Seeing the world, one country at the time

Chile in a Nutshell

Chile is an isolated country, separated by the sharp peaks of the Andes from its neighbors, though emotions cross borders. Chileans blame Argentines, Argentines laugh at them, Peruvians blame Chileans, and Bolivians blame Chileans and Peruvians. The country is shockingly neat, from its Disney-esque San Pedro de Atacama sand streets in the north to its garbage-free capital in the center to its Nordic-style Patagonia in the south. We attributed it to German and British settlers. Who knows. I do know it was the cleanest capital I’d ever been in, except maybe Singapore.
Not a scrap of paper, cigarette butt nor a piece of gum in the subway. Not even Germany can boast that. Being so long, it has distinct climates and landscapes, all beautiful. We saw the dramatic change from deserts and dunes to valleys and beaches to high mountains and green, rocky coasts. South of Santiago it was often cold and rainy, in part due to the spring season. It was very similar to Norway with its magnificent fjords, indigo blue lakes and tall, jagged mountains.

San Pedro, our first stop, is a backpacker town that looks like it’s sponsored by Martha Stewart, with matching carved wooden signs. It was comfortable and the excursions were fun. We hung out with our fellow Bolivia travelers from Germany, and visited the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and Duna Mayor, which was amazing. From there it was on south, to Algarrobo, near Santiago. Rosalie Kahn Lopez and her husband Guillermo, a lively couple, gave us much-needed rest by offering us the house “suite”. While there, we visited Pablo Neruda’s house “Isla Negra” and spent a day in Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, and Renaca, all colorful resort towns on the coast. We celebrated a joyful Thanksgiving with them and their friends before heading into Santiago, where we wanted to find a wireless connection, a rare luxury in South America, and spend some time working on our web site.

Only T-bird and old Equant friends saved us from the computer. Carlos Laje, a T-bird friend, took us to a chic marketing party and on a tour of the city. Jeronimo, an Equant friend, and several other colleagues took us to lunch. I also had a happy reunion with Veronica Villa, another Equant friend who just got married and despite a baby and a sick husband, took time away for some girl talk. (What are girlfriends for?) Chile is doing well economically, and it shows. It was expensive for us. Regardless, we managed to enjoy its fantastic variety of seafood and wines. It is a conflicted country, with its tainted past. However, most people who spoke to us of politics cheered for Pinochet. (Maybe the others had left the country and never returned).
The country is very modern and even had a Starbucks and a take-off called Starlight. Clever! From Santiago we kept going south, through Puerto Montt to Chiloe, an isolated island that has retained its traditions and which I’ve wanted to visit since I read Allende’s autobiography My Invented Country. There we discovered one of our favorite hostels, a hideaway named Esmeralda, in Chonchi.

We had to leave too soon on a ferry south to Chaiten, a remote town. The best it had to offer was a coastal delicacy called Curanto; a plate that could feed four people and which was the most delectable meal we had in South America. From Chaiten we traveled south with new buddies Conner and Claudia to Coyhaique, the next big city on the southern route. Though they live in the U.S., Conner is Irish and Claudia is Chilean/American. She told me a moving story of her family’s exile to the US during the Pinochet regime, the black stain on Chile’s past. After sharing two days in a cozy hostel, we said goodbye to head to Chacabuco, the port where we boarded a ship for a three-day cruise south to the massive San Rafael glacier. Stephen and Jonathan, two chatty Brits, kept us entertained with card games and wine. We marveled at the huge ice chunks floating in the lake, then toasted each other with whiskey and ice we picked from the water. At the end of the tour we cruised back to Puerto Montt where we partook of a last meal of curanto, before hopping a bus to Bariloche, Argentina.

A two-week stay turned into almost a month when we discovered just how big this country is. We traveled for days and still only made it three fourths of the way down, getting as far as the unforgettable San Rafael Glacier before having to turn back north if we were going to see any of Argentina before Christmas. Obviously we’ll need to return one day to see the vineyards, as well as the rest of Patagonia, from Torres del Paine to Puerto Arenas.