Published: March 9th 2011March 9th 2011
There were spectacular mountain views as we crossed the Andes. At first, the ascent was gradual but it became much steeper as we approached the final 4 km tunnel into Chile. From there, an extended series of hairpin bends descended into this very long (4,600 km) narrow country, penned in between the mountains and the Pacific. Our Trans-Andean bus had broken down a couple of times, so it was approaching 10.00 pm when we arrived in Santiago, but our smart hotel (Hotel Bonaparte in Providencia) more than smoothed any lingering ruffled feathers. Santiago has some elegant colonial buildings, wide boulevards and green plazas. The main thoroughfare is improbably named 'Avenida Bernado O'Higgins' after one of main liberators who helped defeat the Spanish in the war of independence (1810-1818). In fact, the name 'O'Higgins' crops up everywhere - in plazas, streets, buildings and even in naval ships. We next went to Valparaiso, at one time virtually the only major port on the Pacific coast of S America, with some very grand buildings and ancient monuments. The opening of the Panama Canal started a long, slow decline in Valparaiso, but strenuous efforts are being made to restore it - for example, Congress now
meets here, rather than in the capital, and it is the main base for the Chilean Navy. One of us was very happy to see a harbour still filled with lots of grey ships! We stayed in Vina del Mar, a seaside resort just north of Valparaiso, and here we saw considerable damage from last year's earthquake, with condemned apartment buildings and many empty public buildings. We saw even more earthquake damage south of Santiago, in the Casablanca and Colchagua Valleys, where we travelled the wine routes. Although best known for its reds (especially Cabernet Sauvignon), Chile also produces some excellent whites, with crisp Sauvignon Blanc leading an impressive field. This is a perfect match for Chile's delicious seafood, and we're happy to say that conger eel tastes a whole lot better than it looks. Our next stop was Santa Cruz, a small town at the centre of the Colchagua Valley. Although the town itself is small, Santa Cruz has one of the best museums we have seen on this trip, with excellent displays chronologically ranged from prehistoric fossils and dinosaur skeletons through to (almost) modern times with carriages, cars, and even steam trains! We toured three Colchagua vineyards -
And we came all this way for a phone box!
St Helena, Casa Silvia and Montgras. All quite different: at St Helena the grapes are individually removed from the stalks by hand, all the wine is aged in French oak barrels and the wine costs US$100/bottle. In contrast, at the the much bigger Montgras the only wood most wine saw was in the shape of oak chips put into the stainless steel fermentation tanks to add a little flavour! As in Mendoza (see previous blog) it was harvest time in Colchagua, and over the weekend the main square in Santa Cruz was filled with food and wine stalls, with traditional music and dancing. We had barbecued lamb for lunch, with some chilled rose generously provided by a Chilean couple at our shared table under a canvas awning. It's not just the alcohol: there's something about wine-producing areas that seems to make people more friendly and relaxed, and whole families were out in force enjoying the warm sunshine, the barbecues and the colourful market stalls. Our next stop was Casa Real, at the Santa Rita Vineyard. The setting is incorparable, and the hotel itself is elegant and cosmopolitan. Highly recommended - it was a real treat to be here for our
final days in Chile. As we now head west to New Zealand, the Northern Hemisphere seems further away than ever.
There are more photos below