Chile (or Chil-ay as the locals pronounce it) is a holiday to take in parts. Chile’s shape is long and thin, running from north to south on the west coast of South America – each region is so different, so unusual and so interesting – that to get the whole picture, you have to take the parts and put them together. If you miss one ‘piece’, your picture and your experience of this amazing country will be incomplete.
My holiday was just 3 weeks, I went BA on their new direct non-stop service from London to Santiago – a 14-hour journey that went in a flash. Ideally leaving London at 9pm, dinner and a sleep, waking up to see the snow on the Andes an hour before landing. Breath taking!
Santiago and Valparaiso – crowded, noisy, polluted, vibrant, lively and uniquely Latin America! Santiago – large squares, statues of figures on horseback, wide avenues – I did a hop on hop off bus to get orientated and get quickly educated about the history and geography of the city. Valparaiso was a contrast – a huge seaport, narrow lanes and colourful houses, cramped up the steep hillsides – and street art – street art everywhere. Some of it weird, some of it wonderful, all of it interesting.
I was to see a lot of Santiago – this gateway city to Chile is right in the middle of the country, so to travel north, south, east or west, all routes lead through it. The airport is modern and there are is a good handful of easy access airport hotels to overnight in and help you move on to the next ‘part’ of your holiday.
After recovering from my journey with a couple of days in Santiago, my first part of Chile was south – to Patagonia. A world of white and blue icebergs and glaciers. Torres del Paine National Park took a full day to explore, stopping at miradors (viewing points) for moments to breathe, look and wonder at Nature’s beauty – mountain peaks and mirrored reflections – quiet and still and the view of the three towering peaks that give the park its name. Lodging in the park, I slept well, ate hearty meals (all that fresh air gives you an appetite!) and enjoyed plentiful hot showers! Out on the lake, wrapped up to my nose – I reached out to (almost) touch icebergs 20 feet high as I sailed close to the edge of the glacier face towering above me!
From Patagonia’s glaciers, I moved to Chile’s Lake District. This is a spectacular area of volcanoes, rising above the snow line, blue in colour and reflected in the lakes around them. Walks, waterfalls and photography – it’s heaven for anyone who comes to visit. I also spent a day visiting Chiloe Island – we took the ferry from Pargua (really easy) and enjoyed a lovely rural drive stopping to see some iconic wooden churches, built in the 17th and 18th centuries, which are well known in Chiloe, and all are UNESCO listed. Chiloe is all about the sea, penguins and dolphins… and so pretty too.
From the Lakes and Volcanoes, I flew 5 hours west out into the Pacific Ocean to see the giant Moai heads 4,000km away on the world’s most isolated inhabited island, Easter Island. It is known as Rapa Nui locally. There are so many theories about the island and its culture, what happened and why, and what do the Moai heads mean? We listened to our guide and wandered in the National Parks, to the extinct volcanoes, and the quarries, but we left none the wiser – the Moais with their blind eyes and with their lips firmly shut would not share their secrets with me!
After an overnight stop back at Santiago I was heading north to the Atacama Desert. I was excited and a little scared – I’d heard the Atacama was inhospitable, the driest desert in the world, where nothing grows and nothing lives but I was wrong! There were hardy animals and trickling rivers from the Andes snow melt. Leaving the sprawling metropolis of Santiago, the airport at Calama felt almost “empty”, but it was modern and soon I was peering out of the window of our minibus at a vast nothingness of colours – beige, brown, chocolate… and in the distance to snowy Andes peaks!
For the next 2 days, I watched the sunrise over steaming geysers, beautiful sunsets over expansive salt flats with pink flamingos, and a myriad colours all around us, as the sun set. On the rooftop observatory at my hotel, I lay back to look through clear bright night skies. With no light pollution here, I could see the whole Milky Way. How small we human beings are!
The Atacama is at high altitude, 2,400meters (about 8,000ft) and the trip to the Tatio Geysers is higher still, 4,320 metres – the highest geothermal park in the world. I felt a little out of breath, but no nausea or headaches, so I enjoyed my sunrise and breakfast in minus zero temperatures!
And so my fourth and final part completed my picture of Chile. Interwoven through all my adventures were the happy moments, meeting local people, trying to speak their language (hardly anyone spoke English!) trying local dishes and enjoying the company of guides with so many stories to tell – the Polynesian influence in Rapa Nui, reminders of the Spanish Conquistadors and Christian missionaries and little churches everywhere, and the Incas who came from Peru looking for gold in the Atacama. And everywhere, everywhere I went, I never lost sight of those huge snow capped mountains of the Andes – always there in the backdrop, separating Chile from her neighbours Bolivia and Argentina, and keeping Chile on “the ledge” of South America
I hope you will want to see the beautiful scenery of Chile, and if you do, let me show you the best of it and be your guide!