Waiting for cows is a bit like herding cats. It can be frustrating. Peter and I are taking a break during our bucket-list horseback ride in the Andes, which we booked through adventure outfitter Denomades. Sitting on the hard ground, we watch the arrieros, local cowboys, herd cattle from the highland meadows, where the cows have spent the summer. They’re coming down, and we’re riding up. The trail we need to take is about a foot wide and traverses a steep mountain. Currently, cows are blocking our path.
So we wait. Fortunately, we’re in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth with rugged, steep mountains all around under a wide expanse of deep blue sky. To the northeast I see a glacier peeking over the peaks, stark white and stunning. Suddenly a condor swoops overhead, and I feel like I’m in a National Geographic magazine.
The arrieros, a word that means mule drivers, are fascinating to watch. They trace their roots back to Spain, maintain a distinct culture and traditions, and are known for their wide-brimmed straw hats and weathered skin. Every few moments I hear them whistling to their dogs, who know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Watching these expert cattle drivers is like poetry in motion.
It’s slow going now, however. They’re rounding up strays, and our guide, a young arriero, is getting restless. In Spanish, he tells our other guide, Sebastian, we will go through the cows. OK, this will be an adventure, I tell myself, trying not to think about scary things like being charged by a mad cow or falling off the trail and tumbling to the bottom of the mountain while still attached to my horse.
Of course, these things don’t happen. The placid cows move out of the way, and our sure-footed horses keep us firmly on the trail. I inhale a huge breath of the world’s freshest air as we head further up the trail to the top of the world.
MEET THE TERROIR
Chile is indeed a playground of astonishing proportions. Its Pacific coastline stretches 2,653 miles, compared to the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., which is roughly 2,000 miles. Its geography ranges from the world’s driest desert in the north, where stargazing is unparalleled, to Patagonia in the south, land of glacial lakes and fjords. Like sports? Chile offers skiing, hiking, surfing, mountain biking, rafting, diving, mountain climbing, ice field walking, pretty much everything you’d ever want to do to get your adrenalin pumping.
After our exhilarating horseback ride, Peter and I will be taking it easy during the rest of our visit in Chile, focusing on food, culture, and my favorite beverage, wine. We’ve selected a few wineries to visit in a region about two hours south of Santiago, where we’re staying in a cozy Air B’n’B called Santa Cruz Adventure. It’s quite an adventure finding it after dark in a rural area west of Santa Cruz, but eventually we meet our hosts, a friendly couple with two daughters, who in spite of limited English, make us feel right at home.
I read about the first winery we would visit, VIK, before our trip and am excited to learn about their wines. The vineyard and winery are owned by a Norwegian entrpreneur, Alexander Vik, who is sparing no expense in creating the world’s finest wines—and wine destination—in the world. Cristian Vallejo, the charming winemaker, welcomes us, and we climb into his SUV for a tour of the property.
Viña Vik vineyard is tucked into a gorgeous horseshoe-shaped valley, about 166 square miles, which faces north towards the sun—we’re in the Southern hemisphere, remember? The terrain is varied with slopes facing in different directions, so there are multiple microclimates, resulting in terroir that can change abruptly, producing subtle and sometimes profound changes in the grapes that grow.
“I want you to meet the terroir,” says Cristian when we stop and get out of the car. He tells us that more than 6000 soil samples have been studied to ensure the grapes are planted where they will grow best. “All these are my babies,” he says, gesturing across the vineyards, and notes that the root stock Vik uses is some of the finest anywhere.
Back at the winery, a jaw-dropping surprise awaits. First we stroll along a paved path through nicely tended vines. Next we pass by a giant wall, and suddenly we’re surrounded by an expanse of water as a big as a football field, where boulders appear to float on the water. Turns out it’s a shallow pool sloped at 2 degrees so the water constantly flows, but the effect is striking, especially with lush meadows and mountains undulating in the distance. The winery is built with state-of-the-art sustainability in mind, and this water serves to cool the space below, where wine is aging in French oak barrels.
The winery or bodega itself is also an architectural marvel made of cement and steel with tanks dropping below ground level and high-tech everything. After a tour of the winemaking process, we descend to a cellar for a tasting with Cristian. More surprises await. First we pass through heavy doors into a dark cellar full of oak barrels. Then we enter the tasting room, where brilliant gold three-dimensional art explodes across the back wall, complemented by wood and stone features. Cristian shares Vina Vik’s three stellar wines with us—blends featuring Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc—and offers tastes of the individual varietals found in each one. It’s a wine journey, I’ll never forget.
“Our goal is to produce the top of the top,” says Cristian. He describes Vik, their top-tier wine as “Medoc-style, very traditional, elegant, and balanced.” It is a complex wine, one to sip and savor thoughtfully. The Milla Cala is the same style, says Cristian, but “easier to understand.” The third blend is La Piu Belle, “more New World, more black fruit, spicy, but elegant.” As we taste the wines, Cristian cups his palms in a circle to show the way the flavors are experienced in the mouth. La Piu Belle is rounder with more volume, whereas Vik is more linear with a lingering finish. I savor both the wine and the knowledge Cristian imparts about winemaking and tasting.
We part ways—Cristian is meeting wine buyers from Belgium—and Peter and I head to Vik Chile Retreat, a state-of-the-art hotel, whose uniquely designed, art-centric suites provide breathtaking views of the surrounding scenery. At $1200 a night, the stunning property is a bit beyond our reach, but Peter and I do enjoy a magnificent lunch in Milla Milla, which serves fresh, seasonal, and local products.
It’s an absolutely perfect day—low humidity, high 70s. Our table sits on a terrace looking south across a verdant valley where horses graze. Milla Milla’s cuisine is as good as we knew it would be: flavorful skirt steak with gremolata for me and grilled reinita, a local fish, for Peter with sides ranging from a fresh salad to gnocchi to French fries with garlic sauce. Yum. We choose La Piu Belle to accompany our meal and wish we could stop the clock and stay on that terrace, drinking that wine, enjoying the fine gastronomy forever.
But we must go. Other wine adventures await.
Before the trip, I find a small, new winery called Alchemy not far from Viña Vik and reach out about a visit. “We’d love to have you,” says Eduardo, one of the owners. We get lost trying to find the winery and call Eduardo, who says he’ll meet us at the white church. We wait and wait and then drive around a bit to make sure there are no other white churches in the neighborhood. Phone service is poor, and we can’t reach Eduardo.
Finally, we get tired of waiting and drive a little way down the street, turn into the courtyard of an old hacienda, and here we are. Eduardo, who’s cover-boy handsome, apologizes for the mix-up. He was actually fetching the other guests who were lost, too!
No matter, we are just thrilled to be here. We meet a couple from San Francisco about our age and a younger guy named Chris from Maryland. Eduardo gives us a quick tour of the barns, sheds, and cellars, where winemaking occurs. The bodega is kind of the opposite of Vik, rustic, humble, and rudimentary, but when we taste the wine, I know Eduardo and his partners have a gift for making magic. In fact, James Suckling, noted critic, gave Alchemy’s Grand Cuvee 91 points. It’s a blend of Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malbec We taste the varietals, and each is better, lusher, more decadent than the last. Can you tell I’m in red wine heaven?
Eduardo has also prepared a bountiful lunch spread: salty prosciutto, crunchy walnuts, juicy olives, buttery local cheese, tart blue cheese, creamy brie, and a simple salad with lemon and olive oil and blue cheese. Tri-tip beef and rosemary potatoes (thinly sliced and yummy) cooked in a fire-fueled oven round out the meal. Stories, wine pours, and good cheer continue throughout lunch, and by the end, we are satiated and happy. I want to stop the clock again and linger over this rustic lunch for a few days at least. But there’s more wine to taste and miles to go before we sleep.
SALTY SEA BREEZES
Between Santiago and the Pacific, Casa Marin, a family-owned winery, sits close enough to the shore for the salty sea breezes to bring their mineral influence to the grapes grown on the sloping hillsides. I read before the trip that the founder and owner of Casa Marin, Maria Luz (Marilu) Marin, was recently honored as one of the Top Ten Wine Women in the world.
Her vision for a winery in the San Antonio Valley, just 3 miles from the sea, brought a lot of opposition. But Marilu persevered, and today her vineyards produce excellent red and white varietals including Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Garnacha. In fact, Casa Marin is one of the most awarded wineries in Chile. Marilu runs the winery with her sons, and it has a cozy vibe.
Peter and I meet Chris, a Brit who’s here for a year with his girlfriend, helping at the winery, and he gives us a tour and a tasting. It’s harvest time, so tons of grapes are being processed as we walk through the winery. There in a hat we find Marilu, sorting grapes alongside her workers. She’s a hands-on owner, Chris says, who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. Upstairs in the tasting room, we try a few whites—our favorite is the Sauvignon Gris with hints of grapefruit, tangerine, and kiwi—and the Pinot Noir, a beautiful, complex wine with red and black fruit notes and flavors of violet, lavender, spice, oak, and pepper. I’m usually not that excited about Pinot Noir, but this is amazing.
Afterwards, we have a lovely lunch on a terrace at Casa Marin’s restaurant, Cipresses Vinobar, overlooking the grapevines. The vibe is Mediterranean chic, and in fact it feels like we could be in Spain. The cuisine is over-the-top. In fact, we’ve not had one bad meal since arriving in Chile. Our multi-course lunch starts with a ceviche composed of reinita, onions, greens, lemon balm, and passion fruit juice and seeds. Wow, this is not your ordinary ceviche! The main course is marinated brisket simmered in Syrah—tender, flavorful—served with potatoes, onions, mushrooms, and super tasty tomatoes. For dessert we have a light panna cotta with a fruity sorbet. Can we stop the clock now?
IMAGINATION & GUSTO
One last adventure awaits: a trip to Isla Negra, the coastal home of Pablo Neruda, poet and Nobel Prize recipient, and his third wife, Mathilde. I was vaguely aware of Pablo’s poetry, but since arriving in Chile, we have discovered he’s very revered. I want to know why, and visiting his home seems like a good way to get to know this literary hero
Isla Negra’s picturesque setting on a cliff above the churning Pacific feels turbulent, an adjective that could describe Pablo’s life and adventures—and three marriages. There’s a small museum here, but his rambling home is the main attraction. Made to resemble a ship in parts and a train in others, the home feels like a museum.
Pablo was a great collector, and his collections range from life-sized ship figureheads that peer down in the sitting room to exquisite shells he found around the world to his childhood toys, which he kept to remind himself of the joy and innocence of youth. Pablo and his wife loved to entertain, and the entry way has round shells cemented in the floor so their guests would have a foot massage when they entered the home.
Facing the ocean around back is Pablo’s pub, a bar where friends would gather to eat, drink, and be merry, and I imagine watch the sky blaze at sunset. In Pablo’s office, more of his collections are on display: an assortment of pipes; butterfly and bug specimens; little, flat, round stones; and samples of some of his letters—he liked to write with green ink.
In my notebook, I write, “Pablo epitomizes all the things that make life worth living—love, nature, friendship, beauty, romance, simple pleasures, history, culture, and playfulness.” Now I am beginning to understand why Pablo Neruda is a national hero. He embraces life with imagination and gusto and remembers to play and enjoy the moment.
You can say this is why we travel: to be in the moment, to remind ourselves of the joy of living, to experience oneness with the places and the people we meet. Like good wine, the flavors and memories of our adventures linger long after the last drop is gone.
Read last month's Chile adventure here! Next month don't miss Pt. 3: Mendoza, Argentina.
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