Bonding with Mimsa: Ten Things to do in and Around Santiago When You Think You´ve Already Done Everything Else….

     Neither my mother nor I seem to remember where the nickname Mimsa actually came from.  I vaguely recall it being an adaptation of the name Simba, the adorable cub in the Lion King.  I clearly remember falling in love with that movie and requesting the Elton John soundtrack tape ad nauseum on several years´ worth of family road trips.  Regardless of its origin, the name, Mimsa, has been the title of affection for my mother for a long time.  I am particularly grateful to her this past year, as she has spent a great deal of time with me in Santiago during the course of my treatment.  When I was first diagnosed, she flew down a few days later to be with me for my first three chemo sessions.  At that point I was frightened to death and had no idea how my body would react to the treatment or if I would pull through.  She visited again in April for my surgery, and I was again grateful because Jon needed to work and I needed help walking the dogs, dressing, and doing various other mundane things.  And lastly, she has been visiting for the past two weeks since Jon returned home to see his family and I continued with my radiation treatment.

     This last visit has been more of a mental health visit for me because I think I would have gone completely crazy from boredom and loneliness if I had been left here in Santiago with nothing to do but go to Clinica Alemana every day and huddle up on my couch afterwards under a blanket.  All my friends here have gone back to the states for the summer, so I would have been living like a hermit.  Having to undergo twenty-five straight days of radiation has forced my life into a somewhat “Ground Hog Day”-like pattern.    Every morning I wake up, take a shower, accompany the dogs to the park, and get in the car to drive the 3 kilometers down Amerigo Vespucio and up Avenida Vitacura to get to the clinic.  I pull the car into the underground parking and take my parking ticket.  I always park on the same floor and usually am able to find a parking spot easily.  If I am ever running behind, though, the parking lot is chock-a-block full and I end up spending at least ten minutes circling and circling, waiting for someone to leave.  I hustle to the radiation office on Piso -1 and wave hello to the same receptionist wearing the same neon green shirt and ruby red smile.  I sit myself down next to the same two patients I see every day and am called into the back almost immediately upon arrival.  I usually change in the same tiny, drab dressing room, turn the key in the lock and settle myself down on the machine.  I listen to the same radiation beams going about their cancer-killing business and attempt to think about anything and everything except radiation or cancer.  After the six minutes of treatment the attendants enter the room, tell me to “Baja tus brazos” and I hop off the table and turn to the attendant with a smile, “Solamente queda ____ días….”  Today I was happy when I was able to say “Only four days left!  Vamos a tener una fiesta!!!”

     To tell the truth, radiation hasn´t been so bad: Luckily I have not had very many reactions to the radiation: I feel only slightly fatigued, have no burns to speak of, and have been able to do most, if not all, of my daily activities. The only annoying thing is that it is a total pain in the butt to go in every day and do the same thing over and over and over again.  I will be very glad to be done with it.  I have to admit I am somewhat proud and a little shocked that my body has stood up so well to all the treatment.  Many people go through this same process with different results, so I really can´t complain much.  Granted, my body has taken its fair share of beatings, but on the whole, I feel pretty strong and healthy.  A year of inactivity has definitely changed my appearance, but I think that under the circumstances, I have held up fairly well.  I am, however, excited to start exercising for real again when the radiation is over.  I have six months to get myself into wedding dress shape.  We shall see.  If only my hair would grow a little bit faster….

       One of the side benefits of having all this time off from my regular life and having my mother come down to live with me is being able to spend quality time together.  We have labored over 1500 piece puzzles and daily NY Times crosswords.  We´ve laughed our heads off while answering ridiculous responses to the questions on my Family Feud App and spent a lot of time exploring Santiago and the surrounding area.  I think I mentioned previously that Santiago, itself, doesn´t have too many tourist attractions.  It is a fabulous city to live in and there are a number of really fun things to do if you hop in your car and drive for an hour or so in any direction.  However, I do believe that after these last two weeks, my mom and I have scraped the barrel clean in terms of finding anything worthy of doing or visiting within a three-hour radius of my house.  I feel both of us have become experts on the Región Metropolitano and Valle Central of Chile, so now I think I will impart that travelling wisdom onto all of you.  I guess if you never plan on visiting Chile or South America or dislike reading descriptions of travel destinations you can probably stop reading now.  But if you live here or ever think you might venture down this way, here are some sight-seeing recommendations.

     When people visit Santiago they normally stay for about two days and then head off to one of Chile´s other more famous regions of natural beauty like the lake district, Patagonia, or Atacama.  While in the city, they explore the Plaza de Armas, Palacio Moneda, the Mercado Central, Cerro Santa Lucia, and the Parque Forestal.  They also visit the Bellavista neighborhood and take the funicular up Cerro San Cristobal to see the Statue of Mary and get a birds-eye view of the city.  The latter is particularly spectacular at sunset or on a non-smoggy day when the snow-capped peaks of the Andes are in full view.  This quick romp through Santiago is usually accompanied by a visit to a winery, the Cajon del Maipo, and/or a trip to the coast: either Viña del Mar or Valparaiso. When visiting Santiago, you MUST do all of the above. 

   Of all these things above you would be remiss if you did not spend a few days and nights wandering around the hills of Valparaiso, the artsy port city located an hour and half west of the capital.  I have done a lot of travelling in my thirty years and Valpo is definitely one of my most favorite cities I´ve ever visited.  However, I urge you not to drive there for the day and look around.  The port area and business center of the city at the foot of the hills are pretty seedy, dirty, and might be a turn-off for visitors.  However, once you get up into the hills with the colorful homes, beautiful street murals, and views of the ocean, it is complete magic.  If you have been to Valparaiso and didn´t like it, please talk to me and I will tell you where you need to go, because it is simply an amazing city.  There is nothing else like it in the world!

     But, I digress: the list that follows is for those of you who have five days or so to stay in Santiago, or are returning on your second trip, or are living here and trying to find something to do on an empty weekend.  These things are not really listed in the guidebooks, and, if they are, they aren´t given more than a few lines of description.



Ten Hidden Gems of the Santiago Area:


1.    Casablanca Wine Valley-

     As you know, Jon and I love our wine and are both self-proclaimed foodies, so this is why this activity is listed as number one.  Unfortunately, when most people think of Chilean wine, they think of Concha y Toro.  It is by far the biggest and most well known Chilean winery.  We could even buy their Casillero del Diablo line in Dalian, China.  I´m not knocking Concha y Toro completely because, compared to Great Wall vinegar wine, it was fabulous, but there are much better vineyards to visit within an hour´s drive of the city.  The Casablanca Valley is definitely my and Jon´s favorite place to taste wine and it´s only about a 50 minute drive west on the Ruta 68 to Valaparaiso.  Most of the wineries are located just off the highway, and for most of them, you can stop in and do a tasting without making a reservation in advance and without having to do a tour of the property.  This is very rare in Chile…. 

Our favorite wineries in the area include the following:

Veramonte– The first one off the highway from Santiago.  Try their Sauvignon Blanc and their Primus blend.  Fabulous!  

Emiliana- This is an organic winery with a light and modern tasting room and llamas on the property.  Pretty much all of their wines are great but we particularly love their Coyam blend, the Signos de Origen White blend, and their surprisingly refreshing and dry Gewurstraminer (rare in Chile).

House- (previously House of Morande) This restaurant and tasting room, right next to Emiliana, serves delicious food and good wine and has a charming outdoor patio.  We recommend spending a few hours for lunch and doing the wine-pairing menu, which is totally fabulous, but will require someone to sober up before driving home.

Casas del Bosque– Beautiful winery off the highway, through the town of Casablanca.  They also have a decent restaurant with wine pairings and all of their wines are of high quality.  We thought about getting married here, but realized the flight to Chile was a little too expensive for all of our guests

Viña Matetic– This one is a little off the beaten path on the road to Algarrobo, and difficult to find, but worth it.  Their restaurant is fabulous and very scenic.  The wine is expensive and just okay (except the Coralillo Pinot Noir which is great!!) If you are willing to spend some serious bucks for a luxurious weekend getaway you can stay in their quaint boutique guest house (La Casona) which comes included with activities, wine tasting, access to their lovely outdoor pool, gardens, and fire-pits, as well as your very own private chef cooking you dinner

             *Honorable mentions go to:

Viña Indomita– with great views of the valley from high atop their hill., it has a ridiculous Hollywood style sign and tasting room that looks like a castle.  Despite the kitsch, it is a good place to have lunch if you like onion soup

Estancia el Cuadro- About twelve minutes off the highway, the drive there is scenic and tranquil, and its grounds are stunning.  It also offers horseback rides, a museum, and its All-You-Can drink, three course lunch is a great deal; although the food is not quite as good as the other restaurants mentioned

**If you want to visit all the wineries and spend the night I recommend Hotel Casablanca which is really cute and has a Jacuzzi shaped like a large, wooden wine barrel.  If you stay the night the only restaurant open for dinner in the area is Macerado which is a tasty, upscale restaurant in an old house in town.  The wine list includes small, boutique wines from the area and the food, especially the smoked rabbit and wild boar, is adventurous and top-notch.  

2.    Sewell-

     Sewell is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Chile only has 5 in total) and I am always shocked that more people haven´t heard of it. It is an old mining town high in the Andes outside of Rancagua.  You have to take a bus tour to visit and they only run on Saturdays and Sundays, weather permitting.   But the buses pick you up at Parque Arauco and another locale in Providencia, so it´s easy enough to get there.  The drive to the mining town is quite harrowing with hairpin turns and huge drop-offs on either side.  The town, itself, is rather reminiscent of the ghost towns of the western United States, except with shockingly high mountains on all sides.  I truly, have never seen anything like it, and it gives you a good feel of what life is like for the thousands of Chileans that make their living working in the country´s mines.  The only downfall is that the tours make you stop for a mediocre lunch at a country club afterwards and later take a tour of a local village where there´s seriously nothing to see… I recommend sleeping through that part. 

3.    Barrios Yungay, Concha y Toro, and Brazil –

The Spicy Chile tour group offers three different walking tours of Santiago.  If you are looking to hit the main sites of the city in one day I recommend taking their Good Morning Santiago Tour as it is free (with tips for the guide) and most of the guides are well informed and speak good English.  Their best tour of the three, however, is known as the Patrimonial Route, and it takes you through three barrios that you might not otherwise visit: Yungay, Concha y Toro, and Brazil.  These neighborhoods are unique, historic neighborhoods with old, European-style mansions and plenty of character and street art (a la Valpo).  The plazas are great and it was really interesting seeing the earthquake damage to many of the historic churches.  My favorite stop was the French peluqueria (hairdresser) in Yungay, which also houses a French restaurant with quirky antique furniture and knick-knacks on the walls.  An excellent way to spend an afternoon in the city, and I would love to go back and try the restaurant.


4.    Cachagua Beach-

Cachagua Beach is located between Maitencillo and Zapallar.  Zapallar is by far our favorite beach town to visit as it has a gorgeous cove of white sand with blue, blue water, amazing homes, and a scenic (but overrated) restaurant.  The hidden gem here is to visit Cachagua Beach, about 5 minutes south of the city by car.  The beach here is also stunning and very reminiscent of towns like Carmel and Pebble Beach along the Northern Californian coast.  I´m sure the houses are equally as expensive as it is where the rich and famous Chileans come to vacation.  The really fun thing to do is visit the penguin island, which is a few meters off the coast and, if you bring binoculars, you can see the hundreds of penguins that hang out along the island´s edge.  Apparently you are supposed to be able to ask local fishermen to float you out to the island to get a closer look, but I´ve been three times so far, and had no luck.   There is also a very scenic walkway along the rocks on the shore that is covered in beautiful flowers in springtime.  Idyllic is a good word to describe it. 


5.    Villa Grimaldi and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights-

   If you are interested in modern Chilean history, particularly what took place during the Pinochet dictatorship, you MUST visit these two places.  The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is in the city, on the edge of Parque Quinta Normal.  The museum is very thorough and has fascinating videos documenting the coup of 1973 against Salvador Allende and the bombing of La Moneda.  There are also several rooms containing testimony of those tortured in various hidden places throughout Chile during that time period and a moving display about the mothers of the desaparecidos. The museum finishes with some video clips of the NO campaign, the plebiscite that voted Pinochet out of office in 1988.  The movie, with the same title, was up for best foreign film, and is well worth a watch, especially if you are coming to visit.  The museum is quite large, however, and there is so much material that it is impossible to do in one visit.  I will definitely be back…

   Along the same vein, you can also visit Villa Grimaldi, which was one of the dictatorship´s torture centers located in the mountain town of Peñalolen in the suburbs of Santiago.  Although most of the buildings including the central villa and the prisoner cells were torn down, there is still a lot to see.  The grounds of the villa were converted into a Peace Park with many beautiful memorials to the victims and other symbolic elements that inform visitors of the awful events of the Pinochet era. 


6.    Cementario General-

     If you are interested in cemeteries – (I know, I know…. Super Uplifting!) then the large cemetery in Recoleta, on the other side of Cerro San Cristobal is definitely well worth your time.  My mom has a thing for visiting cemeteries, which I used to find kind of creepy, but can now understand due to their historical value.  Throughout the years we´ve trekked through graveyards in Athens, Paris, New Orleans, Deadwood, and Atacama together.  The Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires gets a lot of hype, but I truly think the one in Santiago is better for many reasons.  First of all, it´s HUGE and built like a city for the dead with wide, tree-lined avenues and huge mausoleums.  Pretty much anyone of note in Chilean history is buried in this cemetery so I found it quite interesting trying to spot their graves.  The website has a good map and you can search for specific people in order to find where they are located.  Most of all, the place is a great place for photo-ops!  Together, my mom and I have trekked through graveyards in Athens, Paris, New Orleans, Deadwood, and she said she has never seen one like Cementario General.


7.    Los Andes- 

     Los Andes is a small town at the foothill of the Andes, on the road to Portillo Ski Resort and Mendoza, Argentina.  If you ever get a chance to drive across the border to Mendoza, I highly recommend it; although don´t try to do it on a busy day during a holiday weekend or you will spend at least 6 hours at the border…  Anyway, Los Andes is worth a day visit because it has a cute Plaza de Armas and a scenic church in town, as well as a little-known Archaeological Museum with a nice, if ageing, display containing historic relics from the different regions of Chile.  The highlight is a 1600 year-old mummy and her baby, perfectly preserved her: she still has her original hair, clothes, and even toe nails!!!  I seriously think that one mummy, hidden away in a tiny museum, was worth the drive.  On the way home, you should stop at the Santuario de Santa Teresa de los Andes (Auco), a religious pilgrimage site for many in the region.  Despite the repetitious prayers being chanted at full blast by a monotonous voice through several loud speakers, the visit is pleasant.  Climb the hill behind the monastery to get amazing views of the snow-capped Andes and the entire Aconcagua Valley.  I think it would be especially amazing at sunset.

*The area also has several wineries including Errasuriz and Von Seibenthal, which I have not visited yet, but have heard good things about.  I am anxious to do the wine pairing meal at Errasuriz sometime in the next few months

8.    Quintay-

     There are many beach towns along the Chilean coast near Valparaiso, but I would like to highlight this one for it´s stunning scenery, authentic feel, and really interesting whaling station. My mom and I visited Quintay in conjunction with a trip to Isla Negra, Pablo Neruda´s home on the coast.  Isla Negra is already on many tourists´ radar for good reason, but it might not be worth a drive out just to see the house.  To have a full day of visits take the coastal road north from Isla Negra through El Quisco to Quintay.  Bordered by pine forest on one side and steep cliffs on the other, the drive rivaled the scenery of the Pacific Highway in California, yet we were practically on the road by ourselves.  There are several sharp turns and steep ascents, so it is not a good idea to drive it after having a pisco sour!  When we reached Quintay we ate lunch at one of the local seafood restaurants.  These restaurants are popular with Chileans, but are really only worth going for the view.  There are also three scuba diving outfits here, so if you want to dive, I guess this is where to come.  The most interesting part about our visit to Quintay was our surprise visit to the whaling station at the end of the cove.  I knew nothing about the huge whaling industry in Chile and the fact that at its height, the tiny town of Quintay brought in 1600 whales per year!!!  The photos and placards (although in Spanish) were very informative and I was fascinated by learning more about this horrible example of the effects of human growth and industrialization on our planet. 


9.    Talca and the Maule Wine Region-

      Wine regions abound off of Ruta 5, the highway that travels south from Santiago to Puerto Montt.  In order, going north to south, you reach the Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó, and Maule valleys.  Most gringos know only about the Colchagua wine region near Santa Cruz and so, instead, I am focusing on the Maule region.  This is not to say you shouldn´t visit Santa Cruz.  I really enjoy staying at Janine´s B&B, Vino Bello, and eating dinner at her Italian restaurant nearby.  Our favorite wineries in the region include Viu Manent (excellent horse guided tour and wine tasting complete with scenic restaurant and excellent Malbec licoroso), Montes (buy the Montes Cherub Rose), Montgras (You can make your own wine), Viña Santa Cruz (Stunning grounds with a cable car up to the top of a mountain and host of interesting local events like horse carriage races), and Casa Silva (delicious steaks on the patio beside the polo grounds).

     However, if you´ve already been to Santa Cruz a few times you might want to venture further south.  My mom and I recently spent the weekend in Talca, in the heart of the Maule Wine Region.  I am mainly putting this destination on the list due to the potential I think it has, rather than how much we actually enjoyed our visit.  When we went we had TERRIBLE foggy, cold, and rainy weather, which prevented us from ever seeing the mountains.  In addition, the region was hit hard by the 8.8 earthquake of 2010 and any building made of adobe was completely destroyed, including all of the historical buildings of interest.  However, if you visited the region in the spring or summer I think it would be a great place to pass a few days.  The area is in reach of two spectacular national parks (Siete Tazas and Arcos de Lircay), which we were unable to go to due to the impassable dirt roads.  There is also apparently a beautiful train ride from Talca-Constitucion that is written up in all the guidebooks.  I love trains and have never been on one in Chile, and apparently this is the most scenic one, so I would like to go back just for that.  In addition, I think if you did a little more research you would be able to find several good wineries to visit, since the region is the largest producing region in Chile.  In our two days there, we only visited two because we got lost for quite a while on some tiny back roads trying to find the handicraft village of Rari.  We finally made it and had a very special experience buying horsehair crafts from a little old lady in the living room of her home.  Priceless!  Anyway, I will give the region another go at some point when the sun in shining, if only to be able to eat lunch again at the Miguel Torres winery just north of Curicó.  Their tasting menu is extremely delicious and filling!


10.  Barrio Italia-

     The last hidden gem on my list isn´t written up at all in either my Lonely Planet or my Rough Guide books, but is worth a walk around if you are looking to pass a pleasant afternoon in Santiago at a café or do some antique shopping.  This is kind of the artist district of the city and has interesting boutique stores and tons of antique dealerships.   Their online website has a detailed map of the specific historical buildings, shops, and restaurants in the area which is really handy.  If you do visit Barrio Italia you definitely need to visit the Casa Museo Eduardo Frei Montalva.  My mom and I had no idea who he was when we stopped by the house, but it turns out he was one of Chile´s most famous politicians and president immediately prior to Salvador Allende.   The small house contains very interesting relics including gifts given to him by many modern world leaders from around the world including Queen Elizabeth, De Gaul, and LBJ.  We had a really informed tour guide (in Spanish, mind you) and were presently surprised and a little embarrassed that we had no idea who this guy was!!!  Our visit was the equivalent of going to visit one of the presidential libraries in the United States and we really enjoyed it.

And that concludes my attempt at travel guide writing.  I´m not really sure what to call it except Santiago and Central Chile: Through Eli´s Eyes.  I hope someone out there found this of useJ And if not, I enjoyed archiving my explorations of the unique aspects of Chile with my fellow history nerd mother.  I love you, Mimsa!  Thanks for being the kind of mother who drops everything when a daughter is in need and for keeping my spirits up when I most needed it.  I am truly “blessed”.  Hahahahah!  


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