What?, muchileros scolded me, You are going to CHILE! No way! Go to Argentina, man!
B.A. is all-night fiesta, all-day siesta. Las chicas. Las chicas!
Truth is Chile is the least popular country on the continent with backpackers. You’d think I’d know, having been glum in Santiago the first week of this trip.
After months in the rural Andes, I was culture-shocked by modern Chile: tattoos, hair styles, midriffs, child obesity, piercings, girly bars, women painted like female impersonators. In short: civilization.
Coming from Bolivia, Chile seemed an expensive nation of do-nothing, chain-smoking posers. (Though it’s impossible not to grin at a Latin nation who’s Liberator is named Bernie O’Higgins. Didn’t she sing back-up for The Commitments?)
So why Chile?
I am stubborn. Stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay. I had originally planned on Chile, you see.
Partly it was due to the cover photo of Sara Wheeler’s book, In a Thin Country. I had to find THAT place.
And I wanted to visit the Atacama, claimed the world’s driest desert.
But excitements like the Earth’s biggest open pit copper mine didn’t do it for me.
It was partly Enzo’s fault I went to Chile. He’s the founder of Pachemama by Bus which wheels tourists through endless stretches of this most oddly shaped country, painlessly.
Effortless, mindless travel in a modern vehicle, directed to the best local pubs, hostels & restaurants by an expert guide, boozing continuously.
We tried Carmenere wine, a grape wiped out in Europe, recently rediscovered here.
I drank Misiones de Rengo but locals buy cheap Gato Negro, same as Canadians.
We gorged on huge feeds of fish & seafood, by far the best grub in Chile.
We cruised the famed Lake District, the southern most Province of Germany. Great weather for ducks, it took 5 days before I finally got to see a snow-capped volcano looming over a picturesque lake.
For we passer-throughers, Chile offers superb Catholic canoodling, an engaging spectator sport. This was the last democratic country to legalize divorce. No test drives, either in Chile. But anything that you get away with in public falls short of mortal sin.
(People keep telling me that the current Pope — May His Holiness cling to life — is a liberal. S’truth? I don’t hope for a Conservative successor.)
The travel gluttony of Pachemama by Bus might be some people’s idea of a good holiday — but not you or me.
GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR 6 MONTHS
This was the telegram famously sent by Bruce Chatwin when he quit his real job with a prestigious paper to become a travel writer.
Do you recognize the name Chatwin?
If you hosted a chic soirée for elite travel writers, Chatwin would top your list of invitees. Rumours of his 1989 death from rare blood disease merely add to his mystique.
Chatwin’s In Patagonia is the most famous read on the region though travellers down here often can‘t get through it. Puzzling, academic — it doesn’t have much to do with Patagonia.
If you are talking to a name-dropping travel snob like Chatwin (don’t you hate his type?) be sure to ask for specifics on the horrors of public toilets, especially bus toilets. That will shut him up for a while.
The best of the many bad ways to get to the central Patagonian Andes — by far the least settled — is the great Southern Highway (Carretera Austral). Only a mad dictator could push through a road so geographically illogical — 1200km long, starting nowhere, leading nowhere. I had to take a 12 hour cramped, diesel-smoke-filled freighter from Puerto Montt just to get to the highway.
Considered the Adolf Hitler of South America to some — families of the thousands he disappeared during his 17 year rule — that mad dictator was General Augusto Pinoche. (The over-decorated despot was recently ruled sane by a Spanish court of law.)
Pinoche took over on Sept. 11, 1973 after he convinced the elected President, leftist Salvadore Allende, to commit suicide by machine gun, a gift given Allende by admirer Fadel Castro.
The Americans supported the new dictator, of course, liking Pinoche’s policy of savage capitalism.
Travelling Pinoche’s Southern Highway though, to me, was akin to a Canadian trying to hitchhike to the Arctic Ocean.
On logging roads.
There’s not a LOT of traffic.
The road itself is something like driving the interior of British Colombia or South Island New Zealand: snow-topped mountains, huge lakes, trout-filled rivers. Very pleasant indeed.
The attraction is the absolute remoteness (it is difficult to get Diet Coke!) & foul weather. A grim 16-year-old local named Diego, who plans to run to Philadelphia when he is 18, asserted, It always rains here. Always.
But we had very good Spring weather.
The few homesteaders, still called pioneers, should import some convicts or Australians to clear the tens of thousands of stumps. Where is Ned Kelly when you need him?
A DC3 crash-landed near the highway. The military carted off the wings. Then a family of pioneers moved in. Can’t sneeze at free digs.
South Americans have the quaint, backwards notion that castrating & imprisoning dogs is cruel. Carry a handful of rocks in rural Patagonia to greet the large, furry survivors — or call yourself puppy chow.
The great Southern Highway is not for the faint of heart. Most who travel here speak Hebrew — but you will find the old odd Canadian too. Israeli adventurers love the Carretera Austral, cramming 6 into a rent-a-car. (Two of their jeeps had rolled in recent weeks.)
I travelled the highway with Shimmi who turned 23 during the journey, an extremobackpacker. He was determined to hitch the Careterra Austral. He would play guitar while we sat on roads empty as far as the eye can see. I gazed skyward dreaming to flag down a helicopter.
On a good day we made about 90km with 4 short rides. On bad days Shimmi would finally join me in a guest house when it got dark & we would take the bus — if one showed — next morning.
Hey. A friend e-mailed to touch base and confirm travel plans. Seems he will, on early retirement, acquire a VW van and a bra-less wife.Freedom 55!
What say you were the retiring founder of Esprit & Northface clothing. On what would you spend the $140 million payout?
Right. Wed the ex-CEO of Patagonia clothing & start buying up pristine land in Patagonia.
Douglas Tompkins says he’s trying to undo a little of the damage he did to the environment when he was busy producing consumer items nobody needed.
We visited his Park Pumalin, the world’s first privately-owned National Park. It crosses into Argentina from Chile protecting some of the wildest land on earth.
Our guide pointed to peaks in every direction. None had been climbed. He claimed impenetrable valleys that had never been seen by a human being, untouched since all continents were one.
Trees 3000 – 4000 years old abound.
Very cool. I was much excited by this bold eco-experiment. It is being copied in Africa & in the Amazon.
Shimmi & I had a fantastic hike at Castle (Cerro Castillo), the biggest draw of the Carretera Austral. It was a surprise to see other hikers, a British youth group.
I doubt Pinoche will live long enough to see his road pushed through to southern Patagonia. Only then will it become one of the world’s great road trips. For now it is still a place to get some peace & quiet.
I did not make the southern roadhead either. I bailed into Argentinaafter about 700 kms.
Shimmi hates Chile and loves Argentina. Loves chowing down like Fred Flintstone in all-you-can-eat barbeque restaurants. In Argentina, vegetarianism is impractical, if not illegal.
And Shimmi has a theory about the shapeliness of the Argentina latina assienda which, I had to concede, was proved by the evidence.