I’m sprawled out on my back, basking in the warm, September sunshine of Chile’s fertile Casablanca Valley. Eyes glazed over, lunch weighing heavy in my stomach, I attempt to summon the necessary energy needed to peel myself off the meticulously groomed grass and continue with my day. It’s early spring here in the Southern Hemisphere, and there is no other place that I’d rather be.
In the throws of a minor food coma, several glasses of superb Sauvignon Blanc pumping through my circulatory system, I find it almost impossible to believe that just days earlier I had been screaming headlong down the snowy slopes of the Andes Mountains—trying my best to avoid grievous bodily harm. I find it even harder to believe that I’m a mere 132 kilometers, as the Condor flies, from the ski resort that had provided hours of thrills and spills just days earlier in the week.
But such is Chile—a country that owes much to its unique geographical situation. Here you are never far from the soaring Andes Mountains and Argentina to the East, or the deep blue Pacific Ocean and its 4000 kilometers of coastline.
A City Shaped by Geography
Stunningly beautiful, waif-thin and impossibly long, Chile is the Supermodel of South America. And such an aesthetically pleasing nation demands an equally attractive heart. Almost completely enveloped by a ring of snowcapped mountains, Santiago de Chile certainly fits the bill. With a metropolitan population of 7.2 million, Chile’s capital and largest city is contemporary, cosmopolitan, and prosperous—especially by Latin American standards.
Santiago’s gleaming glass office towers and auld European-inspired institutional buildings provide visitors with nearly as powerful a visual juxtaposition as do the mammoth white mountains set against the rolling valleys and orchards that encompass the city’s hinterlands.
With so much raw geography on display, it should come as no surprise that Santiago and its environs boast great ski resorts, dozens of world-class wineries, and even resorty beach towns all within a couple hours drive of the city’s modern core. Here you can start your day skiing high in the Andes, après at a vineyard, and (theoretically at least) make it to the beach in time for sunset.
Ski and Snowboard
Would-be skiers must first navigate forty hairpin twists and turns en route to Valle Nevado Ski Resort before they can even think about hitting the slopes. The biggest and best resort in the Southern Hemisphere is but an hour’s drive from Santiago, but the roads can be slick and tricky at times. Chains on tires are a pretty common sight on the steep drive up, but so to are massive Andean Condors stretching their ten-foot wide wings to catch the rising thermals.
At 9,924 feet in the mountains, Valle Nevado jets out from a rocky outcrop; hotel towers and restaurants perched precariously close to a sheer vertical drop. The après-ski scene is straight out of a Coors Light commercial, with groups of snowboarders knocking back brews on the sunny patio with a priceless view of the Andes Mountains as their backdrop.
While ambitious expansion plans have now begun, Valle Nevado currently offers visitors 3 different hotels to choose from, and a number of bars and restaurants. There are 2,225 acres of skiable terrain and over twenty-five kilometers of groomed trails, plus a terrain park, off-piste runs, and bowls.
Along with El Colorado and La Parva resorts, Valle Nevado makes up a third of what is collectively known as the Three Valleys. As they do everything backwards in the Southern Hemisphere, Santiago offers serious snow lovers the chance to ski during the North American summer, with resorts open from approximately mid-June to the end of September (weird I know!).
Sip and Savor
Chile has made a name for itself on the global market through the exportation of high quality, low-cost wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the fruity, spicy, crimson-colored Carménère (a French varietal thought extinct until rediscovered growing in Chile) dominate most wine lists, but Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are also widely produced, exported, and enjoyed.
Catnapping on the grass at the Matetic Vineyard in the Aconcagua wine region between Santiago and the UNESCO recognized port city of Valparaiso, I notice that the climate is arid and distinctly reminiscent of Northern California. The close proximity of this region to the Andes Mountains creates a considerable variation between day and nighttime temperatures—an essential element in maintaining grapes’ acidity levels that I certainly enjoy in the aromatic and minerally Matetic EQ Sauvignon Blanc.
The Central Chile region anchored by Santiago contains dozens of wineries that have opened their doors to the public for tastings and tours. The Ruta del Vino is well-marked, mapped and easy to traverse.
See the Sights
Beyond the ski slopes and the Sauvignon Blanc, Santiago offers much more for visitors to enjoy.
Take in the city skyline and views of the futuristic Titanium Tower—dwarfed only by the surrounding mountains—from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia in downtown Santiago. For those with a little more time, even better views of the city are available on clear days from Cerro San Cristóbal. Simply take the funicular from Bellavista.
Home to many museums and the city’s main cathedral, the impressive Plaza de Armas dates back to the 1540s and is a constant hub of activity. Just blocks away lies La Moneda Palace, seat of the Chilean Presidency, and last refuge of former leader Salvador Allende during the 1973 military coup d’état orchestrated by General Augusto Pinochet.
With the Pacific Ocean on its doorstep, Santiago is blessed with a bounty of fresh fish. For seafood that is so fresh, it’s (literally) still squirming, head down to the Mercado Central where local restaurateurs squabble to reel in visitors and locals alike.
Pleasant strolls can be had through the Neo-classical Concha Y Torro district with its many fountains and stone facades. Barrio LaStaria and Bellavista act as the bohemian quarter of Santiago. Here you’ll find great bars, boutiques and cafes set amidst colourful colonial buildings and tree-lined streets. A good night out is sure to be found here in the shadow of Cerro San Cristóbal.
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By Jeremy Niester for TripAtlas.com