By Gael Arthur
For so many Canadians, Chile is simply a place that exports great wine. But as a travel destination, it offers the winning combination of great weather, fascinating culture, superb food and wine, all bundled in great value for money.
First, a bit of geography: Chile is a long skinny country that stretches along the Pacific Ocean from a few degrees south of the equator more than 4,000 kilometres all the way down to the bottom of South America. The western spine of the Andes serves as the natural border that limits the country to no more than 240 kilometres in width. With altitudes ranging from sea level to the tallest mountains in the western hemisphere, you can pretty much choose your weather any time of year.
Santiago, the country’s capital, is the natural starting point for Canadians, who can fly direct from Toronto or through Dallas from the West. It’s a modern city, affordable, clean and comfortable, ideal for exploring on foot, with longer distances efficiently manoeuvred aboard a safe subway and bus system. There are a few highlights that can be easily found while enjoying the warm southern hemisphere sunshine.
While the colonial architecture is interesting, it is the Pre-Colombian museum adjacent to the Plaza de Armas that really captivates the imagination. As children, we all learned about the gold that lured Europeans, but, more than anything, it is the quality of the workmanship that astounds in the thoughtful displays in this unassuming museum.
Moving to more modern times, the memory of Chile’s most famous citizen, Pablo Neruda, is kept alive through his three houses, one in Santiago and two on the coast. Neruda is known internationally as a poet who wrote about love and simple things, but a visit to any of his homes reveals a very complicated individual. He was a true renaissance man: a diplomat, a bon vivant, friend of some of the most important artists of the 20th century and, most strikingly, a collector of “things”. He loved unusual things and collected voraciously, seemingly without discrimination. The houses he designed are architecturally interesting, with the strange assortment of souvenirs cramming every nook and cranny somehow revealing the quirky personality of a man who lived a passionate and eventful life.
Regardless of the destination, it’s always a challenge to find local, attractive and possibly even useful souvenirs. The tourist shops in the downtown area feel much like those in any town in any country, and the bartering may make you wonder just what the goods are worth. However, Santiago has another option, one that is worth the effort. Visit the Pueblito los Dominicos, where you can see jewellers, instrument makers, leather craftsmen, sculptors and other artisans at work. It’s a short distance from the centre of town (and even closer to the business section that also boasts the American hotel chains). Prices are excellent and the café in the central area provides a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the food, the weather and the atmosphere. The market next door overflows with vegetables and fruits, as well as beautiful seafood.
In terms of places to stay, the big international hotels are well represented, but there are more attractively priced small hotels offering a personalized experience in the safe and interesting neighbourhood of Providencia. Hotel staff at both the Meridian Sur Petit Hotel and the Vilafranca Petit Hotel went out of their way to help us organize outings, including out of the city. This is a good thing, since after a few days in Santiago, the rest of the country will beckon.
Wine is produced in numerous valleys all over the country, including the nearby Maipo Valley, where wineries abound. You can choose one of the producers of the wine you enjoy at home, such as Santa Rita. Located less than 40 kilometres from the centre of the city, Santa Rita was established in 1880, which means that a visit provides good insight into the history of winemaking in Chile. Lunch at the on-site restaurant offers the chance to taste the wines as they should be tasted, with food. The 16-room Casa Real Hotel on the property offers the ultimate in luxury and service: it’s expensive, but exquisite.
Valparaiso is another easy day trip, with frequent public buses offering a fully air-conditioned comfortable ride to the ocean. Valparaiso is a UNESCO World Heritage site with steep narrow roads and funiculars connecting the hills that rise up sharply from the Pacific Ocean. The best option is to take a tour in a mini-bus, where a guide/driver provides running commentary and ensures that you see the highlights, including another Neruda house (definitely recommended). And, to the south of Valparaiso, there are countless little seaside towns, some piled high with modern condominiums for rent, others offer a quiet and relaxing break from it all.
Chilean tourism: www.visit-chile.org
Pueblito los Domenicos: www.pueblitolosdominicos.com
Meridian Sur Petit Hotel: www.meridianosur.cl
Vilafranca Petit Hotel: www.vilafranca.cl