It may look like a beach town without anything particularly spectacular upon arrival, but as you get to know it, the beauty of Cartagena reveals itself little by little. I had the pleasure of getting to know our local guide, Patricia. She’s truly the personification of versatility; with a vast knowledge of not only astronomy but also Chilean history, wine, as well as the history of Chilean wine, Patricia took me on an unforgettable adventure through the Casablanca Valley and introduced me to two small towns in Chile, San Antonio and Cartagena.
She picked me up in a huge gray pick up and the first thing I noticed was an impressive collection of rocks in the console. “Oh, those are for my stargazing tour! I give them a geography lesson on the way into the mountains,” Patricia explained to me. We set off down the road, heading out of town.
On the way, Patricia explained to me that in Chile, there’s a lot of pressure to choose children over career–she decided to have children and after that embarked on her journey as an entrepreneur. With curly brown hair and charming pink lipstick, Patricia is incredibly vivacious, full of captivating stories and knowledge.
As we drove out of the city, she showed me where her city tour ends: it’s a cafe in a pink building nestled between concrete giants and dedicated to the ex-presidents of Chile. We get on the highway, and while the landscape becomes greener and greener, Patricia gives me the lowdown on Chilean heroes and the battle of the three: Jose Miguel Carrera, Manuel Rodriguez, and Bernardo O’Higgins.
With Patricia’s storytelling expertise, the familiar names come alive, accompanying us on the road trip. O’Higgins, the black sheep of his family, dedicated himself to the revolution but was even more interested in his own fame and power. He tried to imprison Carrera, but the well connected Carrera soon escaped his grasp. Manuel Rodriguez, a character out of a movie, was a master of disguise; with the help of both his aristocratic friends as well as lower class allies, he was the most well informed of everybody.
I’m so engaged in the story that I don’t realize we’ve left the highway. In response to my inquisitive look, Patricia responds, “We’re going to pass through Curacaví; I always bring travelers through this town so they can get a taste of a small Chilean town. This town has the typical set up: the main street hosts the majority of the businesses while the surrounding area is filled with houses.
Our first stop was La Casona. It’s a charming house that’s being remodeled as a small set of shops. I was struck by the beauty of the patio, as well as the trellis and vines in contrast with the stark white walls. We peeked into the shops; artisans are setting up handmade candles, beautiful prints of local birds, as well as paintings. It’s the perfect mid-road trip stop before heading into wine country.
After driving through the Casablanca Valley (stay tuned for a full report on vineyards galore), we arrived at the Telar Mapuche, a weaving center run by Unelda Huenchumil and her family. The Mapuche people are Chile’s largest indigenous group and inhabited most of the southern region of the country when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Three dogs greeted us, and it soon became apparent that the place is not only a center for artisan weaving but also an animal lover’s haven.
The sheep whose wool is spun to create Unelda’s hand-dyed hats, scarves, ponchos, and blankets wandered around in the front yard, and a hen with her newly hatched chicks scoured the garden for worms and bugs. The small farm also hosts a turkey, some geese, and a few cats. Unelda showed us how she spins, cards, and weaves the wool to create carefully crafted textiles.
Woven cloth is a central element of Mapuche culture, and the colors and symbols in the cloth created by natural dyes like onions combined with the craftsmanship of the weaver symbolize different uses. This is a great resource to learn more about the Mapuche people and weaving tradition!
As someone who grew up right beside the ocean, I felt right at home in San Antonio! We drove over the last hill, and the smell of the ocean welcomed me to this seaside port. San Antonio is now the largest port in Chile; it used to be Valparaíso, but today the amount of cargo that passes through San Antonio comes in at 1,287,658 TEU, a unit of measurement equivalent to a container of 20 feet.
Right next to the bobbing boats, there’s a boardwalk with space for artisan booths, families strolling in the sun, vendors selling delectable sweets, and little tables for face painting. We stopped for lunch here and each devoured a fried empanada de pino de mariscos, a small pocket of fried dough filled with mussels, clams, and other seafood seasoned with onions, garlic, and a delectable spice mix. The hills of the town hide a bridge suspended between two of the hills that looks like it’s out of a fairytale!
After our stop in San Antonio, we headed to Cartagena, San Antonio’s sister city just over the crest of the mountain. In the early 1900s, Cartagena was a popular summer vacation destination among the Chilean elite. Luxury hotels and a vibrant artist community flourished in the town just a little bit more than an hour away from Santiago. With the introduction of a railroad to connect Santiago and Cartagena in 1930 came the middle and lower class; Cartagena changed from a luxurious resort to a fishing beach town.
Vicente Huidobro , one of Chile’s great poets, was from Cartagena, and Adolfo Couve, artist and poet, lived there for twenty years;” however, since the days of the city as a cultural center, Cartagena has lost some of its popularity. There’s been a recent initiative to restore Cartagena and preserve its history; the process is slow but steady as both the government and outsiders are dedicated to making sure the restoration of the city is a sustainable process that works with local people instead of leaving them behind.
Patricia introduced me to both Juanita and Adolfo. Juanita lives in the fishermen’s section of town; the house is not fancy but it serves its purpose for their family. Juanita and her husband showed us the crab trap they designed for efficient and effective fishing. We tried some of the crab! Our trip to visit Juanita added perspective to Cartagena as a whole. While the city may have a history of prosperity, many continue to live just above the poverty line.
Adolfo is an architect. As a child, he spent summers with his family in Cartagena, and during architecture school, he imagined his future projects against the background of the hills of Cartagena. Today, he runs Patio Ferreiro, an impeccably designed boutique bed and breakfast. Cartagena is the story of a city whose rich history is being reinvigorated by inspired artists such as Adolfo, and the process includes initiatives like education for local people about how to restore the old mansions of Cartagena.
At the end of the day with Patricia, I felt like I had discovered a whole new part of Chile! I’ve been living in Santiago, and I’ve also traveled around Chile; however, Patricia showed me an off-the-beaten-path adventure. Accompanied by her knowledge and engaging commentary, I discovered Cartagena: truly a diamond in the rough. Home to two beautiful beaches, a gorgeous coastline, and a rich artistic heritage, Cartagena is a must-see destination.
Were you captivated by the beauty of San Antonio and Cartagena? Discover these small towns in Chile for yourself! We’re here to help you plan the perfect trip. Contact us for more information.