The Tall, Thin Country
January, 2004

My title, adapted from Pablo Neruda, refers to Chile. It is about 2500 miles long, but rarely more than 100 miles wide. If you go to the right, you are in another country. Too far left, you are in the Pacific Ocean.

We always meet exotic characters in our travels. The first was the driver to JFK the night of December 30: a white, middle-aged Brooklynite. Never been on an airplane, never been out of New York State. His name was Smith. He drove with confidence, but occasionally forgot where he was and had to slalom across several lanes.

December is summer in South America. Santiago was gratifyingly warm. One-third of Chile’s people live there. We found it architecturally undistinguished but beautifully situated among mountains. These are, alas, often obscured by smog. Don’t miss the glorious subway system, which has the grandeur of a museum. The tunnels are lofty, the ceilings curved. Rubber wheels keep the trains quiet. If you want to stay on the surface, the streets are full of yellow Mercedes-Benz buses (about 50 cents a ride). We were told there are 70,000 of these. This works out to more than one for every hundred inhabitants. It’s possible. There sure are a lot of buses.

Our first night was New Year’s Eve. We skipped the hotel dinner ($217 per) for a less expensive meal at the Camino Real, a beautiful hilltop place in a local park, lately recommended by the NY Times. Service began at 10 p.m. At midnight we all assembled outside on the hill, which commanded a terrific view of the city, to watch the fireworks. The band was just starting up when we departed.

New Year’s Day, the city slept. We wandered around the empty streets. In the afternoon, we decided on a pilgrimage to the Parque de la Paz. The cabdriver had never heard of it, but as soon as we mentioned its former name, he knew. The Villa Grimaldi was the scene of some of the worst brutality of the Pinochet regime. The place was closed like the rest of town, but a caretaker admitted us. It all seemed serene until we reached a wooden structure with tiny rooms into which Pinochet’s opponents were crammed. Names of victims were displayed on a wall outside.

The cabdriver, who had been waiting for us, returned us to our subway stop. As we got out, he said, “Shalom.” [Note: this picks up a thread from last year’s report.] He knew enough English to tell us that he was the son of Holocaust survivors.

Santiago was awake enough the next day for a city tour. It began at a small, family-owned vineyard (Chilean wines are highly recommended). Samples were provided. The bucolic setting and warm sun were lovely, though the inadequate translation left many mysteries. We proceeded to a “typical” lunch at a sunny touristy restaurant. Then a museum showing how the Quilpi people devised a language by knotting ropes in significant places. There was also, surprisingly, a display of Malaysian textiles.

The day ended with reservations in an excellent restaurant that we never located. At a place that we found instead, Susan ordered a plate of ceviches. “Good thing we’re not in Mexico,” she said. “The food is perfectly safe here.” That night one of us got sick.

We were up the next morning for an uncongenial 5:00 a.m. start. By early afternoon we were some 600 miles north, at San Pedro, a small town in the Atacama Desert. The 8000-foot altitude can cause hallucinations. One day I imagined that Cameron Diaz was standing at a nearby street corner. I was not alone in my delusion. A young American rushed by: “Did you see Cameron Diaz?” he said breathlessly. “The actress? She just gave an interview!”

San Pedro looks like a frontier town. Horses and dust. Our hotel, Terrantai, has been restored old-style, with walls of rounded stones. Great food. The restaurant, like others in town, is only partially roofed. An open fire is provided in the middle of the floor. It is cool at nights and rarely rains. The “swimming pool” is a cold Jacuzzi with walls difficult to climb out of.

There is not a whole lot doing in San Pedro. The hotel runs tours to the surrounding countryside. The most ambitious (another 5:00 a.m. start) took us to the El Tatio geothermal field, the world’s highest. At about 14,000 feet, it is cold but spectacular at sunrise. The geysers are, of course, steamy. We also had a moderate horseback excursion and a sunset visit to hills and giant dunes. Our main ambition, to visit a new country by crossing into Bolivia, was thwarted by national antagonisms. We were told that Bolivian border officials give Chileans a hard time. The reverse may also be true.

We encountered the usual international tourists, including a large loud bunch of Italians, a British couple, a distinguished New Zealand physicist and wife, and a couple from the Upper West Side (yes, Jewish). The latter raised my quality of life with a gift of an issue of People Mag, plus the biography of Sandy Koufax. We joined them for Pisco sours at the incongruous fancy Explora resort and for dinner at the Adobe restaurant. We highly recommend the latter for your next trip to San Pedro.

After four desert days we headed south for more verdant scenes. On the plane we read (or tried to, in Spanish) the front-page stories about the visit of Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore to San Pedro. As far as we could tell, they were making an MTV show about celebrities in exotic locations. We think the film crew caught us on horseback. I doubt we will make the final cut. To their credit, Cam and Drew chose to stay at the modest Kimal, rather than the Explora.

About halfway between Santiago and Tierra del Fuego, the Chilean lake country is surpassingly beautiful. It has everything: forest, volcanoes, clean air and beautiful water. The Volcan Orson is a near-perfect snow cone. The most challenging peak , Puntiagudo, is a dramatic volcanic plug, not recommended for ascent: “75-90 degree upper slopes and very poor loose rock.” The lakes are big and clear, particularly the one on which our Swiss-style hotel was located: Lago Todos Los Santos, also known as Emerald Lake. Only lakeshore residents are permitted boats, and not many people live on the lake. No roads go around it.

Our first excursion required horseback riding, one of my less favorite activities. My horse, however, was very understanding. We were accompanied by Bernardo, our guide, and by Claudia, a young German woman. She was an apprentice guide, whose duties included flirting with Bernardo. After three hours of riding, we dismounted and scrambled down a series of eccentric wooden ladders into the valley of a stream. This we followed up a few hundred yards, crossing and recrossing the water (some of us on Bernardo’s back). Our efforts were rewarded with a close-up look at a powerful waterfall, which we later viewed from above. It was all very lovely, except for the tabanos. These giant flies contain honey, but are otherwise objectionable. They are loud and profuse--you can count on the attentions of at least half a dozen at any time. They are not very good at biting, but are enough of a nuisance that one should try to miss their high season (mid-December--mid-January).

The next morning we took a boat up one arm of the sizable lake. The hike that followed was flat and not fascinating, but it did take us to a lovely secluded lake. Participants included Claudia and several thousand tabanos.

The Hotel Petrohue, our base, had just been rebuilt after a fire. It was very comfortable, with good food and a spacious high stone living room that Susan wanted to take home with us.

Next stop was Chiloe, an island to the southwest. It is 150 by 30 miles, and largely agricultural. You get there by a 45-minute ferry ride, but a bridge is in prospect--to the dismay of many inhabitants, who would rather leave the place as it is. We stayed in a waterside hotel called the Blue Unicorn. It was painted a number of colors, like red and pink. The adjacent cedar tree was home to many large and astonishingly vocal birds (ibises). Our restaurant served the fresh shellfish Susan had ever encountered, and we had our first Chilean ice cream.

After returning to Petrohue, we embarked on our land-and-lake crossing to Argentina. If you really want, this can be done in a single day, starting from the city of Puerto Montt, as follows: bus to Petrohue; catamaran across the Emerald Lake; Chilean customs; bus ride; Argentine customs; another boat; another bus; another catamaran; one last bus. Now, after most of a day, you are in Bariloche. We sensibly took this in stages, first crossing the lake for a night on the far side, at Peulla, To our regret, the flies came along for the ride. We embarked on a hike uphill through the rainforest, but were thwarted by the disappearance of the trail. “Maybe it’s here,” I said cheerfully, as I hopped across a stream. Bad move. I struck my head against an overhanging tree trunk, fell in the water and sprained a finger. Worse: I immersed our digital camera. As I write, we are negotiating its repair for something over $300.

We completed the lakes crossing the next day. Midway, we hiked a short distance to one of the most gorgeous lakes I have ever seen. Small, clear and round, it was encircled by rock walls reminiscent of Yosemite.

Soon we were on a boat in Argentina. A woman declaimed on a (very) loudspeaker. She seemed to be welcoming us all to a real country that was not mismanaged by those stiff and overbearing Chileans.

Bariloche is a resort town, noisy till all hours. We discovered this our first night; the next day we switched our hotel room to one that, while inferior otherwise, did not front the street. The town is great for shopping--especially at the current very favorable exchange rates--and for great views, but not interesting for much else, except a chocolate factory. We chose the next day to revive our rafting skills, last employed in Costa Rica. We joined a group for a 2 1/2 hour bus trip to the jumping-in point, which happened to be a restaurant. There we selected helmets, life jackets and paddles and floated out: six rafts, 8 or 9 of us in each. The usual cautions about when to scramble to one side or another and what to do if you fell in. The rapids had names like “The Elbow, “Ecstasy” and “Deep Throat.” They were indeed exciting, though not quite up to our Costa Rican standards. A few hours later we were back in the restaurant, to find a typical Argentine meal--a great deal of greasy meat. We spoke with some young engineering students. They were very curious about U.S. politics and wondered how we could have elected Bush. Of course, we didn’t know either.

Buenos Aires was our last stop, a three-hour plane trip northeast. We resumed contact with our Argentine weaver friends of the previous visit. This time we met not only Vanina and her mother, but her younger sister and her father, Victor. Victor’s father came from Poland and started the city’s first (and only?) Yiddish theater. Victor’s English was limited, so we promised to become fluent in Spanish before we next met.

Because we had missed Bolivia, it was doubly important that we add to our countries list by crossing the Plata estuary to pick up Uruguay. This requires a pleasant boat trip of 45 minutes, unhappily framed by immigration formalities on both sides. We did not get to Montevideo, but spent a relaxed afternoon at Colonia, an old, partly-restored port

Now we wanted to visit Mongolia. But it proved to be quite far away. It will therefore have to wait for our next trip.

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