A major perk of living in Santiago is having the Pacific coast only 120 kms away. The beaches in the area are breathtaking and many Chileans as well as foreigners venture there to enjoy them. The major urban centre is called Valparaíso and served as Chile’s major port for years. This transportation hub went through its golden age before the completion of the Panama Canal, when sea traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had to pass through the Straits of Magellan. Valparaíso was an ideal port to replenish supplies and rest before continuing the arduous journey. This port also served as home to a large contingent of the Chilean navy. Under the Pinochet regime, the country’s national congress was re-established there, largely to get it out of sight. The greater city area encompasses picturesque towns such as Viña del Mar, known for its world-class cultural festivals. Reñaca, a great summer destination to enjoy the beach or swim in the ice-cold ocean and Villa Alemana, a place nicknamed the city of eternal youth.
|Brian and I on the balcony of the Reñaca house|
During the three years we lived in Chile, we became very familiar with the region. I remember the first time we went to the coast, the route my father took driving our Citroën was on a coastal road entering through Concón. Through our windows we could see the majestic waves smashing into the rocks and sea lions resting on top of them. The noises of these beasts was similar to a dog with a cold. Their particular smell also seemed to be entrenched in the sea breeze. We followed this road southward until arriving to Reñaca, a beach town where we would usually stay. The Canadian Embassy staff rented propriety there on the side of a hill overlooking the beach. This house provided a lovely view of the bay any time of the day, but I particularly loved the nighttime lights. The cottage was definitely another major perk. The booking system seemed to be on an ad hoc first-come, first-serve basis. The beach was incredibly packed over the summer months, but afterwards, it seemed as if the entire town was ours to enjoy. It was nice to sit around the house and savour complete silence to be able to enjoy the sounds of the tides and take in the waves from afar.
It was definitely a plus to go there during the off-season, as it was much easier to visit the city’s hotspots. We would always find tables at great local restaurants and without Argentine tourists, a huge source of capital for businesses. People in the service industry were not jaded or overwhelmed when providing excellent service. One of my favourite places for quality local food was La Mia Pappa – not to be mistaken with the restaurant in Santiago that shares the same name. The menu was composed of a blend of traditional Chilean cooking and Italian dishes. The stone-oven pizzas were fabulous. This elegant restaurant was built on top of a long wooden wharf with a 180o view of the sea. The presentation and décor was immaculate giving the guest a feeling that this was the place to eat in Viña del Mar. The tables were dressed in fine white linen tablecloths and napkins, and even soft drinks were brought to the table in lavish glass decanters, giving a child the illusion they were drinking the finest fountain beverages. On one occasion, we were seated at a table where we could see the water below us through small holes in the floor. This did not take away by any means from the quality or enjoyment of the place. Most people who may not share a strong friendship with broccoli could give their evil green foe a burial at sea if they so desired.
Viña del Mar had lovely historical mansions, such as El Palacio Rioja and other "quintas" that belonged to prestigeous business families of the region. Visitors could experience the lifestyle of the rich and famous as every article decorating the homes were perfectly maintained. If there were no ropes dividing displays from the tourist. One would feel as if he was living in the 1900s. There were several parks, monuments and boardwalks, each looked after with the greatest attention to detail, particularly the floral clock, a natural city landmark. There was a boardwalk plaza - unfortunately the name escapes me - but people could rent bicycles or hire a horse-drawn coach for tours of the surrounding area. We had first ventured onto this shore side square to discover people I had never seen in my life. There were many gipsy women, dressed in typical Eastern European attire, looking for clients curious about their future and fortunes. My father had always an adventurous nature yet he and my mother seemed to avoid these ladies at any cost. They approached us on several occasions and my parents would reply "No gracias”. I was curious about these women and why we were supposed to avoid them. It wasn’t until one of these women decided to stand in our way and threatened my father: “Have you heard of the gipsy’s curse?” My father did not seem to look at her and answered: “No. But have you heard the curse of the carabinero (name for the Chilean police)?” Funny enough, after my father’s well-educated response, she seemed to retreat back to her friends and we did not seem to have more encounters with the gipsies. Keep that in mind if they still frequent this square along the coastline. It could save you and your loved ones from being cursed.
|Me in front of the Naval Museum|
The port area of the city of Valparaiso had its charm as well. We were frequent diners at a restaurant where we were seated on a second story balcony above the docks. This was an ideal building, run by the Chilean Lifesaving Association. There were numerous local merchants on the docks selling all kinds of knickknacks, including fish, which Brian and I liked to purchase for our aquarium back home in Santiago. There were stamp shops (great for our collections), antique stores (great to practice patience at a young age) and other fun places for people of all ages. The city transport system included funiculars – to us locals, ascensores – which allowed going up the hillside of the bay without any fuss. These funiculars were wooden and slid up the hillside on a rail-like system. We travelled on these to visit the Naval Museum, which was a historical delight. This museum was stocked with naval uniforms from the early 20th Century, model replicas of navy flagships and even a stuffed albatross. I thought the albatross was an amazing bird, particularly because of its size. We were able to visit many of the local sites, such as La Sebastiana, one of the houses of poet Pablo Neruda, the Concepcion and Alegre Historical District, and many of the local churches.