We arrived in Santiago first thing in the morning after a long bus journey through the night. Tired, and still aching from our mammoth volcano climb in Pucon, our first impressions of the city weren’t fantastic as we were over-charged by our taxi driver (because it was a Sunday) and then had several problems with our hostel.
Undeterred (and determined to find a better hostel for the rest of our stay), we set off on a ‘Do It Yourself’ walking tour of all the main sites.
Starting at the Palacio de la Moneda (Chile’s old mint), we wandered through the Plaza de Armas – which was boarded off and full of scaffolding – and stopped at the Mercado Central for a food break.
The next day was a better one. We moved into a hostel in the Bellavista neighbourhood and got far more swept up in the vibrant energy of the city. Although our still-suffering legs only allowed us to meander through the nearby markets and park, we could have visited one of the many homes of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda or climbed Serro San Cristóbal – a huge mountain overlooking the city.
Wanting to see more of Chile, we decided to venture outside of Santiago to see the nearby seaside port of Valparaíso. We’d heard a lot of good things about the place, which is famous for its multi-coloured houses and graffiti.
To get a quick feel for the place we took a free walking tour, which was a fantastic introduction to the city – which has many hidden features. The city used to be one of the major ports in South America. A huge number of sailors and immigrants helped create it, making it one of the most advanced cities in the continent – it had Latin America’s first stock exchange, post office, volunteer fire department, as well as Chile’s first public library. The opening of the Panama Canal meant that traffic through Valparaiso was reduced overnight, and the city’s fortunes have been going downhill ever since – which explains its current state.
Incidentally, the guide also explained why Chilean border control is so tight. I’d never considered it before, but Chile is protected on all sides by four natural barriers – the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atacama Desert (the driest place on earth) to the north, the Andes mountain range to the east and icy Patagonia to the south. For thousands of years these natural protections have defended Chile from insects, disease, and climate damage – something that would severely affect Chile’s substantial wine and fresh fruit industries today. The fuss during our own border crossing makes much more sense now!
Valparaiso itself is built atop several rolling hills that form different districts of the city. Each district has its own characteristics and the locals are very competitive; it has even been known for shouting matches to happen across the hills!
The city’s most famous attribute is its graffiti.
The city is home to a very active street art scene and the best painters are paid a lot of money to create murals on people’s homes. The trend started when people began to steal corrugated iron from the port to cover and protect their houses. In turn, paint was used to protect the iron from rust and soon the most bright, colourful and clever designs were in demand.
After walking up an appetite, our guide told us that we couldn’t visit Valparaiso without trying the local ‘delicacy’ – Chorrillana. What he didn’t explain was that it’s a heart attack on a plate – a huge platter of chips smothered with fried onions, eggs, strips of beef, sausages and melted cheese.
We even got to sample the Chilean drink of choice – a Terremoto. Translating literally as ‘earthquake’, this is a drink that leaves you feeling a bit shaky. It contains a fortified wine, soda and (strangely) pineapple ice-cream.
For our last day in Chile, we decided we had to visit a vineyard at least once while in South America. We had tried and failed to see the wineries of Mendoza while we were in Argentina but, due to bus issues, it wasn’t to be. Luckily for us, Santiago happens to be just a stone’s throw from the Maipo Valley and the headquarters for the largest wine producer in Latin America – Concha Y Toro.
Two metros and a bus later, we were standing in 21 acres of vineyard and having an exclusive tour of the historic grounds. The guide was fantastic and gave us a huge amount of information about the history of the vineyard and about the wines they create.
Founded by Don Melchor de Santiago Concha y Toro and his wife in 1883, the winery was begun with clippings from Bordeaux – including grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon and Merlot. Of all the wines Concha Y Toro made, its Merlot was the least popular.
In 1994, a French grape expert discovered that Chilean vineyards, including Concha Y Toro, were not actually producing Merlot, but a blend of two grapes – Merlot and Carménère – a grape variety that had been wiped out in Europe decades earlier by pests. The two grape varieties were extremely similar in appearance, which had caused the initial confusion, and thanks to Chile’s natural barriers the variety had been unknowingly protected from complete extinction. Now, Chilean Carménère is one of Concha Y Toro’s most popular wines.
Another fun fact from the vineyard is about its most famous wine – Casillero del Diablo (the Devil’s Cellar). According to legend, the Don reserved an exclusive batch of the best wines for himself in his own private cellar. To keep thieves away, he spread a rumour that the Devil lived in the cellar and he is still there to this day. Now this cellar holds premium wines that are given as gifts for Concha Y Toro’s most special customers – including Manchester United.
We were sad to leave Chile so soon. Of all the countries we have visited in South America, we spent the least amount of time in Chile and we think that it was a mistake. In the space of two weeks, we managed to fit in a trek in Patagonia, a volcano climb, two city tours and a vineyard trip – but we left feeling that Chile still has so much more to offer. It’s a beautiful country with lovely people and it’s one of the places we are definitely interested in visiting again.