In geography’s version of a long shoe lace, trapped between impenetrable mountain on one side and a vast ocean on the other it is said their’s is a patchwork of all the good bits God left over after creating the earth.
Visit Chile and you soon share the nation’s opinion.
No other country can boast the same longitudinal variety as this super slender 2,700 mile long country whose coastline measures the equivalent of travelling almost two times around the world.
With its territories in America, Antarctica, and Oceania, Chile’s landscapes and climates range from the world’s most arid desert Atacama in the north to gigantic ice fields and glaciers in Southern Patagonia.
The centre of Chile enjoys an almost year-round balmy temperate Mediterranean climate that warms and nurtures wine and fruit production both key exports.
Chile’s huge swathes of pristine lakes, rivers, spectacular mountains and remote forests have made the country South America’s leading adventure tourism destination.
To coin another favourite saying “the weather is almost always nice somewhere in Chile” and it’s true.
We were almost swept off our feet by ferocious Antarctic winds at the southernmost tip of South America on Tierra del Fuego’s Admiralty Sound while Santiago’s café pavement terraces were bathed in warm early summer sunshine.
With neither the fabulous beaches of Brazil’s immense coastline nor the passionate charm of tango mad Buenos Aires capital of Argentina, Chile has come of age with the discovery of its bountiful natural wonders.
Santiago is the safest city for foreign tourists and also the cleanest metropolis in Latin America while Chile is rated one of the most prosperous and stable nations on the South American continent. That being said the average salary for a non-professional worker is under US$400 although the cost of living is comparably high.
Santiago was tipped one of the world’s top ten cities to visit in 2017 by National Geographic Traveller.
Influential US magazine Saveur christened it the world’s ‘ Next Great Food City’, raving about the exciting restaurant scene. New boutique hotels are popping up and staid run down districts are rejuvenated, classified ‘bohemian’ and ‘chic’.
Wandering Santiago’s pleasant boulevards passing notable landmarks and shopping at handmade crafts markets my guide apologetically announces, “Chileans are the British of South America, we’re reserved compared to our Latin neighbours, not given to shows of emotion in public or drawing attention to ourselves”.
I had already noted their very British habit of forming orderly queues in the airport arrivals hall where inadequately staffed immigration created an hour long tailback.
Patient queues stretched out all over Santiago from the retro Funicular train at the foot of famous Cerro San Cristobal hill offering the best views over the city to numerous street stalls selling affordable food and drink compared to high prices in the touristy areas.
For 17 long years, Chile endured the Pinochet military dictatorship. Consigned to the darkest pages of the history books traces of its effects are still noticeable.
The body language of older folk was especially telling as they shuffled silently and expressionless past.
Crowds enjoying the balmy night warmth at outdoor cafes and bars were already packing it in by 10 pm on a Saturday night. What a contrast to exuberant Buenos Aires whose nightlife was just beginning.
“During Pinochet’s regime large crowds were not allowed to gather, people kept their heads down and many of us remember the night curfews and disappearance of thousands who opposed him,” a retired doctor explains, sharing my park bench.
Santiago used to be more of a quick stop over on the way to highlights liked extra-terrestrial Atacama Desert, the beautiful nature rich Los Lagos region, surreal spectacular Torres del Paines and southern Patagonia that are on most visitor itineraries.
Since shaking off its boring image of the past Santiago is emerging from the shadows proving there’s plenty to see and do for tourists.
The city is walker friendly with attractive green spaces street entertainment and re-vamped buzzy neighbourhoods such as Barrio Italia, Bella Vista and Lastarria.
Cultural sights are dominated by the renowned museum of Pre-Columbian Art and Museum of Memory and Human rights.
The latter (free admission) examines human rights violations and disappearances that occurred under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.
Santiago’s architectural mix features Baroque, Victorian and typically south American austere public buildings and immense squares.
An hour and a half away to the west port city of Valparaiso is known as “little San Francisco” and there are remarkable similarities between both.
Eccentric and edgy Valparaiso has been a haunt of artists (especially graffiti specialists), poets and alternative lifestyles for over a century.
“We aren’t hippies, we’re happies” declares the writing on a painted stone advertising a holistic centre.
The city was South America’s leading port until the opening of the Panama Canal when its fortunes declined but remnants of its past wealth and power are seen in run down mansions once owned by English, German and East European settlers.
Art nouveau style Barburizza Palace art museum, one of Valparaiso’s cultural highlights is housed in the mansion of a Croatian immigrant who amassed his wealth during the boom of nitrate mining the so-called “white gold” my terrific guide English-born Jackie Lee reveals.
We explore Valparaiso, getting lost in its warren of narrow streets of rainbow coloured shops and houses.
Most buildings on the tourist trail are covered in graffiti and wall murals clinging precariously to Valparaiso’s 57 hills accessed by funiculars and escalators one of which was built back in 1883 and still functions perfectly.
A sprawl of ramshackle corrugated dock workers homes, artist’s studios and coffee shops, though charming, look as if they could blow away in a flash. Like San Francisco Valparaiso has also been prone to earthquakes through the centuries.
Jackie reassuringly puts my mind at rest with the good news that Chile is one of the safest places in the world to be should the earth start moving. It has one of the most effective disaster relief infrastructures anywhere and buildings are constructed to weather a massive 9 strength quake.
At lunch in the quirky Turri café housed in an old mansion with fabulous views over the Pacific an introduction to a ‘Terremoto’ (earthquake) cocktail begs.
So I take Jackie’s advice and opt for my first ever Pisco Sour. After all, it is Chile’s signature cocktail.
Next morning we headed into nearby Casablanca wine country to the Matetic award winning winery owned by a family who emigrated from Croatia to Chile many years ago.
Passionate about strictly adhering to organic methods of grape cultivation cow horns filled with manure are buried between plants to stimulate growth while burnt stinging nettle inoculates the compost around the vines An elegant 5-star boutique hotel and restaurant in the midst of the estate’s beautiful gardens completes the picture.
Flying south to the furthermost reaches of Patagonia, gateway to Antarctica at Punta Arenas the views of snow tipped volcanoes, glaciers and granite towers are thrilling.
Then plying the same waters sailed by Charles Darwin on The Beagle crossing of the Magellan straits we spot a lone sperm whale.
Environmental Biologist Melissa Carmody (who has Irish roots) is behind the wheel of the jeep driving off the ferry at the port of Porvenir.
“It will be mostly rough track from here,” she warns setting out for wilderness Karukinka park. Managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Chile we are about to explore some of the most remote terrain with the lightest human footprint in the world.
We hiked through rare dense southern beach forests and drove around awesome fjords in the foothills of the Andes visiting Karukinka’s peatland terrain.
It looked quite like our Irish bogs except for the towering mountains, omnipresent Guanacos (a smaller prettier relative of the camel) and the Condors regally sailing overhead.
Then we stopped off to visit a colony of more than a hundred King Penguins, enjoying celebrity status since their arrival from the icebergs of Antarctica to the south.
That was the icing on the cake for me of a memorable sometimes exhausting journey following a little in the footsteps of the late Bruce Chatwin.
‘In Patagonia’ Chatwin’s masterpiece of travel, history and adventure was first published exactly 40 years ago.
Direct flights between the UK (London Heathrow) and Santiago began this year, from €879 return.
Isabel travelled to Chile with Imagen de Chile ( www.thisischile.cl ) which builds ‘Brand Chile’ , and she was guided on Tierra del Fuego by the Wildlife Conservation Society ( www.wcs.org ).
There are leading Latin American specialists like Pura Aventura ( www.pura-aventura.com ) and Journey Latin America ( www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk ) as well as Ireland based Nuevo Mundo ( www.nuevomundo.ie )