I had taken much of my understanding of the origins of the Chilean nation from Inez of My Soul, the gripping and expansive novel by Isabel Allende, niece of the tragic president Salvador Allende, but within hours of arriving and on more than a few occasions thereafter I was offered an alternative, and apparently rather popular, scenario. It goes along the lines of: God made Chile last and, perhaps a little tired, gathered together leftover parts and molded them together in a sliver, a final piece for the mosaic.
As an explanation for incredible and even affronting diversity, I suppose it’s as good as anything else going because this country truly is diverse. Yes, it is long but then so is Japan and not a lot changes between top and bottom there. However, fly into Santiago, change planes and, in less than two hours, you can land in the driest-on-earth Atacama Desert, with all its stark, barren splendour. Take a domestic flight south, though, and in slightly less than an hour you are in the Chilean Lakes district, feeling that you’re moving through Wales or Ireland or even Switzerland – a lush, green, sometimes alpine environment.
Both are absolutely Chilean, both are peopled by citizens of considerable casual charm who stand apart from the assertive Argentinians and the boisterous Brazilians who make their way there in large numbers but you do find yourself wondering why you haven’t had to get your passport stamped moving from one to the other. Were you to continue down the sliver to Punta Arenas, one of the gateways to Antarctica, the sense of overwhelming change would be even more greatly enhanced.
The sombre stature of the Atacama is apparent from arrival at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, dramatically sited beneath towering walls of red rock in the Catarpe Valley near the adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama. Well, it was once a village. Now it is a crossroads tourist town with traders, cantinas, museums, churches, tour operators and currency counters. There is an undeniable Wild West tone about it all that almost has you mentally conjuring up banditos in Zapata moustaches and sombreros with cartridge belts across their chests riding into town firing six guns and whooping war cries. Though if they did come, it would probably be to open their laptops and avail themselves of the free wi-fi in the town square or to enjoy the weekend rock concert that was taking place the day I dropped by. There is, however, an outpost not too far away, with a church perched upon a hill, that looks so absolutely evocative that it was used in the James Bond film The Quantum of Solace (though it was passed off as being in Bolivia, to the chagrin of the few locals).
The plush Alto Atacama has an eerie emptiness during daylight hours, as most of its guests are out participating in one of the almost three dozen excursions, which span the high, dry realm and take in lakes, streams, salt flats, mountains, gorges, dunes, passes, villages, gardens, cordilleras, caves and ancient shepherd’s paths. Some are accessible by bicycle, horseback and foot but mostly it’s a case of loading into air-conditioned (and, more importantly, heated) vans and heading thirty minutes to Moon Valley or two hours to the Altoandina Lagoons or the Tatio Geysers, which gurgle, splutter and spurt almost four and a half thousand metres above sea level, enticing busloads of backpackers to disrobe and dip. Wise heads at the hotel will keep such delights from you for two or three days, to allow you to acclimatise and even when you have got your mountain lungs to some extent, you’ll still find it prudent to ration yourself to relatively slow steps.
Llamas graze, flamingos fly and sharp eyes may spot vicunas, suris, viscachas and foxes. In the direction of the airport at Calama is the miniscule village Chiu-Chiu, with a history dating back to around 3000 BC. And it is at the airport that you will inevitably find yourself, returning to Santiago, a pleasing, vibrant city that has come on in leaps and bounds since the scars of coup and conflict could be discerned as mortar and bullet shell holes in the walls of public buildings. Today, a statue of the overthrown Allende stands in the city centre, with no memento to the dictator Pinochet. There is imposing open air art and inventive architecture, some striking fashion and some fetching bohemian barios, one of which, Bellavista at the foot of San Cristobal Hill near Pablo Neruda’s beloved La Chascona, houses the luxury 15-suite boutique hotel, The Aubrey, a restored 1920s Spanish Colonial Mission mansion with a terraced bell tower. The hotel is managed by a genial fellow from Wangaratta, Victoria, who does not seem to have lost his Australian accent.
In high season, there are flights directly into Pucon down in the lakes district and roughly level with the Argentinian resort of Bariloche but, even if you have to fly into Temuco and be transferred for an hour or so around the shores of Lake Villarrica, past cheese factories, contented herds, farms, forests and a panorama line of snow-capped crests, the soothing nature of it all enriches every kilometre. While still wondering just how the Atacama could have slipped away so swiftly, you are taking part in another acclimatisation.
The well-travelled and well-heeled have been coming here for decades, seeing it as one of the pearls of the southern hemisphere. When you arrive at the famed clean-lines and sleek Hotel Antumalal you bring to mind the lines with which has long been touted in prestige guides: “Built in the 1950s as an ultra-modern lakeside resort, its Bauhaus-influenced architect Jorge Elton was inspired by a terraced 13 acre park that surrounds it”. And, indeed, the lobby does combine tree-slab tables, shaggy fur rugs, primary colour cushions and views, views to have you rubbing your eyes. In the 22 rooms are wood panels, fireplaces and wide windows, all the better to bring the vastness of Lake Villarrica right to you.
In the foyer is a fascinating wall of photographs, including some of guests who’ve made their way to the property over the years and made themselves very much at home – actors Jimmy Stewart and Emma Thompson, first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, assorted scientists and academics, assorted European nobility and a young and beaming Queen Elizabeth II, with Duke. The proprietor, engaging Rony Pollack, daughter of the Czech immigrant whose dream the hotel was, tells a beguiling tale of being a young teen when Regina descended with her bossy courtiers and ladies-in-waiting and of being placed in the front seat of the royal vehicle for a journey to a barbecue, forbidden to initiate conversation but expected to navigate and becoming a tad flustered when it became apparent that they were lost, if momentarily.
Just down the hill is the town of Pucon, sort of a Chilean take on Jackson Hole, replete with chocolate shops, restaurants, a beach, design emporiums, waterfront accommodation and an intriguing flower shop where every stem and petal is in fact carved out of wood, sort of like large pencil shavings. Thronged when ski season is in full-flight, it maintains a presence and energy all year around, standing as one of the principal drawcards of Chilean tourism.
There is a nearby Mapuche reserve where local cuisine can be sampled and a Mapuche museum tells a tale of a self-contained world before the Spanish came. Within easy reach of Pucon and the Antumalal is the base of the softly-smoking and very much active Villarrica volcano, which doubles as a ski lift station. Slightly further away but well worth the expedition, past wooded rapids, lake towns, handicraft factories and chalets, is the Termas Geometricas hot springs. Here some 17 slate-lined pools have been artfully constructed along the path of a mountain stream just below a waterfall. While the stream is expectedly icy, the pools are filled with steaming water that arrives beside it, coming out of holes in the mountain side that descend to a magma chamber some 14 kilometres below, deep in the bowels of the earth. Splashing about in a pool of pure 40 degree water while snowflakes floated down upon me was as fine a way as I have ever passed a morning.
A good guide is the key to deriving the most from this lush, green land and, for one afternoon I had the best, in Rony Pollack, who is known to one and very much all; sort of an unofficial mayor. She ranged across the landscape to just near the Argentinian border, taking myself and three animated Brazilians who find themselves in residence at the Antumalal each year inside churches and pastry shops, to a high farm where wool is fabulously fashioned, through rarely visited villages and atop precipices with commanding and inspiring views. This is the world her father came to and brought to the attention of thousands with discernment and a desire for sumptuous serenity and she and her late husband continued to make accessible. Inside the Antumalal is a level of cosy comfort and warmth, of the human variety, that sets it apart from most resorts and spas and, as I found, entices back those who discover it.
Glenn flew to Chile with Lan Chile.
Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker.