When my job as a focus group moderator took me to Chile on a research project, I really had no personal desire to make the long journey. Oh sure, you might think of Patagonia and alpacas, but I thought of nothing. The truth is I knew nothing about Chile. I am not proud to admit that I had to use Google to find out where exactly I would be going. I remember thinking “Whoa! Really? Do we need to go that far?” So, packed for the opposite season, I settled in for a long, very long, trip. The flight was easy. A stop in Brazil meant we would fly over the Andes Mountains to reach our destination. I was awake just in time to look down over the range and tried desperately to hold back thoughts of plane crashes and necessary cannibalism. The other passengers seemed calm, or maybe oblivious. With my face smashed to the window of the plane and snapping photos of snowy peaks and icy mountain lakes, I turned my thoughts instead to how similar the mountains looked to the logo of Andes Candies. We landed in a grassy field surrounded by lush, steep hills. The rustic view made me wonder if we made an emergency landing on a highland farm. I had no idea what riches awaited me.
After the long flight, my client took me to dinner at the upscale Puerto Fuy in the neighborhood of Vitacura. Oddly, the in-flight magazine had a feature article raving about this restaurant. It was at Puerto Fuy where Santiago put its best foot forward and welcomed me with delicious seafood and wine. If the food was any indication then Santiago may prove to be a modern, yet refined, cosmopolitan city to rival other international cities. I was a long way from the grassy landing strip of the airport. There was nothing rustic about Puerto Fuy. It’s the type of restaurant that manages a comfortable ambiance while making all the manners your parents ever taught you stand at attention. The décor was streamlined with wood treatments offset by the whitest table linens and the sparkling crystal. The menu was so much more than ceviche and seabass. This was gastronomy with a fantastic wine list. Things were looking up.
My work schedule was mostly in the evenings, leaving my days free. Since I had not done any research in advance, I relied on the hotel concierge to arrange a daytrip to a vineyard in Maipo Valley. There are probably more economical ways to plan your vineyard visit, but the convenience of door-to-door transportation with other wine-loving tourists suited my needs. A visit to the vineyards was a great way to see the landscape, learn about Chilean wines, and taste something homegrown.
On departure day, my flight was scheduled for the late afternoon. Instead of asking for a late check-out from my hotel, I arranged for a driver to take me around town before delivering me to the airport. My driver was a jovial man who took me first to San Cristobal Hill, a scenic spot overlooking all of Santiago. We were high enough to look down on the haze that was settling in, trapped against the foothills of the great Andes. San Cristobal Hill is topped with a large statue of the Virgin Mary and various antennas, an interesting juxtaposition in my opinion. Try this hotlink for a 360-cam of the panorama and statue.
Last, I asked my driver to take me someplace where I could buy souvenirs of lapislazuli. Beautiful cobalt blue lapislazuli is mined in only two countries – Afghanistan and Chile. Lucky for me I was in Chile and not the other. My driver took me to Mussio Design in the neighborhood of Providencia. I am sure he knew someone there because he first took me into the workshop where craftsmen were shaping and polishing semiprecious stones. Then I went into the store where room upon magnificent room offered beautiful works of art. I wasn’t looking for a sculpture for my mantel. I needed objects I could tuck in my carry-on bag. Even so, when I wear my lapislazuli bracelet I feel like I am wearing a unique piece of art.
A quick business trip lives in my memory like a week-long vacation because I was able to seek out little adventures and detours along the way. When I think of Chile now, many riches come to mind – mountains, coastal vineyards, modern cuisine, fashionable shopping, and friendly people.