As a longtime Californian who spends near half the year in South America, I feel closest to home when I cross the border from Argentina into central Chile. Chile, from its subtropical deserts to its sub-Antarctic moorlands, is a mirror image of North America's west coast, and its Mediterranean coastline, coastal mountains, Andean foothills, and high Andean peaks are, in their basic aspect, virtually identical to California's shoreline and coastal range, central valley and its foothills, and the Sierra Nevada. In Chile, though, the landscape is so compressed that you drop from the shadow of Argentina's Cerro Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, to to the Mediterranean shoreline with astonishing rapidity.
I spent the first night in Los Andes, a growing foothills city in the Aconcagua valley, so that I could visit Viña Errázuriz the following day. Though not one of Chile's highest profile wine routes, the Aconcagua benefits from extreme day-night temperature variations that particularly benefit Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, both of which I tasted after a hike through the vineyards. As anyone who's ever visited California will note, the landscape here looks virtually identical to the California coast range, and my best guess (I'm by no means a wine professional) is that it's closest to the Santa Ynez valley made famous in the movie Sideways (though I don't think any Errázuriz visitor would drink from the spit bucket).
It's on the coastline, though, that I feel closest to California. Traditionally, the "Garden City" of Viña del Mar is Chile's premier beach destination and, until the Argentine economic collapse of 2002, it was overrun with Argentines in summer (they've started to return as Argentina's economy has improved). What they often discover, though, is what Midwesterners learn when they visit San Francisco--summer can be cold, windy, and foggy, and anyone wearing shorts and tank-tops often ends up shivering. Even though the fog usually burns off by midday, those who dare to go in the water may wish they had wetsuits.
Viña, though, is not what makes coastal Chile worth visiting. It's the nearby port city of Valparaíso, a warren of winding hillside streets whose distinctive architecture and almost medieval irregularity has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's tempting to say that Valparaíso is the San Francisco of Chile, but it would be just as accurate to call San Francisco the Valparaíso of California. Here, when I step out onto the deck of my B&B on Cerro Artillería, the view below is the port and the little red-and-white ascensor (funicular) that, unlike San Francisco's cable cars, still forms an integral part of the public transportation network. There's so much to say about Valparaíso that it's hard to know where to start but, staring out the window to watch the fog roll in, the ten days or so until my flight back north seem far less than that.
More about Valparaíso in the coming days.