With four days in Argentina drinking the best malbec in the world now under our belts, we were ready to begin exploring the next country on our tour of South America, Chile. Being late April, that area of the world was approaching winter, and temperatures were starting to drop. Unfortunately, our travel packs were not filled with the appropriate clothing to face the cold, and therefore our plans were to only go north from Santiago. Its too bad, because the landscapes you can explore in southern Chile and Argentina are incredible. Patagonia and Torres del Paine are some of the most sought-after parks for exploring worldwide. I guess we will just have to leave that for some other time. For now, our journey starts in Santiago and goes north through what would end up being some of our favorite places on the trip.
From what I would now call my extensive travel experience, the feedback I have heard from other travelers is that they like to avoid major cities as much as possible. Not us. We love checking out big cities, and although we may not like them all, I find they give us a good perspective of the country we are in and the culture we will find there. Santiago was no exception to the rule. We were surprised at how modern the city was, but still holding onto its colonial Spanish feel. This is somewhat how we found it to be in the rest of the country, at least the parts that we visited of course.
One thing we do struggle with in larger cities is the accommodations. We had been getting used to finding affordable private rooms for the two of us, but whenever we visit larger cities, private rooms become a bit out of our price range and we find ourselves dealing with larger shared dorm rooms. Something you learn to live with while backpacking, but sometimes it can make you crazy.
We spent a collective four nights in the city, splitting our time between two different spots. The first spot we stayed wasn’t really in any special neighborhood, but the hostel came highly recommended. Hostel Provendencia had great breakfast, and the common spaces were awesome. Our issue was we just couldn’t stand the extremely noisy, squeaky beds. Anytime anyone would even shift in the slightest, you would think the bunk beds were about to collapse. Granted it may have just been our luck with that particular room and those particular beds, but after doing this sort of travel long enough, those small things can make or break a sleeping experience.
The next spot wasn’t all that much better, not due to the beds, but because it was a party hostel and the walls were paper thin. It was on the grungy side as well, definitely a more lived-in and budget friendly accommodation. I’m sure if we were in a different head space and ready to party, Gnomo Hostel would have been great, but you really need to be up for it if you’re going to stay in a place like that.
Accommodations aside, we spent our time in Santiago exploring as much as we could in the little time we had. Gnomo did have the benefit of being in the Bellavista neighborhood, which is the young and energetic bohemian barrio of Santiago. While exploring the cobblestone streets you will find all sorts of murals and street art, as well as a dense population of bars and clubs that seem to get pretty wild on most nights of the week, especially weekends.
One of the coolest parts of the neighborhood is the very new and very modern Patio Bellavista complex. This place takes over what seems like an entire city block. From the street, you enter through an unsuspecting doorway that leads you to a huge outdoor area with two levels worth of bars, restaurants and shops that are always buzzing. You can easily spend a day going from lunch spots to coffee shops to dinner spots to bars. Not quite a budget friendly place, but very cool if you can swing it.
It seemed that the city had a handful of little gems like this. As in most cities I visit, lots of my time was spent aimlessly wandering, and in doing that I came across some really cool areas. Obviously anyone who visits Santiago would be remiss if they didn’t take a stroll around the Plaza de Armas and the pedestrian streets that surround it. Not far from there though, I stumbled upon Lastarria which is a lovely little neighborhood consisting of a few blocks and loaded with some of the finest looking restaurants the city has to offer. As I meandered down the street to the beat of the jazz guitarist that was set up on the corner, admiring the old colonial buildings and architecture, I found myself wishing I wasn’t a broke traveler. Wishing I could have just one night with Lindsey in this neighborhood not wearing our tattered travel gear and having to split the cheapest item on the menu. That’s the problem with visiting these large cities as a backpacker, you can look but you can’t touch, and sometimes it takes some serious will power. We just have to put it on the list and someday hopefully we will be back with a bit more money in our pockets to work on this ever-growing list!
While we can’t necessarily spend our time eating at the city’s finest restaurants, we can afford the markets, and sometimes those experiences can be much richer than a fine dining spot anyhow. The markets of Santiago were like none other. They have the biggest mercado I’ve seen in all of Latin America. Actually, there were four markets spread across four adjacent buildings. Mercado Central was the fish market, which I always love to explore. It wasn’t the best one I have seen, but it had an amazing selection of seafood restaurants under the same roof, and that in itself made it stand out.
Out of the other three markets, one was full of knickknacks and housewares, and the other two were the massive produce, meat, and anything else you could possibly think of markets. It took me two hours just to walk around the place. A lovely afternoon spent admiring these impressive fruit and veggie stands is one of the best things to do in Santiago, hands down. Of course, if staring at all that food works up your appetite, you can treat yourself to the best empanada stand in all of South America.
Emporio Zunino has been in operation for over 100 years and they sell homemade pasta along with fresh and delicious cheeses. They also serve up insanely good Empanadas, either with cheese and flaky doe, or perfectly baked Empanadas de Pino. For those of you that aren’t aware, Empanadas de Pino are jammed full of a beef with caramelized onions, one baked egg, and one whole olive. Sounds like an odd combo, but it is a heavenly mix of flavors, baked to perfection. Careful because the olive still has a pit (I learned the hard way!).
Santiago is also a great city for simply taking a walk. I was thoroughly impressed by the immaculate parks found all over the city. In particular, Parque Forestal that runs along the river from the Mercado Central all the way to Plaza Baquedano is wonderful. Loaded with trees, grassy patches for you to lounge on, trails to run on, parks for kids to play on, and plenty of benches to sit on where you can stop and admire one of the beautiful fountains along the way. If I lived there, I would somehow make sure to visit that park on a daily basis.
The city also has two different viewpoints where other beautiful parks are built on hills you can climb and get fantastic panoramic views of Santiago. The bigger of the two is located just west of Barrio Bellavista. It’s called Cerro San Cristobal and features a giant statue of Mary Magdalen looking out over the city skyline. While I wanted to visit this mirador, my time in the city was somewhat limited, so I ended up visiting the other much smaller and more accessible viewpoint, Castillo Hidalgo, and I am glad I did. What used to serve as a castle built to protect the city is now a stunning garden and walking path in the middle of downtown. An assortment of trails lead you around the hill to an incredible fountain and up to the top of the castle where you get 360 degree views of the city. I obviously can’t speak to which one is better, but I can tell you that Castillo Hidalgo is absolutely worth a visit.
We gave ourselves a couple days off after the trip to Mendoza before drinking wine again, but by the third day in Santiago we couldn’t help but want to see what Chilean wine was all about. There are a handful of wine regions in Chile, and lucky for us, one of them was just outside of Santiago. In fact, all we had to do was take the L4 subway line all the way to the last stop where we then take a 5-minute taxi ride to wine country. I must say, a major city with vineyards only a subway ride away…bonus points for that!
We made a couple stops, the first being at the famous Concha y Toro Winery. I didn’t actually place the name until I saw the label, but Concha y Toro makes the extremely well-known brand Casillero Del Diablo, a brand I see all over the United States. They also make the lower end brand, Frontera, which I usually see in stores in California for six or seven bucks, and which I now know is a great deal! They had a huge property and offered tours that included tastings, but we opted to explore the wine shop and pick out a bottle to enjoy in their little plaza at our leisure.
After downing that bottle, we got some much-needed lunch at a little Italian place across the street called La Conica de Blaine. Normally I wouldn’t expand on the random restaurants we eat in, but this place deserves some press. It had some of the best homemade pasta and sauces I have ever had. Chunks of real ham(not that fake Latin America crap) over homemade, thick linguine in a blue cheese sauce that was like nothing I have ever tasted…amazing!
From there we made one more stop at a small boutique winery called William Fevre. They lady there was super nice, letting us open a bottle and take some wine glasses on a walk through the vineyards on our own. It wasn’t quite Mendoza, but beautiful none the less.
At home, our normal go to wine tends to be Californian or Italian. Not anymore. I feel my wine palate expanding, and now I can’t wait to take some trips to France and Spain to expand it even more. Until then, I will continue to enjoy the Chilean varietals as we move our journey onward to the next stop on the coast, Valparaiso.
Valparaiso & Viña del Mar
Valparaiso is a decently sized city situated on the coast directly west of Santiago. The two-hour bus ride took us through yet another wine region of Chile, over rolling hills and eventually dropping down to the busy city on the water. I was somewhat surprised that the northern part of the city where the bus dropped us off was as grungy and beat up as it was. Streets jam packed with vendors, fruit markets spilling out into sidewalks, and trash scattered seemingly everywhere around the town. It wasn’t until we made our way up the hill to Cerro Concepcion that we discovered the real beauty of the town.
Most of the city sits at sea level, but the bohemian neighborhood of Cerro Concepcion sits a top a big hill in the southwest part of town. There are a handful of streets at the base of the hill that lead you up to the top, some having simple sets of stairs, and others having old school wooden trams that bring you up for a couple bucks. My person favorite route to the top is via the piano staircase mural on the north side of the hill.
This staircase was definitely my favorite, but you can find fantastic street art and murals all over the Cerro Concepcion. In fact, out of all the different cities we visited with great street art, this ranks up there as one of the best. It really does great things for communities when these street artists come together and create such amazing art around the town. Any drab town can be turned into a colorful canvas if done properly. Only challenge is figuring out how to stop crappy graffiti from destroying some of the murals and quality art.
Beyond walking the streets and admiring the art, the neighborhood is filled with adorable cafes, cool bars with great views, and of course, fantastic restaurants. We figured we wouldn’t have done our visit justice without a stop at all three options, so we hit a little coffee shop first. Before ordering our café, we discovered the place was run by a happy Mexican fellow, who when we got to talking convinced us to try out a margarita instead. We hadn’t seen a margarita made the proper Mexican way in months, so there wasn’t much arm twisting involved, as you can imagine. Turns out, Café con Gracia makes the best margarita in South America!
Since we had started drinking, it was only natural to keep it going, so we decided to hunt for a rooftop bar. El Taulat, while slightly expensive, was exactly what we were looking for. Incredible views, delicious Sangria, and a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, we couldn’t ask for much more.
Our dinner options were endless, this neighborhood had almost too much to choose from. Since we were in a fishing town, seafood was a must, so we settled on this Italian place, In Bocca Al Lupo. They had a nice Tagliolini al Frutti di Mare on the menu, or for the laymen, seafood pasta. The sauce was amazing, the seafood was even better, and to top it all off, the pasta was homemade and fresh. Not to mention a bottle of delicious Chilean wine that was cheaper than main course, a home-run all around.
Being that we had an Airbnb with a full kitchen and all, we could only bring ourselves to splurge on dining out the one night. We had to capitalize on our own facilities for dinner the other nights. Not that that’s a bad thing, but we do love eating out abroad. That said, while restaurants are great, we love shopping around the local vegetable stands and markets to put together meals while traveling. Every place is different, and you never really know what is going to look good. Sometimes the tomatoes look like shit, other times they are beautifully red and plump. Most of the time the meat stands make you never want to eat meat again, but sometimes they look great, so you take what looks good at the time and build a meal around that.
For lunch we pretty much always eat out, since the meals are cheap and its just easier since we are usually exploring. While in Valparaiso, we spent a day exploring the neighboring town of Viña del Mar, which is the number one vacation destination for Chileans, as we were told. It was definitely a higher end sort of town with way less trash, well kept parks and plazas, and all sorts of high-end bars and restaurants. The water front is lined with high-rise hotels and condominiums, and the outskirts of the town are loaded with super classy private homes overlooking the ocean.
We spent our time seeing the sites, like the famous flower clock that greets you as you pull into town, and the Wulff Castle that hangs over the waterfront. Being closer to winter, the beaches were basically empty, but you could tell the place is probably a madhouse in the summer months.
We did find a local dive for lunch where we experienced one of our favorite ceviche’s thus far. It was simple, made with pickled red onions and lime juice, but the fish, fresh sea bass, was so amazingly tender and fresh, just melt in your mouth good. For those keeping track, the main contenders for best ceviche in Latin America are the guava based one from Bocas del Toro, the shrimp one from Cartagena, and now this sea bass with pickled red onions. We are looking forward to Peru, where ceviche is the national dish, and they claim to have the best. We shall see…
We Follow The Lines Going North!! (…?)
Between Santiago, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar, central Chile left us pleasantly surprised and excited to see what the north had in store. This was the farthest south we had ever been, and the farthest we will be going on this two-year adventure. It was time to start heading back to the northern hemisphere, but we still had a couple months left, and were getting more and more excited about the road ahead. Next up, we cruise up the coast of Chile, in route to another coastal city, La Serena.