Planning a trip usually requires compromise. Adventure or relaxation?
À la carte or authentic cuisine? Complete seclusion or loud, local flavour? In Chile, the spine of South America, the need to choose fades, and the country’s vastness provides contradictory delights.
Arriving in Santiago, the capital presents a hint of the juxtaposition that Chile offers. Although it’s on the up as a destination in itself, we drive straight through the bustling city and into the sudden, rising countryside beyond. At La Casona in the Casablanca Valley, an on-site restaurant provides an elegant menu and the first welcome glass of wine. Afterwards, a guide takes us on a six-mile trip through the Rosario Valley to a wine cellar in the hills.
That, it turns out, was just a taster. The next morning it’s back to the airport, where we fly south to Temuco and then drive to Pucon, where the sun-blanched countryside of Santiago is replaced with dense forest creeping up into the dormant volcanoes. Hidden in the landscape is Hotel Vira Vira, a rare gem nestled beside the river, where the produce is grown onsite, the cheese made in the dairy, and the inviting rooms are impeccably decorated with smart, local touches.
After a night of undisturbed sleep and a wholesome breakfast of granola and fruit, it’s on with the boots and waterproofs before we journey up the slopes for a long hike. The guides lead us through the woods of ancient monkey puzzle trees, into the hills and out onto a majestic volcanic lake. On its banks we eat a lunch of rich-green avocado and hot chocolate, and the chill passing across the water fades.
After the return hike, we visit the town of Curarehu and the home of a local Mapuche woman who explains the history, culture and food of the region’s indigenous people as we sit in her ruca, a Mapuche hut. We leave, full of tales and bread.
The terrain around here offers many options for adventure-seekers, and the beauty of the fast-flowing rivers makes white-water rafting an appealing (if daunting) prospect. During calm spells, birds dart from the trees. But then the rapids loom, the adrenaline surges and the exhilaration of a charge through the foam takes hold.
Our next stop is Puerto Varas, a four-hour drive across a landscape planted with snow-capped volcanoes and lakes stretching into the horizon beneath a pink sky. On Lake Llanquihue is another of Chile’s landmark hotels — Hotel AWA, where every room faces the water.
We take a ferry — seals and penguins bobbing amid the waves — to the island of Chiloe. Steeped in local myths and dotted with Unesco-listed wooden churches, it is a place of all kinds of faith, and hospitality is at its core. Our hotel, Centro de Ocio, is a sustainable wooden haven that looks out onto the bay; there’s a spa in the undergrowth on the grounds and a hot tub filled via a stream.
We spend a day slowing to the rhythm of island life, visiting boatyards teeming with labourers, sharing a bottle of beer in the bars and joining a family as they feast on curanto, a mammoth meal of seafood, meats and potatoes cooked in the ground, buried under giant green leaves.
After a week of wandering the open landscapes, the blur of Santiago — and a night spent at Hotel Luciano K — jars. As the driver leaves us with tales of skiing at dawn and surfing at dusk, next time I might try a city break.
BA (ba.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Santiago from £739 return. Air France (airfrance.co.uk) and KLM (klm.com) fly via Paris and Amsterdam respectively from £567 return. Audley Travel (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com) offers a 12-night itinerary including much of the above from £6,690 per person.
For info, see chile.travel.