19 Mar 2013 A 12-hour crash course on Chile
This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Ashley Day from America. Thanks for your entry Ashley!
When I looked up from my last ham and cheese breakfast sandwich and saw a serious man in business clothes, I knew it was our guide—not because he was what I expected but because everyone else in this hostel was under 30 and still in PJs. He’d looked much younger in a photo online, and I was so intimidated I rushed to get my travel partner, worried we’d frustrate him if we made him wait.
The two of us are a mess anyway, but 18 days racing around Brazil added exhaustion to the mix. Our last stop was a 24-hour layover in Chile and in all our ambition we’d asked Tours by Locals to send the guide capable of fitting as much in as possible. Walking across Plaza de Armas, Leo promised two things: to show us every single thing he loves about his country in 12 hours and to give us an authentic local experience unlike any tourist would find alone. That woke us up.
When we stepped into Mercado Central as its workers opened for the morning, each lively, smiley greeting piqued my interest as the culture felt make believe to a pair of New Yorkers. We tip toed through the muck on the floors too engaged to look away from the friendly exchanges crossing every walkway. Leo knew every person in this building and by our exit we did, too.
As we browsed a few other markets taking in the monstrous size and vibrant colors of the vegetables, the fresh smells of the seafood, and the unmistakable humor of the people, he explained how Chileans laugh and joke with each other even as strangers merely passing by.
“We don’t have a lot of money, you know? But what we lack in luxury we make up for in soul. We are a soulful people.”
That soul was consuming us. We were watching the interaction unconsciously smiling at the joy that came naturally, effortlessly to these locals. A man helping an older woman load her cart, butchers playing with kids, Leo charming waitresses. It felt like a party within these walls and it wasn’t even 9 am, like a Disney movie with townspeople merrily interacting in the streets, singing.
I wanted to move here. I wanted to do this every morning. I had that people-say-hi-as-they-pass-by panic that induces thoughts of escaping New York. And it wasn’t even 9 am.
We toured the trademark sights in downtown Santiago: the presidential palace and government buildings, the Museum of Itinerant Art below, the subway, the Stock Exchange on New York Street, all pristinely maintained, beautiful architecturally, and endearing in locals’ evident pride in them. We were so captivated by the spirit of the city we forgot to take pictures of its evidence. I was swept away by the stories and the sensory.
Leaving Santiago to embark on the wine region westward, we would visit Casablanca Valley, which specialized in Chardonnay, my favorite. Leo outlined the country’s chaotic history as we went—political turmoil, a coup, a major earthquake—and the unity and camaraderie he witnessed in his countrymen throughout. He interrupted the primer to pull over on the side of the road for an aerial view of the valley—the rolling green hills and endless rows of vines you envisioned before visiting New York wineries, a scene we were ready to toast to.
We descended to Casas del Bosque for lunch, a tour, and a tasting. The restaurant was named one of the top 10 at any vineyard worldwide and exceeded the expectations set by such a stat. With a breathtaking landscape right off the patio and the smell of grapes in the breeze, there was little need for above average fare, but delectable king crab, salmon, and ceviche paired perfectly with light white wine and warm sunshine.
Our tour revealed a state of the art facility with pop music vibrating the barrel room, which tickled us pink over our six-varietal tasting. Wines this soft and smooth were soothing to our fatigue, the precise relief we needed. Weak in the knees for this venue and its backdrop, we indulged in our favorite glasses on lounge chairs that felt like paradise before driving to the coast where a walking tour of Valparaiso’s graffiti-lined streets rounded out our sampler with art and scenic views of the ocean.
Between the people, cuisine, and beauty, this day-long crash course on Chile completely stole the show on our unforgettable South American adventure. Even in exhaustion, that invigorating country won me over, hogging my storytelling upon return and tugging at my wanderlust for the future. I’ll be back for that unabashedly friendly market, wine to write home about, and positively contagious spirit. For that was a place with soul.
About the Author: Ashley Day fell in love with travel between volunteering in Honduras and studying abroad in Florence. She grew up in Orlando, attended college in Nashville, and is now a travel writer and editor in New York City contributing to Rand McNally, The Daily Meal, Go Overseas, and Men’s Fitness. Ashley blogs about doing good as you go at www.ashleynday.com.