Prague

All over the world, we met people who adored Prague. It topped many ‘best of’ lists for tourists and digital nomads alike. We once spent part of an evening insisting that Poland’s beer was the world’s greatest only to have that adamantly denied by those who had been to the Czech Republic (Spoiler: we were all wrong – Lithuania is the uncontested beer champion).

Flying out of Uruguay was pricey, and Prague was on the cheaper end of the spectrum. With all we’d heard, we decided to re-cross the Atlantic heading to the Czechia’s capital. It took three flights, 25 hours of travel time, and one frantic connection in Lisbon with staff getting us past the thousand-person immigration line. We landed in Prague in late afternoon – enough time to find our Airbnb, get groceries, make supper. Forty hours with no sleep and a five-hour time zone shift didn’t leave energy for much else.

Fortunately, by the next afternoon we had enough rest to head to Czech Beer Fest, just two blocks from our apartment. Scores of beers – all served in the proper glass – begged to be tried. I’m not much of a beer-drinker, but I clearly needed to embrace it for the month. From the first sip, it put much of South America’s offerings to shame, and I found a few I could actually enjoy. Combined with the goulash soup, hearty sausage and chicken plates, and the frat parties, the Festival was worth going to… and at about $2US per beer, far cheaper than drinking out in Seattle even if it was high for Prague.

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Czech Beer Festival

My sister-in-law arrived for a week visit a few days later. We all took in some of the Prague Old Town, beer gardens, the Prague Castle, and the Lego Museum. The Cathedral of St. Vitus in the Castle might be the single grandest sight in the city. The (relatively new) stained glass windows are beautiful. Even though the Cathedral is crowded, it still feels calmer and cooler than the streets outside.

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Nerding on overdrive – the Mars Rover model at the Lego Museum; bridge views

My cousin and his wife also happened to be in Prague during our stay (the most family we’ve seen on the trip so far). We met them at Letná Beer Garden, one of the most relaxing spots in the city for afternoon drinks, and at U Kunštátů, a craft beer bar with a multiple-page menu of beers where even I found plenty to enjoy.

Prague Museum Night happens annually in June – for one night museums open their doors late, don’t charge admission, and are linked by free shuttles running all over Prague. We took in the multiple art museums near Prague Castle and one of the synagogues downtown.

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Free arts!

There is plenty of street art just waiting to be found; even the river is decked out with sculpture. We walked by the Dancing House on the way to a Craft Beer Festival. Apparently its fame isn’t enough to keep the offices completely full. This smaller beer fest, associated with a farmer’s market, was even better than the first. Prices were just as cheap and the small breweries were dedicated to creating tasty products.

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Quirkier corners

I was surprised by how literary Prague is. There are multiple statues of Kafka and of other famous writers and poets throughout the city. And, of course, there are libraries. Sadly, the Klementium Library was closed during our visit but others were open. We found this book sculpture in one of the public libraries downtown.

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Endless tunnel of books – future goals.

And the Strahov Library, often confused with the Klementium, was open for visits. Its two halls, the Philosophical and the Theological, managed to fill my library quota for the month by themselves. Thousands of books housed in intricately painted and carved halls… what more do you need?

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Philosophical Hall – Strahov Library
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Theological Hall – Strahov Library

The Uber driver who picked us up at the airport warned that Czech food was mediocre. However, the city seemed full of options after two months in Uruguay. Goulash soups, sauerkraut, sausages, and local gelato were all fantastic. And restaurants catered to tastes from every corner of the globe – we had our first good pho and Asian stir-fry since leaving Europe eight months earlier. Grocery stores had peanut crisps and ajvar, two of my favorite snacks that are hard to come by outside the region.

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Goulash Soup, summer berries, peanut crisps, pho

While Prague lived up to descriptions we’d heard, some parts weren’t for us. The Old Town was mobbed each day by sightseers and by night with drinkers. We witnessed more stag and bachelorette parties here than in our entire lives up to this point. And while most of the drinking was relatively contained and amusing, it still can be obnoxious, especially at 2 pm on a Tuesday. Prague is cheaper than many European capitals, but that gap is closing. Certain museums and eateries overcharge wildly in the city center and in areas heavily populated with expats.

Those minor complaints aside, I’d return to Prague. The parks, beer gardens, relaxed atmosphere, and international feel were a welcome change of pace for us. Those high quality of life ratings are definitely well-earned.

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Uruguayan Cuisine

So far, the southeastern side of South America is not a great foodie destination. Sure, if you are into grilling this might be close to heaven, but for most other flavors, there isn’t a lot to satiate the taste buds. Much like neighboring Argentina, meals are centered on meat and starch. In a country where there are many times more cattle than people, it isn’t surprising that beef seems to be the ingredient of choice. Heavy Italian and Spanish influences also brought over pizza, gelato, and lots of pastas. Wine is here too, though that industry is smaller and the choices a bit plainer due to the climate.

Since our arrival, we’ve eaten our way through more cuts of meat than I knew existed. They are almost universally tasty, and I’ve discovered that I really do like chorizo. Cooking on the parrilla (here it is pronounced ‘paireeSHa’ rather than ‘paireeYa’ – Rioplatense-accented Spanish is only mildly confusing for us) is an incredibly common way to prepare everything that once had legs or fins. A slatted metal grate off to the side of the fire ensures the meat cooks without burning to a crisp. Fancy restaurants and people tending open grills on the street all give equal respect to the deliciousness that ensues from this way of cooking. Some days it was hard to walk around without hunger pains because grills were going streetside, wafting the smells between the buildings.

We had birthdays this month, which gave us an excuse to head to Mercado del Puerto for a mixed parrilla for two. We wanted to sample a variety platter, and Cabana Veronica obliged. The building is home to at least a dozen parrilla restaurants, and the entire place smells wonderful. Open flames rise from grills all around and it is clearly a place where tourists and locals alike come to enjoy an afternoon with friends and family over food. The pile of tasty grilled beef and chicken arrived at our table after twenty minutes or so. We were also presented with a large bowl of salad – clearly it is like veggies served at steak restaurants – not really expected to be eaten. Quarters of chicken, two or three cuts of beef, chorizo, morcilla salado were all delicious. The only confusion for us was how to eat the sweetbreads. We tried one but clearly there is an aspect to them we didn’t understand; there was enough other meats to keep us occupied anyway, so we didn’t worry too much about it. Everything was grilled to perfection, and we left happy.

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Milanesas, chicken-stuffed pumpkin, asado, parrilla mixta.

My favorite discovery during this stay was morcilla salado – salty blood sausage. I’d never have guessed that I would find it tasty when we started into the parrilla mixta. Cooking it at home only made me more fond of it; it can go on toast with breakfast or with rice for dinner. It is salty with a smooth texture, which is why it can be a spread as well. Uruguay is also has a second popular kind of blood sausage – morcilla dulce – a sweetened version. Stuffed with grapes, orange peels, peanuts, almonds, membrillos (which are a bit like jello), it is not your average meat-in-a-tube. We baked some and it tasted like a mix between mulled wine and a gingerbread house. I don’t think I’ll be craving that one as often as the salty version, but it would fit in as a Christmas food.

Milanesas are another favorite local way to eat meat. Despite the hype, we discovered it is basically the same thing as chicken-fried steak. We favored the chicken over the steak version, but they clearly use better cuts of meat than school lunches from our childhood and the breading has a mix of mild spices inside. Another way to get rid of the ‘lesser’ cuts of meat is to bury them in a chivito sandwich – between cheese, tomato, lettuce, eggs, and possibly bacon. Locals claim these sandwiches are a huge mass of calories that will leave you stuffed. Either we went to a restaurant that served a light version or the huge portions we grew up around have warped our understanding of appropriate meal size. We each devoured one and the full serving of fries and could have eaten more (not that it would have been good for us). And if hand-held, travel-ready packets of food are called for, there are empanadas everywhere. We had Venezuelan style made with carne picada and carne machada in maize dough, but also more traditional Uruguayan ones with flour-based wraps. Stuffed bread never gets old for me!

To go with all this meat, we arrived just in time to explore the fall harvest. Squashes, eggplants, and pumpkins feature prominently in veggie dishes. Once all the difficult slicing and chopping is out of the way, they are great fried or baked. Kevin had even gotten good at stuffing them – baking a half in the oven and then filling it with chorizos or ground beef.

Like elsewhere in South America, there still isn’t much of a choice for yummy snacks or desserts. Prices for chips are much higher than in the US – think $3-4 dollars for a small 100 gram bag of chips. As a result, popcorn has been the cure for my crunch fix. The only chipish items I’ve found that are made locally are crunchy puffs, but they always taste stale and relatively flavorless.

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Snacks! I like the expectations set by the cheese plate image on the Ringo can – a high ideal it did not meet.

Since we were in Montevideo during the Easter season, we did get to enjoy the traditional decorated chocolate eggs. Ours was a mid-sized version, but some are larger than footballs and feature whole scenes of butterflies or swans. These are clearly meant to be the centerpiece for table on Easter. Other desserts are often fruit-, cookie-, or cake-based. Just like in Argentina, alfajors and dulce de leche are everywhere. I am always left hungry for more chocolate though. Expensive imitation Nutella will have to do for now…

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Layered dulce de leche cake, stuffed squash, empanadas, Easter egg

Mate is the national drink; it gives everyone a reason to go to the beach, a chance to relax with friends, and take a break in the afternoon. Every grocery store seems to spend more shelf space on mate than on anything else. All over town, we would see people carrying the hollowed-out gourd in the crook of one arm and a thermos of hot water on the other. There is a whole market for custom-made leather carriers and the special bombilla straws used to drink it. It is interesting in that it is strictly a do-it-yourself drink – no restaurant will put it on a menu, and the most you can ever hope to find in a market is the dried leaves or a vendor selling extra hot water. A large part of the mate experience is preparing it yourself, to just your specifications. The water must be brought to an almost-boil, the leaves added to the cup and shaken just so, sugar or no, the whole mix has to be kept still while allowed to steep, then the rest of the water is added. One batch of leaves can be refilled a dozen times, so it becomes a communal way to spend part of an afternoon. It is slightly bitter, and despite the filtering straw, I always end up with bits of the leaves in my teeth. Much better sugared down!

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Mate done right(ish), bombilla and all

Uruguay does produce a reasonable amount of local wine, growing it along the coast or on the opposite side of the country. The climate isn’t ideal – it is a little too humid and rainy. Tannat grapes favor these conditions but produce a plain wine. Other grapes like syrah and cabernet sauvignon are grown as well, but also taste fairly one-toned. The wines we favor here are aged in oak, adding some body and making a richer-tasting drink. Our favorites were Tannat Roble made by Traversa and a Marselan made by Bodega J. Chiappella. Thankfully wine is relatively cheap, so we don’t necessarily feel cheated out of more varied flavors.

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Favorite beer and wines from Uruguay

Of course, there is beer as well – perfect for beach drinking and the hot summers. But even mass-produced brands like Patricia, Pilsen, and Zillertal seemed pricey and tend toward mass-market watery taste. (Some of that payment sadness is us being ruined by incredibly cheap, delicious beer in Poland last year – they set a high bar and woe to all the countries that have come after.) One bright spot was a small handful of craft brews. A trigo beer called Barbara made by Cabesas Bier was my favrite un Uruguay. Kevin also enjoyed finding the first pumpkin/fall spice beer he’d seen that was made outside the US, also by Cabesas – clearly they have hit their brewing stride.

We didn’t come to Uruguay for the food, and that is probably a good thing. I did enjoy the chance to chow down on red meat before heading to other places where it is more expensive. And it was good to try to local wines and mate. But overall, the cuisine didn’t stand out to me (except for morcillas!). I am so looking forward to chocolate and peanut butter again…..

 

Thirty Things I Learned Travelling Before Turning Thirty

For my 30th birthday, I thought it might be fun to look back at the last 365 days and what I’ve learned. It is incredible to realize that we’ve been on the road for more than 15 months, and just how much more there is to see!

1. I hate the way airlines board planes and love flying. Just like I hate check-in at airports but love waiting for the flight and wandering the concourse.

2. Morcilla – blood sausage common in South America – is delicious as long as you eat it hot before the texture gets more unbearable as it cools.

3. Chilean volcanos love to play hide-and-seek. They are massive but still vanish almost with it a trace into the clouds.

4. The library at Trinity College really looks like the pictures, no color enhancement needed.

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Trinity College Library in all its non-color-enhanced glory.

5. Finns on the ferry from Estonia all look like alcoholics. In their defense, they need to buy in bulk and take it with them when visiting their neighboring country… it’s a bargain compared to local prices.

6. Some brands are obnoxiously global like Coke and Colgate and shampoos. Dish soap, though, has a much higher localization rate.

7. Croatian and most Latin American beers are not to my taste. Too light, too beery. Poland, though, is so far the king of beer countries.

8. I am not impressed by beach resorts in Cancun. They are all carbon copies and a weird bubble unto themselves.

9. Antacids in South America are pricey. I guess the food is bland enough (at least on the eastern coast) that heartburn isn’t a problem.

10. I LOVE food-stuffed bread. Polish pierogies, empanadas, Estonian pastries, Hungarian langosh. GIVE ME ALL THE CARBS.

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Carbs = life.

11. Budapest is gorgeous. No wonder so many people told us we’d love it.

12. Eurovision should be a holiday in Europe. I will now base travel decisions around this show and feel no shame.

13. Sweet fruit wines from the Baltic regions deserve more credit. At least they have the common sense to know grapes won’t work there.

14. Torres del Paine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Destroyed my legs for days and was worth all the pain and hours on buses to get to hike each day.

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Here are some photographs not doing justice to Torres del Paine.

15. Photographs do nothing justice (almost – see #4 for the exception proving the rule).

16. Both Anna Karenina and Middlemarch look intimidating but are brilliant reads.

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17. In Peru, everyone asks if you’ve gone to Macchu Pichu and looks at you like you are crazy if you say no. Ditto Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

18. The hardest part about travelling is the unpredictable selection of books. No, I’m not going to get an e-reader.

19. Purse snatching can happen anywhere. Having a sturdy purse might keep the strap from breaking and sometimes helps you keep your stuff. But that can be good or bad… depending on how much the robber has invested into getting your stuff away from you… I really can’t recommend what is better.

20. For every place we visit, at least 3 get added to the list.

21. Romania is way more interesting than I had realized before going there. I hope we can get back to see Cluj-Napoca and Timișoara.

22. Just about every country has money that is more colorful and pretty than US currency. Uruguay’s coins have animals. Chile’s is a rainbow of colors and makes you feel rich (that 650:1 exchange rate). Romania’s bills are plastic so you can even toss them into fountains for luck.

23. Szellemirtók is a great movie. Don’t be a hater.

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It’s a good movie. There was tasty popcorn.

24. Krakow, Poland and Montevideo, Uruguay are my two favorite cities for street art and murals.

25. I’m never too old to climb around fortresses and tunnels.

26. I might be at least partly Estonian?

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I ❤ Estonia.

27. High heat and humidity is a terrible combination, ergo I could not live full time on the Yucatan Peninsula. Likewise, year-round chilly days and especially windy winters are not to my liking. Sorry Punta Arenas, I won’t be moving to the far south of Patagonia permanently.

28. Travelling and living full time in some small spaces with another human, even one I’m as madly in love with as my hubby, can occasionally be trying. Especially when mosquitoes are fierce, the kitchen is under-supplied, not all the appliances function, and the sink drains don’t have a u-bend to keep smells in the sewer and out of the house. And it is absolutely worth every second.

29. Inca and the related civilizations of Peru have the best pottery.  THE BEST.

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Surprise garbage can guy is my favorite. I relate.

30. Sometimes the mystery wine bottle is full of tasty alcohol. Sometimes it is terrible awfulness that gets dumped right down the drain. The only way to know is to try it.

 

Chilean Cuisine

We were thrilled to get off of the cruise ship so we could once again shop for our own ingredients and make our own meals. Based on the fruits and veggies that make their way to the US from Chile each winter, we expected big things. We made our way to Santiago’s markets our first afternoon in town and were not disappointed.

About a ten minute walk from our apartment was the Mercado Central, the most touristy of the three markets we frequented. It was full of seafood – both vendors and restaurants selling the fresh catch of the day. We splurged ordered ceviche and chupe de mariscos from a crowded sit-down place in the center of the building. It was delicious, of course, but much pricier than doing it ourselves. So for future meals we found a vendor we liked, Pescaderia Puerto Palmeras, and kept going back to them. We tried salmon (not as tasty as in the Pacific Northwest), congrio dorado (an eel that tends toward oily while cooking but is really tasty), tollo (white meat from a small shark), and reineta  (seabream with firm meat that is good by itself or in tacos or in ceviche or in just about anything). 

So much fresh fish!
Homemade reineta ceviche, chupe with mollusks, more reineta being fried up

Right across the river from Mercado Central is the Mercado de Abastos Tirso, with produce and groceries on the main floor and eateries upstairs. And just a couple blocks further is the massive La Vega market where is seems possible to buy anything.  There are hundreds of fruit vendors, bread stands, butchers, spice sellers, and hawkers shouting prices for dried grains, pickles, fish, dog food. It is a maze of delicious smells and crowded hallways. During our stay the tomatoes, blueberries, and strawberries were in season and incredibly cheap. Fresh produce arrives on trucks seemingly hourly. It’s possible to arrive and get vegetables and fruits that were picked the same morning and taken off the truck before your eyes. Outside are street empanadas and other hand-held cuisines from all around South America.

Even away from the markets, it’s easy to grab a snack of fruit or ice cream from vendors on the street. The local ice cream brand is Danky – weird word but yummy, heat-fighting products. Also readily available is Santiago’s traditional summer drink, mote con huesillo – dried peaches soaked overnight and combined with cooked wheat. In the 90 degree plus heat, it’s a refreshing way to cool down.

Restaurants in Santiago focus on fish and Peruvian cuisine. In fact, when we asked around, many locals claimed their favorite ‘Chilean’ food was Peruvian. Overall, Chilean cuisine falls somewhere between what we found in Peru and Argentina. There tends to be more spices, more limes, and less beef than in Buenos Aires but less fish and fewer stand out umami flavors than in Lima.

So many berries! Danky ice cream, favorite new spice mix, warm poutine in Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas, different foods were needed to combat the chill and rainy weather.  (The 1,300 miles that separate PA from Santiago completely change the climate and many of the local tastes.) Take away restaurants sell warmed sandwiches with gooey cheeses and empanadas with garlicky beef. Our favorite choripan was from Kiosco Roca (it seemed to be everyone else’s favorite as well). On the advice of a Santiago Uber driver we tried it with the leche con plantano (milk with bananas) – it went together better than I anticipated. Rather than fish, more focus was on red meats, though ceviche still rules at the downtown market.

Chorizo with leche con plátano, mote con huesillo, and restaurant ceviche

 

Since we didn’t eat at any of the tourist-oriented restaurants in Punta Arenas, we didn’t have any of the lamb (though it looks amazing) or the king crab that is famous in the area. Instead, we cooked at home and made lots of rice and lentil dishes with gravy sauces and red meat. Punta Arenas is the kind of place that made me crave curl-up-on-the-couch-under-blanlets meals. Mulling wine also helped fight the chill and was another reason to try local drinks.

All manner of crunchy snacks

Like many places around Latin America I was left disappointed by the snacks. Chips boasting big and varied flavors (pizza! choripan!) never delivered. Queso-flavored Doritos were the best bet – they at least tasted like cheese and were good for dipping. One odd exception to the salty/savory snack set is the chirimoya alegre flavor that some corn puffs have. The fruit flavoring made it closer to a fruity breakfast cereal than an afternoon snack. It was a shame to be let down overall, but Punta Arenas is fortunate to have a duty-free import zone that receives shipments of goodies like ajvar, chocolates, and ratatouille mix from around the world. They seemed to have more variety than Santiago.

All burgers came this way. I have no explanation.

And finally, I have no explanation for the scores of individually pre-packaged hamburger patties that we found in every grocery store in Chile. Each packet had a different combination of meat cuts and spices and varied in size. We tried a couple, and they were mediocre and a little freezerburned. Maybe choice is very important for weekend grilling?

In any case, Santiago’s teeming produce and fish markets left a delicious lasting impression. La Vega set a high standard that other mercados will have a hard time following in the future. We came for wine and seafood and ended up happily eating just about everything we could get our hands on.

Santiago, Chile – Part 1

Our cruise dropped us off at the port in Valparaiso, Chile, just a couple blocks from the bus station. Tickets to Santiago were mercifully cheap, even last minute, ($5/US) and the ride was under two hours. Like many other places in South America, drivers love speeding as soon as they are on a road with any sort of space. The highway goes by many wineries, which we took as a good sign.

The forecast for our arrival was “smoke,” which turned out to be sadly accurate. Chile was in the middle of the worst wildfire season in its history and scores of separate blazes were burning in the regions around the capital. The air was so thick that breathing was scratchy and our eyes watered overtime. We booked our apartment in part because of the mountain views, but hills just a mile away were barely visible. More than a million acres have already burned, along with vineyards, whole farms, towns, homes. Several lives were lost in the fast-moving fires. Thankfully most of the fires are now under control due to the efforts of thousands of locals and tanker aircraft crews (with some help from slightly cooler weather). We have seen several small fires on hills around the city, or at least little thin clouds of black smoke rising in the mornings, but so far those have been quickly brought under control.

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Same hill at midafternoon on a smokey day and a few weeks later

Santiago is another massive, sprawling city, and when we finally did get a clear day, we walked over to Parque Metropolitano to take the funicular up the hill. There were large sprinkler systems that seem to run around the clock, no surprise given the country’s recent experiences. Several hundred feet up, we had a great view of just how far the city stretches – we couldn’t see an end to the buildings except in places where the land became too steep to build on in the mountains’ foothills.

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One of many stray dogs, Parque Metropolitano funicular, on the gondola

At the top were the usual stray dogs, ice cream stands, and mote con huesillo carts. The highest point on the hill is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary and a sanctuary garden and chapel celebrating. the Immaculate Conception. A concrete are was full of candle holders and rosaries left in thanks.

Gondolas run from near the summit toward the Costanera Center, the tallest building in South America, and the Bellavista neighborhood. We started at the stop and turned it into a shopping trip to the Costanera mall, saving ourselves an extra mile of walking each way. Heading back later in the afternoon, the wind picked up and came whistling through the gondola windows and swaying the cab. Not quite as fun. The start and end of the trip is extra exciting because the cab speeds up or slows down rapidly and barrels toward the one in front of it. More rollercoastery than I expected.

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Cafe Literario; view from Parque Metropolitano

A muddy and polluted river runs through the middle of the city, confined to a home in concrete flood control barries. But the city has turned much of the riverfront into a park that forms a greenbelt with bike and walking paths connecting large portions of the city center.

Other parks contain one of my favorite spaces, Cafe Literario, a mix of cafe, library, and public work space. You can come in and read any of the thousands of books on the shelves, have a coffee, use the free wifi. There might be a patio outside as well. Their central locations in parks means they act as gathering places as well. Definitely a relaxing space in the middle of such a vast city.

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Once again, fantastic pottery and at the Precolumbian Art Museum

We visited the Chilean Museum of Precolumbian Art on one of its free first Sundays. It showcased a much wider range of cultures than we expected – focusing not just on civilizations from inside Chile’s borders, but from all around Latin America. I’m always struck by how modern (and even futuristic) some of the pieces look and the wide range of beliefs and traditions. Didn’t know until we visited that some places here mummified their dead centuries before the Egyptians got around to it, and then cared for their ancestors for centuries after they passed away.  Or that in other valleys, it was traditional to be buried with a statue of yourself (if you were lucky and wealthy) with a puffed out cheek full of stimulant leaves to chew on to show off your status.

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Precolumbian Art Museum – statues, quipus, mummies, masks

Naturally the art museums were also on our list, though Contemporary Art Museum, which is run by a university, was closed for summer break. The free-to-enter Bellas Artes Museum remained open and had a fun collection of Chilean art. Some more modern pieces being showcased looked as though the artist smashed soap operas, my 8-year-old-self’s Lisa Frank sticker collection, and bad ’80s album covers together. Brilliant, in other words.

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Some arts around the city

We are already down to our last days in Santiago, and have a few more places we want to visit. Sadly, Kevin has had some serious computer issues this month and now we need to spend time computer shopping rather than playing at tourists.

 

 

The (Few) Pros and (Many) Cons of a Patagonian Cruise

Patagonia and the Falkland Islands have been on our bucket list for a while, and for some reason, a cruise seemed like a way to cover a lot of ground with minimal effort while have a few days off from cooking and the dishes. It also happened to be a way to move from Buenos Aires to Santiago. International airfare in South America is expensive; this would allow that price to be rolled up into the cruise. In the end, however, it was probably not worth the added cost, which worked out to more than 3x what we normally spend per day – despite the fact we bought the absolute cheapest ticket and spent as little money on board as possible.

We did see pretty things from the boat and get dropped off in gorgeous places, but that is the best I can say for our fifteen days on board the Norwegian Sun. I would have willingly spent more time in many of the ports, and cut out Punta del Este and Puerto Madryn. Puerto Chacobuco would be a great base for hiking, but we were in port such a short amount of time it was basically a wasted morning.

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All sorts of pretty land-based Patagonian sights

Our cabin was tiny, which I completely understand. It’s on a ship, after all. It was an interior room, meaning no windows. We tried to compensate for this utter lack of light by leaving the TV on at night and tuned to the live video feed from the front of the ship. This is a good idea in theory, but I am a light sleeper. Since the southern summer sun rises early, I’d wake at 5 a.m., as soon as the light shifted. This lasted about two days before we switched back to alarms. We did have enough space for our clothes, and the beds are sized so that luggage can disappear underneath. The woman who took care of our room was very kind, and commiserated with us on the days when we encountered larger waves and everyone was feeling a little woozy.

Unlike shorter Alaskan or Caribbean cruises, we had a total of six days at sea out of fifteen total days. We mistakenly looked forward to this as an opportunity to work. In the end it turned out the internet onboard was far too expensive for any meaningful connection (about $30/day, but only when paying for the 15-day package, so $450 total). Workspaces were few and far between when everyone else was on board and bored. Our room was too small for us to be set up comfortably, and by 9am, most public spaces on the ship were occupied by others also escaping their tiny quarters.

So maybe we take a break from work and let ourselves be entertained for those days. Turns out that the cruise didn’t really compensate for the lack of a port with extra activities on the ship. We could hang out in the casino, play poker, or attend a sales seminar – none of which appealed to us in the slightest. Trivia was the best option, which helped us amuse ourselves for about ninety minutes spread throughout the day. But after a week the questions began to repeat and it became an exercise in seeing how many we could remember correctly from earlier in the cruise (waaay too similar to fact-vomiting grade-school tests to be fun). The staff members running the few non-trivia games kept making jokes about how much better it would be if they had a budget and reminding us that there were no real prizes. But it rang bitter rather than funny, because it was true. We made the mistake of participating in the Newlywed/Longerwed Game. That one actually did come with a small, cheap bottle of champagne as a reward, but it was filmed and aired over and over on the internal TV channel. We were famous! This might have been fun on a 7-day cruise but by day 10 it gets a little wearing. Everyone assumed we were on a honeymoon (nope), had just gotten married (also no), are extroverts (lol), and were younger than we are (actually…that one is just fine).

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Such a big ship… how does it feel so small inside?, the jogging track was occasionally sparsely populated and my refuge

On our only previous cruise, a shorter trip to Alaska we took about five years ago, there were good musical acts and comedy troupe performances in the evenings. In this case, the acts in the theatre seemed to be desperate to kill time, and laughs were nowhere to be found. A couple musicians working on bar stages around the ship were better than the headliners, but usually not playing music to which we could relate. A trio called the Amber Strings was the best, playing classical as well as snippets from movie soundtracks.

My favorite stop was the library, which also hosted a book exchange. While there are a good number of beach reads and light lit on the shelves, I was happy to find recent award winners as well and caught up on a few that are hard to find overseas. The book exchange also yielded a couple good trades. But that seems like a cop-out after paying so much for the experience of the cruise and hoping for a wider variety of options.

I suppose this lack of activities is one reason the buffet and day-drinking were so popular. But, honestly, the buffet was only good for breakfast, and only because that meal included prepackaged cereal and yogurt so we could avoid the ‘freshly-made’ items. For lunch and dinner, the food served there was often cold and tasteless. Of course, this could be true in the sit-down dining rooms as well. Some of the dishes were clearly scraped together – I’d have warm curry surrounding already-cold rice. The chocolate volcano cake (probably the single best thing to eat on board) might arrive with a warm and still-gooey center or already resolidified and at room temperature. At one point I ordered grilled veggies, which arrived fresh-from-the-fridge cold and fresh-from-the-fridge slimy. To me, grilled implies some sort of residual heat should still be clinging to the eatables. Noticeable to our palates was a distinct lack of spice. Chorizo sauce at the tapas bar was the ONLY item we found that had any sort of spiciness whatsoever (and the guacamole there was passable as well). We debated bringing on hot sauce (tabasco doesn’t count as hot sauce, clearly), but didn’t want to sink the added expense when we knew we wouldn’t be able to bring it ashore in Chile.

Making thousands of meals each day, trying to not offend a diverse set of tastes, while working in the confines of what can be stored and cooked on a cruise ship severely limits the menu and lowers the average quality. The ceviche isn’t going to be genuine since raw fish is a health risk (one of the Peruvian staff warned us away after learning we’d been in Lima by saying we’d just be disappointed – he was right). We didn’t get norovirus or salmonella, so that at least was a plus. Worse than blandness would be being confined to a room while your one chance to see Stanley dissipates. Still, the menus were meat-heavy and seem to be centered on a steak-and-potatoes vision of a meal. That isn’t how we eat, and so much of the food felt gross to us; it all seemed to have a pervading gravy-flavored undertone (kind of how all McDonalds food tastes the same, except I actually like that one). But it was clear from eating a few times at the onboard restaurants (which cost extra) that good food can be made; we had decent duck and lamb chops, even a yummy tiramisu. The poor quality and ickily uneven temperatures in the included dining cost felt like a way to steer people toward feeling as though they had to spend more to get a decent meal.

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Some super-fun activities, tender boat, bottle of wine we brought on board

Drinking was another area where it felt like the goal was to wring every penny out of the passengers. Some people bought all-inclusive drink packages; setting themselves back about a thousand dollars each. We opted to not be lushes and simply drink sparingly. But even beer is about $8 and mixed drinks start at $10. We ordered one cocktail – a daily special – and it was simply poured out of a gallon jug rather than being made fresh. So much for value. The best deal is to buy wine for a few dollars a bottle on shore – thankfully wine in this corner of South America is a readily available bargain – and then pay $15 per bottle to bring them on the ship. Even with the high corkage fee, it was still half the cost to do this rather than order off the menus.

By the end of the cruise, I had the feeling the staff was just as annoyed at many of the shortcomings as we were. They already have a tough job – dealing with thousands of people, many though a language barrier (on both sides, the staff and many passengers speak English as a secondary language), in a service job, often thousands of miles from their homes and family, while living out of a room that is probably the size of our cabin for months at a time. That sucks. A lot. And you know that the average cruise ship employee isn’t paid a premium to compensate for these conditions. And they seem to try their hardest to work with what they are given.

Most of the lapses in service aren’t the individual employees fault – the constraints they work under put a lot out of their control. It seems to be coming in part from the overall focus on upselling and doing the bare minimum to make sure the company can say the cruise provided a particular service or event. For example, though this ship was spending months around South America, not enough Spanish-speaking staff had been hired. Naturally, this creates difficulties on both sides – passengers upset they can’t make their requests known, and staff who have a hard time understanding when the solution might be incredibly basic. To their credit, some staff members were learning Spanish and making attempts to bridge the communication gap. But trying to patch up language barriers after the fact is much harder than simply hiring or moving crew around in advance of the ship moving into a new continent.

Another instance where it seemed like the crew should have been better prepared and given more support was at ports where tender boats were needed to get to shore. Each morning before the tenders started running, I woke up early to get a numbered ticket, usually between #4 an #6. Numbers 1-5 would be called in quick succession, usually before many people were awake or ready to make use to them. Once our group was called, we would go down as soon as we could. But whether we hurried or took our time, we were often kept waiting. Everyone who had purchased tours through Norwegian got priority, and wasn’t part of their numbering system. Keep in mind the Norwegian knows how many tours they’ve sold, how many boats it will take to get those people ashore, and approximately how long that will take. But inevitably we would end up waiting in long lines of irate ticket holders while the tour groups streamed past, and the staff continued to call numbers and add to the chaos. One particular morning, the wait turned into a full hour. The tour groups being boarded before us were already late as well, meaning they knew they were behind but still kept calling more numbers. One man went up to loudly complain that this was a disturbing way to be treated and that several elderly people in line should not be standing for this long. On some later tender-port days, they did put more boats into service, seemingly to stave off complaints, and let more time pass before calling the next group. But I can’t believe they didn’t know this would be an issue. It seemed like they simply hoped that not as many people would want to tender to shore on certain days. It felt like a terrible budget airline.

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Happy things we only saw from the ship: Whales! Glaciers! Double rainbows! Cape Horn!

I don’t want to detract from the ports – Stanley, Ushuaia, Montevideo, and Punta Arenas are incredible places that were absolutely worth going to. But to spend 4-8 hours in a place just to see a main sight or two is not our preferred travel style. We like spending longer periods, taking in the museums, markets, local food. There were some experiences we could only have on a boat – passing by Cape Horn, spending hours whale and bird watching, seeing waves spray over top the deck when the weather worsened. But a ferry from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas or down the Chilean coast might have given us the same opportunities for less. Thankfully, we will be heading back to Punta Arenas and Montevideo in the future, and we’ll be able to get to know those places on a deeper level. Many people on board seemed to prefer to travel by cruise, and if that is what they enjoy, more power to them. But for us it is an expensive and impractical way to explore and detracts rather than adds to the sense of a place. We’ve only tried one cruise line, and I imagine others might be better and offer different experiences, but we won’t be finding out for a while.

Buenos Aires

Argentina beckoned us south from Lima, both because we are following summer and because we needed to be in Buenos Aires for a Norwegian cruise through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego that is leaving in early January. It helped that we also found an apartment downtown that let us stay put for the whole hectic the holiday travel season.

It was a bit shocking to arrive from Lima. Both cities are massive and still growing but Lima felt chaotic and sprawling awhile Buenos Aires feels calmer and shows off a more distinctly European influence. Main avenues in our neighborhood in B.A. tend toward tree-lined and cafe-dotted. People seem like to take life a little slower, they mosey and chat on the sidewalks. Many buildings look as though they were transplanted from Paris or Rome. Car horns are rare in comparison to Lima.

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El Ateneo Grand Splendid and Puerto Madero from the Costanera Sur Reserve

Our first couple days gave us time to see places high on our list. For me, El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore was a minor pilgrimage site. It lives up to its name; shelves of books, music, and movies run through four floors of a former theatre. Ceiling frescoes and theatre boxes (now reading nooks), as well as the stage (a small cafe), are all preserved. The Argentine and Latin American authors sections are incredible, running through all the names I’ve heard of and so many more I haven’t… if only my Spanish was better.

Catching a sea breeze on the waterfront is the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve. Several miles of trails next to some of the city’s newest development is a welcome escape from the traffic and noise. We saw and heard groups of bright green parrots, herons, and some kind of diving bird catching fish, even as skyscrapers were visible through the trees. The center is a marsh full of reeds. Signs warning against feeding the critters; apparently snakes still make this their home, and it wouldn’t feel out of place to find a caiman. Despite the value of having this so close to downtown, I wonder what percentage of the mosquitoes in our apartment have their beginnings here.

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Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires’s most famous landmark might be their city of the dead, Recoleta Cemetery. Here are the tombs of the most famous Argentinians. Eva Peron, dozens of Presidents (they have a history of going through them quickly), artists, politicians, bankers, and athletes are buried in grand mausoleums. Simply carving names in stone would be too easy; the cemetery is a space for sculptors to show their skills making angels and likenesses of the dead. Some wealthy men have a penchant for statues of beautiful women mourning their passing. Tombs have windows of stained glass, domes, wrought iron gates. Many have lower levels, visible down tiny staircases, that are stacked with coffins. It is eerie and poignant at the same time.

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Catedral Metropolitana

The Catedral Metropolitana of Buenos Aires has a massive Neoclassical facade, and all the interior trappings you’d expect of an important Catholic church. It has received a lot of attention over the last few years since their last Archbishop is now the Pope. I especially like the tile work on the floor that has flowers and crowns of thorns. In altars along the sides, Mary appears in several guises and is dressed in flowing gowns. Toward the back corner, a life-sized Jesus is riding a life-sized donkey. Gold and beautiful carvings are very much in evidence.

 

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Dulce de batata, dulce de leche, pan dulce, STEAK

Argentina is famous for beef and wine, which naturally attracted our attention. Honestly, the reputation is very well-deserved. The cheapest steaks from the grocery store ($1.50US each) were some of the best we’ve ever eaten. And the Mendoza-area malbecs are fruity and delicious. Patagonia is fast becoming a wine region as well, but their products tend toward more mineral-tasting.

Italian influences are found throughout menus here, meaning pastas, pizzas, and pastries are staples. And also that the food is fairly bland. All the spiciness got left in Peru… There is a drink culture here as well, teas and wines are the main choices, but coffee makes an important appearance as well. Unfortunately, the local coffees are more like candy. Even bags of ground beans in the store come pre-sugared.

The most popular desserts contain dulce de leche, a milky caramel spread, and dulce de batata, a jellied sweet potato reduction. They are decent as dips and toppings for other foods, like cookies and apples, but really don’t have a super-memorable flavor of their own. Despite this, Argentina seems to be obsessed with dulce de leche – at some stores it takes up half an aisle. Pan dulce, the local fruitcake, is everywhere because of the rapid approach of Christmas. We tried the cheapest possible version, which meant they made up for putting in actual fruit with an excess of sugar and flour.

One shocking thing are the prices in Buenos Aires. We expected a higher cost of living than Lima and Mexico, because of the relative wealth of the area we are staying in and the high inflation rate. Looking at the history of the US dollar – Argentine peso exchange rate, it seemed to be going in our favor. But actually shopping for groceries was a different experience. To our dismay, prices for almost everything are Seattle-level and some things we generally consider staples (bread, pasta, frozen veggies) are actually more expensive here. And stuff – clothes, cookware, Christmas decorations – are almost universally more expensive than at home, especially if they are imported. Turns out many locals travel to Chile, Brazil, (even the U.S.!) to do their big shopping runs.

The steaks and wine are the exceptions to this, probably because these are produced locally and in large quantities. So at least we will still be dining well!