The skinniest of countries caresses the western coast of South America, snaking from the high altiplano and stark rust-red landscapes of the Atacama Desert to the glacier-topped mountains and turquoise lakes of Southern Patagonia.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Chile.
They say “like father like son” but in the case of the Montes, they stand for different sides of the Andes. Aurelio Montes, Sr. represents Chile and Vina Montes. Aurelio Montes, Jr. exemplifies Argentina and Kaiken. Although they are different countries and wineries, they have a lot in common, especially their passion for wine.
An exuberant passion for both wine and winemaking are two important components for producing an outstanding wine. This is true for both Aurelio Sr. and Aurelio Jr. I met Aurelio Montes, Jr., winemaker for Kaiken, a few years ago. When you’re in his company, his enthusiasm for his craft is quite apparent. You immediately sense his fervor for wine, the terroir and the entire winemaking process. This is also true of his father, which I sensed at a father-son tasting recently.
For Aurelio Jr., his love of wine started at a young age. His father made sure of this by dragging his son around the world with him as he was expanding his winery’s reach. Aurelio Jr. also worked in the vineyards starting at a young age.
At the time, Aurelio Montes, Sr. discovered the viticulture and terroir of the region east of the Andes – Mendoza, Argentina. As a result, he was moved to expand his winemaking prowess. He achieved this by having a hand in creating wines in a country very close to his native Chile, yet very different in the styles of winemaking. Hence, Kaiken was established in 2002.
Kaiken’s name represents the wild geese, caiquenes, that cross the Andes between Chile and Argentina during migration season. The name of the winery not only symbolizes this wild goose but also the Montes team that crossed the Andes to create the marvelous wines that embody the Kaiken label.
The Caiquen is also a very social bird and thereby suggests Aurelio Montes Jr. and Aurelio Montes Sr.
the social aspects that bring people together over a bottle of wine and food. It also represents the social responsibilities the winemakers feel they have in both Chile and Argentina.
A Passion for Wine Through Sustainability
The Aurelios are very civic minded and the community plays an important role in both wineries. Sustainability is important in every aspect of the vineyard. For Vina Montes and Kaiken, this means protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as attention to operations management and social responsibility. In other words, it is the mission of both wineries to “respect the environment, embrace sustainable practices, work in harmony with the local community and create value for both the shareholders and employees.”
At Vina Montes, the Angels program speaks out in the wines, winery community, and the local surroundings. Aurelio Sr. does this through a learning project he finances that includes complimentary health and life insurance for his employees and their families. As he puts it, “Happy people means happy wines.” The angel is their symbol and also the guardian of the Vina Montes winery. Some of his wines are dedicated to this program, including the Purple Angel and Sparkling Angel.
Another unique aspect of Vina Montes is music. You can always hear it resounding in the barrel room and the vineyards. Often, Gregorian chants echo throughout the winery.
Perhaps to further the importance of a sustainable approach to winemaking, Aurelio Sr. hired a Feng Shui architect to design and construct the winery building in 1990 and ensure that its environment is attuned to the wines. Even the water flows through the winery in a certain way.
Swaying in the basket of a hot air balloon high above the arid Atacama Desert, you may have to remind yourself that what you see below you is still Chile. How can one nation have produced so many different landscapes? From the desert-bound north to the iron-grey peaks in the south, and the wetlands and glacial valleys in between, a visit to Chile can feel like a greatest hits tour through some of the world’s most spectacular terrain. That makes it a fantastic place to travel for a few weeks, a month, or even longer.
Most flights will arrive in Santiago, and it’s worth exploring the capital before you head out. There’s an excellent museum and shopping scene around the Centro, while barrios Brasil, Lastarria and Bellavista are blessed with affordable and delicious places to dine, and a nightlife lively enough to rival Rio de Janeiro’s. When you’ve had your fill of cosmopolitan comforts, jump on a plane and head north. It’s about to get a lot more wild.
SOME LIKE IT HOT
The Atacama Desert is the driest non polar desert in the world. It’s also beautiful, an otherworldly landscape that starts at sea level before climbing 4,000 metres to meet the Andes. Base yourself in San Pedro de Atacama, a fertile oasis the indigenous Atacama people once called home, and you’ll be perfectly positioned for trips into the wilderness. A balloon tour is a must for the breathtaking vistas on offer, and can be easily arranged by Rainbow Tours, but there’s plenty to see on foot too. Rise at dawn for a trip to the El Tatio geysers: if they erupt at the right moment, you can capture unforgettable photos of them framed against the rising sun. Keep an eye out for wildlife as you go: if you’re observant (and in luck) you’ll spot everything from flamingos, llamas and vicunas (a camel-like mammal native to South America) to the rhea, a giant, flightless bird.
No trip to the Atacama would be complete without a visit to the Valley of the Moon. Its lunar landscape has been created by millions of years of flooding and wind erosion, and it’s also the setting for one of Chile’s more dazzling and colourful sights. Perch yourself on top of a sand dune and wait for the sun to dip below the distant volcanoes on the horizon; as it does, the salt flats, the valley and your surroundings will be suffused in deep purples, golds and pinks.
Almost 2,000 miles south at the other end of Chile is the Torres del Paine National Park, famous for its strikingly vertical peaks and dramatic landscapes. It’s a Unesco-protected habitat, and there’s plenty of wildlife to spot on your hikes, including soaring Andean condors, stealthy pumas, and herds of grazing guanaco, another camel-like native creature.
It’s not the only southern spot famous for its beauty. Up the coast you’ll find the Lakes District, a vast wetland area of looming volcanoes, clear glacial lakes and small, pretty towns. Explore by horse and kayak to get the best views, and head to Cochamo Valley for exhilarating rock climbing. Chiloe Island, a little further to the north, is home to the Chile people, who live in brightly coloured wooden houses on stilts over the water. Spend a few days exploring their unique settlements and visiting some of the island’s churches, 16 of which are designated Unesco World Heritage sites, before kicking back with a warming bowl of curanto, the local meat, potato and seafood stew.
No visa is required for British citizens to visit Chile, and from January a new British Airways route will get you from Heathrow to Santiago in just over 14 hours. It’s best to visit in our spring, early in the new year, though make sure you come adequately prepared for the range of weather: in January, temperatures stretch from the high thirties in the north to near zero in the extreme south. Book with Rainbow Tours and you’ll be paired with a dedicated Chile specialist, who’ll help arrange a bespoke itinerary, flights and accommodation.
Portillo is on every serious skier’s bucket list, but this resort in the middle of the Chilean Andes is more like sleepaway camp for adults who also love pisco sours, teatime, and staying put
On a bluebird day at Portillo, when the sun’s warmth is inescapable and the snow is soft and light underfoot, you look out at Laguna del Inca, a celestial indigo lake reflecting the sharp peaked mountains without a ripple, and you think, This is one of the most gorgeous natural bodies of water I will ever lay my eyes on. Of course, it would be hidden in the middle of the Chilean Andes, requiring a two-hour drive from Santiago up a series of winding switchbacks. But when you’re staring at it from the top of the Lake Run on a grim overcast day, gripping your edges on an impossibly steep face, you think, This lake, which has turned a dark blue I can only describe as genuinely malignant, may be the end of me.
“We pulled out five vicuñas from there yesterday,” says Portillo’s operations manager, Mike Rogan, who offered to take me, my husband, and a few others here, including a Slovenian astrophysicist and a software engineer from San Francisco, despite less-than-stellar snow conditions that day. “Were they alive?” asked someone who had drunk one too many glasses of vino tinto at lunch. “Nope,” Rogan said. “Okay, now we have to take off our skis and very carefully walk across this shale in our boots.” I’ve skied most of my life, on varied backcountry terrain, in blizzards, and in freezing temperatures. But this was a first for me.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I heard about Portillo, but I definitely recall listening to too much Ani DiFranco, wearing a hemp necklace, and owning a pair of absurdly long Salomon skis I would click into almost every weekend at Alta, a throwback mountain in Salt Lake City’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, near where I lived. Sometime after my sixteenth birthday, I began flirting with the idea of going flat-out ski bum, partly to impress boys who were largely unresponsive to hemp-accessories-loving Ani DiFranco fans, but mainly to agitate my parents. I pretended to like Warren Miller films, plastered my bedroom door with neon stickers that blasted affirmations like “Next Year I’m Advancing to K3S!” and tried to tune my own equipment in my bedroom, only to have to pay a deadlocked tech to remount my bindings.
Despite my bush-league attempts at going full disciple, I spent a lot of time with people who ski more than most of us vacuum, and quickly learned where snow falls in the Southern Hemisphere during North American summers. (Similar to the way Angelenos obsessively talk about traffic, powder acolytes inevitably turn the conversation to this in hopes of breaking 100 days on mountain in a year.) Chile – and more specifically its most storied resort, Portillo, plunked in the middle of the Cordillera near the Uspallata, a frontier pass on the border of central Chile and Argentina – is one of those places where you might experience a nine-foot dump in the middle of August. It’s legendary for other reasons, too. It was the first South American resort to host the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, in 1966, when Jean-Claude Killy became the sport’s unofficial rock star. The U.S., Norwegian, Austrian, and Canadian national ski teams typically train here every August among mere mortals, meaning guests seeking bragging rights can hurl themselves down the same Super G course that Julia Mancuso does. And then there’s the treeless, intimidatingly vertical Andean terrain, where Incan tambos, or shelters, are still found. Even in a photograph from a crappy ski magazine, it radiates a palpable ancient aura. All to say, Stowe it is not.
I never became a lifelong mountain jock, but Portillo stuck with me. It was one of those bucket list trips I always imagined myself taking when I was firmly in AARP territory, jump-turning out of ankle-deep powder with my new bionic knee replacements. Because really, skiing in Chile isn’t something you think you’re actually going to do, like, right now. Hell no. How could you? There’s work, the kid, the laundry. The kid’s laundry! Plunking a destination into a bucket list is a form of well-intentioned procrastination: It means you’ll go there before you die, yes, but later in life when you’re a silver-haired lithe fox who’s got it all figured out, like one of those women in the Cialis commercials.
Take advantage of sun-kissed Pacific coast, wild arid desert and epic Andean rises with our handy guide
Without planning it, I’ve come to know Chile in fragments. Years ago, I took a bus from the Atacama desert to Santiago. More recently, I drove the Southern Highway in Aysén, Central Patagonia. When teaching in Buenos Aires, I arrived in the lake district by boat from Argentina, and later, as a journalist, I toured the vineyards in the shadow of Aconcagua. I have even swum (as best I could) in the heaving surf at La Serena.
All of these experiences were on different trips, in different years and seasons, via various modes of transport. The reason for this patchwork approach is partly due to the country’s uniquely long, thin shape – its 12 political regions broadly describe a dozen distinct topographical zones. All of which makes in-country travel time- consuming and to some extent dependent on the season.
Chile is best known to travellers for its extremes: on the one side, Atacama and the northern deserts; on the other, the wilds and glacial wonderlands of Patagonia and the Andes. But my many journeys have taught me that there’s comparable beauty – and less tourist traffic – in other areas, especially the edges of its lakes and near to La Serena. This is especially true of the temperate zones of the country’s long middle section, which offers far more than wining and dining.
Broadly speaking: the further south you go, the better things get for hiking, biking and camping. Most first-time visitors will want to see some of Chile’s photogenic wildernesses, perhaps after a few days in stylish capital Santiago or the arty coastal city of Valparaiso – both ideal for stopovers.
The following itineraries have, therefore, been kept short, so those with two weeks or more can combine a few routes. And since Chile is one of the best countries in South America for driving – roads and traffic are good, the drivers are not all insane – the majority can also be done as self-drive trips, pit-stopping at sights and cities en route.
Hit the heights in Santiago with hikes, festivals and fine wines
Why go? Few cities boast as eclectic a mix of urban charm and natural beauty as Santiago. Its thriving arts and dining scene buzzes to a backdrop of lush hillside parks and wild Andean peaks.
Santiago’s buzzing nucleus is the Plaza de Armas. Gaze up at its neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral while snacking on sopaipilla (fried dough rounds).
Elsewhere, soak up Latin art history at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombin before hitting the Museo Colonial, which houses artefacts from Chile’s dawn. January is also a timely month, with performers all set to hit the streets for the Santiago a Mil arts festival (3-22 Jan 2017).
Grab some fresh air climbing the stone stairs of Santa Lucia Hill (629m) or the imposing San Cristobal Hill (880m) in the lush Metropolitan Park – both afford excellent panoramas of the city.
Finish beyond the capital, exploring its tugged Andean setting. To the south-east lies the otherworldiy Cajon del Maipo, a web of snowy peaks, milky lagoons and glaciers. Or hike San Jose volcano (5,856m) for fine vistas, then end with a tipple at Maipo Valley’s vineyards, viewed by many as the finest in Chile.
Where to stay? Hotel Orly, an old French-style mansion, is well-placed in leafy Providencia district, near Metropolitan Park.
- POPULATION 160,000
- SIZE 3,241 square miles
Chiloe, it’s often said, is an island whose character was inherited from surrounding seas rather than from the Chilean mainland: be it through the fishermen who set out on foggy mornings to bring home a catch to make curanto (seafood and meat steam-cooked over hot rocks) or the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins that squint out to sea from the western coast. A blustery, green land that looks not unlike Wales, Chiloe’s architecture looks like nothing else in South America, with its villages of palafitos (stilt houses, pictured) and World
Heritage-listed churches, built wholly from timber, which creaks sonorously in the Pacific wind. Among them are the extroverted church of San Francisco de Castro, painted in a curious colour scheme of mustard yellow and purple, and the rather more sober 18th-century Santa Maria de Loreto, held together by wooden pegs.
- GETTING THERE – From Singapore, fly Air France to Chile’s Santiago via Paris. From Kuala Lumpur, fly Malaysia Airlines via Sydney, Australia. LAN flies onwards to Chiloe’s Castro airport (from US$270; lan.com). Chiloe is also an hour’s drive from Puerto Montt followed by a short ferry crossing.
Desolation begins benignly enough. Under leaden skies streaked with shards of light and soaring condors we set out to ascend the mountain pass that cuts across the saddle of Osorno Volcano. Our heavy boots crunch over skittering basaltic scree jettisoned by ancient volcanic eruptions. Their effusive lava flow now provides fertile ground for the fierce mountain gorse- and lichen-encrusted evergreens enveloping the hillsides. The trail steepens and a rasping wind buffets our ears, bearing the smell of damp earth. We stride by tumbling waterfalls and an abandoned mountain refuge hot on the trail of a prowling guina wildcat. Rhythm is broken only intermittently to scrump wild chaura berries, tinted candy-pink and bursting with sweet juice — a small gift from a parched land.
My guide, Marcela, is conducting me deep into Chile’s first national park and offering a thrilling introduction to the Region de Los Lagos — the Chilean Lake District. Lying more than midway down the country’s southern spine, at the northern tip of Patagonia, it’s a pastoral backcountry where the gentle undulations of forest-fringed meadows give way to smouldering peaks and deep glacial waters. I’ve come in search of adventure but experience much more; there are colossal trees, diverse wildlife, a sense of unbound space and silence. It becomes clear how Paso Desolacion earned its sobriquet when we emerge onto a wind-whipped plateau. Here, even the hardiest plants retreat, exposing a vast, lifeless lunarscape.
On one side, the crooked outline of La Picada curls like a witch’s nose against an icy blue sky; on the other soars the snow-fleeced cone of imperious Osorno, pricked by a prism of sunlight. Historically, Osorno was one of the most active volcanoes of the southern Chilean Andes, erupting 11 times between 1575 and 1869. A young Charles Darwin witnessed one of these explosions, describing it as ‘the grandest volcanic spectacle I ever saw’ while visiting Chile in 1835. “It’s dormant — for now,” says Marcela pointedly. She has good reason to be cautious; it’s only a year since neighbouring Calbuco roared back to life after decades of slumber, drowning nearby villages in a billowing ash cloud that led to 2,500 evacuations. Now all that attests to this apocalyptic blowout is the soft brown silt carpeting the ground.
Against a backdrop of grey boulders and bedrock, Todos los Santos Lake shimmers on the distant horizon like a mirage. Its shock of emerald blue is exquisitely framed by verdant hills set before an impenetrable wall of Andean peaks marking the Argentine frontier. We find a rocky ledge to quietly commune with the mountains, relishing our picnic lunch and the soul-stirring views. As we descend, dense temperate rainforest springs up — bamboo culms, shaggy ferns and flowering trees gripped by twisted vines and drooping moss. Marcela listens for the melancholy cry of the native chucao bird and points out centuries-old canelo trees, deemed sacred by the indigenous Mapuche people. From the thicket, we emerge onto black sand banks to follow the lake’s western rim to the Petrohue Waterfalls, where thousands of years of raging currents have licked the black rock smooth.
In pre-Columbian times this territory was ruled by the Mapuche (meaning ‘people of the land’ in their native tongue). True to their name, the Mapuche fiercely resisted the Incas who descended from the north in the 15th century. In 1541, the Spanish invaded from Peru but again encountered fierce Mapuche resistance. The conflict lasted centuries as the conquistadores tried and failed to colonise the Mapuche heartland, leaving the Lake District as one of the last indigenous strongholds.
The final blow to Mapuche autonomy came after Chilean Independence, in the 1850s, when the government launched an aggressive programme of mass immigration to the area. Wave after wave of European settlers, mostly German, arrived by the boatload. These new families were granted their own patch of appropriated Mapuche land as the government sought to ‘tame’ the wild south and its unyielding, indigenous people.
OUTDOOR PURSUITS – The legacy of colonisation lives on in Puerto Varas, where I rest up before the following day’s exertions. It’s a picturesque town located on the southern shores of Llanquihue Lake, characterised by gabled roofs that are, bizarrely, reminiscent of old-time Bavaria. Streets bear names of both Hispanic and Germanic origin, while bars and cafes offer craft beer and flaky kuchen (pastries). Along the waterfront, I dangle my feet over the boardwalk and watch the dipping sun dance across the sea-like expanse of blue. Across the waters rise the snow-capped slopes of Osorno and Calbuco, their subliminal presence a prompt to reflect on the day’s feats.
When a gleaming crescent moon rises between the peaks, the scene is subsumed into an ethereal indigo, blurring where the water ends and the sky begins. When both lake and mountain dissolve into darkness, I gravitate to a candlelit table at Mercado 605. It’s an inviting bistro set back from the lake where local flavours are enhanced with nouvelle cuisine finesse. A heady pisco de campo, sweetened with local Ulmo honey, precedes a feast of lake-fished ceviche, melt-in-the-mouth Patagonian lamb and a feather-light mousse of crimson murta berries foraged from the surrounding woods.
The following morning, we take kayaks to explore the Reloncavi Estuary fjord. The Petrohue River flows into Raliin Bay, where we launch into mirror-smooth waters dwarfed by steep slopes snagged with cotton-wool clouds. Further out, inquisitive seals bob their silken heads to say hello but, sadly, we see nothing of the shy tonina — Chile’s small indigenous dolphin. An ominous gathering of clouds speeds the dip-dip of our paddles as we head for lunch at a nearby homestead. By the time we haul our kayaks to shore, fat raindrops batter our foreheads. We squelch past fruit-drooping orchards up a hillside field to a clapboard farmhouse, its peeling blue paint etched out against dark skies.
Senora Yolanda’s face creases into a toothless smile when she spies us from the porch. She’s a tiny, ebullient septuagenarian who’s lived all her life in this house built by her antecedents four generations before. With an indomitable spirit and help from her son Juan-Carlos, she labours to ensure subsistence from her smallholding — raising livestock, planting legumes and using a wooden press to make chicha — a potent, apple-based grog. We’re hustled into the kitchen, where sopping garments are pegged onto clothes lines to dry over a blazing iron stove, on which a stew bubbles. We sit for a simple lunch surrounded by fading family portraits while Yolanda entertains with spirited yarns of daily life. She tells of monthly shopping trips involving an hour-long walk at dawn to reach the bus stop. “Sometimes, I miss it because I’m chatting to the neighbours,” she grins.
By the time mate (herbal tea) is served, she’s regaling us with tales of petrifying tempests and volcano-induced whirlwinds. “I was 14 when the great earthquake struck,” she recalls, referring to Chile’s notorious tremor of 1960 — the largest on record. “My ancestors used strong joints so the walls shook but didn’t fall.” Both house and its dwellers, it seems, are made of sturdy stuff. The afternoon takes on a different pace as we pedal bikes around Llanquihue. Empty roads wind through broad pastures dappled with grazing herds, brightly-painted beehives and sleepy hamlets. We break at Chester’s, a local microbrewery, to refresh ourselves with golden ale, before joining the road again.
Later, at a street market in the tranquil village of Puerto Octay, we dismount to browse stalls stacked with bricks of dried seaweed and strings of dark smoked mussels, known as cholga. A night of heavy snowfall means the glacier hike scheduled for the following day has been cancelled. Instead I elect to go on a horseback ride around the Puerto Rosales peninsula. The stables are run by Cristian and Carolina, a young couple whose hacks are tailored to allow for a deep appreciation of nature. With soft whispers, I gently guide my mare, Guinda, through sun-speckled woodland as her ears prick to the drill of a Magellanic woodpecker. We trot out onto a pebble beach before halting at the tip of the cape to quietly observe the landscape. The lake shimmers, a breeze plays among the reeds, and I lean back on Guinda’s saddle in contentment.
Isolation island – Later, I leave for a three-hour journey south across the choppy Chacao Strait to reach Chiloe. It’s South America’s second largest island and part of an archipelago formed when a mountain range sank into the Pacific in the last Ice Age. Through the spume and spray of the ferry crossing, I perceive a patchwork of pastures picked out in myrtle-green and wheat-yellow. Tiny dots morph at closer range into squat houses sheltering on the lee of the hill. This is no breezy seaside resort, but a brooding, capricious land of heaving tides, tumultuous winds and remote, primordial splendour. Chiloe has evolved an idiosyncratic way of life distinct from that of the Lake District mainland. Locals are quick to affirm, ‘We are not Chilenos, we are Chilotes.’
Regional solidarity manifests in the custom of minga, a labour system based on mutual exchange. “It began by neighbours helping one another sow seeds and harvest,” today’s guide, Maria-Jose, explains. Collaboration extends to more unusual services too. “Traditionally, when people moved, they took their house too.” On her phone she plays a video of teams of people transporting a wooden house on oxen-pulled tree trunks through streets towards the shoreline. “They float the house to its new island home then have a big party to celebrate,” she explains. My stay is at Tierra Chiloe, a striking feat of wood and glass whose dramatic geometric lines are attuned to the rugged isolation of the bay over which it billows.
Spacious interiors are softened with local hangings and rugs in natural materials, while wall-to-wall windows put the scenery on show. I spend my evening here in glorious seclusion, buried deep in hand-woven throws and plumped pillows beside a crackling wood fire. The views are mesmeric; my book remains unopened as I salute another sunset with no more distraction than a glass of soothing Carmenere red. Dawn breaks with a cacophony of squawking gulls, petrels and black-faced ibises. From my bedroom window, I watch the sun burn mist off the still waters, brushing the rugged landscape with golden tones, before I seek out a plentiful breakfast in preparation for the morning’s hike. We drive west past the small settlement of Cucao until the tarmac road peters out into a bumpy dirt track snaking along the thundering Pacific coastline.
On foot, we cross hilltop moorland strewn with free-roaming ewes who scurry at the sound of our approach. Cresting the clifftops are the skeletal frames of trees, their gnarled branches twisted into grotesque shapes by the Southern Pacific’s unrelenting blows. Far below, a colony of sea lions heave themselves out of the breakers to bask in the sun of a rocky cove. We arrive in an open bay where a wooden structure projects out into oblivion. “It marks the myth of the Muelle de las Almas — Pier of the Souls,” Maria-Jose tells us. “According to local legend, the souls of the dead come here to be judged.
They sail away to the next life on a ghost ship arriving from the headland.” It’s not the only superstition that the Chilotes retain from their ancestors. Echoing around the island are lingering tales of black magic-wielding brujos and the wretched El Trauco forest troll who can kill with just one glare. Somehow, these superstitions coexist in harmony with the island’s stoic Catholic beliefs, deeply rooted by the Jesuit missionaries who travelled to Chiloe in the early 17th century.
Around 70 historic timber churches are scattered over the archipelago, carved by skilled Chilote craftsmen using special hinges that forwent the need for nails. “It was a technique borrowed by shipbuilders — look at the arched ceiling, it’s like an upturned boat,” says Maria-Jose in a hushed voice, when we visit the Iglesia de Achao, Chiloe’s oldest church and one of 16 with UNESCO World Heritage Site status on the island. The church in Chiloe’s capital of Castro is a cheery beacon of canary yellow and lean, lilac-tipped steeples. We pass by the next day on the way to the sprawling local market, where vendors sit knitting thick ponchos and winter socks from the prized local wool.
Along the waterfront are the brightly painted palafitos — shingled houses extending over the sea on long stilts, an architectural hangover from the days when roads were scarce and seafarers returned by boat directly to their dwellings. Sandra Naiman, a jolly woman of mestizo origin, is the sole proprietor of a 25-acre organic farmstead. We’ve been lured in from the roadside on the way home by her offer of homemade jams and licorde morn (blackberry liquor). “My surname is Indio [relating to indigenous people] — until recently my family hid it. We were ashamed,” she tells us. “Now it’s different. We feel pride in our origins.” We step inside a dark larder groaning with giant garlic heads and various shapes and shades of potato. “Did you know Chiloe has 200 different types of papas nativas?”
As we explore the pastures, I hear how Chiloe is on the brink of great change. A project to build a new bridge connecting the island to the mainland is already underway, scheduled to be complete by 2019. While some islanders welcome the step towards modernity, others cherish their geographical isolation and fear an influx of industry bent on exploiting their fertile land and waters. “The charm of the island is its isolation,” Sandra states mournfully as she stares out to sea. On the ferry back to the mainland, I wonder how long this place will retain its raw natural beauty. I remain hopeful. After all, in this extraordinary land where houses can move across water and a pier to nowhere can bring retribution, where sleeping volcanoes suddenly vent their wrath and wooden slats can withstand the worst of Earth’s tremors, what other wild possibilities might occur?
With so many natural attractions within easy reach of the village of San Pedro de Atacama, the only problem is that you won’t have enough time to see and do everything in this dreamlike desert.
Main town: Copiapó
Major industry: mining
Unit of currency: Chilean peso (Ch$)
Cost index: pisco sour Ch$1500-2500 (US$3-5), hotel double Ch$44,000- 105,000 (US$80-180), day trip to El Tatio geysers Ch$20,000-30,000
Why go ASAP?
`What makes the desert beautiful,’ says the little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s famed 1943 novella, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well.’ Indeed, it was a deep recess in the earth that brought the world’s attention to the Atacama in 2010, when a collapsed mine trapped 33 Chilean miners underground for more than two months. After their miraculous rescue, Hollywood jumped on the story, trooping camera crews and movie stars through the desert in 2014 to film the adventure flick The 33.
The subterranean drama set the stage for exciting developments in the opposite space – the stunningly clear skies high above the sun-parched desert.
In cooperation with major research foundations in Europe, East Asia and the United States, Chile has launched ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/ submillimeter Array), the largest astronomical project in existence. The high-precision radio antennae of this revolutionary observatory, perched atop a 5000m plateau, are drawing astronomers and scientists from around the world to study the formation of stars and planets.
With fascinating astronomer-led stargazing tours leaving nightly from the village of San Pedro de Atacama – ground zero for outdoor adventure in this psychedelic desert landscape – there’s never been a better time to make the voyage to the driest desert in the world. Peering up into the night sky, the immense view might conjure another line from The Little Prince: ‘All the stars are a-bloom with flowers..?
From adrenaline-fueled adventures – ascending a high-altitude volcano, sandboarding down a towering dune, galloping on horseback towards a massive salt flat – to mellower excursions -observing spurting geysers at dawn, trekking past layercake rock formations at sunset, floating on your back in a crystal-blue laguna – the Atacama is all about outdoor adventure. With so many natural attractions within easy reach of the village of San Pedro de Atacama, the only problem is that you won’t have enough time to see and do everything in this dreamlike desert.
2014 drew a string of A-list celebrities to the Atacama – including movie stars Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche – for the filming of The 33, based on the true story of the ordeal and rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground. Shot partly in Copiapo near the site of the real-life events in the San Jose mine, the film is set for release at the start of the year.
Until recently, the staggeringly huge mine at Chuquicamata (Chuqui’) was the world’s largest producer of copper. It’s also famous as a hotbed of social issues: the 2004 Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries depicts the young revolutionary’s visit to the mine – and the way his outrage over poor working conditions helped to shape his political views. Today, it’s a side trip from San Pedro that’s extremely popular with international visitors.
Hiking, cycling, sandboarding, horseback riding -visitors to the Atacama usually work up a ravenous appetite. Classic Chilean comfort foods from empanadas to pastel de papas (potato casserole) are on offer at overpriced-for-tourists restaurants in town. Catering more to locals are a handful of restaurants and outdoor food stalls featuring regional specialities like pataska (a hearty corn-based stew with vegetables and meat). At night, look for the rica rica sour, a delicious twist on the pisco sour made with an aromatic herb that’s native to the desert.
Most bizarre sight:
The 4am wake-up call is worth it when you’re standing at the edge of El Tatio, an otherworldly geyser field ringed with volcanoes, at dawn – the sight of swirling pillars of steam against the stark blue backdrop of the altiplano is unforgettable.
Santiago was first settled by Spanish colonialist because of its fertile soils and access to water. Now the Chilean capital is central to everything.
Lastarria is considered to be Santiago’s bohemian neighbourhood. “The barrio is known as the Little Paris of Santiago,” says my guide, Mauricio. “Up the road a bit is Little Italy, while the area around the Plaza de Armas, the city’s historical heart, is known as Little Peru.
“Chile is a country of immigrants,” he continues. “The Spanish came here first, ahead of the English, who moved to Valparaiso and then to the mining areas of the Atacama. The Germans and the Swiss went to the Lake District while the Croatians settled in Patagonia. But this is where they all mingle – here, in Santiago. And everyone meets in Lastarria.”
From being the original site of Spanish settlement (at the foot of nearby Santa Lucia Hill), Lastarria has grown to become Santiago’s hipster hub. It’s not hard to believe:
I count at least a dozen cafes and eateries from my hotel steps. The people on the sidewalks are tattooed and bearded or pierced and dreadlocked. None would look out of place in Fitzroy or Newtown.
One block ever is Parque Forestal, a green space overlooked by period residences borrowing architectural styles from early-20th century Paris.
It’s a favourite hangout for friends and lovers, who meet on the lawns beside monumental fountains and bronze statues of forgotten heroes. Most of the city’s museums, galleries and theatres are within walking distance, often bearing similarities to their French peers. And the pedestrian street after which the barrio is named is just around the corner, hosting a street market selling crafty offerings and secondhand collectibles.
As much as I’d like to, I don’t linger with the writers and artists in Lastarria’s avant-garde cafes. And I don’t loiter inside its groovy wine bars with the yuppie crowds. They’re both tempting, but across the Mapocho River, beneath San Cristobal Hill, the bars and dubs of Bellavista are even livelier than those in Lastarria.
As I walk along Pio Nono street rowdy Chileans spill on to the streets, cradling beer bottles and wine glasses. I was led to believe that Latinos like to start late and finish early (the next morning), but this lot look like they might have got into the swing of things well before dark. I long to join them, but the scene is too young and energetic for me. Besides, I’m after something more cultural.
I’ve heard whispers about a newly opened cabaret venue where restaurant diners can eat while they watch music and dance shows that highlight differing streams of Chilean culture. I’m told the idea came from the tango houses in Buenos Aires and that it’s the first of its kind in Santiago, so I hunt the venue down and find it inside a restored Spanish colonial residence.
The performers at De Pablo a Violeta mingle with guests around an open barbecue and bar area, sipping terremoto (or “earthquake”) cocktails and glasses of Chilean-style sangria, borgoña (red wine mixed with strawberry).The enthusiasm of these actors, poets, musicians, singers and dancers creates a festive atmosphere that rubs off on those around them. Upbeat numbers have me tapping my feet and guests are actively encouraged to link arms and tag along during the final session.