Red hot Chile

By | Category: Travel destinations

Chile is poised to take centre stage in South America after decades of playing catch up with its neighbours, so explore before you have to share it. Kaye Holland shows us the way to go

Chances are your first introduction to spindly Chile, will be the country’s capital: step forward Santiago. When it comes to South American cities, Santiago tends to be overshadowed by Rio (with its raw energy) and elegant, emotional Buenos Aires – much like a middle child sandwiched between an older and younger offspring.

Yet while the Chilean capital will never – in my mind at least – match up to the fabulousness of its South American siblings, Santiago has undergone a renaissance in the past few years , something the myriad of new museums, cultural centres and parks bear testimony to. Many visitors also find Santiago to be safer than Rio and more welcoming that Baires, home of the proud Portenos.

With a bit of judicious planning, you can see most of Santiago’s sights in a couple of days. Start in El Centro in the bustling Plaza de Armas – the symbolic heart of Santiago. This gorgeous square, whose beautiful fountain pays homage to the famous liberator Simon Bolivar, is flanked by blockbusters sights such as Catedral Metroplitana, a neoclassical cathedral that was built between 1748 and 1800.

That said, if you’ve been in South America a while and are suffering from cathedral fatigue – it can happen – check out Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda. This worthy new addition to Santiago’s cultural scene consists of two exhibition spaces, a gallery, movie theatre and a fabulous fair trade crafts shop – the perfect spot to snap up a few Santiago souvenirs. Another striking cultural centre worth seeing is Centro Gabriela Mistral, named after the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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And don’t miss the Musueo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory & Human Rights). Situated in barrio Yungay, the museum – which exposes the terrifying human rights violations that occurred under Chile’s military government between the years of 1973 and 1990 – makes for sobering but essential viewing.

However you’re probably after a holiday not a history lesson, in which case climb Cerro Santa Lucia, an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Santiago’s streets. Complete your Santiago sojourn by touring La Chascona – the house where Pablo Neruda (the Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet who was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”) used to hole up in with his mistress, Matilde Urrutia – before taking the funicular up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal for breathtaking views of the Chilean capital.

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From Santiago, travellers to Chile need to decide whether to schlep south to go trekking in Torres del Paine or push on up north to San Pedro de Atacama – aka the driest desert on earth. I opted for the latter – partly because northern Chile was warmer than the south  and partly because after a 2.5 year stint living and working in the Middle East, I find myself drawn to desert landscapes.

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Before seeking out San Pedro de Atacama though, venture to the port city of Valparaiso. Only an hour away from Santiago, the Unesco world heritage listed town is known for its 45 cerros (hills), overlooking the Pacific that are dotted by sugar almond hued houses, whose exteriors are made of corrugated metal peeled from decades old shipping containers.

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It’s a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect and recuperate or as Pablo Neruda put it in, a letter to his poet friend Sara Vial in 1959: “I feel the tiredness of Santiago, I want to find a house to live and write in peace at Valparaíso. Certain conditions must be given. It may not be too high or too low. It must be solitary, but not in excess. I wish neighbours were invisible. I wish I did not see or hear them. Original but not uncomfortable. Very light, but firm. Neither too big nor too small, far from everything. But close to the stores. As well, it has to be very inexpensive. Do you think I can find a house like that, in Valparaíso?”

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Chile’s best loved poet did indeed find the abode he was looking for: step forward La Sebastiana – named so in honour of its first owner, Sebastián Collado, who began building the heart stopping-ly pretty house, but died in 1949 before he had completed the project. Visitors to Valparaiso can wander at will around the five storey property and gain a glimpse into the unorthodox  – expect to see a carousel horse in the living room for, as Neruda famously remarked, “A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him” – life of the Nobel laureate winner. But be warned: reaching the romantic house involves a hefty uphill hike, that’s not for the faint hearted.

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After the exertion involved in reaching La Sebastiana, refuel in one of the many cafes that are sprinkled throughout the cerros. Alternatively if you want to learn how to recreate what you’re eating at home, sign up for a cooking class with Chilean Cuisine. Chef Boris Basso Benelli – a name and a personality you won’t forget – will escort you to Mercado Cardonal to shop for ingredients, before teaching you how to make Chilean classics including Pisco sours, empanadas, pebre and ensalada chilena plus an entreé, main course and dessert all washed down with some fantastic local wines. It’s not only a night of food, it’s also a night of fabulous fun.

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From Valparaiso, I pushed on up the coast to Calama – the world’s top copper producer and the gateway to San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro itself is a dusty backwater town, that nonetheless draws tonnes of tourists who use it as a base from which to explore northern Chile’s most spectacular scenery: think steaming geysers, salt flats, pre Columbian ruins, rock formations, larger than life lagunas and giant sand dunes.

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With so much on offer, it can be difficult to decide what to do and see in San Pedro. Desert stargazing is a hugely popular evening activity, but personally it reminded me of a GCSE science lesson (never my strength or passion). For me it was at dusk in the middle of the Valle de Luna when the sun sank and the sky turned an incredible flamingo pink, that San Pedro de Atacama truly cast its spell.

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But whatever you do and wherever you go, you won’t regret taking a chance on Chile. Trust me on this one.

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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