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Warm to scenic Chile and Santiago's attractions

John Bordsen  Dec 09, 2009

Q. Flights from the States go to Santiago, which is in the middle of the long, thin country. What's there to do when you get off the plane?

Santiago is underrated as a national capital. It's not Buenos Aires, but it has a great selection of restaurants, including good seafood. Chile has a long coastline, so Chileans have a diversity of fish and seafood that's almost unimaginable. A few years ago, a writer did a piece in Natural History magazine about Santiago's Central Market. He said he felt he was looking at marine life from another planet. You'll see things there you wouldn't even recognize as fish, but which lend themselves to Chilean cooking.

Also in central Chile, I wouldn't miss the city of Valparaiso, an hour and a half to two hours north of Santiago. It has connections to San Francisco during the 1849 gold rush. Valparaiso was a major commercial hub of South America before the Panama Canal was built.

It has visual aspects of San Francisco, including its own cable cars. It's the most interesting city in Chile.

And central Chile is wine country, with really great wines. If someone was dropped into the landscape outside Santiago, they might think they were in California's Napa Valley.

A lot of wineries are open for tourism. There are even ones you can tour that are within Santiago's city limits. In the Casablanca Valley, midway between Santiago and Valparaiso, the coastal climate is best for whites. The Colchagua Valley, about 21/2 hours south of Santiago, has the most premium wines, especially reds.

A good rule of thumb is to compare American and Chilean latitudes - distances from the equator. Chile is like a mirror image of America's West Coast.

Q. If that's the case, what are the North American equivalents?

Seattle is like around Puerto Montt. You're getting into fjords and channels, like the Inside Passage of British Columbia and around Vancouver. If anything, the Puerto Montt area is less populated. Portland, Ore., is similar to around Puerto Varas, though Puerto Varas is a much smaller town.

San Francisco mirrors Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. You know how the fog rolls in during the afternoons in San Francisco? It's like that. Also, the ocean is similarly cold. Only in autumn - March and April here - does the Pacific warm a bit. Chileans love the beach, and places like Vina del Mar are close to Santiago, so they're doable in a weekend or over a holiday.

Continuing north, in terms of climate, the equivalent of Los Angeles is like around La Serena. That's a beach resort town with a concentration of beach-oriented hotels. Go inland a bit, and that's where the pisco grapes grow. They're made into a grape brandy: Pisco sour is the welcome drink in most every hotel in Chile.

Q. If you have limited time in Chile, where would you go?

The Atacama Desert is great to explore, but it's a long trip - a two-day drive or an overnight bus trip, though it's possible to fly there in a couple hours.

Try the mountains behind Santiago: In winter (June-July), you can be skiing half an hour from downtown. And there's whitewater rafting on the Rio Maipo, which has Class III or IV rapids, with scenic mountains surrounding it.

I like to go to the lakes district, like the town of Pucon, about an eight-hour drive south of Santiago. People like to go there for a couple weeks in February.

Q. I heard about a tourist attraction called Chiloe. What's the story there?

It's an island that was the last bastion of the Spanish empire: It wasn't incorporated into Chile until 1826. One reason is that it is very isolated - it's analogous to Vancouver Island. It has dense forests and a dense rural population of small farmers. There are no big cities or towns; the biggest town is maybe 25,000 or so. It is very picturesque, with traditional shingled houses. Some of the houses are on stilts or pilings. Fishermen used to tie their boats at their backdoors.

People go there to see a very beautiful blend of sea, sky and rolling hills.

Warm to scenic Chile and Santiago's attractions
Santiago, Chile / Image via


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