Until last December, my husband (Jules) and I had never visited South America. It’s a place we’d always wanted to go, so we randomly chose Chile as our first country to check out. Armed with the trusty Lonely Planet guidebook–a go-to for any traveller, anywhere–we landed in the capital, Santiago, after a 10-hour direct overnight flight from Toronto on Air Canada. We had 10 days to see what we could, and had decided to focus on areas that were within an easy day’s drive from Santiago. (Patagonia, in the far south, will have to wait!)
I don’t know about you, but I had an image in my mind that South America is a dangerous place, somewhere you’re likely to be robbed at the very least. Such a misconception, at least in Chile: From the moment we stepped out into the arrivals area at the airport and talked to the first local that asked if we wanted a taxi, we knew we’d been wrong. Because when we told the driver, “No thanks, we are looking for the bus stop for Valparaiso,” he said, “Oh, let me show you where it is.” No aggression, no anger that we weren’t going with him in his taxi; he pointed it out and said, “Enjoy your time in Chile.” Really.
We hopped onto the comfortable bus for the 1.5 hour trip to Valpo, as it’s referred to in Chile, the former capital city given its history as an important port. What a storied history this place has, and a beauty I’ve never seen in any city before: The houses are stacked steeply up the mountainsides, in all the colours of the rainbow; it’s such a unique city it’s been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly, earthquakes over the years–there was a major one as recently as 2010–have destroyed some of the buildings.
This place has delicious seafood, and the small hotel we chose from Lonely Planet was superb. The Yellow House perches over the southern part of the main harbour and has stunning views over the entire city. Valpo is a place you need good strong legs for, as almost everywhere you go requires climbing steep steps. There are even funiculars, similar to trains, that run up and down various sections of the city. The one closest to The Yellow House happened to be out of service, so we got our exercise.
Next day–Day 2–we bussed back to Santiago to settle in there for a night; the plan was to pick up a rental car on Day 3 and head south into the Maipo Valley. Day 2 happened to be Election Day in Chile, and things tend to shut down to allow people to vote, so there were very few restaurants open and no bars: no selling of alcohol is allowed on Election Day. We did check out the Mercado Central (Central Market), which sold seafood, fresh produce and much more.
For dinner, we found an open restaurant in the Bella Vista area, and had roasted chicken and rice on a sweet little patio. Then we headed to our accommodation just around the block, Hostal Caracol. Caracol is a smart, modern place with only a few rooms, and a common kitchen area for breakfast. Our room was clean and fresh, and even had a little balcony. But the best part was a large terrace on the hotel’s top floor overlooking San Cristobal Hill and its massive statue of the Virgin Mary. What a great place to enjoy the sunset and the moonrise while sipping on delicious, soft Merlot from the Casablanca Valley, near Valpo; we’d bought the bottle in Valpo.
I’ll post Part 2 in the near future: We did an unforgettable overnight horse trek in the Andes.