From our itinerary we had no idea this would be a FULL day of travel! We flew about five hours from Santiago Airport to Punta Arenas, stopping briefly at Puerto Montt, which had the gorgeous backdrop of the Andes Mountains, two of which looked like Mt. Fuji and Mt. Ranier from our plane. We wish our tour had allowed time here in the Lake District of Chile.
We thought it would be a short drive to Puerto Natales. (We had not been able to find either on a map before we left home.) The transfer service who met us drove us to a tiny bus station near gorgeous manicured trees in a small park. We boarded a modern bus, which was comfortable, and we passed along the Straits of Magellan as we left Punta Arenas. This turned out to be a five hour journey through the sheep country near the bottom of the world. There were many views of Andes Mountains and small lakes, where we saw the native rhea (small ostrich) and wild pink and red flamingos in the background. This early December day was a bit misty and dreary. We arrived in late afternoon in Puerto Natales, which is on the Carreterra Austral, a long bay and natural inland harbor extending from the Pacific Ocean.
Our itinerary said it would be a short walk to our Hotel Erratick Rock 2, but we insisted on taxis for the several blocks because we all had lots of luggage. This place was like a log cabin with about 9 rooms around a grassy backyard. Each of the small rooms was comfortable and basic and very clean with modern private bathrooms, but we were told (throughout Patagonia) no paper in the toilets…only in the trashcans provided. We walked through the small town to the recommended restaurant Afrigonia. We were all in high spirits when we found the casual but elegant restaurant and had really delicious and unique dinners with excellent wines. We walked back about a half mile in the drizzle, stopping to shop at a really great curio shop of local items.
8698076_orig
Our Hostelaria included breakfast the next morning and it was like being in someone’s home and we could order eggs or eat cold array. Several backpackers were fixing their own in the open little kitchen. We had all slept well and were eager for our 10 hour bus tour of Torres de Paine National Park of Chile. The weather started misty but grew brighter as we rode through gorgeous lake and mountain scenery. We passed a cattle round-up with huasos on horseback and dogs herding the vacas off the road. At one point we stopped to take pictures of the large herd of wild guanacos, the native llamas which are brown and white.
9797989_orig
Here at the foothills and also high peaks of the Andes, the jagged rocks were softened by a covering of short, yellow-green, scraggly grass and sage/sorrel-like short shrubs where often we saw sheep grazing Our first stop en route to Torres de Paine was Mylodon Cave, which was discovered in 1895 and has become a protected historical site, important for its archeology and paleontology. Scientists have studied the geology here to learn that massive submarine avalanches started these hills while a glacial lake formed the caves eons ago. The remains of enormous herbivore animals found here from 14,500 years ago were similar to sloth, horse, and guanaco (llama). These were preyed upon by saber-toothed tiger, Patagonian panther and bear, all huge animals compared to their relatives today, and finally disappeared 10,000 years ago when climate change was a huge factor. The cave also revealed that nomadic human inhabitants lived here 11,000 years ago, perfectly adapted to the climate of Patagonia.
6225727_orig
Mylodon Cave Trail also introduced us to the native trees and flowers of Patagonia. We learned about the lenga, nirres, and coihue of Magellan forests around us and the flowering shrubs calafate, and lenadura. We saw lovely yellow capachito (lady’s slipper), pink chilco and tiny white orchids. Many birds, grey fox, and large skunks also live here, as well as pumas. The long views in Ultima Eperanza reveal the paths of the glaciers, lakes, and ice of the gorgeous snow-capped Andes in the distance.
6290800_orig
During our all day tour we stopped at lakes, a rushing waterfall, and enjoyed a long walk to see the icebergs of the Grey Glacier, which was around a bend and too far away for us to see. We wished for time to take the boat there. The icebergs were huge and the deep blue color, which indicates thousands of years of compressed snows. We had a delicious grilled buffet in the Parrilla Pehoe Restaurant within Torres de Paine National Parque, where we saw many birds including colorful large scavengers. Torres de Paine was exquisite and the long day of site seeing was over too soon.
9703624_orig
The Hotel Torres de Paine van picked us up after the tour van left us at Latuna Marga in the middle of nowhere, which was the typical pickup point for all tourists staying in the park, but we were happy to see the van arrive. Everything in Patagonia is very punctual. The hotel was fabulous! We were all delighted to stay two nights to hike and take photos of the gorgeous scenery. It was very, very windy but we had lovely sunshine and beautiful blue skies. Pollution is nil, so everything is brilliantly clear.
Our evening meal was casual in the lovely lodge dining room where an enormous and elegant buffet was served. No matter where we eat, dinner seems to be about $30 with wine and dessert, coffee, and cocktails. Although I’m sure the water and raw salads are safe all over Chile, we had been warned to prevent problems by drinking bottled water and eating no raw vegetables. Water was about $3 a small bottle, equal to beer or wine. Prices were the same throughout Patagonia. The next day we had a leisurely late breakfast in another huge buffet in the lovely dining room, I never knew there could be so many delicious breakfast selections. We saw the eco-tourist accommodations in geo-domed tent-like yerts just down the hill from the hotel and were so very glad to be in the luxury of this hotel.
http://www.allsouthernchile.com/pan-american-highway-in-patagonia.html http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g297400-d1650862-Reviews-Afrigonia-Puerto_Natales_Magallanes_Region.html
http://www.interpatagonia.com/paseos/cueva_milodon/index_i.html
http://www.torres-del-paine.org/

We have wanted to see the bottom of the world for years, and we almost went as travel writers six years ago when we had the possibility of traveling on a cargo ship from South Africa in two of the twelve tourist spots they allowed. At that we wanted to go also to Antarctica so that we could say we had been on every continent. But in the meanwhile we read several horror stories of the dreadful difficulties for ships and planes making that treacherous crossing. We changed our wishes when one friend who went there said, “It’s only ice and penguins.” So we decided on Patagonia only.

Bill studied several expensive tour itineraries and then contacted Say Hueque Tour Company ( http://sayhueque.com/) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and asked them to plan an economical trip for us to see the best highlights of Patagonia. We received the planned itinerary and made our plane reservations. We couldn’t find out much about Patagonia, and we later learned that it is because the area has featured commercial tourism only in the last 15 to 20 years.

December 5, 2013, finally arrived. I had not liked the idea of driving 350 miles to Houston to catch a plane instead of flying out of Dallas, which Bill arranged in February because it was the best price and schedule, but how very fortuitous that was became on December 5 a terrible ice storm hit Dallas and Paris, Texas, where we live, and made national news. We could not have gotten out of either place. The airport was closed and the storm was disastrous; however, we did not find out until we had already flown four and a half hours to Panama City and then seven and a half more hours to Santiago, Chile, arriving at midnight there (three hours later than Texas.)

We were met by a van with a nice driver who knew no English. We had requested to stay in places in which we would mix with local tourists instead of American or luxury hotels. Our language challenge began…We quickly dug our college Spanish out of the recesses of our brains! We checked in to the Monte Carlo in Santiago and fell quickly asleep. Our rooms were quite unique and the elevator tiny, reception area and bar plain, but adequate, except all the showers left much to be desired.
55e3e0800
After a good night’s sleep we had our first Chilean breakfast buffet in the hotel and found a large array of good foods included in the modest price of the room. We set out to explore the city park just across the street and the historical central square of the city and appreciated how well located our hotel is. I was looking up as I walked through the city streets and suddenly, painfully fell literally on my face after banging both knees on a two-foot high large pole in the center of the sidewalk. It hurt a lot and many men rushed to help me up. I inwardly was afraid I could not do the hiking we planned. After assuring all that I was fine we walked on, settling on a bar, Rez, for a sandwich lunch.
55e540ab0

The waitresses, whom we nick-named “butter-butts,” had the legendary, dream girls of South America figures and were barely covered top and bottom! We enjoyed our first of MANY ham and cheese ( jamon y queso) experiences! Everyone raved about Chilean beer.

We then had a guided walking tour of the Constitution Square and government buildings. We walked past the Presidential Palace called “La Moneda.” We climbed hundreds of stairs to see the oldest cathedral, Santa Lucia, built on the site where original Mapucho Indians gave birth. (How did women in labor get to the blessed, sacred hilltop? We barely made it! ) The hilltop offered great views of the city of seven million people. The park is a historic monument and many city people enjoy outdoors in this lovely setting.
55e4e0800
We had a LONG ride in heavy traffic to the “market,” which turned out to be a factory tour. Bill and I at first were furious and felt we might be conned daily with factory tours (like in India.) But when we arrived there we were very glad to be introduced to the local lapis and copper items were beautiful, and we girls each happily bought precious souvenirs. We were introduced to pisco sours, the typical Chilean drink, and we all wanted more! Tired, we had delicious dinner in our Hotel Monte Carlo at the little bar restaurant, Cosa Nostra, and had our first Chilean stew, which we found delicious. Many of the hotels and small inns have a fixed menu dinner for nominal prices, and we took advantage of each of these since it prevented taxi service and late nights. Dinner hour begins at 8 P.M. in Chile, and after long days of sight-seeing we always prefer early sleep.
55e180e00
We only had one full day in Santiago but were impressed with the beauty and cleanliness everywhere. All the locals made us feel welcome, and there were not armed soldiers on the streets, as in so many other Latin countries. Instead we saw mounted police on horseback, and they were very friendly. New ones were being commissioned in a large ceremony in front of the majestic Santiago Cathedral. When we commented on this we were told, “We don’t fear terrorism since we don’t sell arms or start wars.” Wow! There was almost no air pollution and we were happy to have beautiful, sunny weather about 90 degrees…their summer. Crime is very low there and we always felt safe.

Chile is a land of contrasts – desert in the north and the glaciers of Patagonia in the South; the Pacific Ocean on the West coast and the majestic Andes rising in the East. Pencil-thin Chile has rich, fertile soil in its Central Valley. And with the combination of sunny days and cool nights, this area is well-known for producing quality wines.

I recently spent time in this verdant region discovering the best kept secrets of wine tourism near Santiago. With just one stop, American Airlines makes it easy to get to this popular South American spot.
3d51136f0
Historical buildings are proudly displayed next to soaring skyscrapers in Santiago, a vibrant cosmopolitan city. Lively neighborhoods overflow with outdoor cafes and local culture. And with its proximity to the imposing Andes, the vast Pacific and a fertile wine region, it is reminiscent of San Francisco’s location.

Santiago proved a convenient base for most of the trip. I explored captivating wine country, winter in the Andes and Valparaiso’s Mediterranean-like climate on the west coast. In fact, when the slopes are open (Chile’s seasons are opposite North America’s), one can leave Santiago in the morning, ski during the day and sip a Pisco sour by the Pacific at sunset.
3d505ed30
Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is less than an hour from Santiago. It is a thriving port with steep hills, colorful houses, panoramic views and magical funiculars. Nearby is Vina del Mar with a bustling beach scene.

In one short week, I traveled nonstop and covered a fantastic slice of this beautiful country, tasted spectacular wine, ate sumptuous food and stayed in luxe accommodations.

Before providing a list of “top picks,” here’s a Chilean wine primer: The country’s Central Valley wine region extends from Los Angeles in the south to La Serena in the north and encompasses 14 wine valleys. Throughout, different terroirs and various styles of wine are found. Santiago is in the middle. There are numerous varietals in each valley, but the four valleys we visited are known for certain grapes:Maipo (Cabernet, Syrah, other reds) Casablanca (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah) San Antonio (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah) Cachapoal (Carmenere, Syrah and Cabernet.

Carmenere is the real head turner. Originally planted in Bordeaux, it is now Chile’s signature grape. Carmenere is an outstanding blending grape, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon, but is also a standout on its own. It is medium bodied with a deep red color and aromas of red and black fruits and spices and flavors from green peppers to chocolate.

Not only are the wines outstanding, but they are also reasonably priced – a great buy to drink now or cellar.
3d4df4770

Santiago: Where to Stay:

The Aubrey: An artfully restored Spanish Mission style mansion in the hip Bellavista
neighborhood.
The W Hotel: The coolest vibe in the Las Condes area.

 

Santiago: Where to Eat & Drink:

Donde Augusto: This restaurant is in the middle of the Mercado Central (a magnificent 1872
cast iron building and the mecca for fruits, vegetables, wine, fish and over 30 seafood
restaurants). Everything from razor clams to sea urchins.
Pasta E Vino: The hot restaurant in The Aubrey. Superb house made pastas and Chilean wine.
Try the 2008 Vina Indomito Carmenere.
Liguria: Great bar & restaurant packed with locals and teeming with spicy Chilean food and
local wines.
Tiramisu: Casual favorite for delicious pizza, hearty salads and tender carpaccio.

 

Valparaiso: Where to Stay & Eat & Drink:

Casa Higueras: This villa-like boutique hotel has sweeping views from each unique room and
mixes modern amenities with charm. It’s restaurant, Montealegre,combines the best
local ingredients with an abundance of Pacific seafood. Try the 2008 Tabali Reserve
Pinot Noir on the exclusively Chilean wine list.
3d4ef4770

Maipo Valley Wineries:

Undurraga: Test your hand at blending your own wine. Taste Undurraga’s multiple lines including
the T.H. 2008 Limari Syrah, dominated by fresh berries and black pepper.
Haras de Pirque: The unique horseshoe shape winery reflects the owner’s passion for both
his vineyards and thoroughbred farm located on the estate. Don’t miss the Cabernet and
Carmenere from their Character and Elegance labels.
Concha Y Toro: Expansive setting and impressive wines across lines. Standout include Terrunya
and Casillero del Diablo and the Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet.
Casablanca Valley Winery
3d4af4770
Casas del Bosque: Tour the cellar, indulge at the restaurant, enjoy delicious wines and take in
the knock-out valley views.
San Antonio Valley Winery
Matetic and La Casona Guesthouse: State of the art facilities, organic farming and wonderful
wines from EQ and Corralillo labels. La Casona offers comfortable accommodations in a
stunning vineyard setting with Equilibrio restaurant onsite.
Cachapoal Valley Winery
Altair: Ride horseback through the vineyards and experience the Altair and Sideral
wines – elegant red blends with dark fruits to drink now or savor later.

Andes Mountains:

Valle Nevado: Ski the highest resort in the Chilean Andes, soak up the sun, people watch,
eat and of course, drink Chilean wine. During Wine Week enjoy the likes of Emiliana’s
organic and biodynamic wines. For delicious Carmenere try the Eco and Novas lines.

Chile is captivating – the country, the culture, the people and of course, the wine. Don’t miss this adventure.

Part 1 ended as I flew to Santiago Chile. Brian Pearson, owner of Santiago Adventures, was waiting at the airport to drive me to The San Cristobal Towers, part of the Starwood Luxury Collection. Built in 1998 it is attached to the older Sheraton Santiago Hotel. The 21st floor lounge had a sumptuous breakfast spread and fabulous views of the city. My modern, large room had a bathroom the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. My friend arranged a private car and his top guide for a four hour city tour. It was winter holiday break with lots of families and locals in the streets and shops. Viewing the Presidential Palace, Plaza de Arms and the luxury estates on San Cristobal hilltop reminded me how much Santiago, with modern buildings, parks, wide streets and the warm winter weather, was like Buenos Aires.
An interesting side note to the Chilean free economy; Micros are those yellow buses that are privately owned, with the drivers working on commission, based on the number of passengers picked up. It is the Indianapolis 500 on the streets that soon will be changed as there are too many accidents; they will become a public transit system. Concesinario’s are private toll roads in and around Santiago as well as the road to Valparaiso and the Pan American Highway (drive from Alaska to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Chile). Private companies will maintain the roads; collect the tolls, with a 30 year old lease. The free roads tend to be narrow, bumpy and crowded. By the way there is an excellent Metro system.
1094ed720

The Andes Mountains Outside Santiago

If God had created a vineyard it would have been Errazuriz in the Aconcagua Valley, about an hour from the airport. My full wine story will appear elsewhere but having lunch on the terrace with bright sunshine, warm temperatures, the view of the snow-covered Andes and the hillside terraced vineyards made me glad to be a wine writer. There are wineries north, east and south of Santiago all within an hours’ drive. Brian, whose company organizes wine tours, offered to drive me during my two days in the Colchagua Valley two and a half hours south of Santiago. Alfredo Vidaurre, one of the owners of Montes winery, put us up at the Santa Cruz Hotel overnight. If Argentina is beef, Chile is fresh seafood (think Chilean Sea Bass). Sebastian Lopez of Concha Y Toro put me up at the Hotel Atton back in Santiago as I had a 6:50AM flight to Lima. He even arranged a car to pick me up and I zipped to the airport in 15 minutes for my TACA 3½ hour flight to Lima.
109508860

Vineyards at Errazuriz, Chile

My Gray Line connection came in handy here as a representative of Viajes Pacifico, the Gray Line agent in Peru, drove me to the Sofitel Royal Park Hotel. I never saw another guest the day I stayed there. This was still the winter holiday vacation time (think Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years period) and many people were on holiday. I walked around the San Isidro neighborhood which is residential with hotels and restaurants. I was picked up for my city tour and learned Lima had 8 million people, representing 30% of the country. It was founded in 1535 by the Spanish Conqueror Francisco Pizarro. The next day was a national holiday marking the founding of the country and everything was closed for a very long weekend. This is getting to be a habit as Uruguay celebrated their national holiday while I visited 1 ½ weeks ago. Lima is a UNESCO World Heritage city for its colonial architecture and is a melting pot of mixed-blood people and cultures, again like Uruguay. There is the obligatory Plaza Mayor (main square) with its Presidential Palace, City Hall, Cathedral and Archbishops’ Palace sitting on its four corners. It was filled with people getting ready for the national holiday the next day. Nearby are the Iglesia de San Francisco, Iglesia de la Merced and Iglesia de Santo Domingo where San Marco University- the first in South America- was founded in 1551. We visited the ruins of the old wall that once surrounded Lima and glimpsed Acho the oldest bullfighting rink in the Americas and the third oldest in the world.

I moved to the Swissotel in the same San Isidro neighborhood where I was scheduled to stay one night. I was given a room on the executive floor that had the best service I have ever experienced in a hotel. Computers, a full breakfast, lunch snacks, a full dinner and open bar. I had so much fun that I cancelled my stay at another hotel to stay here an extra night. This chain is owned by the Raffles folks and now I understand why I loved the hotel so much. My last day in Lima I was taken 19 miles south of town on the Pan American Highway to the Pachacamac Temple, built entirely of clay and including the Temple of the Sun & Moon. After lunch it was off to the Mujico Gold Museum that is world-renowned for its gold, silver and brass collection from the pre-Inca and Inca cultures. A separate part of the museum contains the very large Weapons of the World area.
fecf4770
I spent a day and a half in the Ica, Pisco, Paracas area that is 3 ½ hours south by luxury bus from Lima. One of the highlights was an hour and a half flight from Ica over the Nazca Lines (80 miles away). There are over 70 giant figures and 10,000 lines imprinted in the earth (monkeys, spiders etc) dating from 500AD. They are referred to as Geoglyphs by pre-Inca cultures of the Nazca and Paracus Indians. I stayed overnight at the Pacific Ocean seaside resort the Hotel Paracas. Early the next morning I joined a group on a fast boat ride to the Ballestas Islands which is home to sea lions, monkeys, penguins, otters, dolphins and many, many birds. It was back on the bus for my return trip to Lima and the end of country number four.