Less than an hour’s drive from the bustling capital Santiago is Chilean wine country. The Maipo valley is ideally located for growing vines – a combination of perfect soil, altitude and climate.
Concha y Toro is probably Chile’s most famous wine producer – its wines are exported all over the world. Their working vineyard isn’t available to visit, which is a shame, but just outside the village of Pirque they have a visitors’ centre whereby you can tour the grounds and cellars as well as visit a very big shop. There are tours available in English and Spanish which all have a set starting time.
The vineyard was established in 1883 by Chilean businessman Melchor Concha y Toro who recognised the potential for winemaking in Pirque. He procured French vines from Bordeaux and invested in the equipment needed to start producing wine on a grand scale.
You get to see the exterior of the family house, its gardens and a display areas showing the different grape varieties with commentary on how the grapes are cultivated.
Then it’s into the cool, cool cellars where you can see lots of barrels and a sound and light display.
There was a legend that in the early days of the winery, despite the cellars being locked, bottles of wine used to go missing overnight. The owners started a rumour that the devil lurked within the cellars. And since that rumour circulated, not a single bottle of wine ever went missing again.
You are given a tasting glass which you can keep. (If you are travelling to other destinations, stuff a t-shirt inside the bowl, wrap it around the whole glass, taking special care to protect the slender stem, place the whole lot gently back into its souvenir box and hope for the best – both of our glasses survived a further fortnight travelling around South America.) And receiving a glass means you get to taste a variety of the winery’s produce.
Originally grape varieties were brought over from Europe (Bordeaux) and these included Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Carménère. The latter is very rare in Europe these days, having been pretty much destroyed by the dreaded phylloxera, a sap-sucking bug, so Chile is now the Carménère capital of the world. It’s a variety that we had never tried before. The wine we tasted was incredibly fruity, like raspberries and cherries with sour notes and a lingering finish.
As with all the grape varieties the vines are watered using only a teeny amount of water. Literally a few drops per day. This means that the plants work extra hard to produce fruit which leads to a higher yield and, of course, more wine.
The wines on offer for tasting included a smooth blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon, a mellow Carménère and a zingy Sauvignon Blanc.
We took full advantage of being in Chile to sample the local wine – it was massively cheaper than in the UK. Even visiting ordinary supermarkets to stock up on a tipple was definitely worthwhile – we could taste some really splendid wines for a fraction of the price that it would have cost in our home country.
The El Tatio geysers in the Atacama Desert are the world’s highest geysers. That’s the world’s highest altitude (4300m) not the world’s most spurty geysers.
Most trips are organised from San Pedro de Atacama. There are loads of companies in the town, which is fully geared up for tourism, and all of them will offer trips to the attractions in the area. Some excursions can be booked on the day; El Tatio needs to be booked in advance, if possible, as it’s a popular trip and involves an early start. Most companies will pick you up from your accommodation. This turned out to be quite handy, as we had to get up at 4am. It’s a 3 hour bumpy minibus ride to reach the site. You also need to be prepared with appropriate clothing: it was –9ºC on arrival but the temperature had gone above 30ºC by mid-morning. Wearing lots of layers and discarding them as necessary (whilst maintaining an appropriate level of decency) is the best approach.
It was absolutely worth the effort. We arrived at sunrise to see the geysers at golden hour. They were spectacular.
El Tatio is a geothermal field, the third largest in the world, and contains geysers, fumaroles, steam vents, mudpots and hot springs.
Because the area hasn’t yet been designated a national park (geothermal energy companies tried to harness the energy but didn’t really make a go of it and the area is still vaguely designated as “industrial” rather than a “tourist area”) there are no designated walkways and you can just wander through the geyser field. This means that you can actually stand in a geyser – great if your feet are feeling a little chilly! You have to be careful though – the earth’s crust is pretty thin up there and a number of people have been seriously injured falling through it and getting burned or frozen in a random extreme temperature accident.
If you bring your bathing suit, and the tour allows time for it, you can go swimming in the geothermal hot springs.
The surrounding area is very beautiful as well. Most tours will offer a leisurely journey back, stopping off at various sites.
Llama kebab barbeques are available if you want a late breakfast.
The cactus forest is also worth a visit.
The Mercado Central in Chile’s capital, Santiago, is one of the most amazing places where you really can see seafood and eat it. It’s a wonderful building that houses both a fish market and several restaurants. As its name suggests, it’s centrally located in Santiago, just a short walk from Plaza de Armas, and easy to reach via the metro system; L2, L3 and L5 pass close by. Puente Cal y Canto (Comb L2, L3) is the closest station and Bellas Artes (L5) gets within striking distance. And anyway, Santiago is a very pleasant city to walk around.
As the country with the world’s longest coastline, over 4000 km, Chile offers some of the best seafood on the planet.
The building itself is an impressive cast iron structure, fabricated in Glasgow, and has been operational since 1872. You can walk around the entire outside of the building – there are a variety of shops to explore.
Inside the iron structure is both functional but highly decorative.
It is a working market and you can wander around the market stalls, perusing the plethora of pescatarian possibilities. As the market is known to be a tourist attraction, all the stall holders were happy to be getting on with their jobs and there were no issues with taking photos.
There are all sorts of restaurants located inside the market in which you can indulge in a deliciously decadent seafood feast. The biggest and most famous is Donde Agusto, right in the centre of the market, which was relatively expensive, crowded, had flamboyant waiters vying for business until they sat you down whereupon they ignored you in order to drum up more business and – when we visited – had irritating mariachi playing irritating guitars who expected us to pay for the pleasure of being irritated by them. Although it felt like a tourist trap the seafood was great – fruits de mer accompanied by scallops in a Roquefort sauce.
Much better is to wander around the perimeter of the market, seeking out the smaller restaurants. But you have to be a little careful.
You will find restaurateurs outside most establishments offering their cards and sometimes a variety of inducements. It’s quite relaxed though. No one hassles you too much and everyone understands the phrase, “maybe later.” These were just some of the cards we picked up as we wandered through the market and, in the interests of impartiality, we didn’t try any of these…
Some of the offers might include something like a free (minuscule) pisco sour or a dramatic flaming seafood feast offer. At El Rey De La Paila Marina, to be fair to the drama, the seafood feast which was comprised of such delights as crab, squid, prawns and scallops as well as a variety of fish, was undeniably delicious.
The Picoroco, Spanish for “a beak in the rock”, an apt title if ever there was one, were particularly good. These are giant barnacles which cling to the rocks on the shoreline. They do look a bit challenging, admittedly.
But, like many things that look a bit odd, once you get over the appearance, the taste was a revelation. They have a flavour that is very similar to crab but with a slightly chewier texture, and they were utterly delicious.
If you visit the Mercado Central, the best advice is to seek out the smaller restaurants. Ostentation really is overrated. Our favourite restaurant was right on the edge of the market – the Donde Blanca. No English was spoken when we visited but our Spanish was just about good enough to get by. And when struggled with language the proprietor was delightful. We ordered cheviche, raw fish marinated in lime juice. The restaurant had a variety on offer, using different fish combinations, but sadly the ‘superior’ we wanted wasn’t available. The owner made a suggestion for an alternative but unfortunately we didn’t understand what a camarón was. So he trotted out to the market, picked a shrimp from one of the stalls, showed it to us, peeled it and ate it with a big grin on his face. Cheviche with shrimp, bread and salsa, all washed down with a bottle of crisp Chilean white wine turned out to be the perfect lunch.