Our flight back from Chile was through Buenos Aires giving us a perfect opportunity for a weekend stopover. Many people had waxed lyrical about the delights of the city so expectations were fairly high. We arrived early evening after a day time flight from Atacama1 and arranged to meet some friends (also en route back to the UK) for dinner. This was at 10pm, the normal dining hour for locals, but the evening was warm so it was perfectly comfortable to sit outside on a pavement table and watch the world go by, while they brought us juicy steaks that filled the plate, and the conversation flowed as freely as the excellent Malbec.
Our hotel served breakfast until 11am at the weekend which was exceptionally civilised and allowed us to recover from our late evening. We then set out to explore Buenos Aires properly. Sadly our first wanderings were less successful than the previous night’s dinner as we found ourselves walking down the equivalent of London’s Oxford Street on a Saturday, and then through another neighbourhood with some potentially impressive 19th Century architecture that had sadly gone rather shabby and gave us a rather down-at-heel impression of the city. The free guided tour of the Casa Rosa (home to the executive branch of the government) was quite interesting and featured some spectacular interiors, but we returned to our hotel room having walked quite a long way and not particularly enthused for the city’s daytime attractions. Fortunately the evening was once again excellent with a trip to a hip cocktail bar hidden in the basement of a flower shop.
The next morning a closer reading of the guide book suggested the direction we had taken the previous day had been a mistake and the highlights were in the chic neighbourhood of Recoleta and the grungy but hip San Telmo. This proved to be correct as we enjoyed a morning walking through spotless streets with lovely buildings in Recoleta, finishing up at a pleasant craft fair. The astounding architecture and flamboyance on display in La Recoleta cemetery was also fascinating, like a bizarre miniature city. To get to San Telmo we walked through the recently redeveloped Puerto Madero with its shiny skyscrapers, and also part of the bio-reserve to see pampas grass, which also made for a lovely change after pounding so many streets. Puerto Madero has a well regarded art gallery (including a room-sized Turner) in a reportedly stunning modern building but we were keen to press on to San Telmo so decided to save that for a future visit.
San Telmo was a complete change of atmosphere from the monied chic of Recoleta and the gleaming modernity of Puerto Madero. The buildings were more well-worn than old, but charming, and the narrow streets bustled with stalls and buskers. There were plenty of other tourists who added to the friendly energy that had been missing from the soul-less streets we had walked the previous day. The reason we had skipped the art gallery earlier in the day is that we knew San Telmo’s main square hosted a famous weekly neighbourhood tango event, known as a milonga, on Sundays and this would be our best chance to catch it. This was great fun to watch and meant we felt we had experienced this very Argentine activity without the hard work (and embarrassment!) of actually taking tango lessons.
Having eaten steak two nights in a row, we opted for a simple (but excellent) pizza to restore us after a long day of walking and exploring. It had taken us two attempts, but having discovered the charms of Buenos Aires, we will definitely look forward to another visit.
The Santiago to Buenos Aires part was on a Dreamliner which lived up to its impressive hype for comfort. [back]
We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after dark so did not get a sense of the place until the next morning when our first view upon leaving the hotel was of a snow capped volcano cone. The town is 2400m above sea level, and the volcanoes much higher, but it still seemed slightly incongruous to see snow so close when the sun was so fiercely hot and the landscape so dry and dusty. The town itself is tiny: a tree-lined main square boasts three cafés with outside tables and then everything else the many tourists and backpackers could want can be found along a single street leading away from the square.
Our first expedition was a sunset tour to see Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The name comes from the salt deposits left behind from evaporating water giving the surface a white glaze, and thus an other-worldly look. There was also a Mars valley of great red rock, and the guide told some good stories about why the area is supposed to be a centre of energy and other unexplained happenings. However with so many volcanoes in the vicinity a ‘rain of fire’ is an all too likely occurrence! The tour concluded with a fabulous sunset turning the white volcano cones a beautiful pink colour.
The Atacama has ideal conditions for astronomical observations with many of the world’s top research telescopes based here. This was immediately obvious to the naked eye with constellations that are hard or impossible to see at home being so clearly defined here as to practically leap out of the sky at you. Orion was a particularly good example of this. The fact that some stars are distinctly red in colour was also very obvious here. Stargazing tours are offered from the town but we read that the full moon in a few nights time meant that our first night was our only option to take one.
At 11pm we were dropped off at an open-air observation area just outside town and introduced to our guide, Jared, who had two 1.5m long telescopes set up for us to use. He gave an excellent explanation of how stars form, why some are red, and why some (appear to) twinkle. He then had us observe some examples of common types of star, as well as a superb close up of the moon and explained how the differing rates of magma cooling caused its alternating grey and white colour palette. We concluded with a look at Jupiter and Saturn, which the telescope turned from bright white spots indistinguishable from stars to objects that were very recognisable, complete with their stripes and rings!
The popularity of Chilean wine in Britain meant no trip to Chile could be complete without a visit to a vineyard for a tasting. Santiago is wonderfully placed within the Central Valley region with easy access to many wineries. When planning the trip we knew we would be hiking in the Andes the day before so chose to have a lazy morning and then an afternoon visit to Concha y Toro in Pirque on the outskirts of Santiago—an easy 50 minute metro plus £3 taxi ride from our lodgings.
Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in South America, so we were not expecting a boutique tasting experience but Pirque is not only a magnificent setting with the Andes rising up in the distance but also where the company started in 1883. Visitors are taken on an interesting tour covering the history as well as some lovely gardens the original Señor Concha y Toro installed to appease his wife who did not want a view of vines from the house. The original 19th century cellar is also on the tour, the 15°C naturally maintained by being underground, and also the actual Casillero del Diablo (Devil’s Locker) which gives its name to one of their most iconic brands. The story behind this name is revealed on the tour but I will not spoil it here. A unique aspect of the tour I have not experienced before was the varietal garden—13 vines of the most popular grapes of each colour laid out for us to wander through and compare, and because it is harvest season there were whole bunches of grapes on the vine that we were allowed to pick and taste.
After wandering in the gardens we were invited into a shady terrace to taste (a generous) glass of Casillero del Diablo sauvignon blanc. With the mercury in the mid-twenties, a hot sun, and a backdrop of vines and mountains, this was lovely and refreshing, with just the right amount of zing. Later on we tasted a more expensive Terrunyo sauvignon blanc but that was trying a little too hard to distinguish itself from the crowd and I preferred the cheaper one. The other two wines included in the tour were the Marques de Casa Concha carménère and Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Cabernet Sauvignon which we were able to enjoy in a pretty tree-shaded courtyard.
We had arrived early for our tour with the intention of having lunch first but upon arrival they bumped us up to a earlier tour. Hunger kicked in as we finished our reds but the same courtyard has a lovely food menu so we ordered some tasty traditional Chilean food and settled in for a relaxing afternoon in the shade with our tasting glasses. Our tour had been a friendly eight people but some of the late afternoon tours seemed to be almost bus party sized so we were glad of our early slot. Overall it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon and it was nice knowing that anything we tasted and really liked can likely be easily obtained at home instead of having to make a hard decision about which one or two standout bottles to lug about with us for the rest of the holiday.