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South America » Chile
December 31st 2012
Published: December 31st 2012
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My rating: 8/10

Daily budget (travel, food and accommodation): USD $70 = 44 pounds

When: 11 November - 19 December 2012

Bases: San Pedro de Atacama, La Serena, Santiago, Santa Cruz, Pucon, Puerto Montt, Navimag ferry, Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine National Park

Main sights: Moon Valley, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Historic Museum, La Serena Archaelogical Museum, Elqui Valley-Cavas del Valle and Falernia vineyards, Tongoy Bay, National History Museum, Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, Salvador Allende Solidarity Museum, Maipo Valley-Cousino Macul vineyard, Santiago Wine Gala, Valparaiso, Colchagua Valley-Viu Manent, Laura Hartwig and Estampa vineyards, Huerquehue National Park, The Cani Sanctuary, Patagonian fjords, Torres del Paine National Park

Top 3 experiences:

1) Torres del Paine National Park
2) Becoming a wine snob
3) Patagonian fjords

Torres del Paine National Park

Sometimes, it´s good to get forced out of your comfort zone.

When you´re travelling, things that you'd never have considered doing in a million years suddenly seem perfectly normal, simply because everyone else is doing them. So it was that I found myself boarding a rickety plane in Nazca or going sightseeing at a cemetery in La Paz. Exactly the same thing happened with Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.

Normally I´m not much of a hiker. In the UK, I like doing the odd day-walk but I´ve never done a multi-day hike and I´ve never been on a proper camping trip. I don´t even know how to pitch a tent.

Unfortunately, this lack of basic life skills doesn´t get you very far in Torres del Paine. Now it´s true that Chile´s #1 tourist attraction can be done in many different ways. Those visitors who like the finer things in life can see the park´s highlights while staying in smart hotels or cabins with built-in hot tubs every night - and paying someone else to carry their luggage for them. But sadly we´re not in Peru anymore and the cost of hiring a porter in Patagonia is, like pretty much everything else in Patagonia, astronomical.

Too much for a cheapskate like me anyway.

All of which means that the only option is to carry everything you´ll need on your back. For five days. And to considerably lower your expectations of what´s an acceptable sleeping arrangement.

Ok, time for a bit of a confession. I wimped out on the accommodation front and opted to rent beds along the way rather than camp, owing to my previously mentioned lack of basic life skills, but even so poky 9-bed dorms are not something I´d ever consider under normal circumstances. Worse, I splashed out on day 3 and paid 13 pounds for what was comfortably the most disappointing meal of my life at Los Cuernos refuge (honestly, who serves pasta and sauce to ravenous trekkers who´ve been surviving on nothing but pasta and sauce for the last 3 days?).

But this is Patagonia we're talking about and if you have to undergo a few hardships to see it, that´s not a bad trade-off really.

In fact, as I soon learned, staggering around Torres del Paine has become something of a rite of passage for backpackers in South America. Everyone does it. Everyone suffers. And everyone looks back on it with fond memories, not least because they know they´ll never have to do it again.

Maybe I´m overplaying this slightly. My trek was a surprisingly positive experience, mainly because the notorious Patagonian weather decided to go on holiday while I was there (mid December). Most visitors battle against 100mph winds or snow or hail, or all of the above, while I had 5 days of freakishly good conditions. This fluke of timing meant the trek was merely difficult rather than the near-death experience that most people seem to endure.

Still, Torres del Paine is about more than just testing your pain thresholds. The ´W´route, so called because it looks like the letter ´W´on a map, takes you through 36 miles (58km) of incredibly varied scenery. You´ll see snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes and flowering meadows and crystal-clear streams so clean you can drink directly from them.

You´ll also see the park´s 3 big highlights:

Glaciar Grey, which marks the start of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field
The French Valley, with its extraordinary 360-degree panorama of mountains
Torres del Paine, or Blue Towers, the granite spires that give the park its name

Of the three, the granite spires are the most famous but I actually preferred the French Valley. Climbing through dense forest, punctuated every few minutes by a deafening roar like thunder, before finally seeing the cause of all the commotion; a waterfall of ice as one glaciar high in the mountains melts in the midday sun and tumbles onto another. I think the technical name for this natural phenomenon is an icefall, but whatever it´s called, it´s something I´ll never forget.

As an aside, if you go in the next few years (or decades so I´m told), you´ll also see something else. In December 2011, one dumb tourist ignored the park´s rules and set some toilet roll alight. He lost control of the fire and it would go on to rage out of control for over a week, destroying 16,000 hectares of land in the process. That includes half the ´W´circuit so a lot of what you´ll see today is not the lush greenery depicted in the guidebooks but eerie black forests of dead trees.

Heart-wrenching stuff then, but I ought to say the park has weathered the storm incredibly well. Half the ´W´circuit may have changed beyond recognition but I´m told, and I can well believe, that it´s still every bit as impressive as before - just in a whole new way.

Becoming a wine snob

Wine is slowly becoming something of a hobby of mine.

I blame the Manchester Wine Festival. Every year (or lately every 6 months), my home city hosts a brilliant event that allows you to try wines from all over the world and talk to the people who make them. It was at one of these festivals that I first discovered that red wines from South America - particularly Chile and Argentina - are really rather good and great value for money too.

So after drinking my way through more than a few of the continent´s wines back home, I was really looking forward to coming to Chile to taste some new ones and maybe learn a thing or two as well. It didn´t disappoint.

The main way to get to grips with wine in Chile is to visit a few vineyards. If you´re lucky, some of them might give you a tour of their vines or their wine-making facilities but all of them encourage you do the most important bit - trying anything up to half a dozen of their best wines.

In total, I visited 6 vineyards in Chile, which works out as quite a lot of wine when you add it all up. They were:

Falernia and Cavas del Vallein the Elqui Valley (Chile´s most northern wine region)
Cousino Maculin the Maipo Valley (just outside Santiago)
Viu Manent, Laura Hartwig and Estampa in the Colchagua Valley (in the south-central part of wine country)

Of those, I´d happily recommend visiting any of the ones in Maipo or Colchagua while I thought the best wines came from Viu Manent, sold in the UK by Majestic Wine among others. That´s probably because I tend to prefer full-bodied red wines given a choice, and Viu Manent is widely recognised as producing Chile´s finest Malbecs.

The Elqui Valley vineyards had some nice white wines and they enjoyed a beautiful setting (I never knew vines could grow in the same environment as cacti...) but they were much smaller and seemed less well prepared for visitors. Although having said that, our worst experience of the lot came in the Maipo Valley with Concha y Toro, South America´s largest wine brand, which used a confusing automated booking system and ultimately refused to allow us onto the premises!

It turns out that their main vineyard had been block-booked for a celebrity wedding for ages but it still seems like a strange way to treat your customers, especially when you consider that they allowed us to book online and failed to answer our emails. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

Fortunately, we were soon presented with an opportunity to make amends for the Concha y Toro fiasco. That very same evening just so happened to be the last night of Santiago´s largest annual wine festival. The 2012 Gala del Vino brought together 46 wine stands and a further 11 food stands, all of which doled out generous free samples and plenty of advice for wannabe wine snobs like me.

For starters, I learned that Chile actually turns out some excellent white wines. While regions such as Colchagua, Cachapoal and Maipo have long been recognised for producing big reds like Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon, in recent times they´re also gaining a reputation for delicate whites in places like Casablanca and Limari. I was particularly impressed by the whites from Casablanca, Tamaya and Aresti vineyards on the night.

I also learned that there is some good food in Chile after all. When you´re at the budget end of the scale - as most backpackers are, because this isn´t a cheap place to live - it´s hard to get excited when you´re served yet another slab of dry meat with a side order of French fires, potatoes or rice. Unless you splash out, or go to an expat restaurant, you´re not going to experience great cooking in Chile. However, at the Santiago Wine Gala we were thrilled to find excellent chocolates made by a company called La Fete, as well as surprisingly good cheeses from the likes of Pere Andre and Colun.

All in all, the Santiago Wine Gala was remarkably similar in format to the Manchester Wine Festival; the chief difference being that all the wines here were Chilean while in Manchester there´s a more global outlook. Since I came specifically to learn about Chilean wines, that was fine by me.

A fun night, then, but would it be worth visiting Chile just to see the Santiago Wine Gala? Honestly, no - it´s too similar to the ones back home. But would it be worth visiting to go round all the different vineyards in all the different wine regions? Yes, definitely - Chile is a wine lover´s paradise.

Patagonian fjords

Patagonia is a vast region, more or less encompassing the whole southern halves of Chile and Argentina.

People round here tend not to say they´re Chilean or Argentinian - instead, they say they´re from Patagonia. What unites people from both sides of the Andes is more than what separates them.

Most of the region falls on the Argentinian side of the border. In fact, it´s impossible to drive down the whole length of Patagonia without dipping into Argentina at some point (as a result, border crossings are pretty common occurrences down here). But the most spectacular stretches are definitely on the Chilean side.

That´s because Chile has the Patagonian fjords. Like their Scandinavian counterparts, these fjords are incredibly beautiful with hundreds of tiny islands and inlets, passageways and dead-ends.

The best way to appreciate them is by boat, and the best boat journey is the 4-day Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the north to Puerto Natales in the south. It takes you round both the Nothern Patagonian Ice Field and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field - including South America´s largest glaciar, the Santiago-sized Pio XI Glaciar. It takes you from the 80-metre-wide White Channel to the Pacific Ocean proper (bring sea-sickness tablets!). And it takes you to the tiny, remote fishing village of Puerto Eden, which boasts stunning views of several snow-capped mountains.

It´s also a decent bet for wildlife watching, although only birdspotters are guaranteed to see something out of the ordinary. I caught half a dozen fleeting glimpses of wild dolphins (Chilean Dolphins, I think). If you´re very lucky, you might see humpback whales or blue whales - the Corcovado Gulf is one of the world´s largest blue whale nurseries and even featured on the BBC TV series Planet Earth - but the odds are less than 50/50.

Still, regardless of whether or not you see the largest animal in history (we didn´t), the landscapes are worth seeing in their own right. Patagonia is one of the most undeveloped and undisturbed environments in the world. And I for one hope it stays that way.

Random facts:

• Chile is the world´s largest copper producer. The country´s finance minister Andres Velasco somehow squirreled away $20 billion from the copper boom before the global financial crisis. He´s now using this enormous rainy-day fund to finance a massive stimulus plan shielding Chile from the downturn.
• Chile´s signature grape variety, Carmenere, was rediscovered in Maipo Valley´s Carmen vineyard in 1994. Up till then, it had been mistakenly sold as Merlot.
• There are 400 people per sq km in the metropolitan region of Santiago. in the Aisen region of Patagonia, there´s only 1 person per sq km.


For my money, Chile has the most extreme geography in the world.

This runner bean of a country is only 111 miles wide on average, yet astonishingly it´s almost 2,700 miles long. To put that into perspective, 2,700 miles is roughly the same distance as from London to Tehran. Prepare yourself for some truly epic bus journeys.

As a result, Chile has an impressive variety of landscapes. In the north, you´ve got the driest desert in the world - some parts of the Atacama desert haven´t seen rainfall since records began. In the centre, you´ve got big, bland Santiago sandwiched between hundreds of miles of fertile wine-producing valleys. In the south, you´ve got the awe-inspiring Patagonian fjords. And running down the entire length, you´ve got the world´s largest ocean (the Pacific) on one side and the world´s longest mountain range (the Andes) on the other.

Living among all these alien landscapes are the Chileans themselves. Before coming, I´d expected Chilean people to be as varied as their environment but in this respect I was to be disappointed.

Chileans are friendly, hospitable, down-to-earth people but they´re also incredibly westernised. Everyone wears jeans and t-shirts (not to mention a fair few jumpers if they´re in Patagonia), eats hot dogs and burgers, and drinks beers and Coca-Cola (but not wine, funnily enough). Precious little in the way of indigenous culture survives, making it a world away from the strong Andean traditions of neighbouring Peru and Bolivia.

In this respect, Chile doesn´t really feel like what you´d normally associate with South America. Instead, it feels every bit as westernised as say Scandinavia or Switzerland, with scenery and prices to match. The towns and cities are comfortable and well-run, just nothing special.

But if you love the great outdoors, if you want to see epic landscapes and push yourself to the limit exploring them, there´s no place better.

Next stop: Argentina


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