This long, thin sliver is virtually uninhabited in the arid deserts of the north, and the frozen wilderness of the south. The vast majority of the sixteen million Chileans live in the temperate Central Valley, and the center of that is the capital city of Santiago. Home to one third of the entire population.
We flew from Buenos Aires across the jagged peaks of the Andes. It was late December, the middle of the South American summer, and yet the Andes were still covered in snow. I couldn't help but think of that Ethan Hawke movie "Alive" that told the true story of a South American soccer team that crash landed in the Andes, and resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. I was hoping our culinary experience in Chile would be a bit more rewarding.
Santiago is a vast, tech-savvy cosmopolitan city with a thriving culinary scene. Some of the best wine on the planet is grown just outside the metropolis in the Casablanca region.
Even though some of the population still plow their fields with oxen and cook over open fires, Chileans in the city and in the countryside share a great love of food and wine.
And unlike their South American neighbors, Chile's economy is prosperous and stable, with a minimum of corruption. They are the world's largest exporter of copper and other minerals, and excel at fishing, farming and of course, wine making.
We landed at Santiago's modern and efficient airport, rented an SUV, and headed west through the vineyards. Rather than stay in the city, we rented a beautiful architectural home in the rolling green hills above a wide strip of nearly deserted beach. From here, we would take day trips to the highlights of the Central Valley, and finish up the trip back in Santiago. This private oasis was just $120/night through AirB&B. About the same as a standard hotel room in the city.
The first stop was the town of Isla Negra. The home of Chile's most beloved writer, Pablo Neruda. The Nobel Prize winning author died in 1973, but continues to be the heart and soul of the land. His opus work "Canto General" is considered to be one of the world’s greatest literary gifts. His home and final resting place is long and narrow, just like his beloved Chile. It is now a museum filled with over three thousand weird and wonderful things he collected.
There are a dozen rooms winding along the cliffside filled with ships figure heads, seashells, antique glass bottles and a bizarre life-sized papier mache horse.
Seeing his fascinating and thoroughly oddball collection made me wish I had known the great man in his heyday. This house was surely the setting of many scintillating gatherings.
With Chile's endless coastline, there are dozens of beautiful beaches to explore within the Central Valley, and dozens of picturesque fishing towns dotted among them.
Down a long winding road, we stumbled upon one called Quintay. A stunning rocky bay with a "caleta" at its center. This is where the colorful wooden fishing boats tie off when unloading their catch. Dozens of pelicans and other squawking seabirds circled the bay patiently waiting for the spoils. South of the caleta is the "ballenera", which was Chile's largest whaling station until it closed in 1967. The eerie whaling platform saw the carcasses of over 1600 blue whale, the world's largest animal, dragged out of the Pacific over the years. Thankfully now, the site is a museum dedicated to these magnificent creatures.
The largest coastal city in Chile is Valparaiso. A crazy cacophony of colorful architecture spilling down some very steep hills into a vast commercial port. The dense jumble of winding streets is packed with outdoor markets, raffish bars, bohemian locals and the heavy scent of marijuana. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but is in need of some serious cleaning up. The lower section of the city is called El Plan, where we enjoyed a fantastic seafood lunch overlooking the harbor. The kaleidoscopically colorful houses on the hillside are reached by impossibly steep staircases or the nine antique funiculars that rattle up and down all day and night. The funiculars are a cheap and fun way to take in the views of the port, while shuttling the locals to and from work.
Valparaiso is famous for its New Year's Eve celebration, with a terrific fireworks display over the bay. We missed the party, as we arrived in town on New Year’s Day. But I could tell by the scattered bottles and bodies in every street, that the city had had one hell of a time the night before.
Just up the coast is Valparaiso's posh sister Viña Del Mar. After an earthquake in 1906, the elite of Valparaiso moved to this flatter area to build their fashionable townhouses overlooking some lovely beaches. It is still packed with traffic and endless high rise condos, but manages to feel genteel and refined. Well... next to Valparaiso anyway.
After four very full days of beaches and vineyards, it was time to go back and check out the capital.
Santiago is a massive city. It covers an area of over 250 square miles, bisected by the Rio Mapocho. In the middle is the Parque Metropolitano, three square miles of hilly, lush gardens providing the locals with a peaceful retreat, as well as much needed fresh air. Our hotel was in the Barrio El Golf (nicknamed "Sanhattan" for its abundance of modern glass skyscrapers).
Unlike any other South American city I have visited, Santiago is clean, orderly and safe. It lacks the glamour of Buenos Aires, and the beauty of Rio de Janeiro, but it's still a very enjoyable place to be. We went out to an amazing meal that first night. A typical Chilean feast of grilled meats, from fillet to offal, all served on one huge silver plate. The salads and sides are self- service from an extensive buffet. It was fantastic, if a bit overwhelming.
The sprawl of Santiago has many distinct social hubs, but the one place you could call a center is the Plaza De Armas. Established in 1541, it is the civic nucleus of the city. Here is the Governor's Palace, the High Court, and the magnificent Catedral Metroplitano, the seat of the Catholic Church. All of Chile is prone to earthquakes, and many of the oldest downtown buildings have been destroyed over the centuries. The modern city is a hodgepodge of old classical edifices and new glass boxes. The central plaza has a vibrant social atmosphere where kids come to play in the fountains and old men are playing chess. There are street performers and street food hawkers all adding to the thriving scene.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful so it is easy to get around. We headed across town to the Mercado Central, a half hour taxi ride that was less than $10. With a cast metal roof and lattice cutouts, the huge building looks very Victorian. It was in fact designed and built in Scotland, then shipped in crates to Santiago in 1872. One side features the bounty of seafood found along the Chilean coast, while the other side is chock full of antiques and bric-a-brac. A fun day of shopping elbow to elbow with the crowd.
We spent our last day exploring the Parque Metropolitano. We boarded an old fashion Sky Bucket exactly like the ones that used to fly across Disneyland that climbed to the top of the park.
At the peak is a 45 foot statue of The Virgin whose welcoming arms embrace the city. Long, winding paths lead to swimming pools, a Japanese garden, and a small zoo. We were delighted to find the Enoteca Wine Museum, a lovely spot to sample some of Chile's finest. As the park is the highest point in the city, the views across the urban jungle with the snowcapped mountains beyond is a powerful image that I will always remember. Adios Chile!