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
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 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 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.
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.
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.