- Chile´s early history and its path to indepedence
- 150 years of social and political instability
- An ignored past – the relics of Pinochet´s dictatorship
- City of Dogs
- Americanized Santiago
- The winery of Concha Y Toro
- Chile´s pride – tasting Carmenere
- Arriving on a different planet
Last time I wrote to you, I had just crossed the Andes from Mendoza. Now I am in San Pedro the Atacama now, at the very north of Chile, a place which is not from this planet. I spent two amazing days in the capital which, unlike many bad descriptions in guidebooks, didn´t stop to amaze me.
Chile´s early history and its path to indepedence
Originally I wanted to head straight on from Santiago to the coast and go surfing for two days. However, when I reached Santiago and especially Juan´s house I had to change my mind. I can´t stop gazing at these mountains, which can be seen from any point in Santiago, despite the very heavy smog which plagues this city in the winter.
I would first like to explain some key historic facts of Chile, which has had a very different history than other Latin-American countries. Likewise to Argentina´s history, the first settlers of Chile arrived here more than 30 000 years ago from Asia by crossing the Behring Strait and them coming all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. When the Spanish and the Portuguese arrived at the end of the 15th century they decided to give all the territory west of Brazil to Spain.
To rule efficiently, the Spanish crown subdivided the area in different administrational areas, already giving them the names they have today. They were all governed by the city of Lima, but started to develop distinct cultural features. Portugal did not take the same approach for Brazil, which is why Brazil was and has ever since been one single country.
The indigenous population fought the colonizers fiercely and managed to push them back for two centuries. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, however, a generation of colonizers who were born in Latin-America had developed a strong anti-colonial attitude which found its expression in the wars for independence. Simon Bolivar freed the northern countries, José de San Martin Argentina, who then crossed the Andes to help Bernardo O´Higgins to free Chile.
150 years of social and political instability
In the following 150 years Chile suffered heavily from its lack of natural resources. It did make a fortune with nitrate production, a natural fertilizer. However, only a few years later the Germans discovered a way of producing fertilizer with petroleum which was much cheaper and led to a crisis in Chile´s economy. Ever since it heavily relies on its only other natural resource – copper, which still attributes to 55% of the national exports.
In more recent history, Chile saw a military coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, who overthrew and killed Marxist president Salvator Allende (who “committed” suicide) and established a brutal dictatorship which lasted until 1990. He never stood trial and died in 2006. Today Chile is the most liberal free market economy in all of South America, which has blessed it with a very strong growth in the past 2 decades and an economy which is much more stable than its counterparts in the rest of Latin-America.
An ignored past – the relics of Pinochet´s dictatorship
I was really shocked by how Chileans approach their history. When I went to the national history museum, for instance, the exposition starts 30 000 B.C. and ends in 1973, with Allendes broken glasses being the last piece of the exposition. I couldn´t believe it. Apparently in education it is very similar, the Chileans learn everything up to 1973, and then only sporadic facts which do not allow a critical, objective analysis of what happened. Still today, it is very difficult to talk about it, because the society is divided between wealthy people who legitimize the horrible human rights abuses with the necessity to undergo an economic reform in 1970s Chile, while on the other side the rest condemn the dictatorship very radically. But these two extremes prevent any proper analysis of what happened and you can feel it.
I went to the national history museum, which was very interesting but left me speechless because of the way it is organized. Then I went to the Moneda, which is the presidential palace which Allende didn’t leave in 1973 until Pinochet started to bomb it. I am very interested in Chilean history, as I read Isabell Allende´s (his niece) book La Casa de los Espiritus which is her historical/fictional account of Chile´s history through 3 generations, including the death of her uncle. But Chile has a long way to go, compared to Argentina, which is miles ahead in dealing with the past.
City of Dogs
So enough history, let´s turn to the city today! What amazed me so much are the street dogs. In other cities they look very horrible, carry diseases, are basically anorexic and people hate them. Not in the City of Dogs. In Santiago there are many dogs and they are all pedigrees, so Labradors and German shepherds for instance. They look very beautiful and are completely non-aggressive, which is why the people in Santiago treat them really well.
In front of government buildings no one but the police is allowed to enter or approach it, however, in front of every buildings, amid the police officer, you will see dozens of dogs enjoying the sun. I love it! And talking about dogs, Juancho has two pointer dogs, Homero and Fecundo, the most hyperactive dogs I have ever seen. They go completely mental 24/7. The other day I was having breakfast and sitting right at the window. Then, from the middle of nowhere, both dogs jump against the window next to me and continued to slam their feet against it until I finally surrendered and went outside to play with them. Awesome dogs!
Many people do not like Santiago and the Chileans when they come from other Latin-American countries and I do see why. The Chileans do not have the same vibrant, warm lifestyle that characterizes all of South America and visitors will encounter an Americanized, kind of materialistic, reserved, hard-working people.
In the same way that Buenos Aires could be in Europe, Santiago could be in eastern US. Shopping malls, big cars, few little shops, skyscrapers and basically no nice colonial or ancient buildings due to the very recent increase in wealth.
I obviously had a very good and special insight into the society by living in with a Chilean family for my stay, who welcomed me with open arms and really helped me with every possible thing.
The winery of Concha Y Toro
I spent the whole day walking around the city, which was very nice as it has many parks and viewpoints quite centrally located. From there you get this amazing view on all of the city, including the never disappearing, think layer of smog which haunts Santiago all year and especially in winter, when winds are inexistent.
The highly developed infrastructure allowed me to get around very easily and after having seen and tried all the amazing wines around Mendoza I obviously had to see how the Chileans deal with it. So I went to the Concha Y Toro wineries in the Maipu valley, not to be mistaken with the Maipu just south of Mendoza in Argentina, which is home to most Argentinian wine. It is one of the biggest wine producers in the world and if you drank any wine from Chile, chances are high it came from this winery.
I took one of the several tours offered in English and they showed us around the compound where the founders of the company used to live at the end of the 19th century. More interesting was the explanation on why Chilean wine is so good. Basically in Chile wine is cultivated along a 1500km long straight in central Chile. It never really rains here and the climatic conditions are very similar to the ones around Mendoza, so cold nights to ensure acidity and warm days with a lot of sun to create a thick and rich skin. The irrigation system they have provides the grapes with single drops of water rather than rain. Cheap labour ads the rest, as they can collect all grapes manually which ensures that only the best grapes are used for the premium wines.
Chile´s pride – tasting Carmenere
When I visited the winery I got myself a treat! Instead of doing the standard tour which includes two tastings which are quite mediocre. And I didn’t come all the way here to try a Merlot that I could get in Europe. So I booked the extra tour which included a one hours tasting of four exquisite wines accompanied by cheeses, bread and dried fruits. All of this with a sommelier who explained everything about these grapes.
We started with a very nice Merlot, however, this wine never amazes me. It is good, and nice to drink, but it doesn’t have the complexity and richness of the other wines. What followed was the Carmenere, which is the most typical wine of Chile and is only grown here. The history of it is quite interesting. At the end of the 19th century a Frenchman came to Chile with different grapes. Soon after he arrived a disease killed all plants in France and Europe stopped growing the Carmenere afterwards, as its roots are close to the surface and it is therefore very vulnerable to Phylloxera, which exists everywhere but in Chile.
Here they didn’t even know that they were growing it until the 1980s, when people started wondering why the Chilean Merlot tasted so different. After a thorough analysis they found grapes of another species in the Merlot, separated them, grew it individually and the Chilean Carmenere was born. This wine is very dark red, fruity and strong wine, with a bouquet of berries which I loved and I can see why all the world loves it!
We then had a Syrah, a very good red wine which is grown everywhere but Europe and finished with a Cabernet-Sauvignon, a complex wine which is among my favourites when it is of good quality (which it was). This proper tasting was amazing and the wines really convinced me. However, when I asked the prices they told me that all the bottles I tasted cost around 25 dollars in Chile, an exorbitant price in my eyes.
Arriving on a different planet
After this merry day I headed back to Juancho´s for one very nice last dinner with completos – sandwiches with beef, avocado, tomato and mayonnaise. Then I packed my stuff for the next day and after a long flight I arrived in northern Chile, a different planet, a world of its own.
I will write about the incredible things I am doing here in the driest desert in the world, where it has never ever rained, in the next News.
Hope you guys are all well,
Hasta luego viejos