Journey to the biggest pool in the world! Not.

Maybe you’ve heard that the world’s biggest pool is located in Chile. Way back in August, a colleague advertised that her beachfront condo was available to rent. Nancy and I sat on my sofa, looking at the photos of the apartment, and we realized it was located AT THE BIGGEST POOL IN THE WORLD! Although I cringed at the idea of building a humongous pool literally right next to the ocean, and I didn’t even want to speculate about the environmental impact, I also couldn’t help but admit it would be pretty dang cool to say I went to the biggest pool in the world. Nancy and I got all giddy and decided to book it for Tony’s birthday, a long weekend.

As I said, that was back in August. Once we booked the apartment, we didn’t even think about it again. We didn’t do any research. We just piled in the car after school on Thursday, Dec. 7, and headed toward Crystal Lagoon. After a slight misunderstanding with Google Maps, which had us drive on the beach for a bit, we arrived at the compound. We signed in at the gate and received our resort bracelets, pulled up to the parking area, and dashed around the building to see the pool and the beach beyond.

If this were a movie, the scene would freeze with a close-up on our perplexed expressions, and then pan out to a wide angle shot of the large-but-not-enormous pool, and then pan out further to show the construction site blocking the view of the ocean. The heavy overcast sky, the half-built concrete building, the swinging cranes, the churning sea – all colored gloomy gray – contributed to our sense of deflation.

For about a minute.

Then we had to face reality: We were not where we thought we were. And that sent Nancy and me into hysterics. Tony and I have lived in six countries and worked abroad for the last 17 years. Nancy has three passports and spent four years in India. We are not novice travelers. But this was a ridiculous, rookie travel-fail. And we couldn’t stop laughing. Seriously, for three days. Every time we passed the moderately-sized pool, we would crack up again. “How could we be so stupid?” we would titter.

The evening of our arrival, we drove around town looking for an open restaurant. No luck. We finally found a tiny take-away window (literally a hole in the wall), where we ordered chorillanas, a traditional Chilean dish of french fries, smothered in beef cubes and onions, with fried eggs on top. It was pretty greasy and delicious. However, we stressed a bit that we would have no other dining options during our visit.

Anyway, once we got over the realization that we had intended to go here (Alfonso del Mar) …

…but had actually gone here (Papudo),

we reminded ourselves that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The next morning was Tony’s birthday. He opened his present from me first thing: un sobrero de huaso! This is the traditional hat worn by Chile’s huasos – cowboys – and even some city slickers. It’s not just a prop. You see it everywhere. Nancy gave him a bottle of Bailey’s and a special glass. He was pretty stoked.

After a leisurely breakfast, we looked out the window at the drizzly weather and gave up on playing at the beach. Instead, Nancy and I decided to find a supermarket. We drove about half an hour south till we reached the town of Zapallar, while Tony hunkered down to grade papers at the apartment.

Nancy and I parked at a strip mall that had a huge ferreteria. I have seen the name before but never stopped to find out what it was. Of course, I really wanted it to be a sprawling pet store devoted to ferrets. I pictured them scampering around on carpeted towers and rolling across the room in extra-large hamster balls. Alas, as my trusty SpanishDict app confirmed, “ferreteria” means “hardware store.” So that was disappointing. It was basically a Home Depot. The supermarket was right next door. We stocked up on wine and snacks, bought a few empanadas for lunch, and headed back to our home away from home.

Lounging around the apartment was nice, but we could do that anywhere. We finally dragged our lazy booties out to explore. We walked through the compound to a gate that opened to the beach. Who knew? (To be fair, the apartment’s owner had actually told us a few details about the place, but the information didn’t stick.) The sky remained gray and dreary, so we all felt sluggish. We walked along a nice waterfront path, found a few promising restaurants, enjoyed the view of massive pelicans floating just a few feet above the waves, and then wandered home to get some work done. Unfortunately, Tony’s birthday always falls right when we have to write our report card comments for the end of the semester.

Later, the clouds burned off and the sky turned cerulean blue, so we wandered out again, energized by the warm sun.

For dinner, we easily found a waterside table as the only other people eating at 7:30 p.m. were families with small children. Back at the casa, we sang “Happy Birthday” to Tony. Unbeknownst to me, the birthday candles I picked up at the supermarket were those “magic” ones that keep reigniting. That’s funny when you’re 10, but kind of annoying when you’re 52 and just want to eat your cake and ice cream.

The next day, we strolled along the sandy beach, waded in the chilly Pacific water, climbed on the rocks, and soaked up the seaside sounds and smells. There was no avoiding grading and writing report card comments, but we found it’s not so bad when you can reward yourself with occasional beachside breaks.

The rocks offered dramatic testimony to the forces of nature that sculpted this coastline.

I could poke around tide pools all day.

Warm sand between my toes, sitting with my sweetie on a weathered rock, watching waves blast into the boulders. I just wish I could bottle this feeling.

Huilo Huilo – a forest fairyland

After a Thanksgiving dinner with friends at a high-rise apartment rooftop, we left the big city behind for a weekend in the Patagonian Rainforest. We spent a few days frolicking in the forest like wood sprites or hobbits. And our hotel provided the perfect backdrop for this fantasy.

I traveled with Sam and Hillary (the Thanksgiving dinner hosts) and Nancy. We stayed in the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve at the Nothofagus Hotel, named for the indigenous trees of the region (one of which soars up through the middle of the hotel itself). We stepped into the hotel and immediately felt transported to a fairy village, complete with confusing passageways and random staircases, a spiraling path from the ground-level restaurant to the rooftop viewing area with a waterfall at the center, rough-hewn beams and unfinished logs comprising the railings and other foundational structures, and views out every window revealing ponds, trees and other greenery, twisted man-made paths, and quirky sculptures and fountains.

It was really impossible to capture the weird wonderful whimsy of this place.

After wandering down long hallways, up and down stairs, and in and out of mysterious doorways, we stumbled upon the pool, which brought us great joy, especially because the lovely staff served us champagne while we soaked in the hot tub.

The only drawback was a lack of restaurants. The hotel’s buffet was pricey with no à la carte options, and the brewery across the road served only pizza. Still, we survived.

Walking to the brewery.

This made me giggle in the brewery bathroom.

The privately owned nature reserve spans about 300,000 acres. While Chile has a dearth of exciting wildlife, thanks to its isolation on the planet (mountains … ocean … you know how that goes), Huilo Huilo is home to the endangered Darwin’s frog (we saw one!) and other special species, such as the tiny pudu deer and the marsupial monito del monte (neither of which we were fortunate enough to spot). Huilo Huilo has put a great deal of effort into the conservation of the huemal deer. Researchers are raising the deer in captivity and gradually releasing them back into the wild. We visited a viewing area to see them.

The area around our hotel featured many trails that were clearly marked by this yellow bird.

I loved how this boardwalk was built around the trees.

Another hotel on the property is called Montaña Magica (Magic Mountain), a cone-shaped structure seemingly overgrown by the forest itself with a waterfall tumbling down between the windows.

These wacko webs looked like the spiders had been partying too hard the night before.

Later, the Cóndor Andino Cableway took us up the mountain to 3,829 feet above sea level for a spectacular view of the glacier-covered Mocho Choshuenco volcano. Back at the bottom, we visited the Museo de los Volcanes, an architecturally stunning museum housing a collection of indigenous items from the area.

The cableway station.

The museum had wonderful displays with English signage. I could have spent way more time there.

We also took a guided tour to a dormant volcano called Piedras Magneticas, named for the rocks that supposedly contain so much iron they confused the compasses of early explorers. Our guide, Rogelio, had a great eye and spotted the Darwin’s frog among the foliage. The most fascinating thing about this little frog is that the father scoops up the eggs and protects them in his vocal sac – that bubble you see under a frog’s chin – until the tadpoles develop. When the froglets are ready to survive on their own, daddy just spits them out. Crazy!

Darwin’s frog … so well camouflaged.

Rogelio also told us the names of many fascinating plants and birds, but of course I can’t remember anything, dang it! One highlight (nerd alert) was the Chilean hazelnut tree. I have been eating these yummy avellanas on my salads, but I had no idea what they were. It was cool to see the tree and to understand better where those nuts come from. We also saw a huge, beautiful tarantula, which Rogelio said was harmless. I wanted to pick it up, but he said we were scaring it.

We crossed this bridge to get to the island for our hike.

We climbed to the top of the volcanic island, and Rogelio showed us the route on a map.

The view from the top.

A baby hazlenut tree.

The friendly tarantula.

One night, we had a little dance party on the hotel roof at sunset.
Friends + nature + wine = happy intoxication.

Sam made this fun video:

Day trip: La Recova Winery

One of my favorite events of the year in Santiago is MOVInight. Not MOVIE night. MOVI without an E. It stands for Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or the Movement of Independent Vintners, in English. Small Chilean wineries showcase their wares in a festive setting with music, food trucks, and a hip lively crowd. I wrote about last year’s event here. This year’s MOVInight took place on Nov. 10 in a different but equally fabulous venue. Unfortunately, I didn’t snap any photos worthy of posting. I did, however, sample a delicious rosé from a boutique winery called La Recova, and I knew I would have to pay that place a visit.

A month later, on Dec. 2, I hired a driver and piled into a van with four girlfriends – Nancy, Clare, Hillary, and Lisa – for the 2-hour drive to Casablanca Valley, one of Chile’s premier wine regions. Several mass-producing wineries line the highway – called Ruta del Vino, but La Recova hides off the main path, outside the village of Las Dichas (which translates to “good fortunes”). The small-scale winery produces its wines from a single variety, Sauvignon Blanc.

We were woefully underdressed for the chilly temperatures (except for Clare, who kept pulling layers of clothing out of her bag like Mary Poppins). Nevertheless, we kicked off our tour outside with a glass of rosé, made from La Recova’s Sauvignon Blanc grapes mixed with Syrah skins. Overlooking hectares of vines that crawled down the hillside and back up surrounding slopes, we learned about the vineyard and its unique wine from a friendly and patient guide named George.

Fat fragrant roses framed the scene, perfectly matched to the wine (and my cardigan).

George led us into the rows of grape vines, where he showed us some Sauvignon Blanc baby grapes.

From there, we walked to the roof of a small building, where grapes are fed into tanks below. George lifted a cover so we could see the cloudy soup that would eventually become wine. On ground level, he let us each tap the tank to try a sample.

By then, we were all a bit tipsy and getting peckish. Fortunately, it was time for lunch! We climbed the steps to a hilltop terrace, where we were greeted by Chef Ivan Parra and his assistant, Fernanda. We sat at a table with more cutlery than I knew how to use, and George rustled up some blankets for us. I wish I had done a better job of recording what we ate and drank.

We started with bread and pebre, a typical Chilean salsa. Chef Ivan also brought out a pebre made with a popular kind of seaweed. I think we drank Sauvignon Blanc with that course. Next, we had this … I have no idea what they were, other than tasty chunks of meat. It’s possible we drank one of the two varieties of rosé at that time.

The next course was … hmmm, I think it was a twist on ceviche with a quinoa cake, plus a different rosé, if memory serves.

A gourmet version of the Chilean chorillana came next, paired with the winery’s Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

Finally, a lovely maracuya sherbet satisfied our sweet tooth … with more wine, of course.

La Recova was the perfect place to recharge our batteries. I look forward to another visit, and I’ll dress appropriately next time!