I didn't have the time to blog over the holidays while I was in South America (not enough WiFi and too much wine), but wanted to write some highlights from the trip and provide suggestions for those planning a holiday to Chile and Argentina.
The Boyfriend really wanted to stay at the Ritz Carlton and we were able to get an incredible "locals" rate of $150 a night, so it was hard to provide a compelling argument for the Holiday Inn. After spending three nights there, he was right -- it is totally worth it. The service was unlike anything I've experienced in North America. From knowing our names upon arrival (I still haven't figured out how they did this, as we arranged our own car service from the airport), to the incredible rooftop gym and pool, to the Christmas room entirely made out of gingerbread, to the car rental agency they provided who came to the hotel and conducted all the contracts/ payment in the comfort of the hotel lounge.
Unlike North America, for the most part, you cannot just show up at a winery or fine dining restaurant and expect to get in. I'm unsure if this is for security, desire for orderliness (um, likely not), or some other factor I have yet to discern. This would have been fine if The Boyfriend would have let me plan our itinerary down to the half hour in advance of our departure. However he was adverse to my pre-scheduling, laminated itineraries (see the Darjeeling Limited) and wanted to wing it, and thus we only had a handful of advance bookings.
This actually proved to only be an impediment to visiting wineries, many of whom have irregular/odd hours (closed on Mondays in Chile and Fridays in Argentina). Or if they are open, good luck getting past the security if you're not on the list -- armed guards are everywhere (even the Starbucks, though of course no reservations are required there). It did, however, result in us visiting some very cool / not your normal tourist trap places.
Besides the "no reservations" issue, my top 10 things that were unexpected: 2) It's not inexpensive like Mexico. Food and wine for the most part were almost comparable to North American prices. 3) The level of customer service however was outstanding. At one awesome new Chilean-fusion restaurant, Tierra Noble, recommended by our concierge we had about 6 people helping us, including one guy who made a dressing of our choosing at our table. 4) The portions are also huge. Even in fine dining establishments, you get "American-sized" dishes (i.e. in the picture above that huge slab of food on my plate is ahi tuna not meat!) 5) Dinner is at 9. No one eats before 8. If you find a place that's open at 6/7 pm (like we did), it will be empty. We quickly adapted -- eat a late breakfast/lunch! 6) There's no Chilean sea bass in Chile. Off-season? Over-fished like the cod in the Maritimes? I don't know, but I couldn't find it on any menus.
Chile far surpassed my expectations. 7) Santiago (or at least the part we were in) was cleaner than Vancouver -- other than the air pollution -- and 8) with a better transit and highway system than in BC! 9) The architecture is an interesting juxtaposition of old Spanish colonial buildings and modern soaring skyscrapers.
10) The biggest surprise for me is that Chilean wine doesn't suck. I admit I'm a bit of a wine snob and guess I had only previously had the kind of cheap Chilean reds that cause wicked headaches after one glass and would be better suited for use as Sangria (if even that). We tried numerous fabulous Cab Savs, Carménères, and Syrahs (to name a few) and they were excellent. Our favorite, VIÑA NEYEN DE APALTA Espíritu de Apalta Colchagua Valley. Turns out Wine Spectator has a similar assessment, giving their 2003 a 90 point rating :)
Snow capped Andes, not so much
We decided to take a bus from Santiago to Mendoza which is only a 6 hour drive through the Andes versus a multi-leg flight to Buenos Aires (or BA) and then doubling back to Mendoza. I had been told the ride is breathtaking and was expecting something similar to the gorgeous scenery of the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. Well, the Andes are certainly big, but there's no snow (it was summer) and they're very desolate. Not a tree, bush animal or human to be found. It was just eerily barren. That being said, it's worth taking the trip from a time and cost savings (only $20!) perspective versus flying. I'd love to see it in the winter, when I assume it's draped in snow and fun to snowboard.
Overall we loved our visit, the friendly people, and the good food and wine and we can't wait to go back to explore more of the country including the wine regions of the Colchagua Valley, Viña del Mar, and Casablanca.
More postings to come on our time in BA, our stay at Villa Cecilla, and on wine touring in Maipó Alto & Mendoza...