Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Colchagua Valley

During the September 18 Fiestas Patrias last year, we decided to take a train to the Valle de Colchagua. Several of Chile's central valleys have been given over to vineyards, and the Colchagua Valley in particular has gained international renown due to some award-winning wines that have begun to emerge in recent years from this region. September in Colchagua is the last month of winter, and during the first day of our stay we had overcast skies and cool weather. Also, being the end of the rainy season, we were able to enjoy the valley at one of its greenest times of the year. Much like southern and central California, for many months of the year, central Chile receives very little rain, and as a result the valleys, hills and mountains are rarely as green as they are at the end of winter.

Conversely, being the very beginning of the agricultural season, the vineyards themselves were still barren of leaves. As the progressively drier spring and summer wear on in this part of Chile, the landscape changes from green to golden, and ultimately, brown. At the same time, the irrigated basins of Chile's valleys stay a radiant green, ultimately producing much of the fruit that the rest of the world enjoys throughout the northern winter.

Central Chile, bounded by the Cordillera de los Andes to the East, the Atacama Desert to the North, Patagonia to the South, and the Pacific Ocean to the West, enjoys what may be a unique natural isolation compared to any other agricultural zone in the world. Due to this, many of the pests and diseases that have ravaged various types of grapes and other produce have never been able to reach this part of the world. Now that the country is ever more open to global trade, Chilean customs officials work very hard to prevent foreign agricultural products from entering the country, even those brought in by tourists arriving across borders by air or land. As a result, there is for example a variety of grape known as Carménère, which was almost completely devastated decades ago in its native France by a type of fly and is now almost exclusively produced in Chile.

The first vineyard we visited was, as you can see, Viu Manent. We've visited vineyards before, and to a certain extent, once you've toured a vineyard and seen the various stages in the wine making process, the information you receive on subsequent tours will start to become a bit repetitive. That said, each visit to different vineyards during our time here in Chile has continued to hold our interest and reveal more to us about the subtleties of different methods and scales of production. Every vineyard is unique not only in its wine-making practices, but also in the treatment of the tourists who come to visit.

Vineyards are large places, necessarily occupying many hectares in order to grow enough grapes for commercial production. So how to provide a close-up look for tourists of both your facilities and your fields, especially if they are located far apart on your estate? One solution several vineyards have adopted is to plant a selection of vines bearing all of your different varieties of grapes in one place for tourists to see and sample conveniently. Others, like Viu Manent, have found another way. If you have to move people across a long distance, why not move them in style?

Rather than show you the fermentation tanks and barrel room of Viu Manent, I'll refer you to the experience we had in the Cachapoal Valley. After all, while there are difference in production methods, barrels and tanks end up looking much the same. What is always distinctive in each vineyard, however, is the tasting of the finished product. From the presentation of the wine to the wine itself, it's always a joy to sample a bit of the wine that you've been learning about during the tour, and to afterwards, to select a few choice bottles to take home with you as well.

Another treat inherent in the visit to a vineyard is the fact that you are exploring what is, in essence, an expansive rural estate, often graced by historic buildings and the beautiful landscapes that are synonymous with the Mediterranean climate necessary for good wine production. Modern vineyards, while embracing the technology associated with commercial wineries, also invariably have one foot firmly planted in the past. From vines cultivated over the course of decades to wines aged in the controlled climate of a good cellar, the wine making process is steeped in time.

We'll save the rest of our trip for another post. Until the next time!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Last stop: Piriápolis

No trip to the South American Atlantic coast would be complete without a trip to the beach. Sure, Colonia and Montevideo had beaches, too. But both of those cities have plenty of other attractions to lure you away from the seaside. It's something else to go to a town where the beach itself is the reason to be there.

By the time we got around to visiting a resort town like Piriápolis, the weather wasn't very beach-worthy. To be honest, though, we didn't mind too much. With a few exceptions, the majority of the travels we've taken over the years have not tended to include the beach so much. We've instead favored historic and cultural destinations for the most part. When we do choose to head for the sand, however, the first choice is typically far from coastlines crowded with people and highrise hotels. In fact, the fewer people, the better. Better to walk that ever-shifting line where land meets sea, and to feel a little closer to nature, rather than being too close for comfort to waterskis and speedboats.

That said, it was nice to take a stroll through the yacht harbor, a short walk around the bay from the beach. While I'll probably never spend much time on one, I won't deny the attraction of a ship at sail, or the way a view over the sea from land is somehow completed by the sight of sailboats cutting their way gracefully through the water. Most likely because the weather wasn't conducive to it, we didn't see any ships out on the water while we were there. In fact, quite a few of yachts in this harbor were out of the water and sitting up on blocks. I began to wonder how often these boats got used at all.

Across from the harbor was a chair lift leading to the top of a hill overlooking the town and the surrounding coast.

It was starting to look like rain! Despite the ominous skies, you can get a feel for both the smallness of the resort town, with only about 8,000 permanent residents, and the beauty of the surrounding forests and hills. I imagine the beach packs out quite a bit more on sunny days, but even then, Piriápolis has been eclipsed by the popularity of nearby Punta del Este. There, you've got your beachfront hotel skyrises, bronzed beachgoers, all-night clubs, and high-speed watersports. I have no doubt that it's exciting, if you like the energy of crowded beaches. What can I say? Secluded beaches are much more my thing. Thankfully, there are still as many of those as there are places like Miami Beach and Punta Cana.

The view over the other side of the hill. If you zoom in closely, far off on the horizon, you can see the tall buildings poking up from the peninsula of Punta del Este.

What goes up, must come down. The chair lift was, naturally, a round-trip ticket. Also featured, a view of the harbor, and a better perspective of the boats of various sizes/levels of ambition.

What a long day! The rambla, the picturesque Hotel Colonia with wooded hillside in the distance, slender palm trees, and, if you look closely, a modern white hotel with a cluster of solar panels on the roof. Not that they would be doing much on a day like this.

A close-up look at the Argentino Hotel, completed in 1930, by Francisco Piria, the founder for whom the town was named. Judging from the name of the hotel, Uruguay in the 1930's was as much a destination for vacationing Argentines as it is today. It's still in operation today, but with the rain starting to fall, we didn't take the time to inquire how much it cost for a room.

Besides, we had our own place to stay, a two bedroom house with a comfortable patio complete with a quincho for outdoor grilling. We didn't get a tan, but Piriápolis made for a relaxing experience on the green, tranquil and scenic Uruguayan coast. It was the end of a trip that included several busy days of visiting the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as well as the historic town of Colonia. Ahead of us lay a bus ride back to Colonia, a trip on the ferry across the Río de la Plata to Buenos Aires, and finally a flight across South America, through the turbulent air over the Cordillera de los Andes, and finally landing in Santiago. But for the time being, we were very much enjoying the peace and quiet of Piriápolis.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Unwinding in Montevideo

In addition to the time we spent in Colonia, we made a point to visit Uruguay's capital city of Montevideo. We found accommodations in the beachfront neighborhood of Punta Carretas, a quiet, residential area at the city's southernmost tip. In fact, if you look at the photo above, the thin vertical line next to the palm trees on the horizon is a lighthouse. It lies at the end of a narrow peninsula where the city ends and the Atlantic begins.

Turning to face the city, you see that mid-rise apartment buildings have come to dominate the oceanfront property. Head a block inland and this ambitious construction quickly gives way to one- and two-story homes, but walk in either direction along the city's long, winding rambla and you'll find these ten-floor buildings to be a constant feature.

Despite the number of these buildings along the coast, and the fact that many of them must be given over to vacation rental, Montevideo was the one destination on this trip where we ended up staying in a private room in a hostel rather than a rented apartment.

For most of the time I've traveled in South America, whenever I've visited a new place - whether alone or more recently, with family - staying in a hostel had always been my favorite way to spend the night. Being able to cook up a few meals in the shared kitchen is a great way to save money on the road, and inevitably, you'll end up meeting some interesting characters as well.

But as time has gone on, we've learned that for about the same price per night in a private room in a hostel, you can rent an apartment in most cities. This was an accidental discovery made during our trip to Bariloche the year before, but once we saw the benefit of the space and privacy of a temporary apartment rental, it's quickly become our preferred accommodation away from home.

For whatever reason, however, as I was contacting people while we were still in Buenos Aires, in anticipation of our stay in Montevideo, I had a hard time pinning anyone down on the phone. The only person I managed to get in touch with and make a reservation was the owner of a hostel. What we got was a room in an old house two blocks from the beach, not so bad!

With the exception of a young man from Córdoba, Argentina and an older woman from Buenos Aires, all our fellow guests were from Chile, despite the fact that Chile is much further away. Evidence perhaps of the direction the fleeting winds of economic prosperity have been blowing in recent years. Interestingly, none of the Chileans batted an eye at the higher prices to be found in Uruguay, while both of the Argentines were incredulous. Indeed, a visit to a restaurant or supermarket revealed most food to be about double the price of what we'd seen in Argentina.

Our second day in the city was spent in the urban center. What we found was a peaceful downtown, with quiet streets, orderly commerce, and - with some notable exceptions - modest architecture compared to what we've seen in Buenos Aires or even Santiago. Montevideo has always lived in the shadow of Buenos Aires across the Río de la Plata. Maybe as a result, the people of Montevideo are a laid-back bunch. While sharing a virtually identical accent with their Argentine neighbors, and steeped in a history deeply connected with that of Argentina, the pace of life here is decidedly slower.

In a place where even the top politicians intermingle with the public in the street with little fanfare, the Uruguayan people generally seem to ignore pretense and just get on with their daily business. That said, Uruguay has been in the news of late, with President José Mujica making headlines for his unassuming lifestyle, living on a flower farm with his wife rather than the Presidential Palace and driving his old VW Beetle. And more recently, Uruguay seems set to become the first country in South America to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Uruguay had long caught my attention as being the home of one of my favorite writers in Spanish, Eduardo Galeano. As we roamed the streets of Montevideo during our short visit, I did a double take in the direction of every bald-headed man I saw, hoping I might have the luck to cross paths with the author of the first books in Spanish I managed to decipher.

While I never saw Mr. Galeano, I did plenty of double takes. Uruguay has a small population with a low rate of growth, meaning an aging populace, and lots of bald heads. That notwithstanding, here we see the next generation of Uruguayans casually soaking up some fine literary tradition during their summer break.

Of course, no visit to Montevideo would be complete without a visit to the Plaza Independencia and the Palacio Salvo. Far and away the city's most iconic landmark, the Palacio Salvo is one of South America's original skyscrapers. At 100 meters in height and with its distinctive architectural flourish, it stood as the continent's tallest building for many years. Today, some lucky citizens even call it home.

The man on horseback is José Artigas, a native to Montevideo turned gaucho (read: South American cowboy). He became something akin to the George Washington of Uruguay. He helped battle both the Spanish and the British as South America began to assert its political independence, and later was instrumental in carving out the Uruguayan identity as separate and independent from what would become Argentina.

As I reflect on our days in Montevideo, I can't help but think that we peeled back very little of the surface of this understated city. While it may never equal the excitement and energy of Buenos Aires or the tropical beauty of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo is quietly waiting to be discovered. The patient traveler who spends the time to fully explore this well-organized and comfortable capital city of 1.8 million is bound to be rewarded for his effort. With some luck, another trip to this part of South America will be in our future.