A shimmery, silver moon rises over the Andes Mountains. It’s a magical moment, but my smartphone camera can’t quite capture it. In the photo, the moon seems tiny and ordinary, but from where I’m standing by the rooftop pool of W Santiago, the moon looks huge as it ascends into the pale, misty sky. I put my phone away (good riddance!) and enjoy being in the moment.
It’s a sultry evening in Santiago, where a Mediterranean climate prevails much of the year. From our comfy lounge chairs, Peter and I watch lights blink on in surrounding high rises as darkness falls. Two kids splash in the pool, but most everyone else we see looks like they walked out of a fashion magazine. There’s definitely a hip vibe at this swanky hotel in Santiago’s financial district locally known as San-hattan.
Who knew the capital of Chile would be so cosmopolitan? Peter and I are here in Chile to explore Santiago and nearby wine regions, curious to learn about Chilean culture, cuisine, and people. What we’re discovering is this stable South American country is a dream destination for adventurous travelers. Santiago reminds us of Spain: temperate climate, palm tree-lined streets, a sparkling Metro, lush parks, stellar gastronomy, and lots to do. The best part? Unlike travel to Europe, you stay in the same time zone when you fly here—no jet lag to deal with.
Actually, the best part is being here. For years Peter and I have been wanting to explore Chile, and this visit is whetting our appetite. Next time we’ll try hiking in Patagonia perhaps or stargazing in the Atacama Desert. But for now come with us as we explore Santiago and environs.
I love public transportation. I love cities that have good public transportation (ahem!). That’s important when you’re traversing a city as huge and congested as Santiago. With a population of 6 million, the city can be hard to navigate by car, so we don’t even try. Except for using Uber once or twice, Peter and I walk or take the Metro everywhere we go.
One place we can’t get enough of is La Vega Central, Santiago’s amazing, mostly indoor market covering five square blocks. I’ve been to many markets in my life, and this one puts the rest to shame. It’s a cacophony of colors and sounds and smells and tastes and people. Everyone in Santiago shops at this market, it seems, and every time we go, we have to thread through hordes of people down narrow aisles, where stands overflow with ripe tomatoes, fat corn cobs, every imaginable type of greens, plus mangos, avocados, chili peppers, carrots, cucumbers, beets, and berries. The vendors shout from all sides—in Spanish of course—touting their produce. One jovial fellow calls to every tourist walking by, “Where are you from?”
We explore the market one morning with Eliana, a chef who offers cooking classes through a company called Uncorked Wine Tours. She deftly chooses ingredients for our multi-course lunch as Peter and I and our new cooking friends, Billy and Patrick, tag along, drooling at all the yummy food we see. Back in the cooking studio, Eliana gives us each an apron and puts us all to work right away making dobladitas, small rolls we will enjoy dipped in pebre or Chilean salsa, which we also concoct.
To wash down out first course, Eliana teaches us how to make Pisco Sours, a citrusy cocktail that features Pisco, a spirit made from grapes. We place the ingredients in a shaker along with four cubes and then shake and shake and shake—a long time, it seems—until all the ice has melted. Then we pour the frothy drink in a glass and top with 2-3 drops of bitters. It’s delicious and refreshing and balances out the heat from the salsa.
A shrimp and avocado appetizer comes next followed by sesame-crusted salmon with asparagus atop a delicious dish made from creamed corn called pastelera, and finally panna cotta for dessert. It’s definitely a hands-on learning experience, which makes the food taste even better. At meal’s end we raise a toast—delicious Chilean wine, of course—to Eliana for the fabulous food and company. Needless to say, we don’t need to eat dinner that night. In fact, Chileans as a rule eat two main meals a day: breakfast and a mid-afternoon meal. Peter and I find it easy to segue into this routine and actually lose weight during the trip.
That’s not to say we don’t enjoy more amazing meals. One night we experience a six-course tasting menu at Peumayen, a unique restaurant that features ancestral dishes rooted in Chile’s past. The rustic-chic interior with low light sets the mood, and Rafael, our server, presents each course with flair—from a bread plate featuring small pieces of bread made from different ingredients—think corn and potato—to flavorful sweetbreads—tongue paté, anyone?—to a luscious salad with smoked fish, crab, mussels, and algae served with a creamy dressing. A meal at Peumayen is like stepping through a doorway linking Chile’s past with its present. A culturally rich and tasty evening, for sure.
After three fabulous nights in W Santiago, Peter and I switch accommodations and stay at Hotel Cumbres Lastarria, a boutique hotel in the heart of the city. We love the location and the downstairs living room lounge, where coffee and tea are always available. Its signature restaurant, Punto Ocho, on the top floor of the hotel features delicious Mediterranean cuisine and overlooks the rooftop pool. Our room is cozy, comfortable, and surprisingly quiet.
The tourist folks have arranged a tour for us, so we meet Soledad, our smiling tour guide, who shows us around the city. One must-do we visit is Santiago Metropolitan Park, one of the largest city parks in the world, almost three square miles. A cable car takes us up to the summit, where a 72-foot statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the city, a holy pilgrimage site for Chile’s largely Catholic population. Besides great views of Santiago, the park also has a funicular, a zoo, pools, hiking trails, and a botanical garden.
I’m anxious to learn more about Chilean wine, and Soledad takes us to the perfect place. Called Vinolia: A Wine Adventure, it’s a multi-sensory wine experience unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. From the outside it looks like a restaurant set in a quiet neighborhood, but looks can be deceiving. Before the adventure begins, we nosh on charcuterie, cheese, and a trio of salmon appetizers on the patio. Then others arrive, and we join the group for the hour-long program.
First we enter the Sensory Exploration Room to learn about the aromas found in wine. You know those descriptors wine aficionados use to describe the flavors and tastes found in wines? Disparate descriptions like eucalyptus, pine, rose, lavender, cedar, cocoa, coffee, leather, jasmine, violet, apple, pear, mint, dill, fennel, lemon, grapefruit, oregano, and damp leaves. In the Sensory Room you have to guess the aroma you’re smelling—the answers are hidden—and it’s amazingly hard. Plus nose fatigue eventually kicks in, and everything starts to smell the same.
It’s time to taste. We move to an auditorium with about 40 seats terraced on one side, all facing a huge screen. A row of tables parallels each row of seats and five glasses of wine and a small plate of cheese await each participant. Soon the lights dim, and the adventure begins. Thanks to the magic of film, we visit five wineries in about 30 minutes and taste terrific wines as winemakers share the unique components of their terroirs and invite us to taste the wine with them.
My favorite is a 100% Petit Verdot , described by the winemaker as a wine for thinkers not for drinkers. It tastes spicy with violet nuances and mineral notes. I also love the Santa Rita Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, which tastes of cherries and raspberries. Truth is I like them all, and we leave Vinolia with a newfound appreciation for the expansive range of Chilean wines.
Another day we join a bike tour to see even more of Santiago. Called Green Bike Tours, it’s a pleasurable way to explore the city. First stop is a neighborhood called Bella Vista where we view protest murals. The story is that Pinochet’s repressive government regime would paint over the murals as soon as they appeared, and each night the protesters would paint another mural. The one we view shows symbols of Chilean culture: indigenous people and musical instruments along with defiant fists—all painted in colorful, thick brush strokes.
Nearby we rest in a peaceful oasis beside poet Pablo Neruda’s Santiago home, where he lived with his third wife, Matilde. The small park features a tiny concrete amphitheater, where people gather to play music or read poetry, shaded by leafy trees. Water runs beneath the benches, so there’s the quiet sound of rushing water all around. Pablo Neruda, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, loved the sea, and his house looks a little like the bow of a ship. Later I look up some of his poetry. He wrote revolutionary poetry, but his love poems brim with emotion and resonate the most. I know, who reads poetry anymore? My answer? Try it, especially with someone you love.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Before our time in Santiago ends, we visit La Vega one more time. Peter wants to get a marigold-colored chef’s hat as a souvenir for Ross. It’s one of those poofy ones you see on Italian chefs in ads for pizza. I think Chef Boy-ar-dee wears one. The thing is this hat isn’t exactly for sale. It’s part of the uniform worn by the butchers working at a meat counter in the market.
First, we have to find it. We don’t even know the name of the business and just start retracing our steps. Passing all of this food makes us hungry, so we stop for ceviche at a small restaurant tucked in between market stalls. Our plates arrive with a huge portion of ceviche alongside cooked sweet and white potatoes served with a creamy sauce and a splash of chili pepper sauce. Yum.
Fortified, we finally find the butcher stand—called Doña Carné—and Peter asks one of the men behind the counter in his best Spanish if he can buy one of the hats. The man says, “Hats?” and points with this thumb to the next aisle over, where presumably a hat vendor has many hats for sale. Peters points to the butcher’s hat, and the man shakes his head and disappears.
We linger a bit, and another gold-hatted butcher further down asks if he can help us. This man gets it. He knows it’s a kooky request, but he wants to please. Peter says he’ll pay five U.S. dollars, and the man says, “Shhh!” and disappears. A few moments later he comes back and surreptitiously hands us a fresh, new chef’s hat. We slip him the five bucks, and we’re on our way. The bright gold cloth hat is a prized memento of our trip, a symbol of the kindness of strangers.
Don’t miss Part 2 of our Chilean adventure as we experience a horseback ride in the Andes and tour wineries in the Colchagua Valley and by the coast.