A lot of people have asked me why I chose to visit Chile. The answer is twofold. One, by February I find myself so tired of the winter in London that I always take a trip to a warm destination at the end of the month.
Two, I made Executive Platinum status on American Airlines last year, and with it came eight complimentary international upgrades to business class. They were set to expire on February 28th of this year, and as of November I had only used six of them.
In order to get the most out of my last two upgrades, I decided to look for a warm location that was about as far from London as one could fly on American. With its hot February weather, flagship Admirals Club lounge, and direct service to several U.S. cities that connected to London, Santiago was the perfect choice.
I bought my flights, used my upgrades, and flew to Chile on Tuesday. When I arrived on Wednesday morning after my layover in Dallas, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. No, I didn’t want to go straight to my hotel and nurse my jet lag. I wanted to go wine tasting.
I knew that wineries in Chile required advance reservations, and I also knew that I didn’t want to do the Napa Valley-style mega tours like the huge Concha y Toro winery. So before leaving London I looked into several wine tasting tours in Santiago’s Maipo Valley.
However, all of the tours started at 9am, and my flight didn’t arrive until 10:15am. One tour company quoted me almost US$450 to pick me up from the airport and visit two of the three wineries on their tour. I almost choked.
Thankfully another company, La Bicicleta Verde, emailed me to say that while I wouldn’t have time to do their tour, I could take the metro to some of the wineries in the Maipo Valley and do an independent tour on my own. They even offered to help me make reservations.
I was impressed with how helpful they were, and astonished that the other company would try to charge me so much money to visit some of the very same wineries that I could reach by public transport. Shameful.
After landing in Santiago and clearing customs, I hopped on a bus that took me the 15-minute ride to the Pajaritos metro station. There I took the train to the Los Presidentes station and found myself in the Maipo Valley.
Instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk from the metro to the first winery, Aquitania. I figured I needed some exercise after my two long haul flights. At 40 minutes in length and 80 degrees in heat, the walk was a bit tougher than I thought it would be, not least because I was carrying my luggage on my back. However, it was a great introduction to Santiago, especially to a non-touristy part of the city.
As I walked along a heavily graffitied wall, I passed by everything from horse drawn carts to small houses. Soon I came across a bustling street market. Locals laid out blankets and sheets on both sides of the sidewalk and sold everything from children’s clothes to vegetables.
A few blocks later the urban landscape changed so dramatically that it was as if someone had drawn an invisible line. Gone were the older homes and the street market. In their place were sparkling new houses with high fences and manicured gardens. It reminded me of the startling border between Redwood City and Atherton near where I grew up in California.
The residential area quickly gave way to a shopping center, after which I saw the first sign that I was approaching my final destination: a vineyard. A minute later I was walking down a grapevine path to a winery complex surrounded by lush gardens full of pink hydrangeas. In the background were the Andes, so close I felt like I could touch them.
Aquitania was a boutique winery that only produced a small number of cases a year. Its primary export markets were Brazil and Japan, but it also exported some wine to the U.S., China, and other international destinations.
My tour of Aquitania was led by Eduardo, the son of one of the winery’s founders. He took me and two others through their wine making process, explaining everything from the fermentation to the barreling. At one point we were even able to see a woman labeling each bottle by hand.
After the tour we stood around a table in the garden for the tasting. As we sipped a range of wines from their excellent Sol de Sol Pinot Noir to their original Paul Bruno Cabernet Sauvignon, I stopped for a minute to look around and appreciate the beauty of the land, the stunning height of the mountains, and the great quality and taste of the wine.
After the tour of Aquitania, I went with the two others in my group to get a quick snack at the nearby shopping center before heading to the next tasting. This one was at a medium size winery, but one that was still family run.
Cousino Macul winery was only a mile away from Aquitania, but had a very different feel. The tour group was larger at this winery, and the production was too. The historic cellars were beautiful, though, especially with the flickering candles and ornate chandeliers lighting the way to the vaulted barrel-lined rooms.
After the tour we went back to the metro, where my hotel was a short ride away. I checked into the Ritz Carlton for a complimentary stay, where I was welcomed by the staff and offered not one but two complimentary massages at the spa. My shoulders were aching from carrying my backpack from London to Dallas to the Maipo Valley, and I couldn’t wait for the tension to be eased.
My first massage was a quick 30 minute relaxation massage, after which I went down to the lobby to meet Emily in Chile, who had serendipitously found me on Twitter when I wrote about my trip.
As we settled into cocktails and ceviche at the nearby Akarana bar and restaurant, we discovered that not only did we both write travel blogs, but we also grew up in neighboring towns and went to high schools right near one another. Small world!
After a great evening with Emily, I headed back to the hotel for my second massage. This one was a 50-minute aromatherapy treatment. It was the perfect way to relax after a day in the Maipo Valley and before going to bed early ahead of a 6am wake-up call for my flight to Calama in the north of the country. There I would start the next leg of my Chile trip: the Atacama Desert.
To be continued…