La Serena and Valle de Elqui: not quite serene, not quite the birthplace of pisco

There’s a lot of Catholics in South America. The 29 churches alone in the city of La Serena is somewhat of a testament to that fact.

I imagined La Serena would look, feel, and smell like a seaside town. It didn’t. I did actually think it would be pretty serene and, it wasn’t. But it had churches. Lots of them.

La Serena

There was a beach and, I imagine, it’s a really nice beach to visit in the summer. It went on for miles but, having spent almost 2 years in Oz and seen the empty beaches of Thailand, I’m pretty spoiled when it comes to beaches.

La Serena

We didn’t stay in La Serena. The main attraction seemed to be elsewhere, anyway. So we headed for Valle de Elqui, also known as “Pisco Elqui.” A pair of 2-hour bus rides later, we found ourselves in a small town situated in a valley between the Andes, surrounded by pisco vines and mountains of quartz in every direction.

The farmers here are also very tactical in how they’ve set up the vineyards. The largest reservoir in the region, embalse puclaro – an artificial lake where windsurfing and kitesurfing is very common – can bring damaging winds to the nearby valley. Trees are lined up as hedges, along with protective nets that break strong gusts of wind.

Pisco Elqui is also known for having “the clearest skies in the world.” South America’s biggest space observatories are within relatively short driving distance from the valley and it’s worthwhile to visit one like Mamalluca Observatory to check it out.

Cerro Mayu in Moonlight

Just remember that it’s a sleepy town. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself spending an afternoon eating Argentinian asado and drinking cheap beer in a homey secluded little place like Sabor a Color.

a year about drinking, running, travel, and startup culture

When I turned 21, I celebrated with my friend, Guy, in a French-Japanese restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan. There was a blizzard that night, so no one wanted to go out and everyone else that normally wouldn’t care about crap weather were out of town. It’s probably worth a mention that I was oddly sincere about my decision to not drink before my 21st birthday. I travelled to two of the best countries for beer – Belgium and England – and didn’t bother trying them even though I was of legal age when I was there. So when I turned 21, I was pretty excited about the whole thing!

Honestly, I can’t even remember what that first drink was. I’ll tell you though.. it wasn’t beer. Guy eventually took me to a proper bar where I did have my first beer, which ended up being Delirium Tremens. To date, it still holds a very special place in my heart. Not to mention, it has a cute pink elephant as a logo. And over the years, I’ve discovered hundreds upon hundreds of other ones… you can start with this list of 99 beers from Grub Street.

Anyway, the reason I mention the drinking is because I attended a bunch of “going away” parties this past year, which is something I’ve never really had to do before. I guess, moving from country to country necessitates it. My friend, Kateryna, was pretty much my drinking buddy in Australia and when she left, we had some stiff belgian ales before tackling korean bbq. When I decided to leave my job at Capital IQ, it was yet another round of farewell drinks. When I moved back to New York, it was a series of welcome drinks. When we applied to Start-Up Chile (SUP) and realized we were moving to Santiago – yet another going away party. Because SUP is a 6-month program, people come and go. More drinking! Luckily, I can handle my alcohol well. Perhaps, surprisingly so. Although, I attribute that to my running.

In high school, it was my sport of choice. It didn’t require much “gear,” it didn’t require a special place to train, and I didn’t have to deal with being on a team where there’s always inevitably at least one person I could never get along with. I read The Nike Experiment and fell in love with the idea of tracking my running data. But it wasn’t until this past year that I realized I’ve actually become a runner.

I run everyday. No really. Every single day. This past summer, I wanted to run 100 days in a row. I got sick three times during that period and I pushed through it. I ran 64 days in a row before missing one because I was stuck in a consulate all day for a visa and had an early evening flight. This isn’t a big deal to many runners, but it means a lot to me. It’s a different kind of discipline. So I’m doing it again. Today is day 38. I ran 6.31 miles today. I also registered for Maratón de Santiagoand you know what? Day 100 is 7 days after the marathon. How’s that for a challenge?

This makes for a perfect segue into travel… I’ve recently become interested in destination running. I’ve found that there’s no better way to explore a new city or a small town than on foot. I traveled the most when I was 19. Then there was a lull and I stayed in NYC for a while. Until I was transferred to Sydney. Then it was Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Phuket, Manila, Sabang, and some random small town along the border of Burma (here’s my old travel blog: Brooklyn Abroad). And, recently, I’ve moved to Santiago. It’s not hard to imagine that I’ll eventually be backpacking my way around South America. One day.

In Santiago, I’ve developed a real appreciation for the startup culture. It was different in New York – there was just more of a tech culture. It was crazy competitive. The environment for some of the incubator meetups were almost hostile. And everything was almost always about money. It was rare to find someone talk about something passionately just because they cared about it and not because they could make a ton of money by turning it around on a sale. Here: I’ve met my core group of entrepreneurs who “live and breathe” their startups. The first and last thing I think about each day is related to running. I blog about it, I research it, I geek out over running tech, and then I use all of that to help Smashrun. I fucking love it.

I’m broke, I’m ripping right through my savings, I’ve got no clue where I’ll be after Start-Up Chile, I’m learning 3 different programming languages simultaneously which might not get me anywhere, and I’m happy. Totally happy. 25 was a good year. And now that I’m 26? I’ve got some serious work to do. I’ve set the bar pretty high.

Puerto Varas and the Llanquihue region

Puerto Varas – “a city of roses and volcanoes”. This town is one of those places you’re just meant to fall in love with. A city bounded by lakes and national parks, near grand canyons and waterfalls. There are signs everywhere hinting that you’re at the gateway to Patagonia, and there’s no shortage of stores for hiking gear. You could pick up everything here given the number of top brand stores for outdoor clothing and equipment: Patagonia, North Face, RKF, Columbia Sportswear – really, they’re just missing a Kathmandu store. Just keep in mind that it’s not cheap.

The town itself is a prototypical lakeside town.  Small, quaint, quiet. You should definitely visit Barista while you’re here. It’s hands down the best coffee, food, and service I’ve had so far in Chile. I’ve gone there three times in the four days I’ve been here. You should also visit Bravo Cabrera. They had a pretty damn good beer menu and it’s cheap. Don’t miss the pizza either – try the pizza carciofi for 4,800CLP. It’ll make you happy.

 

You can probably see most of the town on foot in a day. It’s tiny. Most visitors stop by Museo Fierro where Puerto Varas is thoroughly documented by paintings, newspaper clippings, street artifacts, and an array of odds and ends. You might even luck out and meet Pablo Fierro himself!

You’ll also find tour operators on every street advertising trips out to Saltos del Petrohué or Lagos de Todo Los Santos. Remember: a micro to most locations will cost you between 400-2,000CLP (80 cents-$4) and tour operators will charge you anywhere between 22,000-48,000CLP ($44-$96) to take you to the same places. The national parks are free – you can go to Saltos del Petrohué and Lagos de Todo Los Santos for less than $10. That’s kind of amazing.

Osorno Volcano

 

And now, for my rant: it might just be a crap idea to plan your hikes around January or early February. The area is notoriously well-known to entertain its fair share of tabanos. And, if you ask locals about them – everyone just sort of shrugs and acknowledges its existence. You ever watch the Survivorman episode when he went to the Australian Outback? Here’s the transcript. Search for the keyword “flies” and you’ll see what I mean. At least, those flies didn’t bite. Tabanos in Petrohué? Oh, they do.

You get so preoccupied about keeping them off you that it’s almost easy to forget the spectacular things that surround you.  They travel in packs and they don’t let off. We dealt with them for at least 12km and, at one point, while walking by the beach where the wind turned stagnant, there must’ve been about 20 of them! And they’re huge! Look!

And so follows a series of photos with me trying to fight them off… haha.. I can’t help but laugh now when I look at these. It really was that bad.

discovered that horseflies are persistent

 

Such an incredible trail, but I hardly had any time to fully appreciate it.

it really is desolate

Maybe it wasn’t so bad. When the flies weren’t making us so miserable, it was a good hike. Not a soul in sight. I’m sure, for a good reason. And if you’re not into beating horseflies with your windbreaker (or spending an afternoon running away from them) – there’s also Frutillar.

A short 30-minute micro ride north of Puerto Varas is an even smaller town. It felt like a New England town. The bus ride is 900CLP one-way, but you can also rent a mountain bike and do the trip along the shoreline from Puerto Varas – I hear it’s awesome. We didn’t take the chance with the bikes because it was on and off hard rain on the day that we went.

chris and his tree climbing shenanigans

 

Tomorrow: we’re thinking a lazy Sunday. Chill out before heading back to Santiago. I kind of miss my apartment. Mostly my terrace. I also have to think about this whole feeling old thing. Turning 26 on Sunday, the 5th. Oy. Life needs to slow down just a little bit more.

Valparaíso and Viña del Mar: lleno de carácter, lleno de vida

Arriving at the bus terminal on a cloudy day, you wouldn’t guess that Valparaíso is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

one of Valpo's many markets

Once nicknamed the “jewel of the Pacific,” much of the city’s architecture still firmly holds on to the Victorian era and many of its hills boasts of unmatched vistas overlooking an incongruous sea of colorful homes and remnants of its industrialized past. Ship containers line the port of Valpo next to a local train track that was unfortunately developed along its coastline – so much more can be done to this city if they made use of its long shore, but Valparaíso is beautiful.

the port

There’s no comparison to a city like this: narrow winding streets, intricate alleys, walkways, cobbled paths, steep staircases, funiculars, urban murals, and graffiti that would rival Brooklyn’s 5Pointz. It’s poetic, really. Even the produce market is absolutely incredible. Truckloads of vegetables line a small square, 2-3 kilos of fruits for about $2US, the occasional driver passing through yelling out, “¿cuánto para la lechuga?” and one very funny guy who walks back and forth screaming “mi melon, melon, muy rico! rico!

Visit La Sebastiana (one of Neruda’s many homes) – I’ve always been a fan of Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada

Neruda's home in Valpo

Then take a local bus to Paseo 21 de Mayo where you can ride the Ascensor Artilleria to the top.

Valpo's famous funiculars

There’s not much up there aside from a fantastic view of Valpo and Viña’s coastline, but it’s still worth a stop especially if you’re keen to visit the naval museum. A short troleybus from there is Cerro Concepción – quite possibly, one of the more beautiful walks in the city. There are several B&B’s, cafes, restaurants, streets performers, and craft stands. Spend an afternoon in one of the restaurant terraces (like the Brighton) and just watch the day go by.

awww.. we must've just had lunch haha

 
And we discovered Reñaca (technically still part of Viña del Mar)… people-watching that would make Bondi jealous. It’s a 40-minute bus ride from Valparaíso and it’ll cost you a mere 450 CLP on a micro – 90 cents! For a beach this nice? I think I’ve found my easy weekend go-to spot. Prep yourself for neon-colored bikinis, string bikinis, and somewhat non-existent bikinis. Think big families, couples, and singles intermingling. Foreigners, backpackers, and locals. Cheap beers and too many helados. It’s pretty awesome.

thanks to Michael for such an epic photo!

 

car-friendly city, people-friendly trails

It won’t take you long to realize that cars rule the streets of Santiago. Even when you’ve got the walk sign, they’re not exactly slowing down as they make that curb… they’ll stop, sure, but it’s pretty obvious they’d rather not. So it’s such a nice discovery to find that there are trails within the city and just along the outskirts where the only things you’ll come across are a handful of hikers, bushes, and trees.

This past weekend, we rounded up a small group of 8 and decided to hike a trail at Parque Natural Aguas de Ramón. It was a pretty easy commute (take the red line to Baquedano, then transfer in the direction of Plaza de Puente Alto – get off at metro Cristóbal Colón – take the D08 or D08c outside the metro station in the direction of Plaza de Reina). There’s about a mile and half walk from the bus stop to the park entrance. Detailed directions are on the park’s website :)

We got there around 10:30am and were promptly informed that we probably shouldn’t attempt the Salto de Apoquindo trail (~9 hours return). You wouldn’t be able to make the entire trip after 9am because the park closes at 6pm. So we settled on Los Peumos.


The trail is quite steep on the initial climb. It’s very dry and hardly any shade. Although, it doesn’t take long to get an amazing view of the city at the top, along with the mountains surrounding the entire hike.

And you should definitely cool off when you get to the mini-falls… the water’s frigid, but you’ll warm up pretty quickly on the hike back, so might as well enjoy it.

By the way.. don’t forget to sign out when you finish. You wouldn’t want park security wandering around and looking for you because you forgot to check out 😉