Chile: The quiet South American

Chile, the confident corner of South America, is a place of contrasts. This long, thin finger of a country is topped with desert and tailed with glaciers

By Kieran Meeke
Published 21 Nov 2012, 12:35 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:50 BST

The best description of Chile I've heard remains something I was told on my first visit 15 years ago: "In Uruguay, they invented tango. In Argentina, they perfected it. In Chile, we actually dance it." Tango has undergone a resurgence in Argentina since then, but the underlying message remains true — while other countries make a fuss about their achievements, Chile just quietly gets on with things.

Chile's relatively low international profile seems to stem from this modest approach. If you do travel here, you'll feel more than welcome. But who needs to persuade you to come when there is so much to experience? After all, few other countries can offer so many contrasts, from the high deserts of Atacama in the north, to the glaciers of Patagonia in the south, or the mysteries of Easter Island.

You can ski in the Andes in the morning, then surf off a sunny Pacific beach in the afternoon. Ride a horse with the huasos (cowboys) of the Central Valley and enjoy world-class wines, or drive on excellent roads around a lake district, reminiscent of Switzerland for its scenery and orderliness.

Famed for its wine, the country also has a strong national cuisine, based on seafood from its long coastline and beef tended by those iconic cowboys. Santiago is a capital abounding with upmarket restaurants and hotels, and such cultural corners as the National Museum of Fine Arts, with its superlative collection of Spanish and Italian art and African sculpture.

And the city's clubs remind you that, beneath the calm surface, Latin passions smoulder. These days the music is more likely to be to reggaeton or house than tango — times have changed as democracy has flourished — but the desire to enjoy the moment remains.

Atacama: Just deserts

Not every desert is a romantic vista of golden sand dunes rolling away to a distant horizon. On first glance, the Atacama is more like a dramatic moonscape of rocks and dust, stretching to a magnificent view of snow-tipped volcanic peaks. And that's just from Calama airport.

Calama is notable as one of the world's driest towns, receiving just 1.4 inches of rain a year, and the first thing my driver handed me was a water bottle — an eco-friendly stainless steel one. During the one-hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama, he warned me to keep hydrated, partly due to the heat and dryness, but also because of the altitude. Both Calama and San Pedro sit at well over 6,500 feet above sea level and my first day or so was spent acclimatising, fending off the mild headache and exhaustion caused by being at such altitude.

San Pedro lies close to the Bolivian border and was called El Oasis by the Spanish for its desert springs. I was staying on the outskirts at Explora, an upmarket resort both literally and metaphorically miles away from the backpacker hostels lining San Pedro's dusty streets. The hotel does justice to its name with a programme of activities and excursions, from mountain-biking and hiking to watching the unfamiliar southern stars from the ALMA observatory or while sleeping beneath canvas.

I decided to take it easy for my first few days, trotting through the bizarre geological forms of the Valle de la Luna ('Valley of the Moon'), in the saddle of a sturdy Criollo horse. It was an effortless way to cover a lot of ground fast, discovering a small, picturesque church here, a wonderful view there.

Just as I was starting to feel comfortable with all the good food, fine wines and hospitable staff, I signed up for a trip to see the Geysers d'El Tatio. Best viewed before the warmth of the day dispels their clouds of steam, I was up before dawn for the long, bumpy drive, wearing every article of clothing I had as protection against the freezing night air. With 80 geysers, this is one of the world's largest fields of erupting springs and one of its highest at 13,000 feet above sea level. The mountains around it soar another 6,500 feet, locking El Tatio in shadow until mid-morning.

Once the sun had finally appeared, it was time to visit the hot springs at Puritama, a series of natural pools that drove every last chill from my body. From teeth-chattering cold, to sun-bathing in a natural hot-tub, all in one morning — just a taste of the contrasts in this remarkable country.

Central Valley: Grape escape

Dozing under a shady tree amid a sunny vineyard, while tasting chilled wine made from grapes grown nearby might be one definition of paradise. It will certainly do until a better one comes along. As I sit in Chile's Casablanca Valley, sipping my way through his range, winemaker Ignacio Recabarren keeps topping up my glass and waxing lyrical about his award-winning Concha y Toro wines.

In 1994, this became the first winery in the world to trade on the New York Stock Exchange, and annual sales have boomed from around £120 million to nearly £550 million in the past decade. During 2011, it quietly bought California's Fetzer Vineyards, a measure of the company's global scale and a reminder Chile has the resources and ambition to play on the world stage.

Behind its success is the terrain in this part of central Chile, just south of the capital Santiago, where a series of valleys sandwiched between the Pacific and the Andes offer their own unique terroir to produce great wines.

Chile is noted for its Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays but the Casablanca Valley also produces the fine Riesling I sampled, and a rich Syrah. The most unusual grape, though, is the ruby-red Carmenère, a French variety first transplanted here in the 1850s. A difficult vine to grow, it disappeared in its former homeland when phylloxera dealt a fatal blow to its struggling reputation. Thought lost, the rediscovery and taming of this complex grape — once the foundation of most Bordeaux wines — is a major Chilean success story, for which Ignacio can take much of the credit.

Chile's pretty vineyards have opened up to tourists in a similar way to wine regions elsewhere. Concha y Toro's visitor centre is just an hour away from downtown Santiago in the Maipo Valley, built around the elegant house of the company's founder, Don Melchor de Concha y Toro, dating back to 1883.

Sitting in large gardens, with a lake and walks shaded by tall eucalyptus trees, it's one of those places that adds to the feeling Chile is full of little pieces of heaven the locals have been quietly keeping to themselves.

Folk-dancing and Chile's exquisite cuisine add a local touch to the usual wine-tasting and cellar tours. It should be no surprise that a country producing such wines also likes its food, but ceviche of raw fish marinated in lemon and lime juice, spiced up with garlic and chilli, was a revelation. Like its neighbour and wine-rival Argentina, great steak is also a given here, but the long Pacific coast means fresh seafood is perhaps even more dominant.

Having said that, the national snack is completo, a hotdog loaded with avocado, tomatoes, mayo and sauerkraut — as down-to-earth and generous as Chileans themselves.

Valparaíso: California dreaming

What a naughty man Pablo Neruda was. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean — perhaps best known to the outside world from the Italian film Il Postino, based on his life in exile — was called 'the greatest poet of the 20th century' by no less than Gabriel García Márquez. But a visit to La Sebastiana, his home in Valparaíso, reveals his private life was probably less praiseworthy. He had a bewildering number of women and constructed different homes to keep them in — this is one of three he owned in picturesque parts of Chile.

Preserved as museum and carefully curated after his death in 1973, the house was built to resemble a ship and enjoys sweeping views of the Pacific. It's stuffed with nautical paraphernalia, from model ships and wall charts to the porthole windows. The building was an obvious labour of love and inspired many of Neruda's most famous poems. Topped by a crow's-nest study, at its heart is a pink ship's galley-style bar where the poet hosted many raucous parties.

The ocean view and the climate — not to mention the abundance of fine wine — reminded me of California. And, in Valparaíso, Chile has its very own version of San Francisco. The two were once firmly linked, dating back to the days of the California Gold Rush. The best-sheltered port on the long and inhospitable Chilean coastline was an essential stop for ships refitting after battling around Cape Horn, making Valparaíso one of the world's wealthiest cities in the 19th century.

It retains an air of elegance, with government buildings and memorials to long-dead heroes lining downtown streets, while colourful houses crowd the surrounding hills. Many are now elegant boutique hotels and fine-dining restaurants making the most of the views.

Antiquated ascensores (funiculars) allow me to explore the upper parts of the city without too much exertion. Up here, narrow alleys covered in graffiti have become an attraction for camera-wielding tourists, but are also a nod to a West Coast counter-culture usually associated North American cities. It bursts into life at weekends, when everyone hits the clubs after midnight, partying until dawn. No doubt Neruda would have been in the thick of the action.

Lake district: Alpine view

Heading south from Santiago, most people travel straight into the heart of Patagonia to Tierra del Fuego, legendary among skiers and glacier-watchers, or to the iconic Torres del Paine National Park, a haven for hikers with its mountains, lakes and hot springs.

I decide to stay a little further north in Puerto Montt, one of the gateways to Patagonia and known as the salmon capital of Chile. Here the snow-topped Volcán Osorno forms a beautiful backdrop to pretty German-style houses built during the mass immigration of Germans in the 19th century, and more utilitarian dockside warehouses.

The nearby Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park is the most visited in Chile, where the glacial lake of Todos Los Santos gives rise to the Petrohué River. The former, ringed by steep cliffs, is also called Lago Esmeralda because of its blue-green colour, and the emerald waters of the river are famed for salmon and trout fishing.

The park is at the southern tip of Chile's own Lake District, whose snowy mountains, tree-lined valleys, clear mountain lakes, wood-shingled Alpine houses and clean air are not dissimilar to New Zealand. With 12 major lakes and dozens of smaller ones, as well as rivers and waterfalls, the region could not be a greater contrast to Chile's arid north.

Many visitors start by flying into Temuco in the north, 430 miles from Santiago. Puerto Montt is only another 185 miles south and the Lake District is dotted with scenic parks hugging the Andes, making for a meandering journey southward. With so much to see, and excellent roads, I found the journey itself even more stimulating than the destination.

The national parks include Conguillío, home to indigenous araucaria (monkey-puzzle) trees, some up to 1,200 years old, whose distinctive umbrella tops only form at the youthful age of 500. Thick forest surrounds blue lagoons in the shadow of volcanoes to create a landscape so primeval it was used by the BBC when filming Walking With Dinosaurs.

There are more araucaria at Huerquehue National Park, whose forests are home to foxes, cougars, deer, chucao tapaculo birds and a vulnerable population of guiñas — a species of cat similar in size to a small domestic tabby and unique to this region. Volcano-lovers will also enjoy the hike to the top of Villarrica, one of South America's most active volcanoes, sitting in brooding splendour amid the park that bears its name. The crater has a bubbling lake within it, while the descent is much quicker than the three-hour climb if you risk an exciting but dangerous slide down on the ice.

With hiking in summer and snowsports in winter, the region abounds with small German-style towns, reinforcing the Alpine ambience. This is enhanced further by the local beers, which conform to the GermanReinheitsgebot purity standards of 1516, adding to the feel of a place peacefully out of step not only with the rest of Chile, but also the world outside.


Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Santiago. Fly with Iberia from Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh via Madrid; Air France via Paris from Birmingham, Bristol, Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle; or LAN/TAM via Sao Paulo from Heathrow. 

Average flight time: 12h15m.

Getting around

Chile stretches only 221 miles from east to the west Pacific coast but 2,653 miles from north to south. The national carrier, LAN, has a network of frequent daily services. All cities have cheap, metered taxis and Santiago has an efficient metro system. 

When you go

Its climate varies considerably but central Chile has a Mediterranean-like warm and dry summer (November to March) when temperatures reach 30-35C. Winter (mid-May to August) is the rainy season, when temperatures at night can drop to freezing but tend to vary from 10-25C during the day.

Need to know

Visas: A passport with more than six months' validity is required for UK citizens. Tourist visas are not needed for stays up to 90 days.

Currency: Chilean peso (CLP). £1 = CLP765.

Health: No vaccinations are required.

International dial code: +56.

Time: GMT -4.

Where to stay

Santiago: W Hotel — Santiago

Santiago: The Aubrey

Valparaíso: Hotel Casa Higueras

San Pedro de Atacama: Explora Atacama

More info

Rough Guide to Chile. RRP: £15.99.

Insight Guides: Chile & Easter Island. RRP: £16.99.

How to do it

Exodus has a 15-day Discover Chile tour using small family-owned hotels, visiting Atacama, the Lake District and Patagonia, starting from £3,149 including flights to Santiago from London. 

Bales Worldwide has a 13-day Boutique Chile tour using top-class hotels, visiting Santiago, Atacama and Patagonia, starting from £4,495 including flights to Santiago from London. 

Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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