Occupying a narrow swath of South America’s west coast, Chile extends nearly 2,700 miles from its southernmost point at Cape Horn to its northern border with Peru. The majestic Andes and the Pacific Ocean flank the country’s western and eastern borders, with slender Chile squeezed in between — averaging only 110 miles wide so that no matter where you are, you’re rarely more than a 90-minute drive from the Andes or the ocean.
Your cruise likely will show you a fair bit of the southern Chilean coastline, including the country’s beautiful fjords and glaciers, as you make your way to or from Valparaiso, Chile’s principle port for cruise passengers.
But to truly get a feel for Chile, you’ll want to spend some time with your boots on the ground, particularly in Central Chile, home to the capital Santiago and a Mediterranean-like climate that lends itself to beautiful beaches and fine wines.
You’ll find Chile to be more expensive than Buenos Aires, starting with the $100 entry fee that Americans pay when they land at the airport for the first time (cruise passengers arriving in Valparaiso need not pay the entry fee). I found prices for food, accommodations and transport to be on par with what you’d expect to pay in the United States.
You’ll also find the Chileans to be more reserved than the neighboring Argentines. As one Chilean tour guide told us, “We are the British of South America.”
Begin your journey in Valparaiso if arriving by ship or in Santiago if arriving by air. The two cities are a little less than 90 minutes apart on good highway. Plan to spend three or four nights pre- or post-cruise to get a satisfying taste of Chile.
Vina del Mar
I disembarked my two-week, “round Cape Horn” cruise in Valparaiso and transferred in 15 minutes to Vina del Mar. The two cities are joined at the hip with scarcely a hint of physical demarcation between them. They are, however, very different. Think of Valparaiso as a port city and Vina del Mar as its resort counterpart.
You’ll want to see both, but lay your luggage in the posh, five-star Hotel del Mar. After checking in and admiring the ocean views from my balcony, I regretted having booked only one night here.
No doubt after your long cruise, you still have your sea legs. Now it’s time to get your land legs. Begin by exiting the front of the hotel and following the sidewalk to your right. After only a few strides, you’ll see a bustle of people coming and going from a shop just a few yards away. They’re here for ice cream, so stop to fortify yourself for your long walk along the beach.
Continue walking along the beaches. When you tire of going in one direction, head a block or so away from the sea and walk back in the direction of Hotel del Mar. The real pleasure to be had here is enjoying the beach. So relax.
For the afternoon, hop on a city tour (duration 2.5 hours) of Valparaiso. Founded in 1536, the colorful city was a major international port before the opening of the Panama Canal. The city has lost some of its former glory but retains an abundance of charm.
Though few of the original colonial buildings survived a devastating earthquake in 1906, the colonial part of the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I enjoyed seeing the eclectic mix of fine mansions, German-influenced architecture, colorful shacks, shops and parks.
I visited La Sebastiana, one of the museum houses of the laureate Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda. Even if you know nothing of the poet (I confess I did not) the house is well worth a visit for its amazing architecture and artifacts throughout.
Built on 42 hills, Valparaiso’s crooked and hilly streets resemble those of San Francisco. Busses are challenged in some sections here, so it’s best to travel by car or small van — and to walk as much as possible.
You’ll get a chance to travel vertically on the city’s network of ascensores, or funiculars, many of them antiques in their own right. Jump on the most popular funicular to or from Paseo 21 de Mayo, perched high over the port for sweeping views of the city and bay.
After the city tour, return to your hotel to relax and cool off in the top-floor pool, featuring windows that offer spectacular views of the ocean and Valparaiso in the distance. You’ll have no trouble finding a good dinner in Vina del Mar in the trendy restaurant district only a few blocks away from your hotel.
You could spend a few days pre- or post-cruise on excursions to the Andes, Easter Island (a five-hour flight from Santiago) or even visiting Machu Picchu in Peru. But my experience with Chile back home has been with Chilean wines, and so we decided to see Chile — a country that has been making wine since the 1500s — vineyard by vineyard.
Leaving Vina del Mar, my first stop was the William Cole Winery. Located in Casablanca Valley, not more than 30 minutes from Vina del Mar, the winery is principally noted for its whites, namely Sauvignon Blanc, as the strong influence of the Pacific Ocean makes for a better climate for white grapes than for red ones.
For red wines, my driver (yes, you need a driver if you’re sampling wines) pointed the van to Colchagua Valley, Chile’s equivalent of Napa Valley.
The two-hour drive from Santiago took us past immense fields of grapes and fruit-producing trees, family-owned ranches and bodegas, or wineries. Our destination was Santa Cruz, a small, unremarkable town that is in the heart of wine country.
On the way, we stopped for lunch at Hacienda Las Lengues, a 450-year-old estate that is both working ranch and museum, with accommodations and a gourmet restaurant. Built in the late 16th century, the old estate houses have been meticulously restored and furnished.
After lunch, where I sampled the estate’s private label Grand Reserve Merlot, we continued on for another 30 to 45 minutes to Hotel Santa Cruz, where I dropped my bags and headed for Montes Estate Winery, an award-winning vineyard known for its reds.
Vineyards you’ll want to visit include: Bisquertt Winery, whose Casa La Joya Merlot Reserve 2000 was designated the best Merlot worldwide in the International Wine & Spirit Competition, London 2002; MontGras Winery, with its beautiful, Spanish-style guest center and shops; and Viu Manent, a restored hacienda-style house from the early 20th century. While at the latter, feast on a gourmet lunch at the restaurant on premises before boarding a horse-drawn cart to the winery, where you’ll sample wine directly from the barrels.
Near the hotel is Cerro San Cristóbal and the adjoining Parque Metropolitano, Chile’s largest urban park. I walked to the park and hopped on a cable car to the top of San Cristobal Hill for sweeping city views. On a crisp spring or winter morning, the sight must be even more stunning, with the majestic, snowcapped Andes towering over the basin where Santiago sits.
Afterward, I returned to the hotel for a city tour (duration 3 hours) to see Santiago’s highlights, including La Moneda, the presidential palace where a 17-year military government began during a coup led by Augusto Pinochet.
Military rule ended in 1990, and Chile emerged as a free market with a strong economy that transformed the capital city. During my walk through the city, I saw striking contrasts to suggest that Santiago is struggling to embrace the future while preserving its past. In the Plaza de Armas square, for example, a new glass skyscraper towers over an 18th-century Metropolitan Cathedral and other colonial buildings.
So that I could feel the pulse of Santiago, my guide took me along the main pedestrian walkways (Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Huérfanos) that intersect in the city center. Bustling with activity, both streets were lined with shops and cafes.
Getting around the sprawling capital is easy thanks to a subway. I hopped on Line Number 1 to the neighborhoods of Providencia, Vitacura and Las Condes, where fashionable shops, clubs and restaurants are so abundant that Chileans have taken to calling the neighborhood “Sanhattan.”
Be sure to end your visit by Sunday, when the city shuts down. Before heading to the airport, take care to pack those few bottles of wine you purchased to remind you of time well spent in the narrow country south of the equator. — Ralph Grizzle, The Avid Cruiser
Avid Cruiser Posts, Photographs and Videos Featuring Santiago.