I should have known that such a stupendous view wouldn’t come without risk. One morning not long after my arrival in Chile, I was seated on the balcony of my 12th story penthouse and gazing up at the 20,000 foot wall of the Andes mountains towering above the eastern suburbs of Santiago when suddenly the entire building started to shake.
The 7.0 temblor rocked, rolled and shimmied for a good one minute or so; fortunately, the damage report was minimal: just a few broken knick-knacks. Outside, a cacophony of barking dogs and car alarms serenaded harmlessly while the embassy swimming pool adjacent to my apartment building sloshed around like Jell-O.
No biggie - it was just another terremoto, a Chilean pastime it seems. Thankfully, Santiago is equipped to handle these terrestrial shakeups. In fact, Chilean construction engineering prowess rivals its counterparts in other earthquake-prone metropolises such as Tokyo and San Francisco. A good thing, too; in 1960, the world’s largest recorded quake (a Richter 9.5) obliterated a third of Chile before blasting Japan with a tsunami – a mere 10,000 miles away.
If ever a country could be described by sheer metaphor, it’s Chile. Just as is her landscape testimony to the grinding tectonic plates of the earth and extreme polarities of Mother Nature, so are her people defined by radical change, cultural collision and societal paradox.
Consider her contours and features: Is there a more bizarrely shaped country, with a greater contrast of topography, in the world? The image of "anorexic millipede” comes to mind.
Spanning 2,800 miles in length from north to south, Chile’s average east-west width is barely 100 miles. But like any real estate gerrymandered into peculiar borders, there’s a darn good reason for it… Chile’s eastern flank is hemmed in by the world’s second highest mountain range, those auspicious Andes, sporting 36 active volcanoes. To the north is the fierce Atacama Desert, the world’s driest, which just went 27 years without measurable rainfall. Not that this severe land isn’t without its assets. Just ask the world’s two largest copper magnates, Rio Tinto Zinc and BHP Billiton (who pull $27 billion out of the ground each year), or the lapis lazuli miners of Ocalle, the only place in the world outside of Afghanistan where this lovely gem is mined. South? Only 600 miles from Antarctica – enough said. West? The tempestuous waters of the Pacific, the only real gateway into this quarantined realm. In between these territorial thresholds, however, lies a world of delight.
The middle of the country, where Santiago is located, features a wonderful Mediterranean-like climate, with summer hi-lo temps of 85/54°F and winter temps averaging 57/37. This capitol city of 6 million is a pleasant blend of Old World colonialism and New World commercialism, boasting an impressive modern skyline, transit system and conveniently accessible international airport. Santiago is the taciturn twin to its mercurial sibling Buenos Aires; the latter known more for its arts, architecture and food, while Santiago is a town predicated on commercial sensibilities and an "out-of-the-spotlight” practicality.
One can stroll around the historic downtown and take in the both old and new government palaces and halls or a colorful street fair… or dine in trendy, upscale El Golf (yes, that means "golf” – named after a swank country club!) along chic Avenida Isadora Goyenechea, featuring a smorgasbord of Chilean cuisine. A seafood dinner for two in a four-star restaurant, with dessert, coffee and a crisp Chardonnay (or bifsteak with a robust 2004 Carmenere) will only set you back a modest $50 U.S. – but hurry up, because the Chilean peso is strong and rapidly rising against the dollar.
If nocturnal shenanigans are your vida loca, you can "party till ya drop” on Providencia’s Avenida Suecia, a Latin version of Bourbon Street. Run out of cash? Don’t worry – there are as many ATMs per block in Providencia as on any street in Manhattan, London or Zurich. If bohemian culture, dancing or artwork is your cup of maté, check out the jewelry shops, galleries and all-night Salsa (the Chilean national pastime) clubs in the Bellavista district, or the lively cafes and watering holes of Nuñoa. And if you’re inclined toward cosmopolitan living without the rush, you can always relax in the comfortable neighborhoods of Las Condes, Vitacura and Lo Barnachea.
Not that Santiago and Chile in general aren’t without their blemishes. Witness the draconian rule of Augusto Pinochet (highlighted by thousands of civilian "disappearances”) in the 1970’s and 80’s. Many elder Chileans like to call Pinochet "the stern uncle” and still consider his 1973 coup of democratically-elected president Salvador Allende as a necessary, bitter remedy for Allende’s corrupt and economically disastrous tenure. Furthermore, since 40% of Chile’s manufacturing takes place in the Santiago vicinity, this city’s precarious location at the base of the imposing, air-trapping Andes subjects it to Los Angeles-caliber smog. Not an adrenalin junkie? Then stay away from the micros ("mee-crows”), or metropolitan busses. These swerving giants are commandeered by commissioned drivers who respond to their financial carrot – maximizing passengers – by weaving like the Indy 500 through rush hour traffic. (Suggestion: taxis are cheap and drivers reasonably competent and sober).
But all in all, Santiago "works”; a fact that has not gone unnoticed by multinational corporations, academia and the tourism industry. Check out Santiago’s Jumbo stores – Wal-Mart Supercenters, eat your heart out! A "Jumbo” is a colossus: a veritable city visited by 30,000-plus people a day, featuring just about anything you would ever want to buy and a whole lot of things you wouldn’t. The organizational logistics, employee professionalism and product qualities rival anything found in a North American or European shopping center – and you can even avail yourself of valet parking (if you can afford to tip the expected propina of 20¢).
Escapes from Santiago couldn’t be easier, courtesy of its advantageous central location and modern superhighways. One and a half-hours to the northwest lies the rough-and-tumble (but re-gentrifying) port town of Valparaiso, which prior to the Panama Canal, hosted for three centuries the busiest west coast port in all of the Americas. If walking the strenuous hills (think Lombard Street in San Francisco) is a bit too demanding, jump on one of 16 funiculars connecting Valparaiso’s ramshackle galleries, bars and restaurants like so many dots on a three-dimensional board game. Just be careful with that camera – the Chilean navy sits offshore and they’re a bit grumpy about being photographed.
If you prefer skiing to shoreline, a mere hour from Santiago awaits the three challenging slopes of El Colorado, Valle Nevado and La Parva. Watch your vertigo – unlike North American ski slopes, there are no trees to provide contrast, thus wreaking havoc on your visual acuity when partly cloudy days morph slope and sky into one blurring montage. A few hours farther north is the premier resort of Portillo, one of the world’s most renowned ski destinations. Be prepared to stay a week at a time because that’s how the bookings usually run. It’s well worth it, however, as Portillo boasts Utah-quality powder covering ski runs whose length rivals their counterparts in the Swiss and Austrian Alps.
Just driving to one of these recreational diversions from Santiago is a treat in itself. In the area surrounding Santiago for hundreds of miles is the country’s breadbasket – and wine casket – of Chile. This centralized district is the origin of all those fruits and vegetables we see in North American markets when it’s wintertime up our way. Hundreds of wineries, from world-renowned Concha y Toro to more modest localized companies dot the landscape in every direction north, south and west of Santiago, producing scores of vintages earning international awards.
Six hundred miles to the south, past the modern but clean-and-friendly cities of Concepción and Valdivia, is the lake country. Don’t fret about getting there; Chile’s overnight sleeper busses are modern and comfortable. Charmingly referred to as "Little Bavaria” – as much for its German, Italian and Slavic settlers as for its quaint, pristine landscape – the lake country is home to resort towns such as Pucón and Puerto Varas. These wooded getaways sit in the shadows of giant volcanoes and cater to the swimming, boating, shopping and gastronomical desires of vacationing Chileans and a growing number of international visitors. Don’t miss the pastries and strudel! I highly recommend traversing one of the world’s great border crossings, which connects Puerto Varas to the Argentinean resort town of Barriloche on the other side of the Andes. This two-day boat/bus trip on an interconnecting network of four glacial lakes and three isthmuses will convey you across the backbone of the Andes. En route you’ll cross through national parks of pristine forests, towering waterfalls and quaint lodges -- all the while straining your neck from staring up at snow-capped, jagged peaks and down at the most cerulean blue water this side of Tahiti (courtesy of the glacial silt). No worries about the border guards – you’re their meal ticket. These accommodating customs officers will be more than glad to stamp your passport.
Want a unique cultural experience? Check out the island of Chiloé, where native folklore of the Mapuchan and Chonan tribes still runs strong. For some reason, Easter-egg pastels seem to be the predominant colors for all the structures on this island, from the high-stilted tidal homes (palafitos) to the dozens of UNESCO-protected churches. Chiloé is also home to the delicious curanto dish, a stew-like concoction of salmon, langostino lobster, chicken, potatoes, vegetables and spices resembling a Spanish paia or French bouillabaisse.
No mention of Chile is complete without paying homage to Patagonia, that wild, windblown frontier straddling Chile and Argentina. Here, Marlboro Country meets the Ice Age; accented, incredibly, by a touch of Jurassic Park. Patagonia’s water and air are the cleanest in the world – for now: over the last decade the area has experienced a seven-fold increase in tourism. A shining example of Chile’s extreme contrasts can be found in Torres del Paine National Park where the geologically youngest mountains in the world jut out in twisted, preternatural formations; while below, if you undertake the seven-day trekking circuit through the park, you’ll encounter forests, giant ferns and colorful parrots. I was spellbound by this juxtaposition of tropical flora and fauna against the background of the world’s third largest "ice field,” comprised of no less than 48 glaciers. Prepare for sensory overload in Patagonia… I certainly wasn’t, when my scouting trip over an inviting ridgeline placed me smack dap upon a fresh guañaco kill (cousin to the llama and alpaca) – while dozens of Andean Condors sporting 10-12 foot wingspans took off like a 747 revving up in an airport hangar.
Dangling off the bottom of Chile is Tierra del Fuego. Ironically this "land of fire” was not named for volcanoes, but rather for the campfires of the indigenous tribes (the "Fuegians”) that the Spanish and Portuguese ships could detect from miles offshore. Unfortunately for Chile, Argentina boasts the lion’s share of Tierra del Fuego’s beauty, as the windward Chilean side is barren and virtually inhospitable. To defend their honor, however, Chilean locals are engaged in an on-going low key battle of geographical pride with their eastern neighbor to claim the distinction of most southerly point in the world (Fin del mundo – "End of the world”). No land so weirdly shaped and geographically diverse could be populated by a boring or predictable people, and the Chileans are no exception. Due to their historical isolation, they have developed their own inimitable culture that is distinctively different from the rest of South America. Chilean Spanish (Castellano), for example, continues to baffle other Latinos to this day through its garrulous blend of slurred clichés and machine-gun delivery.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Chileans are "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Consider: A country often characterized by outsiders as rural and backward has the highest literacy rate, lowest infant mortality and longest life expectancy in South America. Exhibit Two: the decidedly socialistic government of Chile has the highest per capita income and highest GDP growth rate (averaging nearly 7% throughout the 1990s) on the continent, accompanied by the lowest unemployment rate and an inflation level less than 4% – a collective feat impressive enough to earn praise from the late free-market economist sage Milton Friedman. Despite her modest size, problematic location and limited population of only 16 million, Chile is definitely a "Latin Tiger” to be reckoned with. She was almost accepted as the fourth NAFTA member and managed to cut her own deal (CELTA) with the U.S., eschewing more popular Latin trade pacts such as the Mercosur consortium of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (which she has now since joined).
The contrasts continue. Known for being the most traditionally conservative of Catholic countries, having only legalized divorce in 2002, Chile now boasts a female president. In fact, Michelle Bachelet is one of only five women to ever govern a South American nation.
With grace and cultural finesse, Chile is a country that has managed to honor a proud colonial past while aggressively promoting a "First World” outlook that seeks to balance economic robustness with social equity and diplomatic leverage. She may still be struggling to address the inequities of her campesinos; but, like her frequent earthquakes, she’s pretty good at shaking things up. And like her striking geographical anomalies and paradoxical people, she’ll probably continue to befuddle and amaze us.
Globe-trotter, story-teller and entrepreneur Stephen Banick is the author of Accidental Enlightenment: The Extraordinary Travels of a Modern-Day Gulliver; and The New Gullivers: Shaping the Mindscapes, Soulscapes and Landscapes of a New World. He is also the founder of The Gulliver Project, Inc., a program that connects people with ways of feeling better, having more and being more” in the emerging global community.