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Chile Pacific Coast

Destination Chile - Chile is a stunning country of great beauty and extraordinary contrasts, from arid deserts in the north to translucent glaciers in the south. The centre of the country, with its Mediterranean climate and fertile valleys, is the ideal place to develop the best wines. As you head south, a region of lakes and mountains offers a variety of scenery, each more stunning than the last. The mountains are everywhere! The Andes offer breathtaking views and Patagonia unveils a savage nature of great beauty. Chile is a country both long and narrow, so you can cross from east to west, from the Andes to the Pacific, in only a few hours.

South America, and particularly Chile, have always exerted a great fascination on me. Is it due to the charming Chileans I met in Montreal many years ago? Even so, in 2007, it was my son who decided to go on an adventure in South America. Life took him to the end of the oceans, to Ushuaïa, in Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). During his long journey to Patagonia, in Argentina and Chile, he fell in love with a beautiful Chilean woman, and three years later their wedding took me to Chile. At last!

Santiago - a safe city

I spent two months in Chile, the first one in Santiago, where my partner and I rented an apartment in the centre of the city in the Barrio Bellas Artes, with its multitude of cafés and terraces. We had a very modern apartment on the 18th floor, with a pool and a terrace offering a view of the city and the Andes, so majestic and so close! Long stays often allow you to negotiate excellent rates for apartments and that was exactly what we did.

From December to April, the temperature is constant in Santiago with a permanently blue sky. We rapidly learned to live at the pace of the city, strolling from one barrio to another, stopping at a terrace for a coffee or a beer, just wandering around and enjoying ourselves. In brief, we discovered the city at the Chilean pace. Santiago has an excellent, efficient and very affordable local transit system. Come to think of it, with the metro and buses, I never missed my car!

It was a treat to wander the streets and plazas of the city centre, discovering the surrounding neighbourhoods, such as Bellavista, Bellas Artes, Lastarria, Providencia and Las Condes with the many treasures they contain.

And to enhance my enjoyment, The Lonely Planet travel guide, which was my constant companion during the trip, describes Santiago as one of the safest cities in the world. Even when I was travelling by myself, I never felt uneasy or threatened.

In Valparaiso in the footsteps of Neruda

Valparaiso is not too far from Santiago, on the Pacific coast. We were able to travel there several times, always by bus, to visit this seaport, the national and cultural capital of Chile. Valparaiso is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and attracts many tourists. But you have to be in good shape to climb the steep streets of its 42 cerros (hills), all bordered with multicolour houses. From Cerro Concepción or Alegre, on the terrace of a charming restaurant, the view of the bay and the city is fantastic, day or night. It's a usual stop for cruise liners. Viña del Mar, a neighbouring city, is very different: the perfect coastal resort with beaches and a casino.

Taking advantage of a friend’s car, we also visited many small villages and cities along the coast, and discovered true jewels, such as Isla Negra in the south, where Chile's famous poet Pablo Neruda lived and wrote. You can sense how the surroundings must have inspired him.  

Heading south on my own

My partner had to return to Canada, so I continued the trip on my own for another month. I hadn’t planned the solo portion much, except that I wanted to discover the south of the country, especially Chiloé Island. I had envisioned that part of my travel as a sort of pilgrimage, a simple trip with an open heart:  my own little Compostelle.

Pucón – a Mecca for sports enthusiasts
The farther south you go, the more luxuriant the vegetation and the greater the chance of rain. I had to plan accordingly and pack all the necessary clothes and personal items in my backpack, while trying to keep it as light as possible, before heading to my first destination: Pucón, a splendid tourist site and a Mecca for sportsmen and sportswomen of all kinds. 

Pucón being a 10-hour drive from Santiago, I choose to travel by night on a bus. The city has an excellent hotels, but since this part of my trip was meant to be Zen, on a limited budget, my choices were a youth hostel or a room chez l’habitant. I was happy with both options; the one gives you the opportunity to meet globe-trotters and to share travel experiences and the other allows you to improve your Spanish and to appreciate Chilean hospitality.

Travelling wherever the local bus goes

Organized excursions were appealing but expensive. Most of the time I opted for local buses that took me almost anywhere for a few pesos. As a result, each day brought its share of discoveries.

On the Curarrehue circuit, I discovered a small city whose inhabitants are Mapuches, one of the indigenous nations of Chile. En route toward Huife, I found a very impressive valley and the Los Pozones thermal baths, where I took the opportunity to relax for a few hours. On the Lago Caburgua route, magnificent waterfalls and an inviting beach welcomed me. Finally, my visit to the Huerquehue National Park, in the rain, will remain an indelible souvenir. And how could I qualify the view of the Villarica volcano? As an omnipresent sentinel over the city, it can be seen from almost everywhere and, weather permitting, excursions are organized to challenge its summit. 

En route to Chiloé

Travelling to Chiloé Island, I couldn’t resist the attraction of the lakes and mountains and I stopped in Puerto Varas, a friendly little city on the banks of Lake Llanquihue. Its architecture reflects the personality of its German founders. It's a wonderful starting point for a visit to the region. Local bus circuits are numerous and the region offers a profusion of national parks, lakes, mountains and rivers, together with many thermal baths. A few kilometres from there, at Puerto Montt, the Pacific Ocean awaits you. Trips to Patagonia usually depart from there. The view of the Andes with its snowy summits snaking southward is a real call to adventure.

I drew close to Chiloé with a sense of expectation. In less than an hour, the ferryboat would drop me off. I was looking forward to living on an island for a few days. From Ancud, in the north, I choose to head toward Castro, in the centre of the island.

It would be my base for touring. The pace of life is easy but not without an interesting liveliness. I saw many churches, all made of local wood and all beautiful. I wandered through the city and the outskirts. I admired palafitos, those old houses built on stilts along the bay, and the handicraft centre with a diversity of products and wool of every colour.

Always tossed about in the local buses, I explored other charming islands and villages and spent a marvellous day at the seaside in Chiloé National Park. My last days in the area were spent in Chepu, an enchanting and still unknown sanctuary. 

A Chilean wedding

Los Pozones thermal baths

Osorno volcano

The beach at Zapallar

Lake Tenquilco valley

The national telethon

Where the Earth shook

Owing to an earthquake, which affected the region in 1960, the ground has fallen by two metres and as a result the sea has invaded the area, killing trees and creating a surreal wetland. A kayak expedition in the morning fog along the Rio Puntra was an almost mythical experience.

I stayed in a small cabin for a few days at the Chepu Adventures Ecological Camping run by a retired couple from Santiago. I was there on February 27, when the terrible earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 hit Chile. Even though the epicentre was near Concepción, almost 800 kilometres to the north, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a small tremor. An hour later, my son informed me of the amplitude of the disaster. Even though he and his wife had been shaken and afraid in their apartment in Santiago, they didn’t suffer any damage. The local TV was showing the incredible devastation caused by the earthquake, which took hundreds of human lives. Two fishermen’s villages, Cobquecura and Buchupereo, north of Concepción, where I had planned to spend a few days on my way back to Santiago, had been totally destroyed by the tsunami that followed.

Chileans responded rapidly. A huge national telethon, Chile ayuda a Chile, was organized, and in each village and city outdoor shows took place to gather food and to raise money. I will always cherish having witnessed such a great solidarity movement.

Happy in solitude

To travel alone in Chile, as a woman, is a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed it and I'm not alone. I encountered many other women travelling by themselves. A German woman was backpacking in Chile for three months and had just booked a boat trip to Puerto Chacabuco, in the heart of Patagonia. She had not planned to go any farther but couldn’t resist the appeal of the extraordinary landscape. In her last e-mail, she said she had travelled from Argentina by bus to Puerto Natales and was planning on spending a week at a beautiful campground in Torres del Paine National Park. I also met a Swiss traveller on sabbatical for a few months. She had chosen a different style of travel: ecotourism with an intensive immersion-Spanish course at a farm. Her three months were over and she was leaving Chile with the firm desire to return.

I too will return to Chile, of which I have discovered only a small part. It still fascinates me and I hope you too will be enchanted!

Claudette Carrière

 

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