Chile's Most Interesting Towns

We’re about to leave Atacama Desert. A visit to Chile’s most colourful’n’chaotic town: Valparaiso, on to its proud capital Santiago, then over the Cordillera to Mendoza in Argentina. To taste some Malbec.

Vicuña 2 Mendoza

Viña de Mar, 6th November

After yesterday’s initiation into professional stargazing for odd tourists, we’re on the way back to the coast. A few km to La Serena. Just too lazy to drive more than this 60km.

The next morning we’re finally ready to drive further south. To reach Valparaiso. The town is said to be the most colorful, chaotic, and the 1 with the highest crime rate in Chile. Thus, must be an interesting place to visit.

Well, we decide not to stay in Valparaiso, but in Viña de Mar – just 15km outside the town. This mainly to give Prado a better chance to survive without slashed tires, broken windows, or locks. Anyway, we’re not too keen for anybody trying to clean Prado’s interior.

The trip to Viña: some 450km, 5-6h.

Of course, if you hear of Viña de Mar you automatically link it to green vineyards full of grapes along a white palm-fringed beach and turquoise water softly swiping at your feet. In between a few sleeperies with romantic wine bars to sip the local specialties and eat some bites especially prepared for this occasion.

Reality can’t be more different. High-rising condos all along the beach. The beachfront protected by concrete elements to avoid erosion. In the second row all these watering holes’n’eateries every tourist hotspot needs to keep visitors happy. A little further out a sandy beach where you definitely won’t die of loneliness. Yeah, that’s Viña de Mar. The Chili’s way of enjoying their favorite beach resort.

Whatever. Time for a Schop of Calafate.  You didn’t get it? It’s just a draught beer called Calafate. In this language the Chili’s consider Spanish.

Next morning: a visit to Valparaiso. Doesn’t look very easy to realize. Simply there’s very little information on what to see, what to explore, and what to avoid. And especially where to find it. Suggestions in posts or books often limit to warnings of petty theft, robbery, and broken cars – you imagine what can happen, you’ll find it somewhere.

Luckily, we discover a guy with a small travel agency offering walking’n’public transport tours: Patatours. Of course, they will probably not be too helpful against all these bad girls hanging around, but at least they know the places to visit. Especially for Valparaiso’s famous street art. So, we book it. Full program from 10 am to 5 pm.

With the metro to Valparaiso – just a 10′ drive to Plaza Sotomayor and the port.

There we discover our guide. And 2 more participants.

To start with a visit to the fish market in Portales. A little bit out of the center.

Back to the center. Up to Barrio Barón. With the town’s oldest elevator. Well, these numerous elevators all over the town are rather funiculars constructed a little over 100 years ago. Half of them still operating.

The area a mix of newly constructed super posh apartments, restored historic houses, and apartments built quite some time ago and showing clearly their age.  And a few eateries offering innovative fast food – maybe not to everyone’s taste.

Walking down the hill towards Valparaiso’s Mercado Cardonal we sneak thru an area definitely a bit more neglected.

To the market. A pretty busy area. But also well known for bad girl’s activities. They seem to be very active in collecting cellphones’n’cameras and whatever other stuff innocent tourists present to everybody while marveling at all the veggies offered at the stalls. Well, we could not really identify some of these girls, but people warned us constantly.

Then it’s time for a short bus ride. Towards Cerro Alegre. The most touristy area – but also the area where the best murals are found.

Of course, there are also numerous famous houses.  Well, today they are often not noticed by tourists because of all these murals, …

… and finally, the world-famous stairs.

Another hill. A little further away. Beautiful old houses – all in absolutely desperate condition. Many uninhabited.

Finally, we’re sneaking thru Valparaiso’s port area. Maybe not exactly the place to spend the night after your 20th beer. Looks a bit like a warzone.

That’s it for Valparaiso. The tour? Great, even if a tour. We could never discover all these places by ourselves. And the town? Fascinating, terribly decaying in many parts, and probably a thieves’ paradise. Well, we’ve survived it. We’re back to Viña de Mar, just 15 km away and yet another world.

Santiago, 8th November

We’re heading to Chile’s capital  Santiago. Just 100km, 1 1/2h on the highway.

Arriving there, we’re quite lucky to find a sleepery even with parking for Prado. And that all in the center of town. 

The afternoon: sneaking thru Santiago’s center, being astonished at how many street markets still exist in this modern town. A look at the presidential palace –  attacked many years ago by dictator Pinochet’s air force when deposing elected president Allende. Later getting rid of 3 bad girls unsuccessfully trying to help Monika to dispose of all the useless stuff she’s carrying around with her. This an experience we didn’t expect in Santiago.

To the Plaza de Armas with all its heroes and the cathedral.

On to the Plaza de la Constitucion. Nowadays overlooked by a statue of former President Allende. On the other side the presidency. Opposite, the place to ask for answers for the many persons that disappeared during Pinochet’s dictatorship. A part of Chile’s history that has still not been reappraised sufficiently, and continues to divide its citizens – as seen during the last presidential elections with right-wing candidate José Antonio Kast.

After yesterday’s visit to Plaza de la Constitucion, today we continue with Chile’s recent history. The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. Definitely, it’s not really a museum about human rights in the world. It’s very focused on Pinochet’s dictatorship and his infamous dealing with human rights. Hopefully, a place to help the Chilie’s to better deal with this period. And to remember what happens if right-wing militia comes to power. Looks like Chilean schools are well aware of this considering the masses of schoolkids visiting the place.  Another observation: some visiting US citizens complain loudly that the US’ role in the rise of Pinochet should no longer be displayed at the museum. Shame on you – hopefully not too many people understood your English.

Enough of this infamous period. Sneaking thru Santiago’s Barrio Yungay – definitely a different world …

… to reach Barrio Concha y Toro. Could be in any town in Italy.

On to Barrio Paris-Londres. Out of an Italian into a French town.

Still, Chile’s recent history comes alive again: amidst these romantic houses in Jirón Londres, there’s number 38. 1 of Pinochet’s worst detention centers. Nowadays, more of a place to remember than a museum.

Back to the present time. Government action may still be considered differently in this largely divided society.

Mendoza, 11th November

Enough of Chile’s grim history, enough of its grey cities and the language they speak – even if they call it Spanish. 

We’re on the way to Argentina. To Mendoza. Over the cordillera at Paso Cristo Redentor at 3200m altitude. 

A good road, just 350km. A lot of trucks, mainly entering Chile with goods, and driving back empty.

Weather: lousy in Santiago, improving considerably in the mountains.

Just before entering Argentina a last steep ascent – and an opportunity for truck rallies.

Then we arrive at the border. From far we see Chile’s new, super-modern customs building. 

Well, we miss it, it’s off the road. We only recognize that when we discover the huge signboard thanking us for visiting Chile.

We turn back,  ask 1 of these uniformed guys hanging around. He just knows that they wouldn’t do anything for us when leaving Chile. But nothing else.

Finally, we drive on to Argentina. Thru the long tunnel at Paso Christo Redentor. On the other side, a signboard indicates that Argentina’s border control is still some 20km away. Ok, no idea how we’ll leave Chile legally. Principally we wouldn’t mind – except that we plan to return later to Chile.

On the way a look at Aconcagua. With 6960m the highest mountain in South America. True, looks like you definitely need waterproof sneakers to get up.

We reach the Argentinian border post. A huge building, just a few cars, all trucks have disappeared. No idea where they’ve gone.

Finally, we learn that we’re at an Argie-Chili joint border post. The Chili’s just forgot to tell this to anybody.

The whole bureaucrazy takes less than 30′ – and we’re officially out of Chile, and allowed to stay for 3 months in Argentina; Prado even for 9 months.

Another 200km to reach Mendoza. Thru a very arid but colorful landscape.

Late afternoon we arrive in Mendoza. Find a mediocre apartment in the center – crying for maintenance and an intense spa.

Then as usual when arriving in Argentina the Western Union-run: Today we’re lucky, already the 2nd agent has money to pay out. 

Finally, the well-deserved beer. They have a fantastic collection of artisan beers, pretty cheap after the visit to Western Union.

Mendoza: world famous. Maybe not the town itself. Rather the adjacent valleys with their vineyards. Definitely, among the best wines, you can buy. And this is probably the reason for the town’s flourishing tourism industry. Consequently, you can find some of the most expensive sleeperies and eateries in Argentina. And definitely, the poshest and most overprized tours to visit 1 or 2 bodegas with something to munch. Just imagine these guys even calculate for foreigners double the price of the locals by only considering the official dollar rate. Nowhere else we could see this malpractice before. Thus, beware of them.

Coming from Chile we’re astonished at how green the town is. Trees everywhere – what a difference to Chile’s concrete jungle.  As well, we’re astonished at how open’n’friendly the Argies are. And how posh are many of the shops. Even if it’s nearly impossible to find any good quality products. Somewhere Argentina’s continuous economic crisis leaves its traces.  

No need to repeat, nobody comes to Mendoza for its outstanding sights. It’s all about the vineyards. 

We head for Maipú. The gateway to Mendoza Valley. Well, maybe just to mention all these valleys are pretty flat. In other parts of the world, they would be considered plains. But who wants to visit vineyards in the flats?

We head for Bodega Santa Julia. Said to be the largest producer of organic wine in the Mendoza flats.

And not too complicated to book a tour thru their premises.

Thus, we’re some 15 visitors learning how they convert odd grapes into excellent wine. True, some parts of their processing units look like the machinery to produce chemical weapons – not organic wine. 

Finally, we head for the most important: their wine tasting.

And then – we leave the bodega with a few bottles in a bag.

Well guys, think that’s enough for today. Thanx for reading the whole post. But now you definitely deserve a glass or 2 of wine. Just check your cellar for a Malbec from the Mendoza flats.



Crossing Atacama Desert, North Chile
Out of the Desert to the Lakes, Argentina