A college friend contacted me the other day. She and another friend of ours are planning a trip to Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile over the week of Thanksgiving. Since I’d been there last January she wanted to know if I had any recommendations.
My first thought was, “Wow, I’m jealous!” How I wish I could just pick up and trek down to South America on a whim. Yet, within minutes it sparked a journey down memory lane, as I searched through past emails to remember where exactly I had gone nearly a year ago – and who had suggested I go there.
The funny thing is that, looking back, I realized that a number of the recommendations I had received had come directly from the very friend who was asking! Not to mention the other friend who she is traveling with had lived in Chile for a semester in college.
Amongst my friends and family, I am notorious for taking the time to research a destination before arriving. Over the years, I have created a “series” of “guidebooks,” if you will, crude Microsoft Word documents of compiled suggestions, internet research and factoids about the places I’ve been to, organized brain dumps tied to a particular trip, for example: France; Italy; Morocco; Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro; and, yes, Argentina and Chile.
Incredibly geeky, I know – and incredibly time-consuming. Still, incredibly worth it.
When I travel, I take care to avoid the tourist spots. I aim to experience a place as genuinely as possible, the way a local would. I have a rule that I will not eat in a restaurant that has pictures of the food on its menu (though that rule has been broken before). Arming myself with as many “off the beaten path” options as possible helps me avoid the traps.
One of the most beautiful things about traveling is being flexible and open to the unexpected possibilities that present themselves. On a 10-day, mainly solo trip through Argentina and Chile last year, I was meant to stay in Santiago during the time I spent in Chile. Instead, I found myself taking a seven hour bus ride from Mendoza to Valparaiso through the Andes Mountains – and then a MICRO bus, followed by a local taxi to a tiny hostel, Ritoque Raices, on a beach in a town called Quintero. There was nothing there but the hostel and a small restaurant run by a young brother and sister pair. Despite arriving after dark and the kitchen being closed for the night, they whipped me up the most delicious vegetarian rice meal and produced a glass of red wine almost instantly.
Each morning I woke up and did yoga in the dunes with the girlfriend of the brother who owned the restaurant, who had moved to the small town from Buenos Aires not too long ago. I spent the day on the beach reading, pausing for lunch of homemade empanadas at my now local eatery. At dusk, I hiked up the mountain with the other travelers and watched the sunset before drinks and dinner at, you guessed it, the only restaurant in town. It certainly beat staying in a hotel in the center of Santiago – which I did a few nights later, mainly out of convenience for making my flight back to the US.
When I think back on my trip, it’s not the sites I saw that I remember the most, but the feeling of becoming a small part of someone else’s corner of the world for a moment in time. I was gone for less than two weeks, but returned with a true connection to all the places I saw and the people I met along the way.
So, when I give my friend – and you – recommendations, it’s with the personal attachment of an experience I had there. No one will ever have the same experience I had; I can only hope that you find a connection similar to the one I felt.
If you go:
Argentina’s famous wine region was one of the first to become bicycle-friendly. Take a day touring the vineyards with Mr. Hugo’s bike rentals. Mr. Hugo provides you with a map and all the gear, not to mention a complimentary glass of vino when you return the bike in one piece.
1884 (in Godoy Cruz), a restaurant by famed Argentine chef Francis Mallman, was one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had. As a vegetarian, I was hesitant that I would truly enjoy the cuisine in a beef-dominated country, but I was certainly not disappointed (and there’s still plenty of beef for you meat lovers). It’s a splurge, but worth it to sit outside in the romantic courtyard by the wood-fired grill and enjoy a local Argentine Malbec that far exceeds the quality of any I’ve ever tasted in the US.
Enjoy a glass of local wine on the terrace of the Park Hyatt Mendoza overlooking Plaza San Martin. I sat there sipping on a single glass and munching on the complimentary trail mix while writing in my journal for hours.
A recommendation that actually originally came from my friend who is embarking on the Thanksgiving trip: El Huerto, a unique vegetarian restaurant in the Providencia area of the city. I had a glass of Chilean Carménère and the pastel de choclo, an authentic Chilean summer dish of pureed corn, tomato, eggplant and onion, with a green bean and carrot tortilla espagnol and a side salad with fresh avocado.
Take the time to get out of the city; Valparaiso is only an hour and a half away by bus. Take the Ascensore Collectivo up to the pretty, winding, hilly streets and visit La Sebastiana, one of the houses of the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. You can also visit his other homes: La Chascona, in Santiago, and his Isla Negra seashore house.
It’s a bit of a trek – you need to take a MICRO bus from Valparaiso to Quintero and then a local cab to the beach – but Ritoque Raices on Playa Ritoque is a little piece of heaven. There’s not much there to do, but that’s the beauty of it. Enjoy yoga on the beach, take a surf lesson and chow down on an empanada at the only joint in “town.”