Chile: From the desert to the mountains – and the wine that flows between
The narrowest country in the world is, despite the sliver of land it occupies, a country of wild contrast. The north of Chile is home to the driest desert in the world while, in the south, great glaciers move among the fjords and straits that connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In between these wildly diverse topographies are sophisticated cities, beaches, lakes and verdant green forest—all in the backdrop of the Andes Mountain Range.
Most visits begin in Santiago, with a vibe of energy that blends the traditional with cosmopolitan modernity. The rich cultural scene and abundance of 19th century Beaux-Arts architecture gives it a European feel, with a decidedly South American flavor.
“A hundred years ago we wanted to be French,” says Andreas Garrido, an architect who started the Paseos en Bicicleta bicycle tour company. Bikes are a terrific way to explore the dense capitol city, and are Garrido’s only mode of transportation. “We will let the city speak to us today,” he poetically advised as we set off for Old Santiago.
From La Moneda presidential headquarters to Plaza de Armas and the colorful Central Market, there exudes a sense of Chile’s incredible, and sometimes brutal, history. “Chile is changing so rapidly, and we are right in the middle of it,” Garrido says. “Under the dictatorship, no one came here. We were always overshadowed by Buenos Aires. But now that the New York Times put Santiago as the top place to visit, everyone is coming.”
Time given to meandering the neighborhoods is also well spent, from the quiet back streets of Barrio Yungay to the bohemian Bella Vista, full of trendy restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. Santiago is also a very literary town; visit the home of Pablo Neruda or Centro Gabriela Mistral to immerse in Chile’s Nobel Prize winning heroes. Two things not to miss in Santiago for the experience alone: a completo, a Chilean hot dog topped with mayo, tomato and avocado that is their most popular fast food; and leggy coffee, which is served in shops where the baristas wear impossibly short skirts. Basically, the Latin coffee house version of Hooter’s.
In the Desert
A two-hour flight north from Santiago, and you find yourself in another world in the Atacama Desert. The immensity of the landscape is breathtaking, miles of open red sand and rock with smoking Andes volcanoes looming over it all.
My time in the Atacama yielded some of the best moments and memories. The forbidding geography, where some places haven’t seen rain in recorded history, is home to an incredibly hardy people who have a long lineage in human history. The Atacameño people were relentlessly persecuted by the Spanish, their religion and culture and language under attack for centuries; yet somehow they have preserved a way of life that is fascinating, and very welcoming to visitors. For a real look at the history of the Atacameño, hike up the Pukara de Quitor, a fort just outside San Pedro de Atacama that was built around 900 B.C., until the Spanish overtook it centuries later.
My best day was spent wandering these ruins and then hopping on a loaner bike from the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge to explore the surrounding valleys and villages. After a traditional asado (barbeque) lunch, I visited the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and third-largest in the world. It was like another planet—jagged salted rocks rising from the ground and the desert’s rare water. The salt lakes also held the most incongruous, but enchanting, sight: dozens of vivid flamingos. Three species of flamingo live in the Salar, some of the only animal life outside llamas and lizards to exist in the harsh climate.
But perhaps the most breathtaking sight in the Atacama is sunset at the Valley of the Moon. The rock formations and colorful striated mountainsides are reminiscent of the American Southwest, and with the clearest skies in the southern hemisphere, stargazing after the sun goes down provides a magical show.
“There’s something spiritual about this place,” says Kristina Schreck, co-author of Frommer’s Chile. “Patagonia is a place for your outside, but this is a place for your inside. After two or three days here, you can feel it in your soul.”
In the Mountains
The central and southern part of Chile is as different from the northern desert as is possible. An hour and half flight south from Santiago lands you near Pucón, the top outdoors destination in Chile with shimmering lakes, lush forests and rolling farmland, punctuated by the snowcapped volcanoes. Volcano Villarica is the most active, a perfectly conical cone that operates as a ski resort in the winter – providing one of the few places in the world where you can climb an active volcano, and then ski or snowboard back down.
With three national parks or reserves, at Huerquehue and Villarica, hiking through dense forests of monkey puzzle trees and huge ferns is a popular activity in this green, untamed land. There are also underground caves formed by lava flow to explore, zip-line canopy courses, rafting and kayaking, horseback riding and world-class fly-fishing in the crystal clear waters.
But despite Pucón’s draw for adrenaline junkies, the nature here is a quiet one, and many people come simply to immerse themselves in peaceful, reflective journeys. An exquisite place to do this is Termas Geométricas, a natural hot springs with more than 20 pools of varying temperatures, surrounded by forests and wooden walkways. The place has a style and feel that is more Japanese Zen than Chilean, and is a cure for both body and soul. Lying in a 40-degree-Celsius pool amid snow-covered trees and hillocks, I could literally feel all tension – indeed any coherent thoughts – melting away. Moving between differently heated thermal pools creates an increased energy in the body, and if you’re really brave you can end with a cold plunge. Afterwards, a cozy lodge is the perfect place to have tea or coffee and a light meal in front of the central firepit.
Like the Atacama, the Pucón area is also a place to explore ancient culture and cuisine. The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, have a number of cultural centers, artisan craft cooperatives and festivals. Curarrehue is a small village where 80 percent of the inhabitants are Mapuche and the centerpoint of the culture. A small museum is also a gathering place where you can hear stories and watch demonstrations of traditional weaving or cooking. A couple of blocks away on the main square is La Cocina de Elisa, a small restaurant owned by Elisa Cea Epuin, whose culinary skills have drawn several Chilean presidents.
Wine Routes: The Road to Terroir
Spanish conquistadors must have thought they had reached Eden when they arrived in the verdant valleys and mild climate of Chile in the early 16th century – bringing with them Vitis vinifera vines. French Bordeaux grapes arrived in the mid-1800s, along with European winemaking techniques, and a love affair was born. The most common wine grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère, and Chilean grapevines are not grafted, having remained free of the phylloxera louse which nearly destroyed France’s wine industry in 1860.
Today Chile is the fifth largest wine producing country in the world, although Chileans themselves are not big wine drinkers and the industry is mostly an export one. They prefer pisco, the national drink that is a sort of brandy made from distilled wine. Claudia Olmedo is the only pisco specialist in Chile, and co-author of a guidebook to the liquor, called 40 Grados.
“In 2005, the longest Wine Road in the world was opened in Chile,” Olmedo says. “From the Colchagua Valley, it stretches along the Tinguiririca River all the way to the coast.” That same year, the Colchagua Valley was named the best wine region in the world by Wine Enthusiast.
Centered around the colonial town of Santa Cruz, the valley is home to 18 vineyards that produce wine that is big and bold – and also some of the oldest vines in Chile. Viña Neyen de Apalta is the oldest vineyard in the region, with some vines that are 120 years old, planted by Jaime Larrain’s ancestors and remaining in his family ever since.
"We produce only one wine, a cabernet sauvignon/carmenère blend," Larrain says. "We have a lot of high-volume wineries in Chile, and they do it very well. So I decided to focus just on one, very high quality wine. It is not cheap to do, so I must achieve the highest quality.” Neyen’s wine has never received a rating of less than 90, but there have been struggles to get there. The family stopped bottling wine 60 years ago, but in 2000 Larrain brought in new technology and started production again. The original cellar, 120 years old, was destroyed during the land reform and a new one had to be built. Neyen also suffered greatly in the 2010 earthquake, but Larrain has persevered and the wine today is stellar, producing about 6,000 cases annually.
Of course, nothing pleases a wine lover more than pairing the nectar of the gods with good food. Chileans have a lovely tradition called onces, which is a sort of Latin tea or snack time. The word means “eleven” in Spanish, and is a reference to aguardiente, or “fire water,” liquor. Olmedo says onces originated as a way for the housewives to get together in the afternoon and have gossip and camaraderie, over a drink – an old-fashioned happy hour, as it were. Other tales credit 19th century miners who invented onces as a code to hide their afternoon drinking.
Whatever the origins, it is a lovely tradition best accompanied by a glass of Chilean wine or even a pisco sour. Whether in the mountains or desert, relaxing by a serene lake or in a trendy Santiago bar – you are in Chile, my friend, so enjoy!
For more information about Chile: Visit the Turismo Chile website
For tours and day trips:Santiago Adventures
Where to Stay:
Santiago - The Aubrey
Atacama Desert - Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa
Pucon - Hotel Antumalal