On November 11th, 2023, I went on the 2.5 hour journey from Montréal to St Johnsbury, Vermont, to visit the Dog Chapel at Dog Mountain.
I’d heard about it recently via an article at Atlas Obscura. It’s a shrine atop a small hill, built in 2000 by Stephen Huneck, who was involved in a near-death experience in the mid-90’s. During his recovery he thought long and hard about the rituals surrounding death: why did we put so much importance in funeral ceremonies for humans, but not as much in similar ceremonies for our dearly departed furry friends? From these humble reflections he devised the idea of the Dog Chapel. Over the course of three years and with thanks to a generous donation from a local dog-loving couple, he built the chapel adjacent to his art gallery on his farm, Dog Mountain, in the Vermont countryside.
Huneck opened his property to the public, inviting anyone who had lost a pet to leave a photo on the chapel walls in their memory, and allowing anyone with a pup to enjoy the serenity of the mountain, free from leashes. Dogs of all creeds and breeds are welcome here! Sadly, Huneck took his own life in 2010, and his beloved wife Gwendolyn died three years afterwards, but his legacy lives on through the Friends Of Dog Mountain non-profit organization. Dog Mountain remains a staple New England attraction today.
In April 2023, my parent’s beloved English Staffy, Coco, passed the rainbow bridge after a long and joyful 14 years & four months with us on this planet. As soon as I heard about the Dog Chapel, I knew I had to pay a visit in tribute to our dear Coco.
So that’s exactly what I did, and I took some pics and video along the way to share with you:
One of my favourite outdoor spots around Toronto to spend time in is Tommy Thompson Park (a.k.a. the Leslie St. Spit), a not-too-well-known peninsula that extends into Lake Ontario from the far south end of Leslie St. It’s essentially a chunk of reclaimed land, formed from the dumping of unwanted construction material in the 1950’s, which has since transformed into an environmental wetlands & conservation area.
I’d written about it once before here on my blog, back in 2014. Take a peek at it for a more thorough photographic depiction of the gloriousness of this urban wilderness as a whole, but what I’ve come here to talk about today is a certain corner of the park’s backroads that I chanced upon in October 2017.
The good majority of Tommy Thompson Park is accessible by an asphalt road but there are a number of smaller, more rugged trails that branch off the primary track. My friend Conor and I were cycling in the area on a fall afternoon and opted for one such weather-beaten way. We came to precisely this point on the map when we noticed a curious structure made from the countless bricks and cinder blocks that lined the shores:
A very talented & motivated artist / amateur architect (quite possibly a group of them?) had gone to an incredible effort to build a fort along the park’s southern banks. We spent some time wandering around, marveling at how such a construction could possibly have come together in such a remote and difficult-to-access area.
I returned a few weeks later with my camera and took a bunch of shots to preserve the memory. As much as I wanted to share them to Reddit at the time, I refrained from doing so as a viral post could have led to an overabundance of curious visitors and potential vandalism of the site.
Despite my frequent return visits to the park it took me quite some time to stop by this particular corner again; alas, by 2020 the fort had been demolished. I’m not sure if its demise was accelerated by the harsh Ontarian wind or if it happened purely by human hands. Regardless, I finally feel like posting my pics of this magical lakeside artwork in memory of its creator(s) and the handful of people who were also lucky enough to stumble upon it and leave their own marks of appreciation.
Dotted around the fort were some smaller pieces of art and emotive dedications:
I was also quite impressed by the sheer number of ladybugs resting on the debris-laden lakeshore:
Prior to writing this post I tried to locate some further information on the brick fort, assuming others may have posted photos or a journal onto the web in the years that have passed. It was my hope that someone out there had laid claim to its creation. Aside from this Toronto Star article seven years prior to my visit questioning the origins of a similar, smaller brick shrine, I haven’t been able to find a thing.
Whoever you were, dear creator, the time I spent getting to know your charming fort was certainly time well spent. I remain in awe of your superb craftsmanship.
Today was the big day that the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) opened the 6-station subway extension to Line 1 – nine years in the making and with a budget of over $3.2 billion!
I thought to myself yesterday while preparing to go out on a downtown pub crawl that it’d be cool to be part of Toronto history and ride the first public train along the new line from Sheppard West to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. Despite getting kinda wasted and heading home from the last bar at a reasonably late time, I still managed to wake up early enough on a Sunday to catch the first southbound train from College, which would eventually lead me northbound towards Vaughan.
My friend Elaine had agreed to come for the ride as well, boarding the 7:55am southbound train from the first stop on the line, Finch. The plan was for me to meet her when it passed through College, but I failed to realise that other trains closer to the downtown area had commenced service at the same time. She wasn’t on the first train that passed through College, so I train-hopped until I found her on the next one. We may have missed the opportunity to be on the first ever public train to use the new track, but we were on the first train to do the full circuit from Finch to Vaughan.
The best thing about the journey along the new portion of the track was that the train driver opened up his compartment and allowed a few people in at a time to see the line up close & personal, from the perspective of the operator. It was a rare privilege to be able to see the TTC in this form.
Elaine & I got chatting with a guy sitting next to us; he told us he also travelled on the TTC the first day the northbound Spadina line extension opened in the late 70’s. Not only that, but he remembered being 4 or 5 years old and taking the subway when the first line was completed in the 50’s. He was pretty confident he’s gonna live long enough to be the first to travel on the Eglinton LRT when it opens in 2021 – providing of course that it doesn’t get delayed!
Pretty much everyone on the new track was there purely for the ride. There was a surprisingly upbeat, happy & celebratory mood in the first carriage, it was a really nice event to be part of.
We reached Vaughan Metropolitan Centre around 9am to a round of applause from the fellow passengers and a lot of fanfare at the beautiful new station.
There wasn’t too much going on outside the new station, it was kinda desolate all the way up in the northern suburbs. We managed to find a nearby diner for some brunch and then made our way back to the station for the return trip downtown.
I’ll probably never come up this far north again but I don’t at all regret getting up early after a night on the booze to be part of Toronto transit history this morning. The opening of a new train line is definitely not something that happens every day.
As a new resident to Toronto in 2013 it was impossible to ignore the bright lights of Honest Ed’s the first time I passed by the corner of Bloor & Bathurst, in the north-west of the downtown core.
Opened in 1948 by entrepreneur Ed Mirvish, it rose to prominence as the destination in town for no-frills bargains. Met with some resistance in its founding years, it ultimately carved a place in Toronto culture thanks its huge storefront display featuring tens of thousands of flashing light bulbs and pun-laden slogans (Honest Ed’s a nut! But look at the ‘cashew’ save!). You might compare its notoriety with something like Harrods in London – on the complete other end of the price & elegance scale, mind you – but a one-of-a-kind store that locals flock to & tourists read about in all their guidebooks. It became pretty clear to me that this place was an institution.
Unfortunately in mid-2014 it was announced Honest Ed’s would close on December 31st, 2016 to make way for a new residential & commercial development. With less than a week to go, I decided to drop by one final time today with my camera to snap a few shots of this lovable Toronto landmark before it’s gone forever.
The first time I walked through the store I was awestruck at how full it was with all kinds of trinkets, clothes, appliances, groceries & housewares. I recall my bemusement at the randomness of some of the merchandise on offer, in particular some $2.99 water bottles with a choice of either a Jamaican flag or a Newfoundland & Labrador flag printed on it, of all things. This is exactly the kinda weird stuff that gave Honest Ed’s its charm! Only a few minutes later in the clothing section upstairs I found a pair of jeans on sale for $2 – less than the price of the bloody Jamaica water bottle. Thanks to Ed Mirvish’s contribution to the Toronto performing arts scene, my eyes were drawn to the scores of theatrical posters & props lining the walls of the two buildings, alongside hand-painted shop signs from years gone by. It was certainly a colourful & eccentric shop to spend time in.
I wish I’d taken more pics of the place back then because the interior today was a shadow of its former self. The previously-packed rooms were now almost empty, with not much left to purchase aside from a few impractical bits & pieces which were clearly struggling to move off the shelves.
There was a whole section cordoned off for Honest Ed-related memorabilia though, where bins full of their iconic hand-painted signs were on offer as souvenirs. Most of today’s shoppers, including myself, could be found in this area trying to get their hands on a piece of Toronto signwriting history.
Last month the TTC subway station at Bathurst paid tribute to Honest Ed’s by installing signs & slogans in the spirit of the retailer. I’ve heard there are plans to turn it into a permanent feature of the station – here’s hoping this is true.
Thanks Honest Ed’s. It was a pleasure to have shopped in you over the past three years.
Oh and one final thing: I now have my very own authenticated piece of Honest Ed’s on display in my bathroom 🙂
Up until fairly recently I didn’t know all that much about Latin America. I’d made a few friends during my time living in Sydney, namely from Brazil & Venezuela, who recalled fond stories of their upbringing, but all I could really tell you about countries south of the US was that the mother tongue was either Spanish or Portuguese, political, social & economic struggles were common, they ate a lot of grilled meat, people danced salsa and football was a way of life.
All that changed when I moved to Toronto and found myself hanging out with a whole bunch of interesting folk from all around South America. Friends from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Chile told me stories of their home, their food & their culture and it made me curious to one day witness these places for myself.
Finally in late April this year I was able to make it happen! My Ecuadorian friend Vanessa (who I lived with in the crazy Kensington Market apartment that was evicted without notice) had since returned to Quito and my Chilean friend Natalia had returned to Santiago, so I decided to spend a week in each city while I had the opportunity to be there with people I knew.
Let me tell you, I was blown away by the beauty of both countries, not only in aesthetic terms but by the warmth & friendliness of the people I was lucky enough to meet – you just can’t compare the South American attitude to that of the North, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. So here I’m gonna tell some stories and share some photos about my time spent in Ecuador & Chile 🙂
But first, before I even left Montreal I got to witness something pretty unique (well, not unique in Canada but unique for someone who grew up in a tropical environment). There was a small amount of snowfall the previous evening so our plane had to be de-iced. I was sitting at the window directly above the left wing which gave me a close-up view of the guys spraying the orange de-icing concoction along the wing & fuselage. Pretty cool, I thought.
It was around an 8 hour journey from Montreal to Quito via Panama, touching down in the late afternoon just before sunset. The descent into Quito was good fun to watch from inside the plane, the city is very mountainous which provided some spectacular scenery and I imagine a rather intense navigational experience for the pilot.
At 2,850m elevation, Quito is the world’s highest (official) capital city. I’d been warned in my Lonely Planet guidebook and also by a friend who had previously spent some time in Quito to expect a certain amount of altitude sickness upon arrival – the suggestions are to take it easy for the first few days and lay off alcohol. I was trying to think of the previous highest place I’d been to, I’m pretty sure it was the 2,228m summit of Mt Kosciuszko which I’d ascended 5 years ago and experienced no adverse effects whatsoever. How bad could an extra 600 or so metres be?
Almost immediately upon landing & exiting the aircraft, I could tell there was something different about the Quitoan air. The oxygen was lacking up here compared to that of sea-level, it wasn’t a debilitating sensation, but I needed to put slightly more effort into breathing, especially after any form of physical activity.
Vanessa met me at the airport and we took a combination of taxi & two local buses into the city. We exited the taxi in suburban Quito and had to run a brief distance up the road to board the waiting bus; it was after this short burst of energy that I realised my guidebook’s advice to take it easy for the first few days was worth heeding. I felt nauseous and short of breath for 15 minutes before my heartbeat calmed and I could breathe ok again.
The fare collector came to take our money for the ticket. It was here I learnt that every bus ticket in metropolitan Quito cost 25 cents (the currency in Ecuador is US dollars). I guess to a local wage it’s an average price for public transport compared to the rest of the world, but for me and my Canadian-exchanged US dollars it was a bargain.
A big day of travel + the thin atmosphere took its toll on me – I was a wreck by the time we made it home. My head was throbbing, my stomach was queasy and I had next to no energy left. We reassessed our grand plans to visit Quilotoa the next day (a crater lake south of Quito) because if I was feeling sick here in the city at a relatively stable altitude, I’d be totally screwed in the mountains. Hell, I wasn’t sure if I even had it in me to visit Vanessa’s friends later in the evening.
Surprisingly though, all it took was a cup of tea and a few spoonfuls of Ecuadorian brown sugar to feel a heck of a lot better. Within half an hour I was almost cured of my altitude-induced ailments. Hurrah for home remedies!
We ended up spending some time at a nearby bar called Green Chili, with a bunch of fun people celebrating a birthday. It was here I had my first of what was to become many micheladas – my new favourite alcoholic drink featuring beer, lime, tabasco and salt. After the bar closed in the wee hours of the morning we moved onto a dance club in a converted suburban warehouse around a 20 minute taxi ride away, where we met some more friends. Dance clubs are not normally not my thing at all but I loved every minute of this place. We chilled to the sweet electronic beats until something ridiculous like 5am – a time I’d soon come to realise many locals still considered early.
What I originally imagined was gonna be a disappointing early first night in South America sleeping off my nausea & pounding migraine without as much as a sip of wine turned out pretty damn awesome in the end.
Mitad del Mundo
I was feeling relatively good the next day after a late sleep-in, although I wasn’t confident I’d survive Quilotoa if we were to have made the journey. Instead we decided to check out Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City), an attraction built around a monument that sits smack bang on the centre of the equator, around 25km north of Quito.
We took a taxi to a bus station around half an hour away. Normally a taxi fare like this in a north American city would cost upwards of $40, but here in Quito? $5.67. The bus (again, 25 cents) was an experience of its own. Firstly, the traffic along the initial 2km of the journey was ridiculous, I hadn’t heard so many car horns honking in unison since I was in Cairo. Secondly, the bus rarely came to a stop as it collected passengers along the way; instead it would slow to a roll while people jumped from the kerbside through the permanently-open door onto the moving vehicle.
It was an hour’s ride to the Mitad del Mundo, where I made my way directly to the monument in the centre of the park to admire the view while standing directly atop the equator, on both the Northern and Southern hemispheres at the same time.
Curiously though, there are two claims to the equatorial line. The official line is the yellow one running through the grounds of the Mitad del Mundo, however just next door is the Museo de Sitio Intiñán (Intiñán Solar Museum) which advertises itself to be located on the true equator. Supposedly today’s calculations show the true equator to be a few hundred metres away from where the line was originally defined in 1736. Not only that, but even with today’s hi-tech navigational systems, the slight differences between military & civilian GPS means there is still debate as to the exact location of the 0 latitude.
Anyway, we stopped by the Museo de Sitio Intiñán and went on a very entertaining tour, the highlights of which included a glimpse of a real-life shrunken head, some important advice from our guide related to swimming in the Amazon (namely: don’t ever piss in the water because there’s a certain breed of fish that can sense the ammonia in your urine and make its way into your urethra), and a bunch of fun experiments on the line of the “true” equator. We saw a demonstration of how water spins in opposite directions depending on which side of the equator a basin was located and we got to balance an egg on a nail thanks to the centrifugal force being at its weakest on the equatorial line. As much as I’d love to believe these were genuine scientific facts I do seem to think a small amount of tourist gullibility was involved 😉
An Audience with the President
I was told of an event held each week at the Presidential Palace, within Plaza Grande at the centre of Quito’s Old City. At 11am every Monday amongst a whole lot of pomp & circumstance, the President of Ecuador (currently Rafael Correa) and his ministry appear at the top of the building to hold a brief audience with the crowd below. Fans & critics alike line the streets, some patriotically draped in Ecuadorian flags, others holding placards of protest, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the #1 politician in the country.
I arrived in good time before the ceremony began on this sunny Monday morning; already there were scores of schoolchildren being ushered onto the closed-off street in front of the building to witness the parade, as well as peaceful protesters setting themselves up to make their messages as visible as possible to Mr Correa. I had a decent spot at the front and waited 30 minutes for the crowd to grow. Right on 11am the ceremony began with a marching band weaving its way through the presidential corridors, eventually making their way onto the street followed by a group of heavily armed & uniformed guards on horseback.
A master of ceremonies delivered a few short words in Spanish and welcomed the presidential party onto the balcony of the palace. The band played the National Anthem and the crowd sung along passionately as Rafael Correa & his colleagues stood and waved at us below. They took in the sights for 10 minutes before retreating back indoors. The only words spoken came from the MC – there was no direct address from the president or any other politician so it was clearly a ceremonial PR event, but his local admirers & tourists alike enjoyed the experience and it gave his critics an opportunity to peacefully get their point across in a direct manner.
Within 15 minutes of the president leaving, the ceremony came to an end and the street opened up to traffic again.
I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’d seen a Head of State in the flesh, I don’t think I ever even witnessed any live sittings of Prime Ministers in my own home country. I certainly never imagined I’d get to be within view of the President of Ecuador. It was a pretty cool way to spend a Monday morning!
Over the course of my stay in Quito I was constantly in awe of its sensational views thanks to its position in the mountains, as well as its beautifully paved & colourful streets around the Old City with historic buildings on every corner. They say Quito has the best-preserved & least-altered colonial town centre in all of Latin America, so much so that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1978.
Here are some of the more impressive sights I saw from around the Quito streets:
My favourite building in all of Quito was a church in the centre of the Old City known as La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Here’s what it looked like from the outside:
It’s certainly a grand building based upon its exterior, with construction beginning in 1605 and taking 160 years to complete. However it’s the inside that truly blows you away – the whole of the interior is decorated in gold leaf.
You’re not allowed to take photos of the inside but here’s the main photo from its Wikipedia page (which is well worth checking out for more awesome shots of its decorations):
Vanessa lived in a super convenient part of the Old City, in a gorgeous building with some of her family and her adorable pup, Bianco. I loved when we took Bianco out for walks, the little guy was so happy.
By my 4th day in Quito I was almost completely free of the effects of altitude and I was ready to venture further into the mountains. I really wanted to go to Quilotoa to see the famed lake but it was tough to find a company who offered a mid-week tour, so I opted for a tour to Cotopaxi Volcano instead.
Located around 50km south of Quito, the volcano is one of the world’s highest with a summit of just under 5,900 metres. It’s also very much in ‘active’ status, having decimated nearby cities over the past few hundred years, its most recent eruption occurring as little as 6 months ago. As much as I’d love to have summited it, this particular tour instead took us on a trek through the hills surrounding the volcano.
I met my guide Pedro and our driver (whose name evades me) early in the morning and we embarked upon the fairly straightforward journey to the national park. The closer we got to our destination, the more we could see the weather wasn’t ideal. Pedro warned me we may not even get the chance to view the volcano because of the heavy cloud cover.
We stopped for breakfast in a tiny roadside village near the town of Machachi. You know those sketchy places you hear about in foreign countries where it’s recommended you don’t eat the food for fear of E. coli and other such nasty bugs? On initial inspection, this appeared to be one such place considering there was what seemed to be a rabid German Shepherd guarding the entrance:
Making our way onwards towards the volcano, our driver dropped Pedro and I at the starting point for our trek. Pedro gave him instructions about what to do in the event of an eruption and directed him to where we’d be meeting him in a few hours time. Indeed the weather had remained pretty shitty but the fog & mist surrounding us did offer an excitingly eerie atmosphere. Pedro said he was gonna take me via the challenging route because I looked fit enough, and so began our breathtaking 1 hour 52 min, 6.16km hike with a climb of 222 metres and maximum elevation of 4.04km (thanks MapMyRun for the stats!)
Despite my lack of experience hiking at elevation I thought I pulled up pretty damn well. When we arrived at the meeting point the clouds cleared for a very short while and we were offered a partial view of this magnificent bastard of a volcano:
I think if I ever return to Ecuador, I’ll be taking the tour that gets me right to the top.
Slightly to the east of downtown Quito is a neighbourhood known as Guapulo, famous (as I was told) for being the home of rich & influential Spanish ambassadors while also sheltering the city’s alternative/hipster community, not to mention serving as the choice district for carrying out drug deals. The mixture of rich & poor is clearly noticeable while driving up & down the INSANELY steep roads (seriously, I think these are the steepest city roads I’ve seen), with huge mansions on one side and graffiti-laden divebars & sketchy lower-class housing on the other.
We came here with Vanessa’s coworker Liz, who impressed me with her expert driving along the ridiculous streets. At one stage near the base of the neighbourhood we reached a dead end, the only way out was to u-turn along a 30º incline or something stupid like that. I can tell you if I was driving I would have given up and left the car to the thieves but Liz somehow navigated her way around, managing to pull off a 21-point turn with some help from a friendly passing cyclist.
After quickly dropping by the gorgeous Guapulo church, we stopped at Cafe Guapulo for dinner, around half way between the highest & lowest points of the neighbourhood. I had here a warm drink, the name of which I forget, that was sweet, bright red in colour and contained strawberries & cinnamon. Man, it was SO GOOD. This place ranks in my top 5 bars of all time – not only does it serve delicious sweet warm strawberry cinnamon drinks, but it’s full of hipster art and the outside seating area has a surprisingly stunning view of the city below. My photos didn’t do it justice but go check some out on Google Images and you’ll see what I mean.
This place should be a recommended location in the guidebooks to Ecuador but I don’t see it listed in any of them.
I wasn’t originally planning to visit the cemetery. My guidebook had talked highly of Iglesia de San Diego, a convent a short distance east of the Old City, which was apparently worth taking a tour through. I headed there on Wednesday morning, noticing how the further I travelled from the city centre, the dirtier & poorer-looking the area became. Even though I presumably had the lord on my side thanks to an upcoming visit to a holy site, I still made extra certain my wallet was tightly sealed away in my inner jacket pocket.
I was greeted by an unfriendly nun at the church who almost immediately wrote me off as a lousy tourist, I vaguely translated her as saying “we don’t do English tours here” before she shut the door on my face. Disappointed at walking a fair distance for such inhospitable treatment from a nun, I decided to instead wander around the cemetery just opposite the church. I didn’t know what to expect aside from a bunch of tombstones like you see in an average western cemetery, but boy was I wrong. I soon learnt Latin American cemeteries are really something else.
If they decide to bury me when I die, I hope they bring me here.
Some pretty awesome food
I’d never had so much access to South American cuisine before; as such I was suitably impressed with the food options around Quito. If you wanted to brave the street food you could eat local cuisine for as little as a few cents or you could spend a handful of dollars to dine at a decent sit-down eatery. Alternatively, something more upmarket wasn’t at all out of budgetary reach.
Last year I experimented with Tinder to some success by changing my profile picture to a photo of a toilet. I was curious to see how this approach would play out in a South American environment so I redownloaded the app and got swiping.
Surprisingly (or, not surprisingly?) it worked wonderfully. Within the space of a few hours I had a bunch of matches and was happily exchanging broken Spanish/English messages with girls from all around the city, curious at this foreign porcelain newcomer to the Tinder scene. It was all good fun and I wasn’t expecting to actually meet anyone through it due to my short stay, but on my final day in town it turned out that I did get to make a new real-life Tinder friend!
I met my new acquaintance Pau at Plaza Grande just outside the main cathedral, who suggested we go to the nearby Plaza Chica Cafe, in a quiet open setting just behind some central offices. For someone who had never been outside South America she spoke pretty good English. They served us a 3-course meal from a set menu of Ecuadorian delicacies, including a soup full of local grains, a main course of tender beef, rice & more grains, plus a dessert and a delicious glass of papaya juice. Something like this in a north American city restaurant could have easily come to thirty bucks but here in Quito? $5.
Pau worked at a nearby museum and was kind enough to invite me there after lunch to see the many exhibitions on the social, geographical and religious history of Quito.
Not only that but after my museum visit we walked on down to La Ronda where we ate ice cream at Dulce Placer Heladeria, a local institution that serves a recipe with the hilarious name of Caca de Perro (dog shit!) It was worth coming to Quito just for this 😀
It never ceases to amaze me how a dumb photo of a toilet can actually lead me to meet awesome people in foreign countries.
(Although it’s worth noting this approach didn’t work at all in Santiago. Only the Ecuadorians were interested in talking to a toilet).
Later that evening I went with Vanessa and two of her friends, Gonzalo & Carla, to Marsical Sucre, a thriving entertainment district full of stylish bars, restaurants and cafes. It was here that we went to Mama Clorinda and I ate the cuy, recommended in my guidebook and by locals as the #1 place in town to sample some guinea pig. We followed this with a drink at Dirty Sanchez, a funky hipster bar also recommended in my guidebook which happens to be owned by someone Vanessa knew.
It was a really nice evening. I left the bar happy knowing the people I met in Quito were all genuinely warm, friendly & welcoming, very much in line with the South American people I’d gotten to know during my time in Toronto. This was a good place to be.
After going to bed late and waking from a very short sleep, the same driver who took me to Cotopaxi met me at 4am for the trip to the airport. I was off to Chile to hang out with Natalia and see what Santiago had to offer – even better, Vanessa was meeting us there the next day.
Rather illogically, the most affordable flight I could find returned me to Panama in the north where I caught my connection to Santiago. A week or two beforehand, Copa Airlines emailed me asking if I’d like to suggest a payment for a chance at an upgrade to business class. I could start at $100 for a small chance or I could offer to pay as much as $500 if I recall correctly, which was basically guaranteed. I set the slider to $150 and was quite happy to hear a day before my flight that I’d been accepted for the upgrade.
It was an exceptionally relaxing 6 hour flight, worth each of those hundred and fifty dollars. I got wasted on gin & tonic and watched The Notebook. I cried. Don’t judge me, I was drunk.
Thanks to my business class seat, I was the first person off the plane upon arrival into Santiago, and therefore should have been the first to enter the line at immigration. However, it turns out Australians and Mexicans entering Chile have to enter a separate line first to pay a reciprocity fee – Mexicans pay US$23 and Aussies pay $117 (no other nationalities need to cough up). By the time my transaction was processed the whole plane had disembarked so I now became the final person in the immigration queue!
It took ages to get through, I picked up my bags, bought a SIM card and went to get a taxi to Natalia’s place. She’d told me not to accept a taxi if it was going to be any more than $6,000 (Chilean pesos, equal to around $9 Canadian); of course the first taxi company I enquired with wanted to slug me $17,000 (about $31 Canadian dollars). I went outside and asked a taxi driver on the street, this time he said in broken English “one six thousand” before writing a different number on a sheet of paper for me, 17,000. Clearly I was too much of a tourist for them to charge me the local rate. In the end, Natalia’s father (who happens to be a taxi driver) kindly offered to pick me up. He turned on the meter to see how much the actual rate would have ended up being: $5,800. Lesson learnt: taxis in Santiago are a hell of a lot more expensive than their counterparts in Quito, especially if you’re a gringo.
We arrived home, where I met Natalia’s amazing family who were extremely hospitable to me for the whole of my stay in Santiago. I’ve honestly never felt so welcomed before, especially considering the language barrier and the fact I’d only just met them. They prepared some typical Chilean food for dinner and we ate and chatted and drank wine & cherry liqueur until the early hours of the morning.
Vanessa took a different flight to me and arrived at an ungodly hour in the morning. It was great to be reunited with both my friends in the same city again, and after breakfast we prepared for a weekend trip to the nearby city of Valparaíso, the second largest urban area in Chile and home to the busiest sea port in the country.
My time spent in Valparaíso was the highlight of my whole South American trip. I felt like I connected in some way with this city, there was a slight comparison to my beloved Kensington Market in Toronto, albeit the Chilean variation had a much more rough & real feel to it.
It took a long time to get there on the bus because it was the easter weekend and every man & his dog was out travelling, but we eventually made it and walked the couple of kilometres to our hostel. The thing is, Valparaíso is so hilly with so many winding paths that it was almost impossible to find our way. I’m normally good with Google Maps but it was suggesting we take ridiculous routes that didn’t even exist. Finally we made it after countless flights of stairs and numerous stops to ask for directions.
Because the city is so hilly, an extensive network of funicular railways was built in the early 1900’s to assist with pedestrian accessibility. Out of the 26 ascensor systems in total only 8 remain in action today; one of the first things we did was take a trip up the Artillería ascensor, the most popular & touristic of all the railways.
At the top we stopped at a restaurant for some delicious seafood empanadas, before walking around a local market and spying a nearby car who had run into some trouble trying to turn around in one of the narrow, steep streets. It reminded me of being in Guapulo a few days ago where Liz had to expertly manoeuvre the car to escape a dead end.
Later in the evening it really hit me that Latin Americans are in a whole other mindset when it comes to partying compared to your typical American or Canadian. Normally if I was to have a night out I’d leave around 8-10pm, stay out a few hours, hit a couple of venues and be home maybe by 2am or 3 at the latest. Here, the damn party starts at 2 and doesn’t even get pumping til 3 or 4! So at a time when I’d normally be getting to bed (if not already fast asleep) early on a Saturday morning, here I was still getting ready to leave. The problem was the opposite for my Latin friends when they were in Canada. By the time they were ready to party the locals were already on their way home.
The next day after a decent sleep in, Vanessa left for Santiago to visit Pame, another friend who used to live in Toronto, while Natalia and I continued to explore the streets. This is where I really fell in love with the city and its funky, artistic ambience. We visited Paseo Yugoslavo, a wonderful art gallery that exhibited pictures of Valparaíso from centuries gone by, as well as Casa Museo La Sebastiana, the house of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Here are a few more highlights from around Valparaíso:
Before returning to Santiago ourselves we took a bus to the nearby city of Viña del Mar. In stark contrast, Viña appeared much cleaner and more accessible to tourists who perhaps appreciated the finer things in life rather than the rough urban feel of Valparaíso, with casinos, nice hotels and a glorious walk beside the Pacific to enjoy. Personally, Valparaíso was more my jive but it was still worth checking out its richer cousin a few miles away.
We returned to Santiago pretty late (by my standards anyway, around 10:30pm). In true Chilean style we went on out again at 1 in the morning to meet back up with Vanessa and a bunch of other friends at a nightclub. Another crazy late night of dancing!
Throughout my time in Ecuador & Chile I noticed a hell of a lot of street dogs left to fend for themselves on the busy city roads. They were more predominant in Chile over Ecuador, especially in Valparaíso where it seemed to be an epidemic. Thankfully all street dogs I encountered were friendly & approachable.
My favourite dog was in Valparaíso. We noticed after a few minutes of walking that this particular pup kept within a 20 metre radius of us either in front or behind. He stopped when we stopped to wait for the traffic and he turned when we turned. He was with us for at least 20 minutes but never directly acknowledged our presence until right at the end, when he came to sniff us as if to say “thanks humans!” and continued on his merry way by himself.
Here are some of the street dogs I saw around Valparaíso and Santiago:
And for good measure, this little fella from Quito:
There were three distinctively Chilean drinks that I sampled during my time in Santiago: the terremoto,mote con huesillo and pisco sour.
The markets & the cemetery
Constanza had heard of a local company called Tours4Tips and suggested we try one of of their walking tours. We chose the Santiago Offbeat 10am Tour, which lasted around 3 hours and worked on the premise of donation; you paid your guide whatever you thought the tour was worth at the end.
It was one of the coolest walking tours I’ve done because it took us through some truly offbeat sections of the city that a normal tourist would perhaps overlook. This particular tour focused on the many marketplaces dotted around Santiago’s river, followed by an excursion a little further afield to the cemetery.
I enjoyed these markets more than I typically enjoy their western counterparts. The crowds & chaos here in Santiago offered a much more authentic feel than what I’ve become used to dealing with at the elegant & peaceful Atwater Market in Montreal.
Following the market our tour took us on toward the municipal cemetery. I had been here already a few days beforehand with another of Natalia’s friends, Edu, but this time we were returning with a guide who could tell us stories about the people buried there. This was the most fascinating part of the tour for me.
While not as beautiful as the cemetery I went to in Quito, the Santiago one was at least double the size and was distinctly separated into class. There were elaborate mausoleums for those lucky enough to die with money in their pockets; the middle-class were buried in upright crypts similar to those in Quito (our guide told us there can be as many as 11 people’s remains within a single crypt); the lower-class were shunned to the unkempt grassy fields on the northern side.
But the most interesting part of the cemetery was the story of Romualdito, a 12 year old boy who was allegedly murdered in the 1930’s. His tragedy outraged the population to the point where his tomb was enshrined; even today people still visit his grave to leave him messages and ask for his help.
To end the tour, our guide sat us down around the memorial for Salvador Allende, Chile’s president up until 1973 when he supposedly committed suicide (or was killed, depending on which story you read) after which the Pinochet dictatorship commenced. He related to us with great passion some stories about Chile’s dark political past and how the people endured the painful years under Pinochet’s control. It’s impressive to see how far the country has come in such a short period of time since their return to democracy.
Tension on the streets
I felt pretty safe in both Quito & Santiago during the day, but nighttime was a different story. It had been recommended not to walk alone after dark in either city and not to carry much cash. I made a habit of leaving my credit cards & passport at home, only taking what little cash I needed for the day.
On the Tuesday night I spent in Santiago, March 29th, I was given a particular warning to be home as early as possible and not to go outside at all during the night. Known as the Day of the Young Combatant, March 29th is seen as an annual commemoration for two young brothers who lost their lives from police fire in 1985. Ever since then, politically-frustrated Chileans (also know as the ‘criminal youth’) have gotten together on this day to protest against the government and police, some years involving violence, fire-bombings and injuries to anyone who happens to be in the way. I think it was a good idea to remain inside this particular night. At least the good news was Chile beat Venezuela, 1-4.
The only other time my safety felt like it could have been compromised was while walking with Edu – we’d just hiked around the Metropolitan Park and were on our way down the south-eastern slope of the mountain. We’d made it back to the city streets when we saw a woman running towards us, screaming something in Spanish which I couldn’t understand but was presumably some kind of call for help. We both stepped back & declined to be involved. A guy was chasing after her, trying in creepy way to embrace her & calm her down as she continued to yell obscenities at him and request assistance from other passers-by. Once they were no longer in sight I asked Edu what the hell that was all about. Apparently she was screaming something along the lines of “He drugged me! He drugged me! He’s going to rape me, please help! Get him away!”
As shocking as it was to have witnessed that in front of our eyes, who knows what would have happened if anyone had stepped in. I later told this to a friend and she suggested it was a setup – perhaps they were criminals working together, trying to attract attention and get an innocent member of the public to call the police. While they were distracted & on the phone, it would have been the perfect opportunity for either one of the couple or someone else in on the plan to snatch a handbag, wallet or the phone they were calling from.
A month before leaving for my vacation I checked the gig guides for concerts in & around Santiago while I was going to be there. I just missed out on Lollapalooza, and Coldplay were playing there the night after I was due to leave – the only big show I could find reference to was Julio Iglesias.
I barely knew a thing about him aside from the fact that he’s Enrique’s father, but I soon learnt he was the best-selling Latin artist of all time with 300 million album sales to his name. I checked out a few of his tracks, liked what I heard, and booked a couple of tickets to his show on the Wednesday night.
3 days before the show I got an email from the ticketing agency saying the concert has been rescheduled to October. Goddammit. I was looking forward to seeing this guy, it would have been something totally different to what I was used to. Although Natalia was relieved cause she wasn’t a fan of his to begin with 🙂
So the Wednesday night came around and I still wanted to go out to see some live music to make up for the lack of Julio Iglesias in my life. Natalia wasn’t feeling the best and decided not to come out, but we looked up some options online and I settled upon a live music bar called La Maestra Vida in the Bellavista district. It was a good option because it started relatively early (the website said 11pm) and I had to be up at a decent hour the next morning to take a day trip. I was warned that 11pm seemed a little too early for a party on a Wednesday night, but I (foolishly) trusted the website and went anyway, with strict instructions as to which street I should take to get there, which side of the street to walk on, and which streets I definitely shouldn’t walk on at this time of the evening.
I got to the bar right on 11pm & paid my $4,000 to get in, to find I was basically the only person there. *sigh*
I ordered a pisco sour from the bar. The barmaid told me the music was due to start at 12:30am, but that I should stick around because they were a famous Argentinian band and were bound to put on a great show. And with that, I took my drink to a table adjacent to the dance floor and waited. The drink was ridiculously strong.
Within half an hour a bit more of a crowd had formed and the DJ started to spin some Latino classics for everyone to dance to. Then all of a sudden this idiot drunk guy tripped over while he was dancing and fell onto my table, knocking my pisco sour all over me & smashing the glass into thousands of pieces over the floor. I looked at him as if to say WHAT THE FUCK DUDE but he mumbled something back in Spanish that I’m pretty sure translated to “Go fuck yourself”. Everyone looked at me, the once-friendly, now-annoyed barmaid came over to clean the mess assuming I dropped the glass myself, and I was pissed off that the stupid band hadn’t come on yet, I had to be up early and I was sticky & gross with sugary wine all over my clothes. I waited and fumed to myself until 12:30am upon which I left this ridiculous bar because there was STILL NO SIGN of the band even having arrived to set up.
In hindsight, it’s friggin’ hilarious to think this was the one night I was particularly looking forward to where I’d actually planned something – the world’s greatest Spanish musician set squarely in my sights! But in reality I ended up alone & angry at a Bellavista dive bar with sticky clothes and no music at all.
Oh, and I still don’t have my refund for the the bloody Julio Iglesias tickets. I’m told I should have it by mid-June. COME ON, PUNTO TICKET, GET IT TOGETHER!
I wanted to go on a day trip in Santiago similar to the Cotopaxi tour I did in Ecuador, so I found a company called EcoChile who offered an excursion to the Andes called the Glaciers & Hot Springs Tour. I met my guide Franco, our driver Cristian and two other couples (one from California and another from Birmingham UK) early in the morning and we set off on the 3-hour road trip to the mountains.
Although it’s only a fairly short distance from Santiago as the crow flies, the road through the mountains was long and at times treacherous, you really needed to be a concentrated driver to navigate these curves. Thankfully, Cristian was well up to the job, this guy was nuts! He took our trusty little van a hell of a lot further up the track than the guys with the jeep could get theirs.
It was around an hour & a half trek to get to the El Morado Glacier. Cristian became more & more excited the closer we got to the glacier, because he’s the guy who normally has to return to the van with the tourists who decide they can’t go any further (which apparently happens almost every time). We were told we were a great group because we all kept a good pace and nobody complained about how demanding the climb was. We all made it!
We ate a packed lunch by the lake & slowly made our way back down the track to the van. From here, we continued deeper into the mountains to the Colina Hot Springs. Spring water from a nearby volcano seeped out of the ground, cascading into a collection of pools that had been built. The highest pool contained the hottest water (I’d guess 45-50º?) It was relaxing for the first three minutes but quickly became unbearable. The water trickled from here down into the lower pools, becoming progressively cooler with each pool. After an hour bathing & relaxing our weary muscles in the springs our guides prepared us a delicious picnic dinner with cheese, cold meats, olives, fruit & a glass of wine while overlooking this awe-inspiring landscape.
Apparently the Argentinian border was only a handful of kilometres away from here.
We didn’t get back to Santiago until around 10pm. It was a magnificently exhausting day.
The cancelled flight
My final evening in Santiago was spent again with Natalia’s lovely family; I’d prepared some lamingtons so they could all sample some traditional Australian sweets, and we went out for some sushi at a downtown Japanese restaurant.
I said my goodbyes early the following morning and made my way to the airport by bus. I checked in, cleared immigration, boarded the plane, went through all that rigmarole without a hitch and we were happily taxiing towards the runway when completely out of the blue the plane stopped and the power went off. 20 minutes later, a bus had pulled up beside the plane on the tarmac to take us back to the terminal. After a confusing & frustrating hour wait, we were told the flight had been cancelled due to technical difficulties and we had to collect our baggage & return through customs back into the main airport hall.
Long story short, what was supposed to have taken 3 airports & 12 hours ended up taking a stay in a hotel, 5 airports, a bus transfer between airports in New York (delayed by an hour but thankfully I didn’t miss my connection because the flight was delayed too), and 40 sleepless hours in total to get back to Montreal. I didn’t get to bed til 1am Monday morning and had to be in the office in just a few hours. Jesus Christ.
Copa Airlines did alright though, I complained and they offered me a $300 travel voucher for the inconvenience.
Looks like I have no choice but to return to South America again soon?
A very happy vacation
I may not have had an immersive experience in South America, but the brief couple of weeks I spent in Ecuador & Chile exceeded all my expectations. It was a whole lot more than just grilled meat, football and salsa dancing.
But really, it all comes down to the people I met & spent time with while I was there. Plenty of times in the past I’ve travelled to places where I’ve seen breathtaking sights either alone or with a group of other backpackers who have congregated from elsewhere – while this type of vacation isn’t at all bad, it does lack a certain personal touch.
This vacation was different. I got to spend time with wonderful local people who graciously invited me into their own lives & culture for a few days, and that’s what made for a truly special experience.
I’m so happy to have amazing friends who live all around the world 🙂
Donations to assist victims of the Ecuador earthquake can be made via the UN, Red Cross or other such charities
Around 35km east of Montreal lies Mont Saint-Hilaire, a mountain which shares the same name as the surrounding township. With its multitude of hiking & skiing tracks and four summits ranging in height from 320m to 414m, it’s an accessible day trip for anyone in the Montreal region who fancies a moderately-graded trek or some cross country skiing during the snowy months.
I’ve spent much of my time in Montreal over the past year exploring Mont-Royal, the peak in the centre of the island which the city surrounds, but I’d recently been eyeing off some of the hills a little further afield. Mont Saint-Hilaire was one of those that caught my attention, so with a warm Sunday forecast of -4º (well maybe not warm in the strict sense of the word, but still 35 degrees warmer than the previous weekend) I set off on the #200 bus and completed my journey with a taxi to the park’s entrance, the Gault Nature Reserve.
Here are some photos from my delightful 5 hour wander around Mont Saint-Hilaire 🙂
The eerie, foggy forest on the way to the first peak, Burnt Hill
A curious & hungry squirrel at the Pain de Sucre summit:
The breathtaking panorama of Pain de Sucre:
From Dieppe Summit looking back towards Pain de Sucre:
The sun finally came out of hiding along the hike to the Rocky summit:
As an Australian who grew up only ever experiencing two seasons (namely: hot & wet followed by not-quite-as-hot & dry), the north American continent hasn’t yet ceased to amaze me after experiencing its seasonal variances for the past two years. From the brutal -38ºC Toronto/Montreal winter to the sweaty, humid summer a good 70º warmer than its icy counterpart, it must be a meteorologist’s dream (or nightmare, depending on how you see it) to know the job varies so extremely throughout the year.
Only last Monday the high was 24ºC with most of the city’s population out & about in their shorts & t-shirts; this weekend we had our first snowfall of the season and it didn’t get above 6º. I think people would riot if a drastic change in weather like this ever took place in my north Queensland home town!
I took the opportunity over the past two days to explore the gorgeous autumnal foliage of the city during its transitional period between summer & winter. I began Saturday morning on the north-western face of Mont-Royal, a small mountain in downtown Montreal bursting with greenery & hiking tracks, before detouring through Mont-Royal cemetery where the skies opened up with a short but intense flurry of snow. After the sun returned I ventured along a number of mountain trails, stopping by two lookouts as well as the famous cross that can be seen lit up from miles away at night. Sunday saw a visit to Parc Jean-Drapeau, situated on a small island east of downtown, well-known for its 1967 world expo attraction, the ‘Biosphere’.
Here are a bunch of photos I snapped over this Montreal fall weekend:
Isn’t it beautiful?
Maybe my next post will be of Montreal in the winter…
Burgers are awesome! I’m living on the perfect continent to satisfy any burger craving. There are diners, bars and restaurants on almost every corner serving a myriad of recipes ranging from the traditional favourites to the highly experimental. I’ve had a few burgers I would class as ‘phenomenal’ throughout my time in North America so far: notably at the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, Vermont, and at Burger Royal right here in Montreal.
A few months ago my Toronto friends Juilie & Cory told me about a burger restaurant they dined at in the small Ontario city of Cornwall called Truffles Burger Bar. They spoke extremely highly of it and suggested I check it out with them next time they were in town. Such a recommendation naturally piqued my curiosity, and it just so happened that they made the drive back to Cornwall this weekend. I took the hour-long train ride west of Montreal and joined them both in town for lunch today.
To get an idea of what to expect at Truffles, I had a browse through their online menu a couple of days beforehand. The burgers sure sounded impressive – they were definitely on the gourmet side of the scale, ranging from the Surf & Turf (beef, lobster & garlic butter) to the Apple Burger (pulled pork, baked apples & goat cheese). They even had a selection of exotic meats to choose from, such as llama, venison, kangaroo & bison.
However there was one burger in particular that really caught my attention:
Are you serious?! I thought to myself. A hundred dollar burger? That’s ludicrous! Who in their right mind would want to buy a gold-dusted burger with black truffles for $100?
It didn’t take long to come to the realisation that, in fact, I was precisely one of those people who would buy a gold-dusted burger with black truffles for $100.
We were greeted and served by a jovial young chap who had travelled all the way from Laval (in Quebec) to work at this venue in Cornwall. I wasn’t quite 100% sure at this stage if I would go ahead with the S.G.B. so I asked a bit more about it first. Our waiter gladly assisted in selling the idea to me by showing me a photo of what to expect. I can’t lie: it looked amazing.
Ok, what the hell. I’ll do it.
Juilie opted for the Snapping Alligator (with curry fruit tapenade) and Cory settled on the Beaver Creek (locally-farmed elk with blue cheese, mushroom & sautéed onion). With that, our orders were placed and we waited patiently for our meals while sipping on some delicious white wine, expertly selected again by Juilie.
A short while later, our orders arrived.
Now, it’s not every day that one forks out such a large sum of hard-earned cash for what is commonly known as an inexpensive fast food staple, so I made sure to document as much of the occasion as I could.
Here, I present to you, the Truffles Burger Bar Solid Gold Burger:
So there you have it: that’s what a $100 burger looks like.
Was it worth it? For the taste alone, probably not… I mean, yes, it was a great tasting burger – the beef was cooked to precision, the black truffles added a slight nutty dimension to the mix and with the foie gras came a definitive hint of complexity – I just can’t say it tasted like $100.
But was it worth it for the experience?
Hell yeah it was! It’s a freakin’ gold-dusted burger served on a gold plate with a glass of champagne! For 20 minutes of my life as I chewed my way through this masterpiece, I felt like royalty. And that, in my humble opinion, is well worth the money I spent.
It’s a tradition at Truffles Burger Bar that if you order the Solid Gold Burger, you get your photo taken to be included on their official Facebook page:
After we finished our meal I logged on to check the pic and saw a comment from a guy called Steven, who pretty much summed it all up:
If this guy actually flew from Australia to try this burger…no matter how good it is… and I am sure it is wonderful…it validates what my father used to say that “Some people have more money than brains.”
But seriously, if you ever find yourself in Cornwall, you should stop by Truffles Burger Bar for a meal. Yeah, Solid Gold is a little extreme, but there are plenty of other delicious and less expensive options to choose from. I for one have my eye on the Camel Burger for next time.
Thanks so much to Juilie & Cory for recommending this place and showing me around Cornwall, it’s a lovely town!!
I love Google Maps. Sometimes I bring up Toronto and explore the city from above, searching for interesting streets, suburbs, towns and green areas around the GTA to potentially explore in real life.
A few months ago I became curious about this peninsula extending into Lake Ontario, south of Leslie Street in Toronto’s east end:
I soon found myself researching Tommy Thompson Park to see if it was worth visiting. I was surprised to learn the peninsula, known as the Leslie Street Spit, is entirely man-made out of millions of tonnes of concrete, rubble, earth and dredged sand. Construction began in the 1950’s with the intention of providing port facilities for Toronto’s outer harbour, but the demand declined in the end due to a decrease in shipping across the lake. Nevertheless, there was still a need to dispose of disused building materials from the ever-expanding city so construction of the headland continued primarily as a dumping ground.
The headland was opened to the public in the early 1970’s with a huge transformation taking place in the decades that followed, from that of a refuse ground into an area of environmental and recreational significance. It’s with thanks to organisations such as Friends of the Spit that the people of Toronto can today enjoy a beautiful green space boasted as North America’s most remarkable public urban wilderness, complete with over 400 species of plant life, 300 species of birds, cycling tracks, walking trails and some of the most gorgeous scenery you’re likely to see so close to a major city.
I paid my first visit to Tommy Thompson Park in July of this year, where I was quick to note its impressive greenery. Unfortunately it was a gloomy day and I barely made it a few hundred metres into the park before the skies opened up and I had to turn around. I did manage to snap a few pictures that day, which I took as a brief introduction to what was yet to come:
It wasn’t until yesterday that my friend Loanne and I finally got around to embarking upon an adventure to the lighthouse at the far end of the park. It was a chilly fall morning – 1°C as I left home, as a matter of fact – but the sun was shining brightly and the air was still. Perfect weather for a 10km hike, as far as I was concerned!
Here is some of what we saw:
It’s difficult to believe that when construction of the spit began, there was no intention whatsoever for it to become an urban wilderness. I can’t imagine what anyone involved in its initial development would think if they saw how breathtaking it’s turned out today.
As with most attractions I see in & around Toronto, I would highly recommend any local to visit Tommy Thompson Park to see it for themselves. I’m already making plans to go back at some stage during the winter and I can’t wait to see how different the wetlands look under a couple of glorious feet of snow.