Monday, 27 August 2012

Free Tour Santiago & flight to Lima (26th August 2012)

After a very long sleep to recover from our jetlag, Jono and I finally got up at 7.45am  to shower, packed up all our belongings and checked out of our apartment at Amistar. Today was our only day in Santiago before flying off to Lima in the evening so to make the most of our day, I found us a free city walking tour which covers most of the tourist areas we wanted to see - since it was free, we may as well get a guided tour of the city rather than roaming the streets on our own and not getting much local knowledge of the places we would visit.

We headed to the reception office in Room 209 to check out and left our bags in the storage area, carrying only a daypack and necessary items we needed for the walking tour. But first, breakfast! We left Amistar and went in search for a cafe - walking around the block, we didn't find a single cafe or restaurant open which I thought was rather peculiar for a Sunday morning. The streets too were pretty dead with hardly anyone or even cars. Does the city totally shut down on Sundays??

We decided to walk to Plaza de Armas where our tour would commence - hopefully there would be some place to grab a bite before the tour. Photo of a street sign we took on the way (this is not a misspelling of Mac Gyver - Mac Iver was a former Chilean politician):

I cannot believe this - it was past 9am and we were right in the middle of the city and the was NO cafe open in sight! There were a few restaurants next to Catedral Metropolitana but the staff had only just opened the doors and were slowly setting up, bringing out chairs and tables from the shop onto the plaza. We continued walking several streets in the vicinity in hope to find something and ended up in the only cafe we found open - Starbucks. Gee, we flown all the way from Sydney only to have breakfast here? Got a muesli and a tall Latte for Jono while I had a carrot muffin and a tall Caramel Macchiato, all for Ch$6550 which costs about the same price as what we would pay in Australia - I wondered how the locals could afford dining in places like this. The only upside to the Starbucks breakfast was at least the quality and taste was what we expected it to be. Still, I would have preferred a local breakfast than one from an American coffeehouse chain :/

Around 9.45am, we left Starbucks and headed back to Plaza de Armas for a quick photo of Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical cathedral overlooking the plaza. Sunday mass was in procession when we briefly entered the grand cathedral. Photos taken at the Catedral Metropolitana:

Main entrance to Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago at Plaza de Armas

The nave

The parish shrine where the statue of Virgen del Carmen 
(Our Lady of Mount Carmel) is enthroned

There are many companies that conduct free walking tours in Santiago but mostly only hold tours during the week - I found Free Tour Santiago which runs two tours daily, one starting at 10am and the other at 3pm. Sweet - that works for us! The tour was 4 hours long, conducted in English and covers all the main sites of the city. No booking was required - all we had to do was turn up at the meeting point (in front of the cathedral) at the designated start times and look for the guide wearing a FREE TOUR red shirt. "Hmm, I don't see anyone in a red shirt," I said to Jono, looking around the plaza. There was a small group of people who looked very much like tourists hanging around nearby, perhaps here for the same tour. "Free walking tour! Free walking tour!" shouted a young chap dressed casually in a shade of greenish brown who then introduced himself as Antonio, our guide for the walking tour this morning (it seemed he had misplaced his red shirt today). There were ten of us on the tour (interestingly, half were living in Australia) which began at the main square of Santiago, Plaza de Armas. 

"This place used to be a holding area for arms which is how the plaza got its name," explained Antonio. We walked around the plaza as Antonio gave us a brief history lesson of the city. Santiago was founded by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia - a statue of the founder riding his horse is among the several artistic statues in the plaza. The plaza grounds were beautifully kept and historical buildings surrounded the square, including the Edificio del Correo Central, a historic post office building once served as the President of Chile's palace, and the Cathedral Metropolitana. As the city stirs on this sunny Sunday morning, the plaza gets busier with a mix locals and tourists. Small stalls selling all sorts of knick-knacks and souvenirs and buskers can be seen setting up for the day ahead. There were several police officers (Carabineros de Chile) donned in army-green uniforms roaming around the plaza with a few mounted on horses - they were friendly enough to allow tourists to have their photos taken with them. Stray dogs were a common sight - Antonio assured us that Chile is rabies-free and these dogs were the 'protectors' of the city. 

We continued on our tour towards Palacio de La Moneda (the government house), walking past the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Pre-Columbian Art Museum dedicated to the study and display of pre-Columbian artworks and artefacts from Central and South America) which is currently closed for refurbishments, and the ex-Congreso Nacional (the former National Congress - the Congress has moved to new premises in city of Valparaiso). Hmm, tis the season for refurbishments - even the front entrance to La Moneda was closed to the public so we only saw the back entrance of the palace. It seems that one of the tourist highlights of the La Moneda is the changing of the guards which occurs every odd-numbered day, including Sundays however it was all over by the time we arrived :( We walked around the square behind the palace that had statues of all the former presidents including Salvador Allende wearing his iconic squarish-rimmed glasses - during the military coup in 1973, Allende rejected the military's ultimatum for him to step down and shot himself dead in the palace while it was under assault by armed forces. An interesting fact was that Allende gave a farewell speech to Chileans on live radio, speaking of himself in past tense, and his love for the country and hopes for its future just before the palace was overtaken - the man had decided his own fate beforehand.

We asked Antonio if it was normal that most shops were closed on Sundays and he confirmed it was so. "Have you guys tried the coffee in Santiago?" he asked, stopping the group in front of a closed Cafe Haiti. In Santiago, you have the normal coffee places and then there are a few places like Cafe Haiti which are termed Cafe con Piernas (Spanish for 'coffee with legs'). Made popular in the 60s, these coffee places located in downtown Santiago were where businessmen come to for caffeine and some harmless entertainment before heading home to their traditional wives and families. The waitresses wear skimpy uniforms and short skirts, serving steaming hot cups of coffee and flirting with ogling male (and female) customers. Antonio added that there were raunchier versions with darkened windows, some even go as far as to provide minuto millonario (million-dollar minute) where customers are shut in the shop and the waitresses taking off their clothes in a 60-second striptease. Unfortunately, these cafes are open during weekdays - damn, we won't get to see and experience coffee with legs today. Would have been an interesting sight ;P

We continued on, walking to the old business district of Santiago where the stock exchange was located in an area ironically called Nueva York (New York) - believe it or not, the new financial district is called Sanhattan. The end of the block led onto the main street and Universidad de Chile (the largest and oldest institution of higher education in Chile) - there was a huge city run with many people wearing red T-shirts running by. Fortunately Antonio didn't wear his red shirt today - we would have trouble finding him in the crowd!

Antonio stopped us in front of a street vendor selling Nuts4Nuts and told us the story of how the founder went bankrupt when he first started his business selling honey-roasted nuts in Chile - the man aka 'Rabbit' by the Chileans (probably due to his slight buck-teeth) brought the same idea to New York and became a millionaire. Jono and I bought a small bag of honey-roasted peanuts for Ch$300 to snack on the walk - yum! We headed on to see Teatro Municipal (stage theatre and opera house) and then walked to the foot Cerro Santa Lucia, a small hill in the centre of the city - at noon each day, a cannon shot is fired from Fort Hidalgo (with no cannonball, of course) and the sound of the boom can be heard in the surrounding areas.

Around 12pm, Antonio brought us to Casa Lastarria in the Lastarria neighbourhood where we took a break from walking and sat in the alfresco dining area for drinks and snacks. Jono and I shared a pisco sour (homemade with egg white, pisco, lemon and Angostura bitters), an entree of empanadas with meat, a cappuccino and a bottle of Agua sin gas (literally translates to 'water without carbonation'). The coffee was terrible but thankfully the pisco made up for it and the empanadas were good. Cost Ch$9000 including tips for our drinks and food.

After our 45-minute break, we left the cafe and the group walked to Parque Forestal, passing by a very busy Emporio La Rosa on Merced Street, a cafe-gelateria well-known for its large selection of flavourful handmade ice-creams. No time to stop for a gelato on the tour :/ Will have to come back later...We continued on to Patio Bellavista in the Bellavista neighbourhood, a centre of culture, arts and cuisine - with over 50 shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs to lapis lazuli jewelry, and restaurants and cultural events held in the patio, this is a great place for locals and tourists to spend a chilled out afternoon. The Bellavista neighbourhood is also known as the bohemian district and home to many famous Chileans including Noble prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda. Our walking tour concluded outside La Chascona Musuem, formerly the house of Pablo Neruda that is said to be the secret hideaway for him and his mistress Matilde Urrutia (La Chascona was aptly named after her 'unruly hair'). The group clapped and thanked our guide for the tour - Antonio has been a wonderful guide, answering all sorts of questions the group throws at him with a smile and good humour, and his stories makes the tour both informative and entertaining. Free Tour Santiago works on a tips-only basis so we tipped Antonio Ch$5000 each for his excellent service. Highly recommend the walking tour with Free Tour Santiago if you visit the city! Photos taken on our walk here

Our walking tour concluded at 1.30pm so we had a couple more hours to kill before returning to Amistar. Jono and I decided to check out Cerro San Cristobal and headed to the fort-like entrance of Pio Nono station to get tickets for the funicular ride to the top. Antonio had warned us earlier that there was often a queue for the funicular - true enough, the queue was spilling out from the entrance into markets nearby but we have plenty of time so it was ok. Cost Ch$1000 per person for a one-way trip on the funicular which runs every 15 minutes and fits up to 50 people at a time - it took us a good 45 minutes in the queue before we boarded. The vehicle was open on all sides allowing in a cool breeze as it gradually climbs uphill. The ride took about 10 minutes to the top, stopping once halfway to let passengers off at the zoo (there was a station stop for the Chilean National Zoo). We took a walk around and up to the peak of the hill where a 22-metre Blessed Virgin Mary statue stands. Cerro San Cristobal was popular not only with tourists but mountain bikers and joggers too - the place was so crowded!

One of the suggested tourist things to do at Cerro San Cristobal is to sample a Chilean summer-time drink, mote con huesillo - this non-alcoholic sweet drink served chilled is made from wheat and peaches and can be purchased at most of the beverage stalls on the hill. I got us one for Ch$800 to share - mmm, nice and refreshing peach-flavoured drink with yellow cooked husked wheat (mote) at the bottom. We sat by the cliff wall taking in the city views while enjoying our mote con huesillo in the sun. Photos taken at Cerro San Cristobal here.

Cerro San Cristobal is also home to Santiago's largest public park, Parque Metropolitano, a place where the locals escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. At 3.15pm, we started walking downhill via the park back to our accommodation. There were many paths you can take to get back to the city - we didn't see any sign indicating the way to Pio Nono station so just followed the path where the majority of walkers headed. "This does not look right," I said to Jono as we continued zig-zagging down a windy sealed road where the footpath was at times shared with road vehicles. An hour later, we finally reached the bottom of the hill and were totally on the wrong side of town. Now we have to walk all the way back to Bellavista - ARGHHH! It took us another hour to get back to Emporio La Rosa but the queue for gelato was way too long so we had to give up and headed straight back to Amistar. I was tired, hungry (we haven't had lunch yet) and didn't get my ice cream, all thanks to the detour in Parque Metropolitano - not happy >(

On arrival at Amistar, we found the reception office was shut. No, you've got to be kidding me...We headed downstairs to the security desk and managed to get them to call up the staff on duty - the security guard didn't speak any English but fortunately there was a man in the lobby who came to our assistance and translated to the guard that we needed to get our bags from the reception office as we have a plane to catch. Ten minutes later, we were told that the reception office was now open - we went up to collect our bags and got Carlos to organise a taxi for us only to be told that Transvip didn't have any availability and he couldn't get through to other taxi companies. I'm at the verge of screaming in frustration but there was nothing much we can do except patiently wait for Carlos to keep trying. He finally managed to get us a taxi that takes only cash payment - Jono and I had to rush out to the nearby ATM to get more cash. Cost us Ch$15,000 for the taxi ride to Santiago International Airport, arriving at 6.20pm - so rushed! Went through check-in procedures and customs, then walked around the terminal to find some place to eat. For an international airport, there weren't many shops and choices for food too were pretty limited. We eventually settled for dinner at The Last Pisco Sour, spending the remaining Chilean pesos on a Seafood Rice for me and Chicken and Mushroom Rice for Jono (cost Ch$15,000). I SO want a drink right now after such a hectic afternoon...The food was not the best (poorly presented) but edible - I was too hungry to care. Photos taken at The Last Pisco Sour:

Chicken and Mushroom Rice

Seafood Rice

The Last Pisco Sour bar

We sat around at the departure gate waiting to board - there was no free wifi at the airport which was pretty crap. At 8.30pm, we boarded our flight with LAN to Lima. During the 3-hour flight, a meal was provided though I wanted only water but all I got was a pathetic cup  of water offered with the hot meal...sigh...We were given arrival forms to fill in but it was fully in Spanish. This is just stupid - other countries whose first language is not English have bilingual forms. How do they expect non-Spanish speakers to fill this?? We filled out most of the sections we knew and had to ask the Chilean guy sitting next to me to translate the declaration section into English in order for us to complete the form. Sheesh.

I managed to squeeze in a few zzzs on the flight before we arriving into Lima at local time 12.40am (Santiago is 2 hours ahead of Lima). Perhaps it was really late in the night - we completed immigration and customs very quickly. "Let's find the Taxi Green stand," I told Jono and immediately on exit into the arrival hall, we saw the stand for the official airport taxi company. We were about to push our trolley to the stand and order a taxi when an old man wearing the standard taxi driver black suit walked up to us, asking if we needed a taxi in English - he already had his hands on our trolley when we said yes so we followed him to his vehicle. I wasn't sure if he really was from Taxi Green (didn't see the company logo on the vehicle) so we first asked him how much it would cost us to get to Miraflores where our accommodation was before getting in the car. "60 soles," said the man, which I thought was a lot dearer that what I recalled reading online but we said ok and hopped in (being tired and this late didn't help). 60 soles works out to be AUD22 (the conversion rate is roughly 1 Peruvian sole = 0.3AUD) which wasn't too bad.

"Let me tell you - here in Lima, it is safe, but when you are in a car, always keep your bag on the floor," said the taxi driver old enough to be my dad in such a grave tone and he made sure we had our daypacks on the floor before he started the engine. Okay...It seems that with the high influx of tourists into Lima these days, there were incidents of robbing cars at traffic lights (Malaysia has the same incidents). It took us 35 minutes to get to Miraflores, an upscale district of Lima located near the coast. Our taxi driver turned out to be a jovial man and was totally making the most of his opportunity to practice his English with us. I couldn't help but wondered if he drove slowly on purpose, just so he could talk...

We checked into Hostal El Faro Inn at 1.50am (thankfully the reception office was open 24 hours). I had previously enquired with Intrepid Travel and found that this was the starting point of our trip thus made a reservation here for a twin room with a matrimonial bed (in Spanish-speaking countries, a matrimonial bed refers to a double bed). Cost us USD60 for the night for the room which came with an ensuite and breakfast. We filled in the necessary paperwork and was given the key to our room - huh, we even have a minibar. I don't care what the cost is going to be but I'm having the water! Had a quick shower (definitely needed one after all the walking we did today) and we were in bed by 2am.

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 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 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...

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Pie Tin, Newtown (24th August 2012)

One more sleep till South America - SO EXCITED! As we would be away for the next 2 weeks, I've been clearing out the fridge and not replenishing our food supplies so dinner tonight was takeaway pies from The Pie Tin - our friends Matt and Amanda have been raving about the pies from this bakery in Newtown so Jono and I decided to check it out this afternoon and headed over around 5pm to pick up a few pies for dinner.

Located on Brown St just off King St, The Pie Tin is an artisan pie and bakery cafe that specialises in handmade sweet and savoury pies baked fresh daily. The place may look like your local cafe but pies are definitely their specialty with two display shelves of pies in a variety of flavours - they have so many flavours that their range changes daily, even throughout the day. I stood by the display shelf with sweet pies gaping at the selection, some pies big enough to feed the whole family. Wow...Oreo cookie pie, sour cherry pie, banoffee (banana & caramel) pie are just a few of the sweet ones available (there were over 10 types to choose from). Over at the other display shelf were the savoury pies - I'm not a big fan of pies but some of the ones they have intrigue me. Sicilian style chilli lovers sausage & white bean, spicy Nepalese lamb curry, North African style slow roasted lamb with chermoula - I've never even heard of such pie flavours! I decided to try their slow roasted shredded pork with apple & BBQ sauce pie while Jono got the slow roasted beef brisket, hickory smoke & mushrooms pie. "Let's get the sour cherry pie for dessert," suggested Jono and he assured me it was really nice (Matt had brought some to the Google office before) though I wasn't quite convinced it would be sweet ('sour' being the keyword) but went along anyway. Cost us $21.10 for our savoury pies and a generous slice of the sour cherry pie. Can't wait to get home and dig in!

The Pie Tin on Brown St

At 5pm, the cafe was quite busy

Sweet pies

Savoury pies

We picked up a 6-pack beer from the nearby liquor store and headed home with our purchases. It was still quite early to have dinner so we finished up the rest of our packing and around 6.30pm, heated up our savoury pies in the oven. The lady at The Pie Tin told us to heat the pies for about 15-20 minutes at 180 degree Celsius and to use a butter knife to pierce into the middle of the pie, pull the knife out and touch the pierced end with our fingers, using the temperature to gauge how hot we wanted our pies heated. HOT!

With a pie on a plate and beer each, we sat down at the dining table to enjoy our meal. Mmm, my slow roasted pork pie was really good, flaky pastry with shredded pork cooked till tender and a light hint of apple (though I'm not sure if it did have any BBQ sauce as I didn't couldn't taste it). Jono's beef pie was also very good, tender beef in a flavoursome gravy/marinade and had more salt in comparison to mine. Both gourmet pies were delicious!

Beer and pie for dinner :)

Slow roasted beef brisket, hickory smoke & mushrooms pie

Slow roasted shredded pork with apple & bbq sauce pie

Though I enjoyed my pork pie, it was too much food for me. Totally stuffed by the time I finished it (had to get Jono to help too) - I'll need to let dinner digest before dessert!

Some 2 hours later, we took out the sour cherry pie from the fridge and served it on a plate with two forks to share. The thick pastry crust top was sprinkled with plenty of sugar, the inside filled with lots of cherries boiled in a sweet syrup. The cherries alone taste a bit sour but with the sugar sprinkle, it evens out the tartness, making the pie a very yummy dessert. "You weren't convinced when I told you earlier," teased Jono. Yes, you're right - it's not as sour as I thought it would be and I do like it :)

Sour cherry pie

Definitely keen to check out the other pie flavours when I'm back from holidays!

The Pie Tin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Malaysian Food House, Sydney (24th August 2012)

Su Wei and I catch up for lunch regularly and often, we would end up in some Malaysian restaurant I've never been to. Today, Su Wei took me to Malaysian Food House located in Hunter Connection, a place I never knew existed until she showed me where the entrance to the shopping complex was located (the official entrance is off Pitt St but we went in through the service lane off George St). Just underneath the escalators near the Pitt St entrance lies Malaysian Food House, a rather dingy-looking Malaysian restaurant that at first sight screams 'dodgy food' - not at all appealing in look (forget about ambience whatsoever) but perhaps the food would fantastic that appearances need not matter (those of you who grew up in Asia would understand this - some of the tastiest food are served in such places that would never pass Western health and food safety standards).

At 1.30pm, we've missed the lunch hour rush so the restaurant wasn't very busy - there was no queue when we headed up to the counter and ordered our meals. Both Su Wei and I ended up having the same dish, the seafood laksa (cost $8.30). We were given a chit with a number and then went in search for a table whilst we waited for our number to be called to collect the food. In less than 5 minutes, our number was called and we collected our meals. Hmm, the laksa broth looked quite thick and creamy - I'm not a fan of creamy laksa broth but this one had good flavour and the spices weren't overpowered by the coconut milk which was a plus. Most restaurants serve their laksa with part egg noodles and part rice vermicelli - I guessed the restaurant had ran out of egg noodles for the day for my laksa had only rice vermicelli (Su Wei's had a few strands of egg noodles). With only a single prawn, two slices of fish cake, a fish ball, a stick of surimi and two tofu puffs, I felt the dish lacked ingredients to justify it being a seafood laksa (it needed more seafood). Overall the dish was pretty average - I've definitely had better laksa elsewhere (and in much a nicer setting).

Seafood laksa ($8.30)

In the small shop lot of Malaysian Food House

LAKSA - Malaysian Food House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Otford to Figure 8 Pools Circuit, Royal National Park

Jono and I have been hiking almost every other weekend in the last couple of months in preparation for our upcoming 4-day hike on the Inca Trail. Time has flown by and we are off to Peru next week! To make the most of our last weekend of hike training, we decided to up the length of our walk and headed out to the Royal National Park to attempt the Otford to Figure 8 Pools Circuit. The Royal National Park located 29 kilometres south of Sydney CBD is the world's second oldest purposed national park (after Yellowstone in the United States) and the first to use the term "national park". There are numerous walking trails in the park with the most popular being the 2-day coast walk from Bundeena to Otford (or vice versa); the walk we have chosen only covers a small portion of the coast walk - a 6-hour circuit walk which begins and ends at Otford train station.

After a quick breakfast, we got changed into our hiking gear, packed up lunch and some snacks, and by 8.30am was on the train headed towards Otford, a northern suburb of Wollongong. The train ride took slightly over an hour from St Peters Station with one train swap required at Sydenham Station to get on the T4 Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Line. For a Saturday morning, I was surprised to find the train was quite full though perhaps it seemed so because there were only four carriages on the train.

On arrival at Otford Station, we began the circuit walk following the sign towards the Royal National Park up a flight of stairs and then climbing a steep concrete path approximately 50 metres to the top. The climb was REALLY steep, and by the time I arrived at the top, I was quite out of breath! The walk continued left onto a flat dirt road followed by a gradual climb up Fanshawe Road to Lady Wakehurst Drive. Across the road lies a large green ‘Otford Lookout’ sign marking the start of the bush track. From the lookout, the walk headed up some steps, winding uphill along the narrow path with fenced off cliffs. It was slightly windy and a bit nippy in the shade but the walking got my blood pumping making the cool coastal breeze a much welcomed relief.

"Deer!" shouted Jono who was ahead of me and I saw a deer pranced across the walking trail, heading full speed off the side of the cliff. Both Jono and I were puzzled where the deer went (apparently Jono saw three while I only briefly glimpsed the last one) - it was a sheer drop down the cliff and we couldn't see any deer from the nearby lookout. Surely they couldn’t have plunged into the water...where on earth did they disappear to??

Hike training on the Otford to Figure 8 Pools Circuit at Royal National Park

The Gymea Lily, a flowering plant native to the coastal areas of south Sydney

We continued on the Coast Track along the bush, winding up to the top of the hill to a flattened area that proceeded on to a section of fern. The walk then followed the 'North Era' arrow through thick bushland and back down the hill. Good thing we wore long hiking pants for we had to 'brush' through the bush that were at times up to neck level. We headed into the Palm Jungle, weaving through the rope-like branches and walking on a floor of dried up palm leaves for sometime before emerging into the open grasslands with the view of the coast visible again on the right. Some of the grassland paths were very narrow and we had to walk in a single file, carefully threading one foot in front of the other. With me carrying the camera bag and tripod, I kept losing my balance and falling off to the side when walking through the trench-like path :/

Hmm, unclad bathing...

Walking the grasslands with magnificent views of the coastline

A key highlight on this walk is the optional side trip to the Figure 8 Pools which can only be attempted safely at low tide and swell. We had purposely timed the start of our walk to coincide with today's low tide and wave times, arriving at Burning Palms Beach around 11.30am. From the beach, we followed the rocky passage passing by two prominent headlands before arriving at the Figure 8 Pools. Mollusks of different shapes and types can be seen on the rocks with large areas of the rock surface covered with oysters; small crabs scuttled away as we approached. Looking at the watermark on the rocks, this rocky passage would be totally submerged during high tide - I strongly advise to check the tide and wave times before attempting this side trip to avoid disappointment. 

Rangers' hut in the bush

Burning Palms Beach

Walking along the rocky passage towards the prominent headlands in search of the Figure 8 Pools

Large areas of the rock surface covered with oysters

Holding onto my cap while walking the rock shelf to check out the sinkholes - very windy!

The safest time to visit the pools is during low tide and swell

There were a number of figure eight-shaped pools but only one that truly looked the shape and stood out from the rest - these pools are actually sinkholes in the rocks and a few have joined up over time to form the delightful ‘8’ shape. The pools are deep enough to fully submerge in, its clear blue-green waters making them very inviting. Shame we couldn't enjoy the pools this time as we were quite exposed to the cold wind and the water was pretty chilly when I dipped a foot in. We will have to return in summer for a dip in these pools!

Figure 8 Pools

The water was pretty chilly when I dipped my foot in

Baby 8 :)

A wee crab enjoying his private pool

We gradually backtracked towards the beach and found ourselves a nice green patch of grass where we stopped to have our lunch of toasted artisan bread with canned tuna, carrot sticks with hummus, and a fruit and nut muesli bar to share for a sweet finish. Our little spot had an awesome view of the beach with the soothing sound of waves lapping on the shore and a nice cool breeze. The short post-lunch lie down in the sun was just lovely :)

Around 1.45pm, we packed up our stuff and left our lunch spot continuing on the walk from Burning Palms Beach onto a metal walkway passing several small cabins and proceeded uphill into the bushland away from the sea. Magnificent views both up and down the coast can be seen from between the clearing of tall trees on the trail - Jono and I had a short Tarzan yell attempt at one of the clearings. Up and up we went on until we arrived at the end of the path where Garrawarra Farm car park was located. The circuit loops back south via a wide management trail - for about an hour or so, we mindlessly walked through this boring section that offered no panoramic views, just native trees lining both sides of the path, returning to the fenced cliff track that took us back to Otford Lookout

We completed the circuit walk within the 6-hour suggested timeframe AND still had time for our lunch break - pretty good effort, I say! Unfortunately with us finishing the walk at 3.30pm, we had just missed the train home and the next train wouldn't arrive at Otford Station till 5.15pm (trains depart for the city every 2 hours). With nowhere to go, we spent our time refuelling on our remaining fruit and snacks, and read books in the sun at Otford Lookout before heading to the station. The temperature was dropping significantly as dusk fell - I SO want a hot shower and warm food right now! To add insult to injury, the train ride home took longer than normal due to signal failure resulting in a missed connection and eventually we arrived home around 7.30pm. What a long day it has been - I’m totally beat!

Back at Otford Lookout at the end of our 6-hour walk

We obviously have way too much time to spare...

View down from Otford Lookout

Personally, I would recommend driving to the Royal National Park (you can park your vehicle at the carpark by Otford Lookout) over taking the train so you have more flexibility with time and not restricted by the train schedule. For more details on the Otford to Figure 8 Pool Circuit, check out the track notes from the trusty Wildwalks site here. Happy walking!