Sunday, February 15, 2009


(2/14-3/15/09) A week or two prior to departing Buenos Aires, we began researching places to stay in our next destination of Panama City (Panama). We quickly discovered that it was no easy task. Comparable residences as we had become accustomed to on our journey (2-3BR, 2-3Ba, LR, DR, well-equipped kitchen, Cable TV, Internet, etc.), were very expensive (most asking $2000 – 2800/mo), and really not a large supply of short-term rentals available. Many emails were sent, attempting to obtain discounts from the owners/agents, but most were rejected without any willingness to negotiate. Having already booked our non-refundable Air Tickets from Santiago Chile to Panama City, naturally we became more and more concerned we would have no place to stay. Even a day before departure, we still had no reasonable prospect so we began scouting both cheap hotels (even moderate-quality hotels were close to $100/night – far over our budget) and even B&B’s. But, were we to stay in either of those, it would be cramped (particularly with the amount of luggage we still have – 4 carrier-sized bags plus smaller bags), no laundry facilities and little if any room to spread and relax in privacy. Uggh. Nervously, we even began facing the prospect we might not be able to stay in Panama, and would have to find a connection to another possible locale – but future ideas (such as our next main intended destination in Quito Ecuador were not yet "seasonally" ready – i.e. still rainy season). As we were leaving Buenos Aires, one Panama apartment lead began to look possible. The Realtor emailed reply that owner was "reasonable and flexible" and that my discounted offer would probably be accepted. Supposedly, the owner originally was asking $1900/mo (though we never actually saw that Ad, as the Realtor had referred me to this apartment after I contacted them about another that was already rented; and, she only showed me some pics. with a brief description of amenities, and no mention of price). Skip past "Bus Ride from Hell" to arrival in Mendoza.

From our Hotel in Mendoza, I received email that my offer of $1500/mo had been rejected by owner (despite Realtor’s initial optimism), and that he wanted $55.55/day. (Unless they were using some strange math I don’t understand, I calculated that the owner was asking only $1666.50/30days). Still attempting in good-faith to obtain a good deal, while also offering something of ‘value’ to the owner, I countered with $50/day but offered to rent from him for 10wks (2 ½ mos). Again, the Realtor replied optimistically, that she thought my offer was a good one and the owner would likely accept. Wrong again. After arriving in Valparaiso Chile with only 3 days to go before our flight to Panama, the Realtor wrote back with the owner’s answer – again, he rejected our reasonable offer, and the Realtor again stated "the owner says the rent is $55.55/day and his rental rate stands!" So, we decided we better take the deal, but didn’t want to do it for more than a month at that rate (above our budget still), and hope later after we arrived in Panama we would find other alternatives and/or move on to a new destination then. So, I emailed back that I accept the owner’s asking price of $55.55/day and would rent for 31 days from our arrival on Feb. 11 thru March 14. Next day, Realtor replied that owner had accepted. Now, we emailed Realtor about arrangements to meet, pay our rent in cash in person upon arrival and obtain keys. Realtor courteously offered to pick us up at the airport, and said all was good, and she would send separate photo of herself by another email. First I didn’t receive it, then it came at 6pm night before our departure, just before getting ready to go out for dinner. Took showers, got dressed, and we were about to walk out the door of our B&B for our final dinner in Chile, and I checked my email one last time. Lo and behold another email from the Realtor. She says Owner has changed his mind, the rent is too low (even though this was his asking rent as had been repeatedly communicated to us!), and now we are told for the first time there is supposedly a partner, who hadn’t been consulted and he wants to use the apartment himself for next 20 days anyway. So much for the supposed "reasonable and flexible owner" the Realtor had originally described! Of course, I went ballistic, relying on my only "weapon" – threat of lawsuit against both Realtor and owner(s). I stated, that clearly there had been an express agreement to rent the apartment, at an agreed upon price for an agreed upon term, as plainly evidenced by the emails. I demanded they proceed as agreed, or we would hold them accountable for any additional expenses and inconvenience, etc.; and, expected them to meet us at the airport as previously agreed. No reply from them that evening or before we left the B&B early next morning.

Meanwhile, not previously mentioned, to add to our "anxiety" in traveling to Panama, we had other potential ‘problems’ on the horizon. When we booked our flight to Panama on the Panamanian national airline (Copa), in researching the fares the cheapest flight to Panama was US$650/pp, but we found another fare to Dominican Republic with a stopover in Panama City for only $500/pp. Naturally, with some trepidation about potential problems with luggage and immigration into Panama, we booked the flight to Dominican with the intention of simply not using the connecting flight to Dominican. But, we would have to deal with the issue of persuading the airline folks to check our bags only through to Panama. In addition, doing some research on immigration/visa entry requirements to Panama, we found that Panama is surprisingly strict (even with their long-time friend/benefactor of USA citizens). They only permit a 30-day Stay; with a discretionary extension of another 30-60days upon application after you arrive. In addition, they require all foreign citizens to show a return ticket for departure from Panama – they don’t want folks overstaying their visa! Well, we had no return flight, as we never plan that far ahead and don't know how long we will be in Panama, or for sure where we will go next. (I thought maybe now the connecting flight coupon might be useful if needed, to show the Panamanian authorities, and that we would use it to fly out at a later date).

Yet another "anxiety". Researching entry requirements into Chile, we discovered that the Chilean authorities were supposedly now imposing a retaliatory entry fee on USA citizens and some other countries (because we are imposing such a fee on our foreign visitors – part of the post-911 nonsense). So, the internet information was that they would charge USA citizens entering Chile a whopping $100/per person entry fee! Kind of steep price to pay for our visit for a measly 3 days. But then a ‘ray of hope’ in the travel blog information was found. Some folks said that if you entered Chile by Bus rather than arriving at the international airport, the fee would not be charged at the border. The 'good news’ was short-lived, however, when another Blog writer said that was true …. BUT, then if you leave by air flight the Immigration folks on departure at the airport will see that your Passport/Visa didn’t have the fee receipt, and they would charge you then. Well, when we got to the Border by bus into Chile, we held our breath to see if they would charge us the fee, and the first Blog writer was correct – no fee charged.

We get to the airport after two bus transfers, dragging our luggage, and first check in at the Copa Airline desk. We show the guy our ticket only to Panama, and he asks if that is our destination, and we answer affirmatively. But, then he looks it up on the computer, and says it shows us going to Dominican, and he wants to check our bags to Dominican. After some arguing, and his checking with a Supervisor, he finally agreed to check the luggage only to Panama. Ok, one problem solved.

Next, we proceed thru security, and directly to Chiliean Immigration Exit authorities. Nervously, we greet the Agent with friendly spanish greetings and smiles, and after the customary scanning and computer check of our Passports, stamp stamp stamp; "Gracias"; and, we quickly scurry away from his desk and towards the departure gates. NO EXIT FEE! Whoopee. Another problem averted.

Now, as we wait in the departure area for our flight, I turn on my Laptop computer to see if Wi-Fi is available, and I find access. I check my emails, and there is finally a reply from the Realtor (actually, now the head of the company, who says she is now taking over our dealings). After trying to distort the historical facts of our prior negotiations, she says the owner is now going to rent the apartment to us after all (Yup, my threat of legal action seemed to have their desired effect), BUT … now, for the first time they are demanding a Security Deposit – never even been mentioned previously – and in the exorbitant sum of $1000 (none of our prior short-term rentals, had ever required more than $500 Sec. Dep). Further, she says that their Driver picking us up at the Airport, will bring us directly to their Real Estate Office, where we will be required to sign a formal "Contract" in Spanish. Yah, right. No way! After all that has gone on in our dealings, we are supposed to trust them to put the correct terms in a Spanish contract. (And, after all the ‘terms’ that had been agreed to, were simply the rental rate and length of stay – not even the Sec. Dep. that was now being demanded post-hoc). We don’t respond, preferring to deal with the situation upon our arrival.

After a long day of bus rides and plane flights, that began at 7am, we arrive in Panama at 6pm. We get to the Panamanian Immigration Desk, and with baited-breath await our fate. Will we be admitted, or will they send us packing? Again, stamp stamp stamp, we’re in. No inquiry about our return flight info. Whew. Ok, now it’s on to the real problem to tackle – our rental apartment.

The Driver is there to meet us at the airport, and we’re on our way to the real estate office. When we get there, neither the original agent I had been communicating with nor the Owner of the company who had said she was ‘taking over’ were there. Instead to very young ladies who said they were assistants, were there to deal with the situation. They bring in the documents. First, they now want me to fill out a Credit/Rental Application, complete with SSN #, financial info., etc. I tell them "absolutely NOT", since we already had an Agreement and rented the apartment; and, I am paying Cash in advance for the rent (and Visa for Sec. Dep., as they had asked). I fill in only basic info on address in Dallas etc. Then, they plunk down a multi-page Contract in Spanish, along with a supposed separate "English Translation". We say we are willing to sign the English version (assuming it is accurate – haven’t looked at it yet). The Assistants say the English version is only "informal" and not for signing. I start to look it over. It is gibberish in many areas – not even making sense in English; and in other terms is simply erroneous (e.g. the rental rate is stated as US $722,000!). Well, I start to make a few corrections to the English version, and would be willing sign that, even though we continue to insist it is all so unnecessary, and that the Email exchanges provide ample documentation of the terms. Also, we point out that the apartment owners are USA citizens (we had previously learned they were Ukrainian Russians living in New York – uh oh, from what I’ve heard/read Ukrainians can be some ‘tough cookies’). They call the Real Estate Co. Pres. On the Cell phone, and she insists we must sign the Spanish Contract. After a long day's travel and with the time is now going on 8:30pm, and we still have no place to stay. Trying to reach a compromise, I say what if we sign both the Spanish and English. Again, the answer is "no". Of course, there is no way we can sign the Spanish Contract; can’t trust it’s accuracy, can’t trust the people, it would be crazy! The Assistants, who are genuinely sorry about the situation, apologize and say there is nothing more they can do. They’ll be happy to take us to a Hotel. We ask to talk directly the Real Estate Pres. On her cell phone. They call her again, and she says to them that we can call the apartment owner directly, and whatever he agrees to is fine. So, they get him on the Speaker phone, and in his russian-accented english, he tells the Assistant he doesn’t want to speak directly to us, that is what he has Brokers for, and then complains how the agreed upon rental price is "ridiculous" and he is only reluctantly agreeing to rent the apartment now as a ‘favor to the Real Estate Agent". Bob butts in over the speaker phone, and says "Hey, my friend, the rental rate that was agreed to was what he had asked for; and, that if he doesn’t rent to us it’s going to cost everyone a lot of time and money. Let’s work it out". He says over the speaker phone, I’m not going to talk to them, I’m hanging up; and, he does. Then he calls back; and, says get me off speaker, talks to the agent (where hear some loud voice). She hangs up, and not surprisingly says the owner does not want to rent to you.

Meantime, the Pres. Calls back on cell phone, she tells us we can just sign a simple English "letter’ of agreement with the simple terms. (Great, that’s what I was saying all along). But, we don’t know if she has heard the owner's latest tirade that isn't goingt to rent to us at all now. We just tell the Assistants get the letter written; Bob helps write it on the word processor. We want to just get out of the Office and over to the apartment, get the keys, and hope owner doesn’t stop us before we’re in. Another ½ hr goes by, many versions, and calls with Pres. And the owner keeps calling the Office too. Apparently, cooler heads prevailed, and apparently now the Owner is on board. Finally finished we sign; drive to the nearby Citibank ATM to get the cash; and, then on to the apartment. We arrive, looks good (just like photos) – no complaint there. But, now half past 9pm, the Assistants have to go over a 5-page single-line Checklist, of ALL the stuff in the apartment and the conditions, and have us sign off. This takes another hour. How ‘fricken’ ridiculous – what a hassle this has been. Finally, we get them out; and, have a drink of wine and go to bed. MAJOR CATASTROPHE AVERTED -- we have a (good) place to stay in Panama (at least for a month).

We are in fact quite happy with the apartment (of course, that was never an issue) – it is 2BR, 3BA, + study, large combo LR/DR, large modern equipped Kitchen with bar counter, covered outdoor terrace/deck with fabulous view of city and partial view of ocean; and, locale right in the heart of central business/banking/restaurant/ of the city. SEE ATTACHED PHOTOS.

Otherwise, we haven’t had much opportunity in past couple of days since we arrived to see much of City, beyond walks in multiple directions around the ‘neighborhood’, to see what is in the area in walking distance in terms of shopping, restaurants, etc. One initial first ‘impression’ – it is incredibly hot and humid here during the day (you really can’t walk more than a short distance in this heat). And, getting around will be a little more difficult – no real safe public transportation is available. You must take taxis to get anywhere beyond your immediate residential neighborhood. But, we hear they are at least fairly inexpensive – we’ll see.

More on Panama in a week or so, after we have gotten around a bit.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

VALPARAISO CHILE – Odd, Unique, Quirky and Full of Character

We planned a short visit of 3 nites in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Valparaiso. This small but bustling port city on the Pacific coast of Chile, is about one hour NW of the capital of Santiago. We were quite fortunate to reserve a private "suite" bedroom with private bath in the highly-rated Portabello B&B Inn, which sits high up on the hillside overlooking the Port. Valparaiso is definitely a "working-class" and sometimes ‘gritty’ and somewhat dangerous city in parts, but with incredible character and architectural oddities. Unlike many other spanish heritage cities, it was built without central planning, and its streets and houses follow haphazardly the difficult geography of twisting turning hillsides and coastline. Streets and pedestrian alleyways snake through the city, with beautiful queen-ann style victorian homes sprouting everywhere along the way. The City also boasts several Funiculars to help people traverse the steep hillside climbs. And, of course, great seafood abounds and is the meal of choice in this port city, accompanied by widely acclaimed Chilean wines. Truly, this is a unique and wondrous city more than worthwhile for a short visit.


After that long Bus-ride, we needed a good shower and good meal. Got both. Found a fantastic Italian restaurant a few blocks from our Hotel that had been recommended by a Canadian woman on our bus who lives in Mendoza, and this recommendation was confirmed by a listing in Fodor’s travel guide. Walking to the restaurant at "9:30pm", we couldn’t help but notice how light it was out still – when does it get dark around here (10pm?)? Walked into the huge restaurant and it was empty; but, staff said they were open. So we sat down, and immediately got pleasant and attentive service. Had marinated/grilled squid for appetizer, grilled Goat and an mozzarella-encrusted grilled salmon for entrée, along with a nice Sauvignon Blanc to drink. Meanwhile people started arriving during our meal and place filled up fast. Also, they were apparently conducting some kind of wine tasting, and near the end of our meal gave out free glasses of great red wine. Best of all, couldn’t believe how cheap the meal was (Mendoza is apparently far less expensive than even Buenos Aires – amazing). Next morning, we slept in a bit, but awoke in time for the included Breakfast. Then, on the direction/recommendation of a knowledgeable young lady who worked at the front desk, we took a local bus ride for 45mins. (and 50cents), to the nearby town of Maipu, where many of the Wine Bodega’s are located close to each other. There we rented Bicycles for about $10, and rode thru the countryside among the grape vineyards, from Bodega to Bodega tasting wonderful wines. During the day, we found out that we had passed thru a timezone, so Mendoza was an hour earlier, and we hadn't realized the night before. No wonder it had been so light out at "9:30pm" and restaurant had been empty until well after "10pm". Silly us. Anyway, had a Great day! In the evening we went to another really good restaurant, this time a quaint and quirky Spanish Tapa’s style place. Another wonderful and cheap meal! Next morning, it was back to our travels, catching an 8:30am international bus, west through the Andes Mountains (a bit hair-raising of a ride), across the border (and immigration) into Chile, arriving at our destination of Valparaiso Chile on schedule at about 4:30pm. This time, no problems with the bus ride – thank God!

Monday, February 9, 2009

BUS RIDE FROM HELL (Buenos Aires to Mendoza)

We had heard from everyone and every source that the way to travel in Argentina is by Bus. We had even taken a short day trip previously on a "Semi-Cama" coach bus for a 2hr trip – and, it was very comfortable and reliable. So, of course, when we planned our Departure from Buenos Aires to Chile, our chosen method of transportation was by Bus. And, because it was a very long trip to Chile – 19-20hrs – on the way to Chile due West from Buenos Aires, we planned to stop over for two nights and visit the famed Argentina Wine Region of Mendoza, which is only supposed to be 11-12hrs by Bus. So we booked our bus tickets on the reputed top bus line, in the top 1st Class Executive Sleeper (cost about US$75/pp), and boarded at 7:45pm (Thurs. 2/5) to enjoy the ride, with scheduled arrival the next morning at 8:30am. Seats were comfy leather, full reclining, with Stereo music jacks, TV Monitors which played 2 Movies (Rush Hour 1 &2), and were even served a hot meal with wine. All was well until about 2am, when we felt the bus slowing down to what appeared to be about 30mph on a 4-lane express Tollway, with other vehicles flying by us at 60-70mph. The bus would also pull over about every 20-30mins., when it would die out, the driver would open the engine compartment and play back there for 5-10mins., and restart bus, resuming our slow pace. This continued through the night, until about 6am, when it pulled over and died out completely. Information was hard to come by, but we were told a substitute bus was going to come for us in about "an hour". In the interim they tried to repair our bus – we were finally told it was due to ‘bad gas’ which water had gotten into. Naturally, this turned into 3.5hrs, and the substitute bus was an economy class that had not even been cleaned, and was like a pigsty. But, at least we were moving again at a normal pace (albeit now about 7-8hrs behind schedule). After about an hour of travel, we pulled over to the side of the road again and the bus engine was shut off. Now what? After awhile we were told that we had to wait for another bus behind us experiencing same problems, and let their passengers transfer to our bus. So waited another hour until they arrived. Of course, there were not enough seats, and probably a dozen people had to stand or sit in the aisle. What a zoo. After another couple of hours, the bus stopped again. We were not told why at first or how long it would be stopped. Finally, they explained it was to get sandwiches for everyone – but, nobody really wanted this preferring to get to Mendoza sooner rather than later. This stop was almost another ½ hour. We finally arrived at Mendoza at about 6:30pm on Friday – an 11hr 1st class bus ride had turned into a 23hr prison ride. It was quite an experience. But a little good news – as we were leaving the terminal and almost out the door to a Taxi, one of the girls on our bus grabbed me and said they were giving refunds at the bus office. Yup, miraculously after a little bit of bureaucratic rigmarole, we were given a FULL REFUND. Not that we would have traded that for the incredibly uncomfortable lengthy torment of a bus ride, but it was some consolation. But, sometimes you just have to "Grin and Bear it"; as this is part of the 'cultural experience". LOL

Monday, February 2, 2009


When our beloved cat Tony passed away in Mexico this past summer (See: 6/14/08 Post), we had him cremated and his Ashes have traveled with us since that time. We have been waiting to find him a suitable final resting place. The lovely city of Buenos Aires and its Jardin Botanico was chosen because of its natural beauty, peace and serenity. Significantly, the Jardin is an authorize refuge for feral felines, who happily wander the grounds and live a life of paradise. So as we prepare to leave the City later this week, we thought the time had finally come, and yesterday laid him to rest. The actual area chosen to spread Tony’s ashes was picked in part because several of the wild cats came over to be with us there seeming to tell us this was the right place. In fact, one somewhat Tony look-alike wondered through the area which I photographed, and then actually came over and sat on our laps for awhile. We loved our "furry son" very much, and hope this place provides him his own eternal paradise. (Pictures below show the wonderful spot where he rests). Because we miss him dearly and it is so difficult to say good-bye forever, we have kept a very small vile of his ashes so that perhaps a small part of his spirit can continue to share our travels and our lives. Or, at least we like to think so; and, that helps us cope with our loss.

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