A tour is like soup. It isn’t just one component that makes the soup taste good but a mixture of the right ingredients that separates vegetable water from a traditional Chilean conger eel chowder (Caldillo Congrio). It’s the same thing with tourist tours. It takes a mixture of things to create a deliciously memorable and fun adventure. Just like tours aren’t for everybody, soup isn’t either. Some lack substance, some lack flavor and some just suck. Here’s how Viator and their partners concocted just the right ingredients to provide my father and I with a great trip to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar on the Chilean coast.
First, start with the broth: Everything starts with a good tour guide. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, ours was patiently waiting outside as my father and I stumbled off the elevator and through the big sliding doors of theW Hotel just a bit past 9am. The early morning pick-up was a challenge for two night owls but the brisk Santiago air and warm greeting from our guide Margarita got us both moving. We piled into a big white van and Margarita introduced us to our driver who looked about as awake and ready as Dad and I. We got ourselves situated in the comfortable bucket seats and with a wave to the cute concierge from the van window, we were off.
With Magarita taking the first few minutes to explain the plan for the day, my curiosity quickly took over and I never looked back. Being in Chile for only a short time I wanted to absorb as much information as possible from this tour and she handled the barrage of questions incredibly. We talked about everything from the Pisco battlewith Peru to Chile’s World Cup scouting report. She had an amazing knowledge of her country’s history and current affairs in South America.
Next, throw in some spices: Although it took some time to get himself going, the driver turned out to be a great addition to the trip. Like a wild uncle or crazy sidekick, our quirky Chilean bus driver would throw in random facts and funny stories throughout the trip. He made a great Jerry Lewis to Margarita’s Dean Martin. As she would point out interesting monuments and government buildings, he would make sure we didn’t miss any cool graffiti or nice legs.
Now add the meat and potatoes: About half-way into our drive down to Valparaiso we made our first stop of the day. It was already almost 11am so why wouldn’t we start drinking wine? We pulled off the highway and onto an old dirt road leading up to the lavish grounds of the Veramonte Winery. The vineyard was painted with a beautiful blend of orange, yellow and red autumn leaves and inside was a well designed blend of wood furniture and stainless steel machines. Dad and I knocked down a few different types of whites and reds and moved on. The wine was delicious and their facilities were impressive. The truth is, I think I would have appreciated it even more if we didn’t just come from a weekend of drinking my weight in wine in Mendoza, Argentina. Either way, it was definitely a nice stop along the trip.
With wine in our system and questions still firing we were ready for the roller-coaster roads of Valparaiso. The city is cornered between the ocean and the mountains with simple, beautiful, multi-colored houses stacked on top of each other as they cascade down towards the sea.
One of the best views of the city is from the bedroom of the Pablo Neruda Museum. Pablo Neruda was a famous Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize and had a pretty sweet setup overlooking Valparaiso.
From Pablo’s pad we ventured back down the winding graffiti streets to a tram (teleferico) that took us up to another side of town. The ride itself wasn’t all that exciting but the view from the top was worth it. We all agreed that this would be the perfect spot to grab lunch so we found a restaurant that captured the view from its windows. With our stomachs full and my camera’s memory card not far behind, we rolled back into the van and headed off to Viña del Mar. It was a short 10-minute drive up the coast from Valparaiso to Viña del Mar but it seems like you’re leaving the country. Viña del Mar is more like a waterfront town you would find in Florida rather than Chile. It’s full of high-rise waterfront condos, hotels and shopping centers, however instead of white sandy beaches under the boardwalk, there are only giant rocks protruding from the water.
One of the really cool things about Viña del Mar however is that this is where the Chilean President has his “Camp David” so we got to cruise by that on our way out of town. Overall I think Dad favored the modern cleanliness Viña del Mar where as I dug the traditional edge of Valparaiso.
Bring in the secret ingredient: Maybe it’s an extra piece of meat at the bottom of the bowl or some veggies you didn’t know were included, but like a good soup any tour is improved with an extra touch or X-factor. For us, the wild card just happened to be the date. Our tour was on May 21 which is Día de las Glorias Navales(Navy Day) and we were in the center of all the naval festivities. May 21st is also the opening of ordinary Parliamentary season (through September 18, Independence Day) and is the traditional day for the President’s State of the Nation address. Just so happens newly elected Chilean President, Sebastián Piñera, was in Valparaiso on the same day giving his speech. So not only did we have to make our way around the death defying turns and cliffs of Valparaiso, but we also had to dodge police brigades and parade detours. That afternoon as we were leaving Viña del Mar we actually had to pull the van over to let the president and his entourage pass by.
Enjoy. It was at lunch where everything came together. As my father and I sat at a small table overlooking Valparaiso, the waiter proudly brought two piping hot bowls of Conger eel soup. It had a rich, buttery broth, traditional chilean spices and big, chunky pieces of fish and potatoes. We could see a parade coming down main street, cargo ships being loaded in the harbor and military vehicles positioning themselves for traffic across town. We had a great view of all the days events and just sat there soaking it all as the bread did the same.
We pulled back into the hotel that evening at around 6:30pm tired and happy. The tour, like the soup, was hearty, filling and rich in tradition. It was an amazing experience that opened our eyes to this incredible country and gave us a real taste of Chile beyond Santiago.
Special thanks to Viator, their partners and Margarita for making it all possible.