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Destination Chile

A Trip to Chile’s Wine Country

The Colchagua Valley, which runs from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean, once marked the border of the Inca Empire. Today it is the epicenter of ebullient winemaking and cultural activity.

By Paulina Valenzuela
Photos: Paulina Valenzuela, Latinstock

As one travels the 120-mile highway connecting the Chilean capital of Santiago with Santa Cruz, the Colchagua Valley’s largest city, the landscape is increasingly marked by esplanades and hills lined with what look like a green version of Bo Derek’s cornrows in the movie 10. Grape vines climb the steep terrain in rows, defying gravity. Staring out at them, it’s impossible not to feel admiration for the virtuosity of those who planted the vines, sinking the guideposts into the steep slopes in a stubbornly maintained geometric design.

It’s March and a benevolent sun accompanies us on its daily journey, which begins when it emerges from behind the mountains and ends when it sinks behind them again, or, if one is on the coast, upon completion of its ritual transformation into a red disc before plunging into the Pacific. This sun, intense but kind, reminds us that a mild climate is one of the blessings of these latitudes. As on most summer days, we’ll have dry heat, with temperatures staying under 90° F, and then a cool evening. The contrast of warm days and cold nights is welcome not only to visitors, who can recover their strength in a pleasant sleeping environment that requires a blanket, but also to some of the vines, which benefit from the sharp temperature change from day to night.

If looking upon these vineyards at this time of year is a delight, contemplating them in autumn is simply sublime. But you’ll have to wait a few months to feast your eyes on the golden leaves. Right now, the Colchagua Valley has other attractions for tourists, including the grape harvest festivals. The festival in Santa Cruz is scheduled for March 4-6, at the height of these regional celebrations that accompany the wine production process.

City of Entrepreneurs

About 120,000 people attend the Santa Cruz Harvest Festival. The activities take place downtown, in the Plaza de Armas and the surrounding area. The city pulses with the comings and goings of visitors who roam the streets happily in pairs or groups of friends and families. They observe, ask questions, and comment on the offerings in the hundreds of food, wine, and crafts stalls that line the streets under the shade of multicolored canvas awnings. The wine festival is as spontaneous and jubilant as any popular celebration, but also reflects the order, organization, and civic culture that characterize Santa Cruz, a city where you almost never see graffiti , litter, or packs of stray dogs. The meticulousness of this massive event is also apparent in the hygienic appearance of the food stalls, the care taken of public spaces, and details like the installation of public pay toilets.

At the heart of the party, Santa Cruz›s Plaza de Armas has preserved its well-kept colonial style, with monuments that speak of the city’s history, a carillon clock that houses a tourist office, and details such as carved wooden placards identifying the different types of trees. On harvest festival days there are more carabineros (police in charge of maintaining public order) in the streets to answer questions from outsiders and direct the overflow of traffic; their mere presence also deters crime. In fact, Santa Cruz’s popular street celebration transpires in an atmosphere of safety that can be attributed largely to the presence of these carabineros, one of Chile’s most trusted institutions.

The grape harvest celebration is also a great opportunity for entrepreneurs from the city and its environs to show visitors the wonders they have to offer. As of now, thirteen wineries exhibit products bottled under 150 labels. The dining options are numerous.

From out of the food stalls drift the delicious aromas of Chilean empanadas stuffed with meat, seafood, or cheese. There are ceviches, kebabs (skewered pieces of meat), tortillas, fajitas… or roast beef or pork, to mention only a few of the dishes that vie for visitors’ attention. For those with a sweet tooth, there are many temptations, such as almond, raisin and nut candies, wine ice cream, pies, and the traditional Chilean mote con huesillo.

The Harvest Festival organizers strive to provide local entrepreneurs with an opportunity to display the fruits of their labor. The handicrafts range from wool textiles, woodcarvings, leather goods, hats, and jewelry to beauty products made from natural oils, seeds, and tree bark. It is said that certain locals manage to pay their children›s annual college fees with sales from their products in these three days.

Essential elements of this Colchagua Valley celebration include the Queen of the Harvest pageant, the folklore that unfolds on street corners in the form of an improvised pie de cueca (Chilean national dance), and the shows by internationally renowned artists in the Plaza de Armas.

Much to Offer

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The Colchagua Valley’s mission to provide tourists attractive and varied offerings has led to astonishing growth. Several organizations, including the valley’s world-class wineries, have joined forces to achieve this goal. Efforts to share the culture and wine produced in this area with the rest of the world have given birth to the “Colchagua Route,” a collective of thirteen wineries, restaurants, and tour operators whose slogan is: “Aromas and flavors from the mountains to the sea.”

The Tinguiririca River irrigates the grapes that grow in this land; Colchagua is the world’s largest producer of Carmenere stock, which disappeared from Europe following a phylloxera plague.

Visitors learn the various steps involved in wine production on vineyard tours that last one day, or several. Some tours even offer a chance to participate in the harvesting of grapes during a day on the farm.

There are many reasons to visit Colchagua: to savor the valley’s exquisite cuisine; tour the vineyards on a bike; observe the vines from above aboard a hot air balloon or helicopter; visit the museums in the area; enjoy the many boutique hotels that have sprung up in the valley in recent years; or let yourself be pampered at the five-star Hotel Santa Cruz.

Adjacent to this hotel is the Colchagua Museum, which houses a real cultural treasure. Because Colchagua once marked the southern border of the Inca Empire, you’ll need several hours to do justice to the museum and its collections, which teach about human history from 15,000 years before Christ through pre-Columbian times, the Conquest, the Colonial period, Independence, and other important moments in the history of Chile and the rest of South America.

One of the main attractions at the Colchagua Museum is an exhibit that tells the story of the thirty-three miners who were trapped underground in a mine in northern Chile in 2010. It’s fascinating to see the recreation of the conditions in which the miners spent sixty-nine days buried 235 feet underground, and then listen to the amazing story of their rescue, which will bring a tear to your eye.