Travel: Shaken but not stirred in Chile

2012-10-26 13:12

A relaxed week spent enjoying Santiago’s vineyards, colourful seaside towns and countless pisco sour shooters left Mokgadi Seabi unprepared for her first earthquake experience

Chile is an odd little country.

It is known as the skinniest and longest country in the world and its land is mainly occupied by the Andes mountain range.

It’s a place where some visitors can ski and others can sunbathe at the same time of year on different locations, which makes it an ideal tourist spot.

This, of course, if it wasn’t for its more than 2 000 volcanoes and propensity for earthquakes every once in a while.

My travel group began the Chile adventure in the capital, Santiago.

It seems Chile is trying to compete with Dubai to build the world’s tallest building, which is a bit alarming given the earthquakes.

However, as our guide explained, many structures in Chile are built using Japanese technology to ensure they sway instead of collapsing as they used to in the past.

Somehow, I’m still not convinced.

One building that doesn’t need fancy technology to survive is the 17th-century San Francisco Church and Convent, one of the oldest churches in Chile.

It is unassuming from the outside, but inside it’s all gold-guilded panels, delicate murals and thousands of white candles which are lit by a constant stream of visitors.

To get to the church, you have to drive past the sprawling Parque O’Higgins and Parque de las Esculturas (Park of Sculptures), where “pololos” (Chilean slang for “lovers”) can be found making out at any time of day.

Cruising along the city’s main road, Alameda Avenue, you see the vibrant Plaza de Armas (Arms Square), with its fountains and sculptures, and the Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of the president and the Cabinet.

We were lucky to be in time for the changing of the guard ceremony, which happens with the same pomp and ceremony as Buckingham Palace’s.

Trumpets blared, horses moved in tandem to white-clad soldiers and the crowd cheered. All this took 30 minutes before life went on as usual.

After that we tried one of the city’s unique “coffee with legs” cafes, where businessmen can be seen being served by scantily clad waitresses, or “urban psychiatrists”, as our guide called them.

Apparently, the darker the windows of the cafe, the less clothing the waitresses wear.

For a paranomic view of Santiago, San Cristobal Hill, which rises 300m above the city, is the best place from which to see the snow-capped Andes and the city’s rooftops.

Wine aficionados know that Chile has a viticulture history that dates back to the 16th century. So attending wine tasting at a vineyard is a must.

We visited De Matino vineyard in the Maipo Valley, which is the most traditional wine-producing area in Chile with the best conditions for premium wines.

We were treated to a delicious alfresco lunch, accompanied by vino tintos (red wines) and vino blancos (white wines).

The lunch was briefly disrupted by an earthquake, and we had to abandon our gazebo in a hurry.

The earthquake that day registered a magnitude of 5.5 on the Richter scale, meaning it wasn’t too dangerous.

The wine maker, Eduardo Jordán, then introduced us to some of his best wines, which soon helped us forget about the tremors, but nevertheless made us a little less steady.

Unfortunately, it was too cloudy for me to use my poor bikini the day we visited the seaside towns of  Valparaíso and Viña del Mar.

The towns lie west of Santiago, a good two-hour drive before reaching the hilly and colourful Valparaíso downtown district.

At the modern seaside resort city of Viña del Mar, you can enjoy the country’s specialities: seafood and my new favourite drink, pisco (a colourless or yellowish-to-amber Chilean grape brandy).

Both cities look like Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap and Muizenberg, with their colourfully painted houses that sit on steep hills.

The hilltop mansions at Viña del Mar clearly make it the Camps Bay of Chile.

There you’ll find the beaches of Salinas, Reñaca, Los Lilenes and Concón, and a huge flower clock planted on the ground that actually works thanks to its intricate Swiss mechanism.

There’s also a casino and a gazillion and one seafood restaurants to choose from.

Chile is truly an enchanting country with much to offer a fearless visitor who’ll consider volcanoes and earthquakes just a part of the whole experience.

» Seabi was a guest of Trafalgar Tours

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