Chile: the most varied country in the world

From mountains to desert, Ashwin Bhardwaj is enchanted by the diverse delights of Chile

AT UNIVERSITY, we teased our Geographer housemate for doing a degree in “colouring in.” But we secretly envied his trips to exotic corners of the globe, digging ice cores and monitoring volcanoes. Visualising geography is difficult in England as this green and pleasant land is also one of the most mild and temperate places on the planet. But, embark on a 14-hour flight, and you’ll discover a country whose history, culture and landscape have been more affected by geography than nearly any other nation on Earth.

Chile sits on the edge of the South American continent, a strip of land squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, on the Pacific Ring of Fire. A hundred miles offshore, the Nazca Tectonic Plate plunges beneath the South American Plate, creating a trench over five miles deep. The recycled rock rises as magma in the Andean volcanoes, while the folding and buckling shatters the land and judders as earthquakes.

Chile is the world’s longest country: over 4000km from the northern deserts on the Tropic of Capricorn, to its wild tail in Tierra Del Fuego, and this geographical smorgasbord creates some fascinating quirks of climate. The capital, Santiago, sits at the northern head of the Central Valley, fertile from the alluvial run-off and volcanic deposits of the Andes. Shielded from oceanic weather by the Coastal Range, Santiago’s climate is dry, and its summers hot and sunny – perfect for the strong, fruity grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

But cross the mountains to the west, and the oceanic weather that butts up against the Coastal Range hugs the ground as a low fog. Yet, it’s dry on this side of the mountains (80 per cent of the irrigation water comes from condensation on wires) with the cold climate and reduced sunshine making it better for the production of lighter wines, such as Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. This is also where you can find Chile’s national Carmenere grape: lost from its home in Bordeaux, it was rediscovered here in the 1990s. Santiago makes a great base for exploring these regions, with wine tours making the most of Chile’s growing reputation as a leader in the field, and food-pairing menus at the wineries are excellent.

The effect of the landscape goes far beyond vineology: from Tundra to Alpine, and Mediterranean to Ice Cap, Chile has nearly every type of climate that can be found on earth. In parts of the Atacama Desert, rain has never been recorded; the rocky, dusty landscape is so hostile that NASA uses it to test Martian probes. But the desert is not empty; it was once the engine behind Chile’s first economic boom, for it is home to the world’s largest natural supply of sodium nitrate – saltpeter.

Saltpeter was mined on an enormous scale for the production of fertiliser and explosives, and international mining companies built whole towns to house their enormous labour forces. The companies provided everything from education to theatre in these desert towns, isolated from the rest of the world.

At the beginning of the 20th century, new industrial techniques in Germany allowed nitrates to be produced artificially, rather than mined from the ground. The price of saltpeter plummeted, and it became uneconomical to sustain the enormous desert communities. One-by-one the saltpeter mines closed, and the towns were abandoned to entropy. Today, post-apocalyptic chimneys hunker over the landscape, and dust devils dance through the empty streets of haunted towns.

But a living legacy remains: spurred by anarchistic ideas imported by technicians from Spain, these semi-feudal towns became the inception point of workers’ rights, evolving into Chile’s powerful left-wing political parties. The Humberstone & Saint Laura company town and refinery, 87km from Iquique, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its “profound impact on social history.”

Iquique is a neo-colonial town, with beaches full of surfers and panpipe bands playing in seafood restaurants. But, as our guide Maurizio points out, this was a settlement long before colonisation and it is in this region that you can find the oldest signs of human habitation in the Americas. The unique combination of dry atmosphere and salt in the earth means that organic material is incredibly well preserved: Chinchorro mummies found in the desert date back to 7000 BC. To put that into perspective, the oldest mummy found in Egypt is 4000 years younger.

Not far from Humberstone, you can find more recent signs of indigenous culture: geoglyphs made from the piling up of rocks and scraping away of soil. These gigantic mountainside images are two days’ walk from Iquique, on the main route between the ocean and the Andes.

The Ayamara people were a part of the Inca Empire, moving between regions to trade coca leaves, llama products and crops from the interior, for fish and scallop shells from the coast. They even traded for psychoactive mushrooms from the jungle, which shamans would consume to see visions in the iridescent scallop shells, predicting the future and deciding when to move. The glyphs on the rock depict families, llama, ocean animals and Ayamara beliefs – particularly their concept of equilibrium and their interaction with the Mother Goddess, Pachamama.

“The Spanish came seeking silver and gold,” says Maurizio, “But to the Ayamara, the real gold was the relationship with Pachamama.” We look around the remains of settlements on the desert side of the pass, where long straight channels were dug to farm maize. “When the Ayamara lived here, you could dig one or two metres to find water. But the equilibrium has been broken – too much has been taken from the earth and the water table is now 18m below the ground.”

Further inland sits the Altiplano, one of the most striking places I’ve ever seen; along the eastern horizon marches line after line of perfect, conical silhouettes, decorated with white glaciers, like a child’s image of a mountain. These are the Andean volcanoes – the result of that recycled Nazca Plate bubbling up through weak points in the Earth’s crust. We’re at altitude here – 3000m above sea level and the air is thin. Straight lines of road run towards the mountains, which seem no closer after hours of driving. On the Pacific side of the high passes are sand dunes that you could mistake for Oman’s Empty Quarter, but in the rain shadow lies something unexpected: turquoise blue spring-water lakes. Guanaco and llama trot past, and out in the middle of the lake shimmer what appear to be mirages – pink flamingos feeding on the crustaceans that give them their colour. The bright colours and delicate movements of water and birds against the muted colours of the halcyon plain, idealised volcanoes and rugged cliffs, give the vista the dreamlike qualities of a surrealist painting.

Heading south from Iquique, the climate becomes semi-desert as you reach La Serena, Chile’s second oldest city. Today, it has a laid-back, colonial feel, but the city’s past is anything but peaceful – during the 17th century, British pirates regularly pillaged the city and, in 1680, one Captain Sharp even burned most of it to the ground. With Chile’s increasing economic success, La Serena has become a booming tourist destination, with long beaches and a new golf course drawing in visitors. But La Serena really made its name as a gateway to the stars.

The dry, clear air, and minimal light pollution of the region, makes it particularly suitable for locating astronomical observatories at the top of tall peaks, where the thinner atmosphere interferes less with light from the stars. For the amateur enthusiast, it is one of the best places in the world to take in the beauty of the heavens, and the spot to do so is the Elqui Valley, two hours’ drive from La Serena.

Elqui Valley was home to Gabriela Mistral, winner of the 1945 Nobel Prize in Literature, who wrote about the magic and myth of the valley. Perhaps this inspired Elqui’s next incarnation: in the 1960s it gained fame among the New Age Movement, when it was said to be the location of Earth’s new Sexual Chakra. Rumours of cosmic energy drew all sorts of esoteric groups to the valley who found an interest in the spirit journey traditions of the native Diaguitas. Today, there is a Hippy Village at the far end of the valley, while yoga, massages and crystal-healing are available at guesthouses in the various towns.

The whole area has a bohemian feel, but Elqui is better known today for its main export. Claimed as the national drink of both Chile and Peru, Pisco is a clear-to-yellow brandy, produced by distilling the juice of Muscat grapes. There are several distilleries within walking distance of each other, and it’s wonderful to sample the strong liquor metres from where it’s made. But nowhere does Pisco make more sense than deep in the Elqui wilderness.

As dusk settles over the valley, we mount-up on calm, surefooted ponies, slowly trotting up a path to the head of the valley. Cacti dot the dry landscape, whilst Andean glaciers poke above the nearby foothills. The only sound is the trickle of a stream and the clop of hooves. As darkness falls, Venus shines brightly in the west, leading a steady procession of stars that appear like shy fairies in the corner of my vision, growing bolder and brighter as their comrades appear. By the time we stop and build a fire, the blanket of the sky seems scattered with diamonds, their colours of red, yellow and blue easy to see. The background is washed with the gentle suggestion of the Milky Way, longer and bigger than I ever imagined.

Marcello, another guide, uses a green laser-pen, a light-sabre of astrology, to pick out particular stars; never before have I seen how Leo looks like a lion, or Sagittarius a Centaur. As the Pisco takes effect, we begin to see the constellations of the Ayamara; not join-the-dots constellations like ours, but the dark outlines of llama and serpents, clear against the Milky Way (and made up in reality by enormous clouds of interstellar dust blocking the light of stars).

Later, in a small observatory, we peer through a telescope at what we had seen with the naked eye. Single points of light explode into complex arrangements of astronomy – a stellar nursery; a binary star system; the remnants of a supernova; and finally (the most magical of all) another world. A ball of white light, hugged closely by rings, hangs delicately in the cosmos – the distinctive silhouette of Saturn. I’ve flown all the way to Chile, but I’ve travelled a lot further.

NEED TO KNOW

Flights
Return flights to Santiago de Chile from London Heathrow via Madrid with LAN (lan.com) start from £796 per person and depart daily. For flights within Chile and across the continent, get up to 60 per cent off when buying three or more flights with LATAM Airlines Group’s South American Airpass.
For further information, visit Turismo Chile at chile.travel

For Iquique, home of the Atacama Desert, and the saltpeter towns, look up Magical Tour Chile at magicaltour.cl

For La Serena and the Elqui Valley, contact Marcello at Tourismo Delfines at turismodelfines.com

Elqui Valley
Horse riding is £78 and, with the distillery tours included, £99. Also includes transport.
turismodelfines.com / Tel. (051) 222 36 24 - 221 67 88

Elqui Domos from USD$125 per person including breakfast
elquidomos.cl/ reservas@elquidomos.cl – (Also available on Secret Escapes)

Santiago
Sheraton: £105 based on a standard room with breakfast included at sheraton.com
A private day tour in Casablanca Valley with guide and driver, two vineyards with tasting and three course lunch with wine starts from £105pp at andestraveler.com (562)2415 7725