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Winning tip: Climbing Villarrica in Pucón
The volcano Villarrica is impossible to miss in Pucón; it looms over you no matter where you go in town. Climbing this monster, kitted out with crampons and mountain gear, was an experience I’ll never forget and the fact that it’s one of the most active in Chile made it more exhilarating. The hike goes from dark volcanic rubble to dazzling snow. The climb gets tougher but the views are impressive with Chile’s Lake District spread out before you. Guides up the volcano are not hard to organise from Pucón, and cost around £80.
Tour small towns by campervan
Hire a campervan and explore smaller towns at your own pace. Wicked Campers is reliable and reasonably priced, sleeping up to six. We parked by the dunes at stunning Laguna Verde, near Valparaíso, and visited the surfer town of Pichilemu. We found an interestingly shaped lake on our map and went inland, inadvertently discovering the watersports hub of Lago Repel. There’s a great selection of campsites, right on the shore, but my personal recommendation is Tropikal Lake (lagorapelchile.cl), which has watersports facilities, barbecues and hot showers.
Museum and Memory Centre in Neltume
Just past the enormous wooden statue that dominates the entrance to this former logging settlement is a building covered in murals celebrating local flora and fauna. The museum is a social centre, tells the story of life in Neltume, and, like the statue, also serves as a memorial to many from there killed and disappeared by the dictatorship. Neltume is beautiful, set between lakes, the spectacular Huilo-Huilo waterfalls and the Choshuenco volcano. But Chileans also remember it for brutal repression. The museum celebrates idealism, bravery and memory, as well as the incredible landscape.
Ferry through the Beagle Channel
Going from Puerto Williams, the tiny capital of Navarino Island at the foot of the southernmost mountain range in South America, to Puerto Arenas gave us the same views of glaciers and green cliffs that FitzRoy, Darwin and the rest of the HMS Beagle crew marvelled at. The 32-hour trip on the Austral Broom ferry is probably one of the most thrilling experiences I had during my year in Chile. It departs every other day from Puerto Williams at 4pm and more details are at tabsa.cl.
Miguel Guevara Parra
Day hike from Santiago in Aguas de Ramón
If you are in Santiago and would like to escape the city and go high up in the Andes without a lot of travelling. there is a hike in the Aguas de Ramón park. Go by public transport or an inexpensive taxi ride. The park is open year-round and admission is only about £2. The views and hiking are amazing. There are three routes you can take ranging from 1km to 17.5km.
The seaside city of Valparaíso is a Chilean must-see. Its famous hills, accessible by steep stairways, are home to colourful barrios full of wonderful street art, charming restaurants and bars, and one of Pablo Neruda’s former homes. Head to the fish market, where you can sample the day’s catch and watch sea lions and pelicans on the beach. The city is loud, chaotic, and dirty in parts but that’s the price to pay for somewhere so characterful. Stay at the Costa Azul B&B (from B&B), which offers harbour views and fantastic breakfasts.
Away from the crowds in the Chilean Lakes
Hire a car to visit remote parts of the Chilean Lakes. One great guesthouse is Hamilton’s Place in the tiny town of Ensenada, near Puerto Varas, with a warm welcome from the Canadian/Brazilian couple, great views of the volcano Osorno and wonderful breakfasts and dinners. From here you can drive to the volcano, several waterfalls, lakes and discover walks, too.
• Doubles from B&B, hamiltonsplace.com
Explore Colchagua valley on two wheels
In Santa Cruz it seemed there were not many options for experiencing Colchagua valley beyond the standard organised visits or car rental. That is, until we stumbled upon Pepe and his bike rental service at Hostal del Centro. He made a simple map for biking around the valley. The two circuits include six wineries, where the staff were happy to receive cycling guests, sell wine by the glass or bottle (some even had picnic baskets on offer), and allowed us to roam freely through the vineyards. The price was about £12 a day per bike, with helmet and repair set.
• Hostal del Centro
Glacial lagoon hidden high up in the mountains
As a pair of city dwellers we were sceptical when our friend suggested a three-day hike over the Cerro Castillo mountains, but he assured us we could handle it and the views would be incredible. He wasn’t wrong. The hike goes through glades, forest paths, rushing clear rivers and rocky mountain passes. On day two, after a 10-hour hike up into the mountains, we discovered the bright blue glacial lagoon. Surrounded by a boulder field, the lagoon is fed by a melting glacier. We decided to brave the ice-cold waters for a quick skinny dip! The following day we treated ourselves to a meal at Dalik restaurant in the town of Coyhaique – where the chef uses locally sourced ingredients to make delicious Patagonian dishes.
Geyser action – without the crowds
Hire a high-clearance vehicle in Iquique, take spare petrol and head up the Ruta 15 and turn off to Puchuldiza. You’ll have a geyser field all to yourself, with its own thermal pool and wild camping alongside. Go in winter and the geysers can freeze. The locally recommended thermal spa at Chusmiza is on the way.
La Chascona, Santiago, home of Pablo Neruda
Visiting one of the homes of Pablo Neruda, La Chascona, was a trip highlight. The house was named after (the ruffled hair of) his lover and then second wife, Matilde Urrutia. It’s a beautiful blend of 1950s architecture and furniture and is shaped liked a ship. It is built on a hill in a cultural area called Bellavista, where you can see the Andes from every angle. The Pinochet regime ransacked the house after the coup, and Neruda died soon after, but his wife decided to have his wake in the house and then rebuilt it in his honour. You can see his manuscripts, books and style everywhere
Step into the heart of Chilean government
In this age of intense security, few executives open their doors for the general public. However, La Moneda Palace in Santiago, which houses the Chilean president and her cabinet, is an exception. You can book a tour with an English guide; ours was a sincere and enthusiastic young man who wanted to improve his English. Chile is a country with a fascinating political history, and you could see the physical scars from this past on the walls of the building. Tours are available Monday-Friday and need to be booked at least a week in advance.
Take a pisco sour tour
Chile is well known for its pisco sour. For the best experience head up the Rio Turbio on the edge of the Atacama, and turn right up the Andes to the small village of Pisco Elqui. Destilería Mistral is where they make pisco from grape skins. The tour, the tastings, the bottles, the food, the view are all excellent. We stayed in the valley in Vicuña, at Terral Hotel, where we sat on the terrace at night sipping those pisco sours and watching the sky.
• Tours from pp, destileriapiscomistral.cl
Relax at Refugio Tinquilco, Huerquehue national park
I am alone in a wooden lodge next to a lake. The air smells of books. The scent changes. “Here’s your breakfast for tomorrow,” the owner says. “Fresh bread and homemade conserves. Be careful, it’s still hot to the touch.” This is Refugio Tinquilco, in the Andes, north-east of Pucón, on the doorstep of Huerquehue national park. Tourists come for the day, hike the major trail, go home. But stay … for the black bread. Stay for the fresh air and solitary hiking. Most importantly, stay for the sauna – your tired muscles will be grateful for it.
• Doubles from £43 B&B, tinquilco.cl
Annual chocolate festival, Pucón
Famous for its volcanoes, lakes and hot springs, Pucón attracts tourists all year round. However, arrive in late June and you will experience the incredible annual chocolate festival. Here you can taste samples of artisan chocolate every which way you look, but the biggest attraction is a chocolate replica of the Villarrica volcano – 700kg of pure chocolate. On the final day it is smashed up, but fear not: you can queue up and grab a big slab of “lava”!
Tuck in at Buffalo Waffles in Santiago
Buffalo Waffles is a small takeaway food shop in Santiago. It does waffle cone sandwiches with both sweet and savoury ingredients. Great for kids, adults, vegetarians, meat-eaters, and everyone in between. While waiting for your food, shop the local street vendors’ handicrafts, or walk over to the art museum. Make sure to try the Stawberry Fields waffle.
Emily Fetcho Barclay
A stay on stilts on Chiloé Island
If you want a great Chiloé experience, you can do worse than stay in a palafito, such as the Palafito Hostel. These wooden houses are built on stilts near the water’s edge, and are mainly found around Castro, the biggest town on the island. For about £35 a night, you get a beautiful room, great service and an amazing setting. The restaurant next door, the Mar y Canela, serves delicacies such as octopus, crab and curanto (a local dish of seafood and potatoes cooked underground).
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