Rich history, a recent “economic miracle,” and an astonishingly diverse terrain that encompasses mountains, deserts, lakes, glaciers, and vineyards along a 4,000-mile coastline make Chile one of South America’s most alluring travel destinations. And don’t be worried about damage from the recent earthquake. The major tourist areas were barely affected.
After flying all night from Newark via LAN Airlines’ luxe slumber jet with no time change or jet lag, I check into the Ritz-Carlton Santiago (El Alcalde 15, 56/2-470-8500, www.ritzcarlton.com, $398-$618 per night) in the capital’s prestigious El Golf district. There are no fairways in sight, but I soon repair to the penthouse spa floor to discover the most gorgeous indoor swimming pool I have ever seen.
A swim and a schvitz later, there’s enough time to see the grand Plaza de Armas and the surrounding neo-Renaissance
government buildings. After ducking into the corpulent Colonial-era (1748) Cathedral Metropolitana to admire the white marble, bronze, and lapis lazuli main altar, I settle in at the Marco Polo Café (Calle Plaza de Armas 416) to people watch while lingering over the first of my trip’s many delicious pisco sours. A quiet dinner in the Ritz’s excellent Adra restaurant (try the spiny lobster and select from 24 Chilean wines served by the glass) is followed by blissful sleep.
Two hours south of Santiago is the Colchagua Valley, Chile’s most important wine making region and home to its famed Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere Syrah (which disappeared from Europe in the mid-19th century). Primo tasting spots include the stunning Vina Clos Apalta, (56/72-321803, www.casalapostolle.cl) created in 1994 by Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle (of France’s Grand Marnier family). It took four years to blast away tons of granite on the sloping hillside where the six-story gravity-flow winery now stands. After sampling four of the award-winning wines (many sell in the $100-$150 range), I take in the somewhat forbidding vault – right out of a James Bond movie – containing 60,000 rare bottles. Lunch at Veta Bistro (Rafael Casanova 570, Santa Cruz 56/72-822/401, www.vetabistro.blogspot.com) whose zany chef, Roberto Neira (formerly of Napa’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se), prepares a five-course feast that turns out to be the trip’s most memorable gastronomic experience.
A guide from Santiago Adventures (2-244-2750, U.S. 1-802-904-6798) takes me to the historic port of Valparaiso, a UNESCO world heritage city full of colorful, twisting streets and antique Victorian and tin-walled buildings perched precariously on steep hillsides boasting dramatic Pacific views. Literary pilgrims will enjoy the “organized chaos” of La Sebastiana, once home to Chilean poet/politician Pablo Neruda (Calle Ferrari 692, 32-225-606). Those with a taste for
the macabre will appreciate the tombstones of the young 19th-century foreign adventurers buried in the Cimetario de Dissentes (between Av. Ecuador and Cumming), many with inscriptions recounting their tragic fates. My next stop is lunch – cemetery tours do give one an appetite! – and I board the famously ancient and creaky La Conception Funicular (an absolute must-do!) to Café Turri (Calle Tempelman 147, 32-236-5307), where the delightful French/Chilean cuisine and a glass of chilled Chardonnay hit the spot out on the terrace as I watch a flotilla of cruise ships head out to sea.
After a morning visit to Plaza Constitucion and the Palacio de la Moneda, the site of the infamous 1973 coup d’etat that ousted Salvador Allende (who was either shot by the military or committed suicide within its walls), I head to the airport for a two-hour flight to Calama in Chile’s desert north wasteland. It’s two more hours by van to San Pedro de Atacama, where an austere but modern and comfortable room and hearty after-hours dinner await at the Tierra Atacama hotel. (Calle Sequitor, 55-555-977, U.S. 1-800-829-5325, rates start at $450).
Up before dawn to see the famed Geysers del Tatio blow marvelous plumes of steam, the highest in the world, alongside bubbling pools encrusted with colorful mineral deposits. On the way back I stop at the Banos de Puritama at the Explora Hotel for a dip in the sybaritic hot spring pools. Later in the day I explore the tiny town of San Pedro whose shopkeepers hawk T-shirts and other tourist goodies to a hip-looking crowd of twenty-something visitors hanging out in nearby bars and student hostels. After visiting “Miss Chile” (a female mummy with her legs curled to her chest) and other pre-Columbian artifacts at the Museo Arqueologico Padre le Paige, I dine at my hotel with the charming young manager, Christopher Purcell, who shares stories about his family’s plans to further develop the resort’s already impressive menu and excursion offerings (all included in the daily rate).
Off to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) to explore the ethereal desert landscape of salt-encrusted mounds and immense sand dunes. This is the best place to enjoy the magnificent sunset (preferably with pisco sour in hand!) as the
colors explode over the horizon. After a spa treatment and a dip in the jet pool comes another wine-fueled repast and an early retirement with a book I have been savoring every spare moment: “House of the Spirits,” Isabel Allende’s epic magic realism novel of 20th century Chilean life.
My 3,000-mile-plus journey from Calama due south (via Santiago) to Punta Arenas is a two-flight pre-dawn to well-past-dusk affair and I’m glad I also brought Bruce Chatwin’s acclaimed memoir, “In Patagonia,” along to enlighten my visit to this most storied of South American destinations. After a two-hour drive to the “frontier town” of Puerto Natales, there’s just time for dinner, drinks, and a dip in the pool before bedtime at the funky, somewhat forbidding, and aptly named Hotel Remota (Huerto 279, 61-414040, rates start at $516 per night and include meals and excursions).
An entire day touring the vast Torres del Paine (61-691-931), one of the world’s most beautiful national parks. Hundreds of miles of rugged trails wind through landscapes of incomparable magnificence under skies bursting with colorful Southern Lights. Towering granite peaks rise from sea level to more than 9,000 feet alongside rolling meadows teeming with llama-like guanacos and more than 100 species of birds (including some sinister condors). A memorable moment comes south of the rapidly disappearing Glaciar Grey, where I muse upon an electric blue berg that has broken off from the Southern Ice Field and washed ashore at Lago Grey. I scoop up shards to take back to the hotel for cocktail hour. There’s nothing quite like 20-year-old Scotch over three thousand-year-old rocks!
Mini-excursions around Puerto Natales include a morning visit to the Cueva de Miledon, a 656-foot deep cave that was once home to a giant prehistoric sloth, followed by a tour of the last remaining slaughterhouse where Chile’s once-dominant sheep industry shipped its lamb and wool to the rest of the world. I finish the afternoon with a trip into the windy port town to see the crazy quilt of ramshackle tin and wooden structures, many occupied by intriguing cafes,
inns, and shops (where I make sure to buy xxx the famed Chilean jam. Dinner at Cormoran de Las Rocas (Miguel Sanchez 72, 61-413-723), where the king crab tart and salmon in coconut and saffron sauce compete with a fine harbor view.
An early flight back to Santiagop where I soon check-in at the snazzy and chic W Hotel Santiago (Isidora Goyenechea 3000, 2-770-0000, $259-$769). There is time to visit the Museo Chileano de Arte Precolombano (Bandera 361, 2-688-7348) whose handsome collection of more than 1,500 objects related to Latin American culture should not be missed. (Nor should getting there on the incredibly cheap, clean, fast, and on time Metro system.) Dinner at Opera (395 Merced, 2-664-3048), where an arty crowd of fashionable young sophisticates settle into their settees over plates of foie gras poele, filet of dorade with crab, and five kinds of crème brulee.
I head to Pueblito de los Domenicos (Apoquindo 9085), where 100 or more shops and stalls sell lapis lazuli, fine alpaca and other woolens, exquisitely designed rugs and tapestries, and other arts and crafts in a somewhat tacky pueblo-cum-theme-park setting. Then it’s off to the airport to return home with many fond memories of Chile, its history, its culture, its natural beauty, its people.