Valparaíso, city of Graffiti Art

Before Panama Canal, there was the thriving port of Valparaíso.

The port at Valpo, as affectionately known by locals, provided a vital shipping route for merchant ships going between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. When the Panama Canal sprang into action in 1914, Valpo suffered a significant loss in trade activity and its economy never quite recovered their hey day glory. But they successfully transformed into a city of culture and art so well done that it became recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And what a work of art it is.

The labyrinthine streets are covered wall-to-wall in works of art proudly displayed for all to see in a kaleidoscope of colours. Numerous staircases and 15 funiculars adorn the 12 hills of Valpo to allow residents and visitors better access to the area. The funiculars are part of their public transport system without which the residents will usurp the gold medal for People with Very Muscular Thighs and Calves.

Cars that travel along the narrow streets need good brakes because the inclines are ridiculous, worse than any other I have ever seen. A 45 degree incline set high on a hill ending in a tight switchback requires some driving skill and courage. It’s crazy. People do stand around at the corner of the switchback for some reason, hopefully not as replacements for safety barricades. The ride to town at the bottom of the hill was nothing short of exciting.

While beautiful, the city also has an appreciable number of dilapidated buildings. The Mercado that seemed quite central to life there was wrecked in an earthquake several years back has not been rebuilt. Some parts of the city looked run-down, retaining the scars of its past that never were soothed. Roads are rather dirty, peppered with many cute but stray dogs. Its dishevelled appearance can be easily repaired with a system of proper maintenance. That done, backed by what I thought were the greatest empanadas made in this planet at Delicias Express, Valpo could perhaps regain a little more oomph it needs to be stunning.


Almost Antarctica

Sailing the Beagle Channel from the port at Ushuaia brought us to the tip of the Southern Ocean. It is also the starting point for those setting off for Antarctica who would continue sailing across the Drake Passage before reaching the icy shores.

The expedition/cruise ships can take several routes to Antarctica but the port at Ushuaia is almost always chosen because it has a deep harbour that is safe from strong winds, tangling seaweeds and rocks. That explains why Ushuaia, the Southernmost point of civilization, thrives as town with income from tourism.

When we sailed, we saw Sea Lions and Comorans in their natural habitat. The Sea Lions’ poop is an alarming bright red streak – not blood but the remnants of their King Crab binge they had earlier. They eat really well. We docked at Bridges island to do a short trek to the hill where we could clearly see both the Argentine and Chilean Andes. Breathtaking views.

At the furthest point of our route, we saw the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, made famous by the Jules Vern novel, The Lighthouse at the End of the World, that stood tall in the gusty winds. This is often confused with the actual lighthouse at the end of the world manned by the military. No one is allowed near that one.

Our little adventure along the Beagle Channel is the closest we would ever get to Antarctica. Yep. We have covered six continents in our travels except for this elusive last. Funnily enough, when presented with the opportunity to get on an expedition to the final frontier, we were not eager. Cost and time were not only the main detractors, observing the vast bareness of the land also wasn’t one that appealed though I remain curious.

So, the fact that we will not cover Antarctica in our lifetime finally sunk in. I was not at all disappointed but perhaps just a tad wistful about being almost there.

Things 200 Million Years Old

Fossilized trees, lava ash, quartz, basalt, mineralized rock, dinosaur bones amidst silt and sedimentation – that was what we saw at La Leona Petrified Forest. It is one of the few in Patagonia with others spread across the different continents in N.America, Asia and Australia.

The formation of these forests from what was essentially the land of the dinosaurs is something we are fairly familiar with: A catastrophic volcanic eruption of unfathomable size destroyed the once lush and verdant land, decimated its t-rexes and velociraptors, and forcibly robbed it of life. Because of this, the land split into the continents we know today; mountain ranges like the Andes rose out of that destruction. The rebirth meant that the land parcels once again faced the natural elements and had wind carrying seeds, water flowing through and sunshine tending land.

But in the Patagonia Steppes on the inside of the Andes, the elements created a vastly different climate – harsher, drier and one not conducive for living things. Water and wind brought about erosion through the years and uncovered what the volcanic lava buried – dinosaurs from the Jurassic period. Erosion also shaped the landscape and resulted in the gnarly peaks we see today. Trees that managed to grow fossilized into rocks after they fell due to pressure and mineralization. The landscape remains dynamic – a rock-hard tree trunk just rolled off its perch the other day.

The 3-hour long trek was an eye-opener. Again, my fear of heights was exacerbated by tiny paths next to slopes of hell. This misfit had to be handheld by the guide like a child. Heh.

Nevertheless, I finished the trek. Yay to me!

Southern Patagonia Ice Field

The third largest in the world, the Southern Patagonia Ice Field spans 370km by 35km. The largest ones are Antarctica and Greenland coming in first and second respectively.

There are three main glaciers in this Ice Field and the Perito Moreno located in the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina is one. The others, Uppsala and Viedma, are found to the north of Perito Moreno. The Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 to preserve a large portion of the southern Andes, including the Patagonic forest, steppes and glaciers.

With something so impressive, people would surely make their way there to explore it. I had the opportunity to do a minitrek on the Perito Moreno glacier and it blew my mind, figuratively and literally.

Nestled between the Brazo Rico and Lago Argentina, the magnificent mass of ice sits like a grand 400- year-old dame, shimmering in hues of brilliant blue and white with undulating peaks. While I was ecstatic to trek up some of those peaks, they scare me at the same time. Heights and I do not get along.

The iron crampons I had weaved upon my booted feet did offer a good grip but I was just illogically terrified of slipping and falling. Some of the peaks were at an approximate 70 degree incline and I crawled instead of walked. I was so bad that the guide singled me out like a misfit and had to handhold me for the rest of the way. Lolz! Embarrassing!

I was way quicker after but I was still rather unsteady at certain narrow paths and inclines. Despite that, I stomped my cramponed feet into ice and finished the whole circuit. Aching everywhere but so proud.

La Recoleta and the cemetery within

Entrance to Recoleta Cemetery: Rest In Peace

Nestled in the affluent neighborhood of Recoleta is the Recoleta Cemetery famous for having important and famous people as residents. Argentina’s past Presidents, Nobel Prize Winners, business moguls, warriors and of course, First Lady, Eva Peron form part of their serene community.

According to our fast-speaking guide, the place has about 4700 graves, and at least 150,000 bodies buried. Each grave belonging to a family unit, depending on how large they are, can cost anything from USD70,000 to a quarter of a million; each one contains anything from 1 to 150 bodies. Tunnels are dug below each grave to create more final resting places for family members – apparently no one really keeps track of the situation below but it seems the maximum capacity has been reached and no more tunneling is allowed for fear of corrupting the city’s systems.

The graves are ornate showpieces, some better kept than others but all have their own tales. Our guide told us many stories as she led us through the winding corridors – some factual, some of legends, some quite creepy. She also entertained questions about incorporeal figures hanging around but was quick to establish that she wasn’t the best person to answer that. I was sure I did not want to hear any of it so was quite relieved she didn’t go into the gory details. Ack, I’d be mortified!

Although I am not one too fond of necropolises, I would visit one if it were part of history and/or is of cultural significance. Like the Pyramids in Egypt and shrines, mausoleums or other similar erections in many parts of the world. It is always interesting to hear about how a person lived and died, how others remember them, and the legacy they have left behind. Hearing these makes me think of the kind of life I want to lead: not getting caught up in the transient things, developing strong relationships, helping people and focusing on the positive.

I’ve always believed in having a life manifesto built around what you want to be remembered for. Greatness, Love, Intelligence, Courage, Hope, Sacrifice? I draw inspiration from the stories I hear about lives led … a bit morbid now that I read the words I am typing out … but there are lessons for me to learn, teachings from which I can use to calibrate my course as I work on mine.