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Chile’s warm embrace

For such a skinny country, Chile packs a considerable punch. Variously described as ribbon-shaped or like a runner bean, the country is arresting enough in an atlas, let alone in the flesh


Perhaps the most striking thing however isn’t the country’s geography, more it’s recent, ongoing regeneration. Memories of the Pinochet-era have far from evaporated, but the last couple of decades have seen robust economic growth and dramatic changes in the fabric of the society. Commonly known as Pais de Poetas (country of poets), Chile is considered one of the most prosperous, safe and stable nations in South America and if the present is anything to go by, its future looks very bright indeed.

The majority of visitors to the country are drawn by the spectacular natural beauty and the overspill from this: whether you want to hurl yourself down a mountain on a pair of skis or a bike, surf the dramatic Pacific coast or ride out into the sunset on the back of a horse, you can do it in Chile. Tourism has experienced impressive and sustained growth of late: according to Sernatur (National Service of Tourism) two million people visit the country annually and it isn’t difficult to see why. From the world’s driest desert in the north to Patagonia in the south, the climate spans pretty much every extreme known to man. The beyond-friendly locals don’t do its prospects too much harm either.

An end to General Augusto Pinochet’s rule in 1989 saw the beginning of an economic revival. The shackles from his military based government – he is reported as coming out with such classics as “Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don’t know about it” and “I’m not a dictator, I just have a grumpy face” – have been well and truly loosened and the Chilean economy has a reputation as a role model for economic reform. Growth in real GDP averaged 8 percent between 1991 and 1997 and although the country has been subject to natural vagaries in the market, growth still hovers at around 5 percent. The number of Chileans below the poverty line fell from 45.1 percent in 1987 to 13.7 percent in 2006, according to government polls. Impressive stuff, and equally impressive is the relationship with other nations: it is said that Chile has more bilateral or regional trade agreements than any other country (57), including ones with the EU, India and China.

The Chilean economy has relied heavily on its rich supplies of copper and other minerals. It provides one third of all the world’s copper – producing a staggering 5.5 million tonnes every year – and is also a major exporter of fish, fruit, paper, pulp and all manner of chemicals. The majority of foreign direct investment (FDI) is aimed at one of four sectors, with around 80 percent being invested in electricity, gas, water and mining. Business protocol is much the same as Western Europe; though the Chilean people are a tactile bunch so don’t be alarmed by invasions into personal space, a firm hand on the shoulder and constant eye contact.

Country’s capital
Santiago is the country’s capital and the main business hub. Statistics vary, but it is reckoned that somewhere around a third of the country’s population live in or around Santiago and such a strain on the city’s resources doesn’t come trouble-free. It might not have the same socio-economic problems as, say, Sao Paulo or Bogotá, but there is a palpable divide between rich and poor and with that comes the familiar territory. Petty crime is far from rampant, though pick pocketing and other crime is an issue in certain neighbourhoods it’s nothing that should alarm the visitor providing the necessary precautions are taken. Avoiding less salubrious areas on foot late at night and not flaunting valuables are well-worn warnings but warnings that should be undertaken all the same.

One of the biggest problems is with pollution. Viewing the city has been described as “looking through a dirty beer glass” and the smog is especially apparent in winter. Thankfully, there’s plenty to distract the visitor, from galleries to swanky boutiques to a snappy array of bars and restaurants. To get a grasp of the city’s mighty urban sprawl take a trip on the Teleferico de Santiago, a gondola that will plonk you onto the Cerro San Cristobal, the larger of the city’s two mountains. Back on firmer ground explore the Vitacura neighbourhood for shops and Bella Vista for a heady blend of restaurants and raucous bars. Like most major capital cities there is a range of places to lay your head at night, ranging from the excellent (the Grand Hyatt Santiago in Las Condes), to the excellently priced (the Hotel Orly right by the central Pedro de Valdivia tube station and with doubles for around £50), to the far from excellent (traditional flophouses). Public transport is relatively hassle-free, efficient and cheap – hiring a car for the day will make for a grim time – though the beauty of the city is the proximity to world-class ski resorts and creamy beaches, with many splattered around the region and reachable within an hour.

There are plenty of activities that grab the visitor’s attention. The variety of the terrain and nearly 2,000 miles of arresting coastline mean that virtually any sport imaginable can be undertaken. In Patagonia – described by Bruce Chatwin as “The uttermost part of the world” – mountain biking, trekking, climbing and fly-fishing are popular. Perhaps the most spectacular region of Patagonia, and certainly the most visited, is the Torres del Paine national park cut through by sheer-sided fjords and furious rivers and rimmed with snow-capped volcanoes, glaciers, and vast freshwater ice fields. But some suggest that the area could be under threat due to plans to harness Patagonia’s natural forces and dam a number of the regions major rivers. Energy demand in Chile is growing even faster than the gross domestic product, and the government says that Chile will need to double its energy production every eight years if its miracle is to be sustained.

Chile’s climactic contradictions are perhaps nowhere more evident than when you compare Patagonia’s mammoth 240 inches of rain each year with the Atacama desert in the north which receives a tiny 1mm average a year. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never experienced rain. And whereas Patagonia is green and grey, the Atacama is a reddish orange hue, which might be why some dub it ‘Mars on Earth’. The Atacama is also the best place – outside of outer space – to see  stars, and is the site of the ALMA project, set to be the largest and most accurate telescope on earth. If you’re not into looking into space, the place boasts a wealth of activities from seeing flamingoes on the salt flats, to sand boarding down 50ft dunes.

In between the extremes of the north and the south you are liable to encounter ranches, vineyards and rich agricultural land. North of Santiago is the home of the Chilean cowboy or “huaso”. Less scruffy than his Texan counterparts, he cuts quite a dash in wide brimmed hat, loose fitting pants, short jacket, fringed leather boots, and multi-coloured poncho over the shoulders. Huasos are an important part of Chilean culture, a fact reflected in that the rodeo was made the country’s national sport in 1962. But careful before you think about addressing a Chilean as ‘cowboy’, the term huaso is also used to describe uncouth individuals, lacking in manners or sophistication.

Talking of lacking in sophistication, the Chilean food has taken a bit of a battering of late. Along the coast anything that crawls, slithers or swims is eaten and a lot of meat is consumed throughout, though the general feeling is that the food is a bit bland. Indeed, this reporter has heard more than once that the four key ingredients of Chilean food are: salt, lemon, vinegar and more salt. Thankfully, a wide variety of superb wines helps any meal go down, as does the hospitality and friendliness of the country’s people.  

When to go
The majority of Europeans and North Americans visit Chile from late September to early December to marvel at the spring bloom, or from March to June to check out the trees changing colour. December 15 until the dog end of February is when the majority of Argentineans, Brazilians and locals take their holidays, so expect clamouring for hotel rooms and services, as well as a hike in prices. Between October and April in Patagonia, expect winds that will have your eye out.

Summer time is considered the best time to visit the capital – Santiaguinos head off on their holidays leaving behind a city less crowded, less polluted and – as far as hotel rooms are concerned – less pricey.

Don’t leave home without…
Sun block: Whether you’re planning on tackling a mountain, glacier, desert or a particularly hazardous afternoon flopping round on one of the country’s splendid beaches, then this is a necessity.

A smattering of Chilean slang: Ola and Buenos Dias will only get you so far. If you want to stand out in Chile, you could drop in a Chao Pescado (literally “bye fish”, or, as we would say, “see you later, alligator”) or pegar in la pera (translated as “hit the chin”, meaning to eat, mooch and socialise.

A couple of Nobel-prize winning poets: Chile has produced two Nobel Prize winners in Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral and both would be well worth a read when visiting.

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