I was very excited when I was assigned a trip to Santiago, Chile, to oversee a group of ROL Cruise guests during their pre-cruise stay in the city.
Not only had I not been there before, so it was another tick on my list of countries visited; but I was also keen to see what Chile had to offer. It's never really had the same appeal as some of its South American neighbours in the way of world famous cities or tourist spots.
I associated it with the Andes Mountains, international football, lovely wines and some miners who got stuck down their mine and were safely pulled out one by one, as reported in a heart-warming news story in 2010.
We landed in the world's narrowest country after a comfortable 14-hour journey. The latter part of it made for some great photos as we flew over the pointed snow-capped peaks of the Andes and into the valley in which Santiago sits.
Views en route to the city centre tell a story straight away about the city's demographic. Vast areas of land are covered with make-shift homes, protected only by some tarpaulin and sheets of iron. These are the residences of mainly immigrants, explained our escort, and they form a large percentage of the poorer residents.
As with many Latin American cities, the gap between wealthy and poor is vast with little in between. That said, Chile is one of South Americas' most stable and prosperous nations with a population of around 15 million.
After settling in to our hotel, my colleague and I ventured out to see what Santiago had to offer. On first impressions, it was everything I always imagine every large South American capital to be: hot, bustling, noisy and a little bit chaotic. Straight away however, I could feel the warmth of the locals, they seemed to exude that happy and care-free Latino mood. When we asked for directions, the little man in his kiosk was touchingly helpful and fascinated by our unusual skin tone and accents. Having even some basic Spanish skills gets you by here as Chile is not yet as British-tourist-ready as some of its neighbouring countries.
It was always going to be hot during our stay with it being high summer, but as per the locals, we were to experience a heatwave. They were not wrong, with temperatures exceeding 37 degrees. It was a very dry heat, the arid air streaming into the city from the Atacama Desert on Chile's Pacific coast.
There are a few must-sees whilst in Santiago. We duly checked them all out before welcoming our guests to the exquisite Ritz Carlton hotel for their two-night stay.
We were rather surprised to learn that residents can boast that their city has the tallest building in Latin America, known as the Costanera Centre. A tall, thin razor-shaped structure housing a very clean and modern shopping mall with 6 floors and over 100 shops. At the top, you will find Sky Costanera, where you pay a reasonable fee to head upwards and onto its viewing terraces.
Although a little hazy during our visit because of some forest fires, the views were spectacular and allowed us to see just how sprawling the city is. The lovely thing about most viewpoints in Santiago is the blend of impressive and modern city structures with the beautiful domineering mountain peaks of the surrounding Andes. A word of warning, don't go too close to the protective glass if you have a fear of heights, weakening of the knees is a guarantee.
Another opportunity to view the city from above is by taking the funicular ride up to the top of San Cristobal Hill. Replicating Rio de Janeiro on a tinier scale, you will find at its summit a sanctuary dedicated to the immaculate conception, with a 22-metre high statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Next to it is a small chapel in which Pope John Paul 2 prayed and blessed the city of Santiago in 1987. The feeling up there as you admire the city from 850m above sea level is simply quite exhilarating.
A visit to a famous wine producing country would not be complete of course without a trip to one of its vineyards. We chose a tour to Concha y Toro, home to the famous Casillero del Diablo wines, regulars on the shelves of our favourite supermarkets. This brand is known locally as ‘the wine legend’ due to a fable dating back to the 1800s when the owners first started producing their precious produce.
We were taken on a tour of the owner’s original home, a beautiful pastel pink and lemon coloured villa with 360 degree views over the vineyards. After a walk through the vines, and a tour through a couple of the cellars we were finally lead into the oldest cellar, the one in which the devil himself protects the wine, according to the legend.
With amazing special sound and light effects, we were told the story in darkness of a night over 100 years ago, when some locals attempted to steal some of Don Melchor de Concha y Toro’s wine. They were scared off by what they could only be described as a devil shaped figure standing in front of them. They escaped to tell the tale and nobody ever attempted to enter the cellar again, besides the family who only did so in daylight after that night!
The tour also included 3 wine tastings of course, plus some terrific views en route to and from the vineyards of the Maipo valley and river which runs right through Santiago and its surrounding countryside. A wonderful experience, which I will fondly remember whenever I now choose this wine as my weekend tipple at home.
We were delighted to chat to some of our guests who thoroughly enjoyed their experience of Santiago. Many chose to view the city on the hop on-hop off bus which runs frequently around the main highlights, including the main square, Plaza de Armas, a perfect spot for some lunch and a little bit of people watching.
The area close to the Ritz Carlton is one of the more upmarket areas of the city, very easy to walk out in the evening and sample some of the lovely local cuisine. The lively restaurants offer great service, plenty of atmosphere and varied menus. Steak of course is a must, but also worth a try are the empanadas with mixed fillings and their many stews. We were very impressed with the quality and the freshness of the dishes we sampled, definitely an up and coming foodie destination.
After 2 days enjoying the steamy metropolis, we waved our guests off to the picturesque coastal town of Valparaiso. Just over an hour from Santiago, this is the increasingly popular port town from where many cruise lines choose to start their South American voyages. Celebrity Infinity was waiting to transport our guests on a relaxing 14-night journey, taking in more Chilean ports, some in Uruguay and ending in beautiful Buenos Aires. As one of our guests humorously pointed out, today's coach ride to Valparaiso was 'to Infinity and beyond'!
Overall, I was very impressed with Chile and would love to return one day to see more of it. We learned that it really has so much to offer beyond its capital. With soaring peaks and rushing rivers, Chile has one of the world’s best displays of diverse and spectacular nature. From its Pacific coastal resorts to the ski slopes in the heart of the Andes. From the wild and vast Patagonia desert-land to the breath-taking beauty of the fjords and glaciers.
Chile should not be underestimated. In fact, on many of their souvenirs we browsed at in local shops, I loved that they proudly refer to their country as ‘Paraiso al fin del Mundo’ – it means ‘Paradise at the end of the world’.
Well, why be modest when you have so many things to show off about?