A 10 Day Road Trip Through Central Chile

 

Our first big international trip was to Central Chile in November 2015. We were inspired by our love of Chilean wine, all things food, and wanting to see the Andes Mountains. Due to everything we wanted to get done is such a short trip, we decided to rent a car.  We started in Santiago, and from there went to Casablanca valley for some wine tasting on our way to Valparaiso which is a vibrant port city on the coast. From there we headed to the Colchagua Valley to spend a few days wine tasting and then back to Santiago. We wanted some flexibility, so we rented a car and made a road trip of it. While the roads were overall well marked, we did have some issues with Google maps being in Beta mode while we were there so occasionally our phone would tell us to turn on a road that wasn’t there, once even telling us to get on the highway where there was no on ramp. One recommendation we have would be that while your in Santiago you don’t need a car and driving in the city is a bit chaotic. Also we were not able to find an automatic car so be keep that in mind when you are looking for cars. One note on wine tasting in Chile- reservations are needed in advance for most (if not all) wineries. Tours typically include a tour of the vineyard and winery followed by a tasting at which you are accompanied by a sommelier to help teach you about each wine as you taste.  Everywhere we went had tours were offered in English among other languages (some variation of Spanish, French, German, and English at almost all of them), they were all well organized and responsive.

Here is what we did at each stop

 

Santiago:
We stayed in Santiago at the start and finish of our stay, and we stayed at the Hotel Altiplanico Bellas Artes, which was a small boutique hotel that was actually quite reasonably priced. It had a great location within walking distance of everything we wanted to do. The people at the front desk were incredibly helpful and allowed us to keep our bags there after we had checked out while we were waiting for our flight. There is a free walking tour of the city which we would recommend, and we did do in Valparaiso later on in our trip but didn’t end up doing in Santiago. Instead we explored the city on our own. We love food so we set off to find the Central Market (Mercado Central) which is the main fish market. Prepare for each restaurant you pass inside the market to try to get you to sit down and eat there. We settled on a small, quiet corner restaurant near the center of the market where we had some sea food and wine. It was good, we got a sampler of multiple different types of seafood – most of which we had never heard of or seen before. It was definitely targeting tourists, and while we did eat there and it was cool to walk around, you can definitely find better seafood somewhere else. Just across the main road, there are a series of markets: the Mercado Vega and the meat market is also a great place to wander through and see all the local fruits and veggies as well as meat. It is full of local people doing their shopping, not very many tourists in sight. We didn’t have any issues in the market but had read ahead of time to just be mindful of your belongings as it is a crowed area and pick pocket is known to happen. As you walk around the city you can see the Andes mountains in the distance.

Be sure to walk around the central square and see the Santigao Cathedral. The Cathedral is beautiful as are the buildings around it. You can walk inside the Cathedral as long as it is not in service. The Bellavista area is also a nice place to walk around, full of shops and restaurants, a bit touristy but a pretty spot to stop for a snack or a drink. There are also a bunch of vendors and if you are looking for something Lapiz Lazuli (the national stone), you will find a ton of it here. Be sure to try a Pisco sour- there is some debate about whether this drink is really from Peru vs Chile bit either way they are good and something new to try while you are there. We also went to a restaurant and wine bar called Barrica 94, where we had a Chile vs. France wine tasting and Chorrillana (Beef & fried egg loaded french fries!) which you need to try at some point in Chile.

A highlight for most people is getting to the top of Cristobal Hill. I am not so good with heights so the funicular ride up to the top deterred me from going all the way up even though Ryan tried very hard to convince me it was a must do. Instead we walked part way up the hill and spent some time in the Zoo which is on the hill and offered spectacular views of the city as you walk through. Finally, we walked up Santa Lucia Hill, which is the remnants of a 15 million year old volcano and right in the center of the city. There are several lookout points that provide incredible views of the city and snow capped Andes. After a few days in Santiago, we headed west to Valparaiso, stopping on the way in Casablanca Valley to tour & taste at Loma Larga Winery.

Loma Larga Winery:
Our next stop was Loma Larga Winery in the Casablanca Valley. This winery had several options for their tour and taste including a helicopter ride, horseback, or just the tour and taste. We opted for the horseback ride tour through the vineyard followed by a tour of the winery and a tasting. We rode through the vineyard with our guide and two cowboys. Ryan’s horse’s name was Farcas – named after Leonardo Farcas, a Chilean business man and 2009 presidential candidate due to the similarities in the horse’s mane to the politician’s hair. The winery and wine itself was excellent – Casablanca valley has a cooler climate than other regions of Chile due to the moderating effect of the Pacific which shows through in their wines. The whites are crisp, and while the reds don’t get as big and bold, they have a high level of concentration and are able to produce excellent Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

Casa Marin:
Casa Marin is a very small winery and while it is technically in the San Antonio Valley, there are not many other wineries that are very close by. This winemaker here is the first female wine maker in Chile. This place caught our attention because they have several small guest houses in the vineyard where you can stay. We stayed one night in one of these houses which was wonderful. We arrived and had our tour of the winery and tasting (we were the only visitors there at the time) then we were brought up to our house in the vineyard. We had chosen a dinner menu prior and dinner was pre-made and delivered to the house of us to warm up sous vide when we were ready to eat. The kitchen was stocked with several bottles of wine from the winery which we could drink as many as we wanted and the cost was added to our bill at gift shop pricing. This allowed us to taste more wines than the ones included in our tasting. The living room of the house has large glass windows so you can sit comfortably inside and watch the sunset over the vines with a view of the ocean off in the distance. There was also a giant porch outside overlooking the vines, which we did yoga on in the morning.

Valparaiso:
Valparaiso is a port city and is known for its colorful buildings and many hills. The city is full of funiculars you can take to get you up/down the various hills. We did the free walking tour of the city the first full day we were there. We met at Anibal Pinto Square, look for the Guides with the red shirts that say “FREE TOUR” that is the company name (this same company offers a tour in Santiago as well). Tours leave Monday to Sunday at 10AM and 3pm. The tour included a stop at a small empanada shop where you could purchase a snack if you wanted. We would highly recommend trying empanadas while you are in Chile, they were amazing everywhere we had them and you can get them either baked or fried. The tour is free but tips are encouraged if you enjoy the tour which we definitely did – we tipped around $10 USD per person. The tour ended at the waterfront where our guide recommended we take the short boat tour around the harbor (not associated with the free tour). Our whole walking tour group (about 8 people) decided to do the boat tour together as well. The walking tour was in English but the boat tour was only offered in Spanish. We didn’t understand everything they were saying but we did get to see sea lions and got a great view of the city from the water.
Valparaiso is a great city to walk around and explore. The street art is amazing and is actually “art” not just graffiti tags. While there is some graffiti and issues with buildings being tagged the majority of what you will see walking through the streets is really amazing work by a variety of artists.

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We spent one day after Valparaiso driving north up the coast line. We stopped at a restaurant right on the beach in Vina del Mar for a Pisco Sour, and walked along the beach watching the surfers and bodyboarders . After stopping there we continued on further up the coast. The coast line is beautiful, it’s similar to the rocky coast line of California. There are lots of places to pull off and get out to walk on the beach or just watch the waves for a bit. We also came across some very large sand dunes, Dunas de Concon. We stopped there and Ryan rented something similar to a snow board and a candle. It was really inexpensive and charged hourly, but it took some charades to figure out that the candle was to wax the board to make it go faster. We climbed the dunes and got a great view of the water far below, and Valparaiso in the distance. Dune boarding as a concept sounds pretty cool, but in reality it just looks cool. I would definitely do it again, but it is like snowboarding but you can’t turn that well and you have to climb back up on your own. Overall, this day of driving the coast with no real plan was probably the favorite day of the trip for us both. In Vina del Mar you will drive right past Wulff Castle as you come in from Valparaiso. The pictures we saw before we went made this place seem much larger than it was. It was pretty to see but is much smaller than we expected and probably not worth the trip to Vina del Mar on it’s own. It also had very limited parking, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are driving yourself. Vina del Mar is a nice beach town to walk through with some nice places to eat or have a drink with a view of the beach. While in Vina del Mar be sure to stop at Empanadas Mauricio for some of the best empanadas we had during our trip.

Colchagua Valley:
This valley is where a lot of the wineries we had heard about in Chile were located so we spent two days wine tasting in this area. The wineries in the valley are fairly close together so you can do more than one in a day. The tours last a couple of hours. We did drive but we did run into a couple who was biking to/from each winery.

Los Vascos: This winery is owned by the Baron Philippe Rothschild family of France. We had heard of their winery in Bordeaux so we were interested in trying their wine while we were in Chile. The tour was interesting, taking us through the vineyard and throughout the winery. They use barrels from the Rothschild cooperage (same as their winery in Bordeaux). The wine tasting here offered large samples of four different wines, and we tasted with the sommelier.

Montes: We were excited about this winery before we arrived because they were one of the first Chilean wines we tried and loved. Costco sometimes has their cheapest line of wines which run about $10 and are a great deal. We were very excited to see the winery and try their higher quality wines. The winery is beautiful and they have a restaurant on site where we had lunch and enjoyed a beautiful view of the valley and mountains. Since we were there, they also added another restaurant that is focused on grilling and smoking meat. The winery and vineyard you tour is dedicated to their ICON wines: Folly, Purple Angel, and M. The rest of their wines are made at a higher volume facility in Central Valley. The entire winery is designed with the principles of Feng shui in mind, and they pipe the sound of chanting monks into the barrel room. The theory is that the vibrations from the sound help with the contact between the barrel and the wine.

Montgras: At this winery we skipped the tour since we had already toured several of the other wineries. Instead we arrived for a late lunch which was a four course meal with a wine pairing for each course. We sat outside in the wineries courtyard area and were the only people eating there at the time which was nice. After our meal we joined a small group that had just finished their tour of the winery and got to enjoy a tasting with them.

Lapostolle: The sommelier that gave us this tour and tasting was the best. It is the best tour we have had at a winery so far and it is definitely due to the knowledge of the sommelier we had. The building is beautiful and is carved into the mountain side to help protect from earthquakes. The whole winery was designed to move the wine from floor to floor by gravity with no use of pumps. You start on the top of the mountain where the fermentation vats were, then works down to two progressive barrel rooms. In this facility/vineyard, they produce only their ultra premium Clos Apalta wine, which may have been the best wine we have ever tasted.

From Colchagua we drove back to Santiago for one more day walking around and exploring the city before heading back home. We would definitely recommend this area of Chile for anyone, even if you are not a wino like we both are. Santiago and Valparaiso are great locations with plenty to do. The country is beautiful, and while we just saw a small bit in the center, it has a lot to offer from the Atacama in the north, the Andes in the East, Patagonia in the South and the Pacific coast in the West.

A Morning in Parras, and Wine Tasting at Don Leo

The Mexican winery that got the most praise in our internet research was Don Leo – which is about one hour from Parras de la Fuente. It is situated 7000 ft above sea level in its own small valley. Saturday morning we woke up, took a very cold shower (no heat!) and did a quick yoga. We then went into town to see about some breakfast – I had found a gordita place on tripadvisor, but we were not able to locate it. We did get some gas at the Pemex since we were just under a half tank and the stations are sparse in the desert. After refueling, we continued our search for breakfast, which ended up at Casa Vieja, which was a small family run restaurant that served some really good Cafe de Olla and huevos divorciados along with some elephant ear-like glazed tortillas. The eggs were great, and both the red and green salsas were very good. After breakfast, we decided to head up to Iglesia de Santo Madero. The curvy path we took was a bit sketchy and precarious, Siri wanted us to go up a steep road that our trusty Nissan March was terrified of (so was Erika). We finally got up to where the walk to the church starts and took a few pictures. The hike up to the church is a pretty wide brick path width steps on one side. You spiral your way around the church on the way up and there are a few benches along the way to take a rest or picture on the way. Where the path ends, steps start to the top of the hill. You can take the path on the left, which is made up of really steep stone steps or the right, which has a more gradual and consistent steps. We took the left route up, and on the way you up there is a short tunnel you walk through with a few places to light candles under a crucifix on either side. Once at the top, you have a great view of Parras below, and are up at the small chapel. We took a few pictures and headed back down. There were great views not only of the valley, but the surrounding mountain range that Parras is in the foothills of.

After the quick trip to the church, we headed back into town and got some cash before departing for Don Leo. We ended up stumbling upon a more lively market in a square near Las Parras De Santa Maria (restaurant) with a lot of cool stuff. We tried and bought some whiskey cream, but they also had Pecan cream liqueur that was good. They had a lot of wine themed accessories and decorations. We knew we would be really early, but our map said it was an hour drive from our hotel so we didn’t want to take any chances. We were initially under the impression that Don Leo was in the Parras region, and while it technically might be, it is completely different. From Parras, it is about a 45 minute drive closer to Saltillo (but not taking the toll road). Then after a really scenic drive through orchards, desert, eroded river beds, and Don Leo signs meant to encourage you that you are on the right road, you reach the entrance sign for Don Leo. Picture driving through the desert without having seen a building for 25 miles and turning right on a dirt road that leads up the mountain – it was a nice looking sign that told us we were at least on the right path.

It was another 10 km or something up the mountain on this dirt road climbing roughly 2k feet of elevation to be at the roughly 7k ft of elevation Don Leo says they are located. Since we were about 45 minutes early we took the ride really slowly and took a bunch of pictures – it is a really pretty ride up, which ends up in a huge clearing in a high valley that resembles a bowl surrounded by mountains. In the middle, there is a massive field of cattle grazing on grass. In the distance there at other crops that are difficult to distinguish from the distance. You finally veer to the right to end up at the winery with the vineyard surrounding it. It was by far the most refined place we visited. We parked and found our way to the reception desk where we gave them reservation name and paid. We were lucky that a nice English speaking gentleman that worked there caught our poor Spanish and showed us around for a few minutes since we were waiting. We walked around on the balcony and took in the views, which were great! When it got closer to our tour time, we went back to the reception desk where they corralled us onto a trailer for a vineyard tour. As I had expected, the tour was in Spanish (our communication in setting up the reservation made it sound like there was a chance at English) which wasn’t a huge deal: I can understand a fair bit and we have been to enough wineries to know what they are doing. We just missed some of the specifics of what made Don Leo unique. What I did gather is that they are a bit unique to the other Mexican wineries in that they are situated at a higher elevation. This allows them to grow grapes the others would not, such as Pinot Noir, Semillon, and others. When we got back to the winery after a trip around the vineyard, we unloaded and descended the steps ok to the barrel room – as with any winery, this is usually the highlight that most people get excited about and this one did not disappoint. It actually reminded me of a larger Loma Larga (Chile)- with backlit “Don Leo” signs in an otherwise dark room, all the barrels in neat rows and ready for the pictures. From the barrels, I saw they used American, European (Hungary), and I heard our guide say French barrels (I didn’t see any though). There was also another tour going through their tasting in the barrel room, so it was a bit difficult to understand him. We then went into the winery – very modern and clean in comparison to the old Casa Madero winery we had seen the day before. He then proceeded to talk through the entire winemaking process from grapes to crushing/destemming to fermentationp, pressing and fining. Well I am assuming so – my winemaking Spanish vocabulary could be a bit better, but he was very thorough in his explanation.

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After another 15-20 minutes we had finally sat around a big table for the tasting (this was about an hour and 20 minutes in and we were getting restless). We sat down to a cheese and meat platter, with three tastings coming up. He then went into the tasting process (See/Swirl/Smell/Sip/Savor) as we stared longingly at our wine glasses hoping for permission to taste. The actual tasting, food pairings, and wine were all very good. We ended up liking the Cab/Syrah the best of the wines we tasted. There was also a Zinfandel rose (thankfully it was dry), and Merlot – which was good, but not as full bodied after having the Cab/Syrah (I probably would have structured the Merlot before the Cab/Syrah). After the tasting, some of the group went upstairs to have a meal paired with wine, but we didn’t opt for that and just bought a bottle of Syrah, which we hadn’t tried, and started our journey back to Saltillo.

-Overall impression of Don Leo was that they were putting in a lot of effort to educate the people on wine: what it is, what the process is, how to taste it, etc. The guide at Rivero Gonzales had mentioned that they are trying to create more of a wine culture in Mexico, since right now people view it more as a mixer (sweet reds, sangria, etc.). In that regard, I think Don Leo is doing a good job of the education side. I would say that the tour, while educational was a bit drawn out – two hours total for a tour and tasting of three wines is a long time. I think a solid hour could have kept people a bit more interested. To be fair, I was listening in a second language that isn’t super strong in an echoey loud room and I was just tired of trying to listen. The winery, vineyard, and surroundings are all really nice, and the wine was quite good.

– Tour- 7/10 English would have been nice, but more points were deducted because it was a bit longer than I thought it needed to be.

– Tasting 8/10 – He did a nice job of walking through the tasting process, the wines were all good, and the pairings were actually really good. For an almost 35 minute tasting I probably would have preferred 4 or 5 wines (or cut the time down a bit) we talked about the wine sitting in the glass in front of us for 15 minutes before our first taste. The group was probably also about 25 people, which was part of the reason it took so long and made it much less personal. Ideal for this style of tour/taste would have probably been 10-12

– Wines – 8/10 All of the wines we tried were solid, nothing blew my socks off though. That being said, I would have liked to try their premium bottle – which I am guessing received first-use oak and better concentration. We probably also would have bought a bottle of it if we had.

– Winery/Vineyard – 9/10 it is an impressive place. Not a large scale operation, but the whole experience of the drive in to the winery itself is on par some of the better wineries we have been to. The view itself is worth the drive.

After we worked our way out of the Don Leo estate, we took the long backroad to Saltillo since it doesn’t make sense to backtrack to Parras to take the toll road. You are basically crossing the Coahuila Desert and you won’t see many cars, have any cell service, or see a gas station so make sure you are prepared (I preloaded a map before departing Parras). It is a really scenic route though and if you aren’t in too much of a hurry, plan to stop to take pictures.

Here are the links to our other posts about more wine tasting in this area of Mexico:

Rivero Gonzalez Wine Tasting

The Oldest Winery in North America

-TFWYs