At the end of our Peru adventure, we have eight days on our own before the tour of Chile begins on April 1st. We decide to spend the free time in Chile rather than linger in Peru. After a night flight from Lima to Santiago we hop on the reliable Turbus to one of the six major bus stations in the city. We are bound first for Valparaiso 100km north west of Santiago.
This legendary 19th century port – once the most important on the whole Pacific coast of South America – is on our radar partly because we used to enjoy visiting the Chilean restaurant of the same name that existed for many years on Hardman Street in Liverpool.
Arriving in Valparaiso we are met with very grey weather (after sunshine almost all the way from Santiago). With the aid of the mobile app Maps.me we figure the hotel is only a twenty minute walk so we set off towards the port. At the end of Calle Huerto we are faced with a huge stairway to the top of the hill 200 meters above us. Fortunately, Valparaiso’s hilltop districts are all served by ascensors (elevators) operated by a two man crew charging 100 peso per trip. In we go only to find we still have an arduous walk to the intriguingly named Art Deco Hotel when we emerge at the top.
Hotel is a misnomer of course. More hacienda with a makeover of internal steel structures making it more like a converted warehouse inside. Different, but definitely nothing remotely Art Deco about it. Our ‘suite’ turned out to be an ensuite room. No worries, the proprietor Luiz is friendly and helpful.
Never one to skip a chance to boost her step count, K has us using the steps every time we need to go into town. Luckily night excursions are few as there is a fine German bar right next door that we tried twice. First time was great, good food and German beer. Second time it was packed and they couldn’t even manage two wine glasses to go with the bottle we ordered!
Valparaiso is a part faded colonial town and part corrugated tin barrio. The whole of it is covered in very high quality graffitti. The range of work is truly mind boggling; from cartoonish childlike images to informed historical murals recalling Chile’s myths and folklore.
We were actually located on the wrong side of town away from the Cerro Alegre district with it’s French influenced architecture and funky coffee shops. We are only talking a thirty minute walk though – down the steps and up a hill on the other side of town. We’d been warned not to go to a particular part of the city centre at night. In daylight we found it was full of great little traditional eateries (or Cocina Chilena) competing with their Menu Del Dia’s. We got a solid three course lunch with a beer for £15.
Close to Vaparaiso is the resort town of Vina Del Mar. This resort town is regularly compared to the French Riviera. The big attraction in Vina Del Mar? Everton of course! Founded in 1923 the Chilean football team of Everton Vina Del Mar play in the top division at the Estadio Sausalito. We trekked to the shopping mall we’d heard contained their merchandise store – turned out to be a small booth under the stairs with a modest selection of souvenirs – and then onward to the mecca that is the 22,000 capacity Estadio Sausalito. The security guard at the gate was happy to let us in to wander around the ground. Pictures and videos made we headed straight back to Valparaiso.
That evening we had a bizarre dining experience. In a little eatery claiming to offer Italian food J ordered fettuccini. What came was a bowl of noodles covered in soy sauce. After pointing out the obvious to the waitress, the manageress was summoned who in turn called the female cook. To our surprise, she wasn’t Chinese but seemed confused that we didn’t understand her ‘Italian’ dish. When we said we can’t pay for such awful food the manageress disappeared. The watching waitress winked at us knowingly and promptly got the bill sans food. All very odd!
We’d decided to split these eight days on our own between two locations. Our next was to be the renowned Chilean wine region of Colchagua Valley, 140km south of Santiago. This meant two buses, the first 1hr 40m to Santiago and then a further 3hrs onto Santa Cruz at the southern end of Chile’s wine route. Every stop saw a hawker board and promote their wares from snacks, medicines to computer peripherals, the latter catching Js attention, and a risky £1 purchase was made! Santa Cruz turned out to be a sleepy little town with very few tourists but a very good central hotel where we stayed for five nights.
With nothing booked, we did the usual scramble to book tours of the local high-end wineries. Day one was spent at Lapostolle winery – maker of Clos Apalta which was voted the best red in the world in 2008 by Wine Spectator (£65 per bottle). Enjoyed 3 wines at 11am, not too early we are advised! Our fellow tasters from Brazil and Istanbul don’t seem put off either!
Next we head to the stunning Viu Manent for a tasting and superb lunch in their open air Rayuela restaurant. In a fab tasting room we are served four wines, all excellent, we were given clear instructions to finish them all. A nice aperitif before lunch. At Rayuela K ordered salmon which turned out to be a really huge fillet; while J had a perfectly cooked fillet steak. The Viu Manent tasting involves a carriage ride around the vineyards just to add that extra bit of romance.
We had repeatedly read and heard that Montgras was one of the best wineries to visit so we duly booked. To make for a different experience we decided to book their horse-riding excursion. Neither of us ever having ridden before – not even been on a seaside donkey – we were a bit taken aback to be saddled up only for the guide to point to the top of a very high hill which he said was our destination. We thought this was a joke as we’d made clear our lack of experience. An hour later and sore of bum we arrived at said viewpoint to be met by three vultures. Hmmm…they must have thought we’d be easy pickings by the time we reached their perch at the viewing platform.
If getting up to the top was an achievement, descending was even more daunting. J’s horse seemed headstrong and intent on leading. At one point of a steep downhill it slipped. Luckily it recovered quickly only to slam on the brakes while it stopped for a pee that seemed to last an age. After the exertion of getting her up and down K’s horse decided it was time for a snack and promptly turned into the vines to start munching on the grapes. As if we weren’t sore enough by now, the horses decided to finish us off by trotting through the vines. Trying to synchronise your movement with that of the horse proved impossible and so we got an extra dose of pain for our trouble.
What can we say? A fantastic experience and worth the rest of the week’s sore rears. An ambition achieved in spectacular surroundings with a celebratory wine tasting thrown in. Brilliant!
After the relative peace of the rural Colchagua Valley, we are back to Santiago for one day to join up with our organised tour of Chile. That day included a city tour the highlight of which was the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace known as La Moneda.
Now the South American military are known to like a fancy uniform. Put them in uniform and in a band and you have a recipe for some fun. You can imagine our surprise when the military band accompanying the changing of the guard at La Moneda burst into an ABBA medley consisting of Dancing Queen and Fernando! South America elite’s also like to take their cultural references from the US and so the band also played New York New York to the delight of the older Chilean’s looking on.
One plus of our short time in Santiago was that we finally hooked up with the four other people on this tour – Peter and Michelle from Chelmsford and travelling friends Karen and Carol from Woodstock near Oxford. We were to cross paths with them increasingly as our Chile tour progressed and this added a lot of laughs and welcome conversation as we shared the subsequent tours together. All these guys had extensive travelling experience and so it was great to compare tales of the many places we had in common. Is it possible Carol takes even more photographs than John? It certainly seemed that way!
As if the contrast between the Colchagua Valley and Santiago’s bustling city centre isn’t great enough, we are off to the Atacama Desert next. Our brother in law (Roy) had been to the Argentine side of the Atacama a few years earlier as part of an adventure to climb South Americas highest volcano Ojas del Salado (6900m), so we were very keen to see this environment for ourselves. It is billed as the driest place on earth after all. Well you guessed it, the rain was heavy when we rolled into the tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro is a town of mainly single storey buildings. Most are cheap hostels for the backpackers or places for them to eat. We were staying in one of the exceptions. The Desertica Hotel turned out to comprise ten very chic circular chalets with personal terraces. Only opened five months earlier, the place was like a resort for holidaying hobbits. We loved it needless to say.
There are so many geological sites to see in San Pedro that it was difficult to know which to choose for our three-day visit. The Moon Valley tour was included so one key site sorted. We opted to avoid the geyser tours as reviews suggested they were underwhelming. So, either the lagoons or Rainbow Valley? The latter won out as swimming with a camera in tow didn’t appeal to one of us (you know which).
By day we toured around about San Pedro’s geological wonders, by night we tried one restaurant after another from our “best places to eat” list. Nothing really impressed until we just wandered into the little La Manada (yes same as the palace in Santiago) where a young chef was serving up some really fresh tasting imaginative food. Ten pounds each for the menu del dia saw us eating a really excellent tuna tartar and gorgeous spicy beef stew. Not on any of the online places to eat lists, it was easily the best and cheapest meal we ate.
After a whirlwind few days we are back to Santiago en route to the deep south to explore the wild volcanic scenery.
Puerto Varas, our first stop, is tourist central and firmly in the famed region of Patagonia. The big draw is the beautiful Lake Llanquihue and surrounding volcanoes of Osorno and Calbuco. Think Lake Windermere with volcanoes. Fortunately, we saw both volcanoes on our first day as we flew into Puerto Varas. Osorno was directly visible across the lake from our hotel room in the lakeside Bellavista Hotel. This was fortunate because we never saw them again on our two days of excursions to view them. At all times they were shrouded in clouds.
Likewise the Petrohue Falls, in the Vincente Perez Rosales National Park, missing water due to an absence of serious rain since a deluge in February. Ah well, we contented ourselves with walks around the town and lake to see the heavy German influence here. The town was founded by German settlers in 1853 at the invite of the Chilean government. Within ten years those industrious settlers had made the region off Los Lagos into a major agricultural centre and today it still supplies 75% of Chile’s milk and is the centre for the countries fishing industry with industrial scale salmon farming the mainstay. Chileans prefer meat to fish and so the local restaurants were more likely to serve beef than the plentiful local supply of first rate salmon, trout and seafood. Not good when you are weening yourself off red meat.
Although Puerto Varas is pretty far south and close to the Pacific ocean, our next destination is 1200km even further south. A measure of the vastness of the country, we now fly to Punto Arenas , travelling onward to Puerto Natales to visit the stunning national park of Torres Del Paine. Much further and we would reach the most southerly town in South America (Uschuia) and then the next stop is Antartica. We aren’t going quite that far but we do have a three hour bus journey after the flight……
Puerto Natales is a very small coastal town on the Seno Ultima Esperanza estuary. Made up of low tin sheet clad buildings and many small/medium sized hotels and dozens of small cafeteria style eateries. Naturally, we found the towns two main microbreweries too. Along the way we managed a decent meal at Cafe Artimana involving some delicious scallops in a bubbling broth with two roasted chillies adding just the right amount of heat.
Our first day was set for a 12-hour coach tour of the famous granite peaks of Torres Del Paine national park. Weather forecasts were not favourable but, as it turned out, we had glorious sunshine all day and clear blue skies.
As well as the great granite peaks, there are many other volcanic mountains separated by stunning lakes. The region is characterised by its varied coloured lakes, snow-capped mountains and glaciers. The latter showing signs of erosion due to global warming as their retreat was accelerating according to local guides and the evidence, in the form of detached icebergs was apparent in the lakes. In the warm sunlight, we could literally notice the shrinking size of the bergs that had earlier detached themselves from Glacier Grey, as we sat eating an excellent lunch beside Lake Grey.
One of the standout views is the vantage point of the Torres Del Paine (Blue Towers) themselves that was made famous by National Geographic in 2015. The stunning photographs they published led to the Torres Del Paine gaining over 5 million votes in a poll to determine the eighth wonder of the world. It didn’t win, but obviously the poll put this huge national park on the international tourism circuit and now over half of the annual visitors (250k) are from overseas (54%).
The area of the national parks is very fire prone and tourists accidentally started three major fires in 1985, 2005 and 2010 causing 180sq miles of destroyed forest. The dead trees are everywhere to be seen today sadly.
On our second day we had booked a trip on a boat to visit the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers. The Balmaceda glacier we glimpsed from the boat. The Serrano glacier, located in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, required a hike to see close up and we were awed by its glowing blueness and equally saddened to have markers pointed out showing the extent of it’s retreat over the past 140 years (about 200 metres in total). Bearing in mind that global warming is the direct result of the phase of industrialisation commencing in 1750 (roughly) the overlapping time periods leads geologists to attribute this glaciers shrinkage to manmade climate change. Perhaps knowing the experience can make a tourist pause for thought, the crew kindly plied everyone with a generous glass of whiskey on our return to the boat.
When we stopped for lunch at the estancio we could smell the lamb roast immediately we disembarked. Inside we were served huge amounts of roughly jointed meat heaped onto great sizzling platters set in the middle of each table. Our group of six must have had near 20 large pieces of lamb and several joints of chicken underneath that. Vegetables were nowhere to be seen but a few large spuds hid among the meat.
Feeling mightily happy after our epic lunch we emerged to find the weather – misty for most of the morning – had dramatically changed for the better and a huge rainbow spread across the sky over our boat the Juana Rodriguez. The boat trip back to Puerto Natales was along the choppy Solo Sound but accompanied by beautiful sunny skies. The second of two action packed days had left us shattered but happy. Now off to the brewery to sample more of their fine Pale Ale…and who should turn up but our like-minded fellow travellers. Free beer from Pete? It would be impolite to refuse.
Patagonia has exceeded our hopes in terms of beauty so leaving to return to Santiago is a wrench. However, having visited Santiago twice with little time to explore we feel we have some catching up to do.
We have two full days to explore Santiago. The first of these happens to be Palm Sunday and so where better place to start than the hilltop retreat of San Cristobal. To get there we walk through the nearby sculpture park full of modern works in every imaginable material. Accessed via a long cable car ride from the district of La Providencia where we are staying, San Cristobal is attracting many others here for the service taking place. Descent from San Cristobal at the city centre end of the park is by the open sided 1930s funicular whose ascending and descending cars cleverly cross paths at the half way point. A steep descent thankfully over quickly.
After a quick stop to view the nearby house of Chile’s foremost writer Pablo Neruda, we head into town to visit the central hill top viewpoint of Santa Lucia. It’s a perilous climb up some very poorly maintained paths and steep steps. It would certainly be closed down on safety concerns at home in the UK. The views are worth the risk and we appreciate being able to work out the layout of the city a little better. We fill out the day revisiting some of the key locations we were whisked through on a previous city tour, i.e. Plaza De Armas and La Moneda (the presidential palace).
Monday is not a good day for tourists in Santiago. Most galleries are closed and the city has a decidedly quiet feel to it. Never mind, we’d earmarked visiting the markets in search of photographs to capture. Santiago’s Central Mercado – the city’s main fish market – is on most tourists itinerary’s and we were no exception. However, it is notoriously touristy with as many fish restaurants as there are fish mongers. Instead we headed across the Mapucho river to the huge fruit and vegetable market that is Vega Central. No sign of tourists at this wholesale market which over-spills it’s site into the surrounding streets.
Back in the city centre we visit the Gallery de Beaux Artes to see the huge – overextended? – exhibition of themed work by trendy French photographer Sophie Calle. The theme here being room after room of images of women reading a rejection letter that Calle herself had received. The images were apparently about the other women’s reaction to the letter. It left us a little cold, cue for a similarly chilled beer or two in Plaza de Armas.
After a very light lunch at the trendy new fish restaurant Barra Chalaca – a new venture by renowned chef Gaston Acurio – we were left to marvel at the power of marketing rather than the joy of fine dining. Underwhelming dining experiences in South America was something we’d come to expect with very few exceptions (the best food seems to be within hotels or wineries rather than standalone restaurants).
These minor disappointments aside, there is a lot to like about Santiago. It’s an elegant city architecturally with plenty of impressive murals and galleries. The city deliberately differentiates itself by the number of galleries showcasing modern South American art. It adds to a sophisticated vibe. Seemingly oriented around it’s people, the city has good cheap public transport, dedicated cycle lanes all over town and even closes many city centre roads until 2pm each Sunday to allow cyclists and runners to flood the streets (which they do in their thousands). Other cities could learn a thing or two here.
It’s been a long stay in Chile and we are ready to move on. We’ve travelled around the southern half of the country and experienced vibrant cities whose history is present everywhere in both the very obvious militaristic state and the grass roots commentaries offered by graffiti artists. We leave impressed by the elegance and sophistication of Chileans and aware that this is a country with very patchy economic development and issues of inequality.
Thanks for reading, next we’re off to Argentina.
John & Karon