Chile: the long and spell­bind­ing road

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cover Story -

It took a vol­cano to stop me in my tracks. Not, thank­fully, an erupt­ing one, but a shim­mer­ing, cone-shaped, beau­ti­ful stra­to­vol­cano that ap­peared one dawn in all its glory – fol­low­ing a day of tor­ren­tial rain – framed by my ho­tel win­dow and a pris­tine blue sky. Osorno, the vol­cano of which I speak, would slow down any trav­eller: it stands alone, un­clut­tered by other An­dean moun­tains, tow­er­ing above im­mense Lake Llan­qui­hue, snow­topped, serene, sub­lime.

Un­til then, I’d been driv­ing, bussing, hik­ing and plane-hop­ping, apace, down long, lanky Chile. It was a trip I’d been think­ing about for some time. I’d “dis­cov­ered” Chile on an over­land trip 20 years ear­lier, when I had a lot more time than money. When Bri­tish Air­ways launched its di­rect flight to San­ti­ago ear­lier this year, I knew it would lead to a glut of sto­ries about San Pe­dro de Ata­cama, Tor­res del Paine and the winer­ies around the cap­i­tal – the usual sus­pects. But Chile is 2,653 miles long, stretch­ing from the sub­trop­ics to the tun­dra of Tierra del Fuego. I wanted to see – and show – some­thing of its im­mense ge­o­graph­i­cal va­ri­ety and bio­di­ver­sity.

My first sight, on cross­ing the Chilean bor­der from Peru, was not the best ad: it was a mine­field. Ever since Chile grabbed a huge swathe of desert fol­low­ing the War of the Pa­cific of 1879-83, fron­tiers have been dis­puted with Peru and Bo­livia (the lat­ter has no seaboard at all). The view from my taxi was of bare, bak­ing sand, high dunes hazy in the dis­tance, not a tree or green field in sight. Skulls and cross­bones. Quar­relling over such a place seemed par­tic­u­larly ab­surd.

Nev­er­the­less, Arica, Chile’s north­ern­most first city, was very like­able. The port was busy with small artisan ves­sels and seals, gulls and pel­i­cans were kick­ing up a riot as a fish­er­man gut­ted part of his catch and threw the tasty in­nards into the sea.

Af­ter a stroll down a pedes­trian strip with at least one busker per block – one smi­ley, hippy fam­ily per­form­ing tune­ful nueva can­ción folk num­bers – I scored a su­perb lunch of seafood soup and a bonito ce­viche for just $2,000 (or £2.45), with a glass of DayGlo-yel­low Inka Cola thrown in. Ta­bles were com­mu­nal and I chat­ted to ex-mer­chant sea­man Car­los, who’d been to Liverpool, across the North Sea, down through Panama. He was friendly, salty-look­ing but fit and wiry for his 70-odd years.

Arica’s best known “sight” is its cathe­dral, ded­i­cated to St Mark, de­signed by Gus­tave Eif­fel. But it was be­ing re­stored and was hemmed in by fenc­ing. Close by were an old rail­way sta­tion for the line to La Paz (com­pen­sa­tion for los­ing all that ter­ri­tory?), and a few other old build­ings. But the city’s num­ber-two sight is the Morro de Arica or Arica Mount, a cliff top that was the lo­ca­tion of a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory in the Pa­cific War. A mas­sive flag flapped in the sea-breeze. Christ looked over one di­rec­tion; vin­tage can­nons pointed in all the oth­ers.

Arica is a handy base for An­dean ex­plo­rations. From here, I drove in­land, through bar­ren moun­tains. I saw no towns, no wildlife, no trees, no peo­ple, un­til I reached Codpa. Here was a small oa­sis of prickly pear, plums, ap­ples and mus­ca­tel grapes – a lo­cal farmer told me he was help­ing to re­vive the wine, the sta­ple of the masses in colo­nial times – and a quaint 17th-cen­tury church, full of flow­ers and paint­ings of stig­mata and cru­sad­ing scenes. A foun­da­tion based in Arica is work­ing to re­store a bunch of old churches dot­ting the area, dat­ing from the Span­ish days when Je­suits would set up shop in the re­motest spots and con­vert the na­tive Ay­mara.

A long, slightly scary drive on mainly gravel roads took me past sev­eral more churches and right up to the An­dean high plain and my first Chilean vol­cano – Lauca – which sits on the Bo­li­vian bor­der. Haze meant it was mel­low rather than mag­nif­i­cent, but the sur­round­ing lakes and marsh­lands, busy with pink flamin­gos and rus­set-coloured vicuña (the small­est of the New World camelids, highly prized for its wool), were breath­tak­ing.

The Pan-Amer­i­can High­way took me south through a bar­ren land­scape of coastal moun­tains and high desert, all the way to Iquique. A major city and port, and once the salt­pe­tre cap­i­tal of South Amer­ica, its old cen­tre looks like a film set for a Western-cum­min­ing movie – it’s now a major hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion. Ar­gen­tines zip over the An­dean passes to get some sun and surf. I had a swim in the pleas­antly cool wa­ters and en­joyed some more shell­fish, but soon tired of the hud­dled masses bronz­ing them­selves on the beach.

South of Iquique is the best-known bit of the mas­sive Ata­cama Desert – a term usu­ally used in­ac­cu­rately just for the area around San Pe­dro, the north’s tourism hon­ey­pot. I skipped it com­pletely, and con­tin­ued south to an­other area of year-round sun, dra­matic land­scapes and starry skies. Re­gion IV, as it is un­po­et­i­cally dubbed, is where lots of Chileans come for beach hol­i­days and to make (and drink) pisco and see amaz­ing ma­rine wildlife.

The lat­ter hap­pened for me at Punta de Choros, a lonely, low-slung head­land a cou­ple of hours north of the re­gional cen­tre and re­sort city of La Ser­ena. The land­scape was still dry and dusty, but there were some trees, and towns, and signs of life – hu­man and avian. There were protest posters declar­ing: ¡No a la Dominga! I stayed in a cool ge­o­desic dome right on the front, en­joyed a fab­u­lous bar­be­cue-party with my co-campers, and took a morning boat trip to see two pro­tected is­lands. The first, Isla Choros, was a whirl of leap­ing dol­phins, slum­ber­ing sea lions, deep­div­ing cor­morants and wad­dling Hum­boldt pen­guins. I also saw tiny pe­trels and lots of boo­bies.

We were able to dis­em­bark on the sec­ond, Isla de Da­mas, and walk through a wilder­ness of hairy-look­ing cac­tus and hun­dreds of bad-tem­pered nest­ing kelp gulls. The pi­lot ex­plained that the north Chilean coast is home to 80 per cent of these en­dan­gered pen­guins, as well as a haven for many other species. Dominga, he said, was a min­ing firm that wanted to build a huge cop­per and iron mine and ex­port hub nearby. “We re­sisted a hy­dro­elec­tric project six years ago,” he said. “We’ll win this fight, too.” I hope he’s right.

I loved it at the Punta, but my mis­sion to cover a lot of fresh ter­ri­tory kept me mov­ing on in the afternoon into the Elqui Val­ley. I re­mem­bered this name from 20 years ago and how peo­ple spoke about the area as if it was a bit mag­i­cal or mys­ti­cal, as if there might be gnomes or fairies up there. It turned out to be be­guil­ingly beau­ti­ful – and a bit boozy.

Gabriela Mis­tral, Chile’s 1945 No­bel Prize-win­ning poet – the first Span­ish-Amer­i­can au­thor to re­ceive it – lived in the Elqui Val­ley, de­scrib­ing it as “a heroic scar in the mass of moun­tains, but so brief, that it is noth­ing but a tor­rent through two green banks. And this lit­tle place can be loved as per­fec­tion.”

At last, I was in a well-wa­tered land­scape, which is, along with the bright sun­light, one of the rea­sons wine is made here. Cul­ti­va­tion of mus­cat, Pe­dro Ximénez, mus­ca­tel and toron­tel grapes to make pisco be­gan in Chile in the 19th cen­tury (though much ear­lier in Peru). I did a tast­ing at the Mis­tral dis­tillery – named af­ter the poet – and, ex­pect­ing a harsh fire­wa­ter, was pleas­antly sur­prised by the hazel­nut, spice, mo­lasses and even Is­lay-es­que petrol notes.

Elqui is also a wine-grow­ing area and at the Alfa Aldea win­ery, I had al­most the most won­der­ful night of stargaz­ing and shi­raz-sip­ping. We saw Mars, Venus, Uranus, the neb­ula in Orion’s sword and sev­eral satel­lites, me­te­ors and dis­tant star clus­ters. The “al­most” is only be­cause a full moon was up, con­tam­i­nat­ing the night sky. Top tip: if you want to re­ally en­joy Chile’s awe­some night skies, keep an eye on the lu­nar cy­cle and book your flights ac­cord­ingly.

On my way south, I by­passed San­ti­ago and paused in­stead at the smaller, pret­tier and far less traf­fic-in­fested Val­paraiso. A major city un­til the open­ing of the Panama Canal in 1914, it’s still the coun­try’s main port and my ho­tel, half­way up

To re­ally en­joy Chile’s awe­some night skies, look at the lu­nar cy­cle and book ac­cord­ingly

Cerro Ale­gre (Happy Hill) – one of the city’s many steep slopes – had a view over the con­tainer ter­mi­nal. When a huge Ham­burg Süd cargo ves­sel docked, the air filled with a plan­gent, al­most ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal two-way horn-song be­tween the tugs and the big con­tainer car­rier.

As this was my first city stop, I over­dosed on qual­ity gas­tron­omy, street art, proper cof­fee – it’s in­stant in much of Chile – and vis­ited La Se­bas­tiana, the house (now mu­seum) where Pablo Neruda lived, on and off, be­tween 1961 and his death in 1973. I could see why he loved it here: the view of coloured houses tum­bling down to the sea, the gulls, the sparkling Pa­cific, and count­less bars to while away the hours with pen in one hand, a gob­let of vino in the other. “I like on the table, when we’re speak­ing, the light of a bot­tle of in­tel­li­gent wine,” he wrote.

With re­spect to lo­cal res­i­dents, for sev­eral hun­dred miles south of Val­paraiso and San­ti­ago, Chile be­comes worka­day. Once you pass the wine-grow­ing val­leys of Colch­agua and Maule (sadly dam­aged by fires shortly af­ter my trip), you’re into mod­ern-look­ing conur­ba­tions such as Talca, Chillán, Con­cep­ción and Los An­ge­les. Mil­i­tary bases, in­dus­trial plants, in­ten­sive agri­cul­ture feed, de­fend and en­rich San­ti­ago and the densely pop­u­lated midriff of the na­tion. There are good buses and even a train (Chile’s one longish-dis­tance ser­vice con­nects San­ti­ago and Chillán) though a flight is short and sweet, and, if you bag a left-hand seat, you can count down the vol­ca­noes as you go.

You ar­rive, af­ter 600 miles, at Val­divia, a rather spe­cial – and un­der­rated – sort of city. Founded in 1552 and set­tled in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury by Ger­mans, it’s a quaint but con­fi­dent place and the gate­way to the Chilean lakes. I was 40 de­grees south now and it was a re­lief to rest my eyes on cool, blue rivers and green­ery. The area is sur­rounded by a biome known as the Val­di­vian tem­per­ate rain­for­est, a lush swathe of ev­er­green laurel-leaved and de­cid­u­ous nothoph­a­gus beech trees.

The city – home to five univer­si­ties – was balm to the brain. I found a brew bar with live jazz groove. I found a small but ex­cit­ing con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum; one in­stal­la­tion was a video work about those mines I’d seen be­hind barbed wire fences on the Peru­vian bor­der. I found well-pre­served Ger­man houses and civic build­ings, cafés selling küchen and strudel.

From here I jumped on a bus for Puerto Varas. With each de­gree of

You mea­sure the coun­try open­ing out the folds in the An­des, mak­ing the ver­ti­cal into the hor­i­zon­tal

lat­i­tude south, the view just got bet­ter and bet­ter. First we passed through dense, mul­ti­form fo­liage. Then the bus rolled on to the Pan-Amer­i­can and the left-hand windows filled with vol­ca­noes: Pun­ti­agudo (“Sharply pointed”); un­tidy, rough-edged Tron­ador (“Thun­derer”) over on the Ar­gen­tine bor­der; Cal­buco, which blew its top spec­tac­u­larly as re­cently as April 2015; and mighty, mes­meris­ing Osorno.

The end of the road – my road – was an is­land: Chiloé. Here I stayed at a lodge called Terra, one of those fab lux­u­ry­plus-ac­tiv­ity ho­tels South Amer­ica does so well. Feel­ing guilty about driv­ing, or be­ing driven, for most of the jour­ney, I em­barked on three days of cy­cling, kayak­ing, hik­ing, and rid­ing. For fuel, I car­ried on with my shell­fish diet, and over­ate one night when the ho­tel made a cu­ranto, a pit-heated mega-feast of sausages, chicken, mus­sels, clams, and dumpling-like pat­ties of pork and potato.

I joined a boat excursion to an islet to see Chiloé’s tra­di­tional shin­gle-cov­ered houses on stilts. On the way back, I dozed, alone, on the roof of the boat, wo­ken at one point by “oohs” and “ahhs” from be­low – a pod of dol­phins was tum­bling and twist­ing at the bow.

I didn’t want to miss such de­lights so sat up, and saw steamer ducks, pen­guins, god­wits, seals, cor­morants, kelp gulls, green is­lands, colo­nial churches and, look­ing south, the vol­ca­noes and ice-smeared tops of the An­des and, turn­ing ever so slightly south, the edge of Patag­o­nia, where Chile col­lapses into the sea and be­comes fa­mously strange and beau­ti­ful – but no more so than all I had seen on my lit­tle odyssey.

Chileans say there’s no east and west, only north and south, and the An­des and Pa­cific Ocean. But Mis­tral came closer to the truth when she wrote, “You have to mea­sure the coun­try open­ing out the folds in the An­des moun­tains and in that way mak­ing the ver­ti­cal into the hor­i­zon­tal”.

I hope this brief, some­what breath­less ac­count of my long jour­ney down has opened up some of those folds and axes. I should have stopped more of­ten, and gone slower, but, then again, as with the prover­bial piece of string, Chile is as long as you want it to be – and then some.

Chile’s Elqui Val­ley, main, and Val­paraiso, be­low right

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