Wednesday, April 4, 2012

End of my South American road - Santiago

I am writing this post about Santiago in SANTIAGO! Wow, for the first time on my trip I'm up to date with the blog. Better open a bottle of wine (wait, it's already open..)! It has helped a lot that I haven't done anything really exiting in the past week so easy to catch up on some writing + not much new stuff to write about. Also I know that I will be veeery busy and the internet is expensive in my next destination (New Zealand) so it's now or never...

I got to Santiago from Valparaíso, just an hour and a half's bus ride away. I got off the bus on a metro station Pajaritos, hoping I could find my way to my hostel from there - and I did! Small victories in life :) It was Sunday and the town was full of people (all the hostels were booked, barely got a bed for me) with the Lollapalooza music festival and the Santiago marathon packing the city with rock & running tourists. Although by the looks of it in downtown Santiago you could imagine that about 200 people live in the city: it was basically empty. Strangely empty. But I guess everybody was having fun somewhere else than the commercial district, almost all the shops were closed anyway. Don't know if it was normal for Sunday or was it just this one.

Found one group of people in the entire Santiago downtown - at Plaza de Armas

I was basically in my lazy mode that I've had about a week (or a month), not feeling like doing anything touristy. Was happy with just wandering around some random streets, more looking for nice cafés or restaurants than looking for sights. After my walk I went to my nice residence to cook some dinner, drink a glass of wine, do some writing... all the normal life kind of stuff.

Monday was pretty much the same, I had a late start with just about making it to the breakfast that finishes at 10am (this is what holidays are about!), washed my dance shoes, and went back to the city to run some errands. That's when I actually managed to stumble upon something I really liked, a cool park close to the Santa Lucia metro station. From the street looked like a castle from the 1600-1800s - I don't really know what had been the purpose of the place but now it served as a park. The park started up the stairs from the main entrance and it continued for several "floors", there were five levels of small parks and buildings or old forts, finishing a small towe that offered 360-degree views from the top. I always enjoy miradors and the likes, I try to get to the tallest buildings of the city or the edge of the mountain to see the views.

When I got back to the hostel my roommates Sophie and Ryan asked me to join them for dinner and I convinced them we should go to the recommended parilla-restaurant, Vaca Gorda (=the fat cow), which I had passed by the day before. And boy did we have good steaks there! The sauces and the garnishes weren't that special though (I should start a sauce-making school in South America... seriously..) but the meat was delicious. I even managed to pick a really smooth red with it, Casa Patronales Carmenere 2010. It's not too difficult to pick a very drinkable Chilean red wine, even a cheap one, but this one melted in my mouth, so to say.

This was a good prelude (like all the nights with a glass or two of wine here so far) to the next day: I had booked myself a tour to visit a vineyard. I had no idea what would be good and the tours were quite pricey so I just decided to pick one and arrange a visit myself. I took a look at to find the some vineyards or wineires that would be the closest to Santiago (preferably also very close to a metro line - I knew there would be some) and started to go through their websites. Most didn't mention anything about tours so decided to just skip those. Basically what I came up with were Aquitania and Cousiño Macul. Apparently the Aquitania was a small vineyard and I kind of liked the sound of that. I had a guy from the hostel to call for a reservations and so I was set: the tour would start 11am the next day.

So at 8am on a Tuesday morning I got up to go wine tasting. Lovely. I had breakfast and rechecked the map on how to get there and I was off! It was very easy to find there with the metro for about 20 stops altoghether on two lineand the bus for the last 2km - the nice bus driver also let me go for free since I'd forgot about the fact you need a chip card for. I was a bit early when I arrived to the winery and there was just a lady waving to me from the road leading up to the building, so I just let myself in the gate.
I wandered in the stylish (but not pretentious) reception and in a couple minutes I started the tour. A few people joined us after we started but it was a small group and I got to ask a lot of questions, was curious to see the small winery in the middle of the harvest! Perfect timing on this one - in Mendoza it was still a month from the harvest - and was fun to see the grape selection and crushing going on. I also sneaked a taste of the grapes: really sweet! It was now the harvest time only for Syrah, the Cabernet Sauvignon (which dominates the Aquitania's small  production like in the most of Chile) is due in 1-2 weeks. There are three French and one Chilean guy behind the wines, and if my memory serves correct only about 180.000l are produced by the entire winery each year.

Aquitania makes only 7 wines: Reservas Cabernet, Carmenere, Syrah and rose Cabernet under the Aquitania brand; Gran Reservas Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under the SoldeSol brand and Premium Cabernet Sauvignon under the Lazuli brand. In the tasting they had the three red reservas and none of them were surprising but all were quite pleasant, more of the "easy drinking" type, which is their philosophy in creating these wines. Like our guide Blanca said: the idea is not to leave anything in the bottle.

The tour, including the tasting, took about an hour and 15 minutes; the price was 7000 pesos (about 10€) - totally worth it. I really enjoyed just being able to visit a small vineyard, nicely set in front of the Andes. If you're looking for more sophisticated (or more "organised") wine tours you will find plenty of them in Santiago or Valparaíso with visits to one, two or more wineries, including pick ups by a car from your accomodation - one that I was recommended on three occasions was by Bicicleta Verde: can't say anything about how it is but it's one of those wine & bike tours if you're looking for that!

The thing that I enjoyed the most about Santiago was the weather: after the mostly gray and chilly coast (La Serena, Valparaíso and Viña del Mar) Santiago was having a nice autumn weather... Sunny all day long, +25 and above during the days, a bit cold in the evenings and morning but you could definitely go out in shorts/skirts, sandals and sleeveless tops. Me like! Transport is good, streets follow a fairly standard grid so impossible to get lost, it's fairly clean, prices are moderate, food & wine is good. This is one of the major commercial cities in the entire South America so you'll find most things you could imagine needing there. It's also well connected with flights around the neighbouring countries, North America and Australia/New Zealand. I heard the bus trips across the Andes to Mendoza (Argentina) is quite scenic too. So lots of reasons to come here!

For me though, Santiago has been more of a place of departure than arrival: this is where I would fly off to New Zealand! I had been waiting this for a while now, it's been a bit tiring to travel through Bolivia, Peru and Chile the last weeks, through lots of cold places with high altitudes. And I was missing zouk - which I knew was waiting for me in New Zealand :) A change of scenery is always nice, and it means that I'm moving along on this journey around the world. This would also be the first time I cross the Pacific! I will lose one day in the process, when we pass the international date line, but it's a day I will gain during the trip, I'm gaining an hour every time I cross a time zone... So I leave late Wednesday evening from Santiago and 13 hours later, early on Friday morning, I arrive to Auckland.

This is the first time I complete a post before I leave a place - I'm flying out tomorrow and if I have more to say about Santiago I will fill in here. Hopefully all goes well tomorrow, I have all day to pack, worry, wonder, plan, relax... Any and all of those.

I've been thinking hard about how to summarise my whole Latin American experience during the past four months of travel... Four months. I couldn't have imagined how it's like when I left home. Let's see if I can materialise all that into words once I change continents!

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