Leave behind the hustle of Santiago to discover Chilean cowboys, penguins on surfboards and the best pisco sour in the world (really!).
I love Santiago. The arts explosion. The blue-haired teenagers with skateboards. The recent pride embodied in a label that reads “Made in Chile”. The students protesting for a right to decent public education. But too many days in a city will drive a person crazy. Santiago is a seven-million-person metropolis with a booming middle class and politicians never planned for so much traffic. It’s easy to get tired of a sushi shop and pharmacy on every street corner so I grab three unread books and two of my daughters and hit the road for a week to explore the charms of rural Chile.
If you wish to follow along, you’ll need a detailed map. Chilean road signs are special. Instead of indicating recognisable features like cities or major highways, Chileans prefer arrows with a single cryptic word like “East”. In the age of Instagram, it’s so retro as to be quaint but can easily confuse the visitor. You will get lost. You’ll also lose wi-fi connection, your phone signal and GPS coordinates. You might even forget the days of the week. Drive slowly as rural traffic is still interspersed with elegant Chilean huasos (cowboys), their stiff-brimmed hats offset by elegant ponchos and knee-high leather boots adorned with spurs big enough to prod an elephant. The teenagers on horses are worse, often texting while trotting.
Leaving Santiago behind, we cruise north on Route 5, emerging from a mountain pass 90 minutes later and going by La Campana, Chile’s most visited national park. Its bell-shaped mountain is filled with trails and offers a rewarding – and tough – four-hour climb to the 1880-metre peak. From there you can glimpse the 6962m Mount Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the world outside the Himalaya.
Fruit stands dot the shoulder of the highway and year-round sunshine means a constant supply of oranges and surprisingly delicious fruit from the prickly pear cactus. Avoid the roadside shacks marking queso de cabra (goat’s cheese), unless you’re curious about the symptoms of listeria, and continue driving until a band of women wave you down by flapping a white flag in one hand while swinging a picnic basket in the other. The rural countryside in the north of Chile has a sweet tooth honed on a mixture of meringue, caramel and powdered sugar – all sold by this army of white-smocked roadside vendors. If you’re enjoying a peaceful drive, avoid letting small children eat these addictive sugar bombs
in the car.
Branching off Route 5 and following signs to Maitencillo, we head west towards the Pacific Ocean, up a mountainside latticed with orange, olive and avocado plantations. In the 1990s, the Chileans ambushed the world’s wine shelves with merlots as a budget alternative to Californian reds. In the following decades, the country’s wines migrated upmarket. Now Chilean olive oil is taking the same path and is considered among the world’s finest.
Chileans might not be gregarious like neighbouring Argentines or Brazilians but their more cautious, reserved nature has served them well on the economic front. I used to explain to visitors that Chile was nothing like the Third World shantytown stereotype of South America but was more like “a poor corner of Spain”. Today it is like a wealthy corner of Spain – and much friendlier. Chileans are opinionated, wired, worldly, quick to laugh and eager to pitch in and help. I once saw a uniformed police officer playing goalie in a fast-paced street football match with a team of eight-year-olds. And where else do highway patrolmen stop to help motorists with a tyre change?
Arriving in Maitencillo we pull into Cabañas Hermansen, a clutch of basic but large hillside cabins with vast wooden decks from where you can watch the glowing sun sink into the horizon. Dumping our suitcases, we head for lunch up the coast. At El Chiringuito, a seafood restaurant on the end of a pier at the upscale beach of Zapallar, we have a 10-minute wait for a table. I down a pisco sour while we watch pelicans fish in the bay and a small regatta of sailboats flounder in a listless wind.
Chile and Peru are in legal dispute over naming rights for pisco, a South American brandy. The dust-up spurred a battle to see who makes the best but consumers won that war. Today’s pisco is aged in oak barrels for years. A sour is made by mixing pisco with whipped egg whites, lemon juice, powdered sugar and a dash of bitters. Served cold, it christens our meal at Chiringuito, which includes the local specialty, conger eel.
I order picoroco – a crab-like delicacy served in its shell – and I toast my wife, who’s arrived after a frantic work week to savour a Tabalí sauvignon blanc. Our vacation has begun.
Zapallar has the orderly feel and restrained tastes of an English village by the sea but today the architecture is a mix of old-school stone homes and the crisp, modular lines inspired by acclaimed Chilean architect Mathias Klotz. The Zapallar cemetery, established on a coastal lookout point above the crashing waves, contains many English surnames, a legacy of the strong British influence along this lightly settled coast.
Twenty minutes south of Zapallar is Cachagua beach. At the western end of the beach you can climb a stone staircase and see Magellanic and Humboldt penguins on an island reserve 100 metres offshore. After 15 minutes playing frisbee in the surf there, I start to lose the feeling in my toes. The water is freezing but the penguins seem comfortable. Although it’s a holiday weekend, huge stretches of Cachagua beach are empty – perfect for beachcombing and family conversations that somehow never find a footing in hectic urban days.
Dinner is back in Maitencillo at La Canasta restaurant bar. Designed like the inside of a gigantic bird’s nest, it’s packed on weekends and during the summer but otherwise is a quiet place. If you like shellfish, try the razor clams or loco, Chilean abalone harvested along the southern coast.
Maitencillo is home to several surf schools so we spend the next morning trying to master the waves. As we lie on our boards, wannabe surfers in wetsuits jog along the beach and pose for selfies as they flirt with the slo-mo lifestyle of this small holiday town. Even the wildlife wants to show off.
“A penguin was swimming around us so I grabbed him,” says Pablo, a local surfer.
“I put him standing on my board and he stayed for about 10 minutes, just looking around; I think he kind of liked it.”
Another surfer tells how a frolicking seal dropped in on his wave.
As tempting as it is to stay, we have more to explore. Next morning we head south along the rocky coast, where yellow and green wild grasses mingle with fields of cactus on the hillsides, giving the route a Northern Californian feel. At the city of Viña del Mar we turn inland up the hill to Route 68 and follow signs towards Santiago. Half an hour later, we take an exit to Algarrobo, heading for the small beach town of Isla Negra, where Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda lived, wrote and was ultimately laid to rest.
Built above a cluster of boulders that catch waves and shatter them skywards, Neruda’s home now serves as a museum. His Casa de Isla Negra was known for the legendary dinner parties he held there; artworks left by guests such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera still adorn the walls. More recent tributes to Neruda can be found on the wooden fence surrounding the property, where fans have carved or painted passages of his poetry and messages of love.
With few high-end accommodation options in Isla Negra, we stay at the Winery Boutique Hotel in nearby Algarrobo – and leave our luggage there while we pay homage to Neruda. A warning: if you leave a suitcase inside a car in public, you can consider it stolen. When eating or sightseeing on the road, keep nothing of interest in the car. I’ve lived in Chile since 1997 and have never seen a bar fight or heard a gunshot but the petty theft borders on kleptomania. Once thieves even stole a cake I’d bought for my daughter’s birthday from the front seat of my parked SUV.
After Neruda, we want to further escape civilisation so we drive two hours down the coast, past the city of San Antonio and through the village of Litueche. Piles of rubble and collapsed homes are evidence of the destruction caused by one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded. On February 27, 2010 – as tourists celebrated the final weekend of summer – an 8.8 magnitude quake and tsunami that followed wiped out this coastline for several hundred kilometres. Adobe buildings were toppled and only now is the area being substantially rebuilt. It’s an understatement to say your tourist dollars go to a good cause when you make local purchases in this stretch of Chile.
Our next beach escape is Punta de Lobos, named for the sea lions – lobos marinos – that colonise the rocks. Home to international surfing championships every year, this is a magical, little-known getaway – even for non-surfers. We stay at the nearby Hotel Alaia that offers beach views and great conversations around the bar.
The following morning, we drive half an hour south and visit the brackish lagoon in Cáhuil, a village that has been a provider of salt to vast swathes of Chile for at least 500 years. Today the ocean foam is harvested, dried and used in a line of gourmet sea salts. “The top layer is so fine that when we mix it with spices you don’t notice,” explains Carolina Diaz, the founder of Aukas, a line of traditional Chilean spices and flavours.
The sun pops out after lunch, which is often the case along this stretch of the coast. I once again attempt surfing lessons. With the wetsuit, I feel no chills and spend two hours waist deep, battered by shore breakers and admiring the five-metre swell 200m offshore.
Cosmopolitan Santiago feels pleasingly distant. Even faux surfing is exhausting. By 10 that night we are asleep.
I love wine but this coast is too frigid for grapes so we head inland. First, we drive north to Pichilemu, then east towards Santa Cruz and the heart of Chilean wine country. A decade ago Wine Spectator magazine dubbed this entire Colchagua Valley “the next Napa” and now boutique hotels, fine dining and dozens of wineries have sprouted throughout the valley.
The Noi Blend hotel in the village of Palmilla, just before Santa Cruz, makes a great base. The owner, Joaquin, can design itineraries and has been known to fire up a fabulous barbecue when guests need a day of pampering and lazy sunshine by the pool.
The Colchagua Valley is home to the best small museums in Chile, particularly Museo Colchagua in downtown Santa Cruz. Completely rebuilt and expanded following the 2010 earthquake, the museum comes from the private collection of controversial entrepreneur Carlos Cardoen, who was infamous in the 1980s for selling weapons to Saddam Hussein. Today, photos of Cardoen with Saddam and Fidel Castro have been shelved and he has reinvented himself as a patron of culture. In his quest for legacy, he’s built a remarkable museum.
In 20 years travelling South America, I’ve never seen a finer small art and archaeology collection. It’s a scale model of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. My favourite wing is dubbed The Great Escape and is overflowing with the original tools and equipment used to save 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 10 weeks in 2010.
Eager to see another of Cardoen’s museums, we drive 40 minutes southwest towards the village of Lolol. There we lunch on the terrace at the entrepreneur’s vineyard, Viña Santa Cruz, before we drag the kids to the classy automobile museum that’s part of the grand estate. Viña Santa Cruz also has a cable-car ride up the side of the hill. From the top you can enjoy a sunset view of the valley or, if you come at 8pm (on weekends), gaze at the stars through a giant telescope. I spend the last night of our trip pointing out constellations to my daughters, breathing the fresh mountain air and giving thanks we had abandoned the constant rush of city life for an escape into the Chilean countryside. After the children fall asleep I spend the evening finishing off a book and my favourite Chilean wine. I won’t tell you what that wine is; by the end of your own week-long trip, you will have discovered it for yourself. ￼
Photography by Fernando Rodriguez