I was well rested when my guide from EcoChile, Daniel, arrived to pick me up for a day in the wine region near Santiago as well as a side trip to the coast to see the UNESCO heritage site of Valparaiso.
Daniel turned out to be a hoot. A bit of a hippey who insisted upon entering the car that I try mate (pronounced mata). It is a type of tea, which is prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate in hot water and is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow gourd. It has high concentrations of caffeine and is apparently the young peoples’ alternative to coffee in these parts. Let me just say that one sip was enough and will stay with me for the rest of my life. Good God! It is impossible to describe how bitter this crap was. (Think bitter beer face if you remember the commercials).
With it firmly established that I was not going to be sharing the mate, Daniel stopped to get me a couple bottles of water and with that we were off on a Sunday morning headed to the Casablanca Valley and Emiliana Vineyard.
The terrain changed quickly from a city surrounded by the Andes, to one of rolling hills and farmland. In less than an hour we were pulling off the freeway and driving down a long narrow road and turning into Emiliana Vineyards.
Daniel and I hung out on the terrace and waited for my 11:30 tour to start. Turns out we were a small group (9 of us) and in for a bit of a treat. Normally the wine tasting is only 3 wines, but we were selected that day to taste 5 of their reserve wines. Uh fine by me!
Our guide met us and proceeded to give and overview and history. Emiliana Vineyards is one of the only organic and biodynamic vineyards in Chile. What is biodynamic you ask … good question because I had not idea either, but it essentially means 100% self sustaining. In other words, all of the fertilizer was produced at the vineyard, all of the invasive plants and insects are eliminated from whatever is grown or lives at the vineyard.
Emiliana was purchased as a conventional vineyard. It takes four years to turn a conventional vineyard into an organic vineyard,which Emiliana (certified according to some Swiss convention). It later was certified bio-dynamic under a separate German convention. As part of the process of becoming bio-dynamic, the owners of Emiliana brought in organic cows and alpacas (for fertilizer), chickens and guinea hens (who eat an invasive beetle popular in the area) and planted all sorts of compatible plants that help feed the soil (including lots of olive trees).
While we learned about the history of Emiliana, we walked the vineyard. There were hen houses, ponds, rows of various herbs and plants that were increasing the nitrogen in the soil, olive trees everywhere, alpacas in the pen behind the winery and of course chickens and guinea hens running all over the place. I figured these birds had won the lottery. They had no threat of being made into dinner, had the run of the vineyard and were fed the best organic feed available. All they had to do was wander up and down the grape plantings and eat bettles. Gesh. What a gig!
Anyway, after the fabulous tour, we took our seat around the bar and tasted 5 different wines. A sauvignon blanc, a chardonay, a pinot noir, a wine named Coyama – by far the best of the day, which is probably why I remembered the name, and a wine named Ge (which was allegedly their best wine and could be bought at the bar for the equivalent of $20 per glass – in my opinion – MEH.)
We had some lovely cheese and crackers with the wines, I chatted with a pretty cool couple from France – he from Marseille, she from Strassborg. Anyway, after drinking the half full glass pours, I was ready for a nap … but it was on to Valparaiso.
The drive to Valparaiso took us to the west through some heavily forested areas sprinkled with Chilean palm trees (seriously. We reached the cost about 45 minutes after leaving Emiliana. The first think you notice as you approach Valparaiso is the colourful homes built up the hillside and overlooking the water. (it was actually fabulous to see the homes still standing after so many parts of Valparaiso were destroyed by fires that tore through many of the hillside home areas last year during devastating summer fires (actually one year ago this month).
Now a little bit about Valparaiso. The city is considered Chile’s cultural capital and a major port for the country. The unique characteristic of Valparaiso is that the homes are built on the hillsides while the economic center is far below at the base of the hillsides. As a result, the city constructed a series of funiculars all around the city making for easy access from the hillsides down to the business district below.
The town was packed with tourists (it is summer here, so everyone is on holiday), so it took us a while to find a parking spot. We finally found one on the street only to be met by a woman in an orange safety vest who proceeded to direct us into the spot. She was the most animated “parking attendant” I have ever seen, gesturing and yelling and then more gesturing. We finally parked to her satisfaction, Daniel paid her some money and off we went. I then learned that she had no official position for parking, but was one of many people who simply stand on the street and coordinate parking as well as keep an eye on the vehicles. (Apparently car prowling is a big industry in Valparaiso.) I’d love to see someone start doing the parking thing on the streets of Seattle. They would last about 5 minutes. before they were (1) ticketed and/or (2) hauled off to jail. Less regulations really do make it fun!
Anyway, we wandered around the main square (Plaza Sotomayer) before deciding to head for some lunch. We found a divey, local joint away from the tourist crowds. I proceeded to order my first empanada (a pastry filled with a variety of fillings – I had the shrimp and cheese) along with a lovely local fish and salad. Empanadas are a Chilean favorite and they are sold literally everywhere. It was very good, although I am not sure I understand the fuss. (The highlight of lunch, however, might have been the owner’s cat who proceeded to sit at the bar, stare at the patrons, stretch, sleep, and lay on its back all without leaving the bar stool.)
After lunch, it was time for a ride on a funicular. Now I have been on these cool contraptions all over the world (they are essentially an open air elevator that rides on wires up the side of hills (at an angle not straight up). However, this particular funicular was something else. It creaked,shook and groaned going up the hill. Even the locals were making nervous jokes. Yikes. Anyway, we made up to the top of the Cerro Alegre and proceeded to walk the Paseo Yugoslav, a scenic street at the top of this hill.
The streets were very narrow, but perhaps the most surprising thing was the most of the buildings were heavily influenced by British architecture. HUH? Where’s the Spanish influence? I learned that this area of Chile was heavily settled by the Brits and Germans hence the difference in the architecture from other areas of Chile Who knew? The other cool feature was all the street art on the buildings. It was stunning.
Anyway, after an hour of walking around, we went back down the funicular (again we made it) and walked over to the waterfront to take in a local band that was playing. The band was comprised of four men who carried these large drums and had a string attached from their leg to symbol an their head. They were performing a traditional Chilean folk dance that imitates the mating ritual of a rooster and chicken. Seriously. It was actually pretty freakin’ amazing how good it was.
After the dance was over, it was time to head back. And how lucky were we …. Sunday evening heading back to Santiago from the coast … Yep major traffic. What should have been a quick hour and a half took almost two and half hours. Gesh. But no matter. Daniel delivered me back to the hotel just in time for me to grab a quick bite to eat and watch the sun set over the park. Perfect Day!