Friday, February 24, 2017

Santiago de Chile

Click on the photo for a full view from our Air BnB apartment
I am a big believer in visiting a new country (or two) every year. Looking at the list of South American countries that I had not visited, I thought I would give Santiago, Chile a try. I contacted a friend of a friend and did some research and booked an Air BnB for 5 nights for the excellent price of USD200 for the entire stay.

The flight in was through Lima and was quite long on Avianca but having access to the lounge there made it easier. I had a nice Pisco Sour and filled up on potato chips.
President's Staff Office right in front of our apartment
We arrived very early in the morning and grabbed a cab into town. The streets were very quiet at 5 am as our taxi took us into the city centre to our condo a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas.  There seemed to be a lot of dogs on the street but they didn’t seem aggressive or hostile.

Walking around Bella Vista enjoying the street art
The keys were with the concierge and we got up to the 24th floor corner apartment that had an amazing view of the city. The apartment was a tiny one bedroom but it had everything we needed including a gym a few floors up. It got very cold and we had to use every blanket in the place ... until we found the space heater and then it was fine.

A night time view
The owner popped by later that morning and gave us a quick rundown of where everything was. The Mercado Central and the Mercado Vega were both very close as well as many parks and monuments.

First meal in the Mercado Central. Salmon and a fantastic Chardonnay
We went for a walk to the Mercados where we had to fight off all the touts trying to get us to eat in their restaurants and cafe’s. We finally settled on one on the outer edge of the market that had natural light. We ordered a bottle of wine and Fatima had the salmon and I had a deviled crab casserole. Wow, both the wine and the food was fantastic.

Renovated Plaza de Armas

The centre area was a bit gritty and dirty but better than most latino centres but the Plaza des Armas had been recently fixed up and it was great. There were a lot of Haitians who were accepted into Chile after their bad earthquakes – probably because Chile shares the same natural disasters. We were listening in on them and couldn't tell what language they were speaking.

We met up with Dany, who my friend Mark met when he travelled through South America in his Xterra. Dany took us to a great local eatery downtown that was jam packed with office workers during the lunch service. 

Empanada with cheese and shrimp
He helped us order some of the Chilean greatest hits like a cheese and shrimp fried empanadas. Fatima ordered a nice beef rib soup. 

I ordered the baked corn pie, Pastel de Choclo, and then I ordered the famous Completo. 

The legendary Completo. I did NOT ask for extra mayo.
Imagine, if you will, a hot dog on a large bun packed with an inch of guacamole, tomatoes, cole slaw and about an inch and a half of whipped mayonnaise! I actually had the waiter take it back to the kitchen to scrape off half the mayo ... and it was still almost more than I could manage. 

Dany, the Big Dog, was served his plate of raw meat. Happily, he shared it with me.
And Dany, who knows his shit, ordered the Crudo. A very large plate of chopped raw meet to be garnished with lime juice, chopped pickles and mayonnaise and served on dry toast. There was lot of Crudo and I had a couple of big servings of this Chilean steak tartar.

Great produce in the Mercado Vega
We walked over to the Mercado Vega and picked up a lot of super fresh produce including asparagus and mushrooms. And we hit a wine store ... with a huge selection and very low prices. I think the average price was around $5 for good wine and you could get an excellent wine for $10.

Our wines for the week on our balcony
We posted this picture of our wines on the balcony with the Andes in the background. I soon heard back from an old and very good friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, was living in Santiago. We ended up walking through the Plaza de Armas and into Bella Vista and a big park until we came to a subway station. 

Funky band playing in front of the subway station
It took a bit to figure it out but we managed to take the subway a few stops away to Providencia. Our plan was to check out the Costanera shopping centre and tower before meeting up with our friend Jorge who lived just down the street. So we emerge from the subway and are surrounded by 3 storey buildings and we can’t see the tower! Supposedly the tallest building in South America ... it was nowhere to be found. We asked a few people and the pointed up a small road and we passed a bunch of street vendors and then, of course, there it was.

View from the Costanera tower
We took the paid elevator to the top for a magnificent view of the city. And then we hit the mall and found an H&M that were selling these great dresses for Fatima for about $7 each and I found a Top Shop and got some shirts.

Grill master Yoyi
Then off to visit my friend who had a bunch of great wines and grilled meat waiting for us. They had a nice balcony terrace where we could sit, drink wine and smoke cigars until late. Their part of Providencia was full of nice older apartment buildings with quiet narrow streets to walk.

Jorge informed us that we had two other Cuban friends living in the city. I probably spent 50 hours playing dominoes with Carlos. We called him the “professor de dominos” as he liked to show us where we played the wrong tiles, even if we beat him! He had married a Chilean and moved to Santiago.

Fatima and her ex-samba partner, now head chef, Alexis
And we were told that Alexis, a boyfriend of an old friend of ours, had moved to Chile to take a job as the head chef of Havana Salsa, a buffet of Cuban food followed by a floor show. We knew Alexis more as a dancer and was Fatima’s favourite Samba partner on Stefan’s dance floor in Havana.

Happy times, before almost ruining the evening with a full bottle of Pisco
We were able to reserve a table and all met up at the venue in Bella Vista. Jorge had been there before and strenuously warned us that the floor show couldn’t compete with anything we had seen in Cuba so we weren’t expecting much. Surprisingly (for Latin America), we were given a discount as friends of Alexis and bumped fists with various friendly Cubans working there. Carlos joined us and it was great having three Vedado boys together again in a foreign city. Kind of like hanging with Kyo and Jorge in Bogota. Vedado boys get around!

The food was excellent and plentiful. I tried the ropa vieja, frijoles negros and the cerdo asado. I think we had beer and then started ordering the pisco. Now Chileans and Peruvians fight over pisco like a national sport. Most of the Chileans “generously” gave the award for better pisco sours to Peru but claimed that their straight Pisco was better. As a fan of grappa, I really enjoyed the local verison. And when you order a pisco in Chile, you get a four finger drink. Ouch.

The not bad show
So after the many warnings from Jorge, the show starts ... and it ain’t bad! A few Cuban dancers took the lead and the company was ably filled out by very professional Chilean dancers. Everyone loved the show and I could see that this place was a favourite for families and big groups celebrating special occasions. Service was great and they kept bringing over more glasses of  Pisco.

Fatima and Jorge cutting the rug
After the show, a DJ played a popular Cuban salsa song and I encouraged Fatima and Jorge (the best dancer of his size that I know – extra-large former national fencer for Cuba – specializing in salsa and funk) to get up and dance and they did the first number on their own. They were soon joined by dozens of Chileans who clearly came to dance. 

Carlos and Fatima on a now crowded dance floor
Carlos is no slouch himself and he and Jorge alternated dancing with Fatima which gave me the night off! After I think 3-4 Piscos and some beers, Jorge came up with the brilliant idea to order a full bottle of Pisco because it was more economical! I told him we were already pretty drunk but he insisted and, of course, we finished it. End of the night, we are in a taxi almost home and Fatima says she left her glasses at the bar so we head back and find them. But by the time we got home, the alcohol was hitting my system hard and it was quite a wobbly trip to bed.

After a few days in the centre, we changed apartments and stayed with Dany and met his wife, the lovely Marisol from Merida and formerly of Mississauga (small world!), in the Condes area. Traffic was terrible but we had an entertaining young cabbie from Colombia who taught us that their word for traffic was “taco”. Lots of taco, everywhere.

Marisol and Mia ... but no cats
But wow, this area was much newer than both the centre and Providencia. Much wider streets, good roads, lots of tall glass buildings and this HUGE park that you could barely see the end of. Condes reminded me a lot of Toronto. The apartment was very modern and we had a nice room a met the adorable Mia and the very shy cats.

I had no idea that Santiago was so modern, had a great subway system, quite a strong rule of law, and very nice people. I think Chileans like keeping their great city to themselves.

Walking through the Parque Rosario in Condes
We walked through the area and through the park and large rose gardens to another mall. Very high end with a Tiffany’s, D&G, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and LV. We didn’t shop here. 

Enjoying my free cup of wine
But we did hit a fancy sushi fusion place that was gorgeously designed and had decent food but, shockingly, they didn’t have a liquor license so couldn’t sell booze. Liquor license? Latin America? Does not compute. I have never heard of a Latin American establishment ever needing a license to sell alcohol. Santiago, you are a first for me. But happily, while they couldn’t sell us wine with lunch, they could give us two glasses for free! Cheers!

Uni! Wish my Mom was here, it is her favourite.
On our last day in Chile and we walked through Condes to I think a German styled seafood place. Wow, what an incredible feast. A platter of super fresh steamed and raw seafood. 

A few plates of cheese gratinada shellfish. And a big bowl of Uni that probably would have cost over $100 in Japan.

So I had a great time in Santiago and was very happy to have spent it with Fatima and to have met up with old and new friends. I’ll be back soon.

One of many pictures I took of the nearby tower, all in different shades
And I was able to go back several months later and stayed with Jorge this time in their very cool two storey condo in Providencia. 

And another in the morning.

They were just down the street from the Costanero so I took a bunch of photos in its many shades of colours. 

In the market looking for ingredients to mak kimchi
Back again to the Mercados Central and Vega for veggies. I brought the dried chillies and gave Jorge lessons on Kimchi making. We took walks in the neighbourhood and picked up Fabi from his German school in the neighbourhood.

A great view of the Andes from their balcony.
We met up with Jorge’s wife one day and went to a great Peruvian restaurant in the neighbourhood. Tons of food and super delicious seafood.

With Elizabeth enjoying great Peruvian food
She is a consul at a European embassy and got us comp'd for ... the Chilean wine festival! In a big downtown hotel, we had to fight through a lot of traffic to get there. Upon entering, we were given nice big solid wine glasses. The main room had about 24 vineyards, a food station handing out delicious amuse bouches for free, and a stage with some folkloric shows. 

Drunk happy people. Lots of spit buckets around, didn't see anyone use them.
We wandered around and sampled many wines. Met one charming wine pourer for one of the giant vineyards who asked where I was from. I said I was living in San Salvador and working in Havana. We got to talking about Cuba (as Chileans, like every person I have met in South America, would love to go visit Cuba) and she told me she loved Cuban cigars. I happened to have some with me so I gave her one and she was very happy.

In the Pisco room
So wandering around the room, we discovered a doorway and we go through a short hallway and, wow, discover another room with a Djay playing music and another 20 vineyards. Then we cross this room into another room with another Djay and another 20 wine stands. Then we found the espumante room and then there was a Pisco room with innovative mixologists inventing delicious cocktails. 

Awesome Pisco cocktails
I had a pisco, beer and honey concoction that was quite delicious. The girl I gave the cigar to found me in room 3 and brought me over to a small independent vineyard and had me try some of her favourites there. Very cool.

We ended up leaving early to meet up with Carlos in Bella Vista for some very good hamburgers and some craft IPA’s. Probably a good thing we didn't spend all night sampling wines. Then back to Providencia for more wine and cigars.
Vedado boys knocking back pints
Next day we were a bit wobbly but strap on your boots! It is time for the Santiago Oktoberfest! Imagine one thousand blonde and blue eyed Chileans with one chino (me) and one mulatto (Jorge). 

Buccanero? In Chile? Why? Why not?
Everyone was very friendly and we sampled many many beers. We found a Cuban guy repping Buccanero Cuban beer! We had a few of those with some nice grilled sausages. He said he could get us Caney for a really good price. My favourite rum!

Custom made tray of charcuterie for us.
Then got a plate of cured meats. Met up with a bunch of Jorge’s friends for more beers. Very nice people and we all smoked cigars in the warm afternoon sun.

The view from the restaurant at the top of the hill.
The icing on this short visit was a day trip to Valparaiso. The drive out was interesting. Great roads and we must have passed a few dozen vineyards. We also passed about 500 motorcyclists who were making a mass trip out to the coast.
Ready for a great lunch at Cafe Turri at 147 Templemen
Valparaiso is a bit of a strange place. Dominated by a small but very deep water harbour and surrounded by hills, the town was notable for having giant ships very close to the shore giving the place an industrial feeling. The area around the harbour has a lot of street vendors and is a bit trafficky and dirty but after a short walk, we took one of the famous funicular railways up to the top of the hill. 

Funicular tracks.
We emerged into a charming neighbourhood of pedestrian friendly streets and walkways. Our number one choice for lunch was closed but we ended up at an old restaurant famous for its seafood and views. Both were spectacular. 

Tuna tartar
I had the tuna tartar and gratinada scallops and we had a bottle of Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia.

And for dessert, we had Cannolis! Raspberry sauce and spun sugar to boot.

Lots of great street painting
We walked off lunch by taking the winding roads down the hill, looking at a lot of excellent graffiti, some impromptu street theatre, and enjoying the sunny cool day.
No need to fear, just a plastic gun and a Guy Fawkes mask
Thanks Santiago for another great visit and see you again next month. Looking forward to more seafood, grilling steaks with Jorge on the balcony, amazing wines, beautiful city-scapes in what is one of my favourite cities in South America.

The view of Valparaiso bay

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

El Salvador and Guatemala

Wading in the cold waters of Lake Atitlan
While the flow of my friends willing to visit me has reduced to a trickle, there are still some people who are curious about Central America. My old friend Stefan from my early years in Havana has been more recently posted to Buenos Aires and Brazilia where I have visited him about 5 times in the past few years. 
Kids jumping off the big pig at Tunco
The sheer weight of guilt finally pushed him to book tickets, with the lovely and charming Mary, through Panama to Monsignor Romero International Airport in Comalapa, El Salvador.
Chillin in Tunco
It was nice to have friends visiting who had no preconceived ideas of this country. We did most of the usual things including a day out at Tunco eating lots of amazingly fresh clams and oysters. 
Stefan zipping through space
Also a day out in the west doing the awesome ziplining at Apaneca, dropping into Juayua for the food fair, and then racing over to Tazumal before it closed early on the Sunday. We actually got there after they closed the ticket booth but they still let us in for a quick walk around the temple. Very nice of them.

Great food and ambiance at the Welton in Antigua
I think I must be a real Guanaco now because I now agree with the locals that a must see, when visiting El Salvador, is Antigua, Guatemala. Okay, but really, this whole region used to be one country so it isn’t so wrong to see that the areas are related. 
Pollo Campero on the road to Antigua
We drove to Antigua for a night and had a wonderful meal at the Welton. This place has been producing great meals with great service and charming ambience for years. We were hoping to sit by the rose petal strewn pool but they had just cleaned it but our table was covered in the petals.
At the Ocelot Bar? Cool Aussie bartender making us lots of cocktails.
We spent the night in the very nice Hotel Antigua: very central and very rustic but the rooms have all been redone so it is very quiet and comfortable. Also very reasonable and they do a nice breakfast in the mornings – either the fruit, cereal and toast included in the meal or the cooked breakfast that is a bit extra.

Michael sharing his cigar friendly places in Antigua
Also hung out with Michael who told us of the very few places you could have a drink, hang out and smoke a cigar! Since this is very forbidden in Antigua, I won’t mention where we did it. But at one place, we received no complaints, staff was very cool, and we handed out some Habanos to some Americans who said the cigars smelled really good.
Who needs bridges?
We also took the opportunity to drive to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. We used my wobbly GPS and Fatima’s recollection from a bus trip she took many years ago ... and started off. Through fields of produce and out into the country, we hit a very winding stretch that got quite dodgy quite quickly. We came upon a collapsed bridge and wondered what to do until we saw on-coming cars driving through the river bed. No worries with the Honda Pilot. But up steep roads, blind curves, small land slides and almost no traffic! I was thinking that the town must be really tiny and beers must be $5 each if the trucks have to drive this road to get up there.
Hanging out in Panajachel
We finally arrive and Panajachel is quite big with hundreds of cars and we got lost trying to find our accommodations at Jessica’s River Bed and Breakfast. Very cute property and tiny but cozy rooms all done in wood. We got lucky as our stay coincided with the weekly breakfast in the garden. A great spread of local and international breakfast foods. The people were also quite interesting and met some some gingoes who had driven from Guatemala City ... and who told me that there is a giant multi lane highway coming in from the north and west (we went south and east) and some interesting folks from NYC who were down buying Guatemalan crafted goods for sale in their boutique.
A beautiful Lake Atitlan (click to enlarge)
Okay, why am I talking about that when I should be mentioning that Lake Atitlan is gorgeous! A huge glittering lake, hundreds of metres deep, brilliantly clear and surrounded by volcanoes high up in the air. It was a joy sitting at the lake side restaurants, even if they were tourist traps, looking out onto the lake. We decided that we didn’t need to order the extravagant meals they had on offer and found places that would allow us to drink beers and smoke cigars and to order the luncheon specials with the small, but very fresh and delicious, fish lunches.
Purple jade from street vendors in Panajahel
At every turn we were approached by the locals who wanted to sell us artisanal goods. Lots of it was lovely and we bought what we could. A friend of mine from Canada had asked me to buy purple jade. The stores in Antigua were asking $100 for a tiny piece. The stores in Panajachel were asking $50.  But on the streets, I was buying big pendants of pink and purple jade for about $10 to $20 each. Got some great stuff.
Mary enjoying (and not sharing) her pasta as Stefan looks hungrily on
We went out for dinner and took some local advice and ended up eating some rather mediocre food. Actually, Fatima, Stefan and I had a pretty average soup and pizza dinner while Mary had what looked like amazing pasta but she wasn’t sharing with us since we all looked so hungry and would have devoured her entire dinner.

Antigua amongst the volacanoes
We took the highway route back to Antigua and it was super fast and a lot safer but it was a lot farther so it took about the same amount of time and was certainly a lot less interesting. Once back in Antigua, we had more time so we did a big walk around town to the Merced church, to the textile museum, to the big ruins, and then to the market. 
The markets of Antigua
I did not know that there is a market behind the market behind the market. We went in really deep and it was very interesting with lots of stuff being sold that we didn’t see up front. We bought lots of pepitos (pumpkin seeds) as they were a third of the price in San Salvador. 
Smoking cigars and drinking cocktails inside!
We had dinner at a very crowded traditional Guatemalan restaurant just off the main square. The food was very good but they purposefully charged us for two bottles of wine instead of one. We caught it and made it clear that we were quite annoyed with them. I hate when they try to rip off tourists but it happens everywhere.

The next day we had a leisurely breakfast at out hotel, Los Olivos I think? The rooms were quite interesting as you would enter into a small living room with the washroom and a TV. Then up stairs to a landing with a giant bed and a big TV. No windows up there but a skylight. Everything looked to be constructed with giant wooden beans and foot thick blocks of stone but that wasn’t the case as Stefan was kept up by a late check in and lots of thumping from next door. More walking around town and hanging around with Michael who gave me another gem of local knowledge.

Wonton noodle soup in Central America!
A new Chinese restaurant that served really good food including  wonton noodle soup! This is the Holy Grail (or noodle bowl) of Chinese food for me, having grown up on it in the Chinatown in Toronto. I had high expectations and it was really great. Perhaps not perfect noodles but they threw a bunch of giant shrimps on top, even with a bunch of fat shrimp filled wontons, so I was happy.
The ruins in Antigua (click to enlarge)
Back on the highway and passed maybe a total of 10 Guatemalan police check points but we were not stopped by a single one. Across the border at Chinamas and five minutes later, I am stopped by the Salvadoran police! I got out of the car and told him that I had spent three days driving in Guatemala and wasn’t stopped once and I drive a few miles into my own country and I get stopped. He laughed, took a quick look into the back of my SUV and told me that I could go. I think they, and the customs at the border, were looking for people transporting goods for sale in El Salvador.
Touring Tazumel
Last night was smoking cigars and drinking awesome artisanal pints at the Cadejo bar in the Zona Rosa and my friends jetted off back to Brazilia.
Other things they really enjoyed in ES? Very authentic and delicious Korean food at the Pabelion Coreano in Merliot. Also spent a night on the Paseo del Carmen walking up and down the street. They have this big food area towards the end which had dozens of stands selling all kinds of delicious foods. Too bad we had eaten so we couldn’t try everything we wanted to. I bought a cool CBGB Tshirt and we ended up at Thekla Bar which had a four piece female indy band that seemed to tune up for about twice as long as they played.

Part three of the atomic bomb. Boom!
The bar has an interesting shooter drink list so Stefan made the classic mistake, only second to starting a land war in Asia, of challenging a Korean to a drinking contest. A few hours later, we both clearly had enough. I think it was the Atomic Bomb that was a three level drink. Pull out the shot of Jack Daniels and knock it back. It dislodges a shot of Jaeger that falls into a glass of Red bull, Pulling that out dislodges a Baileys layered over Jamesons that falls into a stout, and then choke that back and burp. Ugh!

Grilled leeks, steaks and sausages, and a big salad on the beach.
Spent one night at the beach at a friend’s house. Nice to have a bbq and then walk along the ocean while the tide was out. Cigars and rum into the night and Stefan slept outside on the deck, listening to the waves all night. 

Stefan and the ladies saying goodbye to the sun
El Salvador is a very small country going through a difficult period with its gangs and crime but it is also a very beautiful country full of happy, hard-working and hopeful people. Come and visit.