The initial impression of Santiago, Chile, one year after the earthquake, is of a well-maintained and well-organized city whose infrastructure is excellent. The airport was extremely well maintained, looked new in fact, and customs was efficient. (Unfortunately, US visitors need to pay a $140 tax upon entry, good for the validity duration of your passport.) The roads are well paved. New skyscrapers are under construction and a new park along the river is being landscaped. It’s not surprising to observe this, however, as Chile may have the best economy in South America. (It also has a very high literacy rate of about 98%.)
The steep ascent to the top of Cerro San Cristobal (by car, thank you -- as this is a popular climb for cyclists) provided fabulous views across the city. The mountains surrounding the city cause an inversion layer and during our fall (May) visit, the smog was quite noticeable. A funicular is available for those without wheels. Back in town we wandered about the heavily populated Plaza de Armas, where artisans had set up their booths. We visited the impressive Spanish cathedral and the Presidential Palace nearby.
We took a full day trip from Santiago to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, stopping for a winery visit enroute at Matetic winery. The drive to Valparaiso from Santiago takes about an hour and a half. The winery is located on a huge estate along the Casablanca wine route, and includes a charming seven-room hotel, La Casona, surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds, and a fine dining restaurant, Equilibrio, where we enjoyed plateatu, a dish featuring beef cooked in a clay oven, with a side of mashed potatoes infused with smoked chiles. Matetic is the only 100% organic winery in Chile, and uses a herd of sheep to weed the vineyards and chickens to pick at worms and pests. An overnight stay or two at La Casona would be delightful, and the winery employs a couple of folks to manage excursions on the estate, including hiking, rafting and horseback riding. Matetic has two wine makers, one for each of its brands, EQ and Corralillo.
Valparaiso, on the ocean, was undoubtedly an impressive city in its heyday. But those days are gone, buildings are fading, the city streets not as well kept, and graffiti artists are taking over parts of the town as their canvas. Concepcion Hill, above the city, is a fascinating residential area of windy streets, numerous hostels, and boutiques.
Nearby Valparaiso is the more upscale beach resort of Vina del Mar. The Sheraton commands an impressive location with all rooms facing the ocean, and the Hyatt is breaking ground for a beach resort here. Off season, Vina del Mar was pretty quiet.
While cruise lines dock at Valparaiso, and it's a colorful city to explore, I'd consider a visit out to wineries instead of hanging about town. Need help? Contact one of our South American travel experts.