Holland America’s Veendam rounds Cape Horn on a series of cruises between now and March 2010. The following reports highlights Valparaiso, the embarkation/disembarkation port.]
Occupying a narrow swath of South America’s west coast, Chile extends nearly 2,700 miles from its southernmost point at Cape Horn to its northern border with Peru. The majestic Andes and the Pacific Ocean flank the country’s western and eastern borders, with slender Chile squeezed in between — averaging only 110 miles wide so that no matter where you are, you’re rarely more than a 90-minute drive from the Andes or the ocean.
Your cruise on Veendam will show you a fair bit of the southern Chilean coastline, including the country’s beautiful fjords and glaciers, as you make your way to or from Valparaiso, Chile’s principle port for cruise passengers.
But to truly get a feel for Chile, you’ll want to spend some time with your boots on the ground, particularly in Central Chile, home to the capital Santiago and a Mediterranean-like climate that lends itself to beautiful beaches and fine wines.
You’ll also find the Chileans to be more reserved than the neighboring Argentines. As one Chilean tour guide told us, “We are the British of South America.”
Begin your journey in Valparaiso if arriving by ship or in Santiago if arriving by air. The two cities are a little less than 90 minutes apart on good highway. Plan to spend three or four nights pre- or post-cruise to get a satisfying taste of Chile, and you can begin your exploration just several minutes away from where Veendam docks.
Vina del Mar
I disembarked my two-week, “round Cape Horn” cruise in Valparaiso and transferred in 15 minutes to Vina del Mar. The two cities are joined at the hip with scarcely a hint of physical demarcation between them. They are, however, very different. Think of Valparaiso as a port city and Vina del Mar as its resort counterpart.
You’ll want to see both, but lay your luggage in the posh, five-star Hotel del Mar. After checking in and admiring the ocean views from my balcony, I regretted having booked only one night here.
No doubt after your long cruise, you still have your sea legs. Now it’s time to get your land legs. Begin by exiting the front of the hotel and following the sidewalk to your right. After only a few strides, you’ll see a bustle of people coming and going from a shop just a few yards away. They’re here for ice cream, so stop to fortify yourself for your long walk along the beach.
Continue walking along the beaches. When you tire of going in one direction, head a block or so away from the sea and walk back in the direction of Hotel del Mar. The real pleasure to be had here is enjoying the beach. So relax.
For the afternoon, hop on a city tour (duration 2.5 hours) of Valparaiso. Founded in 1536, the colorful city was a major international port before the opening of the Panama Canal. The city has lost some of its former glory but retains an abundance of charm.
Though few of the original colonial buildings survived a devastating earthquake in 1906, the colonial part of the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I enjoyed seeing the eclectic mix of fine mansions, German-influenced architecture, colorful shacks, shops and parks.
I visited La Sebastiana, one of the museum houses of the laureate Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda. Even if you know nothing of the poet (I confess I did not) the house is well worth a visit for its amazing architecture and artifacts throughout.
Built on 42 hills, Valparaiso’s crooked and hilly streets resemble those of San Francisco. Busses are challenged in some sections here, so it’s best to travel by car or small van — and to walk as much as possible.
You’ll get a chance to travel vertically on the city’s network of ascensores, or funiculars, many of them antiques in their own right. Jump on the most popular funicular to or from Paseo 21 de Mayo, perched high over the port for sweeping views of the city and bay.
After the city tour, return to your hotel to relax and cool off in the top-floor pool, featuring windows that offer spectacular views of the ocean and Valparaiso in the distance. You’ll have no trouble finding a good dinner in Vina del Mar in the trendy restaurant district only a few blocks away from your hotel. — Ralph Grizzle, The Avid Cruiser
Look for future posts on visiting Chile’s wine country on a pre/post cruise stay.