Valparaiso and Coquimbo Rides, 11/12 April 2010

The visits to Valparaiso and Coquimbo were on consecutive days so I have combined the reports of the two rides.

The Valparaiso visit coincided with the end of the first part of the cruise. We were thus prevented from leaving the ship early until the other passengers had cleared the ship. Upon moving into our new room, we grabbed the bikes and exited the ship around 1045am with the required return by 430pm. Thus our ride was somewhat curtailed.

We exited the ship gangway and were required to load the bikes on a shuttle bus to get to the pier exit point. The NCL Sun was moored in the industrial part of the harbor amid stacks of containers and several loading freighters. The ride in the shuttle took us almost three miles to the opposite end of the port at the north end. The ride through the port allowed us to see the greater part of the town around sea level, although we could also see the roads and homes rising at dizzying angles up the high, steep sided mountains surrounding the town. We were amazed at the steep angles of the roads and the lack of switchbacks to help the climb in many areas. It is these steep hills and roads that lead many to call Valparaiso the San Francisco of South America.

Note the steep road under the wires

I was also looking for damage from the recent earthquake. I saw little. I did see a building being repaired with a large fabric cover protecting its three stories. I assume this was an important historic building, but I could see that the interior was missing in many areas. I am told that this was the type of damage in many Chilean cities called lying damage—where the outside of the building seemed undamaged, but the inside was not so lucky. In other areas, I saw missing buildings or rubble on a hillside, but I don’t know whether any of these observations were evidence of the earthquake or rather some older efforts of rehabilitation. I had been told by ship’s crew that the harbor around the cruise port was undamaged but some of the industrial areas of the port did have some damage. But I suspect the opposite was true. A pier immediately fronting the customs area where the shuttle bus let us off was empty and unused. I suspect this was the original cruise pier and that something led the port authorities to move our pier of entry to the industrial area.

Immediately adjacent to the customs area were train tracks carrying Valparaiso local trains from one end of the city to the other. A policeman at the customs exit area volunteered that we should use the bike/walking path just on the other side of the train tracks and that the path was narrow if we headed farther from our ship but it widened if we headed toward the ship. We saw many single bikers using the path in both directions and decided to head back toward the ship.

For the first block or two, the buildings fronting the path were rundown ones, but newer buildings appeared soon, many housing night clubs and other commercial stores not open at this early hour on Sunday. We also passed by some curio shops. We began to see and hear cars and busses loaded with cheering green-clad young people, some carrying large green and white flags and sounding horns. Although some of our shipmates later told me they thought this was some kind of a political rally, I believe it more likely that this was the crowd travelling to a local soccer (football) match. We passed several train stations along the route as the ship eventually came into view. Here, also, the road opened into a square called Sotomayor Square—not named after our new Supreme Court justice, I presume. Valparaiso is the site of the National legislature, and I believe this was the reason for the large building on the opposite side of the square. Several other statues also honored heroes of the Chilean past.

Sotomayor Square with the parliament in the background

Looking for a site where we could comfortably get lunch and use the internet for our Skype phone calls, we dismounted the bike and walked into a tourist area, but not one for ship borne tourists, but, instead, for Chileans who were visiting the port area. Dozens of shops lined our path and hawkers shouted in Spanish about their wares. There were woven goods, jewelry, hats, artwork, and other items, but the loudest shouts were reserved for hawkers pushing harbor tours. Nearly a dozen boats with passenger capacity ranging from four to more than 40 were moored in this part of the harbor and a few were on their way out for the tours. The riders were not cruise passengers. All wore life vests. They seemed to travel to parts of the port in which most cruise passengers would not have been interested.

Chilean Sea Bass and Congeria at lunch

The Chilean Navy ported many ships here, ranging from 2000 ton destroyers to smaller patrol boats and even a diesel-powered submarine of relatively new design. The submarine was venting steam from one side for about an hour, but none of the other ships showed any indication of activity or even personnel topside. These were moored to a pier which extended into the harbor and around our own NCL Sun. Later, as the Sun was leaving port, I did see autos driving the almost ¾ mile along this pier.

We asked one of the vendors about a restaurant with wifi and he recommended the Bote Salvavidas restaurant, pointing us toward a white two-story structure at the head of this shopping area. We locked the bikes outside the restaurant and climbed the stairs to the second floor to get a good view of the harbor. We were very near our own cruise ship, but the other parts of the harbor were more active and interesting. The restaurant had wifi and gave us the security code as we perused the menu. We ordered Chilean Sea Bass and a Congeria special for our main courses but skipped the wine because we had bike riding ahead. On the other hand, when Marilyn spied another waiter shaking a shaker and pouring a white cloudy liquid, we decided to share a Pisco Sour. Pisco turns out to be 70 proof liquor distilled 30 miles outside Valparaiso and used as the national drink in the sour. I believe it is made from grapes, although it is colorless. The drink was tasty and similar to a whiskey sour.

The food was excellent. Marilyn was amazed to be able to eat Chilean Sea Bass in Chile. It was prepared stuffed with shrimp and another thin sliced fish. Marilyn had to get them to cook the shrimp more because it seemed raw, but this was quickly accomplished. My Congeria was grilled and tasted and looked like a form of snapper. It was served with a homemade salsa. Dessert was a pancake with chocolate sauce and vanilla “Helado” along with a caramel sauce—delicious.

Not so delicious was our effort with the wifi. We tried for 30 minutes to connect to the internet. We could connect to the router, but not the internet. Several different helpers from the restaurant first showed me that they could connect using their telephone, although even they could not connect using their own laptop computer. We never were able to use the service.

After lunch ($50 with tip), we headed back to the shuttle pick up area. We saw no other wifi areas on the ride back and decided to use the service we had seen inside the terminal area. Checking in there, we encountered the same problem. Twenty minutes of effort turned out unsuccessful. We used their terminals to handle email but could not connect on the laptop to allow phone calls. We reloaded the bikes on the shuttle and rode back to the ship. Immediately upon reaching the ship, we put the bikes away and headed to the internet café on board to try the service there. Here, we learned that the internet connectivity was also not working on the ship and that the ship’s systems people were working on it. The internet clerk opined that some other signal was interfering at the frequency band used for the internet download to the router. I looked across the harbor, suspecting the Chilean Navy ships, but could see none of their radars revolving and active. I still don’t know what the problem was, but later in the day, after we left port, the ship’s system was working fine.

We traveled overnight to Coquimbo and docked at 7am. The day was grey with fog and the temperature hovered around 60 degrees. Marilyn and I were able to get out into the harbor area after breakfast at 10am. Coquimbo is a city of 110,000 persons set around a harbor at the foot of hills only slightly less dramatic in slope from those in Valparaiso. Visible from the harbor area were a monstrous cross atop a hill half a mile inland from the port, a mosque tower to the north of the town, and the new stadium for soccer.

We decided to find a wifi café before making any deeper bike-rides throughout Coquimbo, and headed two blocks inland toward the city center to try a 10-story building which could have been a hotel. The roads paralleling the harbor were one way ones; thus, we had to move two blocks inland before we could head east and north around the harbor. The building turned out to be a commercial building with no wifi available, so we continued on this street east and north. The riding was easy on this two lane wide street because many busses kept the traffic speed low as they stopped for traffic lights and passenger stops. The buildings here were older small commercial establishments with an occasional hostel or bar, a few banks, a notario shop, and other stores like phone shops and magazine stands. We continued on for 15 blocks without finding a satisfactory place to use wifi and then passed into a university area. We passed by the mosque tower and then decided to head down to the shoreline to seek an appropriate path to ride and to head toward the resort area to the north.

Immediately upon reaching the bottom of the hill and the beach, we encountered a perfectly adequate walkway/bike path combination alongside the two lane highway. The beach here was 100 yards deep and the local authorities were combing the beach to remove trash. Birds crowded the beach—gulls and terns, and I could even see several pelicans flying low over the low surf. The ride was a pretty one for the next several miles. The beach and bike path continued on for 10 miles or more into a resort area containing a casino. At one point in the ride, we spotted a sign for a restaurant at one end of a set of cabanas and likely beach rental houses. I crossed the street to check for wifi and noticed the restaurant was dark. Peering inside, I could see there were no tables or any furniture. I did see a single man inside using a cell phone that came to the locked door and worked a set of chains and locks before opening the door. He indicated the place was not open and was only open for use by cabana patrons. Apparently, the season was over. I explained that I sought a coffee shop and he suggested a Starbucks 100 yards up the street inland next to a gasoline station. When I asked whether this was really a Starbucks store, he said he meant only that they served coffee. When I asked whether they had wifi, he volunteered that he had wifi in his office here and that I could use that if I wanted.

Internet connection under the cabana

Bike path in Coquimbo with NCL Sun in the mist

I called for Marilyn to join me and we locked the bikes outside his office in the one story building adjacent to the restaurant building. He offered use of the couch in his office but then suggested we could use the table and chairs in front of the cabana next door under their porch. He gave us the security code and site id and we set up our computer. We connected on Skype and spent the next 90 minutes completing our business and personal calls. Ten minutes into our effort, the clerk came out with a tray containing a thermos of hot water, two sets of coffee cups, instant coffee packages, and two packages of cookies/crackers. And he refused to take any money. 40 minutes later, he climbed into his car and indicated he would be out for a few minutes to do something. Ten minutes later, he came back with a companion and lunch and they ate together in his office. As we finished and loaded our backpacks for the ride continuation, we stopped by to say goodbye and to thank him profusely. We asked for a restaurant recommendation. He said there were good restaurants around the casino ahead, but that he couldn’t afford to go there and had no experience with them. Marilyn asked about the pubs which we had heard were the residue of the English influence in this area over the last 100 years. He indicated these could be found just beyond where our ship was moored at the pier, but to be careful because these may be rough establishments. He, himself, tended to avoid them. He was very helpful. I am incredulous that anyone would do something like us for strangers. What a wonderful country!

We returned to the bike path and headed north. This area is a wetland marsh with a broad beach on one side and grassy marshes opposite on the other side of the road. Birds were very numerous. In addition to those mentioned earlier, I saw turkey vultures, curlews with their long downward curved beaks, black and white stilts, and several other species which I couldn’t identify. After a few miles, we came upon a new-looking restaurant along the road and decided to try it. We were cold and decided to eat inside, although a couple ahead of us took an outside seat. The owner/waiter provided warm rolls and hot tea while we ordered and waited for salmon and the grilled Congeria. We ordered these with the salad and were amazed and delighted when the beautiful dishes appeared. The colors were striking, with the yellow corn, very bright green peas, gorgeous orange carrots, dark red beets, red cabbage, avocado, tomato, and lettuce. The fish came with homemade tartar sauce, butter, and salsa on the side. It was delicious. A few more customers came in as we enjoyed the meal and the views.

Lunch near the casino in Coquimbo

I noticed a small skiff in the distance and spied a man walking within it. I assumed he was fishing, but then noticed that he seemed to be bailing out the boat. I was initially concerned that the boat might be sinking 100 yards offshore. Later, when I watched him pulling in a net, I decided that he had pulled in the net earlier and brought in much water along with some fish. He was now bailing out the skiff before trying the net again.

Turning back toward town after lunch, I continued to be amazed by the birds. Pelicans appeared in larger and larger numbers. I think these were brown pelicans, but some might have been another species, perhaps white pelicans. Near the port, there was one ten foot high wall in front of which sat 5 locals on the beach below.

Vultures take over a vacant Coquimbo apartment building

Coquimbo fishermen sit on beach below a wall of 100 pelicans

Atop the wall were 50-100 pelicans. At another point, I spotted a four story apartment building across from the beach with several dozen large black vultures sitting on the roof and top floor balconies. I presume the building was empty although it was not more than a few years old.

As we rode closer to the port, we entered a section 4-5 blocks long replete with fresh fish markets and local souvenir stands. Here, the smell of the sea was strong and was accompanied by what could have been the smell of rotting fish. There were many cruise patrons here and some later told us they tried the fish but were turned off by the strong fish smell.

We reentered the port area at around 4pm and returned to the ship. The day had been a very successful one from our point of view and we found we liked this town a lot. Later, on the ship’s 13th deck, awaiting the ship’s unmooring, I marveled at the gorgeous view as the sun came out for a short period. The seas were glassy. I spied at least three harbor seals fishing within 100 yards of the ship. I watched hundreds of pelicans come in from their fishing day further out at sea. As the ship began to pull away from the pier without the help of a tugboat waiting nearby, hundreds of pelicans and a thousand gulls took flight and headed for the disturbed water around the aft portion of the ship. Here, they gorged themselves on the sea life brought up to the surface by the ship’s maneuvering engines. Everyone loves a cruise ship.


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