As a cultural and political hub of Chile, Santiago is a popular tourist destination, but the surrounding areas should not be overlooked when considering a visit. From natural volcanic hot springs in the Andes mountains to the stunning vistas throughout wine country to the sandy shores along the Pacific coast, the variety of terrain and activities create the perfect getaway for a diverse range of travelers.
Visiting Santiago in late November of 2019 was not a choice being made by many at the time. Given the gravity and extent of strikes happening in Chile’s capital, most of the city had shut down.
The media coverage made Santiago sound downright scary, and after some pretty wild experiences dealing with strikes and riots in Quito, we appreciated the potential impact this could have on a trip.
With booked flights and long-standing plans to meet with family members, canceling the trip was the last thing we wanted to do. As with any long-term travel, changed plans are unavoidable, and flexibility is vital. So we decided to modify our plans and spend our time outside the city in the nearby areas. And I am so glad we did.
After not seeing a familiar face for months, we were beyond happy to be meeting up with loved ones. A few hugs later, we were renting a car and beginning our Chilean adventure.
As we ventured from the mountains to wine country to the beach, I was amazed at the amount of beauty and variety that could be found just a short drive away from the bustling city of Santiago.
San José de Maipo: Baños Colina
About 50 km southeast of Santiago, the charming, historical city of San José de Maipo is situated along the Maipo River in a canyon known as Cajon de Maipo.
Nestled along the towering peaks of the Andean mountain range, natural splendor and opportunities for exploration are abundant. With features like volcanoes, glaciers, and hot springs, the lack of tourism we encountered in this area is surprising.
Our first stop: Termas Valle de Colina (or Baños Colina), natural, volcanic hot springs nestled in the middle of the Andes mountains.
If you decide to drive yourself, be prepared for lack of infrastructure, gravel roads, and a spotty cell signal (if any). So go equipped with downloaded maps, a tank full of gas, snacks, drinks, and cash for the entry fee.
We drove a compact car with front-wheel drive and had no issues. That being said, you may want a better-suited vehicle (or to just take a tour) if you don’t care to sign up for that much adventure.
While it requires going off the beaten path, the experience is entirely worth the adventure. As we drove through the Andean mountainside to the hot springs, the views became increasingly more breathtaking.
The tranquility of the mountainside in this remote area combined with the fresh mountain air left us with a sense of calm and excitement at the same time.
Just before arriving, I laid eyes on one of the most unique mountain peaks I’ve ever seen. With a facade painted in swirls of red, white, yellow, green, and brown, I was yet again amazed by the extraordinary artwork that can be discovered in nature.
Our experience at Baños Colina was lovely, starting from the moment we pulled up to these cascading thermal pools situated amongst terraces along the mountainside.
As we soaked in natural hot springs in the middle of the Andes, flurries of snow began falling around us. I felt like it was a scene from a movie, sitting in hot springs with snowflakes in my hair while surrounded by panoramic views of snow-capped mountains.
With several different thermal baths, each of which varies in temperature, everyone can find the perfect spot for the moment. I found myself rotating from one pool to the next, enjoying the exercise of finding that perfect “Goldilocks” balance.
The wind was cold and brisk on my face, but the warmth of the springs instantly made any chill melt away from my mind. With only winter white flurries between me and the epic mountain views that surrounded me, I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone should pinch me and wake me from this dream.
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to this magical destination. One part of any good trip is making impromptu stops along the way, letting go of planning, and just enjoying what the day has to offer. And this is precisely what we did along our route back from the hot springs.
After passing by countless goats grazing amidst the rocky terrain, we made our first detour at a lovely waterfall we came upon during the drive.
About 15 kilometers south of San José de Maipo, an old, deserted tunnel caught our eye. What appears at first glance to be an abandoned railway tunnel holds much more significance to locals in the area.
Due to its chilling past, Túnel Tinoco has become somewhat famous in the area. While the circumstances are still mysterious, 18-year old Guillermo (Willy) Antonio Rojas Reyes died during the tunnel’s construction in 1998 from what most believe was a broken heart.
Locals will tell you that Willy’s spirit will grant your request if you whisper a wish into the tunnel. Now, a shrine to Willy can be seen at the end of the tunnel, inviting visitors to leave a small token or gift in his honor and whisper a desired favor into the dark abyss of the tunnel.
As we continued our drive, we could not resist stopping at Casa Chocolate when we passed. This darling, cottage-style chocolateria will draw you in from the road with its unique and whimsical aesthetic, but it will keep you there with its mouth-watering treats.
Not only does this place look like it is straight out of a fairy tale, but the chocolate tastes out of this world. The hot cocoa was so decadent and rich that we could barely finish them (but don’t worry, I didn’t waste a drop!).
Sitting around a table in the garden area while sipping on our hot chocolates was such a sweet end to the day.
Wine Country: Maipo Valley and Colchagua Valley
One of my favorite aspects of this part of Chile is the wine country. As we made our way across the Maipo Valley and Colchagua Valley wine regions, the views surrounding us were stunning.
The serenity of the seemingly endless greenery of the vineyards against the backdrop of the Andes mountains filled me with a sense of contentment. Add some exceptional wine to that, and I was in my happy place.
Our first stop was at Concha y Toro, where we did a combined tour and tasting. As the top producer of wine in Latin America, every aspect of the experience, including the wine, was top notch. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you may be more familiar with their Casillero del Diablo line of wine.
As someone who has done her fair share of vineyard tours across a handful of countries, I can honestly say that this was one of the most unique ones I’ve done. Of course, as a large-scale winery, it is quite commercialized, so don’t expect the same experience you would get at a boutique vineyard.
The tour consisted of a variety of segments, with tastings done periodically throughout. We began with a stroll around the property, which is breathtaking and expansive.
After exploring the picturesque grounds, we stopped at a garden that showcased each of the varieties of grapes grown at the vineyard.
You can walk through grapevines at most vineyards, but this was fascinating because each type of grape was labeled and in the same small area. This made it easy to spot the differences between the vines and appreciate how each grape is incredibly similar and different from one another at the same time.
To top off the tour, we ended with a visit to the wine cellar and basement. This is where things got interesting. We were able to gain a better understanding of the winemaking process and the history of this particular vineyard, but it was the method of sharing the story that made this so unique.
The finale included an entertaining presentation of the story behind the brand. As you walk down into the cellar, the lights go out, and a light show begins, bringing you back to the early years of the vineyard and retelling an old tale from its origins.
Most importantly, of course, the wines we tasted were excellent. Our tour guide was fun and informative, making the entire experience delightful. Reluctant to leave after such a lovely visit, we finished our wine and hit the road, knowing there was much more enjoyment to come.
Our next stop was at Viña Santa Rita. We knew we were in for a memorable experience from the moment we parked, where a horse and carriage picked us up to bring us to the winery. The first-class treatment continued as we were given some of the most generous pours for tastings of wine I have ever received.
The vineyard also had an Andean museum, a pedal bar, and several other activities available, but we headed straight to the tasting room. The tranquil ambiance of the patio provided the perfect spot for us to enjoy our tastings and each other’s company.
As we left to head to the next vineyard, a quick internet search of highly reviewed vineyards in the area led us to San Nicolas Wines. Welp, it turns out we went to their corporate office where they don’t do tastings, rather than an actual vineyard. So after some comical conversation about what we were doing there, it was on to the next.
We finished the day with one last stop at Viña Casa Silva. This family-run business started from a passion for winemaking that was passed down for generations, making it no surprise that the quality of wine here is exceptional.
The overall tasting experience was fantastic, but one thing stands out to me most about this tasting—this is where I fell in love with Late Harvest wine, a type of dessert wine.
I’m not usually a fan of sweet wines, but this tasting taught me that there is a time and place for this type of wine. And that time is always, and that place is my belly.
We started in the Colchagua Valley wine region the following day, visiting Viña Viu Manent. After some delightful coffee at the on-site cafe, we had lunch and a bottle of wine on the patio behind the winery’s restaurant.
Our lunch was hands down the most delicious meal of the entire trip in central Chile. Choosing our wine based on the suggested pairings resulted in a perfectly balanced food and drink experience. I cannot recommend this enough.
The vineyard was lovely, with stretching views overlooking seemingly endless rows of grapevines against the backdrop of the Andes mountains. There was also an open space for equestrian events, which could be fun to watch if you go during an event time.
Next, we made a stop at Clos Apalta Winery, where once again a lack of planning left us a bit out of place. This winery does not provide tastings and only does tours, which must be scheduled in advance. The tour guide on site was so kind that he gave us a short, impromptu tour while we were there.
Our next stop was at a small vineyard named Viña las Niñas. Opting for a private tasting resulted in an incredibly personalized and informative experience. We all agreed that each of the wines we tasted was an excellent value based on the price to quality ratio of each bottle.
We were not permitted to do our tasting outside, which is always my preference, but the tasting room is surrounded by massive windows, allowing for sweeping views of the vineyard during the tasting.
We finished our self-guided wine tour for the day with a visit to Viña Apaltagua. We sat inside at the bar, which did not have as good a view as with other vineyards, but I didn’t mind staying inside one bit. After a full day of drinking wine, we quickly made friends with everyone there and enjoyed chatting more than the beautiful views.
After another successful day of wine tastings, it was time to make our way to Pichilemu for the next part of our adventure.
Pichilemu: A Surfer’s Paradise
Well known as a surfer’s paradise, the small coastal village of Pichilemu is a short drive away from the Colchagua Valley wine region in Chile. The laid-back beach vibe that permeated the town was almost tangible. Going from the elegant beauty of wine country to the undeniable majesty of the Pacific ocean, it felt like we had entered a new world.
As Americans, our first full day in Pichilemu had some significance to us. It was Thanksgiving, and I found comfort in being with family during our first holiday away.
Starting the day right, we went into town for coffee and empanadas. When we passed by La Casa de las Empanadas, we all immediately were drawn in by the extensive menu and massively sized empanadas. Seriously, the empanadas were the largest I’ve ever eaten, and the restaurant probably had fifty different options for fillings. We all tried various types, and the flavors did not disappoint.
Being in Pichilemu, we knew we had to try our hands (or feet, really) at surfing. Given that it was only my second time surfing, I felt my nerves shift into gear.
Renting our boards was easy, and we were walking down the beach before we knew it.
We paddled ourselves out and waited for the right wave to come. Then, finally, I spotted a good one and got ready. Paddling vigorously for a head start and jumping to my feet on the board, I was eager to catch the wave. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, and I was taking it!
Well, that lasted about 1/10 of a second before I came crashing down into the water. This pattern ensued a number of times…more than I care to admit. But, eventually, I was getting the hang of it and standing on my board.
Of course, I fell off the board more times than I managed to stay on it, but I still consider that a success. My skills were on a bell curve, continuously improving the more I practiced, up until a certain point when I hit a metaphorical ice wall. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The water was unbearably cold, even with wetsuits. After several hours of surfing, my feet felt like they were frozen and almost numb. That was my cue to call it quits. I felt accomplished and satisfied while also feeling cold and exhausted.
Later that evening, the four of us went out for a nice dinner at a restaurant on the beach. As we sat around a hearty meal with family overlooking a spectacular sunset on the beach, this felt like a great time to be thankful for so much.
Not much compares to watching the setting sun disappear over the sandy shores of the Pacific coastline. It was hard to imagine a better way to end our visit to Pichilemu.
The morning sun brought a wake-up call. As all good things must come to an end, the time had come to make our way back to Santiago so that our family could fly home and we could head south to Patagonia.
Along the route back to the capital city, we made one last stop at a Casa Valle Vinamar. And what a fantastic way to finish off our trip. If you like fancy experiences, trust me when I say you’ll love this place.
Both the building for the winery and the grounds of the vineyard were gorgeous. We were able to sit outside admiring the scenery while we were given a private tasting at our table.
The wines were delicious, and we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place to enjoy them. I’m not generally a big fan of sparkling wine, but I highly recommend trying their tasting of sparkling wines.
After this one last outing together, we finished the drive to the airport and said our goodbyes. We were left with a bittersweet feeling, knowing we would miss being with family but eager and excited to experience the Chilean part of Patagonia.
Check back soon to continue reading about our travels as we begin our journey across Patagonia.
If you missed it, go back and read about our experience taking a bus tour across Peru, visiting seven unforgettable desinations along the way.
I feel like I’m back there again!!! Such a fun trip! The details you provide brings it all back to life!