Over the Andes

Having travelled down to the Chilean capital of Santiago (which is as far south as I’m going to on this trip), it’s now time to start heading east, and finally go over the mighty mountain range that I’ve been following ever since northern Colombia.  And what better place to do that virgin crossing (and pop my trans-Andean cherry) than in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the Americas. Continue reading

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Wine Me Up

Like many parts of the New World, it was Christianity that originally brought the grapevine to Chile.  European vines were brought here by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th century, with the first recorded plantings in the country made in 1548 by a catholic priest, who brought a selection of vines from Spain.  But it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that quality wine production began in earnest, when Phylloxera destroyed numerous vineyards in France, and French winemakers moved en masse to South America.  With its dry climate and sunny days (and its freedom from all those nasty grapevine pests and diseases), Chile is now one of the world’s most famous wine-growing countries.  And, like the coffee and chocolate tours of Central America, one can now spend a few hours touring the vineyards, learning the oenological facts, speaking the (slightly pretentious) lingo, and (most importantly of all) drinking. Continue reading

The Driest Place on Earth

“Stretching away between the ocean and the mountains, a seemingly endless belt of sand, rock, and mountain unfurls itself, more absolute and terrifying in its uncompromising aridity than the Sahara.  The first glimpse of a strange land usually elates; but the sight of this grim desert oppresses the mind with a sense of singular desolation.” – Stephen Clissold, Chilean Scrapbook

Dry, vast, empty, inhospitable, and yet very beautiful, Chile’s “Far North” occupies almost a quarter of the country’s territory, but contains just five percent of its population.  Its single most outstanding feature is the Atacama Desert, which stretches down from the Peruvian border for over 1,000km; the driest desert in the world, it contains areas where no rainfall has ever been recorded.  The landscape of this desert is not one of rolling Arabian sand dunes, but rather one of bare rock and earth spread over a wide pampa, almost completely barren – alleviated only by the distant mountains that shimmer in the golden daytime heat haze, and glow red at sunset. Continue reading