personalities meshed pretty well, especially when adding our charming young teacher to the mix.

We started out at the market where we learned about the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream, jasmine rice and sticky rice. Then out to the farm where we got to see the plants we would be using. Who knew that turmeric was a root that is shaped a bit like ginger but is – surprise – yellow inside.

First up was making curry paste – easily the most difficult part of the day since you need to use a mortar and pestle. I don’t think I minced my ingredients finely enough, or I’m a weakling when it comes to blending in by hand!

After the chili paste was ready, we moved on to Tom Yum soup and chicken with hot basil so we could eat something.

The afternoon continued with the green curry and pad thai, wrapping up with mango and sticky rice. (I should note that everyone got to choose what fish they made per “course” and I’ve just listed what I picked. Others chose red curry, for example, for the curry course.)

I had an amazing day, and my pad thai looked good enough that the instructor asked for me to send a photo if I’d taken one!

Lots More Wats: Chiang Mai

I arrived at the bus station in Chiang Mai and took a tuk-tuk to my hotel. It’s the first time I’ve ridden in a tuk-tuk that actually makes the sound for which they were named!

Once safely arrived, I had much of the late afternoon free, so I decided to walk to the old city and take a leisurely walk around. Chiang Mai is essentially Thailand’s capital to the north: an ancient city filled with wats (over 300 I think I’ve read). Just walking to the northern gate of the old city, I passed two or three. They are quite impressively beautiful, with gables in jewel tones highlighted with gold.
Chiang Mai wat

Another Wat passed on my way into the moated old city:

Chiang Mai has a very specific feel. The old city felt a little like Kyoto with its narrow winding streets and mix of old and new, although it has many more new(ish) buildings. Newish compared to traditional Kyoto buildings, anyway! What struck me immediately, though, was how many westerners were around, backpackers and expats alike. Several restaurants advertised full English breakfast fry-ups and there are an astounding number of secondhand bookstores primarily specializing in English language books. One other thing I noticed, which detracts from the atmosphere, is the number of older western men with younger Thai women. It wasn’t as bad as I’d read – the women weren’t on the whole very young (I’d say most were in their twenties). I’m not judging relationships with big age disparities as I know several couples back home with age disparities and great marriages. The dynamic seems very different here, however, more on the mail-order Russian bride scheme of things.

The next day, fortified by a good night’s sleep, I headed in to orient myself by going to a few museums. First off was the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center, with engaging displays about the history, geography and traditional jobs and pastimes of Chiang Mai. Apparently Chiang Mai was founded by three kings – the statue in front of the museum reminded me of Yul Brenner in The King and I, so apparently score one for the research done by their costume designers.image

The Chiang Mai Historical Center is right behind the other museum and continues with a detailed discussion of the city’s history. I think I’d have been just as happy skipping this one. Since my feet were hurting after this museum, I grabbed some lunch and then went to the third covered by my museum pass, the Lanna Folklife Museum. This was hands-down my favorite, with a room full of textiles, another of the red and gold painting found on so many wats, another on the region’s different baskets, and so on. It really helped to put a context together for my Wat explorations.

Which I continued after the museum, heading to Wat Chedi Luang and the City Pillar. (There might be another Wat tucked in there too.)

It started pouring, so I ducked into a cafe for some tea and cake and headed out again once the rain had stopped. Here a few more pictures from the day, most from Wat Chiangmun.

Serene Buddhas and an Ancient Capital: Sukhothai

On Sunday, I headed up north, taking the train up to Sukhothai. The Sukhothai Historical Park houses the remnants of the 13th-14th century capital of arguably the first Thai (as opposed to Khmer) kingdom.

The train went to Phitsanolok, about an hour from Sukhothai. The trip was on a two-car special express train – I was rather puzzled to see the train because the car I was in seemed to be the engine! If you looked straight ahead down the middle of the car, you saw a door and the train tracks stretched ahead. I had bought a snack for the train, but surprisingly they served us complimentary cookies and coffee, and them later some curry for lunch.

Train curry!

Train curry!

The scenery was definitely interesting. We passed through Ayuthaya, another ancient capital, and could see tantalizing glimpses from the train tracks. Next we passed through Lopburi, where clustered around a shrine were more monkeys than I’ve ever seen before, in the shrine area, walking to it, in the street. Remember the deer in Nara? Well it’s the monkeys in Lopburi in much the same way.

We passed a lot of water, explaining why traditionally Thai houses are on stilts. We passed lots of those, too. There were many water lilies and more crane-like birds (herons, egrets, don’t know) than I’ve ever seen before. I saw some emaciated cow-like animals that seemed to have a hump (so I’m not sure if they were cows and I could just see bone structure normally hidden on a well-fed cow, or if they were some hybrid). I even saw a water buffalo!

I noticed a Western couple getting off the train at the same time so I asked whether they were going to Sukhothai and if so whether we could go in a group. As we stood looking at a map of Phitsanulok, a couple of guys speaking English joined us and we decided that a tuk-tuk to the bus station made sense. So five of us AND our luggage somehow squeezed into one tuk-tuk and away we went.

We found the bus to Sukhothai pretty easily and sat in the back by the luggage. It was a local bus, so it stopped frequently to let people on and off. A bunch of tiny older women got on, clearly coming back from selling their wares at the market. Our backpacks gradually were surrounded by piles of (probably handmade) baskets, bags of chili peppers, and finally a mesh bag of (live!) frogs. It was a great, if not terribly comfortable, trip.

The humidity in Sukhothai made the Bangkok-like heat feel 10-15 degrees hotter as we trekked to out hotel. (Turns out the first couple I had spoken to were staying at the same hotel.) Luckily, the hotel was beautiful (think teak cabins and beds with mosquito netting and a princessy feel) and, more importantly, had air conditioning. I really needed it after walking around – I’ve never been as sweaty in my entire life as during the few days spent in Sukhothai!

The following day, I set out to explore the center part of the historical part on foot. I started with the museum and then headed into the park. Some of the ruins are little more than that, while others have enough left (or reconstructed) that they are mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s just a bunch of pillars and water and serene Buddhas. I’m not sure whether some of the reconstructed ruins have been overly reconstructed, but it is a UNESCO heritage site and they do tend to be quite picky about that. Anyway, I loved it, despite being taken aback by how manicured the park is.

I had lunch at a noodle shop patronized by several of the pink-shirted park staff (delicious Sukhothai noodles) and then called it a day. I spent the afternoon reading and posting in the blissful air conditioning.

I had planned for two full days in Sukhothai, which let me be very leisurely. I booked a tuk-tuk to the northern part of the Historical Park since it seemed too far to walk in the heat. It was early enough that I beat the crowds, too. The Buddha at Wat Si Chum is beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of the park! My tuk-tuk driver was very sweet, off-roading a bit to get me as close to the monuments as possible. I’d have been fine with keeping our exhaust away from the ruins, but there wasn’t any way to communicate that so I accepted the offering with the spirit with which it was intended. He also picked up a turtle crossing a road so I could hold the poor creature – luckily we passed a later pond so I could set him free again!

It wasn’t even ten when I finished my tuk-tuk tour, so I wrote postcards and then walked a mile or more to the post office. People on the whole are so friendly here – I had some random people wave and yell “hello” to me in Thai and English!

I wrapped up the day with an oil massage. Massage is so cheap here!

During the Wet Season…It Rains

Yes, I know that’s rather a “duh” statement, but nevertheless it must be said. After all, it messed up my plans to visit temples on Friday, since it poured rather than simply rained. The hotel suggested I head to the MBK Shopping Center, and gave me a ride in the hotel tuk-tuk to the BTS station. I wasn’t in the mood to shop (or to carry any purchases around for two months when I was going to return to Bangkok), but I had heard that it had a great food court with essentially street food in a more sanitary environment than the street. (I really want to try some street food but most of the places I’ve seen so far look to have left out the food for a while in the heat.)

The food court really is great, with food from all over Thailand as well as some Chinese and Vietnamese options. (All this without even venturing to the floor below’s touted international food booths.) I put 200 baht on a food card and bought pad thai with glass noodles and mango with sticky rice – and still had money left over at the refund counter! The food was good and cheap enough that I actually went back the next day for some coconut milk curry chicken from southern Thailand.

Pad Thai with glass noodles

Pad Thai with glass noodles

MBK reminded me of the shopping center in Irkutsk – more little booths than shops. It may be a good place to find a tailor, since I saw several. There’s a movie theater there too, and I debated going to see a movie that afternoon. Instead I opted for some Thai massage at the hotel followed by blogging and figuring out my itinerary for the following week or so.

Thai massage is very different from the massages I’ve had in the US. They move your legs and arms all over to stretch them – I haven’t had such good turn out since I did ballet!

The next day, we had sun in the morning, so I hastened to the river to go temple touring while it lasted. I headed first to Wat Pho, home of the Temple of the Reclining Buddha as well as numerous of those bell-shaped structures that I now have learned are called chedi. The chedi were so ornate, it almost felt like being inside a box of cloisonné bells. The Reclining Buddha is enormous – 46 meters, if I remember correctly. It’s also easily the most touristy part of the complex.

After thoroughly exploring the complex, I headed to the ferry that crossed between Wat Pho and Wat Arun. It’s smaller than the Chao Phraya tourist boat and we felt the water’s choppiness much more. We made it across and I headed through the hawkers to the (what looks to me) Khmer-style Temple of the Dawn or Wat Arun. The heat was getting to me pretty badly, so I decided not to climb the ladder-like stairs, but I got my fill of the view from below.

My Hundredth Post Is from Bangkok

These demons look sad to be holding up the building

These demons look sad to be holding up the building

Can’t believe it, but I’m at post number 100! Thanks to everyone who has been reading along as I go on this journey!

Thursday was my first full day in Bangkok, so I felt that I should celebrate by heading to some of the main cannot-miss attractions. There are several of them, but I decided on the Grand Palace as the first. The Grand Palace complex includes the temple complex that houses the Emerald Buddha, so I visited that first. Not that I had much of a choice – the entrance line funnels the mobs into the temple complex as the first point of entry.

I had been worried that heading over to the Grand Palace might be difficult by public transportation, but in fact it’s quite simple. You take the BTS Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop by the river, get out and head to the pier following the signs for the Chao Phraya Express Boat. Buy your ticket for this tourist boat run by the transit company (it’s quite affordable) and simply wait for the boat to appear. The Grand Palace is “pier number nine”, so I got to see a bit of the sights of Bangkok from the river on the way. The tourist boats have a guide on each who points out sights. Some are more successfully understood than others, and not just due to the varying levels of accents. The varying microphone quality can’t be easy for them to work with.

First glimpse of the river in Bangkok

First glimpse of the river in Bangkok

The first pier you pass is the Oriental Pier, next to the famed (and pricey) Oriental Hotel that Conrad and Somerset Maugham stayed at, amongst other famous writers. Depending on the state of my finances when I return to Bangkok before heading home, I might go have high tea in the Author’s Wing, the original old building of the hotel. (There are a couple of modern additions that may add to the quality of the rooms but certainly detract from the quality of the ambiance, at least from the river view.) Of course, I’m not sure that I have dressy enough clothes for that – I’m rather one of the hoi polloi right now.

Taking the boat gives you a chance to appreciate the river, seeing sights you otherwise couldn’t see (at least not without a long bus ride). I enjoyed everything except getting river water in my face – it’s not exactly the cleanest water, although I did see living things in it, surprisingly (a crane or similar bird).

Appealing color, don't you think?

Appealing color, don’t you think?

We passed a number of colorful longtail boats. I think these are the boats which go on the canal tours, which sound like fun.

We made it to the pier and exited through a market with some incredible looking street food (and I mean “incredible” in multiple ways – I’m not sure that I’d want to eat all or even most of it, but the variety was astounding!) Once you exit through the market, you can see a great big, white wall that surrounds the palace. Taking our lives in our hands, we crossed. (I say “we” here because I always try to cross with a tour group. They hold up traffic so nicely, you see!) Signs posted along the wall warn of the scams of “wily strangers”. Apparently it’s quite common for someone to try to tell you the site is closed for the day and then to take you on either a gem selling scam or simply a shopping-and-the-driver-gets-commissions scam.

With all the tour groups around, I didn’t notice any wily strangers. I did manage to get into the site, despite the mobs of people.

Just a hint of the mob at the Grand Palace...

Just a hint of the mob at the Grand Palace…

The entrance is stunning, surrounded by these two-storey high statues of what I assume are some kind of guardian.

I wandered through the temple complex, seeing the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha is jade, I believe, not really emerald, and spent some time in its history in Laos when Thailand had a king of Laotian origin who returned to Laos. From my guidebook reading, I think the Laotians are still quite bitter the Thais took it back, so I may hear some more of the tale from a Laotian part of view when I get there.

The heat and humidity were pretty bad, so I was happy to take advantage of a stand selling actual mango juice (as opposed to mango nectar), which I haven’t had in years.

Real mango juice, not mango nectar!

Real mango juice, not mango nectar!

I then wandered through the Grand Palace courtyard, admiring various buildings.

It was starting to drizzle towards the end, so I popped into the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum, which is also part of the Grand Palace complex. There are some beautiful examples of Thai traditional dress in there. Apparently “modern traditional dress” was invented by the queen and her advisors in the late 1950s in preparation for the royal State visit to Europe and the US in 1960. Thai dress became heavily influenced by Western clothing in the 19th century, so traditional court dress no longer existed.

I spent a long time in the palace complex and museums, so was more than ready for lunch when I exited. I decided to head to the National Museum, which I wanted to see and which was supposed to have a decent restaurant. I had my first real Thai meal for the whopping price of 45 baht ($1.50)!

First Thai food. Mmm chili!

First Thai food. Mmm chili!

I then wandered around the museum, which was actually free because the 19th was apparently national museum day!

The National Museum is this really interesting hodgepodge of items, from a former queen’s dollhouse to Buddhas from the Sukhothai period to ornate bookcases and a life-sized model elephant. It was a great way to kill the rest of the afternoon.

Beware of Wily Strangers: Bangkok

This sign greeted me as I walked along the perimeter wall around the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok yesterday. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Monday night, I set out for Southeast Asia. First stop, Bangkok, arriving Wednesday morning since I got to cross the international date line!

I was flying Etihad Airlines, the official airline of the UAE, and had no idea what to expect since online reviews were so split. I found the flight from Washington, DC to Abu Dhabi to have exceptional service. (The flight attendants actually kept the coach bathroom clean and with the end of the roll of toilet paper folded into a little triangle, if you can believe it!) Best yet was the fact that the back of the plane was empty – a woman I started chatting with while boarding gave me the heads-up that I should try to move to the back, and I am very grateful for the advice. I ended up sitting by myself in a middle three-seater row, which meant that I could lie down and actually…sleep! It’s amazing what sleeping on a plane will do for preventing jet lag. The flight from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok was more crowded, so not as comfortable. Oh well, I got to catch up on the latest Star Trek movie, which I had been wanting to see for a while, so all was not lost!

Bangkok’s airport is fairly confusing, with multiple immigration entry points. Inexplicably we got herded to number 4, although our baggage was coming in on a carousel closer to a different immigration line. I went through pretty quickly, picked up my bags, and headed out to the taxi line. The same lady who had given me such good advice on moving to the back of the plane recommended that I take a taxi instead of the Airport Express train, since a cab wouldn’t cost much more and with the train I’d need to change multiple times and go up and down stairs. Well, people can’t always be right! I rather regret not taking the train in, despite the stairs, since I have a backpack to make stairs easy. (I’ve noticed in the couple of days I’ve been here in Bangkok that it doesn’t seem very accessible – the BTS Skytrain is very convenient, but I haven’t seen any elevators.) The nice lady was wrong about a taxi being cheap, perhaps because she inexplicably didn’t account for the traffic jams that Bangkok is notorious for. My cab from the airport cost almost $40, pretty steep in a country where so much is so very cheap.

I must admit that when I got into the cab, I was pretty sure I was getting scammed. My driver insisted on taking the paper ticket that they had given me when they assigned me a cab, and I thought that was the one piece of paper that was the rider’s proof of destination in order to prevent a scam. I sat there worried – and then philosophical – that I was going to be scammed, but I think I overreacted. I don’t know whether my driver took the most direct route or not, but I rather think he did. He pointed out where the airport train went. He told me to take it going back, because it would be much faster and cheaper. And he didn’t charge me the full, official airport charge of 50 baht, either. He seemed very surprised and grateful when I then gave him a 100 baht tip (about 10%).

I’m staying at the Courtyard Marriott since I have some Marriott points left (surprisingly, after using them all over the world this year!). I know it’s not the most atmospheric Thai hotel, but it’s very nice and just what I need to get over any jet lag and get acclimatized. It’s actually rather amusing being at breakfast and seeing the business-type folks in the business lounge, and knowing that I don’t have to work. And fresh guava juice at breakfast is a definite plus!

The hotel let me check in very early, so I spent a little time researching what I wanted to do on Wednesday (nothing too strenuous!) and then headed out. Since I’m only a few blocks from the Erawan Shrine, I headed there first. It’s a shrine on the street corner by the (extremely) high class Erawan Shopping Center. The shrine was built to reverse bad karma at the Erawan Hotel (and it’s apparently worked). A lot of people come to pray at the Hindu shrine, and there are Thai dancers there who are hired by the devout who have had a prayer answered. I sat for a little while, taking in the incense, the dancers and the devout, before moving on.

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

The devout in front of the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Incense at the Erawan Shrine

Next up was a search for an ATM, which I found in a mall. I checked the Erawan Mall first. It’s the first time I’ve seen as exclusive as Givenchy in a mall! However, no luck on an ATM, so I moved on to the one across the street, where I had better success.

I then went to the Jim Thompson House Museum. Jim Thompson was an American who first came to Thailand in WWII in his position with the OSS. He loved it so much that he moved here after the war, becoming fascinated in Thai handmade silk. He founded a business to bring Thai silks to the West – Jim Thompson Silk is now one of the best known names in the industry. As I learned during the tour of his house, his silks were used for the costumes in The King and I. I guess once Hollywood knows you, the rest of the world does, too!

Tours leave every 20 minutes or so, so I wandered around the garden for a little while and then sat on a bench to wait. The heat and, more importantly, the humidity, are taking some getting used to! The museum consists of his house (seven traditional Thai houses knocked together to form one big, semi-traditional house) along with a couple of smaller houses and his garden. Mr. Thompson collected beautiful Thai antiques, so I got to see numerous Buddha statues, some beautiful porcelain, and the houses themselves, made of beautiful dark wood. Thai houses are traditionally on stilts to avoid flooding and bases are wider than the tops of the houses to give better structural support.

After Jim Thompson’s House Museum, I was ready to head back to the air conditioning of the hotel. I was planning to pack in a full tourist day on Thursday, heading out to the Grand Palace (and being told to beware of wily strangers). And now that you’re hooked, I’ll tell you more tomorrow. See, I can be wily, too.

What’s next?

Well, my three weeks of silence (oops!) were due to my being back in the States, getting ready for my third, and last, two month adventure. I’m heading off to Southeast Asia next week, so will be pretty silent until I have safely arrived…and perhaps at least somewhat recovered from jet lag. Stay tuned for some fantastic times in Thailand!

The Jesuit Trail: Estancias and the City of Cordoba

Back in Buenos Aires, I spent the day napping and hanging out in a hotel room – after I bought my tickets to Cordoba, near the Sierras. And the next day, Friday, I headed out. I had opted for a day ride so that I could see the countryside, but I must admit it wasn’t too exciting. It was mostly flat fields, often with grazing cattle. In many ways the landscape is similar to parts of the US Midwest.

Cows in the pampas - looks like the US Midwest

Cows in the pampas – looks like the US Midwest

While I arrived after dark, I still felt comfortable walking from the bus station to the hostel, which was pretty much a straight shot of about a mile. Perhaps because it was Friday night in a college town, there were a bunch of people (including many single women) walking towards the bus station with their bags in tow.

Since I arrived pretty late, I didn’t really see anything that night, but I planned to head out and explore the city the next day. Saturday morning I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with an Australian woman who was visiting Cordoba for a few days, and was up for exploring the city together. And it’s an engaging city. The Jesuits made it their headquarters, founding the university in the early seventeenth century. To fund the university, they also founded estancias (loosely translated as ranches or farms) in the small cities around Cordoba, introducing wine to Argentina.

The historic center of Cordoba seems to have a Jesuit church every other block. Since they range over a period of time, their building materials are different, but they share a certain architectural similarity. People from the US Southwest or California may recognize the Spanish influence.

We had lunch at the market, finding a little Middle-Eastern restaurant that was pretty tasty. Our server was so nice, only charging us for the part of the bottle of wine that we drank (and since it was the middle of the day, we only had a glass or two).

We wanted to see the inside of the university, so we took a guided tour in the afternoon. There’s an excellent collection of old books, although much of the Jesuit riches disappeared after the Jesuits fell out of favor with the Spanish king and he disbanded them. I think things were handed over to the Dominicans (as in the monastic order).

There were several estancias I wanted to see, and I knew that some would be closed on Monday. (Surprisingly, they weren’t supposed to be closed on Sunday.) So Sunday I set out for the farther estancia, to the town of Jesus Maria. There is an estancia there, and another one (which my guidebook thought the most beautiful) about a 20-30 minute drive away, called the Estancia Santa Catalina. Apparently the only way to get to Santa Catalina is by taxi, so I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out there. However, when I got off the minibus in Jesus Maria and was trying to get my bearings for how to get to the Jesus Maria estancia, I ran into a British couple who had been on the university tour the previous afternoon. They offered to split the taxi ride with me, so we went over to one of the drivers to figure out how much it would cost. My Spanish more or less saw us through, and we decided it was worthwhile to head out.

We bumped and jolted along a country road, the distant Sierras growing closer, until we came to Estancia Santa Catalina. And it is absolutely lovely.

Arguably the most beautiful Jesuit estancia...

Arguably the most beautiful Jesuit estancia…

Unfortunately, it was also closed. The British couple mentioned to me that there were elections going on and that might be why it was closed. Our poor cab driver felt awful for not having known, and actually turned off the meter on the way back, only charging us about half of what it would have cost otherwise.
Me at the Estancia Santa Catalina

Me at the Estancia Santa Catalina

He dropped us at the Jesus Maria Estancia, which was (of course) also closed. We looked at the outside and then went across the street for a lovely, long lunch outside in the sun. While not the day any of us had been planning, it was actually still a good time.

With so much closed on Monday, I went to the few things in Cordoba that were open. I stopped by a museum that I think is called the City Museum, located near the old city center in a beautifully preserved colonial house. The rooms in the museum are set up to reflect historical Cordoban family life, though primarily focusing on the 19th century. While I really enjoy social history, and this was a good museum, I did feel a little huffy that they made me leave my purse at the front. (Really, a purse? No, my purse is not one of those over-the-shoulder purses the size of a tote.) Since we were supposed to take all documents/money/valuables with us, this resulted in my pretty much having to carry 90% of my purse contents in my pockets or my hands. The guard was chuckling as I kept pulling things out, and if my Spanish had been better, I would have asked him what he expected when he asked a woman to take out all important items from her bag. And then I saw a man in the museum with a briefcase. Go figure! Anyway, despite my having to juggle my belongings, as I said, it is a good museum!

I walked around some more, then had lunch and tea to kill the afternoon.

My bus back to Buenos Aires on Tuesday was a late, overnight bus, so I had plenty of time to head out to Alta Gracia to see another estancia. And this one was open! As well as absolutely lovely.

After the estancia, I wandered the town a little more, going to the Che Guevara Museum, in the house he pretty much grew up in. I must say the museum is really overpriced. I also went to the Manuel De Faella Museum, though it sadly wasn’t open since it was undergoing renovations. I’d had no idea that De Faella lived in Alta Gracia after Franco won the Spanish Civil War.

And then, finally, I headed back to Buenos Aires that night, and thus homeward a day or two later after visiting with some friends in BA.

Last Day in Chile

The day after my trip to Valparaiso, I decided that I should figure out my options for heading back to Argentina. I planned to check out the Jesuit estancias near the Sierras, centering around the city of Cordoba. Since snow had closed the Andean pass I had taken from Mendoza to Santiago, I needed to take a flight back to Buenos Aires, and the cheapest option was around 7am the next day. Ugh.

After taking care of my itinerary, I decided to see the last sights I really wanted to see…within reason, as it was cold and pouring rain all day. First I headed to the Barrio Paris-Londres and a church called San Francisco. I’ve read that it’s the oldest colonial building in Santiago.

Sadly, they were holding mass so I was only able to see the outside of the church. However, I did visit the Colonial Museum nextdoor in the adjacent buildings. The courtyard is quite beautiful. The museum mostly houses religious relics, so I was a little disappointed as I had hoped to see exhibits about daily life, but I did appreciate the architecture.

Walking around the Barrio Paris-Londres (two streets for which the barrio is named) was also enjoyable, as it seems to channel a Parisian feel architecturally. And the rain actually made it look even prettier!

In the afternoon, I took an extended wine tasting tour at Bodega Concha Y Toro. It was quite tasty, although I wish I had had the chance to visit some smaller bodegas as well. Getting out there was actually quite an adventure! While there are plenty of tours that will take you out there, it seems like a waste of money to me, since you can get there by public transportation. You take one of the subway lines pretty much to the end, in the southeast of the city (or at least the bottom right of the subway map!) This took me less time than I thought it would, so I actually killed time by riding back part of the way and then headed back again. Since it was raining, I figured it made sense to stay somewhere dry, since I had no idea what kind of neighborhood I would end up in.

Once I got off the metro, I stopped to ask for directions to where to pick up a metrobus. The lady in the tourist office had given me the numbers of buses I could take, and one came pretty quickly. I asked the driver to tell me where to get off, and we were off!

We drove out of the city towards fields and vineyards. At one point we passed a building that looked like it had tour buses parked in front, and someone got on in a Concha Y Toro shirt, but the driver didn’t say anything and I figured that maybe this wasn’t the entrance and we’d circle around to a better stop. Well, we started heading out into the countryside – very green and pretty, and amongst vineyards, but I definitely had the feeling that we were heading out into the boonies. I asked the driver, and he exclaimed in woe that he had completely forgotten to tell me where to get off! However, the bus in the other direction was in our sight, so he told the other driver what had happened and I got on in the other direction without having to pay another bus fare. Getting out of the first bus and running around in the rain to the second, I certainly felt like I was in a comic movie!

This time I kept my eye out, and when we got to the stop which I suspected was mine, I asked the driver if it were the one for Concha Y Toro. He too exclaimed that he had forgotten he was supposed to tell me where to get off, but yes! This was the right place! And so, after sloshing through the mini waterfalls that were supposed to be the sidewalk outside of the Concha Y Toro bodega, I arrived only a few minutes late. Since that meant I got to skip the prepared video telling everyone about Concha Y Toro (similarly polished like the one at Chandon), I was happy to be late.

We saw some cellars and then were treated to a bit of a sound and light show in the casillero de diablo (the name of one of their lines of wine, the Devil’s cellar). Pretty cheesy, but I was prepared for the cheese by reviews on Tripadvisor. I had some wine tasting with the group and then a group of four Brazilians and I went to a separate tasting room for our wine and cheese pairings. (We’d all paid for the extra wine tasting with the higher quality lines of wine.) We then all took some (lots of!) pictures of each other and took the bus and subway back.

When I got back, I booked a shared ride van to the airport. The company insisted on picking me up before 3:30am so I’d be at the airport three hours early. Not necessary – I had to wait for the check-in lines to open. My room at the hostel was no longer all my own – there were some Italian men who were put in there, despite my having reserved a women’s-only dorm. I’m sure I could have straightened it out with the front desk, but since I was only able to take a two hour nap, it wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t even bother trying. It turns out that the Italians also had an early flight and spent the night awake in the common area – I ran into them at 2:30 in the morning when I came downstairs to wait for my ride!

The return to Argentina was otherwise fairly uneventful. I slept, waking up to catch the tail end of the Andes, then fell asleep again. The mountains were gorgeous, but I’m glad that I took the land route going!

The Hills of Valparaiso

I had heard so much about how beautiful Valparaiso is, I just had to go. And it’s a cheap and fast bus ride – I had picked up some tickets the day before for only a few dollars each way. (Granted, I got a special cheap rate going because I left Santiago around 7 in order to ensure I made it for the free walking tour at 10am, but the more expensive rate wasn’t much more.)

Well, beautiful is definitely one word for the city, as are gritty, dirty, and amazing. I was glad to go on a day trip only, because I kept being warned about various parts of the city I shouldn’t go to alone, or shouldn’t to after dark, or just shouldn’t go to, but I definitely can understand how people get the city under their skin. The houses are brightly painted and picturesque, stacked up a series of hills that go down dramatically to the water, a little like Positano on the Amalfi coast in Italy, but grittier. The hills are steep enough that there are funiculars up and down many of them, called ascensores in Spanish. Few of the ascensores are open today, since they don’t make a profit, but they are definitely part of the charm. And I definitely preferred going up one which was open to taking one of the brightly-painted flights of stairs!

One of the ascensores:

A true Valpo ascensor!

A true Valpo ascensor!

And a typical staircase…

Just one of the many, many staircases in Valpo

Just one of the many, many staircases in Valpo

I arrived at the bus station expecting to find a tourist information counter (as I had checked on whether one existed before heading out of Santiago). Apparently my information was wrong, as all I found was a tourist information board that was primarily a big map. However, the map showed me that I could walk to the trolleybus and it would eventually take me to Plaza Sotomayor, a big plaza where the naval buildings are located that is facing the port.

I joined my Tours for Tips group and we walked to the port, then to a street parallel to the port that used to be extremely rich and exclusive (in the 19th or early 20th centuries) and now has a bit of an air of faded glory. Then we headed up an ascensor on Cerro Alegre to see an amazing view of the city. (“Cerro” means hill.)

Valparaiso is just starting to get street art (as opposed to graffitti taggers), and we passed some brightly-colored murals as we walked along the top of Cerro Alegre, down and over to Cerro Concepcion. We stopped for some fresh, homemade alfajores on the way. As we explored the area, our guide told us that Valparaiso falls victim to fires pretty frequently, especially post-earthquake. With the narrow streets and no access for firetrucks in certain neighborhoods, it’s amazing as much of historic Valparaiso exists as it does.

After our tour ended, I ate some lunch (a Chilean stew) and took a bus up to Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso house, La Sebastiana. It is another amazing house with amazing views. My favorite room was the living/dining room, another room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The outer wall is rounded, and in the center of the room is a round fireplace. In some ways, it’s very 1960’s, but in other ways it’s timeless. I had a lovely time there, and a great chat (in Spanish!) with the guard in the top room. I think it’s the first time I’ve had a conversation in Spanish with a Chilean (outside of the hostel) and understood something – the Chilean accent is so different from the Argentine!

I walked down the hill and back to the bus station, walking through the Open Air Museum on my way down from La Sebastiana. The Open Air Museum is pretty small, essentially a bunch of murals that I think they are hoping to add to in future years. It wasn’t my favorite part of the day, but I did really enjoy the picturesqueness overall of my walk down the hill, which was a great end to the day!