Travels in Chile the peak of adventure

Photo of Mark Thornton

Dreams come true on a trip to the vibrant, rugged South American country.

This is Part 1 of Mark Thornton’s coverage of how his daughter and her partner’s dreams came true on a trip to the vibrant, rugged South American country...


When you fly into Chile’s capital Santiago you cannot help but be struck by the glistening white mountains of the Andes, which begin rising steeply from the edge of the city to the high Andes Cordillera. 

Just 40km to the east is Cerro El Plomo, a peak of 5434m, with higher mountains over 6000m behind it. It’s an exciting introduction to this country of amazing contrasts.

Chile stretches more than 4300km north to south — that’s longer than the width of Australia — but it’s only 350km wide at its broadest  point. 

While its southernmost tip is only 1000km from Antarctica, its northern districts are in the tropics and in-between is the world’s driest place, the Atacama Desert.

My daughter Alex and her partner Jeremy had been wanting to visit South America for as long as they could remember. They chose to begin with Chile. 

For a country of 17.5 million people in an area a little smaller than New South Wales it has scenery even grander and people more charming than they could have imagined. 

They did not stay in Santiago long, exciting and cosmopolitan though it was, and caught a bus to the coast within a couple of days.

They first stopped up the coast at Vina del Mar, Spanish for Vineyard by the Sea, where the houses are crammed together up steep hills. It has a popular beach and interesting festivals, including an International Song Festival held in February in Parque Quinta Vergara. 

As a mark of its prestige, internationally acclaimed English musician Sting headlined the festival in 2011. 

Nonetheless, while Vina is colourful and charming it felt to Alex like a one-day whiz-bang stopover for North Americans before returning to their cruise ships the next day.

Valparaiso was the next call. It’s a beautiful city with more character and a slower pace than Santiago. They ate empanadas on the street, got perfectly lost walking up the many steep roads past huge colourful murals and made friends with street dogs. 

The city’s architecture — colourful and sprawling up the side of hills — makes little sense but captivates even the non-photographer’s eye. There’s a delightful jumble of styles with tiny corner shops manned by little old ladies jostling for space with shiny boutique stores. Poetry shares many walls with street art.

There are cafes and arty types lounging in them, spontaneous outbursts of song from street musicians — some are  eight-piece bands that perform for motorists at red lights on street crossroads while friends circulate among the cars to collect money.

The city is a mere two hours from Santiago but a world away too. Alex and Jeremy explored the poet Pablo Neruda’s extraordinary house, a sort of cross between Bauhaus and Art Deco but with more outrageous colour, and met more new friendly people. That’s an interesting part of travelling — apart from the locals, it’s so easy to meet other open-minded travellers.

 Back down the hill at the coast they found a colony of sea lions basking in the sun and Alex, being a marine biologist, found this particularly exciting. But Valparaiso was still a city and they hankered for something more rural, more representative of their South American dreams.

They travelled by bus 500km further north to La Serena. Founded in 1544, it’s the country's second-oldest city after the capital. The beaches there have black sand and small rolling waves. No real surf for Jeremy, though to the east were the ever-present snow-capped mountains, a backdrop they could never tire of. They rode along the coast on rental bikes and ate more street food. The food left much to be desired and in Spanish sounded a lot better than it tasted. Most Chilean food seemed to consist of empanadas, hamburgers, sausages, sandwiches, papas fritas (fried potatoes). And then even more empanadas.

That evening they discussed finding somewhere even more remote. Alex wrote to me: “You know when you plan a trip, you picture yourself in a particular place, which may or may not exist. You have wanted to travel to this place for so long, you begin dreaming what it will be like, which gets you more excited for the possibilities. It does not even matter if these places exist, you just know there must be something like it; something more beautiful than you can imagine.”

They found it  the next day in the Valle de Elqui. They loved it, even the clattering  bus ride was fun and Alex was overjoyed. “Valle de Elqui was the first place on our South America trip that fulfilled this dream I had been imagining for so long,” she wrote in her journal. This was their third week and they really unwound, slipping gently into the flow of the travellers’ lifestyle.

Just an hour from La Serena the mountains loomed bigger and had more presence. Some of the higher peaks were dusted with snow beneath the  deep blue sky. The rising sun shone through them at low angles, creating beams of light between shadows. As soon as they arrived in the valley they felt this was the kind of Chile they were hoping for; raw nature, harsh landscapes and being in the presence of brooding, brilliant silent mountains. 

The Elqui Valley is famous for pisco, a local yellow-coloured brandy, so they went to a distillery and tried some. Alex said it was so strong it grabbed you as it slipped down your throat and gave you goose bumps. Naturally they bought a bottle.

Their hostel was called Cosmo Elqui. It had a large fire in the central communal area where travellers gather each night in the crisp cool air under the millions of stars and share stories. They tried out their Spanish with the patient locals, drank pisco and played music, but after a while they sat and stared at the stars or the fire’s flames. It felt like home away from home.

Here they met four new friends — a New Zealand woman, a Spanish woman and two local dogs. They hiked with one of the dogs up mountains close to the hostel. These were very steep, covered in a variety of cacti both big and small, some with beautiful red flowers. All the plants were perfectly adapted to the desert environment. The soil was  dry and dusty.

The accompanying dog they named Sombre (Shadow in Spanish). She was black and, like a little shadow, never too far away. She wasn’t invited but just tagged along. If she got too far ahead she would run back to make sure they were still there. The local people take care of the dogs as if they are collectively owned, which speaks volumes about the people’s character. Apparently Sombre sometimes even gets on the local buses (the bus drivers know her) and has her own adventures up the valley before riding home on the last bus.

The view from the top of the valley was magnificent, with layers of mountains and the pisco vineyards nestled in-between. The pattern the sun and the clouds made over the mountains was mesmerising, though Alex pondered whether that was partly the effects of the previous night’s campfire pisco. 

The hostel owner advised them to be careful and keep a lookout for pumas  when hiking. They didn’t see any, probably because there were four in their hiking group — five including Sombre  — and the puma would have been shy. However, the hostel owner later said if Alex had been alone she might have been hunted.

Alex wrote to me: “I found my real traveller’s shoes in the Elqui valley, and felt comfortable living out of my pack, at home in any hostel, and at peace with the flow of each moment. Travelling is so amazing, how it teaches you really to be in the moment, appreciate everything you are experiencing, be open to those you meet and surrender to the possibilities. It really teaches you to trust yourself, be at peace with your own silence, and enables means to reflect on your own life, and what is important to you.”

This was her last email to me before she and Jeremy bussed north with their two friends to Caldera and then Calama, an uninspiring copper mining town of about 150,000 people, but the jumping-off point for the desert. They hired a car and set off for the Atacama. 

Out there in the  high-altitude wilderness they would see stars blazing in the freezing night. Alex would also fall very ill. To find out what happened, you will have to read part two of her story.


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