What I appreciate most about traveling, is that it makes coming home that much sweeter. I haven't always felt this way. In fact, 'coming home' for many years caused me a troubling dose of anxiety, and often tears, usually en route to Manhattan from JFK in a yellow cab, barely inching along, choking in exhaust. I don't mean to insinuate that New York is a terrible place - it is indeed, precisely the opposite. But it wasn't home; this grand evergreen, ever-rainy, never too cold, never too hot, Washington, is home. I am reminded of this after spending a gorgeous fall day outside, planting garlic. That's not heaven for all; but for me, it is divine. I'm glad to be home, but visiting Chile, mostly Santiago, for the second time this decade was a treat. I anticipated many things: empanadas both baked and fried with a plethora of stuffing combinations, meat, so much meat, a healthy South American male appreciation for my not so natural these days blonde hair, a dependable cortado, ensaladas curiously missing the lettuce, and contrasts - everywhere. But I didn't anticipate the phenomenal wine, the multitude of high-end "gastromic" restaurants, with a full suite of wealthy, scene-conscious Santiaguinos to frequent them, and a hot dog called the Italiano dressed in an Italian flag of tomatoes, avocado, and creamy mayonnaise. Nor the protests -- reportedly, 30% of students in Santiago are refusing to attend school, protesting for free, better quality higher education. The evidence was written on the walls and jammed in the gates of public schools (with hundreds of school chairs). It was also sprayed in the tear gas laden air, which I had the misfortune of experiencing via a badly timed eye rub (I have never so un-self-consciously barged into a store and demanded water in whatever botched translation I could manage). What I appreciated most, however, were all the little conversations with locals, some fully understood, some less so, and all the glimpses into Santiaguino life at the markets, sharing wine, wandering through neighborhoods, or simply, in a cab.
Chile is moving forward, but I'm glad it's still hanging on to a bit of its past.
Here's a small guide to the highlights:
1. La Vega. This was the best surprise - 24 acres of rambling stalls with vendors hawking vegetables to bulk recyclable cutlery. I spent an entire afternoon wandering around, sampling the many different varieties of avocados, Peruvian potatoes, candied kiwi, and the largest Jordan almonds ever. Go with an open mind, comfortable shoes, and attempt to not look like a tourist (I did not succeed with my indiscreet camera). Keep your bag close and be wary, as this is a good place to get pick pocketed if you don't stay on guard. You'll have the best time if you try out your Spanish and make friends with the vendors - they give samples to nice people who attempt to speak their language.
2. Horseback riding with Chile Off Track in Santiago. I recommend this not because there is gorgeous countryside within the city limits, but because there is quite beautiful countryside, just off the edge of sprawling upper-middle class suburbs, also next door to a slum, both equally worth seeing. I learned more about Santiago on this day trip, than my entire stay. The family that cares for the horses, which roam free on hundreds of open acres, live just across from the last California style modern home in the development, on a crumbling ranch with kids and chickens roaming free like the horses. This, is a study in the contrasts, that mark Chile as it tears forward in its quest for modernity.
3. Dinner at Sukalde, gelato stand for dessert. We made a 9:30pm reservation for a Saturday night. That was too early. Make it for 10pm. Chileans eat late; and on the weekends, even later. The restaurant sits in a converted old mansion in a wealthy area of Santiago. The food was perfectly executed, creative, but not weird. Start with one of the many variations of Pisco Sours on the menu, splurge on a nice bottle of Viu Manent, and take your time working through the menu. I'm a sucker for dessert, which was delicious here, but Santiago has some killer gelato, and it's much cheaper. I went several times to the stand in Patio Bellavista. Try the native fruit Chirimoya coupled with Manjar (the Chilean version of dulce de leche, and to los Americanos, some darn delicious caramel).
4. Run or walk up Mt. San Cristobal to La Virgen. Santiago has a smog problem - a bad one- but that didn't stop me from running. Sometimes it's the best way to see a place. The hotel we stayed at was directly beside the main entrance to a host of trails and paths up Cerro San Cristobal that offer breathtaking views of the Andes and a bird's eye view of sprawling Santiago. And at the very top, is the sacred statue of the Virgen. Suffice to say I don't think one can begin to understand South America, without spending time where they worship. Towards the base of the statue there is an area off to the side reserved for for prayers and offerings. Take a moment to read the inscriptions, and enjoy being on top of a small piece, of the bottom of the world.
5. Wine tasting. We used a local guide recommended by the Aubrey, our fantastic hotel. We had limited time (1 night), so decided to restrict ourselves to the Maipo region, which is closest to Santiago. The Aubrey did most of the work arranging the itinerary, and they exceeded our expectations. If you can, go with a local guide who can arrange tastings at some of the smaller vineyards. The highlight by strides, was our intimate visit with Mario Ravenna at Huelken Vineyards. We spent a perfect afternoon on lawn chairs, drinking several bottles of outstanding vino, including his gorgeous 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, and a specialty sweet wine he has yet to begin marketing. By the time we left, Mario (despite not speaking a lick of English) was arm in arm with my darling husband (who, coincidentally speaks not a lick of Spanish), confidant they'd negotiated the perfect swap: Mario comes to Orcas Island to learn English for a month and Gerry gets several cases of wine. Mario, if you read this, mi casa es su casa.
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