I’ve spent a substantial portion of my life looking out of windows. Family road trips as a child turned into commuter train trips as a university student. For each my focus was always on points of interest that whizzed by outside. When I took my first international trip as an 18-year-old in 1995, I requested a window seat for the 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo. In between hands of Big Deuce, I’d gaze out the window at puffy clouds and imagine giants at play or Imperial storm troopers invading Hoth. I’ve requested a window seat for every flight I’ve taken ever since.
No surprise, then, that I spent the 75-minute drive from Santiago airport to Viña del Mar staring out the window of a car while my Chilean driver happily conversed in Spanish with his other passenger, an Argentine. The two of them had enough problems understanding each other despite speaking the same language, so I was happy to zone out of the conversation and concentrate on the countryside.
What I found out there was surprising. The area near the airport is lightly populated at best. Heading west, hard-scrabble hills quickly give way, after a long mountain tunnel, to a fertile farming valley. There, just beyond the empanada stands and produce stalls that line either side of the highway, past truckers pulled over at the side of the road for a quick break or to pick up elderly hitchhikers, are hectare upon hectare of grape vines. Planted in neat rows seemingly to the horizon, they sprawl through the valley, climbing up and down hills and providing the region with plenty of fruit for the wine that has become one of this country’s most famous exports.
Another mountain tunnel, at the valley’s other end, marks the end of wine country. From there the highway passes through a series of low-income towns, where homes are little more than trailers. It eventually crests a hill and then, without warning, the world drops away towards pacific blue, revealing the sprawling twin metropolis of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.
I’m told that, usually, the site of the two cities nestled upon the shore of the Pacific Ocean is breathtaking. Yesterday, however, a thick bank of clouds hung low over the area, scuttling any opportunity for postcard-quality photos to post on Facebook to the jealousy of friends.
The descent from hilltop to the city waiting at the bottom was short but steep. My driver seemed to be an old hand at the route, taking several hairpin turns at speeds that I might have deemed excessive. Neighborhoods of tall fences and graffiti in the upper reaches of the hills turned into more luxurious apartment buildings, shopping districts and tourist areas at the bottom.
A crescent-shaped beach was visible in the center of the town. My driver said the southern end was across the street from the hotel. The northern terminus was a few kilometers beyond that, perfect for early morning runs on surf-packed sand.
The climate in Viña del Mar at this time of year is exceedingly pleasant. Temperatures top out at 25C during the day and dip to about 12C at night. When the breeze blows off the water, it can feel downright chilly at any of the bars and restaurants that line the oceanfront. In some ways, the area reminds me of Santa Monica, California, which is pretty high praise in my book.
Unfortunately, there are no windows in the tournament room at the Casino Municipal de Viña del Mar to gaze out on any of the city’s beauty. That’s reserved for the early mornings (which aren’t so early in this part of the world) and the late nights (which go later than you’d expect).
The rest of the time, we’re here to play poker.
Dave Behr is a freelance contributor to the PokerStars Blog.