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Happy 2012 from the other end of the globe

Written by Emmy on 21 March 2012

We fled the big city on the morning of New Year’s Eve in an attempt to escape the urban heat and anticipated insanity. We started toward the coast and toward the famous Chilean city of Valparaiso, or “Valpo” as the locals call it.

Valpo is one of the most lauded Pacific coast beach cities, but it is also the major shipping port of the region, adding to our collection of epic container ship sightings.

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IMG_8198The hillside beach town is renowned for its elevators, bringing you from street level up to the top of the mountains. The elevators are a bit rickety and don’t look like they’ve been updated since they were built in the early 1900s.

We took a jaunt up the hill for the cost of mere pennies in order to check out the scenery. The streets were oddly quiet — everyone was inside resting for the New Year’s celebrations of the evening ahead — and so we walked the quiet, empty streets and observed all the graffiti.

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The weather was cold and dreary, and the hills were all fogged over. The mist in the air was throwing a chill into our summer day. We were all starting to get hungry, and what better item to cure the foggy blues than a grilled cheese with tomato. We ordered five of them.

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IMG_8218We took the elevators up and down in a few other spots along the cliffs, but the crowds were getting pretty heavy. Valpo is renowned for its New Year’s fireworks and people begin lining the hills with beach chairs and coolers hours before the fireworks are set to begin in order to claim good viewing spots. Said coolers and lawn chairs all come in the elevators, holding up the line to get to the top.

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We forewent the elevators because the wait was too long, plus we had left the rented SUV in a situation that seemed less than guaranteed. So we picked up the car and started up one of the big hills. Though the hill roads are all marked as being two-way streets, that’s more funny than true. So as we started up a narrow, narrow hill, another car — directly facing us — was starting down. Uh oh.

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My father masterfully guided the car down backward. I hopped out to help — and to document — but we also had another guide on hand. The looks of fear on all passengers’ faces really speak to the terrifying nature of the straight backward drop.

We made it off the hill and back onto the main road, thankfully in one piece. We continued onward along the coast. Though Valpo is THE New Year’s destination, we were looking for something a bit less scene-y. So we continued driving along on a road that looked not too dissimilar from the Pacific coast many hundreds of miles north.

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The drive was shorter and a little less harrowing than the version Chaz and I undertook on the northern Pacific. The Liss family arrived in the charming town of Zapallar, a far cry from the developed and bustling Valpo. We arrived just before dinnertime and so dropped our stuff quickly in order to make a quick trip down to the waterfront.

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The coastline was raggedy and the path curved up and down the hill, snaking past some of the more spectacular houses I have ever seen.

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We came back to our hotel and sat down for the New Year’s Eve banquet dinner, which began with pisco sours. Pisco is the national liquor of Chile and we had yet to sample it. I can’t say it was my favorite drink I’ve ever had, but how can you not entertain local customs?

Our fancy New Year’s dinner gave us a chance to get out of our beach hiking outfits and into the one fancy dress each of us brought on the trip.

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Dinner had a seafood focus, appropriately. We began with a platter of various customary appetizers, including shrimp on toast, bruschetta, spherical crab cakes and another form of shrimp.

The first course was a choice of two items: salmon with avocado or a seafood and potato cake. We ordered some of each in order to get the full sampling.

After appetizers it became far too dark to take photos — perils of outdoor eating by candlelight. I had a lobster tail, served in its natural form straight from the ocean, more or less.

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After we finished dinner, we headed down to the beach along with every other dinner guest and neighborhood resident. The town of Zapellar was said to put on an epic fireworks show, and that they did. The fireworks were alarmingly close to the shore where we were standing, making for both a beautiful show and a mildly terrifying one at that. It was quite the way to ring in 2012.

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The next morning, we headed back down to the beach where an aggressive clean-up effort was already underway. We took a long and rambling walk around the shore, winding back up through the “town.” The only open establishments were a handful of small grocery stores. All the activity was down on the beach itself.

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No food is allowed on the public beaches in Zapellar, a clear drive toward the one or two restaurants lining the beach. We paid a visit to the one busting with people (which also happened to be the one closest to us). We enjoyed another round of crab “cake” with a side of fresh avocado and tomatoes. Sitting beachside, feet in the sand, with our fresh crab soufflé was quite a way to begin the new year.

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Full from lunch, we piled back into the SUV to head to the Santiago airport. We had more than enough time to get there; in fact, we were poised to get back there much, much earlier than necessary. But the seemingly simple drive became a bit more complicated than initially assumed as the highways started to change names and then failed to mark the turn-off for the airport. We pulled off the highway a few times to ask directions, pulled back on, and repeated.

Finally, we got ourselves on the path to the airport and had only one stop left: filling the car with gas before returning it. We pulled into a gas station and the attendant filled the car. Once the SUV was again raring to go, we handed over a credit card to pay. It was rejected. We tried another. Rejected. Clearly the issue was with the machine, given that at least some of these cards had been used earlier that day. Also an issue: we were down to about 20 Chilean pesos. We offered dollars, but that was not kosher. (Mind you, this whole debate was taking place in Spanish.) Finally, we settled on a solution: she would follow me to an ATM across the street, I would extract the cash and then we would move on about our day. By the end of the debacle, we’d become close friends and avoided what could have been a disaster of sorts.

And so with one more cultural transgression under our belts, we boarded the plane and returned to New York, another successful foreign adventure well-spent.

A truly South American city

Written by Emmy on 29 February 2012

After our time in the countryside, we flew north to the bustling capital metropolis of Santiago.

First order of business was — not shockingly — lunchtime. As previously mentioned, sandwiches are like a religious item in Chile. And so we headed to one of their sanctuaries, Ciudad Vieja, a tiny sidewalk cafe in the artsy part of the city well-renowned for what its able to put between two pieces of bread. The menu was widely varied and we took advantage of its many options.

Chilean Spanish has many vocabulary differences from the Spanish I know, and a large number of those differences can be found on menus. So I ordered a sandwich whose ingredients I could not quite identify, other than chicken and bread. What I got was a spicy Chilean rendition on a chicken salad sandwich filled with onions, peppers, avocado and several other veggies. It tasted a lot better than the pictures would lead one to believe.

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The dishes ordered around the table incorporated a bevy of different tastes. Alix had the carnitas, seasoned beef served with corn and guacamole, and my mom had a quinoa burger. Quinoa may be the trendy food du jour in fancy New York restaurants now, but its place of origin is more or less exactly where we were sitting.

The sandwich portions, like every other dish experienced thus far in Chile, were positively enormous.

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We spent the rest of our first day exploring the city and getting our bearings. Santiago is not really a museum city and is one better explored by walking. The balmy summer weather didn’t hurt the efforts.

We were staying slightly up the hills in one of the artsier neighborhoods and so we trekked down toward the more thumping city center. The neighborhoods are divided by a flowing river, which looked to contain more mud than water…

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IMG_7975Downtown Santiago was filled with an entrancing mix of old colonial buildings, new construction and artistic rebellion. I’ve been to Buenos Aires before and was shocked by how European it felt. I’d conjured up an image of South America but felt like I was in France or Italy. Santiago, on the other hand, matched that once-conjured image. It’s quirky and artsy, with pockets of high-rise development and neighborhoods that look like they haven’t changed in centuries.

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We spent the whole afternoon exploring the city’s sights and walking to rebuild an appetite. We had planned to investigate another Chilean epicurean standard for dinnertime: seafood. But what’s somewhat odd about seafood in Chile is that it breaks a cardinal rule I’ve always been taught to observe: seafood and cheese do not go together. But in Chile, it appears they do.

We tried two noted specialties at dinner: clams baked with parmesan cheese (manchas a la parmesana) and a crab cake (pastel de jeriba). Now, a crab cake is a known entity to me. And that’s what the Spanish on the menu directly translated to. But this was not a baked cake; this was a cheesy, gooey casserole — closer to the crab dip that aunt makes in the Chesapeake than to crab cakes in the way we think about them normally. Mmmmm delicious.

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The next morning we went on one of my most favorite kinds of adventures: a trip to the local market. This particular one — la Vega Central — is home to all the fruit in the city and there is just so much of it. Avocados and cherries are two of my favorite things, but in the winter are so expensive. The reason why? They’re imported from Chile — where they are literally sold by the wheelbarrow (and for mere pennies).

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Not too far from the fragrant fruit, it starts to smell like ocean. Not because you’re near the sea per se, but because the fish market is mere blocks away and is heaping with squirmy little guys.

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We also visited a flower market, but flowers are far less intriguing than a pile of octopi.

IMG_8053We left the markets and headed to one of the less central neighborhoods of the city. A 15-minute cab ride made a world of difference in our surroundings. Bustling graffiti-filled streets gave way to wide avenues, fancy cars and extensive greenery.

Though Santiago is not, as-previously mentioned, a museum city, one of the newer and more noteworthy landmarks is the Museo de la Moda. At first, we were all sort of suspect of a museum dedicated to fashion. But it turned out to be far more interesting than that.

Chile does not exactly have the most sunny history. It was as recent as 30 years ago that the country lived under tight political control with few personal liberties afforded to the general population. When Pinochet was overthrown in the 1980s, the entire country changed — just as the music, fashion and culture of the world was changing.

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The museum was fun and lively — when’s the last time you listened to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” while browsing an historical exhibit? The exhibits gave us a real sense of the oppression of the 1970s and the youthful liberation that followed in the 1980s. There was far more to it than a place called “Museum of Fashion” would have led you to believe.

Later that day we sat down to some more Chilean cuisine. The predominant items in all restaurants we visited were fish and wine. And so we continued to partake. We visited a restaurant called Como Agua Para Chocolate, like the book and movie (which I was exposed to in high school Spanish class).

We sampled a few different fish items (plus one meat one). My seared tuna (bottom right) was served alongside a corn-basil gratin, which was unbelievable.

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Part of what was so nice about our trip to Chile — in addition to all of the delicious food – was how much time I got to spend with my family.

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The next morning — our last day in Santiago — we decided to explore some of the city’s higher points. The city is dotted with hills, the highest of which are best reached by funiculars. The Chilean funicular is a little more open air than others I’ve ridden before, making both the ride and the destination filled with a beautiful view.

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We walked around the Santa Lucia hilltop before seeking shade below. Coming from mid-winter New York weather, it was still hard to adjust to the balmy 90-degree days in Santiago.

Before long, it was lunchtime. We decided to take a break from our sandwiches and go for another set of traditional Chilean dishes. And in line with all the prior lunches we’d had, there was definitely a go-big-or-go-home mentality to the dishes being served.

We sampled a few lunchtime stews traditional to the region. My stew (on the left) contained chickpeas, cinnamon, onion, tomato, coriander and turkey. It was amazing and flavorful. The other stew sampled at the table contained chickpeas, white beans, corn and a series of other spices. The two dishes were incredibly different, despite their similar appearances and ingredients. Both were delicious and extremely filling, but felt a bit more healthy than the colossal sandwiches of the days prior.

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The city of Santiago is unbelievably colorful, painted from top to bottom with graffiti. Some of the graffiti is overtly political in nature; others are more benign. One street has houses painted entirely in solid bright colors, each a different shade than the next. We walked the streets and played in the colorful playgrounds.

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After carousing around the city for the afternoon and basking in the summer sunlight — we enjoyed a bit of pool time each afternoon — we took an evening stroll on our way to dinner. Two parallel streets near our hotel seemed to be lined each night with table after table of people out drinking. What was amusing was that the first street was filled entirely with underage drinkers out with their friends, while the second was packed with adults out with friends. It seemed that the locals just graduate from one street to the next.

We chose a dinner spot on the adult street. We started with shrimp empanadas (again, breaking the seafood-cheese “rule”).

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The house special of the restaurant we chose was fish “a la lata” — fish grilled under a brick with tomato, onions and zucchini. I had pictured almost a sauce made of the vegetables (sauces are very big in Chile), but instead it was fish grilled with the actual vegetables themselves.

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Our three days in Santiago were delicious, colorful and cultural. A visit well spent.

Chilean summer in December

Written by Emmy on 2 February 2012

Never ones to sit still for too long, the Liss family took off for another adventure in late December. With everyone miraculously off from school and work for the week, we set our eyes south — way south. Very late on Christmas Eve, an evening when JFK is particularly concentrated with traveling Jews, we boarded a flight bound for Santiago.

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On our whirlwind tour of Chile, we planned to cover a lot of ground. We landed in Santiago early in the morning with plans to connect to a flight headed south. First we had to claim our bags, go through customs and re-check them. Simple, right? Well, as documented on many checkpoint adventures, a picnic basket for the plane is crucial. And the Liss family is always prepared. However, the Chilean border control was not so thrilled by our picnic basket of clementines. Our lengthy layover suddenly became a lot shorter once my father was finished with his official interrogation.

Finally we arrived in Puerto Varas in the southern lakes district, surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, lakes and national parks. We claimed our Chilean SUV and piled in, headed further south. Because Chile is so narrow, we passed as many signs for Argentina as we did for domestic cities (prompting my father to continuously sign the central refrain from Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”).

We arrived in the picturesque town of Villarica in time for a very late lunch by the lake. Following our long day of travels, we all took a rest by the waterfront under the delightful summer sun.

The town sits under the shadow of the volcano by the same name, which is still very active. Even from a distance, once the light was quite right, we could see little sulfur clouds puffing up from the snow-topped peak. Our hotel was situated just between the village of Villarica and the slightly larger town of Pucón just a few kilometers away. We explored Pucón later that day, taking in some light fare at the adorably named Mamas & Tapas and contemplating our adventuring options for the coming days.

Despite its regular activity, Villarica is a very user-friendly volcano. During the winter it serves as a ski slope and during the summer as a place for climbers, though it always maintains a thin layer of snow and ice. Climbing the whole things is an ordeal largely because of the snow. You need to start very early in the morning in order to finish before the daily melt, which can be incredibly dangerous. Most people sled down after reaching the summit.

We opted to climb from the base just up to where the first snow could be spotted, walking next to the chairlift operational the other half of the year. One of my sisters likened the experience to walking up a ski slope (which we were, in fact, doing) because of how steep the brief climb was. The view of the Andes from the (semi-)top was incredible.

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We took a quick lunch break before heading out into some more nature. The region is filled with national parks and having explored the volcanos, it was time for the lakes.

Chaz and I noted while out west that America’s national parks had the bare minimum in signage; just enough to make it clear where you’re going, but not so much that it’s overbearing. Chilean national parks take a much more relaxed approach, by which I mean: there are no signs. No signs in English, no signs in Spanish, and only sheep to seek directions from.

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After several wrong turns, we found what sort of looked like a hiking trail. Once on it, the signage was still pretty unclear. We knew we were walking to a lake, but we had no idea how far it would be nor did we have any confirmation that we were actually going in the right direction. We hiked for a few hours, and it’s not clear that we found our intended destination, but the scenery along the way was still pretty breathtaking.

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After making our way back to the car — using not quite exactly the same route we had taken to get there — we returned to the village of Pucón for dinner. Chileans are big on grilling; most restaurants have a large sign outside advertising the parilla. We chose one such place and ordered fresh fish and steaks. I was served the largest, most aggressive piece of salmon I have ever seen. It could have easily served three people. My father took his extra steak back to the hotel to make it into a sandwich for the car the next day. We also had grilled tomatoes with parmesan cheese, which were excellent.

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The next morning we set off in our vehicle for points further south. During the early part of the 1900s, for economic and political reasons, Chile experienced a mass migration from Germany, Austria and surrounding nations. As a result, some of Chile’s little villages look more like they belong in the Alps than the Andes. Cafes offer German coffees and cakes served alongside little wooden bridges and lakeside cottages. We stopped in a few villages for sightseeing and refreshment.

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Our drive wound through the various lakes and volcanoes of the area and as the fog lifted, we could see Vulcan Osorno rising in the distance. Osorno is one of Chile’s largest, though it has not had an active eruption in a few decades.

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During the early part of our drive Osorno had been shrouded in clouds and so when it finally emerged, we were quite pleased and turned a little bit paparazzi.

We kept driving until we hit Puerto Varas, one of the larger lakefront towns in the region and where we would be staying that evening. We planned to keep driving a bit further to one of the more famous of the region’s lakes, but decided to pause for lunch while in town.

Chileans love empanadas, which I had assumed, given that this is their place of origin. So we had a few of those and they were pretty delicious.

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But what I was intrigued to learn upon our arrival down south is that Chileans love sandwiches. Sandwiches here are big and delicious and filled with things I love. Avocados are sold by the barrel down here (literally) and cost absolutely nothing compared to the going rate in the U.S. Chileans also seem to be pretty religious about their bread making. Pan casera, which translates to “homemade bread,” is found in warm, delightful abundance. Small rolls graced every table we sat down to and the larger versions were stuffed with sandwich ingredients, like my chicken, avocado, tomato delight from Dane’s in Puerto Varas.

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Like most food items we had in Chile, we discovered after ordering that we could have easily ordered half as many entrees and been, collectively, just as satisfied. There is definitely a go-big-or-go-home mentality to Chilean eating.

Fighting off our sandwich-induced food coma, we piled back into the car and headed to Lago Todos Los Santos, one of the largest of Chile’s lakes and a featured item in the New York Times’ must-see in 2011 list. (We squeezed it in just under the wire.)

We arrived at the lake, which is inside another large national park, and encountered the same scarcity of information that we had dealt with the day before. The welcome station was closed (despite signs indicating that it should be open), there were no brochures available and the one posted map had been all but destroyed. We found the park’s emergency medical clinic and I tried to extract some logistical information from the chief medic. Meanwhile, my father located the boat launching station and by waving a few bills and his key Spanish vocabulary words, secured passage for the five of us.

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The lake is large and beautiful, surrounded by the nearby volcanos and mountains. The lake is also quite long and if you sail its full length, will eventually find yourself in Bariloche, Argentina. However, that would have taken quite a few hours in our little motorboat and so we just puttered around a portion of it.

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Had we continued further south from Todos Los Santos, we would have come to the national park found on the island at Chiloe — the furthest point north where penguins can be found. I have wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat ever since “March of the Penguins” (and also “Happy Feet”), but Chiloe was several hours away. We decided to save the waddles for another visit.

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We headed back to the town of Puerto Varas for dinner. The majority of restaurants open for dinnertime bore close resemblance to the little cafe where we had eaten our colossal lunchtime sandwiches. We found a nice Mediterranean restaurant among the casual cafes and three-fifths of us ordered a stewed chicken with vegetables and a pea puree, served with the same familiar basketful of warm local rolls.

We retired to bed and early the next morning hopped back in our SUV, ending our brief, adventurous jaunt through the southern Chilean wilderness.

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