Scenes in Mercado in Santiago
Right: Luxury condominiums line Vina's waterfront.
Pablo Neruda's former home is now a public museum and library.
Rugged travels on South America's Volcanic Edge
Text by John Sherman Mills
Photography by Thomas I. Petersen
Awed by the view outside my window seat some 33,000 feet up, it seems like the tip of the jet’s left wing is scraping the icy edges of one volcanic peak after another. Yet, directly below, an unmerciful Pacific surf assaults the rocky seashore. It's amazing that you're looking across the width of an entire nation in this narrow stretch of land between the ocean’s edge and the serrated ridge of mountains on the horizon. It's truly unimaginable, though, that this border to border vista could continue for another 2800 miles! But this is Chile, the enigmatic country that dangles down South America's volcanic western edge.
The scenic dinner flight that has brought my friend Tom and I here glides effortlessly into the Santiago’s millennium-ready Arturo Benitz airport. Within moments a sparkling taxi whisks us to the front door of our rooms at a cozy B&B we’ve reserved. Our travel due southward from the United States has left us without a trace of jet lag. Unable to suppress our anticipation, we’re eager to take on this capital city’s infamous nightlife! First stop: the Fausto Discoteque at 832 Santa Maria Street. The action here is already in full swing. The beat is unmistakably Latin. The mix: the hottest dance tracks from megastars like Supersordo, Dracma, and Jorge Gonzales. Riveting rhythms from 10,000 watts of acoustic power engulf the pumped up crowd. Fog machines, 3D lasers and spinning holographs mesmerize the undulating sea of dancers. The night has only just begun.
It’s nearly noon when the amber sunlight beaming around my curtains awakes me with the realization that a magnificent metropolis awaits outside to be explored. A recommended starting point is the Cerro San Cristobol, a dramatic peak rising over 1000 feet practically in the center of town. The station for the antique funicular ride is only footsteps away. With a quick jerk the clunky open-air car commences its steep, angular ascent. As the valley floor shrinks below us, a breathtaking panorama appears of Santiago and the majestic Andes surrounding it.
Here in a single glance you get an instant sense of the intelligent city planning and ingenuous redevelopment that were responsible for shaping what is considered the most elegant city in South America. Grand boulevards striate through both the historic and modern sections of town. Lush parks, neatly manicured plazas, national monuments and gushing fountains create an urban landscape that rivals any European capitol with its beauty and grace.
Santiago is the key destination for nearly all visitors to Chile. It’s a vibrant, cosmopolitan city of nearly 2 million inhabitants. There’s a feeling of openness and tolerance here that’s unique in Latin America. Indeed, unlike anywhere else in Latin America, Chile's geographical isolation discouraged significant immigration and settlement until long after navigators had established successful trading routes around the southern tip of the continent. Chile was spared the unfortunate scenario that occurred elsewhere on this southern continent.
Finished with this bird’s eye orientation, we return to the funicular and meander our way back to Santiago’s historic district. Here stately buildings boasting neo-classical architecture have been meticulously restored. Its bustling streets are filled with smartly dressed, upbeat people. In the center of town most of the streets have been designated as pedestrian walkways, excluding all vehicular traffic during the daytime. Within a few blocks of the Plaza de Armos are great places for people watching, like the bustling Mercado Central, where nearly everything under the sun is being sold, resold and sold again. Not to be missed is the fantastic aeronautical exposition and cultural center, housed now in what once was the city’s opulent Estacion Mapocho, constructed in 1889 by Gustav Eiffel. If you like shopping for great handicraft souvenirs and authentic antiques, you’ll find the Pueblito de los Artesanos to be a virtual treasure trove.
The border of historic Santiago blurs gracefully into “New Town,” where skyscrapers of gleaming steel and glass distinguish themselves with bold, fresh and striking designs. Many Chilean governmental centers are located here, not to mention countless headquarters for major businesses and financial institutions. Fashionable gallerias and upscale boutiques have proliferated in this sensuous, big city environment.
We discover the Restaurant Capricho Espanol, a Mecca for local artists. As we turn the corner and head down to Purisima 65, an aromatic concoction of marjoram, bay leaves, coriander, cumin and minced garlic is nearly intoxicating. The Capricho, a lively place, with its handsome, exuberant staff, is well known for exquisite seafood, prepared with a distinctive Spanish flair. The menu, however, is extensive and its hard to chose from a fare with such temptations as roast venison loin with mushroom sauce, braised leg of wild boar with black beans and chilies and osso bucco with roasted garlic. Tom orders a local dish called “salmon and crab terrine with ginger sauce ceviche” and I succumb to the “sea bass with almonds and pistachios in a garlic sauce.” Both of us are transcended to a state of gastronomical nirvana.
After dinner we check out another Santiago hot spot, the Fausto Discoteque (Santa Maria 0832), then roundoff the evening with a nightcap at Friends (Nunez 365). Santiago has dozens of colorful watering holes and discos like the Bunker, Quasar, Club M, Naxos and Delos.
Avid skiers, the rugged nearby slopes of the Andes are an irresistible attraction for us. Spectacular resorts are situated as close as ninety minutes outside Santiago’s city limits. Crowds from all around the world flock here. Rental equipment, including snowboards, is reasonably inexpensive and readily available in the alpine villages of La Parva and Farellones. In Chile the ski season starts in late June and continues through September. Tom and I station ourselves in the Valle Nevado where we're lucky that the runs are covered with that cracklely, crunchy and comical condition known as "corn snow." What fun!
Amazingly, some of the chair lifts extend as high as 10,000 feet! At this elevation your downhill view encompasses not only all of Santiago, but also the Pacific Ocean far in the distance- not that you have that much chance to enjoy the view when skiing. On some of the world's most precipitous slopes it's possible to attain speeds of over one hundred thirty miles an hour! A special cocoa tea is supposed to help you overcome any adverse reaction to the high elevation. Neither Tom nor I need it- but the outdoor heated spa at day's end is an absolute necessity.
After a few days the playful reputations of the coastal towns of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar lure us away from the high country. As a result of their immense popularity, a modern freeway stretches westward from Santiago. A pleasant hour and a half drive zips you out here, passing through the pastoral Lontue Valley. (If you're into wine tasting, this region cradles countless award winning, world-class wineries.)
Since 1527 Valparaiso has been a hardworking seaport. If you like watching the fascinating activities of a bustling harbor, this is the place to be. You can get a close-up view by risking a ride in one of the tipsy, four passenger "tour boats,” whose scruffy operators solicit your patronage along the picturesque promenade Muelle Prat. Here too are innumerable artisan shops and top-notch seafood restaurants. The main business district is just two blocks in from the harbor. The architecture here and throughout the city reflects the strong German, English and Italian influences of the European immigrants who were the true forefathers of modern Chile.
Valparaiso is a town best seen on foot, but you can’t resist the temptation of jumping onboard one of the funky cograil trains that slither up and down the steep hillsides. (And frankly, we're still a little sore from three days of skiing.) Once at the top you’re overwhelmed by a postcard perfect view of this colorful, rickety town. Brightly painted houses hug tenuously to the hillside rising above the turquoise Pacific waters. There is little question why the Nobel Prize winning poet Paulo Neruda claimed this inspirational setting for his city home. His three-story villa "La Sebastiana" is now a biographical museum. Its homey, intimate coffeehouse makes a perfect hideaway to partake in the local tradition of afternoon tea and cookies.
Just around a craggy bend from Valparaiso is the start of a seemingly endless beach of gleaming white sand. Along this pristine shoreline sprouted the city of Vina del Mar. The warm Pacific waters of this sheltered natural harbor make it one of South America’s most desired summer destinations. Elegant 20 story condominiums, luxury hotels, outdoor bars and rustic concession stands line the Avenida Peru just across from the beach. From May to August young people flock here by the thousands. An upscale year round community thrives here, as well as the prestigious Naval Academy.
Vina’s residents and fortunate visitors converge at either the Foxy Bar & Disco (Independencia 2446) or Scandal (Yungay 2229). These places rock into the wee morning hours with a distinctive mix of Latin and International rhythms. For those seeking to try their luck, the luxurious Casino on the waterfront hosts non-stop gaming.
Somewhere in the busy schedule demanded here one has to eke out time to take in the unique Fonck Museum. Nowhere else, except on Easter Island itself, could you actually touch one of the mysterious Polynesian figures that have confounded archeologists to this very day. Greeting you as you enter the museum, a giant granite monolith stands alone-his haunting eyes gazing mournfully westward toward his Pacific home some 5200 miles away. Once inside you are immediately captivated by the most extensive collection of Eastern Island artifacts in the world.
Adventure driven, we've planned for some white-knuckle thrills and spills to end our Chilean vacation in the deceptively tranquil countryside known as the “Lake District.” Tom and I jump aboard a ninety-minute flight from Santiago and arrive at the picturesque municipality of Temuca. Temuca is home to a mere 250,000 inhabitants, many of whom are direct descendants of the native Araucania Indians. Nearly all the buildings have a colonial style and you get the sense that few things, other than an electric stoplight here and there, have changed in the last hundred years. The hub of activity is the Mercado, just off the Plaza de Armos. This permanent market is located in a contorted conglomeration of articulating buildings that covers the area of one city block. You find everything here from typical fresh produce and meats to more intriguing and intricate hand made items. Gorgeous Indian pottery, sweaters, leather goods and jewelry are abundant. Despite the frenzied atmosphere, it’s a bargain hunter’s paradise.
Most people venture to Temuco as their starting point for activities in the nearby Parque Nacional Conguillio-Los Paraguas. The park's a natural wonderland, the perfect setting for traditional outdoor activities like camping, boating and hiking. The conical image of Volcan Llaima looms as a mystical backdrop.
Just south of Temuca the Pan American highway leads you into the international playground known as Chile’s Lake District. Five major lakes comprise the aquatic centerpiece for this hub of recreational activities. Every possible water sport beckons visitors: sailing, jet skiing, swimming, canoeing, water skiing and most of all, white water river rafting.
The imposing volcanoes Osorno, Casablanca, Puntiagudo, Puyehue and Villarrica dominate the countryside. You can actually climb the Volcan Villarrica, South America's most active volcano. Tom and I accept its challenge and snake our way through a patchwork of rolling farmlands to arrive at the hamlet of Pucon.
Soon we locate the office of the guides who will lead a group of fifteen up to the summit. First on this afternoon's agenda is the all-important orientation and distribution of equipment. We're measured and supplied with red and black thermal jumpsuits. Then we're issued crampons, pick axes, hammers, gas masks and an array of other intimidating equipment. I start getting shaky feet, but Tom tries to restore my confidence by demonstrating the strength of the nylon lifeline that will clamp onto my suit. "So it breaks... what a way to go," he says with his typical, mischievous grin.
Not getting too much sleep, we tank up with coffee and head for a van which chugs up to the base of the mountain. Step by step, we ascend.. Shortly after two in the afternoon, we reach the summit! I feel like I've climbed Mt. Everest. My first mountain! (Don't remind me that we're only at 9,000 feet.) We lie down and peer over the edge into Villarrica's churning crater. The viscous, molten interior bubbles and spews forth plumes of sulfuric gases that dance irreverently in the piercing sunlight. The ground constantly grumbles as the deep geothermal energies strain unrelentingly.. The greatest surprise in store for us is the two-hour slide down the backside of the mountain. The only pain I experience now is from sidesplitting laughter! We spend several more days in the District and include one action-packed afternoon of river rafting.
Our holiday in Chile ends in the quiescent seaport, Puerto Montt. The capitol of the Lake District, Puerto Montt is the southern most city of significant size in Chile. All streets in Puerto Montt lead to the waterfront and Angelmo’s Wharf. Despite the stinging cold, a determined handful of vendors patiently waits dockside to start a complicated bargaining process for acquiring each fisherman's catch. Soon we hear the whine of tiny engines. Individual boats begin to appear, followed by clouds of gulls hoping to snatch a tasty morsel discarded into the icy green waters.
Tom and I scurry to an unobstructed outlook of the port in the restaurant Angelmo Cocineria on the second story of a timbered building. Feeling a little chilly, we gravitate toward the warmth of a crackling, wood burning stove just inside. An observant waiter named Willy approaches us and begins an unsolicited, but enlightening anecdote about how his country got its name. The Spanish conquistadors asked the Indians living in Peru, what could be found if they ventured southward. The Indians, thinking only of the snow covered Andes, responded with their Araucania word meaning, "freezing cold." And thus "Chile" received its indelible label.
It's ironic to have such warm feelings for a land with such a frigid name. Memories from the sizzling disco scenes of Santiago to the steaming geysers of the Lake District are fresh in our minds. As dinner begins, we lift our glasses of a Lontue Valley chardonnay with a toast to Chile and the travel adventure of a lifetime.