Valley of the Moon, Atacama Desert; inset Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glacieres National Park
Article and photos by Joe Gschwendtner
Mature Americans seldom consider South America for independent travel. Currency devaluations, revolutions and erratic creature comforts lead most travelers to tours and cruises. Chile is decidedly different. Discoverable along a 2,700-mile axis, she offers epic landscapes and cultural and culinary charm. No nation on the continent is safer nor offers such a smorgasbord of natural beauty.
Launch with LAN Chile, the national airline. Schedule an end-to-end package. Include the Atacama Desert, driest on earth, Patagonia, German-influenced lake country, including the Chilean Archipelago and lastly, the Santiago/Valparaiso region. You may consistently rely on world-class wine, seafood cuisine and first-world amenities and infrastructure at every turn.
Visit Santiago and environs briefly to appreciate the affluence and economic success Chile enjoys. Nearby is the working port city of Valparaiso. Colorful barrios in city heights are indeed art, worth the detour alone. Motor north on the Pacific coast; find where Chileans play in the summer. Two places stand out: Vina del Mar and Renaca. Partake in the lifestyles of the well-to-do and take in their estates. Carriage trade restaurants and beaches abound.
Leave Chile’s mid-section for Antofagasta, in the Atacama Desert. Spend three to five days in the area; view mining on an incomprehensible scale. Via Calama, make passage to San Pedro de Atacama, close to Bolivian and Argentine borders. So much to see and savor – Tatio geysers, Valley of the Moon, salt flats, flamingos, ruins of the ancients and San Pedro, an exceptionally charming village.
On to Patagonia via Punta Arenas and 100,000 inhabitants on the Straits of Magellan – an outdoor art museum itself. You are close to the end (finisterre) of the earth! Patagonia is part of Chile and Argentina; viewing much of the beauty requires switch-backing between countries. Ensure you get an Argentine VISA in the United States. Describing Patagonia as exquisite borders is an insult! Do not miss Torres del Paine National Park, Los Glacieres National Park and El Chalten, gateway to Mount Fitz Roy and sister peaks.
Alleyway in Valparaiso barrios
Pacific seaside, Zappillar, north of Vina Del Mar
Depart Punta Arenas for Puerto Montt. This lake region (Region de los Lagos) supports sizable dairy farms and ranches with its fertile soils and abundant rain. To boost their economy in 1848, the government legislated a homestead act, enticing Germans to immigrate. The plan worked nicely. With Teutonic efficiency Chilean dairy farmers compete today with New Zealanders as the world’s most efficient.
Green fields, lakes and volcanos dominate the landscape. On a clear day with a cellphone camera, the abundant crystal clear lakes with reflections of snow-covered volcanos can make National Geographic photographers of anyone! Visiting Chiloe Island is a step into the past. Architectural (wooden churches) wonders, cultural, and seafood feasts await.
Chile, the economic miracle, (delivered by the “Chicago Boys”, U.S.-educated Chilean economists) makes her the tenth freest country in the world. Deposing Salvador Allende in the 70s, and voting out General Pinochet has replaced malfeasance with benign government, and it shows. Seize the moment now and later captivate friends by sharing your Chilean smorgasbord!