Saturday, 24 April 2010

A wonderful day at Valparaiso and Vina del Mar

I really recommend the one day OTSI tour to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. If you are also coming to the WFOT Congress in Chile and have a day in your itinerary for sightseeing it is well worth the time and the money. I had a truly wonderful day and really felt I got to see a different side of Chile by venturing outside of the city of Santiago. I am sharing my day in this blog to inspire others to go too!

I was due to be in a group, but when the other booking was cancelled they didn't let me down and I had a driver, Ricardo, and a tour guide, Eduardo, all to myself for the day. Eduardo had excellent English and was very knowledgeable about Chilean history and the places we were visiting. Both Ricardo and Eduardo took very good care of me and I felt very safe on the tour. Eduardo explained it has been a very quiet season for tourism as so few people have come since the earthquake - so he hadn't taken a tour to the coast for some weeks. He knew so many people along the way and they all seemed so pleased to see him and a new visitor.

Chile has so much to offer and tourism has been badly hit by the earthquake - yet evidence of the eathquake was very limited in the places I visited. A few older builidings in Valparaiso had scaffolding and were being repaired, and a couple of others had cracks which Edauardo pointed out to me as signs of earthquake damage, but if I hadn't known the cause of these renovations, then I would not have known there had been an earthquake here so recently.

I was fortunate with the weather for my day to the coastline by the Pacific Ocean. It was the temperature of a hot English day, but with a breeze from the ocean that made it really pleasant.

My guides collected me direct from my hotel and pointed out key sights in Santiago as we drove out of the city. Valparaiso is over a 100 km from Santiago but there was so much to see en-route that the journey passed quickly. We took route 68 through the Coastal mountain range and passed through two beautiful, fertile valleys. The first valley is called Curacavi and is used to grow fruits and nuts. We passed a lot of avacado and lemons trees.

After about an hour we stopped at a cafe on the road side. There was a llama and horse to see in the back and delicious sweet cakes to eat inside. My guides had toasted bread spread with avocado and recommended I tried the Chilean sweet cake. I was given a little sample to taste before choosing. There were several types, some filled with caramel, some with a kind of marmalade, and some covered in meringue. I asked which was the most tradional and was guided to a delicious cake made of caramel sandwiched between very thin layers of biscuit and entirely coated in meringue. I have never had anything like it before and it is lucky I have a sweet tooth - because it is indeed very sweet cake! I would definietly have it again! (I have posted a photo of inside the cafe on my Facebook page).

After our stop we drove on through a tunnel in the mountains to reach a second valley called Casablanca - and now we were in a wine producing region, with vine after vine for miles to see punctuated by the buildings and signs of different vineyards. It is autumn here and the colours of the vines from different grapes were beautiful and made a rich and vivid patchwork of colour as we drove pass. All the way I could see mountains and hillsides in the distance.

We started to climb and the road wound round and finally there was the ocean and Valparaiso stretched out in front of us. The port is built on many hillsides - over 40 hillsides - and most of the population of Valpariso live on the hills. The houses are painted beuatiful vibrant colours and jostle close to each other in an almost random, higgledy piggledy way, many are tall thin houses built into the slope. Bright bourganvilla flowers caught the eye. It felt a very vibrant place and had a real 'seaside' feel.

Our first stop was one of the homes of Pablo Neruda (one of Chile's most famous authors who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) - Case Museo La Sebastiana. Throught the day my guides let me choose what I was interested to see and how long I might wish to stop in anyone place. So I was given time here to take the full audio tour of the house, enjoy the view from the terrace, visit the art exhibition next door and brouse in the shop. The house has been beautifully kept as he lived in it and the audio tour was very informative and well worth the price of $3000 pesos (which I paid as the museum isn't part of the tour package but something I was very interested to do). The audio tour explained how Pablo came to acquire the house, the people who visited him here, and highlighted particular pieces of art, furntiure and artifacts within the home. It was also punctauted by his writings translated into English. I found his home very inspiring. As a lover of the Arts and crafts movement in England and of designers like William Morris, it really resonated for me. I felt there was nothing there that was neither beutiful or useful or both. It was such an eclectic mix of pieces from many different periods in history which just worked somehow! The use of colour in the decor is very vibrant and joyful and the house is full of rescued and renovated stained glass doors and windows. But it is the views that are the most striking aspect of the place. Light spills into the house from so many windows and all the views are breathtaking - whether it is out across the Pacific ocean to watch the big ships crawl into the port of Valparaiso or over the bustling city below or the houses on the hillsides to either side. I could really see how this home and placed inspired him. The house is tall and thin and as I ascended each floor the views got better and better! Now I am really inspired to visit his other two houses in Chile! (Perhaps I shall take the Isla Negra and Pomaire tour next weekend?)

After a leisurely stop at Casa Museo La Sebastiana I was diven through the windy, little streets of Valparaiso for a few minutes and then Eduardo asked if I would like to walk though the older part of the city for a while. We took a delightful leisurely stroll through little lanes where I could admire the architecture of many older houses, take photographs and hear from Eduardo about the history of Valpariso.

As the city is buillt on many hills it has several unusual public elevators and we got to ride down one of these and came out in the main sqaure of the city by the Naval head quarters and naval monument. This was a very different Valparaiso. Grand, formal and still a very active port - with a sense of the formality of the navy and the bustle of industry.

From here I was driven along the costal road that divides Valparaiso from Vina del Mar. Once two separate places, these now are built right up to each other and Eduardo pointed out a small street where Valparaiso ends and Vina del Mar begins. Vina del Mar has a very different feel and is predominately a place where people from Santiago own holiday homes and apartments and come for the summer and weekends. The beaches are sandy and the Pacific Ocean crashes impressively against the shore in great waves. I could see instantly how intcing is would be, as a resident of Santiago , to escape the city and drive for only an hour and a half to get to the Ocean!

An option with the tour was to spend an additional $40 US on a lunch. I am fortunate that my husband has given me my birthday present early this year and gave me money so I could afford to take a couple of tours during my 17 days stay in Chile and make the most of my opportunity of being here. So I 'pushed the boat out' and took the tour with the lunch included. I am so glad I did! We stopped at a restuarnt which is in an old house built as one of the first holdiay houses for a wealthy family when Vina del Mar was first developed. It is right next to the ocean with only the beach road dividing the restaurant from the waters edge. I thought it might feel a little strange dinning alone on my tour for one, but my waiter Alex was very attentative and Eduardo poppoed over between courses to check everything was to my liking . The view was amazing so there was plenty to occupy me during my meal. I had a reserved table by the window and the waiter asked if I would like the window open - this was lovely as I could hear the crashing of the waves and feel the sea breeze on my face. I really enjoyed the outstanding view across the bay to Valparaiso on one side and across the bay to Vina del Mar the other (I have posted a photo of the view on my Facebook page).

The service was excellent and the food didn't disappoint either. I had a starter of mixed seafood on salad, followed by a local white fish which I think they called a congrill with a seasfood sauce and finished off with an apple pie which had caramel glazed pastry and was served with a little dark chocolate sauce. They also served a Chilean national drink - an apperatif which I think they called pisco sour - it is mixed with lemon and is very light and refreshing - but I found very strong. I hardly drink alcohol and so it went straight to my head and I only had half a glass as I wanted my faculties about me for the rest of my day!

The restaurant has a gift shop attached which has a good range of local crafts and jewellry - and compared to some other places I went to the prices seemed reasonable and the quality of craftsmanship was excellent. I bought a little present for my daughter (I won't say what in case my son is reading this blog out loud to her and it spoils the surpise! But yes, Mumy does bring presents when it is a trip away that means going on an aeroplane!!). I also bought an enameled copper piece for our kitchen at home - o be my momento of this wonderful day.

Despite my feeling somewhat soporific and rather full we ventured on! Ricardo drove us along the coast road into the centre of Vina del Mar and then along the other side to its most famous beach. We stopped here so I could take off my shoes and socks and walk along the sand a little. The sun was hot, the breeze pleasant and I was able to amble along at my leisure while Eduardo and Ricardo waited in the car. It was a very peaceful moment and a time to take stock and recharge my batteries a little ready for the WFOT Focus day on Sunday and the WFOT Council meeting next week.

There was one final stop on our tour. The Museum in Vina del Mar has a Moai statue from Easter island outside and I was very keen to see this. I would love to visit Easter island but neither time nor resources enable me to go this trip - so seeing one of the amazing statues close up was a real bonus (I have posted a photo on my Facebook page).

The journey back in the late afternoon sunlight through the lovely valleys of Curacavi and Casablanca was very relaxing and gave me time to reflect on all I had seen. Although a lot of sites had been fitted into my tour it had not felt 'packed' but quite leisurely and taken at my own pace.

I felt very well cared for by my driver and guide. In particular, I have been struggling with a hoarse voice the last week or so (a side effect from some medication I am taking) and I'm concerned to get my vocal cods better in time for my presentation at the WFOT Congress!Eduardo talked about the strain on his voice as a tour guide when he has a big group to lead and a special remedy he uses which is made from a kind of 'honey' from a Chilean plant mixed with menthol in a spray for the throat. When we were in Valparaiso he asked if I would like him to take me to a Farmacia so I could buy some of this spray to try. It is called Propolgea Miel Mentol and so far is really helping!

So I really recommend this tour to you, I was made so welcome and one of the best ways occupational therapists attending the WFOT Congress can support the Chilean people following the earthquake is to take the tours as usual and bring tourism back to these beautiful places.... and then go home and share just how much Chile has to offer!

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