Cityscapes and desert escapes in Chile

I’ve been warned to take care in Santiago. There are muggings, locals say. But from where I sit by the window of my restaurant in inner-city Lastarria, no one sashaying by looks shifty. I want their swagger, their dress flair, to parade before shop windows adoring my reflection. After dessert, I shift to the roof-top bar of my hotel, The Singular Santiago, where the city’s bold and beautiful drink under a rising gibbous moon that accentuates their cheekbones and the white tips of the Andes behind them.

Once dismissed as a city of industry, the Santiago of 2017 is an entirely different beast – „surprising, cosmopolitan, energetic, sophisticated and worldly“, as Lonely Planet puts it. I find each neighbourhood is different from the one beside it, and that its industrious inhabitants have grasped that they have one of the most all-encompassing Andes outlooks of any city in South America – one best seen from rooftop bars, which seem to multiply monthly.

The city’s parks are a drawcard too, especially Cerro San Cristobal, which rises high above the urban sprawl. It’s where residents go to feel pastoral, drawn in their thousands by the views of the Andes at sunset.

There are ski resorts in those mountains barely an hour’s drive from Santiago, but I’m heading in the opposite direction, west to Valparaiso.

With its steep streets facing the infinity of an ocean which won’t touch land again until Sydney, Valparaiso was once the most important shipping port in the Pacific. It attracted settlers from across Europe, who brought their architectural styles and cultural quirks. South America’s first stock exchange was built here, and Chile’s first public library. The oldest continuously published Spanish-language newspaper in the world is El Mercurio de Valparaíso.
World Heritage site

When the Panama Canal was opened in 1914, the port city slid into decay, until it was restored a few decades ago. In 2003, it’s historic quarter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Century-old funicular elevators take me up to Valparaiso’s steepest suburbs. Up here I find bohemian bliss. Coffee drinkers sit at sun-drenched cafes in cobbled squares redolent with flowers. The sweet stink of jasmine fills my nostrils. Narrow laneways run past intricate murals, buskers play tunes for rent money, and houses every colour of the rainbow look out across a harbour of boats.

For lunch, I find a restaurant with a sunny deck that somehow remains on the hill it’s cantilevered over. How the whole city doesn’t topple into the Pacific below is a mystery.

At night, Valparaiso barely sleeps. It’s inhabitants hop from bar to bar, or stay home with their doors wide open, pumping music out on to the streets.

Back in Santiago, I’m advised to fly north to find Valparaiso’s ancient counterpart, the 10,000-year-old village of San Pedro, and the world’s driest desert – the Atacama – which surrounds it.
Hot-air balloon

It’s a two-hour plane ride, over a landscape used by Hollywood to depict Mars. Some parts of the Atacama have received no rainfall in more than 400 years.

On the drive to San Pedro from Calama airport, all there is to be seen are endless columns of shifting orange-red sand, framing volcanoes 6000 metres high that run right across the horizon.

At dawn, I take a hot-air balloon above it all, and can see across salt plains and green lagoons to Bolivia.

Back in San Pedro, shepherds herd goats and llama through the town’s narrow dusty streets, between centuries-old buildings of adobe brick.

At night I ride a bicycle from my resort, Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, into town with just the stars to guide me. There’s not a single street light outside San Pedro, but the stars light my way better than electricity could. The night skies here are considered the clearest on Earth, attracting 80 per cent of the world’s astronomical infrastructure.

Though the Atacama is one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations, it’s a simple task to escape the hordes into all this desert. There are many activities to try – Alto Atacama offers more than 30 options. I take a 4WD across the desert to geysers 4300 metres above sea level, driving past pink flamingos feeding in salt lagoons. And I hike through Rainbow Valley, a 100-million-year-old gigantic crevice in a mountain range, where pillars and columns look like ancient Rome.

I hike across dry riverbeds and past herds of guanaco until I arrive at a fissure in the rock where a Bedouin-style tent has been set up for me for the night, after a dinner prepared by a private chef. The next day I ride a mountain bike along an old mountain trail where farmers from the Andes crossed to trade with fishermen on the coast thousands of years ago. There are petroglyphs on the rocks beside me that are more than 10,000 years old.

South America is the place to go for those of us seeking adventure beyond chain hotels and tourist buses; it’s just that you won’t have to go much past Santiago to find it.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Abercrombie & Kent and LATAM.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there LATAM has three non-stop flights a week from Melbourne to Santiago, and seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, with connections on across South America. See latam.com.
Tours Abercrombie & Kent offers 11-day „Chile, Bolivia & Peru: Deserts, Lakes & Salt Plains“ small-group tours. Departures in May and September. From $11,895 a person. It also arranges nine-day private tours through Chile and Bolivia.

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