An old friend of mine bought a vineyard in Chile five years ago. An unusual character, he’s a Professor of Cellular Biology in Finland who still dresses, in his 50s, like a punk. We once travelled to Moscow together, overland from Norway, in an unreliable VW Beetle (his idea) which broke down in the small Finnish town of Espoo. That’s when his love affair with Finland started but he had long been attracted by countries in the frozen north.
His idea of a vacation was always touring Iceland, Greenland, the Yukon, Lapland and other frozen wastes. He’s one of these people who toddled off on some boat or other to Antarctica. In general, the more bitingly cold the climate, the happier he is.
So when he said he’d bought the vineyard in Chile, I was rather surprised. However, an eclectic personality, he’d long harboured a wish to make wine – even though he doesn’t drink alcohol. So, after fitting a Southern France viticulture course around his scientific research and postdoc students, he bought a vineyard in, I believe, Chile’s wine-producing Colchagua Valley. Luckily for him it came complete with an experienced manager.
He produced his first decent wine a couple of years ago and I hadn’t thought much about Chile since until the drama of the 33 trapped miners hit the internet, airwaves and news front pages in 2010.
Now, it seems, after the successful and joyful rescue, Chile is gearing up to attract tourists as never before on the back of the hugely positive worldwide media attention the country received.
Chile’s well-regarded President, Sebastian Pinera, is set to commission a monument dedicated to the miners and rescuers. That will probably be in Copiapo, where most of the rescued miners live. “Camp Hope”, the hastily-set-up settlement near the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine, is already attracting curious day trippers.
Although the miners’ story is a catalyst for interest in Chile, the country has a lot to offer beyond the Atacama desert where it took place. Chile is spectacularly beautiful. It has five UNESCO World Heritage sites, awe-inspiring glaciers, fjords and volcanoes, huge forests and a coastline which starts in the tropics and ends in Antarctica. With the Pacific to the west and the Andes in the east, Chile is barely 100 miles wide but offers a vast range of landscapes.
In the north you can explore desert flats and canyons, come across lakes coloured pink by flocks of skinny flamingoes and try local dishes made of quinoa and beef – or llama. Some way south of Copiapo, Isla Dama near the coast, is home to the National Reserve of Humboldt Penguins. In the Pacific Sea, around the isle, it’s also common to see dolphins, sea lions and whales.
In and around Santiago in the central region if Chile, you’ll find great ski reorts if skiing is your passion. They offer excellent snow and good access and infrastructure. The season starts in June and ends in October. If skiing doesn’t interest you, you can trek into the Andes Mountains. Not far from the city, you have the option of trekking on horseback or on foot. There’s also rafting in level 3 and 4 rapids if you feel energetic.
Santiago itself is the place to find out about the country’s history – its battle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century and its transition back to democracy in 1989 after the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The Museum of Santiago, the National Historic Museum and the Casa Colorada museum all recount aspects of the country’s history. Near the Plaza de la Constitución, you’ll find the Moneda Palace – seat of the Chilean Government – which can be visited too.
The Barrio Bellavista is Santiago’s artistic and bohemian quarter. Writers, philosophers, actors and musicians gather in the many bookshop cafés to exchange ideas and put the world to rights. The area is packed with art galleries, craft shops and quirky little boutiques. The San Cristóbal Hill, Metropolitan Park, the Zoo and La Chascona, where poet Pablo Neruda once lived, are all in this part of the city. At night, the area hops with busy clubs, bars, restaurants and theaters.
In Patagonia, down in the south, you’ll find a wild land of jungle, glacial valleys, tumbling rivers and snow-covered mountains. Cruises here offer spectacular views of the coastline and a chance to see penguins, sea lions, leopard seals and sea elephants. If you are brave enough, and resistant to biting cold, you can go scuba-diving too and explore the unique underwater life of Antarctica. Experienced divers will lead you past the other-wordly ice sculptures, icebergs and corals off this extraordinary frozen coastline. Sailing in the famous Strait of Magellan is another great attraction of the area. Ecologists warn, however, that Antarctic tourism is damaging the fragile ecosystem here and I for one am inclined to leave this particular wilderness alone.
Lastly – Chilean wine and Chilean vineyards. My friend in Finland sends me digital photos of his vineyard from time to time and I have to say it looks very pretty but unexceptional. Yet Chilean wine is often very good and wineyard tours are popular in Chile. The Colchagua Valley is only a couple of hours from Santiago on the Ruta 5 highway so wine lovers can easily head out to taste the country’s increasingly fine wines. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are among the most widely grown grapes but Chilean wine producers grow around two dozen varieties. They include Pinot Noir, Syrah (Shiraz), Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet franc, Sangiovese, Barbera, Malbec, Carignan, Semillon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc.
I’ll have to ask my friend to stop sending the photos and start sending a few litres of his wine instead. With the financial crisis still on, it may be the closest I’ll get to a Chilean vineyard for some time.