Farewell to Costa Rica and BienVenido to Chile. Very long day – got to the San Hose airport at 9am and what a superb airport – didn’t appreciate it when we arrived, but their departure area is so spic and span and very modern. Had a couple of hours to kill before the flight, which was one hour to Panama City with another 2 hour wait there followed by 6 hours to Santiago, along with the usual hour or so to clear customs. With time changes along the way we didn’t make it to our hotel in Santiago until 1.30am. Fortunately we didn’t have to to do anything but walk outside the terminal and across the road to get to it and flop into bed.
Sorry about the pictures guys – my camera packed a sad for the whole of Chile so only had my little phone camera
Day 1 – With just a few hours sleep it was up and at it and before we knew it our transfer to Valparaiso had arrived. First impression of Chile – they have lovely roads – no huge open drains, wide and no potholes. Our route took us slightly northwest out of the city and very soon we were in nice countryside – very dry though but a little more prosperous than Costa Rica. Passing through some mountains via tunnels we came into a very agricultural area – vineyards, corn and veges growing. Valparaiso is yet another city built largely on top of a hill (42 hills to be precise). We did wonder where we were going to end up as we left the flat of the port area and headed up a series of steep, narrow, cobbled streets to finally arrive at our hotel. This turned out to be a tiny three storied late 19th C house, super elegant inside with small but tastefully decorated rooms, ours opening out on to a small terrace with a view of the surrounding area. Straight away, we were taken up to the roof for an even better view all around Valparaiso and over the port. The owners Judith (Canadian) and her husband Jaime (Chilean) just spend the six winter months out of Canada down here running the hotel – not sure if the hotel remains open during the Chilean winter.
Once settled, we ventured out into the maze of little streets and tried out the first of many trips on the old elevator cars that they have all over the city to get people quickly up to higher levels. When I say old – 1883 was the age of the first one we went in, extremely rickety but the locals all use them so obviously don’t have too many incidents with them. Five minutes down on the flat with diesel fumes, crowds and dirt was enough for sensitive stomachs so we shot back up on the same ‘ascensor’.
Not sure which is more disconcerting, going up or down, though the ride takes only a minute or so and costs just a few cents. Back into the cleaner air, we meandered around the very intriguing streets, buildings all jammed together, perching on impossibly steep hills, old and dilapidated in most cases but they must have been quite grand in their day. Tiny artisan shops, loads of cafes, restaurants and street art “graffiti”on the walls. Had lunch in an eclectic little cafe before returning back to our hotel for a siesta. Skipped dinner as neither of us had fully recovered from TD and just opted for a late supper in a quaint little cafe with live musicians popping in to entertain and for a tip, which they then spent on a meal!
Day 2 – Down into the city to pick up our car and head out of the busy city. Yes the roads are so much better than CR but without GPS almost as difficult to navigate. Getting out of Valparaiso took two goes – the first time ending up in a slum area atop one of the many hills, so it was an about turn and try again. Finally on the right route we took a pretty road to the coast at Algardo and through to San Antonio – made the mistake of not stopping there for lunch as it took us ages to find somewhere suitable to eat. It turned out well though – with no English spoken we did manage to figure out the menu which happened to be the plate of the day – what a huge meal. Soup followed by chicken and chips, finished off with a semolina pudding and all for about $7 each.
We had a very vague set of instructions with out tour vouchers, as well as a reasonable map, and managed to find our way to Santa Cruz and by luck to find the road out of there towards our lodgings. Instructions just said turn on to the road and look for the B&B (no indication of how far we had to go) so it was just by chance that after about 20kms we happened to notice the small sign tacked to a power pole. What a lovely little haven – Bella Vista – set in beautiful gardens with an enticing pool and about 8 guest rooms. Poor Bob got knocked out by something which put him out for the rest of the evening, The late lunch was very fortuitous as we didn’t even have to worry about an evening meal. Our 230km journey which should have had us arriving mid-afternoon took until 6pm to finally get there, as we struck an accident where a truck had rolled off the road which held up the traffic for more than an hour. Although the roads were mostly in good condition, they were quite slow going in places. We are in wine country around here and with harvest starting in a few days things will start to get really busy soon.
Day 3 – Nice breakfast to start the day with fresh fruit straight from the gardens outside. Decided to take a drive into Lolo – Sara (the manager’s assistant) had recommended a nice cafe for us to go to, but it turned out to be closed so we headed back and had a snack at a small olive oil growing hacienda. Empanadas are the thing to have here – basically a pastie filled with anything, but deep fried not baked. The owner spoke good English and told us that Vina Santa Cruz – the big winery down the road – had an automobile museum as well as some early civilisation exhibits. What a find! The cars/trucks ranged from a totally original 1919 Paige to a DeLorean. Several very early trucks as well as 20 motorcycles. A nice display and well presented. We took a short drive through the vineyard up to a very swanky reception area, with restaurant and wine shop, to get tickets for the short cable-car ride that they had up their hill to the other exhibits. There were some small displays on the local early way of life as well as on Easter Island. Treated ourselves to some wine to enjoy on our trip around. Found out later that the owner made all his money from arms dealing and the vineyard/museum was just his hobby.
Returned back to Bella Vista for a very delicious feed of fresh fruits, cheese, olives and salami – a nice substitute for a heavy dinner. The figs are to die for – their tree was just laden with these gorgeous black fruits and this area has no birds to raid the ripe fruit so they were able to ripen naturally – so sweet.
Day 4 – Sadly time to set off. Sara advised that going via Santa Cruz would not be possible as the wine festival will have the roads all closed off. She suggested an alternative route not shown on our map but a much better way to get to our final destination. Lovely new road through pretty valleys – growing all sorts of crops – apples, peaches, olives, tomatoes, corn and of course the vineyards. We hit the main road at Talca. From there is it was a short hop to Colbun, our destination for the next two nights. The little town itself we hit right on school closing time and what chaos – kids everywhere, taxis and buses blocking the streets and nowhere to park. Had to go out of the town a bit to find a park, walked back to the centre and found a little local diner and with no English and basic Spanish managed to get cheese/mushroom empanadas which were quite tasty. When we emerged half an hour later the streets were deserted. We had to take an educated guess as to which road we needed to find our accommodation on the shores of Lake Colbun and it turned out correct. We knew it was 10km off the main road and although the road number differed from our instructions we got there in good time for afternoon cocktails after following the slow dusty winding metal road. Chez L’Habitant was our abode for the next two nights – a small eco-lodge overlooking Lake Colbun – a large hydro storage lake which was only about half full. The room was cosy yet again but clean and tidy. There was one other couple staying, from Australia of all places, so we shared a pleasant evening over the dinner table.
Day 5 – Another sumptuous breakfast with fresh fruits, home baked breads and preserves fueled us for a morning’s walk around part of the lake, complete with sheep and horses wandering around and grazing on whatever green they could find. They were all in good condition so I guess they were owned by someone. Returned hot and dusty after a good 3 hour hike to spend the afternoon chatting with Christian and Teresa – the Chilean/Dutch couple who own and run the establishment. We asked them why they had a New Zealand flag flying at their adjacent campground; they told us that the first people that ever stayed with them were New Zealand Maoris – they thought we were only the second from the country.
Day 6 – Back down the dusty road until we hit the tarmac. Made a detour around Linares as something was happening in the town and traffic was crawling. Hit Ruta 5 (the Pan-American Highway) and it was then plain sailing to Chillan. A good motorway with a couple of toll stations and not a lot of traffic. We even found a serviced rest area to have our picnic lunch. The whole of this area between the Andes and coast is agricultural – vineyards, orchards, corn and olives with little roadside stalls selling fresh fruit and melons. It was a simple task to find our exit off the motorway towards Vina Chillan and our next two nights stay. A small accommodation block with 6 rooms opening out onto a nice pool area and surrounding by vines. Rudi the Swiss owner spent some time introducing himself and explaining about his vineyard. He has a Chilean wife and daughter who spend the week in Santiago and join him at the weekends. He has 17 hectares of vines which have been grown organically for the last 8 years. Pinot, Cabernet, Carmenere, Malbec, Sauv. Blanc and Vin de Pais were all grown. He exports 70% of his production to Switzerland in bulk, where it is then bottled. Had a simple dinner in their restaurant which is only open for guests staying in the accommodation, as he has found that he can’t make it pay as a local restaurant. A pity really because a lot of money had been spent to construct a really nice building, mainly due to distance from town and their strict drink/drive laws.
Day 7 – with a local map drawn by Rudi headed back into Chillan to explore the city, the heart of which revolved around the cathedral plaza and a few blocks with small department stores and the local market. It was a bustling place but not terribly clean. The market was fun to explore with all the fruit and vege stalls, meat and fish as well as general bric-a-brac, and loads of souvenirs which must have been aimed for the local tourist clientele as there were no other foreign tourists around. The local flower stall had the most incredible blue roses which we thought must have been dyed but we learnt later that they are a hybrid and do actually grow that colour. Gave the staff at Macas their amusement for the day when trying to order lunch.
Left Chillan and did a little drive around the Itata valley – pine forests growing on the hillsides but the valleys verdant with market gardens. Still the odd horse and cart working the fields but on the whole much more prosperous than Costa Rica here as well. Returned back to the vineyard for dinner – simple fare but tasty.
Day 8 – Had a quick look around the winemaking area before setting off. They had about 10 vats holding between 5 & 10 k-litres of wine each as well as a small room full of oak barrels. Rudi explained that he actually leases out half of his processing capacity to a French company and they were in the process of trucking out 12,000 bottles of their wine to the port. Back on the road, we returned north on Ruta 5 towards Talca before heading towards Argentina to take a more pleasant route down to Curico. All agricultural through here with fertile valleys but quite arid hillsides. Even got a glimpse of the Andes. Now and then we came across an area where the homes had been destroyed in their last big earthquake and new settlements had been built up in their place. Had another little challenge to find our hotel, which was a few km out of the town – nice enough, quite posh in comparison to many of the establishments in this area. Had a nice restaurant with a jovial waiter and good food.
Day 9 – Thought we would just pop into downtown Curico in the morning. Not as easy as it looked on the map – the traffic was diabolical and we could not pick up the right road to reach the centre – all the roads going towards the town-centre were one way, but not the one-way that we were wanting. After several attempts, gave up and went for a drive out in the country instead which was far more enjoyable – no traffic, nice green valley and even a lovely little local restaurant where we had their special of the day (we figured it was soup – but not what sort) – turned out to be a vege soup with big chunks of potato, corn cob, pasta and a hunk of meat accompanied with bread and salad. Found our way back to the hotel and enjoyed a lazy evening. The weather has been kind to us with nice clear warm days and cooler evenings.
Day 10 – Curico DONE! In hindsight one night would have been enough here for a stopover on a longer journey. Heading back on Ruta 5 northbound then down towards San Antonio and the coast. Stopped off in the small town of Las Cadres as we had chanced upon a local market. The usual things – cheap clothes and shoes, hardware, bric-a-brac – all tacky and chinese made. There were also some local farmers stalls with their fresh produce, which is of much more interest. Must be onion and pumpkin harvest time as they were the most abundant vegetables for sale. Tomatoes and the standard produce that we are used to were also available. Ventured into their small town square and found a small bakery in town where we got some bread and cheese for a picnic lunch. Back through the market for bananas and “a” tomato. Poor woman was astounded that I only wanted one. Even managed to understand what the cost was correctly. With our goodies sorted we thought it would be easy to find somewhere to stop for our picnic lunch as there was a decent sized lake on our map – we did a drive right around one side of it but it was all built up with private homes and no sign of any public places to stop. Back on the main road we spotted a little local park with a playground so stopped there and made do. Back on through San Antonio and our destination of Lo Abarca was another little challenge, as our map didn’t quite tie up with the roads (new roads had been added after the map was printed). Finally saw a sign to Lo Abarca – a tiny village and on the outskirts was Vina Casa Marin and where we thought we were to stay. It turned out that our little B&B abode was back up the road and into the middle of the vineyard proper, accessed by the farm roads where there was a cottage with a commanding view of the region.
Breakfast for the next morning was delivered to us later in the afternoon. Lovely cottage – 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, lounge/dining area and a kitchen with a nice deck. Beautifully appointed inside. Could have stayed here way longer. We were told that the little village had a great restaurant – famed around the region for their pork ribs but to make sure that you ordered one between two as they were big. They were not wrong – it was a good feed and very tasty and the place was buzzing. Not sure where all the people came from as the village only had a few houses.
Day 11 – No time to luxuriate in our surroundings as we had to have our car back in Valparaiso by 11am. All was straightforward until nearly into Valparaiso – our map indicated what looked like a direct route to the city – not sure what happened but we ended up going on a road which had no exits for about 30kms and did not seem to be going at all in the right direction. Finally an exit indicated Vina Del Mar which we knew was next bay around so it was with some relief that we got down to the coast and worked our way back towards Valparaiso amidst some chaotic traffic. We knew the Shell Station that we had to pass before making our way to the rental car company, but it took us two goes around the fast moving race track to actually get into the entrance. Phew that was the most stressful day of our entire trip. I think it was more like midday before we got there, but it didn’t seem to matter. The guy in the rental car office kindly delivered us back to the hotel for our last two nights in Chile. Same hotel – different room but just as quaint. Lunch beckoned after that harassed morning, so off up and down the surrounding streets to find another nice little cafe.
Down the Ascension Ascensor for a walk along the flat then up another to the Fine Arts Museum housed in one of the more interesting buildings in the area. Some nice works of art showcased by the lovely old rooms of this 18thC residence. Continued exploring up and down a few more steep streets – dogs abound here – mostly strays but very tame – so it is always one eye on where you are walking and one on the ever changing view.
Back at Manoir Atkinson, saw an horrifying sight on the horizon – in the valley betwen Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar huge plumes of smoke were billowing up into the air – a big forest fire but the winds were pushing it towards the urban area. Skipped dinner again as lunch was a tad large and settled again for a dessert at yet another little restaurant. As we returned, with darkness falling, you could actually see the flames on the ridgeline.
As we got back to our room and opened our window we got a lovely little surprise – on the street below were a troupe of about 10 musicians dressed in the old Spanish style complete with capes playing lovely classical Spanish music on guitars and mandolins. A crowd of locals and tourists had gathered around them and were dancing to the music.
Turned on the TV to watch the news, to learn that 16,000 people had been evacuated and a State of Emergency declared. The evacuated areas were mainly of very poor squatter type dwellings. The army was right now on its way to help fight the fire, which had now closed the road we had taken into town.
Day 12 – Another sumptuous breakfast got us fueled as we headed off down to the commercial area and along in the direction of the port, before heading up a hill on yet another ancient ascensor to the Maritime Museum. Another lovely old building but very much in need of some TLC. The museum was interesting with some even more interesting translations – the one that tickled us the most was the description attached to a beautiful model ship “thrown overboard in 18..” which can only have meant “launched”. There was a good display about Cape Horn and early discoverers. The museum had a commanding view out over the port which was still a little murky from the fire (it seemed to have been got under control over night with no casualties).
A huge cruise ship was tied up beside the container port and you could see right around to Vina del Mar. Back down the ascensor to the foreshore, which in it’s day would have been very grand, but now is all very grubby and neglected – a bit like all the dogs. Walked down to a local park with a little undercover market and had a sit in the shade and watched the world go by before tackling the walk back “up”. It is incredible to see the houses perched on the rocks, all in differing states of neglect but still lived in. In spite of the general grime, Valparaiso is a fascinating city; we felt extremely safe walking around and they had such neat cafes and restaurants.