Five Days in Chile

The old Chile: Conception Hill, Valparaiso

The new Chile: when completed, Santiago's Costanera Center will be Latin America's tallest -- and greenest -- skyscraper

After a successful time in Buenos Aires, I ambled out the hotel door at nine on Monday, August 8, down to the airport-bus terminal and out to the runways.  Flew LAN to Santiago, landing about one.  It was my tenth visit to Chile, so I knew the short route from the airport to Valparaiso, the port city 60 miles west on the Pacific.  Chile has an efficient and competitive intercity bus network, and I was there by 3:30.  Took a taxi up Conception Hill (Cerro Concepcion) to the Hotel Gervasoni, which I found on Expedia.  It looked old and atmospheric on line, and it was even cooler in reality, an 1870 mansion turned boutique hotel.  Checked in, cleaned up, and did some work.

The Hotel Gervasoni

The hotel living room, a really comfy place

At 5:30, in the room pictured above, I struck up a conversation with Ken Davis, an amiable fellow from Boston, touring South America with his wife and college-age son.  The latter two were napping, and he offered to uncork a bottle of Veramonte wine he bought earlier in the day in the Casablanca Valley.  We enjoyed a glass of Carmenere and a good yak.  About seven I took the 130-year-old Concepcion  funicular down from the hotel (the upper station was 200 feet from the hotel front door), dropping 240 feet in 30 seconds, and ambled a few feet to the historic Bar Inglés.  It was a possible dinner venue, and though it had wonderful old-school ambience, punctuated by an animated game of dominoes at the next table, the culinary vibe was not positive.  I nursed a beer, taking in the various tippling locals, paid up, and headed back up the funicular, then south to SaborColor, a hip place, for a plate of salmon ceviche followed by a congrio, the big eel I really enjoy.

Dominoes players, Bar Inglés

It was foggy on Tuesday morning, but it lifted by ten, and I zipped out for a bit of exploration.  The neighborhood around the hotel was even more funky and offbeat by day.  Pick some more adjectives: colorful, eclectic, bohemian, disorderly.  On the street behind the hotel was a scene I instantly recognized: they were filming a TV commercial.  I chatted briefly with a fellow to get the general picture, then moved on to admire the Lutheran Church at the other end of the street, which was getting a fresh coat of paint and some structural improvements.  My faith doesn’t have a “central office” like Rome (a good thing, for sure), but a sign did say that the world’s Lutherans were helping to pay for the renovations.  Ambled down the hill to the Reina Victoria funicular solely to ride back up.

Street art, Cerro Concepcion

After getting a good look around the ‘hood, I headed down to the area called Plan, the commercial center, where a huge protest march was forming.  The music and pot banging the night before was just a prelude.  This was huge, mainly comprised of trade unionists.  They looped around several blocks, and I moved on.

Valparaiso has lots of street dogs, and many of them look hungry, so when I spotted a small shop with bulk dog food, I ambled in, bought a pound (not nearly enough), and provided lunch to four pals.  It made me feel good and bad at the same time.  Dogs are so smart and so good – even three hungry ones did not fight each other for the last bits I had.

The Artilleria funicular, one of the city's longer rides

Are those automobiles attached with clothespins, hanging out to dry? Indeed they are, yet more evidence of the funkiness of Valparaiso; apologies for the poor photo quality, but I could only get a snap from the Metro, and I passed the art four times to get a sort-of workable image!

After riding up and down on one of the longer funiculars, I hopped on their new Metro and rode a few stops east to a beach restaurant where I enjoyed a good lunch on my last visit.  Here was the Pacific, but roughly on the same longitude as Boston (and straight east of Sydney).  I had a nice big slab of corvina and some French fries.  The table was outside, and I was positively freezing by the end of lunch.  I had another opportunity to watch gull flight (as in Norway, people were feeding them), studying their versions of rudder, flaps, and ailerons.  Got back on the Metro to do a bit more look-see, heading back toward the center.

Then it got interesting. The street in front of the national government buildings was barricaded, with a dozen police, locally known as Carabineros.  A block west – and not a long block – a water cannon was periodically dousing a crowd, and tear gas was being fired.

I snapped a picture and moved on, away from the ruckus, or so I thought.  I turned a corner at right angles to where the mob seemed to be, but kids were running toward me.  I headed quickly back to the Metro.  About 1000 feet from me was smoke from what was clearly a big fire.  I didn’t need to be closer.  The Metro was not running in the direction of my hotel.  Buses did not seem to be either.  So I set off on foot, west along the arterial that runs along the massive port.  I had hoped to be able to be far enough from the trouble, but soon I was way too close for comfort.  I was on the police side of the skirmishes, and at one point rocks were landing within 20 feet of me.  I crossed the tracks to get a bit more distance, and that helped, but trouble was still at hand.  I snapped pictures of fires in the street, a building with smashed windows, lots of disorder.  Adrenaline was flowing for about 15 minutes.

Broken windows after the riot

That day’s moment to thank my first Spanish teacher, Don Miguel (I’ve written about him on these pages many times, not least because he was, like the early purchase of road bicycles, one of the seeds of my enduring interest in travel), came when it looked like I was a block or two past any trouble, though I did not yet feel in the clear.  I came upon two older ladies, late 60s perhaps, walking toward me on the railway tracks.  They asked me what was happening.  I think Don Miguel whispered from on high, because I told them quite crisply about the situation behind me, enough to cause them to turn around.  I was glad to have retained just a little Español.

Ten minutes later, I was even happier to be right below the hotel.  The Concepcion funicular was closed for maintenance, so I followed the route of the taxi the day before, and was soon “home” – and really glad to be there.  I’m all in favor of peaceful protest, but Dr. King’s version of resistance is a better way.  Did a bit of work, headed out to a really good pasta and seafood dinner (a mother and a little girl about granddaughter Dylan’s age were banging pots outside the restaurant, continuing the protest), and was hard asleep at ten.

It was sunny Wednesday morning.  After breakfast I took a good walk around town, stopping to admire restoration of a fabulous Art Nouveau house, the 1916 Palacio Baburizza atop Cerro Alegre, the next hill west from the hotel.  Got on a conference call with colleagues at ten, packed up at eleven, caught an old trolleybus across town to the bus station at noon, and hopped on the fast bus back to the capital.

Palacio Baburizza

Rolling history: Valparaiso's wonderful old trolleybuses, and my ride from the hotel to the intercity bus station

Checked into a modern hotel in the Las Condes area; it was concrete and modern and the room was huge, but it lacked the soul of the place in Valparaiso.  After lunch from a nearby supermarket, I donned shorts and rode an exercise bike, hard, for 30 minutes.  Seldom had exercise felt so good.  Did some work and at six headed into the center.  Three Metro trains passed before there was one that I could squeeze onto, and just barely – Santiago is expanding its system, and with growth comes increased ridership (in nine recent visits, I could not remember such a rush-hour crowd).  I ambled down Calle Lastarria to the Sur Patagónico restobar, a terrific place I found by accident two years earlier.  It was still warm, and I sat outdoors, then moved inside to the rustic dining room, for a superb meal of steamed mussels followed by roast lamb, along with some great Chilean microbrews.  Yum!

Thursday morning, it was time to get back to work.  My longtime host at Universidad Católica, Andrés Ibañez, now dean of the business school, picked me up at 8:20 and we motored through morning rush to the suburban San Joaquin campus of the university.  From 10:00 to 11:20 I delivered a lecture on airline pricing to undergrad business students.  During the talk, protesters banging pans and drums marched past.  After the talk, I paused for daily prayers in the chapel, and took the Metro back to the hotel.

Worked the afternoon, grabbed a quick lunch, and at four I walked a few blocks to a very agreeable café and food market called Coquineria.  While waiting to meet some young friends, Constanza and Felipe Recart, I had a nice but too brief Talking to Strangers moment.  Below a fellow on the café patio were his two West Highland Terriers, and they looked a lot like the MacKenzie I was missing at that moment.  I asked him (in English I confess – should have practiced my Spanish) if his dogs were friendly, and he said yes.  I kneeled on the ground to pet them and make fast friends – the older licked my face like our Mac does.  I visited briefly with the man, long enough to learn that he had worked for Pan Am in its five last years, in passenger service at Los Angeles, and was on board for the Lockerbie disaster and the final day of a proud company.  He recalled it all clearly, with a distant gaze.

It had been four years since I last saw Constanza (known as Cota) and Felipe, and in that time they had gotten married, moved to Boulder, Colorado for Felipe’s MBA, and started a family (Simon Recart was due in two weeks), moved back to Chile six weeks earlier, and started a business.  Whew!  It was great to catch up with them.  I first met Cota seven years earlier, through American’s director for Chile.  Once again, so good to stay in touch.  At five I headed into the center and at six met 20 of Andrés’ MBA students, repeating the pricing lecture from the morning.  Grabbed a quick dinner back at Sur Patagónico, and took the Metro to the hotel.  A long, good day.  I opened the hotel windows before bed, and I shivered a bit through the night, but did not close them, for soon enough I’d be back in Texas heat.

It was too late to get to the airport after the evening lecture, so I spent the next day, a gorgeous spring day, wandering Santiago.  Nine annual visits offered a view of the city landscape not unlike time-lapse photography.  I kept saying “that building wasn’t there,” and in the booming skyline one sees the remarkable strength of the Chilean economy, growing about 5% per year, on copper exports to China, agriculture, and aquaculture.  There’s a palpable air of optimism and vigor in the air, and among the many Chileans I met.  It’s a place to admire.

Boomtown: Another skyscraper district that did not exist a few years ago

Something else to admire: many of Santiago's Metro stations are adorned with large works of art

My favorite Metro station: La Moneda, near the presidential palace, features huge oil paintings of a range of Chilean landscapes.

At 3:30, I hopped on the Metro one last time, then the bus to the airport, and flew home.  I had been in my own bed only 2 of the last 21 nights, so it was nice to be in Allen, Texas, even at 100° F.

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