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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chile: Casablanca Wine Tasting

We ventured out to the greater Valparaiso area during some of our days in Chile, we went on two different excursions arranged by Jon's dad.  Both of them were highlights of our time in Chile.

The first excursion we booked was a wine tasting tour of the Casablanca Valley.  We knew that we wanted to explore wine country, and Wine Tours Valparaiso was highly recommended on Trip Advisor, so we booked with them.  There are options to book one to four wine tours in a day, with our without a wine paring lunch included.  Considering that we had Gretchen in tow and that there was a non-drinker among us, we opted for the 2-winery tour without lunch. 

Michael picked us up right on time from the hotel in a spacious Hyundai H1 van AND he brought his own personal car seat for us to borrow.  This is the first and only time during our numerous travels in South America that anyone has thought to even suggest a car seat for the baby - and he brought his own from home voluntarily - we knew it was going to be a good day!

Michael was a wealth of information, an anthropologist from England who came to Chile 12 years ago for a research project, fell in love and has made a life for himself in the area.  As many of the supplanted souls we know have done, he has become a jack of all trades with all sorts of different side jobs, including wine tour guru.  His knowledge of the area is vast, from the history of the vineyards to the composition of the soil.  He chose the bodegas we toured, and rest assured, we were in ample hands.

We started at Casas del Bosque, a beautiful bodega with winemakers from New Zealand, Chile and the USA. Casas specializes in Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir coming from the Casablanca vineyards and the delicious Carmenére and Cabernet Sauvignon coming from their vineyards in the Maipu valley.  The greenery here is a testament to the fantastic weather in Chile, everything grows beautifully!

The wines were all outstanding, the Chardonnay especially, but the highlight for us at this vineyards was that they have an on-site playground!  Gretchen was understandably bored when the tasting started, so I took her outside to play on the swings and slide - what a great option!  Bravo, Casas del Bosque, for your family-friendly grounds!

Entryway fountain - check out those clouds!

A large group tasting set up for later in the day 
Our next stop was an organic vineyard called Emiliana, another picturesque valley location, but this time they have animals running all over the grounds.  Here is a little duck that wandered about:

 And here is Gretchen staring down one of their many chickens.  Chickens are known for eating almost anything - including all sorts of bugs and pests that pose potential damage to the vines.  Since the vineyard is organic, this is one of the more effective forms of insect control that does not involve pesticides.

The chicken's proved their garbage-disposal reputation by fighting to eat some tree bark that Gretchen threw for them.  She was in her glory with all of these animals running around at her feet. Mom and Dad were more nervous that their dead-black eyes held a look of mischief and that the day would end with a chicken bite (peck?  I'm not sure what it's called...).  Luckily, they all kept their distance and the tour continued without incident.

 Insects are not the only ones who want to sneak a taste of the delicious grapes.  We witnessed a few chickens take running jumps to grap some low hanging grapes, and our little fruit-eater was thrilled when the guide said that we could taste some off of the vine.  They were Sauvignon Blanc grapes, a bit under mature and therefore quite tart, but Gretchen didn't mind a bit. She ate about a thousand grapes.

Aside from the animals, including alpacas, sheep, horses and geese, the grounds have land designated space for each of the full time employees to have a parcel to plant whatever they would like to grow.  It especially great since everything grows like kudzu here.  

The tasting was also great, they give everyone an option of pairing the wines with either chocolate or cheese, both of which were well-pared and delicious.  Gretchen preferred the chocolate, hands down.

 The wines were fantastic, the grounds were beautiful, and we had a lovely day to top it all off.  If you are ever in the area, make the trip to the Casablanca Valley and drink some Carmenere - it's fantastic!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chile: Viña del Mar

This year Gran and Poppa booked a fantastic South American cruise with their (and our) good friends Rich and Ellen Ritter.  Their fantastic vacation evolved into a great reason for us to visit Chile and spend a few days with the cruisers prior to their departure from Valparaiso.  Chile is like many South American countries in that it charges a "reciprocity fee" upon entrance to citizens of countries that charge Chileans.  This means for us that while American citizens do not need a visa for Chile, there is a payment line at the airport that you need to visit prior to immigration to pay the entrance fee (currently US$160 per person).  This fee is valid for the life of your passport, so if you plan to go to Chile more than once, make sure your passport doesn't expire anytime soon.

Viña del Mar looking toward Valparaiso
Valparaiso is similar to San Francisco in more ways than one - the hills and winding streets, the cold Pacific rocky shore and the port's history as a product as the gold rush, it feels like a streetcar should be turning around every corner.  Ten kilometers north of Valparaiso is a town called Viña del Mar, which is a beach getaway for the thick-skinned, the water is cold, but that doesn't seems to bother the thousands of Chileans we saw fill the beaches.
We flew into Santiago, and though it is said to be a beautiful city, we decided to go straight to the coast.  We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Viña del Mar, thanks to the great folks at TripAdvisor that convinced me it was the best hotel in the city.  It was a great choice, beautiful building, perfectly located, spacious rooms and the most comfortable hotel bed I've experienced.  We had a great view of one of the public beaches from the window of our hotel room, giving us a chance to see the shear number of people that come out to brave the water during the summer months (Dec - Feb).  Gretchen loved this view so much that her nightly bedtime routine included saying good night to the beach.
Gretchen standing on our room's balcony
The Sheraton is located right on the water, to the point that the pool area is surrounded by crashing waves.  This made the poolside particularly interesting for the sunbathers, who at times received a sudden splash of freezing cold water from a rogue wave.  Gretchen loved it!

Viña del Mar is a neat town in the middle of a recovery period.  You can see where there are lots of missed opportunities to add restaurants, build up the waterfront and increase the overall appeal of the area.  That being said, if the town continues to prosper, it has incredible potential.  

We had a nice time walking from the hotel down the coastline to the Hotel del Mar, a large hotel and casino that looks nice but has a constant stale odor inside due to the fact that the casino allows smoking.  We walked through the hotel before the casino was open for the day and the air was still thick with cigarettes, I can't imagine that they could contain the smoke to just the casino, so I would think twice about booking a room.  

My father-in-law booked a city tour for our group so that we could get to know the town a bit better - the highlight for me being the incredible views from high up in the hills.

Once we were away from the water, the temperature rose by at least 10 degrees.

Gretchen chose the next tourist activity, a horse carriage ride.  It was a great way to end our day touring, and she was all smiles the entire time.  This little angel loves spending time with her grandparents, particularly when there are horse rides involved!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Glacier Perito Moreno

Our second day in El Calafate was spent getting up close and personal with the Perito Moreno Glacier. Again, we used Tiempo Libre to book and coordinate the tour, this one was called, fittingly, Glaciar Perito Moreno.  
We were picked up from our hotel at 9:00am, which was a fine start time but we didn't finish the other hotel pick-ups until somewhere around 10:30am, so it was a lot of extra time on a tour bus.  There was a bilingual guide on the tour that provided lots of interesting information about the area both in English and Spanish.  The tour bus drove us directly to the glaciar, though we made a few stops for good views along the way.  Here was the best view for me:

Check out that pair!  Lovely little girl with her handsome daddy.  Gretchen was fantastic on the tour, remarkable for the fact that it was a lot of looking and not a lot of "doing".  For this particular stop along the way, the guide was showing us a natural growing berry called the calafate berry (more commonly known as the magellan berry).  This berry is what gave the town it's name, and has been rumored to cause those who eat it to feel compelled to return to Patagonia.  We were just outside of calafate berry season, so we didn't see any actual berries on the plants, but we got lots of good pictures of our kiddo wandering through brush where the berries used to grow.

Gretchen has developed this love of throwing items into water.  Fountains, lakes, rivers, the bath, they are all seen as a place to throw miscellaneous natural debris.  Here, she is headed toward the lake to throw some leaves:

We boarded the bus to continue to the main attraction.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is the most famous of the glaciers in this neck of the woods, named after Francisco Moreno, who first explored the area in 1876 and remains invaluable to the area due to his role in defending the Argentine boarder during the Argentina/Chile boarder disputes (some of which still go on today...).  The glacier has a front width of 4 km and is between 50 - 70 meters (164 - 230 feet) above lake level.  The ice cracks and breaks constantly, and the glacier grows and recedes depending on the season, but studies have determined that the overall mass of Perito Moreno has not significantly changed over the last 500 - 1,000 years.

Each winter, the glacier "grows" by inching forward in relation to the land opposite.  Eventually, the glacier touches the land, and then in the spring and summer, when the ice begins to recede, the lake water begins to force tunnels through the ice.  With enough melting, the tunnel height grows, and it becomes more of a bridge.  With a bit more melting, the bridge is overwhelmed by the weight of the ice, and breaks off to form a complete separation of the glacier and the land.  This happens once a year, and tourists wait from the catwalks to witness the final breaking of this ice bridge.  We missed the bridge breaking by 2 weeks, and from the You Tube videos posted, the breaking was spectacular.  Here is where the bridge used to be, you can just make out the small amount of ice on our side of the water (the remains of this side of the ice bridge) and you can hopefully see that the glacier is now separated by a channel of water.

We were still able to see lots of ice falling, though not as much as the entire bridge, it was pretty cool to witness.

At the end of the day, we opted to take the additional boat tour that takes you "as close as possible to the glacier without walking on it" (walking on it is an option for those between 10 - 50 years of age and in good health).  Understandably, you can't get a boat too close to the glacier, for fear that the ice above you will break off... which would be very bad.

Here is the location of the former ice bridge from the vantage point of the boat.

Here we are, finally making use of our winter coats.  We had to get super close to the ice to need them! I will add that in order to get all of the other boat-goers out of this picture, we were making our way through the crowd in order to get a good background view of the ice and I was saying "Permisso, permisso" (excuse me) to get people out of the way.  Gretchen, out of the blue, in her loudest voice yells "Permisso Chicos!" (Excuse me Kids!), which got everyone's attention, made the entire boat laugh and made it so that we could get an uninterrupted view of us and the big ice. I love this feisty chica!

And for the photo highlight of the day, some live action shots of ice breaking and falling.  It really is a sight to see...

The big ice was way cooler than I had expected, and I am so glad that we made the trip!  If you are able to make it down south on your trip, this is really something amazing to see.  Be sure to go in summer (Nov - March) or you'll be in for a chilly trip...

Friday, February 22, 2013

El Calafate

Last weekend we had the joy of visiting El Calafate, a little town in the province of Patagonia.  The town is quaint and enjoyable, but the real reason to visit this place is because it is home to multiple glaciers, or as Gretchen deemed them "Big Ice'.  This is a trip we have wanted to take for a few years, but since it is wayyy down at the bottom of South America, there are only a few good months to visit - otherwise you'll be frozen solid the whole time.

To me, multiple glaciers set in the middle of a land mass was a very strange thought.  El Calafate is an inland town, with two very large lakes, Argentino and Viedma to its north.  The glaciers live in between the Andes Mountains, expanding and contracting with the seasons.  The history is that somewhere around 18,000 years ago the majority of this area was covered in ice and as the glacial period ended and the Earth's temperatures warmed, the glaciers have reduced to their current locations.

For this trip we used a different travel agency, Neptuno Viajes, which came in quite a bit cheaper than Sundance Spirit.  I realize now that the difference in price was the difference between private and group tours.  The main inconvenience was that we were the first pick-up and last-drop off to both days of tours, adding an hour each way, and after 2 full days of tours, an additional hour on a bus seems a whole lot longer.

We stayed at the Alto Calafate, a nice hotel about a 5 minute drive from town.  They offer a shuttle service to and from the center of town.  The rooms are nice and the restaurant hotel was a good choice for lunch and dinner.  The breakfast was included in our stay, but left much to be desired.  There are a ton of hotels in town (and we stopped by most of them during our tour pick-ups), and if we were to do it again we would stay right in town.

The company that handled our tours once we were in El Calafate was Tiempo Libre, and they have a whole menu of tours to choose from.  You are able to book ahead of time or on arrival, but be aware that some of the tours are restricted by age and physical ability. We booked two full-day tours, the Todo Glaciares (All Glaciers) and the Perito Moreno Glacier tour.

Starting with the All Glaciers tour, we started with an 8:30am pickup where we drove 45 minutes to the dock.  We boarded a large catamaran that had a big indoor seating area and an indoor second floor VIP section. We had tickets for the first floor seating area, where the only downfall was that there were no assigned seats - and the window seating was taken by the first people to arrive.  Most of the day was spent with people mulling around, inside and out to the balcony area where you could feast your eyes on these glorious icebergs. Point being that the window seats were not a necessity.

The whole day we were on Lago Argentino, starting by traveling up the Northen Arm to the Upsala Glacier. Upsala is a Swedish city whose university first sponsored a glaciological survey of the area, thus the namesake to the glacier.  It is difficult to capture the enormity of the ice on film, but the "wall" of this glacier (where the ice meets the water, also called the tongue) is approx 4 km (~2.5 miles) wide.  The height of this tongue is an average of 60 meters (~200 feet) above lake level.

The next glacier we passed was the Spegazzini Glacier, which shows a bit more clearly how these glaciers are located right in the middle of the mountains.  Glaciers begin with snowfall.  The snow compacts, creating hard layers that eventually form into ice (think of the snow on your driveway that you have to scrape up because someone drove over it... now multiply that by a million).  For this to form a glacier, it needs to be located in an area where the snow does not melt from year to year, but instead, piles up and causes incredibly bodies of compacted ice.  As with all things, glaciers are impacted by gravity, and since they are located among the steep slopes of the mountains, they are constantly in movement.

The glaciers we saw move somewhere around 4 meters a year, though each one varies depending on the slope in which it lives.  

The most visually interesting part of this process is when the ice wall cracks and breaks off pieces on the front lines, creating huge waves and loud noises resulting in icebergs the float along the lake.

The lake is just above freezing so the icebergs stay big, but they melt as they distance themselves from the mother glacier.  The closer to a glacier, the bigger the iceberg.

Our boat drove right up to one of these icebergs and chipped off a piece for everyone to hold.  Gretchen was thrilled at being able to hold ice, though all she really wanted to do was eat it.  

For those that were interested, you could buy a drink poured over the glacier ice - they recommended scotch or whiskey.  An interesting idea, though I'm pretty sure the flavor is exactly the same - probably just a bit more pure.

It was freakishly warm for our trip to El Calafate, so much so that nights in the non-airconditioned, no fan, small windowed room were almost unbearable.  It made for good ice-viewing weather though!  The boat was quite windy and much cooler when we got closer to the glaciers, so a winter coat, hat, pants, etc is recommended.  We had a whole bag of clothing that we never even touched, but again, I think that was due to the unusually high temperatures - people who had recently visited told me horror stories of frigid temperatures and shivering children.  We also brought boxed lunches from our hotel, the snack bar on the boat was very slim, and unless a can of Pringles fills you up, you want to have something more substancial for the almost 9 hour trip.
The last glacier we visited was Perito Moreno, the most famous of the Argentine ice.  At 4 km wide on its front, and 30 km long, the surface area encompassed by this glacier is approximately the size of Buenos Aires city.  We spent the following day doing everything Perito Moreno has to offer, so I'll stop at a picture of the glacier in today's post.

The ice takes on this intense blue color due to the molecular changes made when snow turns into ice.  The deeper the blue, the more dense the ice.  Aside from the vibrant blues and milky whites, it is remarkable to me that once the ice is chipped into a smaller piece, it is just as crystal clear as if you were looking through glass.

Gretchen was a trooper on this trip, and though she didn't spend much time "strolling" we were glad we brought our stroller to accomodate her 3 hour nap!  It was a great introduction to the "big ice" and though it was a long tour, I feel that it was a good way to spend the day.  If you are going on this trip, remember to bring your sunscreen!  The sun is strong, the ice and water reflect the sun and it doesn't take long until you're nice and crisp.