With British Airways linking London and Santiago, Sorrel Moseley-Williams explores the birth country of poet Pablo Neruda that counts desert, ice fields and wine country among its many splendours
Measuring 2,653 miles from top to toe, Chile counts desert, ice fields, wine country, Easter Island and Cape Horn among its many splendours – and, of course, the Andes. Despite being located 7,249 miles from the UK, this Latin American country’s time difference is just three hours during the southern hemisphere’s summer, and you can reach its colourful extremes with British Airways’ longest direct flight (14 hours 40 minutes), which links London and Santiago.
The country’s capital is a dynamic metropolis, the river Mapocho running east-west between low-rise mountains that make for an attractive snow-capped reminder of South America’s jagged backbone. Many visitors begin their exploration in Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s main square in Centro, its street corners draped in history. It’s home to the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, with its marble, bronze and lapis lazuli altar, with the National History Museum, the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and the fantastic underground Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, housed in an old mint, a short stroll away. The Centro district is walkable, the noisy Alameda Avenue the main drag running through it; close by is the París-Londres subdistrict, its photogenic cobbled streets, smart architecture and quiet ambience are a far cry from bustling Alameda, yet they also harbour a dark secret. Calle Londres 38 was one of four key detention centres during Chile’s 17-year military dictatorship under Pinochet that ended in 1990; today it’s a space that celebrates human rights.
Trendy Lastarria makes for a great refuelling point, either before or after scaling the 629-metre Santa Lucía Hill, which, on a haze-free day, offers fantastic views across the capital. Lastarria is also home to the 16th-century San Francisco church, Museo Colonial and Museo de Artes Visuales, as well as an abundance of cute cafés and bars.
A relatively green capital, Santiago’s Parque Forestal creates a natural border between Lastarria and Bellavista, the latter its most boho barrio (neighbourhood). La Chascona, the name of late Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s home, is today a museum housing his 9,000-tome library, and the poet would likely have approved of the thriving nightlife and street art that brings Bellavista to life today.
Chileans are known to love steak and pisco, but Santiago’s food scene goes beyond these basics. Boragó is the city’s fine-dining benchmark and perennially ranks in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, followed up by 040, Ambrosía and Del Patio. Given the extensive coastline, fresh fish form part of the diet, enjoy ceviche and sushi at La Mar and Osaka respectively. Wine lovers should sample Sauvignon Blanc and Carménère at Lastarria’s Bocanáriz wine bar, or enjoy an authentic Chilean sandwich at casual soda fountain at Las Cabras, next door to Costanera Center mall, South America’s tallest skyscraper.
Many visitors stay in upmarket Las Condes, a high-rise neighbourhood that’s close to the central business district, ‘Sanhattan’, whose northeastern location allows for a quick exit out to the ski resorts, but consider trendy Lastarria, Bellavista or historical Centro.
Up and down Chile
Chile’s diverse landscape includes 40 national parks, and this slimline country really does cater to all travel tastes. In the north, clear skies above the Atacama (the world’s driest nonpolar desert) ensures world-class observatories for stargazing. Cabernet Sauvignon lovers can easily savour wine country such as Casablanca Valley, located an hour’s drive from Santiago, while powder chasers can take to the slopes between late June and September. Those in search of outdoor adventure should make a beeline for rugged Patagonia, home to the Torres del Paine National Park. Throw in Easter Island, known for its moai statues, and a cruise around Cape Horn, and that’s a host of Chilean experiences ticked off any bucket list.
One short and sweet day trip out of Santiago is to Valparaíso. A Unesco World Heritage port built into a cliff, have fun scaling its steep streets (or paying for the much easier funicular) and getting lost in pretty, narrow barrios. The poet Neruda also kept a home in Chile’s most bohemian city; visit his house, La Sebastiana, before wandering Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción neighbourhoods to discover vibrant street art, quaint cafés and cool galleries.
For a taste of wine country and Chile’s world-famous reds, oenophiles should book a tasting tour with Chile Wine Trails. Passionate Australian sommelier Kylie Sherriff organises day tours into Casablanca Valley and its boutique viñas (wineries) as well as tailor-made trips further afield to Aconcagua and Colchagua valleys with overnight stays. Many viñas open to the public for those who prefer to set their own wine-fuelled itinerary; Clos Apalta, Casa Lapostolle, Laura Hartwig and Viña Vik offer guided visits as well as lunches with wonderful vineyards vistas and accommodation in beautiful Colchagua.
Bearing in mind that the southern hemisphere’s winter takes place between June and September, pro ski squads head for Chile’s Andean slopes to keep up the training schedule. Traverse the Andes with the world’s best, who come for high-quality snow, at Valle Nevado ski resort, a two-hour drive from Santiago. With runs suitable for beginners to experts, peaks soar up to 3,670 metres above sea level. Those with an adrenaline habit and a big budget should set up off-the-radar heliskiing with VM Elite. The resort itself is home to three hotels and all the aprés-ski activities a weary athlete requires to revitalise.
Easter Island, meanwhile, is a world of its own. Also known as Rapa Nui, the island houses dozens of mythical moai statues carved out of volcanic quarries by ancient Polynesians, and the most dramatic 15-strong collection can be found at Ahu Tongariki; draw your own conclusion as to how these archaeological treasures were moved then erected all over these volcanic lands. Hanga Roa is Easter Island’s main town and houses an array of small hotels and B&Bs, although off-the-beaten track luxury lodges such as Explora and Hanga Roa eco-lodge are worth splurging on. It’s best to hire a guide in order to learn about the maoi and latter-day Birdman cultures.
Patagonia is naturally a huge draw for its dramatic open landscapes and wildlife. In the Lake District, volcanoes such as Villarrica and Osorno reflect perfectly on to clear-blue lagoons; adrenaline lovers should make Pucón their base for striking out to whitewater rafting, trekking and volcano climbing. Last April the new Patagonia National Park was created when Tompkins Conservation donated grasslands, mountains, coigüe forests and wetlands to Chile. It also marks the first stop-off on the Patagonian Route of Parks, a scenic tour through 17 national parks. The most majestic and in-demand national park in the region, however, is Torres del Paine, a magnet for climbers keen to conquer the eponymous three-mountain massif or enjoy its picturesque lakes, rivers and forests. While there are various options to stay within the park, former meatpacking plant Singular Patagonia in Puerto Natales overlooks the Last Hope Sound fjörd and makes for a welcome luxury stay after a hard day’s climbing. The largest city in the area, Punta Arenas, is the embarkation point for Cape Horn and Antarctica cruises. As for wildlife, there’s plenty to spot, such as Andean condors, Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, blue whales, dolphins and the enigmatic puma, among others.
From its desertic north to its vast icy south, Chile might be far from the UK, but with so many jewels in its crown, any well-planned trip will make the journey well worth it.