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Having spent 3 months in South America, we had come across a veritable menagerie of animals. I thought it would be a good idea to share my favorite combinations of interesting creatures & interesting photographs.

Here are the top 10:

#10. Amazon Tree Frog

Nellu Mazilu, Amazon, tree frog

A cute little Amazonian tree frog, which secretes a neurotoxin when threatened.

#9. Amazon Stick Insect

Nellu Mazilu, Amazon, stick insect

I nearly walked past this little creature, mistaking it for a branch.

#8. Colombian Leaf Insect

Nellu Mazilu

I thought I had leaves stuck in the insect net of my hammock at El Cabo in Tayrona Park….. it wasn’t.

#7. Tarantulas (many of them)

Nellu Mazilu, tarantula,

The Amazon was full of them. This photo was the best of the lot, showing a tarantula hiding/guarding it’s nest in a palm tree hole.

#6. Butterflies….also many.

Nellu Mazilu, butterfly

One of many butterflies, but was the only one who stayed still long enough for a photo. I wish I could remember what kind it is….

#5. Giant Amazonian Moth

Nellu Mazilu, moth

Encountered a couple of giant moths feeding on some stale fruit during one of our night treks.

#4. Tractor Millipede

Nellu Mazilu

It’s fun watching them crawl all over you. No really.. it is.

#3) Weevil

Nellu Mazilu, weevils

Weevils wobble, but they don’t fall down. This one did….

#2. Spiders…. so, so many of them.

Nellu Mazilu, spider

Upside-down transparent, orange daddy long-legs?

#1) Praying Mantis

Nellu Mazilu, praying mantis

What’s more bad-ass than a mantis up close??

Click here to see all the candidates for the top 10.

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We had been through Napa and the North Fork of the Long Island Wine Trail, so we thought we were prepared for the Colchagua Valley of Chile, especially in light of all the preparation we had done. We had booked a room at a posada 8 KM north of Santa Cruz, had free bicycles awaiting us & had mapped out the train and bus schedules. It was going to be great!

It all worked out without any issues until we arrived at the front door of the posada and the driver we had solicited in town was asking for $5000 Chilean pesos instead of the $500 I had heard initially. Perhaps it was a simple misunderstanding of Chilean Spanish. What was important was that we had arrived with no incidents and we were ready to try some of Chile’s well-known wines.

MontGras tasting room and store (Photo by Jack Zalium)

On our first full day in Colchagua, we biked our way north to MontGras vineyards for our first tasting. We met some nice people, tasted some good wines, bought a bottle (Quattro) and experienced out first Chilean tremor (also the first tremor of our trip). It occurred moments before we were to begin the tasting, distinguishable only by the clinking of the wine glasses. We all moved into the courtyard and awaited for the shaking to stop, not lasting more than 20 seconds.

The Wrath of Grapes (Photo by Jack Zalium)

Having survived our first tasting & tremor, not to mention having a slight buzz now and feeling the onset of alcohol-cockiness since we had not eaten anything but breakfast, we made our way to vineyard two: Estampa. This one was nearby, just across highway 50. It was more of a rural highway than an interstate, but there were numerous trucks on it. Sadly, the second vineyard was closed to tastings and tours, as it was still recuperating & rebuilding from the last major Chilean earthquake in 2010, which has severely affected the Colchagua region.

Back on our bikes we road back towards Santa Cruz, looking for a sister vineyard to MontGras that was recommended to us there : Laura Hartwig. What we didn’t realize is just how close it would be to Santa Cruz and that even on bicycles the distances were larger than we anticipated. We arrived at Laura Hartwig, where we met a nice young senorita at the tasting room who showed us a map of some of the other vineyards in the valley which included a listing of  provided tours and which provided just tastings, as well as some personal advice. Having secured our second tasting, some information and noticing that it was getting late, Molly went inside to ask for the directions that would get us to the other road and back to our accommodations faster.

I said right at the fork..... (Photo by Jack Zalium)

Bicycling through Laura Hartwig’s vineyards proved a bit more difficult than it seemed initially. The fields were rather large, mixed in with other fruit crops and the dirt roads were not clearly marked. The arrow in the photo below indicates where we should have gone right which would have saved us at least a kilometer. Nevertheless, about 20 kilometers of bumpy roads, dirt and gravel took a toll on our asses, muscles and psyche. By the end, Molly’s upbeat demeanor and contagious smile had given way to despair and the possible realization that we might never reach our posada.

Our bike path from MontGras to Laura Hartwig, the "shortcut" and back to the posada (total daily trek ~18 KM, conservative estimate)

Thankfully we arrived safely, were able to order delivery dinner and spent the rest of the night by our small, yet mighty wood burning stove inside our room, drinking our Quattro, thinking the worst had passed and day two would be a breeze. Then day two came….

Waking up still sore from day one (mostly our asses), we instead decided to go with alternative transportation : a collective taxi to the first vineyard, followed by some bus travel and a lot of walking. The taxi ride was uneventful, except for the price which continued to change upon each ride, even with trips of the same distance to the same locations. The first vineyard was Manent. This put us right back in the mood to explore and restored our confidence… or was that the wine talking. Nevertheless, we headed back to the road to take the bus to our next destination or walk it.

On the main road, we waited several minutes for a bus that didn’t come and then walked to the fork-in-the road to Apalta (the road that would take us to several more vineyards and tastings). Along the way, Molly’s traveling modus operandi to ask random strangers directions paid off when we discovered there was no direct bus that would take us to Apalta. As no buses passed, we had walked ~3 KM to the fork in the road but the sign said it would be another 6 more kilometers to Montes vineyard. What had seemed like an easy walk in retrospect, was becoming an endurance course in frustration & the plan to see the Colchagua Museum at the end of the tastings was quickly going up in smoke.

The path of travel for day 2. The white lines are all walking distances. Everything else was done via hitchhiking.

We were resolved and started walking there, in the hope that a  “miracle bus” would pass and we could “communicate passage” to Montes. About a kilometer into our walk, a small orange company propane/gas truck stopped in the middle of the 2-lane country road. Initially I had assumed he was offering us a ride & I was prepared to tell the driver thanks, but no thanks as I passed by the truck. When I arrived at the passenger window, I noticed the driver was simply checking his phone and was paying no attention to us. I continued to walk, with Molly bringing up the rear, when I heard her calling to me. I turn around and see her getting into the truck while telling me that he is giving us a ride. This all happened so fast mind you. This is by no means an endorsement of hitchhiking, but sometimes and in certain situations, it does pay off. In this case it was just a bit odd and quiet as the driver was quite young and did not speak English. Five minutes later we were at Montes and I had left 500 pesos with the driver, which seemed to further confuse him. It seemed that he was more shell-shocked than we were.

Montes main building and cafe

We confused the locals further when we arrived at the security gate and asked for a tasting, at which point the guard radioed for help. After a few minutes, we were told we could have a tasting but it would be about an hour to an hour and a half & we would have to wait in at the cafe. Perfect timing we thought; we could take some photos and grab something to eat while we wait. The food hit the spot and we got some great photos including this one of an owl prowling the vineyard :

An owl in a vineyard?

We saw the chanting room for the casks (Gregorian chants pumped into the barrel room to soothe the wines) and tasted some really good wines. It was in the tasting room that I noticed some familiar labeling. Apparently well-known graphic artist Ralph Steadman not only has worked on everything Thompson and Flying Dog, but has done several labels, over several years for Montes wine : Montes Folly & Montes Cherub. This should not have been a surprise since I discovered Cardinal Zin while back in the states, but I guess I wasn’t expecting anything so familiar in such a distant and unfamiliar place.

Satiated and buzzed again, we eagerly walked our way to the next vineyard, about a kilometer away : Las Niñas (“The Girls”). This is a vineyard owned by all women, with their white wines being their best/best-known (chardonnay). We walked through the gates and into the facility, looking for some signs or idea of where the tasting room might be. We asked some of the workers there but received blank stares. After several minutes of wandering around the property, asking several people and playing with a pack of about a dozen friendly dogs (the signs said to beware of attack dogs), we were told no tastings were happening. Dejected by the lack of any response or attempt to console perspective buyers/tasters, we angrily stormed off to our last vineyard a few kilometers away : Lapostolle.

Lapostolle was already recommend by a friend in Santiago, but we had initially resolved to skip it because it seemed pricey and the map the lady had shown us at Vina Laura Hartwig the day before showed that they did not offer tastings. We had nothing to lose as it was on the route back to the main road. We arrived at the gate and was greeted by a security guard who spoke English reasonably well. They were offering tastings and we were in time, however, we would have to walk about 5 kilometers up the mountain to the tasting room (a 10 minute car ride, he explained).

Tired and dejected we continued walking towards the main road, about half of the way there (this did not include a remaining several kilometers back into town to get the collective taxi for the 8 kilometer ride back to our posada). It was late into the afternoon, we were getting tired and we had not tasted any wine for about an hours. The museum visit has long past and we were struggling just to make it back into town for the 20:00 (8 PM) collective cut off. This was definitively the lowest point morally for us. Just when things were at their worst, a blue (Molly described it as gray) pickup pulled up and offered us a ride. Neither of us blinked at the offer, though Molly insisted I sit in the back with her (I thought flanking him on both sides would have been strategically better). Whether he just saw us on the road and felt bad for us or worked at one of the vineyards and thought we were crazy, we’ll never know. We chatted briefly, exchanging pleasantries and were dropped off at our request in front of the Colchagua Casino. He refused any sort of payment even when we insisted several times. We don’t even know his name, but without him we would have definitely missed seeing the Colchagua Museum and might have even ended up walking the whole way or worse.

Inkan Kipu

The Colchagua Museum was quite large and definitely worth seeing if you are in Santa Cruz. It is supposedly the largest privately owned collection in South American and the recommended viewing time is three hours & forty five minutes. We did it in 2 hours as the museum has very little continuity. It seems to be a random collection of natural wonders (bones, minerals, etc), historical items (pre-Colombian artifacts, Chilean historical items, etc) and various nick-knacks that seem to have be lost in terrible wages made at the Casino next door (automobiles, machinery and an oddly extensive collection of all things Nazi). It was the punctuation to the end of our day and the end of the wine tour.

If you would like to do the tour of Colchagua, definetely rent a car and possible read this for more info on the vineyards. We survived it and thought all the walking and cycling (along with all the walking we had done in South America) would properly prepare us for the Camino Inka to come. It did not, but that is another story….

We’re back online and have many stories to catch you up on. In our last real post, we were in Chile so that’s where we’ll pick up…

Nellu Mazilu

First of all, let me start off by stressing that there was no premeditated hitchhiking in our transportation plan for Chilean wine country. Our pousada in Isla de Yáquil (about 8km outside of Santa Cruz) had two mountain bikes for ready and waiting just for us. And I was excited about riding bikes through the country roads of Colchagua Valley, going from one wine tasting to the next, meeting people, getting exercise and fresh air, and just having an all around good time. In the days before our arrival, I imagined us and our wheels riding around with the soundtrack of the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz  in my head. (I don’t know why my head chose that particular song, but I was going to let my imagination run with it.)

Colchagua Valley, Chile

Our other transportation option: take a cab. But from the moment we arrived in Santa Cruz proper, we felt like we were scammed by the taxi network.  There are two different kinds: black cabs are private taxis (meaning they can pretty much charge you what every they want and do) and yellow ones are “collectives” (meaning they will generally charge a fraction of what the private cabs do but you share them with other people). Neither kind of taxi has a meter and after spending a few days there, we were never able to get a clear answer on how much the ride would cost us, even when our pousada host was the one giving us the information. That kind of service is one that we always want to avoid.

But no biggie, we had bikes and we were going to use them.

Dun da dun da dun da da

On our first day of riding around, we successfully made it to two wineries, drank some good wine, had fun chatting up the local kids in the tasting rooms and even experienced our first earthquake. (Ok it was really only a small aftershock that lasted for about 15 seconds and I could hear the rattling more than feel anything. But to us it was an earthquake.)

Tasting at Monte Gras

It wasn’t until we had to bike home that our transportation option became an issue. You see, we biked about 4.5km to the first stop, another 1km or so to another vineyard that was still in repairs from last year’s earthquake, and another 4-5km to our next and final stop. We thought we were smart by getting directions for a short cut through the vineyards but it was still a good 8km home. It was getting dark and I was getting tired. I kept fighting with my bag all day when I tried to ride.  I just wanted to get home. At one point Nellu even started singing the Wizard of Oz theme to try to boost morale. I just shouted back in my snotty voice, “It’s not working.”

We made it home of course. We always do. A little sore but in one piece. But we needed a new strategy for Day 2.

Nellu was unconvinced that we could actually make it to more than one winery our second day. But I was resolute. We had come all the way down to Colchagua Valley to taste some good wine! So we got our map, picked a place that one of the vineyards had recommended and asked our hostess to call us a collective taxi.

Usually it was about $2 for us to get into town in Santa Cruz. We were going about the same distance it had to be about the same price, right? Wrong! It cost us $14 and we still don’t know why.

We were pissed that we’d been tricked again by the wacky cab system. But after a wonderful time at our first tasting of the day, we decided that we were up for one more.

Tasting at Viu Manent Winery

We ended up walking to our next stop, well walking and hitchhiking.

It first dawned on me that we could hitchhike when we were about 1km into 6.5km walk on a street just off the main drag. (We thought we maybe could get a bus!?). So when a gas delivery truck stopped about 10 feet ahead of us, I thought it was fate. Turned out, the driver just stopped to check his cell. He looked a little surprised when I asked (especially in English) but he gave us a ride down the road. When we got out I turned to Nellu and said, “Don’t tell my mother about this.” And we both swore that we wouldn’t do that again.

We went on to have a fun tasting at Vina Montes and put the experience behind us.

The chapel-like barrel room at Vina Montes where their premium wines            mature to the rhythms of Gregorian chants.

Or so we thought. When our second opportunity to hitchhike came up, neither of us flinched. A man in a grayish-pick up truck offered to drive us all the way back to Santa Cruz, which was really quite the boon. We sat in the back seat of the pickup’s cab (like that really made it safe) and the man cheerfully refused to accept the money that Nellu offered for his services. AND! We got back into town in time to visit Colchagua Museum before it closed.

Would we do it again – hitchhike through wine country? Probably not. But the real moral of this story is: when in wine country, rent a car!

~ Molly

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