Our frugal traveler experience in the Galapagos

I was long baffled that Steve was never eager to visit the Galápagos. Both natural history and evolutionary biology have always fascinated him. There’s a lot of both in the island chain 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The place intrigued me, but the price of visiting always discouraged both of us. No tourism of any sort existed before the mid-1960s, and then for many years, the only way to see the place was to take the almost two-hour flight out, then board a ship that would likely cost at least $2500 per person for a basic five-day cruise and many thousands more for a longer or posher experience. For that kind of money, we typically cover a lot of ground.

What finally got us there was a combination of factors. The path from Santiago (our gateway to and from the eclipse) to San Diego lies almost directly over Ecuador, a country we had never visited. In early spring, our good friends Doris and Louis spent six weeks there (publishing vivid dispatches in their blog, Louis and Doris Partout.) Privately Doris urged me to consider stopping over in Ecuador on our return north. About the same time, I read a New York Times article about the surge in land-based travel in the Galapagos. This could be accomplished at a fraction of the price of cruising, according to the Times writer. I did a lot of quick, compressed research and we wound up deciding to spend two weeks in Ecuador, sandwiching in a 6-day, 5-night visit to two of the islands.

Now that we’re back on the Ecuadorian mainland, we feel completely satisfied with the way this worked out. We didn’t see as much as we surely would have had we cruised for two weeks and visited 5 or 10 of the islands. We didn’t see every animal visitors try to check off their lists; missed sighting any whales or hammerhead sharks, and never came within sight of a red-footed boobie.

But we did observe a wondrous assortment of creatures: the eponymous giant tortoises and amazing swimming (marine) iguanas.

It was hatching season for the marine iguanas, so we saw hundreds of the babies, like these.

Marine iguanas seem a sociable lot.

We saw plenty of blue-footed boobies.

Those feet are pretty dashing.

That fellow had just built this lovely nest and was trying to attract a girlfriend.

We swam with huge sea turtles and brilliant reef fish and schools of rays and 6-inch-tall seahorses, spotted amidst a seascape studded with starfish and coral and urchins. We hiked to and boated by striking lava formations and came away feeling we’d gotten a good taste of the place.

Doing it on the cheap required that we make all our own arrangements and get ourselves around, but that wasn’t hard. The little hotels where we stayed were clean and comfy enough, if not luxe, and they cost less than $50 a night on average. The food ranged from good to excellent. Our favorite meals included the two we ate on the jolly Santa Cruz street that closes to cars at night. The restaurants set up long wooden tables and chairs at which you can tuck into tasty lobster and fish meals (with beer) for about $50 per couple.In the end, our stay (including the $180 required per person in permits) cost us about $800 each, rather than the $2,500-$5000 per person the cruising probably would have. And we learned a lot.

Here’s my take on the best and worst things about experiencing the islands this way:

The Worst

We only spent time on two islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. To get back and forth between them, we took inter-island ferries, which cost $60 per person round-trip. I hated both rides. The ferries are basically speedboats seating around 30 passengers, most of whom can see almost nothing along the way. The vessels blast through the water, rolling and bucking — too rough a ride to do much of anything besides count the minutes (around 120) till the torture ends. Chugging around on a big old yacht would doubtless be far more pleasant. (Some inter-island plane service also exists, but it’s five or six times more expensive than the speedboats.)

The Best

Our first morning on Santa Cruz, we hired a local taxi driver to take us around for three and a half hours. We visited the interesting Darwin research center, checked out some of the geological wonders (craters and lava tunnels), and spent at least an hour strolling around a private nature reserve where the giant tortoises are thriving. The San Diego Zoo has a large, old Galapagos tortoise colony, but they live in a sterile enclosure, a universe away from the lush vegetation in the reserve.

It was strange to be dodging turtle poop, rather than dog poop.
At times it was tricky to distinguish the tortoises from the boulders.

It felt magical to come upon the giant reptiles blocking the paths, munching on (non-native) guavas (which eco-volunteers are trying to eradicate), and otherwise looking cranky and enigmatic.

We suspect the tortoises won’t be happy if the volunteers succeed. Guavas are delicious!

Steve and I also marveled at how chilly the Galapagan waters are, despite the fact that the island chain lies on the equator. The cold nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica, makes the weather temperate and fosters the abundance of land and sea life. On the days we snorkeled, the water was somewhere around 70, cool enough that, even protected in short wetsuits, we couldn’t stand being in the water for more than about an hour. Still, the beautiful things we saw made the mild discomfort tolerable.

The Interesting

Staying onshore rather than cruising gave us more opportunity to interact with the native humans. Several commented on how relaxed and pleasant life on the islands can be. (Strict laws limit the inflow of mainlanders.) It seems a simpler life. Everywhere the Internet was glacial. Many folks get around on bikes. At our hotel, we asked how we might launder a small pile of dirty clothes. The proprietress pointed us to the bright turquoise house a short distance from her place. If we dropped off our load in the morning, it should be ready to retrieve by evening, she said,

We strolled down the dirt road and peered into the open door of the turquoise house. The front room was filled with a half-dozen washing machines, several dryers heated by bottle gas, and little else. A family member finally noticed our arrival, weighed our bundle, and said it would cost $3 to wash and dry everything.

When I returned hours later to collect it, no one was in the laundry area, so I called out, “Hola!” In the back of the house, I could glimpse a middle-aged man with a large gut, sprawled in a rumpled bed. He collected himself, came to the front, and took my money in exchange for the clean and neatly folded items. He was less exotic than a giant tortoise, but interesting enough that I was glad I hadn’t missed meeting him too.

In this Galapagos church, Jesus hangs out at the beach, instead of on the cross.

How our wine-tasting in Chile and Argentina went south

Our good friend Howard still shakes his head in amazement when he recalls his attempt to visit Argentinean wineries back in 1990. He and another friend were in western Argentina to climb Mt. Aconcagua, but they had some extra time and figured they could just get a taxi driver to take them around. Argentina today is the fifth biggest wine producer in the world, and the industry was already big back then. But their request confounded the taxi driver. He’d never heard of anyone visiting local wineries for tastings.

Things have changed a lot. Beautiful tasting rooms have been built since then, and companies to shepherd tourists to them have prospered. I knew we’d have our own car both in Chile and Argentina, so I figured I could devise a little tasting tour on our own. I did some research and created an itinerary. We had a little success but mostly struck out, if in a more sophisticated way than Howard and Wes.

I know now it was dumb of me not to try emailing the wineries I’d targeted and making reservations. But it’s the dead of winter! All the vines look dead and shriveled. We planned to visit most of these places on weekdays. And at the Concha y Toro winery south of Santiago, our first oenophilic destination, everything did go just as I’d planned. We parked, bought tickets ($23 each) for the 11:30 English-language tour I’d read about online, and had a pleasant time strolling the august grounds, hearing winey factoids, and tasting four local varieties.

Concha y Toro boasts it’s now the second biggest winery in the world, with around 27,000 acres under cultivation. So I probably should have guessed other wineries might not be so well organized. We were organized enough to drive to our hotel in Santa Cruz, check in, then head out to visit one of the best-reputed wineries on the famous Colchagua Valley’s “Ruta de Vino.” The website for Montes had said they were open until 5:30, and we arrived around 4:30, seeking only a tasting, not another a full tour. At the gate, however, a guard brusquely informed us this was impossible. The only option was to do a combined tour and tasting, and we’d missed the English-language one by hours. If we wanted to be allowed on the Montes grounds, we’d have to return the next day.

Our route the next day led in the opposition direction. On consulting with our host at the hotel, he recommended we instead head for one of the wineries in the Casablanca Valley, close to Valparaiso, our next destination. We spent a chunk of that morning visiting an outstanding Santa Cruz attraction, a private museum built by a Chilean whom our guidebook referred to as “the king of the cluster bomb.” Attractive and well-designed, the Colchagua Museum covered an amazing span of Chilean history and culture, but I think all four of us were most wowed by the multimedia pavilion that recounts the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped almost a mile underground and rescued after two months (in late 2010).

The miners’ underground refuge
The capsule that took them up to the surface

We felt confident pulling into the Vinamar winery a little after 4:10. It was supposed to be open for at least another hour. But once again a guard barred our way. Tastings were over at 4 pm, he declared.

I allowed the expression on my face to crumple. “But we drove all the way here from Santa Cruz!” I exclaimed, That took him aback; I think he was afraid I was about to cry. He telephoned his boss, and after some back and forth, we were admitted and told we could purchase a few glasses of wine.

Somehow, by the time we climbed the stairs into the grandiose facilities, we were offered a standard tasting of sparkling wines (cost: $9.50 per person). They were pleasant, and it made the day feel like less than catastrophic.

Our tasting attempts when we got to Argentina went less well.

There, I had worked out an elaborate plan, drawing heavily from a 2018 New York Times article about spending 36 hours in Mendoza. Almost instantly it got thrown out of whack. The evening we arrived, we stayed up late eating a wonderful dinner (and feeling the effects of the one-hour time change between Argentina and Chile, from where we’d flown that afternoon). So we got off to a slow start Sunday morning and scrapped the late-morning tasting I had planned not far from Mendoza. Instead we headed south to the Uco Valley, Argentina’s Napa. Zuccardi, one of the country’s most respected vintners, had built a facility there in 2016 that sounded worth the roughly 2 hours it would take to get to it. We found the drive moderately interesting, and as we approached it, the winery itself looked striking.

Once again a gate barred our entry, but we managed to slip in behind another car whose occupants had made reservations. Once inside, however, we were informed that the only tasting worth taking would cost 3,500 Argentine pesos per person — about $84 each. We could hardly believe our ears. The Times article had said tastings started at 400 pesos per person ($9.55) and included “a tour that goes from vines to vat to a gorgeous tasting room…” We questioned and counter-questioned the hostess, but she remained firm. Seeing our consternation, she suggested we drink a complimentary glass of sparkling wine while we decided what we wanted to do. We drank the bubbly, but then dejectedly trudged back to our car. (No way were we prepared to pay $336 for a wine tasting.)

As I type this, I can’t help wondering whether we didn’t misunderstand something. The hostess didn’t speak much English and my Spanish is hardly that of a native. At the time, however, it certainly seemed we were at an impasse. Tears actually did feel my eyes. I’d subjected my family to 4-5 hours of driving through only moderately interesting countryside in exchange for…a small free glass of sparkling wine?

The restaurant looked great too, but we couldn’t get a table

Worse, we were all now ravenous but it was approaching 3 pm, the “witching hour,” as Stephanie referred to that period every afternoon when almost everything in Argentina closes. The whole ride back to Mendoza, every eatery that Google Maps pointed us to was shuttered. Near the city, we stopped at one final winery (much praised by the Times writer), where we only were allowed through its closed gate in order to inquire about making a reservation. The hostess told me no spaces were available for lunch the next day (a Monday), but she would email me if they had a cancellation. I never heard from her again.

Typical Argentine countryside near the Uco Valley

As grimly as this all played out, we did enjoy some great meals (accompanied by good, astonishingly inexpensive wine) in Mendoza, where we probably should have just hung out for our short time there. Steve and I also weren’t unhappy to have gotten the limited insight into the landscapes in that part of Argentina and central Chile.

We did a few other touristic things, pleasant, but not all that interesting. Two observations from the Chile-Argentina portion of our trip will probably linger longest in my memory.

— A dog’s life, Chilean-style. I mentioned in an earlier post what a startling portion of the Santiago dogs were clad in coats. We saw coat-wearing dogs in Valparaiso, too, but they were walked by their owners amidst a virtually army of homeless dogs. “People here say they’re not homeless,” our guide on the walking tour told us. “They belong to everyone.” He may have been joking, but he said there were 300,000 human residents of the city and 100,000 dogs. “Every tourist has to take one with you at the end of the tour.” The free-spirited Chilean canines break into and snack on garbage or feast on the scraps that locals put out for them. Lucky ones get to snooze in free-standing dog houses.

That same guide showed us a mural depicting various animal icons. The dog was the most heroic among them. “If someone’s your best friend, you call him your dog. He’s always got your back.”

It’s a little ironic, then, that the most memorable of all the delicious food we ate in Chile was… a hot dog! They don’t call them that, but rather completos. For almost 100 years, Chileans have been loading up their bun-cradled sausages with a panoply of ingredients: tomatoes, avocados, sauerkraut, French fries, fried eggs, and more, usually topped with an ocean of fluffy mayonnaise. We ate them in a venerable old restaurant near the historic center, and we ate them in the airport, shortly before we left.

If they’re lucky, some of my friends will soon be served them back in San Diego.

Our eclipse party

In the Mendoza Airport yesterday, I heard a woman talking about someone she knew who had seen 20 total solar eclipses. I know such people exist; they more or less dedicate their lives to traveling the world to wherever it is the sun will next be totally blocked out by the moon. (This happens only once every year or two.) When I saw my first total solar eclipse in 1999, it affected me so powerfully I vowed to see as many as I could for the rest of my lifetime. I’ve since decided this requires a level of nuttiness that, nutty as I may be, I lack. Seeing only three has taught me how many decisions you have to make, any one of which can turn out to be disastrous.

Solar eclipses follow an arc, so first you have to pick which point along the arc you want to aim for. The eclipse that just took place sliced across southern South America from (roughly) La Serena in Chile to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Steve and I have already explored Buenos Aires, plus we knew the eclipse there would take place almost at sunset. We’d never been to Chile, so that was most attractive to us.

On the other hand, this is winter in Chile, when rain and fog (the arch-enemies of eclipse-viewers) plague the coastline west of the Andes. That happens less as you move north of Santiago (where La Serena is), but if the weather wasn’t good, it wouldn’t be possible to drive to somewhere better, given how the mountains and the sea constrain this long, skinny country. That’s why we chose to spend a few days sightseeing in Santiago, then fly the short hop across the Andes to Mendoza in Argentina. If the weather looked ominous, we might have a few more options.

As it turned out, everyone lucked out. Days ago, the weather forecast for everywhere along the ecliptic path predicted sun. But there were still decisions to be made.

In Mendoza, we got our first sense of the excitement building. At dinner Sunday a fellow at the next table turned to us and asked in English if we had come for the big event. He was an amateur astronomer from Montreal, and we traded information and good wishes. Monday afternoon, we made the drive to San Juan (north of Mendoza) in just under two hours, and we saw non-stop TV coverage that evening and the next day at lunch. San Juan would be on the far southern edge of the eclipse arc, we knew, but the sun would only be totally covered there for about 30 seconds. In contrast, if we drove north to the center of the path, the eclipse would last close to two and a half minutes. Totality is so spectacular, you want it to last for as long as possible. But what I learned as I researched all this (months ago) is that there aren’t a lot of options for getting around in this part of western Argentina. Professional astronomy sites said the towns of Rodeo and Bellavista were likely to be best, but I had trouble finding them on any map (even Google’s). The only roads leading to them from San Juan crossed a mountain spur, and I could find no clue to what their condition would be.

We finally figured out that if we drove north from San Juan on the main highway (Ruta 40) for about an hour, we would come to a tiny settlement called Talacasto where totality would last two minutes and 11 seconds. We decided to trade the extra 20 seconds we would lose by NOT going to Bellavista for the extra hour or two it would take to get there (and drive back, probably in heavy traffic, after dark.)

With our destination settled, and the weather looking good, one additional concern bothered me. At the two previous eclipses I’ve seen (in Bavaria in 1999 and Oregon in 2017), part of what thrilled me was the reaction unfolding all around. We weren’t in a huge crowd either time, but there were enough fellow viewers to make the experience collective; to hear the chorus of exultation and wonder; to see the tears, the upraised fists. I fretted we might wind up in a lonely place where we four were the only spectators. Steve and Mike couldn’t imagine this, but Mike had a solution: “We’ll pick up some wine, make a sign, and invite anyone who sees it to join our eclipse party.”

So it was that we stopped at the Carrefour in central San Juan, where we bought several bottles, disposable glasses, paper, and a marker. Michael worked on the sign…

…while we drove north through countryside that surprised us by its resemblance to Southern California: the Mojave desert (in places) and Anza Borrego (in others).Along the road, we spotted the first of a series of signs announcing a “Punto de Observacion” (eclipse observation point) ahead, which in itself reassured me. (If there was an official observation point, clearly we wouldn’t be alone.)It also dispelled another worry: If the road led us to a point too close to the Andean foothills to the west of us, the sun might actually be behind them by 5:39 pm (when totality would start). But if locals had picked an observation point and then created and posted glossy signs leading to it, surely they must have chosen a site where the mountains wouldn’t block our view.

We got to Talacasto around 3:30 and found a large area already filled with at least 100 cars, yet still containing plenty of room for more..We had no folding chairs like most of the local folks, but Michael scouted out a spot behind a half-built stone building that sheltered us from the wind.Climbing up on its roof offered excellent views both of the sinking sun…and the surrounding crowd.We anchored our sign with a cinder block and uncorked one of the bottles, poured ourselves a glass, and settled in to wait.

It didn’t take long for an Argentine couple to stroll by. I asked if they had eclipse glasses. (We had extra because I’d bought a 10-pack from Amazon.) They were thrilled by the offer, since they’d forgotten to get some. At first they demurred accepting the wine, but they broke down after a while, and we had a lot of fun chatting in English and Spanish with Edgardo (a CPA and aspiring website developer) and Nancy (a painter and art teacher). I offered more glasses (and wine) to a family of three from San Juan encamped nearby us, and they too accepted with delight. They eventually left their rig and brought mate (Argentine herbal tea) and cookies to share with our fiesta. We toasted the eclipse, toasted being alive in this enchanted spot to share this amazing experience together.

Because it was so late in the day, the light shortly before totality may have looked a bit more weirdly gray. But almost everything else echoed what I remember from Bavaria and Oregon. There was that same awe as the crescent seen through my glasses grew thinner and thinner then shrank to the magnificent jewel in what folks call “the wedding ring.” I took my glasses off just as its jewel of light blinked out and the sky turned from azure to navy. I remember seeing at least a few stars. But I was also drinking in the sunset glow at the horizon — not just in the west but for 360 degrees around us. I was making incoherent noises, at least one or two full-throated screams, and laughing.

Why do humans make so much noise during total eclipses? Birds grow silent. They sing when the sun re-emerges and the light comes back. Humans make noise then too. It’s time to celebrate. The sun is not lost forever. Life on Earth will go on.

After that, everything else was mundane and not worth writing about. Except one curious detail. No one seemed to be making any money off the eclipse (except the hotels and restaurants back in the towns and the tour operators who brought in large groups of gringos). The single restaurant in Talacasto (around which we all parked) was selling more drinks and snacks than it will ever again in all its lifetime, but no one was charging for parking or to use the restaurant’s bathrooms. Not one soul had created eclipse t-shirts or other eclipse-themed souvenirs (nor had they in Bellavista, according to other folks we talked to who had traveled there). I can’t explain this. It seemed amazing, though nothing, of course, as amazing as those two minutes and 11 seconds.

Winter wonderland

This is what the street in front of our hotel Saturday morning looked like.

We travel so rarely to wintry places it’s hard for me to remember the risk involved in doing so: the weather may be too cold or rainy to enjoy the destination. In the case of our current adventure, there was no avoiding winter if we wanted to see the total eclipse that will occur here tomorrow, July 2. July is winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Since the whole of the continent (from north of Santiago in Chile to Buenos Aires in Argentina) falls within the path of totality, we did have to choose where to try and experience it. We’d never visited Chile before, so that made us want to go there. But the weather west of the Andes is notorious for being gray and rainy in winter. We finally decided to start out in Chile but then make the short flight to Mendoza, Argentina on the eastern side, where the skies were much more likely to be clear. Still, with weather, any choice made months ahead is a gamble.

As I wrote in the last post, we lucked out in Santiago when the rain that had been forecast didn’t materialize on Monday until late in the afternoon, then Tuesday turned bright and sunny. Clouds moved in again on Wednesday, the day we drove into the countryside to see the wine country (an experience I hope to report on later). The gloom there never turned into rain, but my spirits sank when I saw my Apple Weather app was predicting downpours for both Friday and Saturday, the days I had earmarked for taking walking tours around Valparaiso and its tony neighbor, Vina Del Mar.

Happily, apps sometimes get it wrong. All day and into Friday evening, the sky only looked threatening. Steve and I spent hours enjoying a guided “free” (i.e. tips-supported) walking tour, while Michael and Stephanie roamed the city on their own. All of us enjoyed the place. Valpo (as it’s known) has had it’s share of hard knocks over the past 100-plus years. It developed on the shores of a fabulous natural harbor, but one so plagued by pirates in the 1500s that the original Spanish rulers decided to build their capital (Santiago) about 60 miles inland.

Looking down from one of the hillsides in Valparaiso. Vina Del Mar can be seen in the distance, across the bay.

Mining and seafaring activities made the coastal city boom in the late 1800s, when more than 30 steep funicular elevators were built to help locals ascend and descend the town’s vertiginous hills.

Sadly, only 8 are still working.

But then a quake in 1906 devastated the place, and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915 took more wind out of its sails. When the Germans invented a way to make a synthetic substitute for saltpeter chemically, that decimated the mining that had fueled the city’s short-lived boom. Valpo declined steeply throughout most of the 20th century, earning a reputation as a place of crime and decay.

When several of its oldest neighborhoods were declared a UN World Heritage Site in 2003, that attracted tourists whose presence has helped to turn things around. It also imposed a thicket of bureaucratic regulation, and we heard that local property owners have been divided over whether the UN designation has been worth it. From the visitor’s viewpoint, the wild architectural jumble that now exists is lots of fun to look at.

Some buildings have been beautifully restored, while some have been abandoned because the costs of fixing them up are now so prohibitive. Most buildings are brightly painted, and a burgeoning mural scene has added to the eye candy.

We met up with Mike and Stephanie after lunch, planning to take a walking tour of Vina del Mar together, but it wound up being canceled (because, we were told, the guide’s home had been broken into and burglarized), so we wound up seeing some of the sights on our own.

Parts of Vina reminded us of La Jolla, while other parts looked more like Rio.

Only by late afternoon did light sprinkles (and tired feet) drive us back to our hostel for a break.

The rain started in earnest Friday night and we woke Saturday morning to the sound of such a deafening downpour it made me want to snuggle down in bed and stay there all morning. Instead we checked out of our rooms, left our bags at the hostel’s front desk, and took an Uber to the one-time home (now museum) in Valparaiso of Chilean poet/diplomat/politician Pablo Neruda. La Sebastiana, as it’s known, is an enchanting place, full of color and art and interesting insights into Neruda’s large life.

The cow on the table was a punch bowl. Neruda hosted lots of parties.

Like magic, when we left the house, the rain had cleared, and we were able to walk for a while before catching another Uber, returning to the hostel, and hitting the road back to Santiago’s airport.

The weather’s been good since we landed in Mendoza Saturday night. Lots of clouds yesterday, but they cleared by Sunday evening, and today the weather app prediction for San Juan looks like this:

We plan to drive to San Juan, a few hours north of Mendoza, this afternoon. We’ll use it as our launchpad tomorrow: Eclipse Day. If the weather stays clear, that’ll be great, since it will let us concentrate on the other big looming challenge: figuring out where to go to watch the celestial drama.

Dark city, bright city

I came to Santiago (Chile) packing a 2017 New York Times article entitled “36 Hours in Santiago.” Steve and I actually had more than 50 hours in the Chilean capital, so I never intended to follow the Times itinerary to the letter. Still I like the 36- (or often 48- or 72-hours) in Wherever format; it suggests sightseeing highlights and often gives me ideas for where to eat. I borrowed the format last fall when I blogged about our 31 hours in Seoul, a stopover during which I concluded that Seoul deserves to be included on any list of the great cities on the planet. Fifty hours in Chile’s biggest city made me think Santiago doesn’t. But it also reminded me that any attempt to make snap judgments about a brief stop anywhere is fraught with peril.

Our first 24 hours in Santiago started off uncomfortably and then went downhill. I felt elated when our Avianca flight from Mexico City arrived about 8:20 pm Sunday — a bit early. But then we had to spend 40 minutes in line to get a simple entry stamp in our passports. We felt happy again to find our bags (which we checked, due to their weight) waiting for us on a moving carousel. After collecting them, we made our way through a gauntlet of some of the most aggressive taxi drivers I’ve confronted anywhere. I had studied up on the best way to take an Uber from the airport into the city, a move reported to be difficult because the taxi drivers hate the Uberfolk so much they sometimes physically attack them. I’d found (and photocopied) one detailed blog post that counseled going to the short-term parking lot next to the Holiday Inn across the street from the airport. Uber drivers could pick up passengers there without being harassed, this writer reported. But when Steve and I tried to follow his directions, we failed epically. The driver we were connected with texted us (in Spanish) that he could not get into that parking lot. He suggested meeting us elsewhere, but we couldn’t figure out where he was talking about. Finally, 20 minutes later, exhausted and irritated, we gave up and instead paid for a pre-paid taxi that turned out to be fast and efficient (if $10 more expensive than an Uber ride probably would have been.)

Our Airbnb apartment was fine, but by the time we reached it (around 10:30 pm), we were starving. (My advice: do not ever count on Avianca to feed you over the course of a long day.) Happily, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant across the street was still open, and we gobbled down some excellent seafood and Pisco sours before climbing into bed.

The doorbell buzzing at 6 am Monday morning surprised us awake. It was our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie, arriving two hours earlier than we expected them, and with a friend in tow whose hotel wasn’t accessible until 2 pm. They all collapsed with exhaustion, and Steve and I took to the street to do some exploring.

It was barely 40 degrees, the sky a dismal steely gray, rain clearly on the way. Looking for a coffee shop, we passed countless giant apartment buildings, most of them ranging in style from plain to ugly. Graffiti covered a lot of the facades, some of it muralistic but much simple tagging.

The Malpocho riverbed is a bit lacking in charm too.

On one corner a small knot of riot police appeared to be massing (though we saw nothing remotely riotous looking in the surrounding area.) We passed a number of dogs being walked, and I was charmed by how many were dressed, either in winter coats or raincoats. Still they didn’t look much happier than many of the people.

My spirits bounced up later, when we had collected Michael and Stephanie and Devin and headed to the historic heart of the city for a Chilean staple known as the “completo” — a hot dog laden with any of a host of toppings.

I chose the Italiano, so named for its colors.

After lunch we strolled around the huge central plaza, popping into the cathedral and central post office. It started drizzling, but we plowed on, visiting the central market and a old train station that’s been converted to a social center. By then the cold rain was strengthening; the sky darker. By the time we reached the central library, a vast structure that reminded me of New York City’s, I was too cold and tired to want to go in (though Steve, Mike, and Stephanie soldiered on). Once back in the apartment, I took some pleasure in my phone’s report that I had covered 8.8 miles and climbed 20 floors.

Saturday morning, Santiago felt like a different city. The rain was gone, and patches of sunny blue sky flirted with light clouds. It took us a while to get organized, but by late morning, the five of us had walked to the foot of Cerro San Cristobal, a spur of the Andes that’s one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. An ancient funicular carries passengers up to the top, near the site of a tower Virgin Mary. She looks quite strikingbut even more dazzling were the line of snow-laden nearby Andes that she overlooks.

The sight of them energized all of us. After a nearby lunch, we covered a lot more ground, walking to a huge central food market……a striking arts complex… and more. We also had a fantastic meal that night (almost 30 separates tastes showcasing the ancestral foods of Chile).

The day made me feel we could easily have enjoyed at least a few more days in Santiago. But we wanted at least a glimpse of the vast Chilean wine country. We’re in the midst of it now. Outside my Santa Cruz hotel window, the sky looks awfully threatening. At least we have a rental car to (mostly) get us around.

Waking up in CDMX

Mexico City impressed me when I first went there, around the end of 1978. It was the first non-European capital I’d ever visited, and it felt exotic. It was the Third World, as we called developing nations back then. On our taxi ride from the airport to our Zona Rosa hotel, I remember eyeing shanties; smelling burning garbage. That visit also exposed me to world-class marvels: the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the city’s huge central plaza, its marvelous anthropology museum, Chapultepec Park. We hung out mostly in the chic neighborhoods, and I recall concluding that the city seemed a wild mixture of Paris and Tijuana.

I liked it a lot, and Steve and I returned several times over the next few years, but the worst things about Mexico City — its choking air pollution and awful traffic — loomed larger and larger over time. Returning from Oaxaca in 1984, we passed through briefly but then didn’t go back for almost 35 years.

Seeing Mexico City again over the last two days made me feel like I had napped and awakened in a world that was familiar but also different in startling ways. Driving from the airport into town I noticed nothing like those old-school Latin American slums. (They must still exist, but in less obvious areas.) We smelled no burning garbage. When we rode the metro, the cars were packed and humid but cleaner and less odiferous than some crowded American subways I’ve endured.

Even the name has changed. Traditionally known as the Distrito Federal (Federal District) or simply DF, the city three years ago became more jurisdictionally independent, at the same time getting rechristened as La Ciudad de Mexico. CDMX (part acronym, part brand?) is now emblazoned on everything from buses to garbage cans (three classes for trash, organic, and recyclables). The moniker made me think of a computer operating system; made the urban center it represents seem somehow jazzier. Indeed everyone has cell phones; Bird scooters and Uber drivers are ubiquitous. Over and over I was struck by how comfortable I was; how much Mexico City now feels like home, if more brightly painted and stylish than San Diego.

Because of our previous visits here, we had told ourselves we need not be frenetic about sightseeing, but in the end we couldn’t resist slipping into our old hyperactive ways. We covered almost 9 miles on foot Friday; more than 10 yesterday. We walked from our Airbnb apartment in the elegant old Condesa neighborhood to visit a new museum downtown dedicated to pulque (the mildly alcoholic ancient Mexican drink of the masses that has gotten trendy in recent years.) The museum proved underwhelming, but admission included tastes, so I can now report that both peanut- and red-wine-flavored pulque are delicious.

Other flavor choices included cheese, honey, pineapple, pine nut, and more.

We spent time in two different art museums, one filled with the staggeringly huge collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

A crucified Christ made from an elephant tusk (or maybe several?) is just one of the 66,000 art objects on display.

Adjoining the Slim’s Museo Soumaya, the newish Museo Jumex, dedicated to contemporary art, was hosting a brainy exhibition focusing on the work of artists Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons. Besides us, it drew a throng of Mexicans of all ages.

Koons’ gigantic Play-doh pile (made of interlocking aluminum pieces rather than actual Play-doh) amazed me with its beauty and complex craftsmanship.

During our two days, we ate several meals at red-hot restaurants where we only lucked into tables because we arrived so much earlier than the locals.

We didn’t eat any street snacks, though they have to rank among the most colorful in the world.

What excited us more than anything was our experience in the city’s historic center. We decided to run down there on the spur of the moment, catching a metro from the Chapultepec station (5 minutes from our apartment) to the Zócalo. When I’d first seen it more than 40 years ago, that plaza blew my mind with its vastness. On Saturday afternoon, it seemed to have shrunk (probably in comparison with some of the other vast plazas I’ve tramped through over the years). Mexico City’s zocalo once was the site of a great pyramid in the heart of the Aztecs’ capital, Teotihuacan. But the Spanish conquistadors had torn the pyramid down and used the stones to create the plaza and cathedral and the other grand buildings that still surround it today.

The Spaniards’ willingness, even insouciance, about obliterating every trace of another civilization horrified Steve and me on our first visit. Back then we were intrigued by news of a recent discovery by some electricians working on metro construction. They had found a huge disk honoring the Aztec moon goddess that suggested part of the original temple might still exist, buried under the city that developed over it. Work on investigatory excavation had started, but it looked pretty puny. Still, it held promise.

My biggest Rip Van Winkle moment was seeing what has happened since. The Templo Mayor complex, as it’s now known, today covers a huge area behind the Cathedral.The biggest outer pyramid, which honored the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, is gone. But you can clearly see the remains of what it once sheltered: about a dozen levels of construction dating from 1375 to 1519. You can stare at the double staircase where the bodies of human sacrificial victims were thrown down the steps after their hearts were ripped out. An impressive museum fills in a lot of the details, gory and otherwise. The power and scale of what once filled this space are unmistakable. It made me happy to see two of the main cultures that shaped this country co-existing more equitably.

The Zócalo metro station has a nice model of what once filled the area.

I should add a brief mention of the biggest disappointment of this visit. According to our iPhone weather apps, the air quality was still “Unhealthy” (in the 150-200 range — compared to the 20-50 that’s more the norm in San Diego). It wasn’t as stratospherically bad as the air in India last fall. It didn’t seem as bad as the air I remember from my early forays here, but that’s probably because summer is the rainy season, which washes out some of the pollution (and we used to visit in the wintertime). I wish I could return in another 35 years. Even sooner. It seems possible more good changes may be evident.

But I’m posting this now from our Airbnb in Santiago, where we arrived last night. We’ll have about 6 days in Chile, and throughout that time we’ll be filling a blank slate.

An auspicious beginning

Steve and I finally got to use the new(ish) cross-border footbridge that enables pedestrians to walk from San Diego (Otay Mesa) to Tijuana’s international airport, and what a pleasure that was. The last time we flew out of TJ was decades ago, and I’m sure we did it because the fares on Aeromexico were cheaper. I remember the whole experience as nightmarish. First you had to drive to the border and cross it, then grind on for what felt like ages through bad slums and poorly designed roads. The terminal itself was dingy and jammed with endless lines of travelers schlepping gigantic suitcases and other paraphernalia. Steve remembers seeing ripe, discarded baby diapers and other trash strewn on the terminal floor.

What we saw on this departure was almost unimaginably different — spotless marble floors, good lighting, comfy waiting areas, tempting food choices. Best of all was getting to the Tijuana terminal. Our friend Alberto gave us a lift from our house to the clean modern building on the US side of the border (quite close to where Trump’s big, beautiful, wall prototypes were erected.) It took us just minutes to buy our one-way tickets ($20 per person) to walk across the bridge and obtain our Mexican visas (from a high-tech kiosk). We scanned the bridge ticket and our boarding pass at a gate that opened for us automatically. Then we strolled over and above that pesky border between the two countries. The passage couldn’t have taken even five minutes.

In the photo above, you see the actual bridge. It looks like any corridor in any modern airport. Through the window in it, we could glimpse that bothersome wall.

Emerging into the Mexican facility, we joined a line that briskly moved through immigration and customs to emerge in the spiffy terminal, steps away from the VIP Lounge. We could use it because we get free Priority Passes with our Chase Sapphire credit cards.

It was a pleasant place to wait for the hour before we boarded.

When I was shopping for flights to Mexico City, I was startled to learn that NONE depart from San Diego. Now I understand why. The carriers out of Tijuana compete ferociously. (We paid just $67 per person for the three-hour-plus flight, and I have friends who’ve snagged $70 round-trip bargains occasionally.) Even adding on the bridge-crossing fee, it feels like a great deal. Being able to saunter across the border as we did, one could almost glimpse a different, brighter future.

If only the rest of our transits on this trip are as smooth and stress-free….