Santiago, Chile – 10 First Impressions

I like to think that I’m a little bit of a unique traveler in that I don’t do much research on a destination before I arrive. I don’t want to hear about the destination from other people’s views, I want to see it, taste it, experience it for myself and make my own opinions. Now, this isn’t for everyone. Lots of people love to read all about it before they arrive so that they know what they want to see and do. Me, I just like to arrive and see what I feel like. Since I’m writing a blog and you are reading it, I’m glad you are the type of person who likes to hear about other’s experiences. If we were all like me, I wouldn’t have anyone out there reading, instead I’d be sending everyone to Chile to experience it themselves!

We all know that first impressions are important, for better or worse, so here are 10 of my first impressions of Chile.

1. Mountains. Mountains. Mountains. For about the last 45 minutes of the flight approaching Santiago, you are soaring high above beautiful mountains. You land amongst the mountains and the city of Santiago is surrounded by mountains. The mountains run the length of the country, but also split the width of the country. They also are responsible for dividing the climate between coastal and humid to inland dry and desert-like. No question, the towering mountains are everywhere and they are spectacular.

2. Homeless. As I approached the historic centre of Santiago by taxi, the first thing that caught my eye in the green space dividing the main street was a person (man or woman, I’m not sure), sitting on a large tree stump with their pants around their ankles. I shouldn’t have stared, but it was really unusual and I just couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. That hot Friday afternoon when I arrived, the green space was laden with homeless people sleeping, peeing, defecating and puking. Not really the best first impression of the city, but none-the-less, I was there to experience the real Santiago, not just the tourist version.

3. Dirty. Despite seeing people out collecting garbage from the streets, the historical centre was a dirty area. Dust from the dry climate combined with lack of education for littering, left the streets strewn with garbage. The beautiful purple jacaranda trees were also starting to lose their petals, which left the streets carpeted with bright purple flowers.

Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile
Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile

4. Dry. I have never visited an area with such dry heat. I’ve always visited Caribbean areas that have high humidity, so I’ve always associated 30+ degree weather with sweating profusely. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk down the street in the afternoon sun and not need a shower 20 minutes later. The dry heat was a pleasant surprise and the sunshine on my face was most welcome.

5. Easy to navigate on foot. If you rent a hotel or apartment near the historic district, it is no problem at all to find your way around the central area of the city on foot. In fact, I did so without a map. However, if you have a map you’ll likely find all of the tourist spots much quicker and not miss out. Myself, I just wandered around the streets and then sauntered back to my apart-hotel.

6. No begging. No bothering. Despite what seemed like a lot of homeless people in the central historic area, I was never once asked for money or bothered at all. Even when I walked through the Central Market and down the main streets with stores, vendors and restaurants, I was not hollered at or begged to spend money on anything. Vendors simply existed there and if you wanted to purchase something you could approach them, otherwise, they continued about their day.

7. Tranquilo. A word aptly used to describe the overall atmosphere of the city, tranquil. No one was in a hurry, very few cars were beeping and over the weekend that I was there, there was next to no traffic. People walk slowly and take in their surroundings and conversations with friends. There were no fights or brawls. Simply tranquil.

8. Safe. Being in a new city is always a little bit intimidating for a solo female traveler such as myself. In any city it is best to always be on guard and follow general safety measures such as not wearing fancy jewellery, not carrying your passport or all of your money and making sure that you are aware of your surroundings. Personally, I felt very comfortable in Santiago because of it’s laid back attitude and slow pace. For a big city, it seemed to have a country attitude.

9. Street Art. After having visited Athens in October and going on a Street Art tour, I am much more cognizant of Street Art in other cities. Ranging from proper graffiti (with a purpose), to graffiti for the sake of defacing a building to murals and colourful drawings, Santiago does not disappoint with the street art. Although there is not much in the historic district, within about 10 blocks (near the Loreto Hotel) the streets come alive with bursts of colour and imaginative designs.

10. Hot dogs. Although I chose not to have one, hot dogs are a popular choice for lunch or a snack with hot dog stands spread throughout the historic centre. If you are not feeling like eating on the run, you can also choose a local restaurant on the street or in the market and chance are, they will have a hot dog with your choice of toppings or fully loaded that you can munch on while watching the futbol match of the evening.

Overall, I enjoyed Santiago. I felt safe and easily got my bearings. I had no safety issues and soaked up the dry heat whenever I could get outside in the sun. I was a bit disappointed that most shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday, but I managed to find what I needed.

Sadly, the homeless situation bothered me. Many large cities struggle with this problem and I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but I know that as I walked by men passed out on the streets in various positions, sometimes lying in their own vomit, that I felt horrible that there was nothing I could do to help these people in that particular moment.

Although it is not a destination that I will rush to return to, it is also not a destination that I dread returning to. I wouldn’t suggest spending more than one or two days in the city, but it is an excellent starting or ending point with lots of day tours that you can do to surrounding cities, mountains and vineyards.

Vina and Valpo – Part 2

Valparaiso was the area that I was most interested in visiting as many people had told me of it’s beauty. I hadn’t realized that Vina del Mar and Valparaiso were so close to each other. In fact, there is no clear line between the two. The cities just gently join one another.

Valparaiso aptly translates to Valley of Paradise.

Valparaiso is the older of the two cities. It was originally the first port that ships arrived at when sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, it was the most important and best known port on the Pacific Ocean in South America. At the time (late 1800’s), it was a melting pot for all different cultures as many immigrants came to settle in the area for it’s prevailing prosperity and economic situation. Many of the immigrants were from Eastern Europe and Russia, but others came from all over the world.

It is known for being home to Latin America’s first stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, the country’s first public library and the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in the world. History truly runs deep through this enchanting city.

Other than being an important port for cargo ships, it was also widely known for the fishing industry as the cold arctic current turns the Pacific ocean into a highway for fish, bringing masses of them nearby throughout various seasons. Sadly, when the Panama canal was built in 1914, the route for ships was changed and Valparaiso was all but forgotten near the southern tip of the continent, causing a major economic downturn.

It is such a shame because Valparaiso truly is a unique area. Of course, the port was the main focus, but when the city grew by leaps and bounds, it had no where to expand except for up the surrounding steep hills. Houses were built mostly with cheap materials such as wood and corrugated metal and then painted with the same type of paint that was used on the ships as it was readily available and cheap. Today, most of the houses remain the same. Some say the bright paint colours were used so that the houses could be seen through the dense fog that covers the area every morning.

Valparaiso is also known for it’s variety and quantity of street art splashing the walls and gates with brilliant colours, throughout the residential areas, with beautifully designed paintings from artists around the world. Although street art is not officially legal, it is widely accepted as part of the community. Many locals seek out artists to design art for their outer house or business walls. And, many artists who find wall space available pitch their ideas to the owner and collaborate before permanently introducing their art.

And, they are very proud of their artistic talent in Valparaiso. Particularly, Pablo Neruda. We visited one of his houses which his wife turned into a museum after his passing. He was world-renowned in poetry, also a well-known and loved writer, politician and diplomat. Today, many of his works can be found translated into many other languages and some still grace the best sellers list.

House of Pablo Neruda
Writer, thinker, poet, diplomat and politician.

The central area of Valparaiso is protected by Unesco as of 2003. The areas warmly known as Happy Hill and Conception Hill have the only functioning funiculars in the area.

The funiculars were built starting in the late 1800’s to move people easily and cheaply up and down the steep hillsides. Every morning people would come down the hills to work in the centre or at the port and then in the evening, everyone would be tasked with climbing up the steep hills to their homes. The funiculars were put in place to aid the locals, mainly with their ascent up the hills. Originally there were approximately 26 funiculars throughout the city, painted in bright colours and street art to match the surrounding areas. But now, there are only eight remain in operation.

I was lucky enough to get to travel down on one, El Peral, built in 1902. The ride cost one Chilean peso and took about one minute. There are two funiculars at the same station. As one is traveling down, the other is balancing the gears by traveling up. It boggles my mind that any of the equipment still functions. From the clearly ancient gears, to the warped door that had to be wiggled just right in order to open and the questionable floor boards at the waiting station … it was quite the experience.

Sadly our tour was a bit rushed and I only got to view one or two of the other funiculars in passing. I didn’t have time to photograph them. I wish I had more time to fully explore the beautiful mess that is Valparaiso. I felt my time was too short and rushed to understand the community, but I could instantly feel at home in the disarray of streets and mess of colours. Despite the now poor economic situation, the city is alive with colour, culture and history.

Vina & Valpo – Part 1

When I got accepted for a FAM trip (familiarization) with the fabulous Intrepid Travel Group to Chile and Argentina, I was beyond excited. I had applied for the trip, but it was full. A couple of months later, a spot opened up, I applied again and was given the opportunity to attend. I knew nothing at all about Chile except for it’s location on the map, that it was a Spanish speaking country and that it lays claim to a portion of Patagonia, with the other half being in Argentina.

In mentioning Chile to people, I was told repeatedly that I must not miss the chance to see Valparaiso for it’s colorful houses, unique history and ancient funiculars (or ascencores). I did minimal research, but knew immediately that it was a place that I wanted to visit.

I considered going straight to Valparaiso from the airport on a local bus, but I thought it would be a bit much for my first day in the country and I’d be tired from the flight. So, I booked a hotel in Santiago and made the decision to not decide until I arrived. I’m really good at making decisions not to decide by the way … but at least once I’ve decided not to decide until a certain point I can move it off my plate, out of my head and get other things done!

Once I was settled into my hotel in Santiago, I walked to the central market and then to Plaza des armas where there was supposed to be an info centre. Sadly, when I finally found it (at about 3:30pm Friday afternoon), it was closed. So, I headed back to the central market where I had noticed several tour companies.

Sure enough a gentleman speaking excellent English nabbed me out of a line up at one of the tourist offices and took me to a spot where I would get ‘THE BEST PRICE’. I went with him because it was still in the central market, he was friendly and I hoped that I wouldn’t have to wait in line to speak with someone. And, I didn’t have to wait at all. However, the girl was going to run (literally) to go get someone who could speak English. Being brave, I stopped her and told her if she spoke slowly, that I would understand most of what she had to say in Spanish.

She took me through a short slideshow of the Vino & Valpo tour that they offered. It was a group tour on a bus and they spent very little time actually in Valparaiso which was the main point in me taking the tour. I asked her if they offered the tour in English the next day and she said advised that it would be only a Spanish guide. I decided that I didn’t understand enough Spanish to want to sit on a bus all day with only Spanish as I felt that I wouldn’t get to take many pictures due to the schedule and I also wouldn’t understand the history, so it seemed to be a waste.

Another staff member briefly explained to me that I could take a couple of subways and then buses to get there and explore on my own. (Which now, I’m glad I didn’t) Although I’m sure I could have managed, I somehow didn’t feel like using the brain power to navigate all of the transit situations needed to get me there.

As a last resort, I asked if any other companies offered the tours in English. They were kind enough to tell me yes, that a company called Turistik offers English tours, but they are much more expensive.

I thanked them for their time, and went on my way knowing that a busy Spanish speaking tour was not what I wanted.

I happened across the Turistik office on my way out of the central market and was immediately greeted by three young, enthusiastic, English speaking locals. I had a chat with them about their Vino & Valpo tour and decided it was a great compromise as the guide would explain in Spanish and English, we would visit Vino del Mar and Valparaiso and, I wouldn’t have to worry about any logistics because they would pick me up and drop me off at the market.

On Saturday, November 15th I arrived at the office at 8:15am and was picked up by a big Turistik bus with leather seats and air conditioning. We drove around the centre of the city picking up other guests and then made our way to a central gathering area where we were shown which bus to get on for our specific tours.

Once on the bus, I sat with a lovely lady named Ana from Madrid, Spain. And we each practiced our second language with each other. It was a great way to pass the time on the two hour bus ride.

Along the way, our guide, Felipe explained about the climate and Chile’s landscape. It was very interesting. Usually he would explain in Spanish and I would understand about 1/4 to 1/2 of what he was saying and then he would explain in English and I’d understand much more clearly.

As we drove through a mountain tunnel, he explained that Chile has two prominent mountain ranges, the Andes and the coastal range. The Andes run across the country from east to west (or most of the way). The coastal mountain range splits the country from north to south. Hmmm … I had no idea! On the east side of the coastal mountains, you’ll find Santiago which is incredibly hot, dry and dusty. On the west side of the coastal mountains (where we were headed) it would be humid, green and a bit chilly. Of course, none of us really believed it would be cold. Afterall, we were in the south and headed to Vino del Mar to a beach on the Pacific Ocean.

Chile Mountains & Vineyards
Chile Mountains & Vineyards

As we exited the tunnel on the west side of the mountain range, you could instantly see a difference in the landscape. Lush green fields and mountains covered in trees. Vineyards everywhere with green leaves. And, the windows on the bus started to fog up. What a difference!

As we circled our way down the big mountain toward the Pacific Ocean, we were constantly wiping the condensation from the windows in order to be able to see out. Despite the grey sky and thick fog hanging in the air over the grey ocean, you could see Valparaiso off to the left and Vina del Mar to the right. Coming down the S shaped curve, navigating to the bottom of the mountain gave you views in either direction until you reached the flat area close to the water.

Vina del Mar
We visited Vina del Mar first. Along the way our guide pointed out a few of the well-known buildings of the relatively young city and then we stopped for a walk around Palacio Vergara. The palace has been completely rebuilt once after an earthquake devastated it hundreds of years ago. More recently, after being rebuilt, it has stood strong through several major earthquakes until 2010 when it was heavily damaged. The restoration will begin in 2015. It was interesting to hear Felipe speak about the palace and the family who lived there with such passion. Obviously proud to be Chilean with a love for these two interconnected cities and a yearning to keep the cities’ history alive.

Palacio Vergara, Vina Del Mar, Chile
Palacio Vergara, Vina Del Mar, Chile

A short walk through the park brings you to Vina del Mar’s amphitheatre which is home to the end of summer International Song festival in February of each year. 15 000 people gather at the amphitheatre for a week full of music appreciation for all ages, big international performers such Rod Stewart and Elton John, along with Chilean celebrities and nightly comedy shows.

We had a short stop at the well-known white sandy beach that drops off to the chilly Pacific ocean. It was beautiful to see the sand and ocean waves with the city of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso in the background. I didn’t waste a minute getting to the water to dip my toes in the cold Pacific! AHHHH. Refreshing! I wouldn’t want to go swimming in it though. It was a bit chilly, even for this Canadian girl!

Beach, Vina del Mar, Chile
Beach, Vina del Mar, Chile

After a quick obligatory stop at the flower clock that was gifted to Vina del Mar from Switzerland, our guide explained that we would be stopping for lunch, but we would only have one hour in order to stay on schedule. The company had arranged for us to eat at the Municipal Casino where there was a buffet lunch. The guide made it quite clear that the lunch was optional and we were not required to eat at that location, but we could if we wanted.

Vina del Mar Flower Clock
Vina del Mar Flower Clock

Despite the high end price, I decided to eat with the group. Sadly, I was quite disappointed in the food that cost me close to $30 USD. It was indeed a buffet and there were quite a few options, but none of them were fantastic.

There were a variety of breads, cheeses, olives and salads along with several types of hot, fresh meat from beef to pork, chicken to salmon with capers.

Lunch Menu at Municipal Casino, Vina del Mar, Chile
Lunch Menu at Municipal Casino, Vina del Mar, Chile

The best part of the buffet was the spread of approximately 10 different desserts. I’m sure I tried at least four of them and they were all delicious!

Next up, the part that I had been waiting for, Valparaiso!

How much do things cost in Chile

I’m going to be a good girl and try to keep track of my expenses while I’m traveling. This is not an exciting blog post, just simply for information purposes.

1. For tax purposes. When receipts are in other languages it is hard for my bookkeeper to determine what’s what.
2. For information for others traveling to these destinations.

November 14th

Reciprocity fee – $132 USD – credit card – Good for the term of your passport. Great if you’ve just gotten a brand new 10-year one. Not so good if you are replacing it that same year.

Taxi – minibus – booked after I picked up my luggage, but before leaving airport – $31 USD – credit card
* I checked with several other travellers who had gotten their own taxi outside the airport instead of a minibus / transfer through the company inside the airport. Some were able to negotiate down to about $25 USD, but most were $28 – $30 USD. It depends how good your negotiating skills are.

Ah Hotel – Historical Centre – Santiago – $132 for 2 nights – continental breakfast included

$50 US – changed at a ‘cambio station’ near Plaza del Armas – $29800 Chilean Pesos

Lunch – 1/4 chicken, french fries & pop – 4450 Chilean pesos – approx $7.50 USD
2 water, coke, 2 litre juice – $4.50 USD

Full Day tour – Vina del Mar & Valparaiso – 34 000 Chilean pesos – approx $57 USD – credit card

Lunch buffet with tour at Municipal Casino in Vina del Mar – $23 USD – credit card
Dinner – 4450 Pesos – approx $7.50 – cash
Tip at dinner – $350 pesos – cash
Tip for Felipe (guide) – $2000 pesos – cash

Taxi – 2 kms between hotels – 2450 pesos (gave him 3000 – an extra .50c or so)
Lunch at Da Nui on Portugal Ave – Pollitos y arroz, coke, jello w/ bananas – $4100 pesos + $400 pesos tip.

Dinner at a steak restaurant – Steak and veggies, coke, dessert – $34 USD including tip

I also gave a few coins to the baggage boys who loaded my luggage on to the bus in Santiago and unloaded it in Mendoza. This isn’t required, but it is simply easier. They make it very clear that they are expecting tips. There is no set rate, a few coins will do. They won’t allow you to put your own luggage in or remove it. And, if you refuse to tip them be prepared for a scene. To ensure your luggage isn’t damaged purposely or left behind, just chuck up the dollar or two.

Ah Hotel – Santiago, Chile

A couple of weeks before traveling to Santiago, Chile I booked myself a room at the Ah Hotel. It is an aparta-hotel, so it comes with a kitchenette. It is centrally located within only a couple of blocks of the historic city centre, on a main street with a bus stop directly in front of the entrance.

My taxi driver dropped me off and I pushed the buzzer for someone to come unlock the front door for me. They keep this door locked all of the time for security, so no matter what time of day or night you are arriving, you need to buzz in, or you can buzz yourself out. It was nice to know not just anyone could come and go, especially with the bus stop right there and what seemed like an abundance of homeless nearby.

The lady who greeted me did not speak much English, but that was ok as I had proudly just had a full Spanish conversation with my taxi driver. So, I was at least over my jitters about opening my mouth to try and speak Spanish. She found my reservation, checked me in and showed me to my room, up one flight of stairs. She also carried my suitcase up the stairs for me.

The room was plain. In fact I can’t even embellish the sentence as it was that dull. Honestly, it made no difference to me as I was only there for a couple of nights. The walls were white, it was sparsely furnished and only one piece of art crookedly hanging above the double bed.

The lady left me to settle in and I checked behind each of the three closed doors to see what I would find.

Door #1 a kitchen the size of a closet, but equipped with almost everything I would need for two days. There was a mini fridge, a cooktop, some silverware, a couple of pots, glasses and dishes. I checked closely for cockroaches, just waiting to let out a horrible scream, but I found none and the kitchen, although not spotless, was sufficiently clean.

Door #2 opened up to a decent size bathroom that looked like it had possibly been renovated in the last few years (unlike the remainder of the apartment). The paint was peeling a bit, but everything was clean, the toilet was new and it was bright.

Door #3 was a small closet with shelves and hangers for those who were staying longer and wanted to unpack.

Sounds good so far right?

Now, keep in mind that I am not a particularly squeamish person. I’m used to traveling and staying in basic accommodations with a variety of issues. I am far from a neat freak, clean freak or perfectionist which all of my friends and family can vouch for.

After getting past the first glance, I looked around and realized that the apartment was actually quite dirty. The floors were smattered in black patches. There were so many of them that I thought it might be part of the colour in the wood floor, but no … Not unless it has been dirty for so long that it has seeped into the wood. This is a distinct possibility. It looked like the floors had not been mopped for a year … maybe more. This was the kind of place that you don’t walk barefoot unless you want your feet to turn black.

It almost looks like soot or volcanic ash, and maybe it is, but if there is that much on the floor in a closed building, what do people’s lungs look like? Yikes!

Based on the dirt on the floor, I became immediately more aware of the dirt everywhere else. The curtains that were once white, were grey; darker at the bottom from the soot everywhere. The walls were the same with the baseboards collecting more dust than I’ve ever seen.

On further inspection, the kitchen had a few bits and pieces of food left around and the plates and glasses were not all that clean. This could be because they don’t provide dish liquid or cleaning cloths. So, if you plan to stay for awhile, you’ll need to buy your own … along with a mop apparently!

The bathroom was actually still decently clean with surprisingly good quality toilet paper. I know, random thing to notice! However, the towels were another story. Although you could tell they had been washed from the way they felt from being air dried and were folded neatly. Maybe they were washed in the river though? A couple of stains, some ground in dirt and even a couple of rips showed that these had been around for a very long time.

At 11pm on the first night there was a knock on my door with delivery of breakfast on a platter for the next morning. An individual-sized packet of Chilean style frosted flakes, a Quaker Oatmeal cookie, tea, coffee, sugar, milk and orange juice boxes and yogurt. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was just enough to get me going the next morning.

The first night when I went to crawl into bed, it was the first bed that I ever in my life have checked for bed bugs. Luckily, I didn’t find any. I didn’t sleep the greatest that night as I was still thinking about them, but I woke up the next morning un-eaten.

I would definitely give the hotel a great rating on location. It really does not get much better. However, if you like cleanliness, you should look elsewhere, this is not the spot for you. I paid about $50 – $55 per night CAD and I’m very excited to move on to my next hotel, included in my tour which should be a huge improvement. Having said that, it wasn’t so bad that I decided to move elsewhere. I survived it. It was a great location, internet worked perfectly, the bed was reasonably comfortable and the shower wasn’t bad. It just needs some TLC and some strong cleaning solution.

Very surprised to see that it won a trip advisor award in 2013. Did I just have a bad room? Did it just not get cleaned fully before I arrived? Who knows … Or sometimes trip advisor isn’t the be-all-end-all.

Halifax to Santiago – the usual Shari glitches

November 14, 2014
NOTE: Many more past posts coming up about my six weeks in Europe (Sept / Oct 2014), but I’m going to try to keep up a little better on this trip as it is at a more leisurely pace. So … here’s a post about TODAY!

I never leave Canada without some kind of small (or large glitch) and once again, this trip has proved no different.

I set off from Halifax, Nova Scotia at 8:30pm on November 13th, our plane was late arriving, but we boarded and arrived in Toronto on time. I had an hour and a half layover in Toronto which was just enough time to change from terminal D to E (a lot of walking) and respond to a couple of work emails before boarding. I was pleasantly surprised that my gate had an open lounge concept set up with loads of free charging stations, tablets for your use and free wifi. I really appreciate it when airports have free reliable internet, but so many of them are one or the other.

We were scheduled to board at 11:45pm, but the first call for boarding came shortly after 11pm along with an announcement for passengers from several countries to have proof of payment of your reciprocity fee. Huh? Being a little tired, I thought maybe I had heard wrong. I knew I had to pay a reciprocity fee, but I was sure that I only had a printed copy for Argentina and I was going to Chile … wasn’t I?

I went and asked one of the Air Canada staff who looked quickly at my Argentinian reciprocity receipt and said that’s what I needed, but I said ‘but I’m going to Chile first and Argentina later.’ I wasn’t in a panic, but we were boarding, so if I had to pay the Chilean fee upfront, I needed to do so online with that free wifi quickly.

The man had to go ask. He came back and told me that they were only announcing it because the plane was continuing on to Buenos Aires, so passengers to Argentina had to have proof of theirs being pre-paid. For Chile, I would pay at the airport. Now why they couldn’t have announced it that way, I’m not sure … but …

Crisis averted.

I had picked my inside aisle seat in a row with no other passengers in anticipation that I might get to lay down vertically for the 10 hour flight. To my dismay, since I had chosen that seat, a man had chosen the other aisle and he had already laid claim to the centre seat with all of his stuff as well. GRRRR … Sleeping sitting up it was!

I managed to sleep through most of the night, waking up when there was turbulence or meals were being served, but overall I got enough sleep. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when I woke up the last time and it was only 1.5 hours until touch down. Wow! That went really fast.

Dinner was some kind of horrible chicken in a white cream sauce with very little flavour and then I had pancakes with fruit and what tasted like cream cheese frosting. I usually don’t mind plane food, but honestly, both of these were the pits.

Sadly I couldn’t see the beautiful mountains on the way into Santiago because I had chosen a chance at vertical sleep over the window seat that I originally had. I should have known better. From what I could see from staring around my neighbours, the mountains were spectacular.

Overall, a relatively uneventful trip. Despite the fact that I still hate flying, there was very little turbulence and when there was, it was minimal. And then, the pilot landed that jumbo jet like it only weighed 10lbs. It was the most graceful landing ever, barely even noticeable.

I was less than half-way back on the plane, so it wasn’t much of a wait to deplane. I followed all of the signs and even pointed someone else in the right direction to go pay the reciprocity fee, which the sign said was on ‘level 1’. I got to level one and the greeter spoke to me in Spanish. She asked where I was from, I said Canada and she pointed me off to the right. I got in a line with about 50 other people and thought … hmmmm … this line is very short. Could I really be this lucky?

UMMMMMM … NO.

My turn came and the lady told me I had to go pay my reciprocity fee. Damn it. I thought that was what I was waiting in line for … Meanwhile, the line of 50 that were in front of me had turned easily to 200 behind me. And, off I went to another line up to pay my reciprocity fee ($132 USD for Canadians – which was payable in US dollars or by credit card). It’s really nice that the reciprocity fee is good for the life of the passport, sadly, after this Latin America / Caribbean / Central America trip over the next 3 – 4 months, my passport will be out of pages and I’ll be renewing. That means if I head back to Chile, I’ll pay the fee again. But, if you have a new passport when you go to Chile for the first time, it’ll be valid for the length of your new 10-year Canadian passport. So, I hope some of you other Canadians benefit from it!

Then, I returned to the immigration line up behind 300 or so people and patiently waited my turn. UG! Not that it really mattered. I didn’t have a transfer or tour waiting, so I was in no particular hurry … I just wanted to get to the sunshine! (A high of 31 degrees here today. AHHHHH SUNSHINE!)

Shari's Epic Adventure 2014

For those of you who want to know what I’m up to and where I’m going this fall, here’s the quick version. Blogs with more details on each country to come soon.

Facts:

I’ll be visiting nine amazing countries in four short months.
Italy, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey, Greece, Chile, Argentina and Dominican Republic.

Eight of those countries are places I have never been to before.

This is NOT vacation for me. I know this is hard for most of you to fathom, but I will be working while traveling. I will be working as a travel agent the entire time I am traveling. I will have a mobile office that just happens to be in a different country every couple of weeks. The only way I can travel is if I continue to work while I’m on the road, on a boat or in the air, so please, drop me a note if you are planning to travel. I’d love to help arrange your next adventure, big or small!

Highlights:
I don’t doubt that there will be an endless number of highlights that stand out from this trip and only a few of them are things that are planned. Most of the highlights are likely to be unplanned moments that spontaneously happen. For now, here are the things that I am most looking forward to:

Tall Ship Sailing on the Mediterranean. (Star Clippers, Royal Clipper – 7 days Venice to Venice) – Send your best wishes as I try to muster the guts (and a balanced stomach) in order to climb to the crow’s nest on the ship. Fully harnessed of course!

Cinque Terre, Italy – This is an area that I dream of visiting and I can’t wait to experience it’s beauty. The main highlight here will be hiking from town to town along the coast and up the mountains through tiny towns, lush vineyards, past monasteries and castles.

Cappadocia, Turkey – A sunrise hot air balloon ride over the valley. How does it get any better?

Visiting an estancia (ranch) near Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Patagonia – The southern most tip of South America crossing through both Chile and Argentina. Torres del Paine National Park and visiting a Penguin colony.

Studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic. I’m heading back to Sosua to Casa Goethe to study Spanish. I studied for 5 or 6 weeks in 2012 and lived in the Dominican for a total of 7 weeks. I can’t wait to go back to continue learning this beautiful language and visit with friends from all over the world.

I have one month before departure. I have no less than a million things to get done, but I have faith that it will all come together and that anything that doesn’t get done wasn’t that important.

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Starting to plan the Unplan

The Unplan has always been that I would get 100% debt free before making any decisions about where / when I would travel, with the ‘loose’ idea of Central / South America this coming fall / winter. As you can see, that’s not much of a plan at all, hence calling it the Unplan.

Now that I am officially debt free. (Can I get a whoop! whoop!?) It is really time for me to buckle down and start making some slightly more firm plans about my upcoming travels. So, here’s take one at my plans for the fall and how they came to be.

Before I went to Vietnam to lead the photo tour in April 2014 I found out about a FAM (familiarization) tour with Intrepid Travel for Chile and Argentina. These are trips sponsored by a supplier for travel agents only to experience a new destination and their products. This was a great fit for me. I was planning on heading to South America in the fall sometime, I’ve never travelled with Intrepid and I’ve never visited Chile and Argentina. BINGO!

I sent my application in to Intrepid, and sadly, was told that this particular trip was already full. boo. I was really disappointed, but I knew there would be more opportunities.

I went away to Asia for three weeks and lead my Vietnam: Through the Lens Photo Tour which was a great success. A few days after my return to work I noticed that Intrepid had posted on their internal Facebook group that there were still spots on the Chile & Argentina tour. I immediately wrote to our rep to ask if it was a mistake, or if someone had cancelled.

Sure enough, there had been one cancellation. My heart started racing and I got super excited. There was room for me and I was sure it was meant to be! So, I re-submitted my application, waited a couple of days and then received confirmation that I had been accepted on the trip.

Yipee! These were the only travel plans I was willing to commit to prior to the closing of my house. After all, it was a trip to Chile & Argentina for free (+ cost of flights). Even if something fell through with my house, I was pretty sure I could find the money I needed to cover my flights to get there. So very little risk in taking on this awesome opportunity.

So, Nov 16 – 23 I’ll be doing a tour similar to this one, with other Intrepid staff and travel agents.

That decision was made back in May (seems sooooo long ago) and since then, I’ve been flirting with all kinds of ideas around it.

Next up is my next Photo Tour. I decided as soon as I came back from Vietnam that is was time to do another PERU: Through the Lens trip. I immediately put plans in place, created an itinerary and got it off to marketing. Dates were decided for Oct 18 – 28th and I am currently looking for a minimum of eight people to take part, maximum 15. I already have a couple of spots sold on the trip and am looking forward to finding the last few that are required to guarantee it. Deposits are due by July 18th, so I’m down to about three weeks to find six more people. If you are interested in coming along for a great combination of photography and tourism, get in touch and book soon!

Now, with the photo tour up in the air (needing 8 people to guarantee departure), I can’t make any specific plans until after deposit date (July 18th). So, everything else at this time is tentative and I’ll do another update mid July to see what has changed.

Through connections, I have been introduced to a tour operator in Turkey. Through discussions, we’ve discovered that we have a lot in common. He is working on arts tours of Turkey; photography, painting, drawing, weaving, pottery etc. Of course, I’m interested in the photography section of it. So, he’s offered to host me for 7-9 days in Turkey this fall so that I can check out the products that he offers and see the great country. How could I possibly pass up that opportunity??

It definitely comes with a small hitch though … the only time he can host me is in October. And my Peru photo tour is also in October. What this means is that I will have to go to Turkey for a week and then almost immediately head to Lima, Peru for the beginning of my photo tour.

Yuck! I only say yuck because it is a 17 – 24 hour travel time from Europe to South America. I’m looking at a few other options though. And, with this whole fall travel thing I’ve been trying to make plans so that I have time to rest and continue my travel agency work. I don’t want to be on the go all the time or I’ll burn out. The last thing I want to do is burn out early on in the trip! I need some stamina to get through everything that I’m looking forward to.

I have decided that I will take the opportunity in Turkey. I can’t pass it up. It is just a matter of arranging carefully for travel so that I don’t have to rush or get too tired.

Having said that, who goes all the way to Turkey for one week? Not me! With a great opportunity in Turkey, all I can say is that since I have to pay for my flights there anyway, I might as well make it worth while. Which brings me to the next part of my plans.

With Turkey tentatively scheduled for the first two weeks of October, I’ve been thinking about heading to Europe in late September to take in some of the other countries that I want to see. Mainly, Croatia where I have been considering doing a photo tour. So, I’ve begun researching options for Croatia. Do I do it in a small group tour? By land? By sail boat? By small 7-8 person sail boat? By larger 100 person sail boat? Do I do JUST Croatia or do I tie it in to the Balkans including Croatia, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia & Hertzagovina? And do I try to fit Greece in for a few days too seeing as it sits between Croatia and Turkey? Phew! How’s that for a lot of decisions to make?

I’m looking at the following tours for this section of my trip:

G Adventures
Western Balkans Adventure – Sept 19 – 30 – $2999 – Croatia / Bosnia / Montenegro

Sailing Croatia – Split to Dubrovnik – Sept 20 – 27 – $1499

Bamba
Croatia Ways – Zagreb to Dubrovnik – $494 USD – Hop on Hop off – This is a totally different experience than the others. It is transportation and a few activities included, but is independent travel and hotels are not included. Can start any day as long as my travel is complete by Sept 30th. And schedule is flexible so I can spend more time in some areas than others. Suggested 14 days.

Split to Athens – $989 USD – Suggested 18 days – Hop on Hop off

Dubrovnik to Athens – Podgorica Ways – $769 USD – Suggested 14 days – Hop on Hop Off

Croatia to Greece Road Trip – $925 USD – 6 day Adventure Trip – Departs Dubrovnik Saturdays only

Intrepid
Balkan Adventure – Sept 13 – 27 (1 spot left) – Bosnia & Herzegovina , Croatia , Hungary , Montenegro , Serbia – $2615

Dubrovnik to Santorini – Sept 13 – Oct 4 (1 spot left) – Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece from Dubrovnik to Santorini

Sail Trogir to Dubrovnik – Sept 20 – 27 – Croatia – $1478

Dubrovnik to Athens – Sept 13 – 27 – $3225 – Albania , Croatia , Greece , Macedonia , Montenegro

Star Clippers
Croatia & Montenegro (Venice to Venice) – Sept 20 – 27 -Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia. Sadly, I expect that this option is going to be too expensive for me to do on my own. If you want to be my travel partner … drop me a note!

Departing Halifax sometime between September 11 (at the earliest) and 19th ish – Seems kind of crazy. Don’t know I’m ready for that. It’s only 12 weeks away!

So here’s an overview of what I’m considering … tentatively ….

Sept 13 / 20 – October 1 – Croatia / The Balkans / Greece – undecided exactly where yet.

Oct 1 – 12 (ish) – Instanbul / Cappadocia, Turkey (possibly Gallipoli / Troy & the Mediterranean coast by Gulet boat)

Oct 12 / 13 – Fly from Istanbul to South America – possibly stopping back in Canada or US depending on flight routing.

Oct 14 – 17 – Relax in Lima, Peru prior to the start of the Peru: Through the Lens trip

Oct 18 – 28 – PERU: Through the Lens (Lima / Cuzco / Sacred Valley / Machu Picchu)

Oct 28 – Nov 15 – Not sure what to do in this time yet, but likely will be a combination of a few places that I haven’t seen in Peru + settling down for a week or more at an apartment somewhere new where I can relax, explore and concentrate a full week on working. I have to continue to sell travel while I’m away – that is my job. So, if you are planning to travel, you can support me by contacting me to book your travel. It will help me immensely!

Nov 15 – By this day, I need to be in Santiago, Chile where I will start my next tour on Nov 16th.

Nov 16 – 23 – Intrepid FAM (Santiago / Mendoza / Buenos Aires)

On Nov 23rd, I will end all of the organized portions of my trip and will be in Buenos Aires.

Nov 23 – Dec 15 (ish) – Undecided

Dec 15 (ish) – Jan 30 – Dominican Republic – In an apartment, not traveling around much, except that I want to get to Samana, as well as visiting friends in Punta Cana / Santo Domingo. Those are weekend trips though! And, if I find some friends to travel with, I might want to get to the lesser visited parks throughout the country. I’m photographing a friend’s wedding on Dec 28th near Cabarete in the Dominican. This is the same area where I studied Spanish for seven weeks in 2012 and I CANNOT wait to return!

Between Nov 23rd and approximately Dec 15 I have the following options (or combination of these):

Return home to Canada for a couple of weeks (although not sure where I would stay … parent’s in Fredericton? Maybe my sister’s?) And, flight wise, it is probably the most expensive option. South America to Dominican Republic should be much cheaper than South America to Halifax to Dominican Republic.
Settle down in Buenos Aires; many people have told me I will love it there.
Do a short trip to Iguazu Falls – on my bucket list.
Explore Patagonia (southern tip of Argentina & Chile) – this is the one I’m leaning toward.
Fly to Colombia and spend a few weeks exploring or studying Spanish, as it is an area I think I’d like to spend a longer period of time in.

Then, come the end of January I will have to decide if I want to stay longer in the Dominican or if I am ready to start moving around again. I love the Dominican and it feels like home to me, so staying is easy. It is a busy time of year for the travel industry so I will need to be somewhere with good internet and that I don’t feel the need to go out and explore every day. However, I am considering possibly heading to Nicaragua or Colombia for February and March.

Honestly … after traveling for four and a half months (mid-September to January), I don’t think there is any chance that I’m going to WANT to come back to Nova Scotia in the middle of winter. So, I might as well make the best of it and see a couple more places … Right?

The Unplan – Life Changing Decisions – Part 10

For the last couple of years I’ve certainly had wanderlust. Since I first got back on a plane after surviving a plane crash in December 1997, I’ve gotten stronger and stronger and have wanted to explore further and further.

First, a trip to Bermuda to see if I would lose it completely on a plane. (2008)
I didn’t.

Then a trip to New York to celebrate turning 30 and that I didn’t lose it on a plane! (2008)

Then on to Costa Rica and Nicaragua – a whole new continent for me. Also the first time that I started thinking about studying Spanish.(2009)

Next thing I knew I was traveling to photograph destination weddings. (2010)

And then another new continent as I flew to Germany and Poland to photograph Coalition for Kids International, granting wishes to terminally ill children in Poland. (2011)

My little wings that had been weakened by 11 years of non-use, were getting stronger.

Why not take it further and create Photo Tours in far away places like Peru and Vietnam? (2012 – 2014)

With all of those great destinations under my belt, a lot of take offs and landings and no further plane crashes … I decided it was time to really take a leap and off to Southeast Asia I went with my longest flight being 12 hours and 50 minutes from Narita, Japan to Chicago, USA.

Looking back, it’s incredible to see that all of this (and much much more) has happened in the past seven years.

So, it really shouldn’t be any big surprise to anyone what I’m about to tell you …

I’m sure if you’ve been reading my series of Life Changing Decisions, you are starting to put it together.

1. Decision to get debt free.
2. Work at a job that can be done anywhere in the world (or confirm that your current job can)
3. Do renovations & put condo on the market
4. Dream of travel

What do you get when those things all come together?

You get the UNPLAN! (and a really happy Shari)

In my head, and to my close friends and family, my plan since the beginning of this was not really to have a plan at all, hence the UNPLAN.

What exactly does the UNPLAN look like?

Like a leaf in the wind (or a paper airplane), I can go wherever the wind takes me. Sounds crazy doesn’t it? Well, it’s a semi-calculated type of crazy if that makes it any better!

I am setting my life up to be debt free and with fewer commitments. This will allow me to travel when and where I want and discover our amazing world. I don’t want to live my life waiting 12 months for my next vacation. I don’t want to be on vacation all the time, but I do want to live my life to the fullest and for me, a big part of that is seeing this amazing, vast, beautiful world we live in.

The UNPLAN has always been somewhat calculated. I’m not jumping off a cliff without checking for a soft landing. From the beginning, although extremely hard for other people to understand, I have made very few decisions about where / when / how long I would travel for. I would tell people I’m getting debt free so I can travel and they would of course ask ‘Where are you going to go?’ Although I had narrowed it down to a starting point of Central and South America, that’s as much as I was willing to commit to. When they asked me ‘How long are you going for?’ My answer has always been ‘I’m not sure. An undetermined amount of time. I’m not debt free yet.’

I have flitted back and forth between ideas such as a year-long around the world trip, a SWAP working holiday in New Zealand, settling in for a couple (or several) months somewhere in Central or South America, or simply living in Nova Scotia and traveling whenever I possibly can. These are big, amazing options. Don’t you dare say I’m ‘lucky’ to have these choices. This has nothing to do with luck folks, I am making these choices, they aren’t just magically happening.

You see, there are doers and dreamers in this world. I’m a doer. Yes, I have big dreams but I don’t sit and daydream unless I’m actually going to make something happen. So, being realistic about it all, I absolutely, flat out refuse to make any travel decisions until I become debt free. (with one exception – see below)

Although I still dream of where I want to visit, where I might like to stay for a little while and what great adventures are out there waiting for me, until I achieve my first, and most important goal of being debt free, I can’t move forward with achieving this undetermined amount of travel. This is a calculated UNPLAN!

I’m designing my own life. I’m making choices for me, based on my passions, what’s important in my life and how I can find happiness. Isn’t the true meaning of life to live it to it’s fullest?

So, let me give you the big announcement(s) …

1. Knock on wood, my condo has sold. Barring any complications with the condo financials, it is a done deal with a mid-June closing date. It was on the market for less than one month. I got reasonably close to asking price. I got slightly more than I needed in order to get completely debt free, set aside my down payment for my next home purchase and set aside a bit of money for travel. I think the universe is encouraging me to continue with the UNPLAN!

2. I confirmed a long time ago that I would be able to continue to be a travel agent, but work from anywhere in the world with my current employer, The Adventure Travel Company. Today, May 15th is my last day working in the office and as of tomorrow I will be working remotely. I’ll post a blog about this transition in a couple of days, but for now, all you need to know is that I am still a full service travel agent, specializing in adventure travel. I am affiliated with the amazing Adventure Travel Company and I hope you’ll support me by trusting me to help you plan YOUR next adventure. You can email me at stucker@atcadventure.com

3. I have been accepted on a travel agent familiarization tour with Intrepid Travel for one week in Chile and Argentina in November. This is the one concrete travel plan that I allowed myself to make before all of my other plans came together. I knew that once the condo sold, I would likely head to Central or South America, so this was a natural fit and gave me dates to work with when I would already be in that part of the world. This trip is free (except airfare) and gives me the opportunity to experience these two countries with a great supplier. I knew that even if my condo did not sell, that I would be able to either find the money for the flights or I have enough Aeroplan points to get me there. There were too many benefits for me to pass up. I had originally applied but it was full. A couple of months later, someone had to cancel and one little spot opened up. It had my name all over it! I applied within minutes of finding out a spot had opened up.

4. Having confirmed that I would be heading to South America in November, I shortly thereafter made the decision to launch a new Peru: Through the Lens Photo Tour. I’ve just released details to my photo email list and full details will go public next week. On my first day to announce the new tour, I already have the first person signed up! Tour dates are Oct 18 – 28, 2014. If you’d like more information, please contact me, or sign up for my photo tour newsletter.

There it is folks …

My condo has sold.
I start work as a home-based travel agent on May 16th, but remain under the umbrella of The Adventure Travel Company.
I have a tour booked to Chile and Argentina in November, so if nothing else, I know where I’m headed in late fall.
I am about to go full force promoting my next Peru: Through the Lens photo tour for October 2014.

My UNPLAN is starting to shape up.

Now, of course, in the spirit of an UNPLAN, I have not decided how long I am going for or what other countries I will visit. And, as with everything else, those decisions all depend on many variables. My condo sale still needs to finalize and all of my debts must be completely cleared. I need to find a place to live for the summer and early fall. I must find at least eight people to travel with me on the Peru: Through the Lens photo tour. And, let’s not forget that nice man who walked into my life back in February (see Part 8 of this series). I can’t leave him behind for a year while I go gallivanting around. And no, sadly he can’t come gallivant around with me for a year due to commitments here! It’s still new and early, but it wouldn’t be fair to him or me ignore him in all of this!

Like I said … it is still an UNPLAN with many choices and decisions yet to be made and too many variables still lurking around. Don’t worry, I’ll be blogging about it all along the way!

Now that the big news is out there … let the questions begin! Feel free to post questions and comments below on this post … share with your friends … send it to other people you know who are currently on extended travels or those who dream of doing so …

I’ll be posting updates about my struggles, preparations, decisions and triumphs until departure day (whenever that may be). After that, I’ll transition into sharing my travel adventures of whatever fantastic countries I visit. Some will be exciting, inspirational and likely funny. Others will be boring and simply there for me to keep track of my thought process. I invite you to sign up for my blog updates (top right of my blog) and follow along as often (or not) as you wish.

The first five months of 2014 have certainly been filled with amazing challenges, laughter, tears and some of the biggest decisions of my life so far … but wait … at least all of those things are my choice … so really, how bad can it be?

Just like a leaf in the wind … I’m about to go on a crazy ride.

I hope its a warm, southern wind not a Nor easter!