Saturday, 25 August 2012

Flight from Sydney to Santiago (25th August 2012)

Woohoo, we are off to Chile today! This has been a long awaited trip since we first booked it with Intrepid Travel in February and it has been awhile since we last had a holiday - so excited :) You know, Jono and I hadn't plan to travel to South America this year. We had purchased Michelle and Mike a $500 discount voucher each to be used towards an Intrepid Travel trip via Scoopon for their Christmas gift but due to their upcoming exams this year, they were unable to get time off to travel so had graciously gifted the vouchers back to us to which we used towards the purchase of the 8-day Inca Trail trip (this Intrepid trip cost $1550 per person) starting in Lima and includes the famous 4-day trek along the trail to Machu Picchu. There were many other less physical trips we could have chosen but Jono managed to convince me somehow to agree to the Inca Trail trip (though all I could think of after we booked it was how on earth I was going to survive 4-days of hiking when I've hardly done much hiking ever AND at altitude - gulp!). Machu Picchu is definitely a place of visit in my bucket list (and many of our friends' too) but I had never imagined actually doing it anytime soon. Well, it's now paid for and we are doing it!

Since booking the trip, we've spent quite a bit of money to buy all the hiking gear we needed (proper hiking boots, hiking pants etc.) and most Saturdays have been spent going on long walks, wearing in the boots and progressively building up the walking distance and time to around 7-8 hours (that about how much we needed to walk per day on the Inca Trail trek). There is no requirement to be physically fit for the trek but many websites do suggest that you do some cardio exercises like walking, running or swimming beforehand - the fitter you are, the more you'll enjoy the trek. The one thing we couldn't really train for is the altitude (the trip spends time above 2800 metres). Fingers-crossed we won't suffer too badly from the effects of altitude sickness - I would not like to be airlifted home part way of the trek because of it.

Jono and I were up at 6.30am today to have some breakfast and shower, then packed the last of our items into our backpacks before the taxi came to pick us up to the airport at 7.30am. We had the unfortunate experience of being stuck in the morning traffic with an opinionated American taxi driver who just would not shut up about the many conspiracy theories he had found using Google search. Not quite how I envisaged my holiday to start - all I wanted was for us to quickly get to the airport so I didn't have to put up with his ramblings any further, some of which I doubt holds any truth though he seemed to believe everything that comes up in his search. Sheesh!

About 30 minutes later, we arrived at the airport - yes, finally! Though we were booked on LAN flights (booked via Intrepid Travel, our return airfares cost $2199 per person which includes one domestic flight in Peru), this leg of our flight to Santiago was a co-share flight with Qantas. The queue at the Qantas check-in counter was very long and it took us another hour before we actually got to the counter to get our boarding passes and dropped off our check-in bags, only to be then told that our flights have been delayed for 2 hours. So much for getting up early. Fortunately we didn't have any tour or transfer upon arriving in Santiago so the delay didn't bother us too much. Our initial plan was to fly direct to Lima but the layover was pretty bad (at least 7 hours) so we decided to spend the night in Santiago and then head on to Lima the next day. "You can go to the assistance desk at the end to claim your food vouchers," said the check-in lady. Oh, that's a nice gesture for inconveniencing passengers. We headed over to the desk and got a $20 food voucher each - we were told that it can be used at any food service in the terminal but that no change would be given to us if each voucher was not used to its entirety. "I suggest you use one now and another later," smiled the Qantas staff. Sweet!

With vouchers in hand and plenty of time to kill, we decided to spend one of the vouchers at Bambini Wine Room and got ourselves a big breakfast to share and a flat white each. Cost $31.10 all up which was very expensive but it wasn't so bad when we only had to cover the difference. We found ourselves a table by one of the vintage European style banquet seating booth - easy listening music piped through the tables and you can even charge your phone or laptop on the power ports at the bottom of the seats. Cool! The service was acceptable and the food, it was alright but not worth the cost. Photos taken at Bambini Wine Room:


Big breakfast at Bambini Wine Room

The wine bar


Bambini Wine Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato



We hung around the booth, then moved on to the lounge armchairs, sitting around waiting for time to tick by. Around 12pm, we headed towards our boarding gate, stopping at Santos Coffee Bar to use our other $20 food voucher and got ourselves a takeaway fruit smoothie, chocolate chip muffin and two packs of trail mix. More sitting around the boarding area and finally at 12.30pm, boarding commenced. This was the longest non-stop long haul flight I've done to date and our first to South America. We were also flying back in time (it would still only be the 25th of Sept when we arrive in Chile - Sydney is 13 hours ahead of Santiago). We tried to catch some sleep in hope to adjust our sleeping patterns closer to Santiago time but it was difficult for me to sleep with the huge time difference. Watched a few movies and slept whenever possible. On the long haul Qantas flight, snacks were provided periodically in between main meals - we missed a few of the snacks as the flight attendants never bothered to wake us up :/

Oh, did I mention that we wore our hiking boots onto the plane? I was worried our checked bags might get lost in transit so persisted that we took the hiking boots on the plane even though we probably looked like idiots wearing them - clothes in our baggage can be easily replaced but it would be very difficult to try to wear in new boots in time for our trek.


Some 13 hours later, we finally arrived in Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport aka Santiago International Airport at 12.30pm Santiago time, flying past gorgeous snow-capped mountains - it was rather amusing that most passengers clapped when we touched down, apparently a very Latin American thing to do, we were once told by Olof's Chilean friend Carolina. Yay, we are finally in South America! Another continent checked :)

We joined in the queue to clear immigration only to see most people had two forms whilst we only had the one arrival form given to us on board the plane - we had asked a ground staff before entering the queue if we had to fill in another form but she gave us a nonchalant look and just walked away (WTF??). We had to exit the queue, filled up another form and then joined the queue again which by then was twice its length. Grr...The immigration was split into two areas for foreigners, one side specifically for nationals from Australia, Canada, United States and Mexico, and the other for everyone else. It turns out that citizens of Australia, Canada, United States and Mexico must pay a reciprocity tax on arrival (and not cheap either - for Australians, the fee is USD95). Lucky us being Kiwis, no need to pay the fee, just time spent in the long queue. About 45 minutes later, we finally got through immigration and customs. Our trail mix packs we purchased at Sydney airport was confiscated even though I declared in it the form and both packs were unopened - the customs officer spoke to me in Spanish (we've done classes in Spanish but not enough to understand what was said) and when he saw my blanked look, it then ticked in his head that we didn't speak Spanish. "This...roasted nuts...in Chile, no," he said to us in the little English he had. It didn't make any sense why roasted nuts weren't allowed into the country but I wasn't going to argue with him and told him he could keep them. We didn't actually paid for the trail mix packs (Qantas did) so it was ok.

Just before exiting into the arrival hall, we stopped at the Transvip service desk and booked a taxi to the city. Cost Ch$16,000 (the local currency is Chilean peso and this amount works out to be around AUD32 - the conversion rate is roughly 1 AUD to 500 Chilean pesos) and we were given a chit to hand over to our driver at the taxi stand. Immediately upon exit, we were mobbed by many other taxi drivers eager to clinch a deal. I don't know if it would be cheaper getting a taxi off the street than using Transvip which is the official airport shuttle company but it was just less hassle to go with Transvip than having to negotiate the fare. We found our taxi stand at Exit 5 and as we walked up, one of the company's ground staff came to meet us and helped us load our bags into the taxi. "Huerfanos...repeat after me, Hu-er-fa-nos," said the man as he ushered us into the vehicle, making us repeat the street name of our accommodation several times until the pronunciation was to his satisfaction which was rather funny.


It was a lovely sunny day with temperatures around 16 degrees Celsius. The taxi ride into the city took about 20 minutes. Driving was the right side like in the States. Santiago, the capital and largest city of Chile is home to a population of around 5.5 million people - I have always thought Santiago would be a modern-looking city like Sydney but though it is said to be Latin America's most modern metropolitan area, it somehow didn't give me a modern feel as we took in the city views from within the taxi. What was quite pretty and unique of Santiago was the snow-sprinkled hills in the backdrop. Hmm, pity our time here was short or we would have otherwise made a trip to the nearby slopes to ski and snowboard. 


Jono had previously booked us a night's accommodation at Amistar via agoda.com. At 2pm, our taxi guy dropped us off at the given address. "Is this the right place?" I asked Jono. It looked right but the building didn't have any business signage and looked more like a private residence with a security desk at the lobby. We glanced back at our taxi driver who was pointing towards the said building. Ok, I guess this is us...We headed up to the security desk and showed them our reservation - the guys behind the desk had to call up another staff to sort out our check-in. All he took off us was details from our passports and then told to sit at the waiting area.


"Checking in?" said a man with a mop of brown ringlets who introduced himself as Carlos. It seems we have arrived at the back entrance of the building and was in the wrong tower block (there were 4 blocks and we were meant to go to tower C - we were in tower D). Rather confusing with no clear signs...Carlos took us to Room 209 where the 24-hour reception office was located to sort out the paperwork required for our stay. There was another group ahead of us in the small 1-bedroom apartment which has been converted into an office so while we waited, Carlos gave us a city map and circled several points of interest, as well as answered any questions we may have - he was friendly but quite a shy man (he gets embarrassed about his English but we both thought his English was alright and understandable though not fluent). Cost us Ch$35,280 for one night in a 1-bedroom self-catering apartment that sleeps a maximum of two people. A copy of Jono's passport was taken for their records and we were given the keypad passcode and wifi password (wifi is free) to our room located on the 20th floor.

To enter the room, you need to key in an 8-digit pin onto the keypad that is fixed just above the door handle of the room, the first of such hotel security I've ever seen - high-tech! Our apartment was nice and clean, and it was more like a studio than a 1-bedroom with a sliding door dividing the ensuite and the living area. Smallish but good enough for us. Photos taken of the apartment:


View of Santiago city from our apartment on the 20th floor at Amistar

The bedroom

Our belongings overtaking the seating area and sofa bed in the lounge :P

Small kitchen for self-catering

We got showered and changed, and around 3pm, headed out in search for some lunch at Mercado Central. But first, we need some pesos! We headed out via the main entrance of our apartment building onto Merced street and found an ATM at the end of the block. "Oh, everything is in Spanish," I cried and we were both cracking our heads trying to figure out which option on the menu screen we were meant to select. Our little Spanish phrasebook was of no help either - I couldn't find anything near what the ATM selections were and was feeling rather frustrated. It has been a very long day and we are now stuck with no local money :( We couldn't work it out and was holding up the line so stepped aside to allow others in the queue to use the ATM first. "Can I help you?" asked the man who had just completed his ATM transaction. Yes please! The man was very kind to translate the menu selections for us and pointed out that there was an option to choose for foreigners - once we selected that option, everything was in English. Why hadn't we seen that option before? Anyhow, we took out Ch$80,000 which should last us for our time in Santiago.

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon - most shops around the area were closed and there were hardly any cars or people on the streets. We walked along Miraflores street towards Mercado Central and stopped at Parque Forestal for photos. Chilean couples seem very into public displays of affection - many of the couples both young and old seen at the large urban park were definitely not shy in displaying their affections to one another (I don't mind PDAs but even I felt slightly embarrassed by the sight). We continue on along the Mapocho River - this river flows from the Andes mountains onto the west and divides Santiago in two. The water was a colour of murky brown and stinks of sewage. Yuck! The walls of the river are painted by the Santiaguinos (the city's demonym) with colourful murals used for political propaganda. Photos taken on our walk:


At Parque Forestal, an urban park in the city of Santiago


Political propaganda on walls of the Mapocho River

Fruit stands near Mercado Central


A short stroll later, we arrived at Mercado Central, the central market of Santiago. The market is housed in a cast-iron roof building and is THE place the locals buy fresh seafood. We did a quick loop around the fish market, checking out the local produce and soaking in the busy atmosphere. Shellfish of different shapes and sizes, a variety of fish, sea urchin and even spider crabs can be purchased from the market. Along the edge of the fish market were small low-key seafood restaurants - as you walk by, the maitre'd from these shops would be making a lot of noise, trying to convince you to come in for a delicious meal. Hmm, I'm not sure - the premises do not look very clean to me...

In the centre of Mercado Central is a huge dining area littered with many seafood restaurants - the middle section was dominated mostly by Donde Augusto with its red-shirt waitstaff busily serving its customers. We haven't quite decided where to go for lunch so was aimlessly walking around. "Here, come, come!" said a man around his 50s, shaking Jono's hand and guiding him up a flight of stairs to Richard, El Rey de Mariscal, me hurrying behind Jono to catch up. The restaurant was mostly located on the second floor with a few tables on the ground floor - it was quite packed when we arrived. We were seated by the windows so had a good view of the dining area downstairs, watching passerbys and mostly people enjoying their freshly cooked seafood meals. There were two older men entertaining guests with live music in return for tips - they would come to your table if they sight the slightest interest, singing and playing on their instruments a lot louder than usual as if volume meant good value for money.

"Hey look, that's the guy who showed us our table," I said to Jono pointing to the picture of the man in the front of the menu. Ah, so the guy who 'lured' us in was the owner. The menu here was pretty extensive - what should we have? We settled for a Mixtura 1 to share which was a platter of Ecuadorian shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, abalone, octopus, and ceviche (fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice), as well as tried a local beer each, the Austral and the Kunstmann. Complimentary lime juice  drinks and bread with butter were served while we waited for our main. Our beers arrived shortly (both beers were nice) and we sipped our beers and chatted, checking out the table behind ours who had ordered a huge spider crab. I did consider ordering the crab but it was the most expensive dish on the menu plus I didn't want to get all messy (you know how messy it can get eating crabs). Perhaps we should have ordered the crab (very popular with patrons at Donde Augusto as seen from our table) - customers were given the opportunity to take photos with their massive crab before the waitstaff cuts up the crustacean into easy-to-eat pieces, so easy that all you needed to do was pick out the flesh with a fork.

Our seafood platter was huge - I was glad we only ordered one dish to share! The cooked seafood was placed around the bowl of ceviche that sat in the middle of the platter. Sides of steamed vegetables, rice and chips were served along with the platter. Our entire table was filled with food - way too much! The food itself was not as good as I had hoped. The cooked seafood though fresh were all overcooked from boiling and rubbery to the bite. There were no sauces or gravy so the taste was all natural but after a few helpings, I couldn't tell the difference in taste from one seafood to another - they tasted pretty much the same just different in texture. Neither of us liked the ceviche - I had a few pieces of the fish for the sake of trying but wasn't a fan of it. 


By the end of our dinner, I was feeling quite tired just sitting at the table. It was way past our bedtime but we needed to stay up for a few more hours to adjust to the time zone. Cost us Ch$39,000 for our meal and drinks which I thought was quite expensive - I'm not surprised this whole dining area is targeted mainly to tourists so the prices here are a lot dearer. I wondered were do the locals have their seafood...We settled our bill and around 4.45pm, headed back to our apartment. Photos taken at Mercado Central here


Yawn, I'm SO tired...We tried to stay up but were just too sleep deprived and ended up having an early night, hitting the sack at 6pm. All the touristy stuff can wait till tomorrow...zzz...


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