Northern Chile: Poetry, Wine, and Street Art

April 5-16, 2022

I say Northern Chile because we did not travel south to Patagonia, a trip that will be its own someday – Chile is a long country after all and there was no way we’d be able to cover it all.

Santiago felt like most metropolitan cities around the world, full of people hurrying to get somewhere, cultural landmarks and businesses, good food, and reminders of the past. Wine tasting in the Colchagua Valley was an exceptional experience full of exceptional wine from vineyards tucked between valleys, mountains, and the sea, like those of Sonoma, Napa, Willamette, and Columbia along the west coast of the United States, of my origins. Valparaíso was a colorful treat all on its own, reminiscent of Lisbon’s steep hills, vibrancy, and artistry.

After 11 days in Peru, my friend Jasmine and I were off to Chile. From Lima to Santiago the flight was just over three hours and the contrast in cultures was immediate. The airport, almost empty, and as clean as a hospital corridor full of grand, clean sweeping arches and stories of glass windows were to set the scene for a much different experience. Chile’s recent history includes a 1973 CIA-backed military coup d’état to overthrow the center-left party led by President Salvador Allende. What followed was the two-decade dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and years of human rights violations and market-oriented economic reforms. The country returned to democracy in 1990 but the tight hold of government seemed ever-present and had experienced it before we even arrived.

TL;DR: we almost didn’t get into the country but luck was on our side in the end.

Though COVID-19 was subsiding, Chile held stringent policies in place. To enter Peru we simply needed proof of vaccination uploaded to our travel itinerary three days prior to arrival and present it as we exited the airport. To enter Chile, we had to apply and register ourselves one month in advance of arrival on a Chilean government portal to receive approval to travel. After this was reviewed by an agency, which took each of us three attempts after being denied, our accounts were approved. Then we had to confirm the account and upload proof of vaccinations, the tricky part and not only because all of this was in Spanish which neither of us is fluent in, but we got it done. Or, so we thought…

On April 4, we arrived at the Lima airport from Cusco around 10pm with 8 hours until our morning flight to Santiago. Luckily, baggage check was open and we walked over to drop our suitcases so we could get through security and find a comfy spot to rest for a few hours. That’s when our issues began. The day before a nurse visited our room in Cusco to administer the mandatory PCR test within 48 hours, we both passed and uploaded the results to the Chilean government portal. Upon acceptance, we were each issued a digital affidavit which we would need to present at the airport in order to board the plane to Santiago. I went first, my affidavit had the proper green “accepted for entrance into Chile” message but when I was asked for my proof of traveler’s insurance, the gate agent was hesitant to accept the screenshot I had on my phone indicating my traveler’s insurance was included in my life insurance policy through my employer. Fair, it is confusing. After 30 minutes, three gate agents, and multiple phone calls I was able to convince them, across a language barrier, to check my bag and check-in for the flight. Jasmine went next and already had her printed traveler’s insurance ready to go. “Denied for entrance into Chile” in red was written across her affidavit. Shit. What?! How did this happen? Our stomachs dropped. After some investigating, we realized she had not gone back into her government account after approval, all those weeks ago, and re-uploaded her vaccination documents, validation of which we knew could take up to 11 days. We re-booked her for a flight the next evening with the hope and a prayer that she’d be able to speak with the agency during working hours the next day and receive expedited approval. In the end, luck was on our side and Jasmine was able to join me in Santiago a mere 24 hours later than planned and just in time for 3 days in wine country.

POETRY

SANTIAGO

I spent the first day and a half in Santiago alone and took to exploring my surroundings. I walked the neighborhood I had chosen to stay in, against the advice of my longtime local Chilean friend Mario, the bohemian and centrally-located Lastarria – known for its independent cinemas, coffee shops, national galleries, and wine bars. Oh, and also nearby weekly protests and general rowdiness that some worry is unsafe for tourists. As a seasoned traveler, I was willing to take the risk and found it to be pleasant and safe, erring on the side of caution by not staying out late on my own. I stayed one night at the posh Singular hotel, a welcome experience after a night in the airport and several days hiking and camping Machu Picchu. Nothing charms me more than a hotel with a stylish lobby, good bar, and in-room robe, slippers, and an espresso machine, not to mention their commitment to locality: “a collection of luxury hotels that maintain the legacy of the ground they rise from.” Walking is a great way to first get acquainted with a destination and sampling the local flavors while doing so is without question. Here’s what I did:

  • I ate ice cream at Heladería Emporio La Rosa
  • Strolled the garden and climbed Santa Lucia Hill for a breathtaking view of Santiago and the Andes Mountains
  • Drank Chilean wines and snacked at Bocanariz
  • Perused the nightly neighborhood flea market full of vintage, sustainable, and handmade goods

Day two brought longer walks and the exploration of the famed Bellavista neighborhood.

  • I moved from the Singular hotel down the block to the quaint art-deco Luciano K
  • Crossed the bridge into Bellavista and stopped for a beer and chorrillana at Galindo
  • Toured La Chascona, the ship-like home of poet-diplomat and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda
  • Drank local beer at Krossbar
  • Walked the Parque Forestal

NERUDA

Pablo Neruda was many things: a politician, a poet, a diplomat, and what I admire the most, a panoptic lover of life. His poetry speaks of love and lust, of life and freedom, of history and struggle. “Neruda’s body of poetry is so rich and varied that it defies classification or easy summary. It developed along four main directions, however: love, material, epic, and common.” Each new country I travel to I attempt to read a book written by a local author that is representative of some part of the country’s history. While I did indulge in many of Neruda’s poems (Ode to Wine being a favorite) it was the book Il Postino (The Postman) by Antonio Skármeta that I chose to read. The story takes place during Neruda’s exile and tells a tale of a young boy’s first love in the years preceding the Pinochet dictatorship. It was an enjoyable read and painted that period of time in my imagination while shedding light on how Neruda lived during what would be some of his final years of life.

One of my favorite things I did in Chile was visit two of Neruda’s three homes: La Chascona in Santiago and La Sebastiana in Valparaíso (missing Isla Negra); each a dazzling campy museum of his life and adventures, full of treasures collected from his travels around the world. My most favorite souvenir is now the salt and pepper shaker set I purchased, labeled ‘morphine’ and ‘marijuana’; items Neruda himself enjoyed using during dinner parties to bring a laugh across the mouths of his stuffy political guests. A trip to Chile simply would not be complete without visiting and studying the work of Neruda, and so I provide here a short poem of his.

Always by Pablo Neruda

I am not jealous
of what came before me.
Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,
come like a river
full of drowned men
which flows down to the wild sea,
to the eternal surf, to Time!
Bring them all
to where I am waiting for you;
we shall always be alone,
we shall always be you and I
alone on earth
to start our life!

My second day getting to know Santiago was perfect. That evening Jasmine would arrive, well deserving and in need of a good night’s rest, which was just what we did as the next morning we were getting up early to begin the first of many days spent learning about and drinking Chilean wines. We would start with the first wine region in the country, the Maipo Valley.

MAIPO

Famous wineries, Santa Rita and Concha y Toro, are a short 35-minute drive from the city or 1.5 hours by public transport. We opted for public transport – easy and nice – by taking the subway to Las Mercedes metro station and transferring to the MB81 bus which would bring us to the front gates of Viña Santa Rita. Sadly, we missed the 10 AM tour by a few minutes but not to be discouraged we instead enjoyed walking the expansive and beautiful grounds on our own, and the staff working in the wine shop happily served us wines to try at our leisure.

Viña Santa Rita sits at the base of the foothills of the Andes. Founded in 1880 by Don Domingo Fernández Concha, he brought French grape varieties, specialized equipment, and a team of top winemakers from France to the Maipo Valley that would introduce new techniques and change the way wines were made in the country. Santa Rita offers everything from wine tours by pedal bike, a stay in Casa Real, horse-drawn carriage rides, a restaurant, and a museum. When we were done tasting we took to the museum, Museo Andino, a modern museum housing a collection of around 3,000 archeological and ethnographic artifacts created by the Pre-Columbian peoples who inhabited the lands – well worth the visit.

Next, we ordered an Uber to whisk us to our second destination, the infamous Concha y Toro.

Concha y Toro and the tale of the “Devil’s Cellar” was our second stop of the day. We opted for a lite lunch here and did two tastings at our table. Founded in 1883 by Melchor Concha y Toro, a prominent Chilean lawyer, politician, and businessman, who brought French vines from the Bordeaux region and built an elaborate underground subway vault to store his wines. “Legend has it that the best wines were kept in a locked cellar because they frequently went missing. It was then that Melchor Concha y Toro spread the rumor that the Devil himself lived in his cellar…” In 1987, winemaker Don Melchor would make history with a vintage made that was honored as Chile’s first-ever icon wine.

For over a decade now Chilean wines have ascended the ranks of collectibles, moving away from what was once described as the land of fruit-forward varietal expressions. These collectibles are called icon wines.

Grapevine Magazine outlines 10 factors deemed necessary to create an icon wine. These are very high-quality wines, usually achieved by a combination of factors such as site selection, planting in the right climate, and many others, enabling a variety to express itself superbly. Read more about icon wines here.

After a pleasant first day of seeing and tasting, we hurried back to Santiago to pick up our rental car before 6pm. Tomorrow, we’d be leaving the city behind and driving three hours south to spend a few days in the Colchagua Valley – a region Vogue described in 2018 as Chile’s “red wine paradise” and “a region known for exclusively producing full-bodied red wine varietals like the country’s famed Carménère.” The drive would prove extremely easy, with a well taken care of freeway the entire way. We blasted country music and love songs, quintessential road trip tunes. As the driver I couldn’t help but feel as though I was back home given the scenery around me, it all looked so strikingly similar to Washington, Oregon, and California, brown rolling hills speckled with crops, stretches of dry flat land, occasional mountain peaks, and glimpses of the ocean.

WINE

COLCHAGUA VALLEY

A few weeks before our trip my Wine Enthusiast magazine had arrived and serendipitously included a multi-page spread on the Colchagua Valley, deeming it “COOLchagua: Chile’s Napa Valley,” a good omen I concluded (you can read the article here). The entire 11 days in Chile were fantastic, but if I had to choose a favorite part it would be these few days. Maybe because it reminded me of home, or because the wine was excellent, or because the people were passionate and welcoming, or because the food was heavenly, or because the wide-open land far from the city was golden and untouched, I loved it all. We drank until we could drink no more. The Colchagua Valley is known for its reds, which is what we came to drink (if you’re in search of white wines you can find them just north in the Casablanca Valley), and we certainly made the most of it.

Friday morning we woke early to avoid Santiago traffic and make it to our first wine appointment on time; the third-best winery in the world and first in the New World, Montes. We reserved the 1.5-hour high range tour to taste their icon wines and, importantly, spend time in the barrel room where dozens of barrels rest under the peaceful sounds of gregorian chants 24/7; a truly angelic experience. We purchased several bottles here, as we would end up doing at all of the wineries, not only because of their exceptional quality for the price but also because of the difficulty, though less and less so, of finding them in the United States.

Equally as delicious as the Montes wines was lunch at their onsite restaurant Fuegos de Apalta operated by world-renowned chef, Francis Mallmann, who happens to be the feature of one of my favorite Chef’s Table episodes. The food, all cooked over a fire, was divine and the backdrop impeccable. Jasmine and I had specifically planned to travel to Peru and Chile during this time of year (April) because it was the onset of Autumn, meaning the leaves would be turning beautiful shades of reds, yellows, and oranges, and the grape harvest would be underway. At lunch, the guests at the table next to us were speaking English so we did what all people who speak a common language in a foreign country do, began conversing and swapping stories; in our case, it was winery notes and we uncovered that our next appointments would be at the same place. Clearly, we had both done our research.

Right on time we arrived for our appointment at Clos Apalta for the Anthology Wine Tour & Tasting, which we enjoyed with our American friends from lunch. We sampled Carménère grapes (10 facts about the grape) that had just come in off the vines and snuck a peek of the owner’s private 6,000+ bottle cellar. The Lapostolle history, the family behind Clos Apalta, is a story for a romantic film, complete with origins in France, the creator of the world-famous Grand Marnier liqueur, and the great-granddaughter, Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, who set out to add winemaking to the family legacy.

Our first day tasting Colchagua wines was a dream, we were smitten and ready to leave our New York City lives behind to move there. Before the sun set we quickly found our way to Palcos de Apaltas where we’d be staying for two nights; a set of hillside bungalows with sweeping views of the valley that I had accidentally discovered by roaming the area on Google Maps. The bungalow came with a hot tub, daily fresh local cheeses, breads, and jams for breakfast, and a view that you find in magazines. It was the perfect spot to stay and I highly recommend it if you’re planning a trip but, be warned, you may need a small SUV to make it up the steep driveway. We dined that night at a lovely indoor-outdoor villa-style Italian restaurant, Ristorante Vino Bello, at the recommendation of our friends and it was the perfect meal to absorb the vino we had drank all day and solidly prepare us for another day of the same, like marathoners for a race.

On our second day of wine tastings, we smartly reserved Colchagua Wine Tours to take us around. A local wife-husband team, Connie and Francisco, curated a delicious itinerary for us that included the absolute best of the best wineries.

Francisco retrieved us from the bungalow Saturday morning and ensured we stayed on schedule, even adding a surprise stop to our itinerary.

  • 10:00AM – Pick up
  • 10:30AM – Maquis (ICON Wine Tour and Tasting)
  • 12:00PM – Viu Manent (ICON Wine Tour and Tasting)
  • 2:00PM – Lunch at Rayuela Wine & Grill (Viu Manent)
  • Unscheduled stop at Neyen – a delight not to be missed!
  • 4:30PM – Ventisquero (ICON Wine Tasting)
  • 6:30PM – Return home

I cannot say enough wonderful things about our tour guide and each of the wineries we visited. Every winery delicately and precisely farms the land with the utmost respect and harvests the variety(ies) best suited to their unique portion of soil. Alongside Carménère, what this region is known for, we also tasted several delicious Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and Pinot Noirs.

To spare this blog from becoming annoyingly long, I write here simple reflections for each with the insistence that all are a must-visit.

Maquis: this vineyard sits at the crosshairs of two rivers and felt the closest to nature if you will, their practice is no frills and our tour was a guided walk through vines and along the river; the wine is elegant yet unpretentious

Viu Manent: spread across two sides of a road, old buildings on one side and the restaurant, polo fields, and vines on the other, this is a see-and-be-seen, Michelin-worthy food and wine scene that one could spend an entire day at, and indeed some families do just that

Neyen: private and hidden away down a long covered driveway, this 100-year-old adobe-walled tasting room has superb wines and humble, spiritual vibes; its exclusivity feels romantic and I love a good history

Ventisquero: owning several vineyards throughout Chile, including one in the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert, this brand was launched at the beginning of the millennia by Martín and Eduardo Silva with Aurelio Montes with the precise purpose of honoring distinctly Chilean varietals and processes

Our lunch at Viu Manent rivaled our mouth-watering lunch the day before, and it’s no wonder why, Chef Maira Ramos is formerly of Fuegos de Apalta and the talent she’s brought to Rayuela deserves a spot on your itinerary. My three favorite meals from the entire trip all took place in Chile, and Rayuela and Fuegos are two of them.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Ventisquero’s La Roblería Vineyard was the ideal spot to end the day and our time in Colchagua. Tucked away on another hillside, and enjoyed by locals and visitors alike, it has unobstructed views of the golden-orange sunsets that blanket the valley at dusk.

The next day we would leave the Colchagua Valley for one over, the Millahue Valley, to stay at the property we had both been looking forward to for months, Viña Vik.

If you have social media and follow wine you may have seen images or videos of this stunning vineyard and hotel, or its charismatic winemaker Cristián Vallejo, and I can tell you that it is every bit ethereal in person as it comes across online.

Two days at Vik was a reset for the soul and a playground for the tastebuds. With more time I can only imagine how transcendental it would be for one’s being.

We arrived around noon and after a welcome cocktail, were shown to our room just adjacent to the restaurant where our lunch would soon be served. All meals at Vik are included in the stay. The onsite chef and his team use ingredients from the grounds and nearby purveyors. For my first meal, I chose the steak which came blanketed in delicate flower petals picked only that morning. The contrast in color, carnivorous and omnivorous qualities, striking and ruining any future steak I order that does not come served this way.

The hotel sits atop a hill directly center of the property, and yes, it looks like both a spaceship and a James Bond villain’s secret lair (someone share this idea with Barbara Broccoli or the next Bond film’s location scout). After lunch, we relaxed with a glass of champagne by the infinity pool taking in the wide-open quiet before we would safari down the hill in one of the 4Runners for our afternoon winery tour and tasting. Every bottle was delicious and the perks of staying on property meant we’d be drinking them for the entirety of our stay with each of our meals.

At the winery, going below ground to begin the tour was “like entering into the secret mysteries of winemaking with softly lit barrels stacked high on either side.” The La Piu Belle was a personal favorite and the artwork on the bottle only enhances the experience, the rosé I actually liked – as a non-rosé lover – and of course, their Vik, always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Cabernet Franc was scrumptious.

The art throughout the property is stunning; it personifies the surrounding terroir and emotes the energy and creativity behind the brand. My favorite scene was the red wall in the dining room – velvety, lush, playful, and sexy. Dinner that evening was another delicious meal, and we were even so lucky as to be in the company of the owners and the entire family that evening.

Vik is a wine-country retreat like no other and I hope I get to return someday. The next morning I rose early to watch the sunrise from one of the two cozy swinging benches, before finding my way to breakfast and a few espressos. My final activity at Vik was to set out on horseback for a trot through the vineyard, as I figured this was the only proper way to say farewell and hasta pronto.

A NOTE ON SUSTAINABILITY

Every winery we visited discussed the importance of sustainability and include dedicated sections on their websites that address it. I found this to be refreshing, forward-thinking, and quite simply the best recipe if one wants to produce the best wines for years to come. The winemakers and guides talked about the care for the land and the processes they follow to ensure good stewardship practices; here is a list of wineries that participate in Chile’s Sustainability 365.

Read more in How Chile Became One of the Most Sustainable Winemaking Countries in the World.

And for a fun talk about Chile and sustainable wine, courtesy of VinePair and Philippe Newlin, watch here.

That afternoon Jasmine and I made the three-hour drive back to Santiago to return our rental car. The next morning we’d be taking an early morning bus three hours west to visit the “Jewel of the Pacific,” Valparaíso.

STREET ART

VALPARAÍSO

A UNESCO World Heritage city, Valpo (as the locals call it), “represents an extraordinary example of industrial-age heritage associated with the international sea trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries…prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.” We stayed in the charming La Galería B&B, centrally located in the historic quarter and near most of the things we wanted to do and see. As you come over the top of the final hill from Santiago you’re greeted with the sea and long spiraling roads that descend through colorful buildings. At the bottom, we grabbed a taxi from the central bus station for the 20-minute cross-town journey to our bed and breakfast. After checking in we set out on foot to explore and find some lunch, stumbling upon a cute nearby restaurant called Cafe del Pintor.

We walked slowly through the narrow streets, taking in each mural of artwork just as unique as the one before it. We window-shopped and burned calories up and down the steep hills before finding our way to Café Turri for a glass of sparkling and early evening views of the seaport. With a newfound pep in our step thanks to the bubbly we decided to continue on, finding a hillside brewery perfectly located for a sunset view accompanied with bites and local beer. For the final act, I chose the local bar Gato En La Ventana (cat in the window) in the hopes that there would be a cat and yes, my dreams came true, there was a cat and I was honored that she chose me as her evening napping grounds. Gato En La Ventana is along the main bar street, which meant our final act turned into an encore with a few locals and an Irishman, before calling it a night with some late-night fries, as one does.

The next day our first priority was coffee and we found the most delicious coffee spot, María María, at the bottom of the Escalera Piano (piano staircase) on Beethoven Street. After countless photos, and fully energizing ourselves with caffeine, we set out for the long uphill hike to find Pablo Neruda’s Valparaíso home. As with his home in Santiago, photos are not allowed inside which is such a bummer but understandable. The underlying theme of his homes, and indeed his life, is the sea – he considered himself a captain of the land – and perhaps this is why his eclectic style and zeal for life resonates with me so much. I too love the ocean and endeavor to live like it exists – fluid, mutable, weathering of storms, mysterious, giver of life, deep, and sparkling.

Truth be told, I’m amazed a coffee table book commissioned by Architectural Digest or the like hasn’t found its way into existence. The colors, textures, prints, souvenirs, and treasures – large and small, in every room, collected from around the world – tell a story you wish you had been a part of and is an endless pit of inspiration I imagine any designer would be euphoric for. You could spend days exploring every nook and cranny, every level of each of his homes, and still find something new or intoxicating each time. Please, while in Chile make sure you visit these time capsules of a life well lived and explored.

We made the trek back to our neighborhood and decided to lunch at Cocina Puerto, ordering machas parmesanas and pisco sours before crescendoing the evening at Fauna Hotel – my favorite view of all of Valpo. We finished one (ok two) bottles of wine, conversed with locals, enjoyed the musical vocals of a local woman, and I finished my book. It was just the right way to spend one last evening in the buoyant seaport city.

The next morning we took a walk to explore several local art galleries, Jasmine finding a print for her apartment, and making a second visit to María María, before tasing to the bus station for our return to Santiago. We were due to have drinks at the W Hotel Santiago that evening with new friends we had spent four days hiking with to Machu Picchu, followed by a meal I had been looking forward to for months, Boragó.

BACK TO SANTIAGO

And finally, the best for last. My favorite meal of the entire trip.

My favorite meal took place at Boragó in Santiago led by chef Rodolfo Guzmán. The inspiration for his restaurant is the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Southern Chile and Argentina and I cannot imagine a better-suited person to bring this vision to our plates.

We reserved the tasting menu with wine pairings and it’s impossible to overstate how absolutely perfect everything was. The creativity, the delivery and timing, the flavors, the pairings, the ambiance, the staff, pure genius and sensory ecstasy.

Here’s what I wrote after experiencing the second to last dish, comprised of red long petals – Chile’s national flower lapageria or Chilean Bellflower, and caviar:

My mouth tasted like the smell of the salty ocean air. The 2002 Merlot carries away with it any leftover saltiness and leaves only a longing for a moment next to the sea, breeze across your face, watching the sunset while cloaked in a sheep’s wool blanket or a lover’s embrace.

Evidently, the food and wine had me feeling euphoric at this point, to say the least.

Boragó has been named to the 50 Best lists numerous years in a row now and, like the wineries, we visited throughout our trip, prioritizes sustainability and works closely with more than 200 smallholders, farmers, fishermen and foragers down the length of Chile’s diverse ecosystems. This dedication earned them the inaugural Latin America Sustainable Restaurant Award.

After dining for almost three hours the evening ended with a tour of the research and development kitchen – stunning and so much going on in there! – and taking photos with and extending a warm thank-you to the chef and phenomenal team. Not only was the food and drink absolutely superb but every single person who helped deliver the experience was lovely, and it was evident that they all very much enjoy the work they do and form an excellent team at that; a better or more complete experience could not have been had.

We left with full hearts and bellies, a perfect ending to a multi-week trip through parts of Peru and Chile. When you visit Santiago do not leave without dining at Boragó, go and disfruta (enjoy)!

Hasta pronto y salud!

C

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