Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, Chile

Other than our self-guided walking tour of Santiago, the only other thing we wanted to do during our short stay in the city was to go up Costanera Tower in Santiago, the tallest building in Latin America. However, because the fog was so bad that day the women at the desk selling tickets advised us not to go up because we wouldn’t be able to see the mountains, we decided to save our money and skip it.

We said adiós to Santiago and set off in our rental car for Viña del Mar. For the 2 1/2 hour drive we opted to skip the toll roads, and boy what an adventure that was! The roads were some of the most curvy, winding mountainous roads I’ve seen since driving around in Greece but they were all paved and in good condition. There was almost nothing in sight for miles and miles other than beautiful countryside. We also almost ran out of gas too but with fumes left in the tank we made it to a gas station in the nick of time.

I had reserved a condo through Airbnb and the place was even better than I expected. For much less than we would have paid for a comparable condo overlooking the beach back in the United States, we had four bedrooms, a full kitchen, dining room, living room, washer and dryer, swimming pool, huge balcony spanning the length of the condo, all in a safe, gated community. Check out the view from our balcony:

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When I was planning our vacation I was trying to decide whether we should stay in Valparaiso or Viña del Mar. I read that Valparaíso has more charm than its neighbor but Viña del Mar is safer and more of a beach getaway. After seeing Valparaíso I could see what people mean. Valparaíso has more of an edge to it that some people prefer, while Viña del Mar is full of high rises and shopping centers. That being  said, the view from our condo was stunning whether it was day or night (see above photo and last photo) and I felt completely safe at all times.

Before leaving our hotel in Santiago, we had been warned not to leave a single thing in our rental car while in Valparaiso or thieves would break the window to steal it. We took this to heart and didn’t leave anything in the car when we parked in Valparaíso. However, we walked and drove all over Viña del Mar, even after it was dark and never once did we feel like we were in an unsafe area.

One thing I do feel the need to mention is the huge amount of stray dogs in Chile. As an animal-lover, it’s heart-breaking. This sad-looking little dog followed us steadfastly one evening for a couple of miles, hoping to join our pack. We called her “Chile.” She ultimately left us just before we entered the gate to go up the funicular to our apartment.

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“Chile”

Of course one of the first things we wanted to do when we arrived in Viña del Mar was go to the beach. Although it was a bit chilly for lying on the sand in a bathing suit and the water was far too cold to swim in, it was perfect weather for walking along the beach, which we did on multiple occasions. There are a few restaurants along the beach but since it was off-season it was pretty quiet when we were there. We also took advantage of the workout equipment along the beach to have the best workout at the most scenic “gym” I’ve ever been to!

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The most fun I’ve ever had doing leg press!

Of course a must-do while in Valparaíso is to take a tour of the famous poet and Chilean diplomat Pablo Neruda’s former house, “La Sebastiana.” Neruda had three houses, one in Santiago, one in Isla Negra, and this one in Valparaíso. It seemed to me that La Sebastiana had the most character of the three houses, so we chose this one to tour. This was definitely one of the most unique homes I’ve ever been in, from the design to the furnishings and choice of decor. The bar area with the unique knick knacks and bathroom with the clear glass door by the bar particularly come to mind. It’s definitely a place you have to experience in-person to fully appreciate.

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Pablo Neruda’s former home
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View from inside Pablo Neruda’s former home

The website is here for La Sebastiana. Entrance fees are 7,000 Chilean pesos per person or about $10.50 US with discounts for Chilean students and Chilean adults over 60. The self-guided tour takes roughly an hour, includes an audio guide for each floor and is available in English, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.

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Some colorful houses in Valparaiso

We also visited Palacio Rioja, a beautiful historic home in Viña del Mar built in 1907 where you can take a self-guided tour for free. Palacio Rioja has been declared a National Monument and later a Museum of Decorative Arts. Guided tours can be arranged (although not in English) and more information can be found here. I highly recommend visiting here if you’re ever in the area.

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Palacio Rioja
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Inside Palacio Rioja

On subsequent days in Viña del Mar we walked along the beach, walked to nearby restaurants and shops and relaxed thoroughly. The sunsets here were spectacular and many evenings we would find ourselves just gazing out the window at the fading sun and lights from the cars and stores below. This is a place I could definitely see myself returning to. The people here are friendly, traffic isn’t bad, and there are plenty of shops and restaurants and other things to do in the area.

Alas, our time in Viña del Mar was coming to a close, and we packed up and headed off to the next part of our adventure in Chile- to a more remote section called Las Cabras in the O’Higgins Region. This would prove to be the most challenging portion of our vacation yet but we had no idea of that at the time!

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Walking Tour of Santiago- My First Taste of Chile

My husband, daughter, and I just barely made our flight to Chile. We had a connecting flight through Atlanta which was delayed, so we had about 20 minutes to get from the terminal where we had flown into to the international terminal. This was the last flight of the day from Atlanta to Santiago, too, so if we missed the flight we would have had to wait until the next day. Atlanta airport is huge and has trains to connect the terminals because they’re so far apart. As soon as we got off the plane in Atlanta, we ran to the international terminal and were next-to-last to board the plane (one guy was right behind us). With huge sighs of relief, we were off to our South American adventure!

The flight from Atlanta to Santiago is about 9 and a half hours. Since we left at 10:30 at night, that means we arrived the next morning. Despite getting almost no sleep, the plan was to stay awake all day. Chile is on the same time zone as eastern standard time, so there was no time zone adjustment for us, which made it easier.

Surprisingly, our hotel, the fabulous and highly recommended 5 star Regal Pacific let us check in when we stopped by around 10:00 that morning. I was just going to see if we could drop our luggage at the front desk but they actually let us have our room, which was a pleasant surprise.  Our room was spacious, had very comfortable beds, and a great view of the city and the mountains. The hotel is in a great location, right by a metro station, close to restaurants, bars, and cafes, and has one of the most impressive free hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had. There is also a pool and spa. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend staying here. We had enough points through hotels.com that our night here was free!

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View from our room at the Regal Pacific

On our first day in Santiago we took the metro and had our own walking tour. Our first stop was Palacio de la Moneda. This huge building takes up an entire block that was once the Chilean mint now houses the president of Chile and other government offices. Not far from the Palacio de la Moneda is Bandera Street, where you can find many clothing stores.

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Palacio de la Moneda

If you continue down Bandera to San Pablo Street you’ll come to Mercado Central that’s full of fresh seafood, fruits, and vegetables. We stumbled upon Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, truly one of the most ornate churches I’ve ever seen. My husband said he would place it in a tie with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I didn’t take any photos inside because there were signs saying not to but here’s one of the outside.

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Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago
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Sculpture in Plaza de Armas
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Plaza de Armas

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Not far from Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago is Plaza de Armas, a big square full of street entertainers, a fountain, an amphitheater, and the Museo Historico Nacional. Our final stop on our tour was my favorite, Cerro Santa Lucia, a place that is difficult to fully encapsulate all that it is. Cerro Santa Lucia is a park on a hillside with something new to see at every turn. There are cobblestone walkways, winding and steep stairways, gardens, fountains, turrets, towers, and some great views of the city.

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Cerro Santa Lucia
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View from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia
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Cerro Santa Lucia
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Cerro Santa Lucia

There are free walking tour groups available in Santiago. I thought about going with this group but decided to just go it on our own instead. While I’m sure there’s a lot of historical information we missed out on by not taking the tour, I just wasn’t feeling up to a 4-hour tour confined to a group. We were able to go to these places I mentioned here at our own pace and while I had specific stops in mind, it was fun to just wander around a bit!

One thing to note about Santiago, driving is not recommended. Although we picked up a rental car at the airport upon arrival for the latter portion of our vacation in Chile, we simply drove the car from the airport to the hotel, and parked it safely in the garage until we were ready to leave Santiago. We had no problem figuring out the Metro system and found it to be quick, reliable, cheap, and safe. I can’t say the same about driving in Santiago, as we found out when we came back the day we were flying out of Santiago. Driving in Santiago seems worse than driving in Manhattan (which I also wouldn’t advise to a tourist)!

Long Weekend in Morristown, New Jersey

I recently ran a half marathon in Morristown, New Jersey and decided to check out the area for a few days before the race. Although I have been to New Jersey a few other times, I had never been to this particular part of the state. Morristown is about an hour to hour and a half from New York City, depending on traffic and it’s a very beautiful area full of huge houses, farmland, and trees and flowers everywhere.

We had a rental car that we picked up at Newark Airport, so we could explore the city easily. When we first arrived, we were looking for a restaurant for lunch but had wandered into a residential area and saw enormous homes with huge lawns that must have cost millions of dollars. There were rolling hills and beautiful gardens everywhere, which seemed fitting given the state nickname is “The Garden State.”

On our first day we pretty much just walked around and took in the sights and got our bearings. The following day we went to the Ellis Island Museum and Statue of Liberty, my first time to either. Between the drive to Liberty Station and back, taking the ferry, and touring the museum and statue, that was pretty much a full day for us. We returned to our hotel, Best Western Plus, which was great. They have large rooms with small kitchens, wine tastings Monday through Wednesday, a Caribbean-themed restaurant, and a good central location. We really enjoyed the made-to-order omelette station for breakfast in the mornings.

We decided to check out Fosterfields Living Historical Farm in Morris Township for something a little different. The 1920s farm sits on over 200 acres and includes the Gothic revival style home built in 1854, although it has been a working farm since 1760. Previous owners include Jonathan Ogden, followed by the grandson of Paul Revere, General Joseph Warren Revere, and later the Foster family. There are docents walking around the grounds dressed in period clothing and performing tasks similar to what would have been done when it was still a working farm.

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There are pigs, cows, sheep, horses, chickens, and turkeys, some of which may have babies there if you’re lucky like we were. My daughter and husband took part in weighing the piglets using a scale that would have been used by the Foster family. I don’t know how many of you have ever been around piglets but they are really loud when they squeal! There are also cow milking demonstations and you can help grind the corn and feed the chickens, churn butter, and collect eggs. This farm is great if you have young to tween age children because of all of the hands-on experiences.

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See the runt on the far right? That’s the one we weighed.

If you want to go inside the Willows, the Foster family home, you have to pay extra and take an hour-long tour. You can go inside the small cottage near the Willows, however, for no extra fee. There is a lovely flower garden in front of the cottage as well. Finally, there is a transportation exhibit full of antique automobiles.

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The Willows
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Cottage by the Willows

You can easily spend a couple of hours here. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for kids ages 4-16, $2 for children 2 and 3. Children 2 and under are free. This is a fun way to spend some time with your family and let your kids see what farm life was like in the early 1900’s.

My half marathon was the following day so that took up the morning. We went to Swiss Chalet Bakery & Cafe for lunch and had some paninis followed by some dessert. My daughter got this adorable cupcake which was almost too cute to eat.

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Finally we drove back to the airport to begin our next adventure- our first time to South America, beginning in Santiago, Chile.

How many of you are like me and think New Jersey gets a bad rap?  The parts I’ve been to have been very nice. Sure, there are bad sections, but every state has some bad sections.

Three Places to Stop if You’re Driving from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon

When planning a family vacation to Utah and the Grand Canyon in late winter, I wanted a place or two to break up the drive between Bryce Canyon National Park and the Grand Canyon. Page, Arizona came up as an option. To drive straight from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon takes about 5 hours (depending on weather and how busy the roads are), which isn’t awful, but to drive from Bryce Canyon to Page, Arizona is about 2 hours, 40 minutes. That sounded like a better idea to me, considering we would already have a 4 hour drive from the Grand Canyon to the airport in Las Vegas. Plus, I discovered “The Wave” and fell down that rabbit hole which turned out to be a bit complicated. Alas, hiking in the Wave was not to be (that deserves a post all to itself).

Stop 1:  Page, Arizona- Antelope Canyon

The biggest reason you may want to add a stop-over in Page is to visit Antelope Canyon. You can take an Antelope Canyon Boat Tour that takes you along Lake Powell, or you can take a guided walking tour. We opted for the walking tour with Ken’s Tours and it exceeded my expectations. Not only was the tour just our family, so we got our own private tour, we also got photography lessons along the way. The tips our guide showed us were invaluable and worth even more than what we paid for the tour itself. Not only did he physically show us how to adjust our cameras for different settings along the tour, he also took photos of us on our cameras. He also gave us advice and tips for future times. I am definitely a novice photographer so any and all tips were greatly appreciated.

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The tour took us one hour from start to finish, but our tour guide told us in the busy summer months, it often takes an hour just to get from the main building where you check-in to the start of the tour (it took us maybe 10 minutes at the most). This is another reason why visiting during the winter can be the best time of year to visit the area.

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There are two types of tours, the general tour, which lasts an hour and costs $25 per person for ages 13 and up, $17 for children ages 7-12, and children 6 and under are free. The photographer tour lasts 2 hours, 15 minutes and during the summer you need to get a special use permit from from Navajo Parks and Recreation (another reason to visit during the less-busy winter). This tour is only for ages 16 and up and costs $47 per person.

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Where to stay and eat in Page, Arizona

We stayed at Comfort Inn & Suites and found it to be comfortable, clean, and the suite I reserved was enormous. There were two rooms, one with a king bed, TV, and patio off it, and the other room had a sofa bed, desk, TV, refrigerator, and microwave. We swam in the indoor pool and relaxed in the hot tub after we took our tour of Antelope Canyon. The location was convenient to restaurants and shops in Page. We ate lunch at Mandarin Gourmet, a Chinese restaurant that we found to have a surprisingly delicious and affordable buffet. We had dinner at Big John’s Texas BBQ, and while my husband liked his brisket, I didn’t care for mine, but our daughter said her pulled pork sandwich was good. I guess overall that’s a pretty good rating.

Our tour guide from Antelope Canyon told us about a place where the rich and famous stay when visiting the area, and I looked it up; it does look pretty amazing. It’s Amangiri in Canyon Point, Utah, and the room rates when I checked were around $2000-$3000 per night before taxes and fees. Our guide told us actor Hugh Jackman once stayed there and took a tour with their group of the canyon.

Stop 2:  Glen Canyon Dam

Just outside Page, Arizona is the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes the Glen Canyon Dam. The recreation area encompasses hundreds of miles from Marble Canyon and Lees Ferry in northern Arizona to southern Utah, including Lake Powell. There are trails for hiking, boat tours, and tours of the dam. Dam tours are 45 minutes long and cost $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 7-16, and free for children 6 and under. Adults 62 and older and members of the military are $4. Tour times vary by season, so check the website for details.

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View from Glen Canyon visitor center
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Glen Canyon Dam
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Views from Glen Canyon visitor center

Stop 3:  Cameron, Arizona

Another option for a place to break up the drive between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon is Cameron, Arizona. Cameron is smaller than Page but is an unexpectedly unique little place to stop for lunch or dinner. We stopped at Cameron Trading Post and had Navajo tacos for lunch. Not only were the tacos delicious, it was interesting just looking at all of the handmade blankets and other artwork on the walls and around the dining room. There were also shelves upon shelves of pottery, dreamcatchers, clothing, and many other souvenirs in the gift shop. Touristy? Yes, but still interesting.

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In addition to the gift shop and restaurant, Cameron Trading Post also has an art gallery, convenience store, and garden. You can also spend the night at the motel here. Although the single and double rooms look pretty simple, the luxury suites look a bit nicer and the prices seem reasonable. If you have an RV, there’s also an RV park here for $35/night.

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Cameron is a great place to stop to fill up with gas, have lunch, and stretch your legs for a bit before you finish up the drive to the Grand Canyon. A word of warning, there are long stretches along the drive from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon where there is nothing but Navajo- or other government-owned land on either side of the highway with no businesses or gas stations for miles upon miles. Make sure you fill up the car with gas before you leave Bryce. You definitely wouldn’t want to run out of gas on this road. Cameron Trading Post is about 57 miles from Grand Canyon Village, so you’re in the home stretch at this point!