Ever the doubting Thomas (or Eileen, as the case may be), I was sure that the “traditional” snack on my La Bicicleta Verde tour was going to be an alfajor, a sweet, soft sandwich cookie filled with manjar (dulce de leche). They’re packaged, widely available, and cheap. They were also what I was given on another colorful bicycle tour in another capital city on the continent, which shall remain nameless.
Instead, we sat at a little table for four in the midst of the Vega (main market) meleé, me, Pam from Nerdseyeview, fresh from her trip to Antarctica, Don from British Columbia, and Ricardo, our excellent guide, each of us drinking fresh-made juice (I had the strawberry, no sugar, very refreshing) or mote con huesillo which is more of a snack than a juice and not for the high blood sugar-inclined), and nibbled on sopaipillas, fried disks of dough that Ricardo had bought from a vendor outside. We spread them with ají (a spicy sauce) and mustard, and wiped our hands with the useless wax-paper napkins fanned into a giant cone on our table. Tasty snack notwithstanding, in fact, the part of the tour where we wandered through La Vega might have been one of the highlights, even for me, a Vega-veteran, and Santiaguina through time, if not by birth. Having the relative safety of tooling through on a giant bright green beach bike and having our guide lead us around meant that people were even friendlier than usual, and very concerned for our camera-toting safety. There were several hammy vendors out smiling, including a couple of pork-chop arranging guys who offered to put on a Pike’s Place-like show with the tossing, once they found out where Pam was from (Seattle), and and what they do at the market there (toss fish, much to PETA’s dismay, if you didn’t know).
We had picked up our tour at the Bicicleta Verde’s offices, just a few blocks from the Bellas Artes Metro, but on the other side of the river, and from there divided into two groups, the Duke students studying something about natural resources, with one guide and us, the indie travelers, with another. They do this, Joel Martinez (one of the Bicicleta Verde team) told me, because travelers prefer not to be subsumed into a big group when one shows up. So they were on their tour, and we were on ours. We did a small loop around Santiago’s incredibly quiet Sunday streets, checking out Patronato, Bellavista and La Chascona (one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses-turned-museums), where Ricardo and I tagteamed with me reading the poem out loud in Spanish and him translating it into English. Later, we headed over to the Vega for the aforementioned snacks, and finally to Plaza de Armas, where Ricardo told us a bit about the founding of the city, pointed out places we might want to come back to, and also the apartment building where he lives nearby.
It was all unexpectedly lovely, and though I’ve been living in Santiago for nearly seven years, I still learned quite a bit about the history of the city, particularly early history, and early immigration patterns. I also found out that a puchero, sold at the butcher shop across the way from the porkchop throwers is not a pouty face (which is its other meaning) in this context, rather a soup bone.
We returned to the offices to give back the bikes, had a long talk (okay, and maybe some lunch) with Peter Murphy Lewis, the company’s owner, an American from Kansas who’s been in Santiago as long as I have. In the end, we opted to keep the bikes for a tool around the cemetary, which they go to on another tour that we didn’t go on. And we finally brought back the bikes, but not before a giant fluffy black dog with a pointy snout adopted us and ran alongside or between Pam and my bikes for nearly a kilometer up Avenida La Paz. He wasn’t there when we finished saying goodbye to Romina in the office, so I guess he found somewhere else to go. And then we did, too. Back on the metro to head back home.
Verdict: Good for locals and visitors alike. Must be comfortable riding a giant green beach bike (with some gears) around the city as people occasionally gawk. For maximum Vega and Patronato mayhem, choose a Saturday. For the quietest streets imaginable, and lots of space and time for photos, go on a Sunday morning, but the tours go all week long.
Disclosure: My tour with La Bicicleta Verde was provided to me free of charge. The opinions expressed are my own, and represent my experiences.
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