We absolutely loved Chile.
It’s not that we weren’t expecting to. But while we knew in advance that we wouldn’t be able to get to some of its most well loved destinations – the Atacama Desert in the far north, Patagonian Torres del Paine in its most southernly tip, and Easter Island way out in the Pacific – we knew little about just what else the country had to offer.
But lots to offer it has. These are our highlights, and just what made our time in Chile so special.
Our month is Santiago will without a doubt go down as one of the best spells of our entire trip. Lively, laidback and with loads to do, Santiago surprised us in how much it has going for it. In our four weeks there, we got properly stuck in, making the absolute most of the bustling bar and restaurant scene, frequently taking Amber to the city’s many playgrounds, soft play areas and interactive museums, doing a splash of hiking, and even getting involved in a bit of volunteering. It was a jam-packed month and supremely enjoyable.
The other major Chilean city that we managed to get to is Valparaiso. A port city that sprawls out from the bay over a series of hills, it is best appreciated from one of its many panoramic vistas, where you can see all the colourful houses precariously perched on the hill sides that give it a shambolic and even slightly wild appeal. Valparaiso is an absolute must for most travellers to the country, quite simply because there is nowhere else quite like it. The city centre is a tourist haven, but deservedly so – indescribably cool and edgy, it teems with awesome street art and funky bars. We were there for new year, when it was buzzing and it felt like we were in the middle of a festival. A cracking place.
Off the beaten track
Another reason we loved Chile so much was that we also made it off the beaten track and got to some places not many travellers get to. The first of these was Horcon, a fishing village north of Valparaiso. It was perhaps at first (and second and third) glance a dubious destination for Christmas, being as it was dusty, musty and well past its prime (if it ever had one). But it had an undeniable charm, and going down to the rugged beach first thing in the morning to see the fishermen pull in their catch was an experience in itself. Not only that, but our rustic beachside Christmas Eve lunch of shellfish and cheese empanadas will live on in our memories for not only being delicious, but also being completely unlike our usual Christmas Eve fare (and, despite having all the hallmarks of food poisoning hell, we all remained unscathed).
The other completely off the beaten track highlight was Chiloe, where we went with our close friends Nick and Emily. A cluster of rugged and wild islands off the mainland, Chiloe is largely famed for being the last region to succumb to Spanish rule, as well as having approximately 400 types of potatoes indigenous to its shores. Having not read much about it before going, other than it was very ‘mystical’ and full of folklore (see Lonely Planet entry in previous blog post here), we didn’t know what to expect. And indeed, it took us a couple of days to ‘get it’. But when we got it, we bloody got it. The climate is predominantly wet and foggy (hence the mist, and therefore to some degree the mysticism), but when the sun shines it is stunning, bathing the rolling hills and lakes in what genuinely feels like a magical glow. Chiloe is best enjoyed by car, driving around and exploring the isolated and quirky little villages. The whole place feels remote, untouched and very unique.
A mention here also must be made of the house we stayed in in Isla Negra on Chile’s coast. The home of provacative and controversial artist Felix Maruenda, it is lovingly cared for by his son who rents it out on Airbnb to keep the legacy of his father alive. We only stayed here a couple of nights, but were deeply touched by the family and their story, learning not only about their life and work, but also what it would have been to survive as a liberal artist under Pinochet’s rule.
We cannot talk about Chile without talking about the wonderful visits that we had from family and friends. First up was Nannie and Papa (aka James’s mum Mary and Keith). They joined us for our last few days of Santiago, plus a week in beach resort Algarrobo, and a delightful time was had by all. Particularly wonderful for us was seeing them with Amber again. Their love for her knows no bounds and their endless energy and enthusiasm means they are almost always playing, singing, laughing and reading. Amber, needless to say, adores them, and was beside herself with excitement for the majority of their stay. It really was a joy to behold. We, meanwhile, got some much needed time out together on our own, basking in the knowledge that Amber was in Nannie and Papa’s safe hands.
We also had a visit from Nick and Emily, some of our closest friends in London. At home we meet up frequently, so to go a near seven months without seeing each other was a long time. But, as is the always case with special friendships, the second we were back together, it felt like we had never been apart. The backdrop to their visit was an intense one, largely because less than an hour before greeting them at the airport James had his passport stolen, bringing with it stress, frustration and anger, and seemingly endless travel-related admin. Their presence however kept us upbeat, and we overcame the admin and proceeded to have a blinding time. Together we explored the Maipo Valley (great wines, slightly nondescript valley), Puerto Varas and the Lakes (disarmingly German, cracking volcano) and Chiloe (see above – mist and mysticism galore).
Chile facts and figures
- Chile’s national language – Spanish
- How we got by – Claire’s Spanish went through spells of ups and downs but overall came out on top. James’ Spanish continued to grow, with him even managing to conduct his own affairs without help by the end of our time in the country
- Number of kms travelled – 3,623km
- Different types of transportation used – the usual – taxis, buses, planes etc etc. We also hired a number of cars which gave us new found flexibility (and almost led to some pretty terrible calamities, but more on that in a later post – look out for a new Confessions of the Clumsy…)
- Beer brands consumed – Austral, Escudo, Cristal, Kunstmann
- Beers brands favoured – Chile is leading the way on the continent in craft beers, and a couple of our most enjoyable evenings were spent drinking Kross and watching Amber play with pigeons on Santiago’s Paseo de Bulnes
- Bottles of wine consumed – still not counting
- Bottles of wine favoured – hard to tell (or remember). We made it to a number of bodegas however across the wine region, and it is fair to say that Chile’s fine reputation for a chilled white is, in our humble opinion, well deserved
- Favourite animals – Santiago zoo’s red panda was pretty cute. And Amber was overjoyed at the cows in the field outside our cabin in Puerto Varas. A special mention must also go to the chickens in the coop in our garden in Chiloe. We fed them every day and got first dibs on their freshly laid eggs. Chickens, we learnt, also make for quite pleasing and comforting companions
- Least favourite animals – more dogs I’m afraid, this time specifically the dogs in Valparaiso who set each other off throughout the day and night and bark tirelessly and frenetically for hours nonstop, driving us mad on a daily (and nightly) basis. Another decidedly unsavoury beast we encountered were some birds (pelicans?) on Horcon’s beach, snapping up the unwanted fish thrown out by the fishermen, and in so doing making a fearsome racket
- Country highlights – Valparaiso’s fun festival vibe over new year; Santiago as a whole; seafood platters (and seemingly endless bottles of Sauvignon Blanc) in the restaurants of Algarrobo (let’s forget the fact one gave me serious food poisoning, the meals themselves were delicious); the fabulously unique and artisty house of Felix Maruenda in Isla Negra; the view of the perfect cone of the Volcano Osorno across Lago Llanquihue; Chiloe in general, but specifically stepping out onto the wild and and beautiful beach in Chiloe’s National Park, and while there witnessing the peaceful harmony of cows and horses grazing together on the same stretch of beach (a simple scene but one we all found deeply symbolic in this time of increased intolerance and fractiousness)
- Most treasured moments – James rustling up an amazingly tasty and wonderfully authentic Christmas dinner, extremely special when we were so far from home (and had so few of the necessary ingredients); the intimacy of spending Christmas and New Year just us three; celebrating UK’s New Year in style by dancing raucously in our living room (so raucous that we didn’t actually make it to Chile’s New Year…); arriving in Santiago and giddily (drunkenly) claiming it the best place we have ever been; the numerous day trips that we had in Santiago, in particular making sure we were doing lots of child-focused activities for Amber; endless laughter and fun with Nannie and Papa throughout their whole stay, and seeing Amber so happy to be reunited with them; my personal satisfaction of diving headfirst – despite limited Spanish – into volunteering, and having a thoroughly rewarding experience; barbecues, bubbles and truly memorable times with Nick and Emily, and Amber’s growing attachment to them; the indescribable relief and joy of getting our computer case back which contained all of our pictures of Amber since she was born, after thinking for a whole 24 hours that it was gone forever; seeing Amber develop into a fine, intelligent and ludicrously funny little person, and witnessing her speech in particular grow at a pace of knots