67. Towns of Southern Argentina

As there’s always more in between the major sights than the masses discuss, Neera and I have a strict policy of not committing to any itinerary too far in advance. It’s the inside scoop from the region’s locals and some spontaneity that steers us off the trodden path. That’s where Lonely Planet travel stops and a lot of the true local life begins. Instead of the default gringo trail passage of Patagonia, zipping from El Chalten to Barriloche on a 24 hour bus, we hopped off at Los Antiguos half way.

This enabled us to cross back to Chile to hike the Glacier Exploradores and boat the isolated Capillas del Mármol. These are beautiful blue enormous marble rock formations, carved smooth by the guiding hand of currents over thousands of years. Every place we visit tries to drive home an obscure claim to fame for the biggest or best something. 

Upon returning to the sweet Argentinian border town, we discovered its differentiator as the cherry capital of Argentina! At this point, nobody else in the country seems to be aware of this accomplishment except the town citizens and now us, but they have an enormous hand monument with cherry’s you can climb which in my opinion is alone worth the visit (photo evidence below).We arrived at sunrise and saw that coming 12 hours north brought us to a season that didn’t reach southern Patagonia – along with the Andean cordillera we witnessed the bursting colors of autumn. As long as you’re in Chile or western Argentina, this mountain range is your beautiful background and comforting point of reference, like the ocean for a coastal town. As happy as we were with our life of relaxation, we literally could not leave. Upon requesting tickets for the following morning, we were told the next bus out of town was in 4 days. 

With little option, we dove into the life of leisure and spent our mornings reading, studying Spanish, carefully shopping for vegetables, and biking the town with the house dogs. In the evening our sweet host and new buddy, Nahuel, drove us to the water and with home made IPAs and a glistening lake ahead, we watched the full moon climb. Usually we found ourselves in developed destinations or a town with a renowned natural wonder nearby, this time we got a taste of pure and simple country life.

From village to tourist town, we moved our way up to the hipster hangout of El Bolson. The culture shock was potent… you could actually smell it on the locals’ hair. Everyone and everything was grungy. One in two people have dreadlocks* including the 5 year old kids running around who looked like long term backpackers minus the packs. Nobody seemed to have a care in the world, but seemed collectively liberated from worries of the future. As we were walking down the street behind this sweet young couple, the dad turns around with their baby in his arms and asks us, ‘quieres flores?’. I’ve never been to a place where so many people tried to sell me pot. The sheer scale of the distribution network was incredible and the nature of the proposition became as common as a waiter offering you a menu.

Our hostel was another world in itself. There was cat poo in the showers, people cutting each others’ hair in the communal bathroom, and stoned people blasting either reggae or electronic dance music day and night. To make the most of this foul falsely advertised institution, we cut out early with medialunas and fruit for breakfast by the lake and came back at midnight to crash for the night. Even still, the randomness couldn’t be avoided and I will never forget coming home to a high employee tattooing to one of the guests in the communal living room while their friends rocked out a jam session.

As a whole, this intriguing community of stoner hippies did have something to be tremendously proud of. In all of South America, they had the single most impressive crafts market we’d seen after 10 months. Keep in mind that as soon as the population hits double digits, any place on the continent begins a weekly fair, so being the best is no small feat. The variety and quality was unbelievable and instead of the typical repeat stalls, each one had unique and creative handcrafted creations, from culinary tools to vibrant art. We picked up a gourd and bombilla (maté kit) to call our own, and continued on grateful we didn’t live nearby – the impulse to purchase everything hasn’t been that compelling in years.

It was fascinating to see such a variety of culture, from a village where time calmly moseys by to a bohemian town of skilled artists. It’s wild to think that back in the day most places were just small towns with their own unique feel, undisturbed and uninfluenced by the other cities and people of the world. It’s in these smaller in between lands that we still have the opportunity to travel back in time to these micro-cultures. For that alone, I would hop off half way between the popular spots and roll the dice to see what a random town has in store for us any day of the week. If for nothing else, it’ll be interesting and remind us of how many different ways people can live life.

*this statistic is not based on fact or data in any way

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66. El Chalten, Argentina

Before entering the town of El Chalten, we stepped into the national park office for an educational briefing about the trails, wildlife and conservation efforts. It felt peculiar as you usually do this upon entering a protected zone for a hike, but made sense a few minutes later when we pulled into the bus terminal. We walked down the main street of Chalten and realized it was a trekker’s dream – the borders of town live entirely inside the National Park. 

There was everything necessary for comfortable getaway – a handful of markets, restaurants and accommodations, but a 15 minute walk from any part of town teleports you deep into unadulterated nature. No shuttles or entrance fees for each major sight, you just start walking towards the edge of town and the pavement morphs into dirt. We found a great B&B and had a tough choice to make – reside on one side and the view is Mount Fitzroy, stay on the other and it’s a stunning valley. In Chalten, there is no ‘city view’.

I was baffled at how everyone talks endlessly about Torres Del Paine but so few mention Chalten. The hikes rival the famous trails we’d recently ascended across the border, but the experience comes with an entirely different level of convenience. It has all the splendor of nature, but also lends the opportunity to have cold beers from the store when you get back from your hike, and a hot shower and warm bed instead of a tent and a chilled piece of Earth. The locals manage to brew damn good garage produced artesanal beer and whip up gourmet food too.Each day we’d enjoy breakfast and coffee, lace up and choose a different trail into the wilderness. One afternoon it was something as mellow as an hour stroll to the cascadas for a scenic lunch, the next it was the monster hike to Fitzroy – the beautiful sequence of rock that inspired the Patagonia brand label. 

Each kilometer became more challenging as well as stunning with deep forests, streams and animals like the endangered Patagonia Deer. The last uphill stretch is a test of leg resilience, but once you top out at the curve and see why the valley is called Tres Lagunas, nothing remains but a feeling of gratitude. I was appreciative that places this beautiful exist, and grateful to have the chance to climb to them. After we thought we’d spent lunch taking in the best lookout, we explored higher and realized the panoramic views get even broader. We returned just in time to grab a couple of big Quilmes, find a nice sidewalk curb and a friendly stray dog, and watch the orange ball of fire disappear behind the peaks we’d just descended.

The following morning allowed little time for recovery, as we swallowed some yoghurt and granola then ran out the door to Cerro Torre. The first 3km of what was supposedly the ‘easier hike’ were punishing (and mismarked, it was easily 5km!), but after that it was flat and gorgeous the whole way. To match the wildlife a day before, we found ourselves face to face with huge woodpeckers loudly chipping away and beautiful CaraCara birds taking flight just 10 meters in front of us. The animals weren’t just plentiful, but truly wild in the their most undisturbed space. On top of that, the colors of Autumn provided a glowing backdrop against lush pockets of marshland below and the glacier suspended in the distance above.

After days of tackling a variety of terrain and clocking just short of a marathon, we rounded out our week with the Mirador Condores. We were fortunate to have the company of 4 of the enormous 9 feet wide birds above, and equally enamored with the bird’s eye view of town below. If there’s anywhere we could buy land, it would be Chalten. They’re building a 2nd level to the town up on the hill, but fortunately there’s a very limited amount of space to expand. One day it will be globally celebrated, but like the Galapagos, this may one of those unique places that stays secluded and authentic until the end of its days.

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65. Glaciers of Patagonia

Entering Argentina, the immediate cultural shift from Chile was palpable. People all over South America had been doing their Argentine impressions of bravado and machismo since we stepped into the continent. They told us the people are rambunctious and proud, but equally playful and welcoming in their loud nature. Our first stop in town was where you quickly learn about any new place – the local grocery store. The peoples’ forceful nature presented itself immediately and we observed two ladies fight for the other to take a shopping cart as if the the world depended on it. Beyond the people, the shelves indicated a clear change of culinary interests. While there were quality veggies for Patagonia, at least half the store was dedicated to red meat and the wine section had one rack of white to go along with four sections of Malbec. Clearly, a sense of pride in their beloved grape was not exclusive to the northern provinces.

After buying some yerba mate (national herbal drink), we soaked in the sight of the distant Andean cordilleras we’d crossed overnight and slurped down our first round of mate to commemorate our arrival. The town of Calafate was simple but striking with its big lake and open layout. While getting lost during our trek to a hilltop mirador, we ended up in a poorer neighborhood outside the center. Even there, the lack of excess people or property ensured everyone has a million dollar view.

We sought out information about the famous Perito Moreno glacier on our second day and the drastic accent change hit our ears with every phrase. Thrilled to leave the Chilean Spanish of rapid fire combined words, we were now left to decipher a strong ‘shh’ sound for every word we’d learn to pronounce as ‘ya’. It sounds simple while I write this, but after spending 9 months acclimating to a new language, the day you realize they’re changing the alphabet on you is jarring.

The next morning, we were on the bus for Neera’s 30th adventure and speeding towards the only glacier on the globe that’s still expanding. We strolled the boardwalk towards the 80 meter wall of bright whitish blue ice (another 150 below water), and watched as chunks broke off and exploded with the sound of shotgun fire into the lake below. Something about its size commanded an addicting presence, and we took in the sight for hours.

Keen to develop our glacier savvy to the next level just two weeks later, we ventured back across the Chilean border to the town of Rio Tranquilo. It was a curvy and beautiful drive around the third longest lake in the world, full of water so clean you can drink it. The following morning we ventured from our chic eco hotel onto our group shuttle towards Glacier Exploradores. The rain floating down did nothing to reduce how gorgeous the scenery was, untampered nature and waterfalls the entire way. While too chilly and wet to feel like your traditional tropical paradise, it was so lush and pristine that it felt like a cooled equivalent.

Upon arriving to the launch spot, we literally ran through forest for 45 minutes before getting to the black ice portion where glacier blends in with sand and rock. After 30 minutes of precarious meandering, we found our feet resting on pure ice. With our boots fastened in crampons, we marched into the field of endless white. Before long, our trusty leader, Ricardo, found us a hollowed out tunnel leading into a cave that drops into an underground river. Just 30 minutes later we found ourselves drinking chilled water from crevices in the glacier sheet, and after an hour of exhausting trekking the group laid down to recover. It was mostly steep ups and downs requiring us to stomp our metal tips into the slippery surface. We were inefficient and exhausted but still too elated to rest so Neera, myself and another team member continued on with Ricardo for an extra hour. At the end of our trek, we found ourselves standing above countless valleys and ridges replicating the shape and size of adjacent dinosaur backs.

When I went scuba diving for the first time in Thailand, I felt overwhelmed by the new world that opened in front of me – a universe living below the surface that I didn’t grasp before submerging. In a similar way, seeing these deserts of white was overwhelming and simultaneously humbling, a testament of how vast and varied our enormous world is.

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64. Torres del Paine, Chile

Leading up to our excursion into the renowned Torres Del Paine National Park, we were told horror stories about the infamous Patagonia winds. They supposedly scream day and night, force the hardiest of men to turn back at high mountain passes, and can blow any grown adult backwards as if they’re an ant being toyed with by a child’s cruel blow. That said, we met not a single trekker who said it wasn’t worth the pain, and as such we reserved 4 nights of camp grounds along the W Circuit. Clothes, food, sleeping bags and any other critical necessities (i.e. peanut butter and whisky) would travel the terrain close to our hearts, as everything would live in the packs on our backs. As for water, we simply carried an empty bottle and topped up from the snow melted, ice cold streams that weaved along our path.

Upon entering, we immediately felt awe struck by the vastness of it all. It was a magnitude of never ending skies, rich colors and varied terrain. We’d cross lush greens on one stretch, then petrified white forests on the next. With duct tape on our worn down and no longer water proof boots, the rain and wind never came, but instead our luck struck with sunny days. The natural wonders were only accessible by foot and people from all countries and ages gave the circuit a go. We opened day one with a twelve hour hike to the iconic Torres and upon arriving found rock faces reaching towards the sky over a lagoon at the mountain’s summit. Although the entire last hour was a brutal uphill battle, the payoff managed to surpass the high expectations.

From the first outing, each sight was constantly one upped by the next. The following day, we’d go on to hike through a rocky green valley, curve around a glistening lake, ascend to a lookout with miniature icebergs on the water’s surface, then lay eyes on a glowing blue glacier for the first time. It appeared before us as something unreal, but as we got closer and Glacier Grey came into focus, I felt overwhelmingly grateful to take in another outdoor wonder I couldn’t fully grasp before seeing it with my own eyes. 

We found that the same thing we’d learned from spending extended time in cities and towns applied to nature – various times, lighting and personal mindset drastically morph the entire scene. The way Lago Pato (population : 1 pato) seemed when we were spent and starving beneath the sun seemed incomparable to how it looked on the return trip when we were cool and composed under a soothing drizzle. Between the combination physical exhaustion and visual inspiration, time became warped and every day felt endless. 

We found our groove half way into the expedition, befriended anyone who happened to be near our travel stove around meal time, and took in the landscapes and wildlife. The gorgeous guanacos (graceful version of an alpaca or llama) grazed in the day, while the foxes screeched eerily through the night. Safe in our cocoons with sparkling stars overhead, our eyelids collapsed each night and we slept as well as you could in a tent. 

Neera and I got engaged on a peak overlooking Machu Pichu, entered wedlock on the island volcanoes known as Hawaii, and brought in the 2 year anniversary traversing Chilean mountains. As we devoured our ravioli and salami cubes and toasted chilled tin cups of warming 100 Pipers, the anniversary couldn’t have provided a better encore to special occasions passed. We rose the last day to an inferno sunrise, boated and bussed back to Puerto Natales and soaked under a well deserved shower for the first time in 5 days. Torres del Paine was our grand finale to Chile but our first glimpse into Patagonia’s natural splendor, setting the scene for more beauty to come across the border.

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63. Punta Arenas, Chile

We took flight from The Lakes District and upon touching down in Punta Arenas, it immediately felt that we’d accessed a different part of the globe. Within 30 minutes of arriving, our cabby and host both kindly advised us not to get accustomed to the sunny weather that morning, as Patagonia’s fickle clouds and house shaking winds would certainly join us by afternoon. You can see the Magellan Straight from anywhere in town, have only a short ascent to the mirador to see the end of the world (Tierra del Fuego) across the water, and are always in the company of cormorants that look like penguins at the dock. It truly provides a sense that you’re near the South Pole.

The city has a brilliant ‘collectivo’ system which functions on a public taxi carpool model and gets you anywhere for 70 cents, with time to spare. They’re everywhere, move at alarmingly uncomfortable speeds, stop for no other cars, but do frequently slam the brakes for potential customers. While leading nations often have leading public services, it seems the two of us keep crossing easy to implement ideas with little up front investment that are simply overlooked back in the US. Sure, now we have app-based car sharing, but why didn’t we roll out this concept of convenient and affordable cash-based community taxis in all our major cities decades ago?

Another service of global debate we became more intimately acquainted with was healthcare. After throwing my back out hard in the last days of The Lakes District and accomplishing close to no recovery independently, we were struck with the concern of sorting out a serious injury while at the tip of planet Earth. Our thoughts of trepidation could not have been less warranted for. Several friends have asked how the medical attention compares in foreign lands so herein follows a personal picture. 

Our wonderful host, Jaime, drove us to the clinic 10 minutes from the house and I was seen by the urgent care doctor, then easily scheduled a CT scan for the same day. We received the results that afternoon and met a specialist first thing the following morning. I got a shot of pain killer in the butt (purchased meds but free administration) and later that day, I had 2 MRIs. The specialist took an hour to explain I had ruptured 2 discs (a hernia) in my lower neck/upper back and have the spine of a 70 year old. (The good news is my dad’s 70 and in pretty damn good shape.) I was then referred to rehab for a week, which was on site at the physiotherapy clinic. For 5 days, the miracle worker known as Dr Juan Carlos Alvarez worked on me with electro stimulation (TENS), massage, dry needle therapy, and chiropractory. He revived me and saved our Patagonia hiking adventures. 

Everything medical I’ve described above was done professionally, efficiently and with an attitude of Latin warmth and familiarity, for a total of ~$1500 USD. This may have been the expertise of a private clinic, but it was also a fraction of the cost of the ones in the States and again, in the middle of Patagonia. You could say that Chile is the most stable of all the Latin economies, but when I came down with a throat infection from hiking in the rain outside Salento, the public clinic in Cali (Colombia) proved equally efficient and affordable. Although an experience I would have preferred to miss entirely, it was eye opening to see healthcare executed in a friendly, rapid and cheap manner in countries often spoken of as less advanced then ours.   

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62. The Lakes District, Chile

Half way down the long and narrow coastal country, the land breaks up around enormous pools, weaving together to produce The Lakes District. As we headed south, towns pop up around these peaceful bodies of water, and there we joined the locals in their summer ritual of a lakeside retreat.

Pucon is the doorway to the province and the excess of people proves how easy it is to access. The beach was so packed that if someone leaves a single meter between them and the water, another group would setup chairs and an umbrella in front of them. Since it was a lake and has no changing tide, we pitched our gear 10 inches off the shore, took our books, lunch and a six pack, and toasted to summer sun in January. As we strolled about town and observed the bourgeoisie influx across town, our attention was often taken off the country’s people and redirected to its’ landscapes. Volcano Villarica can be seen from any street in town and constantly billows out smoke, a reminder of the powerful Ring of Fire who’s eastern side lines Chile north to south. An escape from the high society crowds, glistening falls with chilled, swimmable pools and a national park full of enormous lagoons were only an hour away.

Towards our next destination, we capitalized on the plentiful wildlife of the Pacific Coast and were able to squeeze in a midday excursion to see chinstrap and Humbolt penguins. Twice the size of the cute little buggers we’d seen in the Galapagos, they were still gorgeous in their own way, standing proudly above tumultuous seas. Later that evening we arrived to Puerto Varas and the feel was noticeably different – it was completely German. This is because of the town’s intentional importation of German people during the 1950s in an attempt to cultivate a European culture. It was a sweet beach community which still had lovely restaurants and gorgeous water, but fortunately was absent of the masses we’d seen further north.

To top off our three week Chilean lakes tour, we took our local buddy Dani’s sage advice and rented a car to drive around Lago Llanquihue. Steering our little stick shift Peugot around that perfect road, you look to the left and it feels like Chile with ocean sized lakes and volcanoes in the background, then you turn to the right and see European fields and quaint chalets. We skipped from forest hike to mossy waterfall, from one charming town’s plaza to another’s radiant beach. As we closed out our loop under the glowing dusk sky, everything from that exquisite day was frozen in time.   



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61. Chiloé, Chile

To get to Chiloe, we had to take one bus to the next, onto a ferry across a channel, back onto the road, to a small and quaint waterside town (Dalcahue), where our hosts Dani and Andrea picked us up and took us 45 minutes further to a smaller and quainter waterside town (Calen). It consisted of 20 homes, one church and one corner store; it was a time-proof paradise. The island province remains disconnected by design of its inhabitants. In spite of the country’s economic stability and comprehensive infrastructure, the conscious decision to not build a bridge to mainland Chile leaves the local people to cultivate a micro-culture of their own, and it’s a beautiful one.

It was the epitome of peaceful, with air that wasn’t just clean but smelt and felt fresh, surrounded by Chile’s most gripping landscapes in their natural and undisturbed state. The colors are richer than a painting of the water during dusk, with sunsets turning the blue bay to purple and accentuating volcanoes and cordilleras in the background. As you sit on the porch and take it all in, a weird noise catches your ear and upon looking up you realize it’s the blow sound dolphins use to introduce themselves as they swim by – the still piece of art comes to life.

Over our travel experiences to date, I’ve gotten more intimately familiar with nature in ways I was previously oblivious to. There’s such a dramatic difference between staying in a hotel in nature and residing in a home. Something about sleeping, relaxing and reading in a wooden lodge structure makes me feel more present in the outdoors of Calen, and more at ease as a passive participant instead of an outside intruder. 

Returning from one outing, the rain started to beat down and as we watched the drops on the sea, a dolphin exploded out of the water two meters high over half a dozen times in our direction. There was nobody else for miles and she was clearly giving us a show. In turn, we were simultaneously elated and dumbfounded. This was preceded with sea lions cruising by and followed with three enormous rainbows over the shimmering water. It felt like in return for our unobtrusive and appreciative presence to this undisturbed land, nature was responding. 
Venturing out, we’d hike one day to an estuary, spend the following afternoon kayaking between mussel farms, and the next day exploring the neighboring town known far and wide for crafting boats. Occasionally, we’d shuttle out of our sanctuary to the national park or tour the string of small seaside settlements globally renowned for their seafood. You could start with Chilean and Japanese oysters, move to salmon ceviche, and wrap up the same meal with mussel stuffed empanadas – each plate exceeding the last and accumulating for the best seafood lunch in years. ¡Tan riquisimo!

The food and drink continued in abundance at home, along with a carefree joy thanks to the company of Dani and Andrea. Each evening we’d progress from domestic beers to Chilean wine, talk for hours about their lives and ours, and fill ourselves with Dani’s gourmet cooking. One evening he’d introduce us to a local squid-like fish we didn’t know existed, the next he’d pull together a massive parilla with at least four or five different meats. We were welcomed like old friends and left feeling like family; Andrea’s brother Christian teaching us swear words over dinner to everyone else’s chagrin, her mother stitching the holes in my clothes and asking us to please be careful on our travels, and Dani and Andrea taking care of us to the last minute.

When we first made the trip over the water to Chiloe, I didn’t get why they hadn’t constructed a simple bridge to connect their lives with the rest of the country. Upon departing, it made perfect sense. It isn’t the Chiloens that are lacking anything from the outside world. Instead, it’s with great fortune that outsiders like Neera and I get to experience theirs.   

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60. Valparaiso, Chile

If I was a poet, the first thing I’d ever write about is Valparaiso. I suppose it now makes sense why Neruda spent so much of his life there. We arrived from Santiago and headed from sea level to the top of the curvy hills, looking over the entire city before we knew it. We climbed for hours up one string of stairs then down a different set of slopes, and didn’t feel a damn thing, not even short of breath. After Ecuador our lungs were deep as the ocean and our legs felt strong as steel. Although not intentional, we’d just completed 2 months of intense altitude training. However, the distracting surroundings could have helped as well.

There isn’t a stand, store or restaurant that doesn’t have walls covered with art. Art inside on canvas, art outside on building walls, art on the street tables as jewelry or handicrafts. It’s infinite. While the art is still, the locals are always moving, hands sculpting with their tools above their tables, new pieces born every minute. You walk by them making miniature masterpieces while looking at a backdrop of entire buildings covered in murals. The city is an infinite art orgy but instead of limbs, it’s images that lie immediately next to, above and below one another. It’s alive and makes you feel energized as well. Every 15 meters is another small doorway you didn’t see, and like the secret back wardrobe closet to Narnia it leads into another world. Each one is different with shops and cafes, aromas and music to stimulate your senses, before you’re back onto a new alley heading for the next open door. The streets are a maze of murals, up and down, left and right, you’re roaming endlessly without an exit because the entire time you’re already where you want to be – a vibrant, outdoor museum that never closes. If you do stumble upon an unpainted wall it looks naked and wrong, dying to be colored like its neighbors so it can be different and special as well.

In addition to putting our feet to use we occasionally hopped on the classic ascensors – slanted outdoor elevators to reduce the painful commutes of residents and visitors alike. The experience feels like being in a modernized antique. There were an array of eateries, a handful of hills, a few docks and a half a dozen museums, no things superfluous or artificial. We spent the first 4 days actively exploring with Sonia, caught up with British friends from Colombia, then spent the last few happily wandering in the day and retreating for wine and cheese on the balcony in the evening.

While we ventured to neighboring Viña del Mar for a day to relax on the beach, being in a crowded place by choice didn’t feel right so we retreated to our beloved Valparaiso before dark. People tell us it’s the Chilean San Francisco but to me it felt entirely different. They’re both hilly, charming, port cities, but it stops there – Valpo is simply a unique and beautiful animal in its own right.        


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59. Santiago, Chile

Our first stop in Chile was a jolting transition from South America back to the western world. Santiago felt more like Europe than South America, from the people’s demeanor and attire to the parks and plazas. The architecture seemed closer to Madrid than Medellin and the funky bars are bohemian like Budapest or Berlin. It’s brutally hot but, like Europe in the summer, doesn’t matter – every block has another distracting fountain, plaza or cafe to pull your mind from the heat. Parts of town seemed like NY in July in the East Village (with a quarter of the people), everyone strolling outside and soaking in the warmth.

The capital is noticeably developed and the culture refined. We asked how to request tap water in Chilean Spanish, as every country uses a different adjective. In Colombia they told us to ask for agua grifo (tap), in Ecuador agua de llave (faucet). Our waiter in Chile laughed as if we just arrived from the Amazon, and said here you just ask for water because you can drink clean tap water anywhere and it’s not a special request. On the topic of language, it is to put simply, a horrible change. We spent 5 months getting our Spanish flow down in Colombia and Ecuador, then immediately learned how entirely bastardized the dialect is in Chile. In our first conversation checking into the AirBnB, the building manager repeated two sentences about ten times and we still couldn’t understand him, so we waited 30 minutes until our host arrived. Over the next few days, we observed how it’s not just faster but the words are all cut and combined. ‘Hasta Luego’ became ‘Taluego’, ‘Que Mas’ is ‘Quema’, ‘Mas o menos’ is ‘mameno’ and the meanings of entire words changed. Our taxi driver explained how ‘ahora’ (literally ‘now’) means ‘now’ while ‘ahorita’ (literally little now) means later. You can’t study the language, you have to hear it, ask about it and figure it out through chatting with the people, like some puzzle to solve in order to speak within a secret society. After informing Chilenos the Spanish is harder here and giving them examples of how, they all crack up and strongly agree, shaking their heads regrettably while stating it’s ‘muy muy feo, el peor’ (very very ugly, the worst!)

Beyond just the plumbing, almost all public aspects are modernized. The subway is efficient, busses are luxurious and civilized, and it’s the only South American country that isn’t short on monedas! Monedas are coins or change, and is a huge problem anywhere you go because there are never enough around when a cash transaction occurs. Conditioned by lands further north, it took Neera a week to stop collecting change ‘just in case’ we’d need it, and we realized getting coins back without complaint our first few days wasn’t just a stroke of good luck. At that point, we’d almost saved up enough to buy a modest home. As we interviewed locals to get a bit deeper, we learned the adequate change in circulation is a reflection of cash distribution and availability through a stable economy. We also sadly figured out that with the stability and modernity comes higher prices.

As a city bashed by those in neighboring countries as well as everyone in Chile outside of Santiago, we were tremendously impressed. There’s endless international food options, it’s wonderfully pedestrian, and some of the live music performances in the beautiful parks make you stop for an hour as opposed to pause for a minute. Another unique thing about these parks was the stray dogs, who aren’t ownerless, but belong to the citizens of the city. Dog food bags are sold en masse on the sidewalk and when a stray plopped next to us and our beers in the grass, a woman came up and dumped a mountain of pellets for the little fellow to eat. They’re never skinny or hungry, but happy to play and be loved by one and all that pass by. It seemed like a bizarre harmony but still a more fitting one than having mangey, emaciated mutts running around town.

Like San Francisco, you can spend one day urban hiking from parks to palaces and the next deep in world class wine country. The museums range from art to history to natural sciences and educate its patrons on topics from Pinochet to pinguinos. We enjoyed it’s much the first time we went with Sonia we came back after Valparaiso for an extra week. So for everyone that knocks on Santiago, please rent bikes on Sunday when the main boulevard is closed, cruise down to Bicentenario park for the day to relax under free umbrellas, grab some delicious Asian food (in Latin America), and then try and tell me the city’s not a spectacular one.   


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58. Quito, Ecuador

“I cried because I had no shoes, until I saw a boy that had no feet.” These were Oswaldo Guayasamin’s words protruding off his museum’s wall, and they froze me in my spot. We’d just spent two hours touring his home and personal collection, as well as the museum he built to house his works. Covering themes of family support and motherly tenderness, as well as political and social injustices through Latin America and the world, his messages were tremendously moving. It’s so easy to be sympathetic when traveling to a developing nation rife with poverty and injustice, then safely retract into the bubble of our community when back home. I suppose that’s the most powerful element of art, it can be transported anywhere and whether in a museum or your apartment, the message still gets delivered. 

Seeing his scope of pieces capture tragedies from Africa to the Andes, he tied together the global history and struggles of many countries we’d just visited, and with his art protested against the enemies of liberty. As a symbol of how important it is for those ahead to lift up the weaker, he gifted his entire property, museum and all the works in it to the local citizens. The quote reminded me how easy it is to dramatize our trivial personal tribulations, while in the grand scheme of things, they’re insignificant. Instead of ever worrying that I don’t have enough time in the day to enjoy all the hobbies I attempt at home, next time I should take a second to appreciate how fortunate I am to have leisurely time at all. Instead of simply discussing the problems of current events, I was reminded how complaining helps no one but ourselves feel better. Perhaps it’s the current political commotion back home, but something about that museum and quote struck a nerve. I know it wasn’t just the mood I was in, because we returned for a second full tour on our next visit to Quito and it was equally impactful.

The unfiltered art pervaded other areas of the city as well. We visited a vivid, enormous photo exhibition highlighting challenges of each Latin American country. Contrasted with the elegant, old edifice that housed the display, it became apparent how easy it is to travel as a tourist and only see the side you want to – lovely restaurants, cafes, plazas and buildings – while voluntarily overlooking the challenges of local life. After being away so long, I wonder how much I do this back in the States, in our liberal, clean, developed and relatively affluent urban bubble. Perhaps being more aware will bring much more into plain sight that I previously overlooked or voluntarily looked away from.

On a more light hearted note, there was plenty to feel positive about in the capital as well. We took to the clouds, walking about the mountainous mirador overlooking the entire city, then returned below to Parque Ejido, displaying local handicrafts from the north. One thing quintessentially Ecuadorian was the presence of indigenous culture and people; from the music, to the artwork, to the feature of faces walking down the streets. It was truly a juxtaposition of a global city split between ancient and modern. On one side of the spectrum, you have locals who descended directly from the Incas and still speak Quichua, a native tongue developed well before the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. On the other end, we were able to enjoy German beers in the evening at a craft brewery, authentic Indian food at night for dinner, and finish a documentary on Netflix at our AirBnB. Ecuador is a remarkable place and reminded me we live in a fascinating world, with different parts of it blending together more every day.



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