We weren’t really expecting much of interest in Valdivia. It was merely a stop along the way between Chiloé and Pucon. First impressions weren’t great but, as we ventured along the riverfront to the city centre, we saw that this was an attractive and vibrant city.
Something which the guidebook didn’t mention was the lively food market. Or, more specifically, the fish sellers and their sea lion companions. It required a second glance for me to believe what I saw, but yes; there was an enormous sea lion directly behind that man filleting fish. These gigantic creatures emerge from the adjacent river for the scraps the fishermen occasionally throw them, before slinking back into the water.
20km down the road is a ruined fort atop cliffs overlooking a wide bay where the river meets the Pacific. It was free to enter, cheap to get to and fascinating to look around – a very enjoyable couple of hours. In need of a Christmas break from being on the road, we stopped in Pucon for several days. This turned out to be an excellent idea, for this touristy town is located next to a large lake, offers many superb restaurants and cafes and is overseen by a dramatic, smoking volcano.
Our days here were spent enjoying a peaceful lakeside beach, hiking in a lush and scenic national park or, on one thoroughly enjoyable day, rafting down a crashing grade 4 river. Christmas Day came and went with a glut of food (with two hobs and a microwave our cooking options were limited but thankfully the supermarkets sold delicious roast chicken).
One overnight coach journey – our first in many weeks – later and we were in the metropolitan madness of Santiago. Here we met my parents and hired a car to drive a couple of hours back south to Santa Cruz, in the middle of a large wine region. The town itself is ugly, but the vineyards were typically beautiful and the couple of days here were a blur of wine tastings and tours.
Back to Santiago. Whilst many people we’d met along the way hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic about this city, we liked it. Staying in the plush Plaza San Francisco hotel, we started our visit with a walk up Santa Lucia hill for a view of the distant mountains. A walking tour here acquainted us with the historic buildings around the Plaza de Armas, as well as the president’s grand offices which had been bombed during the 1973 coup.
We were also shown around the trendy Lastarria neighbourhood which offered peaceful cafes, and then Bellavista which was more lively and seemed to consist mainly of restaurants. Here also was Pablo Neruda’s characterful house, built for views of the mountains which now seem obscured by skyscrapers.
Later that evening we returned to Bellavista to sample some typical Chilean cuisine. I tried Pastel de Choclo; minced beef, boiled eggs, raisins, chicken and olives with a mashed sweet corn topping and sprinkling of sugar, all in a clay bowl and baked in the oven.
One notable (but expensive – almost £10 entry fee) museum was the Museo de Arte Precolombiano which featured remarkably well-preserved pots, statues, jewellery, clothing and other such artefacts from the past three millennia and uncovered everywhere from Mexico to Patagonia. Everything was presented so that there was an explanation for why that pot had this design, or why these people had carved those statues.
Just a 90-minute drive from the centre of Santiago is the end of the arid Maipo valley, where 4000m mountains struggle to retain their snow in the heat. The main highlight here was our hotel – the Andino El Ingenio – a red-tiled lodge sat amidst lush gardens and walnut groves. It’s greatest asset was the talented chef who produced exquisite food for us as we sat in that lovely garden.
Skirting around Santiago our route dropped several hundred metres to the Casablanca wine region and once again we found ourselves in an elegant vineyard sipping on some delectable reserva. Just beyond these vineyards crashed the mighty Pacific. Our hotel (the Cinque Colori) was perched on cliffs high enough to be out of the tsunami danger zone. From its balconies we could look over the wide sand beach.
Down the road is Pablo Neruda’s Isla Negra residence; a delightful home designed to feel like an old wooden boat and filled with artefacts that made it seem as though this exceptional poet lived on through his collection. He, too, had a view of the sea, as well as a bed angled to get the best view. A man with an excellent outlook on life.
Most exciting for me was, just along our beach back in Algorrobo, the world’s largest swimming pool. At 19.77 acres, it looked more like a lake, albeit one lined with blue tiles. Unfortunately it was only accessible to residents of the large apartment complex overlooking it, but how wonderful it would have been swimming through such an large and empty waterscape.
A short drive from here is Valparaiso. This port city is built upon several hills and is a cornucopia of colourful buildings, retro trolley buses, rickety funiculars, cobbled streets and, famously, graffiti. The excellent Valpo Graffiti Tour walked us around various spray can artworks – in two non-stop hours we’d only just started to learn the complexities of this art.
Our hotel in this edgy, vibrant city was in a wonderful location right amongst the bustle, next to a 116 year-old funicular and with captivating views. Thank you Fauna Hotel!
Back to the beach. This time we stayed in an AirBnB with its own infinity pool. Such opulence seemed appropriate in the cute village of Zapallar, nestled along a small sandy bay with ridiculously expensive properties spreading from sea to hill.
This is where Chile’s rich come to take in the sea air. The beaches nearby are joined by a stone path built along the rocky shore. On one island, close to a beach, we saw Humboldt penguins amongst the Pelicans and cormorants.
Coquimbo – far larger and more lively than Zapallar – neighbours the town of La Serena. Both spill onto a massive sandy beach and back on to the edge of the Atacama desert. Drive 90 minutes north from here and you’ll find Choros, a small coastal village with a bustling pier where you can embark on a boat tour to nearby islands.
These protected islands are populated by huge numbers of birds, including those Humboldt penguins again. You can also spot seals, dolphins and – if you’re really lucky – blue whales. Inland from La Serena massive hills are occasionally topped with famous observatories.
The air is so clear that about 60% of the world’s observatories are located here. On a visit to one we were given a guided tour of the night sky with spectacular close-up views of the moon, as well as clear sights of distant planets and space dust.