Sunday, July 3, 2011

Santiago take three - Chile

For all our efforts it was impossible to get to Mendoza from Santiago, it was now our third visit to the latter.  We initially planned on getting the ticket straight after we bussed into town but due to our flight delay from Easter Island everything was long closed.  Instead we arrived at the bus station early the next day but having just missed a connection we waited an hour or so for the next one only to find out that the road through the Andes had been closed (fortunately we hadn’t made the earlier bus which would have had to have turned round).  Having spoken to other potential passengers who are familiar with the route we found out that this wasn’t uncommon this time of year and usually lasts for up to three days.  It was a shame to be losing time but there are definitely plenty of worse places to be stranded.  It was still kind of depressing to have returned to Santiago’s weather and no more so than when we arrived back at our guesthouse, bags and all, only to be told that it was now full.  With no hard feelings we said out goodbyes and even though it was POURING with rain we had no choice but to trudge on with heavy bags looking for another hostel.  We had accumulated a lot of time in the Green House so it was time to get a change of scenery although we had been paying a good rate there and got used to the place.  After some hunting around and being saturated by the rain we received a warm welcome at Hostel Santa Lucia which although it was slightly more expensive (even after knocking a couple of thousand off the price) the staff were friendly and we were well looked after the whole time.

Kate enjoying some 'Onces'
Over the next few days we woke up ready to jump out the blocks and get to the bus station as soon as the road opened but this was unfortunately taking longer than we had originally hoped.  Unlike the Green House, staff here were more hands on and it was great to be able to join in and sample meals cooked by the staff and even be brought hot chocolate with marshmallows on a couple of occasions!  They weren’t afraid to correct me on my Spanish which I appreciated and they never failed to say good morning or hello when they saw you.  There was Wi-Fi for when the weather was bad outside which allowed us to attempt to find a Couchsurfing host in Mendoza and Buenos Aires, Argentina although we have had no success to date.  The supermarket nearby meant that we could eat for cheap and there were normally people around to chat to, even so our primary aim was to still get out of Santiago and as the cold wet days went by without any sign of the road opening the fact was that we were losing time and this was getting us down having had already visited the most important sights in the city.  There were little perks throughout which made us feel better, for example one day in the hostel a film crew spent the whole day recording for a popular Chilean sitcom which made things interesting and they were all a nice bunch to hang around with.

Filming for a Chilean sitcom

The best thing we did in Santiago this time round was fully to the credit of the Santiago Hostel owner Juan Sebastian who had the temperament of an excited puppy.  When we mentioned our intentions to sample the renowned wine of Mendoza he became extremely passionate about the local vineyards which we (although aware of the amazing local wines on offer) hadn’t thought about visiting for some reason and after informing us on the best vineyards with directions he changed his mind and practically insisted that he drive us there himself on Thursday.  We decided that even if the road was open on Wednesday or Thursday we would still not pass up on this opportunity especially considering the vineyard we would be visiting would be Vina Concha y Toro, the company that produces the Casillero del Diablo (Devil’s locker) brand that sponsors Manchester United. 

The journey began with Sebastian arriving slightly later than planned but he mentioned that we weren’t booked onto the tour until 1pm so in order to kill some time he set about giving us a whistle-stop guided tour of Santiago in his pickup along with two other guests at the hostel who were from Brazil.  It was difficult to not throw up as we drifted between lanes being honked at as Sebastian pointed out various areas of the city with one eye on the road.  It was great to get a wider perspective of the place although at times it was difficult to gauge the points that Sebastian was trying to make with loud overtaking cars along with snack sellers and buskers skulking around us when we stopped at most of the red lights.  He was extremely insistent of what photos we should take, usually of the mountains although a lot of the time it felt like I was humouring him owing to a lot of the shots being taken from behind ugly construction sites or buildings but it was hard to refuse.  When driving back towards the city we did finally get some great views and it was cool to have what looked like most of the city in shot with the mountains around the perimeter.

Sebastian weaving between the traffic light vendors

The cityscape of Santiago

The city tour must have gone on a little longer than planned as Sebastian began to get slightly apprehensive about making our allotted slot for the wine tour on time.  Putting his foot down we arrived with no less than five minutes to spare to an operation that was far larger in scale than I had anticipated.  The Grove Mill tour in New Zealand (along with most of the others I imagine) was minute in comparison; the car park alone was like arriving to that of a small theme park.  We walked through the grounds until we were looking over a delightful restaurant courtyard on what was becoming a beautiful sunny day.  We were hurried along to a video room where we were introduced to our English guide, but because we felt a bit sorry for the Portuguese couple who didn’t speak much English we asked for the introduction film to be in Spanish which was mostly a promotion anyway.  Fortunately our group only consisted of the five of us as there were some much larger groups going around which wouldn’t have been nearly as intimate.  The tour began by visiting the original residence of Don Melchor Concha who set up the company over a century ago by bringing vines over from Bordeaux in France.  The interior has now been converted to offices but it remains a grand house with a combination of architectural influences from Italy and Chile and it resides amongst impressive grounds amounting to over twenty acres with lakes and a variety of trees.

The grand residence of Don Melchor

We then got a step closer to the wine by visiting the vineyards.  There were other regions in the country that produced different varieties of wine, yet the climate and soil of the central region lends itself to creating Merlots, Cabinet Sauvignons, Pinot Noir and Carménère.  Having got the cultural stuff out of the way the chance came to sample our first wine which was a ruby red Cabernet Sauvignon which went down a treat although it was a bit sweeter than what I would usually enjoy. 

The Vineyard

Sampling the Cabernet Sauvingnon Grand Reserva

It was then time to venture into the facility where the wine was kept in barrels and left to mature prior to being bottled up.  The sensitive thermostat acknowledged our entry thus causing the air-conditioning unit to spurt a blast of cold air to maintain temperature.  It was really interesting to learn about this part of the process down to the types of barrels and their associated costs, American Oak costing about one hundred and fifty dollars a barrel and French oak double that with the minute but important difference being the size of the pores in the different varieties of wood.  Each barrel contains around three hundred bottles of wine and should therefore make for a good party.  The next area was the Casillero del Diablo.  The story of the devil living there was invented by the patron himself in order to prevent his fellow man from nicking the wine when he wasn’t about.  There was a new addition of a projected devil at the end of the corridor where the wine sat and there was a rickety old lift that would have been used to get up and down from the wine cellar over a hundred years ago!  Lazy rich people!  

Kate negotiating her way amongst the barrels

The original wine cellar where they still make the Don Melchor

The Casillera del Diablo wine cellar, can you see the ghost??

Having viewed the cellar we surfaced in order to try a glass of Don Melchor 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon which would be the most important wine that we would be sampling on the tour (albeit we only sampled two wines).  It was fifteen years old and much more potent than its fruity little bother that we sampled prior to this and would go amazingly with some strong cheese, a good steak or gamey dishes.  I’m not sure if the hype contributed but I really enjoyed it and would definitely be making a purchase if I wasn’t on a budget and wasn’t already surrounded by pretty good wines which cost less than three quid each.  The tour ended back in the courtyard but Kate, Sebastian and I weren’t quite through so we headed to the restaurant where we all chipped in for a tasting set and a plate of cheese which was fun.  Afterwards when we visited the gift shop I refrained from purchasing any Manchester United related attire or knickknacks and instead we caved in and took home a bottle of  Cabernet Sauvignon that we had tried first along with a nice Malbec.  

Enjoying a nice long sip of wine

The tour group minus Sebastian (taking the photo)

Sebastian was keen to visit another vineyard nearby and having received some rough directions we set off again along the crazy Chilean roads.  He mentioned that he had been in New Zealand where he hired a car and said driving was heaven when compared to here which he appropriately described as a ‘jungle’.  It took twenty minutes or so to reach the next vineyard which was called Vina Santa Rita, first impressions were that it seemed more upmarket.  We didn’t have a reservation and it turned out to be appointment by reservation only, however after lengthy chats with the blokes at the security gate and waving the hostel card around we were told we could progress and could either pay twelve pound fifty for another tour or visit the museum for free which was a bit of a no brainer considering we now already knew our Merlots from our Shirazes.  The museum had a surprisingly impressive collection of pre Inca artefacts along with an unmistakable display of wealth.  It housed many statuettes from Easter Island along with more traditional historic artefacts from natives living off the land hundreds of years prior to Spanish settlement.  There was even a ‘gold’ room containing items of pure gold along with plated and leaf examples that came from Peru and other South American countries rich in the metal.  We were already yawning from a long but enjoyable day when we got into the car and arrived back at the hostel to cook up some pasta and pack our bags for Mendoza which with any luck from the weather we would be arriving in the next evening.  

The vineyards own fancy pants museum

The vineyards fancy pants restaurant

The vineyard itself in a lovely setting
Alas the road was open and although we were now eager to move on we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in Chile which has been a great experience, different to anywhere we had been so far.  We have found the people are hard often to the point of rudeness, but taking a step back and looking at the politeness of British society and western expectations of false sincerity it kind of makes us look like the stupid ones.  On every occasion where we have had the chance to break down barriers with others we have always been welcomed with open arms and treated as equals even if the prices of local flights and attractions discriminate against us gringos.  The Passion of the people and the beauty of the landscape, the latter being on a par to New Zealand make Chile a diverse and enjoyable place to visit.  We look forward to visiting the country again when we head further north to San Pedro de Atacama to enjoy its namesake desert and experience even more of what this amazing country has to offer.

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