Rugged travels on South America's Volcanic Edge
Text by John Sherman Mills
Photography by Thomas I.
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
fellow photojournalist Tom and I here glides
into the Santiago’s
Arturo Benitz Airport. Within moments a sparkling taxi
us to the front door of the Altamira Hotel adjacent to the Town Square. Our travel due
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
and Jorge Gonzales. Riveting rhythms from 10,000 watts of
acoustic power engulf
the pumped up crowd. Fog machines, 3D lasers and spinning
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
through both the historic and modern sections of town. Lush
manicured plazas, national monuments and gushing fountains create
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 over 4 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
architecture have been meticulously restored. Its bustling streets
with smartly dressed, upbeat people. In the center of town most of the
have been designated as pedestrian walkways, excluding all vehicular
during the daytime. Within a few blocks of the Plaza de Armos are great
for people watching, like the bustling Mercado Central, where nearly
under the sun is being sold, resold and sold again. Not to be missed
fantastic aeronautical exposition and cultural center, housed now in what
was the city’s opulent Estacion Mapocho, constructed in 1889 by Gustav Eiffel.
If you like shopping for great handicraft souvenirs and authentic antiques,
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
to chose from a fare with such temptations as roast venison loin with
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
nearby slopes of the Andes are an irresistible attraction .
resorts are situated as close as ninety minutes outside Santiago’s
Crowds from all around the world flock here. Rental equipment,
is reasonably inexpensive and readily available in
villages of La Parva and
Farellones. In Chile the ski season starts
in late June and continues
through September. Fun! Amazingly, some of
chair lifts extend as high as 10,000 feet! At this elevation your
encompasses not only all of Santiago, but also the Pacific Ocean far in
distance- not that you have that much chance to enjoy the view when skiing.
some of the world's most precipitous slopes it's possible to attain speeds of
one hundred thirty miles an hour!
playful reputations of the coastal towns of Valparaiso and
Vina del Mar
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,
Since 1527 Valparaiso
has been a hardworking seaport. If you like watching the
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
whose scruffy operators solicit your patronage along the picturesque
Muelle Prat. Here too are innumerable artisan shops and top-notch
restaurants. The main business district is just two blocks in from the
The architecture here and throughout the city reflects the strong
and Italian influences of the European immigrants who were the
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.
frankly, we're still a little sore from three days of skiing.) Once at the top
overwhelmed by a postcard perfect view of this colorful, rickety town.
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
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
luxury hotels, outdoor bars and rustic concession stands line the
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
prestigious Naval Academy.
Vina’s residents and
fortunate visitors converge at either the Foxy Bar & Disco
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
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 Easter
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
Most people venture to
Temuco as their starting point for activities in the nearby
Conguillio-Los Paraguas. The park's a natural wonderland, the
for traditional outdoor activities like camping, boating and hiking.
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
this hub of recreational activities.
Every possible water sport beckons
visitors: sailing, jet skiing, swimming, canoeing,
water skiing and most of all,
water river rafting.
Valdivia, known as the City of Rivers
The imposing volcanoes
Osorno, Casablanca, Puntiagudo, Puyehue and Villarrica
countryside. You can actually climb the Volcan Villarrica, South
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,
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
(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
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
Puerto Montt is the southern most city of significant size in Chile.
streets in Puerto Montt lead to the waterfront and Angelmo’s Wharf. Despite
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
of gulls hoping to snatch a tasty morsel discarded into the icy green
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.
waiter named Willy approaches us and begins an unsolicited, but
anecdote about how his country got its name. The Spanish
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