From the mysterious moai of Easter Island to the glaciers and mountains of Patagonia, Chile is a country that’s primed for adventure, discovers Oliver Berry
‘Welcome to the madhouse!’ laughs artist Juan Jimenez, as he climbs into the cramped cabin of one of Valparaíso’s century-old funiculars, shuts the door and clings on. With a clank and a shudder, the hundred year-old machine creaks into life and rattles up the hillside, gears whining with the strain. As it climbs, views of Valparaíso expand to fill its windows: tin-roofed houses tumbling down the steep hillsides, giant cranes unloading cargo from container ships, trams beetling their way along the city’s boulevards.
Born and bred in Valparaíso, Juan now makes his living as a street artist, painting the psychedelic, technicolour murals that emblazon the walls and alleyways of the city’s old quarters. He’s passionate about his home town, and deeply proud of the fact that it’s now designated as one of Chile’s five World Heritage Sites. ‘Of course, everyone in Valparaíso knows what a beautiful place this is,’ he says. ‘But now the world knows it too.’
He emerges onto a cobbled square, bordered by colonial-style houses painted in rainbow colours: lemon, pistachio, ochre, sky-blue. In one corner, locals sip coffee at a pavement café, and a brass band is blasting out mariachi tunes. Inspired by the music, the customers get to their feet, sashaying their way across the cobbles like ballroom pros.
‘That’s Valparaíso for you,’ smiles Gabriel. ‘Full of surprises.’
It’s a sentiment that could just as equally be applied to the rest of Chile. Though it averages just 177km wide, it stretches for more than 4270km from end to end – roughly the same distance as from London to Baghdad. It’s a huge country, a long ribbon of land that packs in an astonishing diversity of landscapes – from barren desert to temperate rainforest, tropical island to craggy coastline, flat pampas to epic mountain range. So it’s perhaps not surprising that as you travel across Chile, it often feels more like you’re crossing a continent than a country.
If Valparaíso is Chile’s version of San Francisco, then Patagonia is its Alaska. Located at the opposite end of the country, some 3000km to the south of Valparaíso – as far south as you can go in South America, in fact – this vast territory is one of South America’s last great wildernesses, spanning the Chilean-Argentinian border for a million square kilometres between the Andes and Cape Horn.
It’s a land defined by emptiness. Flat pampas sprawl to both horizons, broken up only by the occasional clapboard house or skeletal tree. Saw-tooth mountains spike the skyline, their summits glinting with glaciers and snow. Dirt roads disapppear into nothingness. Occasionally, a lone gaucho trots past, boots lodged into stirrups, beret perched on his head. It’s like wandering into a Chilean Wild West.
It’s also a long, long way from anywhere. It takes 4 hours by plane from Santiago to reach the airport at Punta Arenas, and another 4½ hours by car to reach the edge of the national park of Torres del Paine. And that’s before you even start to explore the national park itself – which, at 2400 sq km, covers an area roughly the size of Dorset. It’s Chile’s most popular national park, receiving around 140,000 visitors every year, but thanks to its scale, never feels crowded. In fact, it’s not unusual to hike for hours and never pass another soul.
‘I love the silence,’ says Monica Schalmeister, who guides expeditions from one of the area’s top adventure hotels, Tierra Patagonia. ‘Most of the time, apart from the wind, you can’t hear a sound. When I go back to the city, the noise drives me crazy. I can’t wait to come back!’ she laughs.
She trudges up a path fringed by alpine meadows, and after ten minutes of emerges on a ridge offering a panoramic vista over the Torres del Paine – the Blue Towers, in the local Tehuelce dialect. In the distance, mountain lakes sparkle like silver mirrors, and wild llamas, or guanacos, graze on the tawny grass.
Monica points to a bundle of bones beside the trail, its vertebrae still tufted with fur. ‘This is what happens when a guanaco meets a puma,’ she says with a grin. ‘We still have many puma here, between sixty and eighty inside the national park, more than anywhere else in Chile’.
She points skywards, where a bird is tracing circles overhead, its black wing-tips splayed like fingers against the sky. It’s a condor, Monica explains, looking for carcasses to scavenge.
‘Patagonia is still a wild place,’ she adds, as she treks back down the hillside. ‘And that makes it really precious. There aren’t many wildernesses like this left in the world, and we must all do what we can to protect them.’
Patagonia feels profoundly, thrillingly wild, in a way very few places in our modern world now do. But even here, the outside world is never more than a few hours away. For true remoteness, you have to leave the Chilean mainland and head eastwards – 3700km east, to a tiny speck of rock marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Here, surrounded by an endless sea of blue, lies an island that’s as far away as it’s possible to get from anywhere else on earth. To its inhabitants, it’s called Rapa Nui; to everyone else, it’s better known as Easter Island.
These days, it takes just five hours to reach by plane, but before the arrival of the first European explorers in 1722, this tiny island might as well have been on another planet. 25km long, 11km wide, and surrounded by 165 million square kilometres of open ocean, it seems almost impossible that people ever found it in the first place.
But find it they did. It’s believed the island was colonised by Polynesian sailors between 700 and 1100AD; having settled here, the people of Rapa Nui were cut off from the wider world, and developed their unique culture, language and beliefs in almost total isolation for nigh on a millennia.
Part of that culture, of course, involved the construction of Easter Island’s most famous features – the mysterious stone statues, or moai, that litter the island’s hills, beaches and shorelines. There are just under 900 in all, carved at various points between 1100 and 1680BC; most are arranged as lone figures or small groups, but there are a few large alignments such as the Tongariki Fifteen, which stand guard over the island’s southeast coastline. They’re the only physical reminder of the civilisation that once flourished on Rapa Nui – even if no-one is quite sure why they were actually built in the first place.
‘The most accepted theory is that the moai represent the ariki, or kings,’ explains guide Luiz Guzman, as he steers a 4×4 across the island’s hills. ‘There were between twelve and fifteen different clans on the island, each with its own king, and it’s believed that the moai embodied the kings’ mana, or power. But it’s only a theory; no-one knows for sure. Rapa Nui is full of mysteries!’ he laughs.
He stops the jeep and hops out, leading the way down onto a white, sandy beach. It’s deserted, but there’s a curious feeling of being watched: a prickle on the back of the neck, as if unseen eyes are gazing from the undergrowth.
And in a way, they are. At the edge of the beach, a row of statues stands, like sentinels guarding a castle battlement. Standing three metres high, arms folded across their bellies, eyes fixed on the hills inland, the figures seem like they’re watching, or waiting, for something. They’ve been waiting a long time.
Almost as mysterious as the statues’ purpose is what happened to the people who made them. When the first European sailor, Jacob Roggeveen, arrived on Easter Day in 1722, he found the island all but deserted; most of the villages had been abandoned, and every one of the island’s moai lay topped in the grass, smashed and broken, as though beset by some great disaster.
‘There are many theories about what happened to the moai,’ Luis explains. ‘We think they were toppled during tribal warfare, part of a wider social breakdown caused by environmental collapse, introduced diseases, crop failures and slave-raids. Whatever happened, Rapa Nui should be a warning for us. No matter how sophisticated our society gets, nothing lasts forever.’
Dusk is falling over the island, but Luis has one last sight up his sleeve. He steers his jeep up a rutted track into the island’s treeless interior, and stops on a rocky hillside – actually the flank of one of the island’s three volcanoes, he explains. As darkness gathers, he hikes up a trail lined by moai heads leaning drunkenly at improbable angles, or tumbled sideways into the grass.
‘This is Rano Raraku,’ Luis explains. ‘Easter Island’s quarry. It’s the only place where you find the soft volcanic rock, called tuff, which was used to make the moai. They were carved here, then transported to their final locations – although how they were moved such long distances is still a matter of debate. Like I said, Rapa Nui is a puzzle to which we’ll never know all the answers.’
We ponder the mysteries of Easter Island as swifts flutter and dart around the giant heads, and a candy-pink sun sets over the Pacific. Gradually, the sky turns black, and constellations spangle the darkness, a sea of stars stretching overhead.
‘Every day you play with the light of the universe,’ wrote the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It’s a line the people of Rapa Nui might have understood – and one which echoes in my ears as we head for home.
WHERE TO STAY
Restored and reopened in 2012, this grand colonial mansion is one of the best places to stay in the city, located on the edge of the vibrant neighbourhood of Concepción. Rooms are full of local artworks and sleek mid-century furniture, and nearly every one has a view – either over the city or Valparaíso Bay (rooms from £190, hotelpalacioastoreca.com).
TORRES DEL PAINE
This striking hotel was designed by the award-winning Chilean architect Cazu Zegers, and uses nature for its inspiration. It’s a beguiling combination of curves, concrete and glass, all clad in wood from the local lenga tree, and designed to disappear into the surrounding landscape. Staying here is a cinematic experience: epic views of the Torres del Paine unfurl through the panoramic windows, and it’s full of luxury touches, from an indulgent mountain-view spa to the team of inhouse guides who lead daily expeditions (3-night stay from £1885 per person, including all meals and excursions, www.tierrahotels.com).
Explora Rapa Nui
Modelled on the traditional stone houses once used by the Rapa Nui people, this luxurious hotel is the only 5-star property on the island. It sits in private gardens with sweeping views of the southern coastline, and rooms are spacious and smart, with bright, tropical colour schemes, rainfall showers and complementary water bottles to take home. All excursions and meals are included (2 nights from £2059 per room, explora.com).