Chile, a long skinny streak of our planet similar in shape to a “badly rolled cigarette” (as a friend so eloquently put it), lies on the western coast of South America, its beaches themselves taking up a large chunk of it. Beautiful on a regular day, these coasts cause a knot in the belly of locals in the hours after an earthquake while they wonder if the calm waves will soon be rolling back ready to pack a punch with a tsunami.
If you’re visiting Chile, take a stroll from these long coastlines through the alien-like landscapes of the north, to the wine country in the Central Valley, rain-soaked hills of Chiloé and the lakes and glaciers of the famed Patagonia region. There are corners and corners to seek out…
Here are some Chilean highlights…
Valparaíso (or “Valpo” as the city is nicknamed), is a lively city and port a couple of hours from Santiago, full of graffiti, sketches and other street art almost as colourful as the nutty types you find strolling them. If anything first grabs the attention of visitors to this wacky Chilean port, it’s the colourful assault to the senses that are its streets, especially at night when the cats really do come out to play.
Valparaíso’s port, where containers – when viewed from above – start to look like Lego bricks.
Las Torres del Paine
A prize for tired legs and weary back on the final hike out from 6 days in Las Torres del Paine: vicuñas grazing lazily with Las Torres themselves visible in the background, poking out from behind some clouds. An instant shot of energy if there ever was one…
The copihue flower
The copihue. A wonderful little flower, strong and wax-like, found only in certain parts of the country. Chileans are fiercely proud of their copihues, and rightly so. They’re perfect, symmetrical and almost unreal in their happy, sunset pink loveliness.
Once a bustling station connecting Santiago to Valparaíso, northern Chile and Argentina, the Estación Mapocho is now home to a corner of Santiago’s cultural scene. Its arched ceiling, enormous windows and light play make for a swanky afternoon snap.
Even when long since extinct, the presence of a volcano gives the air a twitchy feeling of anticipation. Flying over Chile, you’ll see volcanoes sprinkled across the landscape, hiding under their white caps in the folds of the mountains. This one is Volcano Osorno, seen from Puerto Varas across the calm surface of Lake Llanquihue.
Mote con huesillos
The first time I tried mote con huesillos I sat for quite some time in confused, chewing silence, truly not knowing if I’d just found the greatest, or the most disgusting, cold drink on the planet. After all, this beverage, based on peach juice and wheat, is much more like a bowl of cereal. I’ve since decided that it’s a godsend at summer, when the heat threatens to do away with your sanity and you need a quick hit of sugar and something to eat. Enter mote con huesillos: the peach juice packs a sweet punch, while the wheat and full, dried peaches at the bottom of your glass feed your belly.
A Chilean must drink/eat.
The dry north
On the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama near immigration control lies a collection of humble houses and some even humbler abandoned sites in the midst of the driest zone on Earth. With the volcanoes bordering Bolivia resting in the background, the vision can be almost dream-like…
Palafitos of Chiloé
It’s already readily thrown about that Chiloé is a magical island and while I don’t want to jump on board with the rest of ’em and agree, I have to. The place is stunning. Green, rainy, full of seafood and dotted with beaches and whimsical houses made of tijuela coloured wooden slats, it’s a must see. (For those keen on the language, the sing-song lilt to the chilote accent is lovely, and only gets stronger the further south you go.)
Valle de la Luna
Another San Pedro de Atacama moment, this time in the well-visited Valle de la Luna. Finishing a stroll atop this hill to watch the sunset was the cherry on top of an afternoon spent exploring the folds and caves of this moon-like landscape.
The colours of the south
Puerto Natales, the gateway to Las Torres del Paine National Park, can be pretty grey: a place so far south of the planet can expect its fair share of rain, after all. But when the sun comes out, it truly does – and a walk through these fields (where flamingos preened but refused to pose for pictures) was eye-popping.