I’ll happily own up to a bias towards Chile having lived there in the past and been enchanted by its dramatic and varied landscapes, its gentle people and the omnipresent Andes. However, in the past few years Chile’s neighbours, Peru, Argentina and Brazil seem to have stolen the tourism limelight with a host of new exciting hotels, gourmet accolades and world-focusing events such as the World Cup and forthcoming Olympics. Chile may not have the exuberance of the Argentines, the tropical insouciance of Brazil or the Inca heritage of Peru, but after my recent visit it can stand up there with the rest as a world-class destination with sensational food and wine, unique lodges, wildlife in abundance, a thriving arts scene, efficient transport and scenery that simply takes your breath away.
So how best to sum up a country that stretches for 2640 miles from North to South (the equivalent distance as from Oslo to Marrakech) and a landscape that mixes desert, snow-capped mountains, vineyards, lakes and volcanoes, fjords and glaciers? Well it certainly stimulated my senses so here are some of my highlights.
As a self-confessed glutton, one of the great surprises of returning to Chile after a 12 year absence was the vast improvement in gastronomy. Although we’ve become used to seeing Chilean fruit, vegetables and wine on the UK supermarket shelves for years, local chefs still have some surprises up their sleeves and are taking advantage of the bounty from their rich pacific waters, fertile Andean watered soils and even the hostile desert environment.
The Mercado Central in Santiago shows off the extraordinary and often quite weird seafood found in the rich pacific waters. It’s also crammed with simple seafood restaurants servicing up giant spider crab ceviche and parmesan baked clams.
Valparaiso, Chile’s lively creative port city and seat of government is a riot of colourful houses clinging to the steep hills and street art covers every available wall. This creativity is reflected at the excellent Alegre Restaurant, attached to the stylish Palacio Astoreca Hotel. Chilean chef Francisco Arraya honed his skills at El Bulli and in Tokyo where he was awarded his own Michelin star. His tasting menu at Alegre combines flair, precision and intense flavours in dishes such as grouper in a seaweed sauce with candied potatoes and squid.
Some of Chile’s newest small organic wineries are located in the Casablanca Valley located between Santiago and Valparaiso on the coast. At Bodega RE an innovative and quirky vineyard, winemaker Pablo Morande produces modern wines using ancient techniques storing the wine in giant clay amphoras. They also produce delicious fruit liquors.
Slow roasted barbecued lamb cooked Patagonian-style over wood in the atmospheric surroundings of the former blacksmith forge at the Singular Patagonia.
Rushing water in the Salto Grande (big waterfall in the mesmerising Torres del Paine National Park) and dawn overlooking the Fjord of Last Hope Sound in Patagonia from outside the unique Singular Patagonia Hotel, punctuated by the dawn chorus of marine birds.
One of the highlights that we visited from the superb Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa was the El Tatio Geyser field. Located at 4320m, there are more than 80 geysers which are best seen at sunrise when the plumes of steam hit the cold air. The contrast between the freezing air and the boiling bubbling water is stark – thankfully they have recently created thermal bathing pools to warm up in.
Chile is a thin ribbon of land which extends for 2640 miles and encompasses a remarkable variety of landscapes. The contrast between the surreal Atacama Desert in the north and the craggy mountains, windswept plains and lakes of southern Patagonia will enthral landscape junkies. Throw in Valparaiso which is a city awash with colour and creativity and add amusing local wildlife and you’ll be visually captivated. Few words are required to embellish these these beautiful sights.
The aptly named Valley of the Moon in the Atacama.
The high Altiplano or Andean plateau is characterised by grassy tufts and populated by vicuna and llamas. Ancient villages which were home to shepherds are largely deserted now but their cute churches dating from Spanish occupation still stand proud.
Northern Chile’s stark Atacama Desert has optimal conditions for stargazing; high altitude, few clouds, and virtually no light pollution. At the Alto Atacama, guests can scour the night skies through the powerful telescope.
The comfortable speedboats belonging to the Singular Patagonia Hotel whisked us up the Last Hope Fjord and then after a short walk through native forest, we turned a corner and bam – there was the majestic Serrano glacier.
Saving the best for last – the Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Patagonia holds incredible visual memories for me, and there was a doubt that I may have over-hyped the experience. But the horns and Towers of the Torres del Paine and mirror reflection did not disappoint!
It’s not only the landscapes and wildlife that impress – Valparaiso, 90 minutes from Santiago, was a booming port city in the late 1800s and the rich merchants’ mansions that pack the steep streets have been given UNESCO heritage status and a makeover by talented street artists.
For more information on Chile, give one of our Americas Consultants a call on 0203 603 3555 or visit scottdunn.com