Perfect Places

The lead sentence of today’s New York Times “36 Hours” Friday travel feature reads: “A boarding pass to Sydney should come with a warning label: Beware, this city will have you questioning the quality of life in your hometown. Sydney has managed to skim the best parts of other cities and swirl them into a perfect blend of urban bliss.” The author goes on to extoll the beauty of the city, the cultural life, the nightlife, the gallery scene, the bars, the beaches and even the zoo.
I visited Sydney years ago, and while it wasn’t as cool then as it has become, I had much of the same impression.

Ironically, just yesterday I cyber-stumbled upon a travel feature about Boulder, where I live, written by Kansas City Star travel editor Alan Holder. He hung out at the Pearl Street Mall, wrote about the city’s natural beauty, sportiness, recreational opportunities and commitment to the environment. “Is Boulder too perfect?” he asked rhetorically.

It got me to re-appreciating the place that I live. When we host out-of-town guests, I see it through their eyes, but between guests, I enjoy Boulder’s attributes but admittedly take them from granted. Holder quoted Richard Polk, city council member and owner of the Pedestrian Shop, as saying, “The thing about Boulder is, if you’re lucky enough to live here, you’re lucky enough to live here.” Travel remains both a passion and a profession for me, but sometimes, I can get the same rush of being someplace special just by walking out of my door and looking at my city as others see it.

Of flights, flying and the TSA

It may be a long way to Tipperary, but it’s even longer from Colorado to Chile. We flew American Airlines via Los Angeles International Airport, with a five-hour layover in each direction, and then LAN Chile to Santiago, with a brief stop in Lima. Each LAX-SCL flight is overnight-plus. We also flew from Santiago to and from Punta Arenas on the southern tip of Chile and to and from Easter Island. I can hardly wait to see how many AAdvantage miles I accumulated!

Going through security at LAX for the LAN Chile flight provided a fine example of the Transportation Stupidity Agency at work. Assured that he could take it through security check, the fellow in line in front of us had bought a small (under 3 ounces) sealed jar of some moisturizing cream at one of the duty-free shops in the terminal. The TSA screener would not let him put that single item in the plastic bin with his belt, keys, coins and shoes. “It has to go into a one-quart zip-lock bag,” the screener told the traveler guy. Traveler: “I don’t have one. Where can get one?” TSA guy: “I don’t know. We don’t sell them. I don’t care where you get it, but you have to have one.” This back-and-forth went on a while. We interjected and asked if he could put his jar into our one-quart zip-lock bag to send it through X-ray. That evidently didn’t violate any TSA regulations. The passenger was grateful, at that point the TSA guy no longer cared, and we were left shaking our heads.

Today’s Denver Post features a front-page story about a new TSA policy that prohibits air-traffic controllers from leaving the tower during a meal break unless they use accumulated personal time. “They have to stay in the 327-foot tower…where their menu choices are a bit limited. Just like airline passengers, controllers can’t bring liquids or semi-solid food items through security checkpoints,” wrote reporter Jeffrey Lieb. He also quoted the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. as calling it “lockdown cafe.” Now, don’t you wonder how this policy will affect the morale of people holding stressful jobs?

In Chile (and in New Zealand, where I was in august), passengers are permitted to walk through metal detectors with their shoes and jackets on, to bring bottled water aboard and to have such items as any size of toothpaste, hand cream and cosmetics in their carry-ons. In fact, the airport in Santiago has kiosks where people can, for a fee, have individual pieces of luggage shrink-wrapped. Here, the TSA’s no-locks policy sets checked baggage up for pilferage. I just heard from a travel writer colleague who had some $700 worth of items stolen from his luggage on a Continental flight from Trinidad to Denver via Houston. Not likely to happen in Chile or elsewhere, where bags may be locked and even wrapped in clear plastic.

Aside security issue and bizarre regulations is the disappearance of anything resembling pleasant travel. Long flights that board in or are destined for the US have become airborne tubes crammed full of crabby, hungry, thirsty, smelly travelers, to say nothing of the foot odor assaults at security checkpoints because of the TSA’s shoes-off policy. None of this makes me feel any “safer.” How about you?

Easter Island

Way out in the Pacific, 3,700 kilometers or about 2,300 miles from mainland Chile, lies Easter Island — Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui in the increasingly accepted language of Polynesia. It it is the island to which Thor Heyerdahl sailed on the raft ‘KonTiki‘ and which was first reached by airplane from the mainland in 1951. Bottom line is that Rapa Nui remains remote and also mysterious.

It is, however, an increasingly popular tourist destination. Seasoned travelers who have been many other places and seen many other things are drawn to the island’s moai, towering figures carved from volcanic stone, moved to the shoreline and erected, in great feats of engineering for pre-industrial people, on lava-rock platforms (ahu) to guard their respective villages. Rapa Nui National Park is unsurprisingly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of the 887 known moai, 288 were set upon platforms, 98 fell or were abandoned and 397 were unfinished and still stand or lie in the Rano Rotaku quarry. I don’t know where the rest are or their condition — and I’m not sure that archaeologists do either. Some moai feature topknots of a red stone called scoria from the smaller Puna Pau quarry. The moai are tall (average, about 13 feet) and heavy (12.5 tons). They faced inland rather than toward the sea, because inhabitants were each others’ foes. They were meant to be seen from the carved front, and each one has a different face — much like the terracotta army in Xi’an, China. The moaisbacks are flat — by necessity because they were carved while lying on the ground. Archaeologists have restored some sites. Others remain primitive.

On the island’s northeast coast is “the navel of the world,” a round, squat black rock with four smaller sit-upon rocks around it. People hunker there to meditate, contemplate, commune with spirits, admire the view or wonder why compasses swing around madly when near the rock.

The spectacular and mesmerizing south coast is worthwhile for watching and photographing the big South Pacific rollers roiling and boiling and crashing onto the black coastal cliffs. The island was once heavily treed, but now the vegetation is largely grass. Stands of introduced eucalyptus grow where once there were palm species.

An unpaved road climbs to the top of Maunga Pu A Tiki, a dormant volcano in whose water-filled crater rafts of vegetation float like little islands. Beyond, at the tip of Poike Peninsula is a curious seasonal colony where Easter Islanders, long after the days of the moaicarvers, lived while they selected their annual leader. The bizarre ritual involved deputizing someone to swim to a nearby rock and find the first egg laid that spring by a particular bird. The leader selected in this strange way lived like a hermit during his rule. Visit yourself and hear the whole strange tale, but also know that the missionaries put an end to it. Rapa Nui is now enthusiastically Catholic, and visitors are invited to the exuberant, music-heavy Mass at the church in Honga Roa. The church is packed every Sunday, beginning at 9:00 a.m.

Honga Roa is, in fact, the island’s only town. Accommodations range from simple hostels to the luxurious Explora Lodge, currently located in a leased private vacation retreat but with plans to build a new property in the next couple of years. Numerous restaurants and abundant shops are scattered along the town’s streets. Consider signs with posted opening hours to be guidelines.

Whether you are looking for fine crafts or mass-produced souvenirs, you’ll find them in many small shops and in two multi-stall crafts markets, one on Tu’u Kohinu (one block to the left of the church) and one that is half crafts market and half produce market at the corner of Tu’u Maheke and Atamu Tekena. Prices vary, so shop around. Don’t be afraid to bargain, especially if you are buying several items, but don’t expect huge price breaks either.

The greatest variation was for what appears to be the only English guidebook to the island, Rapa Nui by Daniel Pardon . We found it at the archaeological museum for more than US$70. Gasp! That is high even for a glossy four-color job, but for that money, there should be an index. We bought it anyway because we were driving around and wanted it for the road. Later, a colleague reported that she had bought it for a few dollars more at a shop in town, but as we were leaving, we spotted it at an airport shop for about half the price. Moral: Try to pick it up on arrival — unless, of course, the prices at various venues have changed.

In the souvenir realm, I found placemats (choice of colors, choice of moai or a still undeciphered writing called rororongo) for as little as ARG$2,000 (US$4) and as much as ARG$5,000 ($10), and small wooden rororongo reproductions in the ARG$25,000 to ARG$35,000 range in town, but for ARG$7,500 at the airport. You have several last chances to shop at the airport. There’s a new brick building with several stalls across from the terminal, numerous stalls in the terminal outside of the security area or in one of several more stalls after the security checkpoint. Abundant, of course, are moai of stone, wood or molded plastic in various sizes and configurations.

The archaeological museum on the outskirts of town is more interpretive than anything else. Relatively few artifacts are on display, but 20,000 are in storage pending money to build a larger building and guard the artifacts. The town cemetery is worth a visit too. There is one ATM on a street called Tu’u Maheke. It currently dispenses cash only to MasterCard holders, but other businesses take other cards as well. The post office is one block over on Te Pito Te Henua. For ARG$1,000 (a little more than US$2), the clerk will stamp your passport with three Easter Island stamps. Scuba divers rave about the clarity of the water. Several dive shops located at the harbor use simple open fishing boats for their dive trips.

Easter Island is open range. Cattle and horses wander all over the countryside, depositing their droppings wherever. Similarly, dogs, cats and even chickens wander around town. They are uncollared but also unmenacing. In town, the streets have been paved but the sidewalks remain hazardous with cracks, gaping holes and some concrete slabs missing and storm drains exposed, so do look where you are stepping — whether to skirt sidewalk obstacles or just to avoid the unpleasantness of animal droppings.

The moai deserve more time than most bus and van tours permit, so renting is recommended. Rentals for small 4WD cars are surprisingly reasonable, and gas isn’t too expensive either. Roads from Hanga Roa directly to the most popular sites are paved, but others are not. Tourists on organized tours are never out and about during the fine dawn and dusk light, and the quarry where the majority of moai are found is not included in most tours but is quickly offered for $40 extra. If you take such a tour, cough up the 40, because the quarry should not be missed.

Between a rock and a hard place

Writing from Santiago, a brief stop between the rock (the Torres del Paine, a trio of soaring granite towers in the eponymous national park, a designated World Biosphere Reserve, in Patagonia) and a hard place (Easter Island, with its monumental stone figures of mysterious creation). First Internet access in days, and perhaps the only computer I’ll touch for several days more.

We were welcomed to Patagonia with howling (and not atypical) winds that blow strongly from Antarctica each spring. The weather pattern has something to do with the seasonal break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf and how it affects winds. We traveled from Puerto Natales on mostly paved roads (being widened into a divided four-laner as far as Cerro Castillo) and then drove deep to the park along largely unpaved roads. In all, the area largely resembles central Nevada, with big valleys set against distant mountains and lots of grazing sheep in the foreground.

In the park, we stayed in an insulated, but unheated and unelectrified dome in Eco-Camp Patagonia just below the Towers themselves — simple accommodations and simply magnificent scenery, but not a lot of fun walking along boardwalks to the bathroom/shower tent in the wind.

The first day was spent riding between touch-and-go attractions: a fabulous waterfall just a short stroll from a parking area but a formidable walk beating against the wind, and a wild boat ride to pristine, triple-headed glacier at the head of head of a lake called Lago Grey. We donned lifejackets and walked to the end of a pier, where we boarded a small open craft that transported us over bouncing waves to the ‘Grey II,’ the tour boat.

For an hour, we motored into the wind and waves. Each wave crashed over the bow and the well-sealed windows. In the sheltered lee of the glacier, the boat stopped rocking and rolling long enough for the crew to serve pisco sours, allegedly made with glacial ice. One wit on the boat said, “If I ever want to recapture this experience, I’ll make myself a pisco sour and drive through the car wash.”

The following morning — our last full day in the park — we went on long hike for a close-up view of the iconic Torres del Paine themselves. Eleven miles, plus the 1.5 kilometers each way between the Eco-Camp and the trailhead. We walked down the hill from the Eco-Camp and crossed a broad meadow where the Hosteria Las Torres (campground and resort) is located. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Ascencio, whose valley we would follow for the next 6.2 kilometers (about 4 miles). This modest river carved an impressive canyon. The first part of the trail parallels the river but high up the canyon walls. Much of it is steep, and in parts are deep troughs from horses hooves.

After a while, the trail gentles in grade but drops into side valleys and ascends out of them. A bit past the half-way point, we reached the Albergo y Camping Chileno. This large European-style hut offers rustic accommodations and some food and beverage service. It is also as far as horses are permitted for people who don’t want to hike the whole way.

From the Albergo, the trail is generally closer to the river and passes through deep woods. It has more rises and falls until it reaches a clearing. The steep Accarreo Moraine ascends sharply to the left to a small lake offering the best in-your-face view of the towers. Anyone not interested in the final 1.5 kilometers (almost 1 mile) and 750 vertical feet on scree and talus, can follow a small trail to a funky ranger station. Beyond it is another viewpoint to see the towers.

The next morning, we left the Eco-Camp and drove all the way back to Punta Arenas. Park roads are not paved and hopefully will not be, but as noted above, the government is undertaking an ambitious road-widening project as far as a crossroads called Cerro Carillo, something of a gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and also to the nearby border with Argentina.

Puerto Natales, Chile

Punta Arenas is the southernmost city in Chile and one of the two most southerly in the world. It sits on the Straits of Magellan, where the breeze blows steadily, where the sky is filled with fast-moving, dramatically lit clouds and the people are as hearty as Alaskans, Canadians, residents of the Scandinavan north and other people who aren´t drawn to palm trees.

En route to Torres del Paine National Park, we detoured one hour to the south for an hour to Fuerte Bulnes, a reproduction of a mid-19th century wood fort that established Chile’s claim to this southerly lnd, literally days ahead of a French naval party with the same goal. Between Punta Arenas and the fort, in and along the water just south of the road, we saw an enormous sea lion perched on a rock that wasn´t much larger than the critter, a pod of a Magellanic dolpin called tonines (which I might be spelling wrong) and numous shore birds. My favorite Patagonian bird, the caiquen, is a long-necked bird that always travels in pairs. North of the road are small farms, where chickens, roosters, sheep (and their lambs) and attle were in evidence.

The main square of the lively port town of Punta Arenas is ringed with opulent mansions dating from the days of the wool trade. Between there and Puerto Natales to the north are long stretches of coastal highway with few trees, rolling scenery, more sheep and even a small lake inhabited by Patagonian flamingoes. We spent the night in Puerto Natales, a trekker/backpacke/cyclist stop, with more hostels than hotels. Soon, it’s off to the national park.

Valparaiso

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most beautifully situated, most rundown cities I have ever seen. Located around a gorgeous crescent-shaped harbor with homes clinging to steep hills, Valparaiso thrived from the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, when ships that had rounded Cape Horn re-provisioned in its lovely hardbor, until the Panama Canal rendered it obsolete. It began a slow decline that was not helped by an earthquake in 1904 and subequent tremblors.

Houses — ornate, ramshackle or both (above right) — cling to hillsides. One of them belonged to Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum filled with his personal objects. He wrote in a tower room with large windows taking in a commanding view. Today, the city looks better from afar than close-up. Cobblestone streets, broken sidewalks and steep slopes are filled with brilliant wildflowers, dog droppings and litter. One major road contours over the hills, with many small streets, alleyways and staircases. Too many walls are graffitied. Locals don’t seem to notice or care. Fifteen funiculars, called elevadors, make it easier and more direct for people to move from the seaside port level to the neighborhoods above. The tariff is 100 pesos — roughly 20 cents.

Elaborate public buildings, including the national parliament and the Chilean version of the Pentagon, are located in Valparaiso. So is the military memorial, like an unknown soldier’s tomb with an eternal flame. Souvenir vendors set up stalls anywhere of possible touristic interest. A small, crowded covered food market displays beautiful produce and other products near the center of town. On Sundays, like today, a flea market occupies the median of one of the main streets. Used clothing, cheap shoes, a lot of this and that is laid out on blankets or rugs. There are a few canopies for shade, but no stalls. A couple of Chileans told me that Valparaiso really rocks at night, but by day, alas, it’s still the warts that show.

It is a city with a past and hopefully a future. With UNESCO loans, the city is undergrounding the rat’s nests of overhead wires. Light rail now runs along the waterfront linking the cargo port to the cruise port and even the nearby high-rise resort of Vino del Mar. Maybe the sidewalks will be fixed. Maybe the litter will be picked up. Maybe more of the houses will be restored and repainted. Valaparaiso is something of a cross between San Francisco and Hooverville — still too much of the latter and too little of the former.

Valparaiso is an easy day trip from Santiago, by frequent public bus for about $6 or with one of the tour operators that not only provides transportation to the city by the sea but also up to the hillside neighborhoods.

Cool new hotel in Santiago

This is a newborn blog, so far without any bells and whistles, but I’ve already discovered a very cool (and very new) 10-room hotel in Bellavista, Santiago, Chile’s liveliest neighborhood. The Hotel del Patio occupies the second floor of a traditional courtyard that is filled with neat little shops and restaurants. The hotel’s furnishings are minimalist and oh-so-stylish. Bright sateen quilts provide the single blast of color amid the dark furniture and light walls. Each room has a private bath (shower only, no tub) and big windows. There’s also a fab deck for breakfast or hanging out and, did I mention the location? Rates for standard rooms are US$62 per night, single or double, including continental breakfast and complimentary Internet access. E-mail them at hoteldelpatio@gmail.com.

Santiago, Chile – Initial Observations

I am in Santiago, Chile, for the Society of American Travel Writers annual convention, after which there will be no more meetings, no more banquets and no more speeches, but opportunities to visit outlying parts of the country. Chilean officials keep referring to the country’s climatic and geographic diversity. As an illustration, a map of Chile overlaid on a map of North America, with the southern end of Chile on top of San Diego, the northern tip would stretch all the way to Prudhoe Bay.

Chile, now led by Michelle Bachelet, a democratically elected woman prime minister, has emerged from the long, dark shadow cast by former (and still jailed) dictator Augusto Pinochet, is proud of its robust economy, growing sophistication and personal liberties. Nowhere is this more evident than in Santiago, where some 5.5 million Chileans live. It’s just the start of out visit, but here are some initial impressions of Santiago:

  • The official bird of Santiago is the construction crane. Buildings are going up all over. Many are dramatic. Most apartments sprout small balconies, and most balconies sprout flowers and greenery.
  • Civic improvements include a new airport terminal and a number of new roadways, including a lengthy tunnel literally under the Mapocho River. The river is a concrete-lined culvert, made more attractive by several parks along its banks. I’ve read that it has long been heavily polluted both with household and industrial effluent, but the government has undertaken clean-up efforts and built wastewater treatment plants.
  • The parts of the city that tourists are likely to visit are relatively litter-free, but graffiti blights many of the best old buildings.
  • At this time of year (October = spring), mornings are foggy, but the sun usual comes out in the afternoon. Perhaps this Mendocino-type climate is why the wines grown nearby in the Maipo Valley are so good.
  • Local chefs do not seem at all concerned with sustainable seafood harvesting. Salmon often come from fish farms. Chilean sea bass is served all the time, though someone has told me that the Patagonia toothfish that appears on US menus as Chilean sea bass is not the same as sea bass in Chile.

Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.