Category Archives: Valparaíso, Chile

It just wouldn’t be a long-term voyage in South America without…

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…a purse theft!

Of course, this wasn’t exactly what Sara was thinking when she realized it was no longer in the bag on her lap where it was supposed to be, nor was it what I was thinking as I waited impatiently with our bags in the bus depot while Sara ran back to see if there was any possibility it had been left in the hostel. It wasn’t, in fact, until we had two armed officers solemnly stuff our backpacks into their armoured van and cart us off to the police station to give a report, looking to all the curious spectators like we were about to be deported, that we realized we were having an essential foreign travel experience.

Our plans underwent a few changes at this point. Practically speaking, this happened at a time of epic inconvenience: we had been literally on our way to the bus depot to leave Chile when all of a sudden Sara was passportless and unable to cross any borders, and it happened to be a Saturday night, and the office that would give her a duplicate of her Chilean visa would not be open until Monday morning. BUT this just meant that we had another couple days to enjoy in beautiful Valparaiso, and that is what we did. We got a midnight ride in the armoured car, driven by a couple of 18-year-old junior officers who definitely thought this was all a big fun adventure, back to our beloved Doña Elena, who greeted us in her usual warm-but-stern manner.

Now, we knew the most pressing matter in such cases is to cancel one’s credit cards as soon as possible, but Chile is a strange country in that literally NONE of their phones can make international calls. Not landlines, not cellphones, not even the police chief’s office phone (apparently international crime hasn’t yet made it to Valparaiso). The only option was to use a telecabina, a sort of privately owned payphone, but these are only open during business hours. So, at the crack of dawn we got up and found one that happened to be open and, very fortunately, were able to cancel all cards without a hassle.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the vibrant streets of Valpo once more, buying churros from little old men and watching still more sunsets over the Pacific ocean. All in all, not a bad way to be stranded in a foreign country.
(Note from Sara: Melnyk clan, you are going to love this – we found an ENTIRE STREET lined with nothing but secondhand shops. I had to keep reminding myself that I would have to carry whatever I bought in my backpack!)

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Secondhand paradise…
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The next day, however, we got down to business (it was Monday, after all). We got Sara’s duplicate Chilean visa without a hitch and caught a bus to Santiago, the capital, where we were to apply for a new passport from the Canadian embassy. The embassy was exciting, with all the marble floors and high-tech security you’d expect, but not as exciting as the mad marathon we then had to run to get Sara to the photographer six blocks away so she could have her new photos taken and be back to the embassy before it closed at 5:30 (Needless to say, of all the haggard passport photos in the world, hers may have the most legit excuse).
(Another note from Sara: While my white hoodie is getting so wretched it won’t make it back to Canada, how lovely that it is now immortalized in my passport picture!! :P)

That evening, however, was the reason why this crazy travel mishap will forever hold a dear place in our hearts. After leaving the embassy and eating a much-needed dinner in Santiago’s business district, we set off to find somewhere to stay for the night. We had an address of a hostel, which was supposedly surrounded by a dozen other hostels in case there wasn’t room. When we got off the last metro of the night and emerged into what seemed to be not the best area of town, however, no one we spoke to had ever heard of it. All we found was a sign that said ‘hostel’ on a building that, we were told, had been condemned after an earthquake a few years ago. We wandered, following terrible instructions after terrible instructions, until we literally collapsed under the weight of our backpacks. We sat despondently on the side of the road, both of us at our wit’s end.

And that’s when the friendliest couple in the world appeared. “We know this is strange, and if you’re not comfortable with it we understand, but if you need a place to stay we have an extra room in our apartment,” said the respectable man in his early 30s, his cheerful-looking compañera smiling welcomingly at us. Now, we know that accepting invitations from total strangers in a foreign city is a pretty major traveling faux-pas, especially after having your purse stolen three days before, but after 2.5 hours of taking sketchy directions from even sketchier people, these guys were hard to resist. We followed them home and were eagerly welcomed into a shockingly normal little apartment, and told to relax on an already-made bed in the spare room.

Turns out our amazing new hosts were on their first day of summer holidays and were heading out on vacation the next day, and yet still somehow found time to offer ridiculously generous help to a couple of total strangers. They told us they had seen us sitting for awhile, and were worried about us because the area was dangerous after midnight (which it now was). They then invited us to join them for tea, which turned into a sampling of Chileno wines, lessons in local slang, and just an all around fun evening (read: night. We didn’t get to bed until almost 4am) with what seemed to be friends we had known for years. And as if that wasn’t enough, the next morning we had a breakfast of scrambled eggs (absolutely unheard-of in South America!) while our new friends found hostels for us and escorted us there themselves, giving us their cell phone number in case we had any other troubles. Needless to say, we were incredibly moved by this huge, absolutely random act of kindness. Muchisimas gracias, Claudio y Pepa!

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Alas, the tale is almost told. The only hitch left was for our friendly embassy lady to contact four references to confirm Sara’s existence/lack of criminal activity. These could NOT include relatives, and we had to know their work and home phone numbers, as well as their home address off-hand there in the embassy. We managed to scrounge up four friends for whom we knew this information, but unfortunately they were all students and therefore not home during embassy hours. The next day was therefore spent frantically searching Canada411, Facebook, and old emails for ANYONE who might be accessible during the daytime. (We kicked ourselves for getting married at this point, since even ‘grandma-in-law’ is apparently too close a relative to use. Sigh…)

And so, after many hours of searching (and two hours of staying late at the office for our heroic embassy lady), we managed to snag a friend from camp (although the embassy lady at first could only get ahold of her mom, who apparently talked so glowingly of their friendship that our embassy contact was ready to just use the mom as a reference), an old coworker, and Pastor Matt, whom we said, for lack of more accurate information, lived in the church. The fourth, however, is still a mystery to us, so wherever you are, if you received a phone call from the Canadian embassy in Santiago, we thank you dearly!
Yet more notes from Sara: Seriously, THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH. Once we’re home, I will spoil you with dulce de leche!! 🙂

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The other ocean

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And so, after two and a half months of sheep-shearing, hitchhiking, feria-shopping, strawberry-picking, hosting, artesenal beer and way too much pizza, we bid our sad adieus to El Bolsón and were bus-bound once more.

We stopped in Bariloche just long enough to eat lunch by the lake and sample some of their world-famous chocolates, and then we were off and running to Valparaiso, Chile.

Relaxing at our hostel in Bariloche:
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Mamushka, Mamushka! (sung to the tune of “Solishka”): Home of Guillermo Wonka, the Latino chocolatier…
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After a wretched overnight bus ride and classic Chilean border crossing (read: three hours spent freezing outside at 2AM while the border guards sipped coffee and debated amongst themselves whose turn it was to turn on the x-ray machine to scan our bags), we arrived in Valparaiso at 5 AM: exhausted, homesick for El Bolsón and Argentina in general, and wanting only to find a campground pronto.

Apparently, however, Chilenos only sleep “with a roof above their heads!” making campgrounds a scarce commodity. It didn’t improve matters that the only person in the bus terminal available to help was a crotchety custodian with only one tooth left in his mouth, which he used to squawk at us instead of forming discernible words.

Needless to say, our first impression of Chile was less than favourable.

We found the single campground advertised at the (closed) information booth and made our way there, praying that the owner of “Doña Elena’s” would take kindly to two backpackers waking her up at five in the morning.

Doña Elena could best be described as terrifyingly formidable – but very kind. She led us down three flights of rickety steps to her tiny garden, where we set up our tent beneath a papaya tree that kept dropping fruit on our head, and finally, we went to sleep, wondering why in the world we had ever left Argentina.

That afternoon, we decided to explore our new neighbourhood. We had walked only five minutes down the block before coming across this beach:

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After seeing what lay in our backyard, we decided to give Chile a chance.

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Valparaiso is a city of brightly painted houses stacked crazily atop each other, tumbling down the mountain towards the sea. Whole blocks of incredible street art, tiny twisting alleyways, and cobblestone roads make getting lost in this city a most aesthetically pleasing experience. In order to explore the city fully, one has to take the ascensores, Valparaiso’s vertical public transport system dating from 1886, that will pull you up the mountain to yet more streets and cafes and getting-lost opportunities.

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On board the ascensor Concepción:
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Valparaiso is a funny mix of old and new latinoamerica: street wrestling matches can be found alongside massive (4 floors!) modern malls in the neighbouring Viña del Mar, which have everything from 5 McDonalds to movie theatres. (Yep, we saw 2 movies in 4 days, and had movie popcorn both times. It was fantastic!!)

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After a few days of getting tossed around by enormous waves in the icy Pacific, sampling strawberry and banana soft serve ice-cream (amazing, FYI), and ogling the magnificent street art in our beautiful Valpo, we hopped a bus to Isla Negra, a tiny town perched on the ocean, where the poet Pablo Neruda had built one of his many homes.

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We shlepped ourselves and our bags all the way from the bus terminal to the only hostel in town, called La Locura del Poeta: Eco-Hostel and Lodge, advertising “buena onda y energía positiva,” only to have Sandra, the owner, tell us dismayingly that there was no room. Our faces fell down to our toes, and I asked her desperately if she knew of any other place in town where we could stay, or camp. Immediately, her face lit up. “¿Acampar? Si, ¡yo tengo espacio para acampar!” With that, she led us to her backyard, dragged a lawn chair out of the way, and motioned triumphantly to a patch of sand beside her pool. Poolside suite for two? ¡Si, por favor! 🙂

La Locura del Poeta:
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That evening, Sandra invited us to a bread-making lesson, at which we met some of the other guests, including an adorable Chileno couple who not only took meticulous notes on everything Sandra said, but also insisted on filming the entire bread lesson, as well as the macramé lesson that followed.

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The next day, Josh and I wandered the town, having lunch on Neruda’s balcony (where I finally got to have a Pisco Sour – Nerudian style!) and watching the sun go down over the waves.

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We returned to Valpo, planning to leave the next day, but due to some unforeseen circumstances (click here for more details…) had to remain in Chile another week. Although our time in Chile had a rough start and an even rougher end (purse thefts and Embassies and water-borne illness, oh my!), Valpo remains the most beautiful city I have ever seen, with some of the loveliest memories.

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Ps. If we needed even more reason to remember Chile fondly, guess what we found in Valpo after FIVE MONTHS of searching Argentine supermarkets high and low?

Peanut butter. Real, honest-to-goodness, “ideal para sandwiches y recetas deliciosas” peanut butter.

The real kicker? It was imported from Argentina.