Chile: A Land of Contrasts

Lorna Griggs

02 Nov 2017

Whether by foot, boat, plane or horse, this South American nation is a joy to explore

As I walked towards the cerros the city seemed to breathe around me. I have never travelled to a city that felt more alive. The bustle of New York, the optimism of San Francisco, the history of Rome and the gentle romance of Paris couldn't compare to the vibrant assault on the senses that was Valparaiso.

I won't lie and say there are not parts of this amazing city that are crumbling. Like the best of Latin America there is poverty here, but there is a beauty in the dilapidated facades of the churches and cathedrals, and optimism in the graffiti-covered walls that are gently peeling to expose the raw brick underneath.

The brightly coloured houses that sprawl across the hills are connected by the 100-year-old funicular railway lines, connecting the 45 cerros (hills) to the heart of the city. In Valparaiso, the culture of art spills out onto the sidewalks; Pablo Neruda claimed that if you walked all of Valparaiso’s stairs, you could make a trip around the world, so inspiring and eclectic are the murals that light up the walls.

The chaotic beauty of Valparaiso is just the beginning. Onwards, then, to the rest of this land of contrasts.

San Pedro de Atacama is a happy town. The locals are friendly and eager to welcome tourists, but mellow enough to impart a sense of calm to those who have arrived in their town in search of the wilds of the Atacama Desert.

Wide open spaces dotted with geysers, colourful sands that sweep across the land creating natural works of art, and mountains reflected in unmoving pools. Welcome to Atacama, the driest non-polar desert anywhere in the world. With salt flats, mountain ranges and intense bursts of blue in glistening lagoons, during the day the heat shimmers like a mist, replaced at night by a cool stillness and clear skies.

A seemingly infinite number of stars light up those skies, so far from light pollution that many come to this magical place to immerse themselves in the constellations. With almost 300 clear nights each year, astrotourism and photography are favourite activities here, but as you lie back and gaze at the maze of twinkling stars, make sure you put down your camera for a while and get lost amongst the shooting stars.

Isla Chiloé reminds me of fairytales I read as a child. With colourful palafitos (houses built on stilts over the water), traditional wooden churches (16 are actually UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and a culture of myth and legend, the rolling hills of Isla Chiloé are worth a few days of anyone's time as you journey through Chile. Most feel as though they have left Chile behind completely, so different is the atmosphere and architecture to the rest of the country.

The Chilote people will teach you their traditions if you come prepared with an open mind. You can expect tales of forest gnomes, witchcraft and ghosts, where anything unexplained is put simply down to... magic. The landscape of untamed national parks and windswept hills were built for trekking and exploring on foot. Once you have had your fill of the lush hilltops, let your feet lead you down to the water’s edge where you can explore the calm sea channels by boat or by kayak. Before you leave, make sure to head over to Puñihuil to visit the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins who live here in harmony together on the islets, and watch as they dive through the waves.

And so we head south once more. Patagonia takes your breath away, such is its beauty. It looks like every photo of the place you have ever seen, but to experience it with your own eyes will burn the landscape of Torres del Paine National Park into your memory for a very, very long time.

The jagged granite peaks are imposing at first sight. They dominate the landscape, reflected in the calm of turquoise lakes, and are magnificent enough to keep you entranced for some time. While these towering peaks are certainly the major pull for travellers, there is much more to this national park. Tread the well-worn pathways and break in your hiking boots as you explore this unique part of the world.

Pumas roam the Patagonian landscape, stealthy and cautious. For those with the patience to track them, the rewards are great. The calm regal nature of these majestic beasts will make you feel like you are well and truly a visitor in their home, privileged to be invited to watch them for a while. Insider tip – visit Refugio Laguna Amarga and follow the best puma trackers around in search of these magnificent big cats – the bonus is that you’ll be helping conservation efforts to ensure these felines are around for many years to come.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a small speck of an island. Five hours on a flight will make you feel like you’re leaving South America behind completely, and entering a world governed by the island’s ancestors and the mysteries of the past which are closely guarded secrets. Lush green fields are dotted with the magnificent statues of the moai, some standing 13 feet tall, others now battered and lying strewn across the landscape. These monoliths are the pull for most travellers, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is the only reason to visit this magical island. Summer hosts the Tapati Rapa Nui festival, where the islanders celebrate their rich Polynesian culture and participate in death-defying challenges over the roars of the watching crowds.

Away from the festivities you can find sheer cliffs which drop down to the sea below, and surfers catching a wave in the morning light before watching the sun rise from the white sand beaches. As the white-topped waves crash over the beaches, you’ll find yourself a million miles away from the Chile you left behind, so grab your hiking boots, borrow a horse, and explore the wild land that whispers its stories to passers-by. As the sun dips below the horizon and the clouds seem to catch fire silhouetting the moai against the blazing sky, it will sink in that no matter how long you spend here, you’ll take a piece of Rapa Nui with you when you leave.

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