Incrediblue was incredible!

For those of you who may not know, I chose to visit Athens, Greece in October as I was already planning to travel in Europe and there was an exciting travel blogger conference being held in Athens. Since I was in the general area (i.e. the same continent), I decided it would be a waste not to go to the TBEX conference and see what it was all about. The conference did not disappoint!

After three days of networking, connecting with other amazing travel bloggers and vloggers, doing a few tours and taking in an amazing amount of information, I got a really fantastic opportunity that kind of rocked my world.

If you’ve been following along with my blog, you might be aware that I have fallen head over heels in love with sailing. I’ve always loved boats and being on or near the ocean, but I struggle with sea sickness, so it makes it a love / hate relationship.

During the TBEX conference, I had entered a contest with Incrediblue, lo and behold, when the winners were announced, I had been chosen as one of them. The prize, a four hour catamaran sailing experience with a handful of other winners, a spread of beautiful Greek cheeses and Ela Gold Champagne.

It was a grey, chilly day in Athens, but we all joined together to set sail for a few hours just off the coast.
The bloggers: Lizzy, Scott, Suzanne and Paula. We were greeted by three friendly crew members who would take care of us on board. They helped us navigate the ropes to get on the catamaran and showed us to the kitchen where we were treated to a spread of champagne, olives, crackers, cheeses and sun dried tomatoes.

In case you are not familiar, Ela Gold is infused with 24 carat gold flakes. I’m not much of a drinker, but how could I pass up something so unique! It’s not like I get to taste the richness of gold every day. I am far from a connoisseur of any kind of alcohol beverage (although I do love a good fuzzy navel!), but I have to admit that the Ela Gold Champagne was tasty and paired well with the local snacks.

Once we had indulged in champagne for breakfast, the crew navigated us out of our tight docking spot in the marina and off toward open water. Despite the blah weather, it was a lovely day for sailing. The waters were calm and visibility was excellent.

Our small group spread out around the catamaran; some chatting with the crew, others lazing on the netting (until they were warned that they might get a bit wet). I took a few minutes to just sit and take it all in at the front of the boat, the calmness of the seas, the wind whistling by, the smell of the ocean …. When it all comes together it is so very relaxing. How could you not love the freedom of being on the ocean? After breathing it all in, I got back around to mingling with the other bloggers, staff and crew.

Incrediblue is a really interesting company. They are somewhat like an agency for people who own and operate sailboats of all different shapes and sizes. It is kind of like the Air BnB of sailing if you will. If you are interested in a sailing vacation you simply sort through their inventory by location, date and size of the vessel and then you contact the crew to ask as many questions as you wish. It is a completely tailor-made experience. They operate mostly in the Mediterranean, but are expanding. You choose your ship with crew, your destination and length of time sailing. How cool is that?

I was chatting with the crew about sailing the catamaran and next thing I knew, I was sailing the catamaran! Just take a look at my face and you’ll quickly see how much I was enjoying my time on board. (Thanks Intrepid Escape for capturing my joy!)

I learned a bit about when to turn the wheel and how far, but I don’t really think I was very good at it. I didn’t really realize how quickly the wind changes and that you have to adjust for it constantly. After a few minutes of trying my hand at sailing, I gave the wheel back to the Captain as the winds were changing. The crew rushed off to change the sails and shortly thereafter we were headed back to shore.

Despite the grey day in Athens, the sailing trip was a great glimpse at what Incrediblue has to offer and yet another chance for me to get out on the water and enjoy the relaxing lilt of the waves and the wind in my hair. Also worthy of noting, one more sailing adventure without sea sickness! Preventative medication is king!

Santiago, Chile – 10 First Impressions

I like to think that I’m a little bit of a unique traveler in that I don’t do much research on a destination before I arrive. I don’t want to hear about the destination from other people’s views, I want to see it, taste it, experience it for myself and make my own opinions. Now, this isn’t for everyone. Lots of people love to read all about it before they arrive so that they know what they want to see and do. Me, I just like to arrive and see what I feel like. Since I’m writing a blog and you are reading it, I’m glad you are the type of person who likes to hear about other’s experiences. If we were all like me, I wouldn’t have anyone out there reading, instead I’d be sending everyone to Chile to experience it themselves!

We all know that first impressions are important, for better or worse, so here are 10 of my first impressions of Chile.

1. Mountains. Mountains. Mountains. For about the last 45 minutes of the flight approaching Santiago, you are soaring high above beautiful mountains. You land amongst the mountains and the city of Santiago is surrounded by mountains. The mountains run the length of the country, but also split the width of the country. They also are responsible for dividing the climate between coastal and humid to inland dry and desert-like. No question, the towering mountains are everywhere and they are spectacular.

2. Homeless. As I approached the historic centre of Santiago by taxi, the first thing that caught my eye in the green space dividing the main street was a person (man or woman, I’m not sure), sitting on a large tree stump with their pants around their ankles. I shouldn’t have stared, but it was really unusual and I just couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. That hot Friday afternoon when I arrived, the green space was laden with homeless people sleeping, peeing, defecating and puking. Not really the best first impression of the city, but none-the-less, I was there to experience the real Santiago, not just the tourist version.

3. Dirty. Despite seeing people out collecting garbage from the streets, the historical centre was a dirty area. Dust from the dry climate combined with lack of education for littering, left the streets strewn with garbage. The beautiful purple jacaranda trees were also starting to lose their petals, which left the streets carpeted with bright purple flowers.

Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile

Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile

4. Dry. I have never visited an area with such dry heat. I’ve always visited Caribbean areas that have high humidity, so I’ve always associated 30+ degree weather with sweating profusely. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk down the street in the afternoon sun and not need a shower 20 minutes later. The dry heat was a pleasant surprise and the sunshine on my face was most welcome.

5. Easy to navigate on foot. If you rent a hotel or apartment near the historic district, it is no problem at all to find your way around the central area of the city on foot. In fact, I did so without a map. However, if you have a map you’ll likely find all of the tourist spots much quicker and not miss out. Myself, I just wandered around the streets and then sauntered back to my apart-hotel.

6. No begging. No bothering. Despite what seemed like a lot of homeless people in the central historic area, I was never once asked for money or bothered at all. Even when I walked through the Central Market and down the main streets with stores, vendors and restaurants, I was not hollered at or begged to spend money on anything. Vendors simply existed there and if you wanted to purchase something you could approach them, otherwise, they continued about their day.

7. Tranquilo. A word aptly used to describe the overall atmosphere of the city, tranquil. No one was in a hurry, very few cars were beeping and over the weekend that I was there, there was next to no traffic. People walk slowly and take in their surroundings and conversations with friends. There were no fights or brawls. Simply tranquil.

8. Safe. Being in a new city is always a little bit intimidating for a solo female traveler such as myself. In any city it is best to always be on guard and follow general safety measures such as not wearing fancy jewellery, not carrying your passport or all of your money and making sure that you are aware of your surroundings. Personally, I felt very comfortable in Santiago because of it’s laid back attitude and slow pace. For a big city, it seemed to have a country attitude.

9. Street Art. After having visited Athens in October and going on a Street Art tour, I am much more cognizant of Street Art in other cities. Ranging from proper graffiti (with a purpose), to graffiti for the sake of defacing a building to murals and colourful drawings, Santiago does not disappoint with the street art. Although there is not much in the historic district, within about 10 blocks (near the Loreto Hotel) the streets come alive with bursts of colour and imaginative designs.

10. Hot dogs. Although I chose not to have one, hot dogs are a popular choice for lunch or a snack with hot dog stands spread throughout the historic centre. If you are not feeling like eating on the run, you can also choose a local restaurant on the street or in the market and chance are, they will have a hot dog with your choice of toppings or fully loaded that you can munch on while watching the futbol match of the evening.

Overall, I enjoyed Santiago. I felt safe and easily got my bearings. I had no safety issues and soaked up the dry heat whenever I could get outside in the sun. I was a bit disappointed that most shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday, but I managed to find what I needed.

Sadly, the homeless situation bothered me. Many large cities struggle with this problem and I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but I know that as I walked by men passed out on the streets in various positions, sometimes lying in their own vomit, that I felt horrible that there was nothing I could do to help these people in that particular moment.

Although it is not a destination that I will rush to return to, it is also not a destination that I dread returning to. I wouldn’t suggest spending more than one or two days in the city, but it is an excellent starting or ending point with lots of day tours that you can do to surrounding cities, mountains and vineyards.

Murano, Italy

September 2014

Hotel Rialto offers a transfer and tour of a Murano glass factory for free, so I decided to give it a try while I was in Venice. After-all, I had wanted to visit Murano anyway and I love seeing artisans at work.

I gave the front desk about 15 minutes notice and they had a boat and driver pick me up right at the hotel for 3pm. It ended up being a private taxi-boat, one of the fancy ones and I was the only person on the boat. I guess it is less busy on Sunday and I was taking the last tour of the day.

The private taxi had a covered inside section with windows and leather seats – room for about 10 people. I, however, stayed up front in the fresh air and sea breeze with my driver. He was friendly, but didn’t seem to want to talk, so I took pictures and video on the 15 minute transfer to Marco Polo glass Factory on the island of Murano.

Private boat-taxi Venice, Italy

Private boat-taxi Venice, Italy

Murano, Italy

Murano, Italy

As soon as my boat arrived, I was greeted by Alex, who immediately made me feel welcome with his warm, friendly personality and his excellent English. He ushered me right in to the factory where I got my own private showing of a Master glass blower at work. The blower’s name is Mariano and he is well known for his art.

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

Mariano, Glass blowing artist, Murano, Italy

I then got a tour of the factory’s art gallery which houses hundreds of unique, one of a kind master pieces by the artists who work in this particular factory. There are about 600 glass blowing artists in Venice and about 40 of them work out of this particular factory. Each section of the gallery was a new discovery. Sadly, but also understandably, no photos or videos are allowed as these are one of a kind pieces of art. It is like a museum of the best glass works in Murano. Some artists have collections of items in the gallery, others have only one or two master pieces. The artist that I saw at work is known for making chandeliers and most of the ones in the gallery were hand-crafted by him. The detail in each and every tiny little piece is magnificent.

I learned about the different styles of glass work and the family history behind glass blowing. Glass blowing has been handed down through generations from fathers to sons. The trade nearly always stays within the family and only ends if there are no further sons born into the family (no pressure ladies!). There are no women glass blowers, however many women in the family are talented artists and do much of the painting and finish work on different styles of glass works, such as the gold or silver plating.

One of my favorite sections of the gallery was from the family who creates only animals. On display were about 30 different one-of-a-kind animals from turtles to owls, cats to ducks, horses and more. My favourite ones were the jellyfish with their detailed tentacles and bubbles coming out of the ‘glass’ water around them.

It was explained that there are three types of commercial glass works.

  1. Master artists who create one of a kind art that is sold to collectors and often to buyers for large businesses, or groups of businesses.
  2. Regular glass blowers who create mass market products mainly for the tourist industry.
  3. Regular glass blowers who work with recycled materials to create lower grade quality items that may have imperfections. Also for the tourist market, but also ensuring that remnants of glass from all of the works are recycled.

Alex was very excited to answer all of my questions. He was very proud to share this part of his history and culture with me. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide and all for free! Of course, I stopped at the store on the way out to buy a souvenir (or two) … it was the least I could do after having an hour long, private tour with such a fantastic guide.

After the tour, Alex was quick to give me a map and invite me to visit the rest of the island as well as direct me to the vaporettos for when I was ready to return to San Marco square.

Murano, Italy

Murano, Italy

I spent about an hour wandering the main streets of Murano and taking a few photos, looking at store after store of beautiful, but completely different styles of glass works. Around 5pm, I returned to the vaporetto stand to head back to Venice Island. It was a lovely day learning about the artistry of blown glass and the history of Murano, Italy.

20 things a non-wine drinker learned about wine in Mendoza.

November 2014

As friends and family know, I’m not much of a drinker and especially not wine. Yes, I am well aware that it is a required taste. I’ve been trying to ‘acquire’ it for 20 years. I think it’s fair to say it’s just not for me. None-the-less, when you are traveling in Argentina, wine is a given at every meal and a winery tour is a must! It is such an important part of their history and economy that it was only fair for me to give it a try.

While on my trip with Intrepid Travel, we did a half day wine tasting tour that visited three Bodegas (or wineries) in Mendoza. The three Bodegas were: Alta Vista, Dante Robino and Lagarde. We started around 9am and by 10am we were three tasting glasses in! Each winery gave us a tour and overview of their process and then served us three to four of their mid-range wines to test. Proudly, I tasted all nine wines that were put in front of me. I really disliked most of them, but a couple of the whites or sparkling wines were ok. I even had seconds on one of the ones at Dante Robino! Having said that, there were wine lovers in my group who enjoyed every single glass, plus the remainder of several of my glasses. Needless to say, everyone was pretty happy by 1:30pm when we finished at the last winery and headed to lunch.

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Here’s what I learned about wines during my tour.

1. All grapes are the same color on the inside. The skin is the difference in the color.
2. The amount of dryness in a wine is directly related to the sugar content. It ranges from Extra brut, brut,
sec and demi sec.
3. Vineyards are good up to approximately 100 years.
4. The older the tree, the smaller the harvest, but the better quality of the grapes.
5. The type of ground that crops are planted in, determines the flavor of the wine. Rocky, earthy, sandy areas all provide different flavors.
6. Mendoza is best known for Malbecs (red).
7. Sparkling wines made with natural carbonation have very fine bubbles that raise up the glass in stems and collect along the edges of the glass. Cheaper sparkling wines that are carbonated artificially have larger bubbles (like soda).
8. In the Mendoza region, they have very few natural elements that will harm the grapes. However, when a cold front and warm front meet, they often create hail that can range from golf ball size to baseball size. Not only does the hail knock the fruit off the trees, but it can also damage the tree and cause it to not produce well going forward.
9. The crops are sometimes covered in netting. This is to protect the fruit from hail (not from birds).
10. Red and white wines go through almost the same fermentation process, but because white wines are the color of the grape, they get to final product more quickly. The reds have to have the skins added in for four hours (rose) to several days for a darker color.
11. Wines used to be stored in very large oak barrels but have been moved to smaller oak barrels to improve efficiency. With more litres in the large barrels, it takes longer for the oak flavor to infuse through the entire liquid. By moving to smaller barrels, the oak flavor dispurses more quickly and can be moved to market more quickly.
12. The oak barrels are used once, first, for the best wines. Second for the next best and third for a market version. The barrels are purchased for close to 1000 Euros each and then sold to be made into furniture or other decorations for approximately 25 Euros each after their three-year cycle. They are sometimes sold to other producers of whiskey or rye as well, but these are not made in Mendoza.

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Dante Robino Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Dante Robino Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

13. Many of the best Argentinian wines are not exported at all. They produce a lower amount of these wines and keep them within the country for consumption. Many of the wines we tasted cannot be found in Canada.
14. Red wines are usually more expensive than whites because it is a longer process to make reds.
15. Lagarde makes one of top four wines in the country.

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Lagarde Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

16. Henry (by Lagarde) is a blend of four different grapes and takes five years to produce. Each of the wines goes through the fermentation process individually and then they are mixed together in the end. Henry is well known outside of Argentina, but is produced in low quantities, more for awards than for sale. The quality of the wine brings prestige and integrity to the winery. They focus on the quality of this wine and not so much the profit.
17. Mendoza is situated at about 900 meters above sea level. Growing grapes at altitude works well because there are no problems with insects ruining the crops, so no pesticides are needed. However, they struggle with little rainfall to irrigate the crops and hail storms can ruin a crop within minutes.

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Alta Vista Winery, Mendoza, Argentina

18. When storing bottles in the cellar, they allow dust to pile on the bottles because it protects the wine from the light.
19. Use beer caps instead of corks during processing to make sure that no oxygen seeps in and that humidity (or lack thereof) doesn’t dry cork out and leave bits in the wine.
20. Most wines still have sediment in them when they are first bottled. Wineries will store bottles with the neck down and do a ¼ turn of bottle daily, or weekly, to help the sediment go to the neck. They then freeze the neck & pop out the frozen chunk then re-cork the top, leaving a sediment-free and clear wine for drinking.

Seems like I learned a lot about wine making. Interested in knowing more? Well, you’ll just have to contact me and I can set you up on a fantastic Argentina trip!

In fact, my colleague, Courtney is hosting a Wine tour of Argentina and Patagonia in May. Get in touch if you are interested and I can send you the itinerary!

Vina and Valpo – Part 2

Valparaiso was the area that I was most interested in visiting as many people had told me of it’s beauty. I hadn’t realized that Vina del Mar and Valparaiso were so close to each other. In fact, there is no clear line between the two. The cities just gently join one another.

Valparaiso aptly translates to Valley of Paradise.

Valparaiso is the older of the two cities. It was originally the first port that ships arrived at when sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, it was the most important and best known port on the Pacific Ocean in South America. At the time (late 1800’s), it was a melting pot for all different cultures as many immigrants came to settle in the area for it’s prevailing prosperity and economic situation. Many of the immigrants were from Eastern Europe and Russia, but others came from all over the world.

It is known for being home to Latin America’s first stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, the country’s first public library and the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in the world. History truly runs deep through this enchanting city.

Other than being an important port for cargo ships, it was also widely known for the fishing industry as the cold arctic current turns the Pacific ocean into a highway for fish, bringing masses of them nearby throughout various seasons. Sadly, when the Panama canal was built in 1914, the route for ships was changed and Valparaiso was all but forgotten near the southern tip of the continent, causing a major economic downturn.

It is such a shame because Valparaiso truly is a unique area. Of course, the port was the main focus, but when the city grew by leaps and bounds, it had no where to expand except for up the surrounding steep hills. Houses were built mostly with cheap materials such as wood and corrugated metal and then painted with the same type of paint that was used on the ships as it was readily available and cheap. Today, most of the houses remain the same. Some say the bright paint colours were used so that the houses could be seen through the dense fog that covers the area every morning.

Valparaiso is also known for it’s variety and quantity of street art splashing the walls and gates with brilliant colours, throughout the residential areas, with beautifully designed paintings from artists around the world. Although street art is not officially legal, it is widely accepted as part of the community. Many locals seek out artists to design art for their outer house or business walls. And, many artists who find wall space available pitch their ideas to the owner and collaborate before permanently introducing their art.

And, they are very proud of their artistic talent in Valparaiso. Particularly, Pablo Neruda. We visited one of his houses which his wife turned into a museum after his passing. He was world-renowned in poetry, also a well-known and loved writer, politician and diplomat. Today, many of his works can be found translated into many other languages and some still grace the best sellers list.

House of Pablo Neruda

Writer, thinker, poet, diplomat and politician.

The central area of Valparaiso is protected by Unesco as of 2003. The areas warmly known as Happy Hill and Conception Hill have the only functioning funiculars in the area.

The funiculars were built starting in the late 1800’s to move people easily and cheaply up and down the steep hillsides. Every morning people would come down the hills to work in the centre or at the port and then in the evening, everyone would be tasked with climbing up the steep hills to their homes. The funiculars were put in place to aid the locals, mainly with their ascent up the hills. Originally there were approximately 26 funiculars throughout the city, painted in bright colours and street art to match the surrounding areas. But now, there are only eight remain in operation.

I was lucky enough to get to travel down on one, El Peral, built in 1902. The ride cost one Chilean peso and took about one minute. There are two funiculars at the same station. As one is traveling down, the other is balancing the gears by traveling up. It boggles my mind that any of the equipment still functions. From the clearly ancient gears, to the warped door that had to be wiggled just right in order to open and the questionable floor boards at the waiting station … it was quite the experience.

Sadly our tour was a bit rushed and I only got to view one or two of the other funiculars in passing. I didn’t have time to photograph them. I wish I had more time to fully explore the beautiful mess that is Valparaiso. I felt my time was too short and rushed to understand the community, but I could instantly feel at home in the disarray of streets and mess of colours. Despite the now poor economic situation, the city is alive with colour, culture and history.

Vina & Valpo – Part 1

When I got accepted for a FAM trip (familiarization) with the fabulous Intrepid Travel Group to Chile and Argentina, I was beyond excited. I had applied for the trip, but it was full. A couple of months later, a spot opened up, I applied again and was given the opportunity to attend. I knew nothing at all about Chile except for it’s location on the map, that it was a Spanish speaking country and that it lays claim to a portion of Patagonia, with the other half being in Argentina.

In mentioning Chile to people, I was told repeatedly that I must not miss the chance to see Valparaiso for it’s colorful houses, unique history and ancient funiculars (or ascencores). I did minimal research, but knew immediately that it was a place that I wanted to visit.

I considered going straight to Valparaiso from the airport on a local bus, but I thought it would be a bit much for my first day in the country and I’d be tired from the flight. So, I booked a hotel in Santiago and made the decision to not decide until I arrived. I’m really good at making decisions not to decide by the way … but at least once I’ve decided not to decide until a certain point I can move it off my plate, out of my head and get other things done!

Once I was settled into my hotel in Santiago, I walked to the central market and then to Plaza des armas where there was supposed to be an info centre. Sadly, when I finally found it (at about 3:30pm Friday afternoon), it was closed. So, I headed back to the central market where I had noticed several tour companies.

Sure enough a gentleman speaking excellent English nabbed me out of a line up at one of the tourist offices and took me to a spot where I would get ‘THE BEST PRICE’. I went with him because it was still in the central market, he was friendly and I hoped that I wouldn’t have to wait in line to speak with someone. And, I didn’t have to wait at all. However, the girl was going to run (literally) to go get someone who could speak English. Being brave, I stopped her and told her if she spoke slowly, that I would understand most of what she had to say in Spanish.

She took me through a short slideshow of the Vino & Valpo tour that they offered. It was a group tour on a bus and they spent very little time actually in Valparaiso which was the main point in me taking the tour. I asked her if they offered the tour in English the next day and she said advised that it would be only a Spanish guide. I decided that I didn’t understand enough Spanish to want to sit on a bus all day with only Spanish as I felt that I wouldn’t get to take many pictures due to the schedule and I also wouldn’t understand the history, so it seemed to be a waste.

Another staff member briefly explained to me that I could take a couple of subways and then buses to get there and explore on my own. (Which now, I’m glad I didn’t) Although I’m sure I could have managed, I somehow didn’t feel like using the brain power to navigate all of the transit situations needed to get me there.

As a last resort, I asked if any other companies offered the tours in English. They were kind enough to tell me yes, that a company called Turistik offers English tours, but they are much more expensive.

I thanked them for their time, and went on my way knowing that a busy Spanish speaking tour was not what I wanted.

I happened across the Turistik office on my way out of the central market and was immediately greeted by three young, enthusiastic, English speaking locals. I had a chat with them about their Vino & Valpo tour and decided it was a great compromise as the guide would explain in Spanish and English, we would visit Vino del Mar and Valparaiso and, I wouldn’t have to worry about any logistics because they would pick me up and drop me off at the market.

On Saturday, November 15th I arrived at the office at 8:15am and was picked up by a big Turistik bus with leather seats and air conditioning. We drove around the centre of the city picking up other guests and then made our way to a central gathering area where we were shown which bus to get on for our specific tours.

Once on the bus, I sat with a lovely lady named Ana from Madrid, Spain. And we each practiced our second language with each other. It was a great way to pass the time on the two hour bus ride.

Along the way, our guide, Felipe explained about the climate and Chile’s landscape. It was very interesting. Usually he would explain in Spanish and I would understand about 1/4 to 1/2 of what he was saying and then he would explain in English and I’d understand much more clearly.

As we drove through a mountain tunnel, he explained that Chile has two prominent mountain ranges, the Andes and the coastal range. The Andes run across the country from east to west (or most of the way). The coastal mountain range splits the country from north to south. Hmmm … I had no idea! On the east side of the coastal mountains, you’ll find Santiago which is incredibly hot, dry and dusty. On the west side of the coastal mountains (where we were headed) it would be humid, green and a bit chilly. Of course, none of us really believed it would be cold. Afterall, we were in the south and headed to Vino del Mar to a beach on the Pacific Ocean.

Chile Mountains & Vineyards

Chile Mountains & Vineyards

As we exited the tunnel on the west side of the mountain range, you could instantly see a difference in the landscape. Lush green fields and mountains covered in trees. Vineyards everywhere with green leaves. And, the windows on the bus started to fog up. What a difference!

As we circled our way down the big mountain toward the Pacific Ocean, we were constantly wiping the condensation from the windows in order to be able to see out. Despite the grey sky and thick fog hanging in the air over the grey ocean, you could see Valparaiso off to the left and Vina del Mar to the right. Coming down the S shaped curve, navigating to the bottom of the mountain gave you views in either direction until you reached the flat area close to the water.

Vina del Mar
We visited Vina del Mar first. Along the way our guide pointed out a few of the well-known buildings of the relatively young city and then we stopped for a walk around Palacio Vergara. The palace has been completely rebuilt once after an earthquake devastated it hundreds of years ago. More recently, after being rebuilt, it has stood strong through several major earthquakes until 2010 when it was heavily damaged. The restoration will begin in 2015. It was interesting to hear Felipe speak about the palace and the family who lived there with such passion. Obviously proud to be Chilean with a love for these two interconnected cities and a yearning to keep the cities’ history alive.

Palacio Vergara, Vina Del Mar, Chile

Palacio Vergara, Vina Del Mar, Chile

A short walk through the park brings you to Vina del Mar’s amphitheatre which is home to the end of summer International Song festival in February of each year. 15 000 people gather at the amphitheatre for a week full of music appreciation for all ages, big international performers such Rod Stewart and Elton John, along with Chilean celebrities and nightly comedy shows.

We had a short stop at the well-known white sandy beach that drops off to the chilly Pacific ocean. It was beautiful to see the sand and ocean waves with the city of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso in the background. I didn’t waste a minute getting to the water to dip my toes in the cold Pacific! AHHHH. Refreshing! I wouldn’t want to go swimming in it though. It was a bit chilly, even for this Canadian girl!

Beach, Vina del Mar, Chile

Beach, Vina del Mar, Chile

After a quick obligatory stop at the flower clock that was gifted to Vina del Mar from Switzerland, our guide explained that we would be stopping for lunch, but we would only have one hour in order to stay on schedule. The company had arranged for us to eat at the Municipal Casino where there was a buffet lunch. The guide made it quite clear that the lunch was optional and we were not required to eat at that location, but we could if we wanted.

Vina del Mar Flower Clock

Vina del Mar Flower Clock

Despite the high end price, I decided to eat with the group. Sadly, I was quite disappointed in the food that cost me close to $30 USD. It was indeed a buffet and there were quite a few options, but none of them were fantastic.

There were a variety of breads, cheeses, olives and salads along with several types of hot, fresh meat from beef to pork, chicken to salmon with capers.

Lunch Menu at Municipal Casino, Vina del Mar, Chile

Lunch Menu at Municipal Casino, Vina del Mar, Chile

The best part of the buffet was the spread of approximately 10 different desserts. I’m sure I tried at least four of them and they were all delicious!

Next up, the part that I had been waiting for, Valparaiso!

Casas de Cambio

November 27, 2014

Oh Argentina, so quirky yet totally lovable.
(interesting that the word ‘lovable’ autocorrected to ‘livable’, not once, but three times …. is the computer trying to tell me something?)

I’ve just done something totally illegal and yes, I am admitting to it and even writing about it. Don’t worry, I’m pretty confident I’m not going to get arrested for it. It is all part of the game you play while traveling (or living) in Argentina.

Before traveling to Argentina I knew there were ‘money issues’. I read several articles about the US dollar value in Argentina. I learned about the blue market and how to check the rate. I understood that there are two different rates in Argentina – the blue market and the official rate. Ok, so I understand that there are two, but WHY? WHY? WHY? Even after reading several articles that explained all the ins and outs of changing money and the different rates I still didn’t understand why.

I had a local explain it to me and here’s what I understood.

There is a shortage of US dollars in Argentina and the government is ‘protecting’ them (or hoarding them). This means that locals are not allowed to use US dollars. It is illegal. This is driving the value of the Argentinian dollar down in other countries, therefore it is not very valuable. It isn’t so bad if you live in Argentina, earn pesos and spend them, but as soon as you want to leave the country, your hard earned money is worthless. You are not allowed to earn US dollars. Your bank accounts have to only be in pesos. The government is very controlling and the Argentinians just want freedom to earn and spend money freely.

Because of this governmental control, the blue market has been created by locals so that Argentinians have access to US dollars, and therefore, ‘freedom’. The US dollar is in demand, therefore local ‘casas de cambio’ or ‘change houses’ will offer tourists a better rate than the banks. In turn, locals can get dollars to use as they wish, although at a higher price, but better than not at all. Or, they can go to one of the bordering countries (Uruguay is easiest and quickest for most) to take out USD from ATMs. Although illegal to operate a change house, it is generally understood that police turn a blind eye to this practice, at least for the time being.

What does this all mean for tourists?

When traveling to Argentina bring only US dollars. Do NOT waste your time or money getting Argentinian Pesos in advance because your American dollar is worth MUCH MORE when you arrive.

Take just $1 USD for example. The official exchange rate is around 8 Pesos per dollar. However, the blue market ranges between 10 and 14 Pesos per dollar. That’s almost double your money if you exchange it locally (and illegally).

For those of you who have issues with doing something illegal, I get it. I’m not a great criminal myself. But, my understanding (although it could be wrong), is that changing your money is not illegal, it is just the people running the Change Houses who are doing something illegal. I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to keep believing this.

If you are only in Argentina for a couple of days, it is no big deal if you get the official 8 to 1 ratio. But, if you are staying for a longer time, you’d be crazy not to use the blue market. If you plan on spending $500 US, that could change into nearly double your money.

It’s a little bit like gambling or playing the stock market. In fact, I’m sure people do just that and make huge profits. For me though, it is just about making my money go as far as possible.

You can follow the Blue dollar rate on twitter at @dolarblue. They are supposed to post the blue dollar rate daily. I don’t always check it, but I have a good idea now of what is good (14 Pesos to 1 USD Or bad 8 Pesos to 1 USD)

There are few ways to get, use or change your US dollars to Argentinian Pesos.

1. Go to a bank in your home country and change Canadian or US dollars to Argentinian Pesos. Safe and legal, but you will get a bad exchange rate. Your money will not go as far.

2. Go to a bank in Argentina. Safe and legal, but you will get the ‘official’ exchange rate which hovers around 8 pesos per $1 USD.

3. Pay for purchases in Argentina with your credit card. You’ll get the official rate of the day, plus pay any fees that your credit card may impose. It’s not horrible, but again, you still only get the official rate, maybe less depending on your fees.

4. Use an ATM in Argentina to withdraw Pesos. VERY IMPORTANT: ATMs don’t always work. They only provide Pesos, not US dollars and they often run out of money, especially on the weekends. Don’t rely on this. Again, you’ll get the official 8 to 1 (approximate) rate.

5. Take US dollars to Argentina with you and use them to pay at stores, restaurants and hotels, whenever they will accept USD. Ask them what their rate of the day is. If it is the same or better than the Blue dollar rate of the day, go ahead, take it! They will calculate it for you and give you back the difference in pesos. I found this to be the best way, whenever possible. I often got a higher exchange rate from the restaurants than from a cambio house.
Note: $50 or $100 bills get the best rate vs $20 or $10 bills. Anything less than $10, don’t even bother.

Do you suck at math like I do? Here’s a step by step:

A) Your food bill is $100 pesos and you want to pay with $50 USD.
B) Ask what the exchange rate is. Today, my restaurant gave me 14 to 1 (which is awesome).
C) Multiply $50 USD by 14 to get the total value in Pesos (50×14 = 700)
D) You have the value of 700 Pesos … subtract the 100 Pesos for your food bill.
E) You give them $50 USD for your 100 Pesos meal and you should get 600 pesos in return.
F) Be proud. That means you ate grilled chicken, potato and tomato salad, bread and a pepsi for lunch for about $7 USD. To put it in perspective, that same 100 pesos, if you paid with your credit card would have been $12.25 USD. Big difference! It all adds up. Hard to understand. You’d think 100 pesos is 100 pesos, but it is not!

6. Ask a local who you know and trust if they can change the money for you. Often they know the places that will give the best rate, or they may have a reason to want the US dollars for themselves. Maybe they are planning a trip away and storing some US cash before they leave the country. They may be willing to give you a very good rate. There’s no harm in asking. Maybe just make sure they aren’t the local police! You know … just in case!

7. Last, but certainly not least, you can take your USD (preferably $50 or $100 bills) to one of the many obscure Casas de Cambio. It sounds sketchy, and it is! If I hadn’t be repeatedly told how normal, acceptable and easy it is, I would never have done it on my own. It is different than any other country that I’ve ever been to, and I’ve now been to 26 different countries!

In Mendoza, I changed $100 USD at a rate of 12.5 Pesos to 1 USD. It was at the local bus station in a store that also sold bus tickets … or did they? There was a man standing outside the door who asked if I needed change. You very quickly get used to listening for ‘cambio, cambio, cambio’. I didn’t ask for any bus tickets, I just got my local pesos and went on my way.

In Buenos Aires, it is the same, but different. You head to the well known ‘Florida’ street in the financial district of the city. It is a pedestrian only area filled with clothing and shoe stores, Starbucks, Burger King etc. You’ll find street vendors selling their wares in the middle of the cobblestone street and a mixture of passersby from tourists to locals, scraggly backpackers to businessmen. If you listen closely, you will hear the streets whisper ‘cambio, cambio, casa de cambio’. Just as you are honing in on it, it is gone. You look around and wonder where the whisper came from. You probably look a little silly standing still, turning your head. And then a man or woman will catch your eye and say it again … Not interested? Keep walking. They won’t hound you. But, if you need your dollars exchanged, walk up to them and ask what their rate is, don’t yell across the sidewalk, they are trying not to draw unnecessary attention.

In three or four blocks, there were no less than 20 people working the streets whispering ‘cambio’ to passersby. If you aren’t listening for it, it would easily just blend in to the dull hum of the conversations on the street. But, if you are listening for it, you’ll hear it everywhere. You almost can’t escape it.

I passed by about five people on the first street. Not quite sure why. I think I had to build up my confidence. Although they deal with people all the time who speak English (or other languages), it is always best if you can communicate in their language.

On the second street, I approached a guy standing in the centre of the street near a magazine / snack kiosk who had been saying ‘cambio’. I asked in Spanish what the rate of the day was and he told me 12 to 1, if I had a $50 or $100. I told him that I had just gotten 14 at a restaurant and he told me he could not do that high. He said a few other things, but I didn’t completely understand. So, I decided to try elsewhere.

I walked to the next street and it seemed like all of the ‘cambio’ guys / girls were really young. Not sure why but I didn’t feel I could trust the youngsters. They made me a bit uncomfortable. So, I continued on, past a police officer and past the two people near the police officer who were saying ‘cambio’. I didn’t think I would tempt fate by exchanging my money right in front of an officer.

I turned around at the end of the block and headed back. I was still building up courage to do this illegal deal on my own and the police presence had shaken me a bit! I found a lovely older lady about halfway down the block who looked friendly. I approached her and asked what the rate was. She told me 12.80 and I said sure. After all, it was better than the first guy and I liked her. (ha ha because that really matters when you are doing something questionable in another country!)

The pint sized woman walked me a few feet to a magazine kiosk (there are many of them), three men moved out of the tiny doorway and she gestured for me to go in. Really? Go in? I felt like they were going to close the door behind me and I’d never be seen again. Kind of like a magician’s disappearing person act.

I timidly poked my head in through the narrow metal door and before I could see anyone I said ‘Hola?’. I heard someone respond, so I stepped in a little further and the cashier smiled at me. She knew what I was there for, no need to explain or have a conversation about it. She showed me the math on a calculator, gave me my pesos which she placed under a black light to show me that they were real (because I totally know what I’m looking for with counterfeit money, right?). I packed them away, half in my purse and half in my backpack and scurried out of the tiny little metal enclosure hoping that the three men standing near the door didn’t follow me and rob me.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

It really wasn’t that bad … I had just heard a lot of stories about people being robbed in Buenos Aires, people getting fake money and the fact that the whole process is officially illegal. Nothing at all to be concerned about, right?

In the end, I managed to change money all by myself without the assistance of a local or tour guide (who aren’t supposed to help you with that anyway because it’s officially illegal). I got a decent rate, although not the best. And I made it through the afternoon and all the way back to my apartment without getting robbed.

I’d say it was a successful day of adventure for this solo female traveler in Buenos Aires! Hopefully next time I change money I’ll do just as well.

I heard the voice of Buenos Aires

THIS is what it feels like to be in a city that LOVES football (soccer for us Canadians) …

Tonight was River Plate VS Boca Juniors. Two local rival teams playing in the semi-finals of the South American Cup.

The game started around 8pm. Thankfully I had already made my way safely back to my apartment by then. I had been warned not to be near the stadium during a game. In fact, you can’t just go to a game, you have to purchase a tour package and go with a group. Tickets are well over $100 US. Although I’d love to experience it, I’m not sure I’m brave enough!

Picture this:

It’s quiet in a city that is almost always busy. The main street that I live on (Diaz Velez) has only a quarter of the cars as usual. No one is out walking. It’s almost a ghost town, but you can see lights on in all of the apartments nearby.

I had been in the centre of town until almost 8pm when I hopped a taxi back to Almagro, the local area that I’m staying in. I’m a good 15 minutes by car from the stadium. It took me about seven or eight minutes from the centre to ‘almost’ home where my taxi driver dropped me off. He tried to tell me that he couldn’t go down the streets near my house because they were the wrong direction, which is true for some of them, but not all of them. He was either super lazy or in a hurry to get somewhere to watch the game. So, he dropped me off and I walked the five or six blocks home. I understood him, but couldn’t seem to make him understand me; I think he was just being stubborn.

I was sitting in my room when I heard the first loud cheer (around 10:15pm). When I say cheer, I mean not just one or two people, I heard the voice of my neighbourhood. I messaged one of the locals I had met to ask what happened as I immediately knew it was ‘the game’ talking. The response was that River almost scored, but didn’t. It was a false alarm.

About 30 minutes later, I headed to the laundry room to hang my clothes to dry and nearly fell over when I heard the city roar. Have you ever heard a million people scream all at once? I hadn’t, but apparently it’s loud enough to fill the night air and carry throughout the city. (a million is just a guess by the way … three million people in the city, one million cheering for each team and one million who aren’t watching or don’t scream … that was my thought process ha ha)

And, that was the roar of the game being ALMOST done.

30 seconds later the city erupted in one louder-than-loud roar. So loud that you didn’t just hear it, you could feel it. It was the voice of Buenos Aires! The excitement of the fans was unmistakable. A smile spread across my face as I stood near the window in my laundry room watching the fireworks near the stadium. I was amazed that I could see them, but with an eighth floor apartment, I guess there are some unique benefits. The fireworks continued for a few minutes, as did the screaming, without losing strength, not even a little.

Hidden amongst the boom of the fireworks was the beat of a loud drum (or many drums), a scared dog howling at the night and the occasional celebratory gun shot. It’s funny how when you hear fireworks you think it could be a gun shot and vice versa, but when you hear them both at the same time, they are very distinct.

I continued to smile, thankful to be inside and not in the chaotic core of the city. The energy and excitement of the city had reached me even though I wasn’t watching the game. And shhhhh don’t tell anyone, but I really could care less about soccer. (Please don’t hate me Buenos Aires!)

By about 10:55pm the roar had subsided, the fireworks were done and the main street in front of my apartment was trickling with traffic, laughter and yelling.

20 minutes after the end of the game I had heard several police and ambulance sirens, screeching tires, beeping horns and there is a constant hum outside of people talking about the game.

An hour after the end of the game the neighbourhood is still buzzing and occasionally a happy driver (or 10 in a row) honks their horn all the way down the street. More sirens. More screeching tires. And, I’m not even close to the stadium! I guess it has taken an hour for fans to get from downtown back to their homes.

I’m guessing the city will be awake for awhile. For me, it’s time for bed.

PS – River Plate won tonight, so they move on to the finals and La Boca is done.

Jardin Botanico – Buenos Aires

November 25, 2014

I’m staying in a mostly local area of Buenos Aires called Almagro. It is the district beside Palermo, which is better known for tourists. Within Palermo, there is a lot of green space, including the Botanical Gardens. Today, I took a walk from my apartment to the gardens and planned on taking a taxi home, however the day was so nice that I decided to walk both ways. The streets are a bit difficult to navigate because many of them run at an angle and quite a few have three-way intersections, but somehow I managed without getting too far off the route! I left at 3pm and returned home around 6:30pm. That gave me time for a sit down lunch and yummy dulce de leche ice cream on the way home!

My biggest challenge was finding the entrance to the gardens! I walked ALL the way around the perimeter and every gate was closed, but I could see people inside! How did they get there? Finally, on my last 300 meters, I found the ‘unica entrada’ … the ‘only entrance’.

Here’s a quick iPhone photo essay of the botanical gardens and my ice cream treat on my way home! Enjoy.

How much do things cost in Chile

I’m going to be a good girl and try to keep track of my expenses while I’m traveling. This is not an exciting blog post, just simply for information purposes.

1. For tax purposes. When receipts are in other languages it is hard for my bookkeeper to determine what’s what.
2. For information for others traveling to these destinations.

November 14th

Reciprocity fee – $132 USD – credit card – Good for the term of your passport. Great if you’ve just gotten a brand new 10-year one. Not so good if you are replacing it that same year.

Taxi – minibus – booked after I picked up my luggage, but before leaving airport – $31 USD – credit card
* I checked with several other travellers who had gotten their own taxi outside the airport instead of a minibus / transfer through the company inside the airport. Some were able to negotiate down to about $25 USD, but most were $28 – $30 USD. It depends how good your negotiating skills are.

Ah Hotel – Historical Centre – Santiago – $132 for 2 nights – continental breakfast included

$50 US – changed at a ‘cambio station’ near Plaza del Armas – $29800 Chilean Pesos

Lunch – 1/4 chicken, french fries & pop – 4450 Chilean pesos – approx $7.50 USD
2 water, coke, 2 litre juice – $4.50 USD

Full Day tour – Vina del Mar & Valparaiso – 34 000 Chilean pesos – approx $57 USD – credit card

Lunch buffet with tour at Municipal Casino in Vina del Mar – $23 USD – credit card
Dinner – 4450 Pesos – approx $7.50 – cash
Tip at dinner – $350 pesos – cash
Tip for Felipe (guide) – $2000 pesos – cash

Taxi – 2 kms between hotels – 2450 pesos (gave him 3000 – an extra .50c or so)
Lunch at Da Nui on Portugal Ave – Pollitos y arroz, coke, jello w/ bananas – $4100 pesos + $400 pesos tip.

Dinner at a steak restaurant – Steak and veggies, coke, dessert – $34 USD including tip

I also gave a few coins to the baggage boys who loaded my luggage on to the bus in Santiago and unloaded it in Mendoza. This isn’t required, but it is simply easier. They make it very clear that they are expecting tips. There is no set rate, a few coins will do. They won’t allow you to put your own luggage in or remove it. And, if you refuse to tip them be prepared for a scene. To ensure your luggage isn’t damaged purposely or left behind, just chuck up the dollar or two.