It’s almost embarrassing to admit that up until several few years ago, the only association I had with Chile was ‘Chilean Sea Bass’ on restaurant menus. (okay it’s absolutely embarrassing, not ‘almost’). But thanks to work circumstances that took me to this country, I feel like I can add this to a list of new destinations that are on my ‘must return’ list. Because while I was there, I got a delicious taste of the country (and I don’t mean the fish!) on a day trip from Santiago to Valparaiso that left me wanting much more.
A Day Trip from Santiago, Chile That Has it All
Even though it was work that took me to Chile, I knew there would be some down time to see the city of Santiago and the area nearby, so I did my typical pre-trip research and planning. Which meant I knew exactly where I wanted to go to make the most of my ‘day off’, even if that was for just a single day trip from Santiago to the coastal town of Valparaiso.
Start Your Day Trip With Wine.
I believe every good day trip from Santiago (or anywhere for that matter) should include wine. Because, well, because wine. And because some of the most interesting wine news to come out of Chile in the last decade or so is the ‘rediscovery’ of the Carmenere grape here in 1994.
Long thought to be lost following a European plague in 1867, it turns out that this ancient grape variety had been masquerading as merlot in Chile for more than 100 years, where it had been thankfully spared the same fate as its parent vines. That’s good news for Chile, and red wine lovers everywhere, since this grape has many of the properties of Cabernet Sauvignon, but with gentler tannins that make it a smoother drink.
The Casablanca Valley Wine Region
Needless to say, an obligatory wine tour was on my itinerary, so my work colleague and I headed to a relatively new wine region in the Casablanca Valley, an hour or so west of Santiago for some food and wine tasting at the Indomita vineyard. To quote a famous line from another Casablanca, this was definitely “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Lunch at the Indomita Winery
Sitting on the patio of the winery, the view of the valley spreading out in front of us was stunning: vineyards stretching out across a flat plain, hills disappearing in the distance and a brilliant blue sky that belied the fact that fog often blankets the valley. That frequent fog is what makes conditions optimal for the Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay grapes that grow here. You’ll definitely want to pair a glass of one or more of those with lunch because the dishes served at the Indomita restaurant rivalled the view. Yum and yum.
Next Stop: Colourful Valparaiso
After a relaxing lunch we continued on to our ultimate destination on this one-day itinerary: Valparaiso, Chile’s most important port city and second largest city after Santiago, located just northwest of Santiago on the country’s 6,435 km of coastline.
If the Casablanca Valley was paradise for one reason, Valparaiso was a visual ‘paraiso’ for another – namely its historic past, unique architecture, and one of the most interesting transportation systems in the world: the funicular elevators (steeply inclined cable cars). According to the World Monuments Fund, these hillside lifts make Valparaiso ‘one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures’.
The Ups: Valparaiso’s Historic Funiculars
Valparaiso’s funiculars are very cool, I have to admit. Tucked into corners between buildings in the older streets of the port city, there were once 31 station houses for these working vertical railways operating during the 19th and early 20th century. They were used primarily to take working class people to and from their homes on the steep hillside neighbourhoods behind the port.
Today there are still 8 or so of these cable cars in operation, and some of the neighbourhoods they service that were once working class have seen a rebirth of late. So we headed off on our own Funicular Fun tour (part treasure hunt to find the cable cars, part excuse to see the city) and were curious to see where we would end ‘up’.
Cerro Bellavista: An Al Fresco Museum of Murals
The short ride on a funicular is good fun (unless you don’t trust old technology), as you take a somewhat rickety car up the steep hillside and are deposited in one of the neighbourhoods overlooking the ocean below. One of these neighbourhoods is Cerro Bellavista, where colourful houses and incredible murals have turned this area into an open air art gallery, appropriately known as the Museo A Cielo Abierto.
The murals began as a type of social/art project for students at the University of Valparaiso in 1969, but more famous artists have contributed since, and the entire neighbourhood reflects the character of the residents themselves, many of whom are artists. In fact, Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda, once made one of his homes here.
The Downs: A Reminder to Always Be Alert
Like every tourist destination, to every upside, there is a downside, and Valparaiso is no exception: while we were admiring Cerro Bellavista’s vistas ourselves, we actually witnessed a street theft of another traveller, who had put his expensive camera down while setting up to take a photograph. We weren’t the only ones who noticed this slipup, and within moments of his leaving the camera unattended, a thief ran by, snatched it and took off. The traveller immediately gave chase (not recommended by the way), while we guarded his remaining belongings. Fortunately, with the help of local neighbours who had witnessed the crime and the police, the thief was apprehended, and the young photographer got his camera back.
This is no particular reflection on the safety concerns of Chile or Valparaiso, generally considered to be a very safe destination. But it did serve to remind me that every neighbourhood, city and country has its fair share of opportunists, and it is always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings, and not do anything that invites those petty criminals.
A Culture-Packed Day Trip From Santiago
As a first introduction to Chile, this day trip from Santiago to the Casablanca Valley and Valparaiso overdelivered on my expectations. I had seen such a variety of landscapes, historic attractions and gastronomic pampering that I felt like I had spent much more time than a single day away.
Which is what I call making the most of a day off.
TIP: If you have a little extra time to spend on the coast, go a little north of Valparaiso to Viña del Mar, a pretty and upscale resort town where many Chileños spend their vacation time. Even if you don’t want to stay overnight, it’s a great place to grab a glass of bubbly and watch the sunset before heading back to Santiago.