Chile: The Longest Country

By David Abel | Globe Staff  | 3/21/2010

GOLFO DE PENAS, Chile – Well before we boarded the old cargo ship, before it plodded past the protection of the mountainous fjords, before the skies turned stormy and the seas swelled, we were warned.

We were warned not to expect a cruise. We were warned about the smell of the cattle often herded below deck. More than anything, we were warned about the inevitable nausea.

So when the smoky, diesel engines of the 360-foot ship prodded us into the open sea and the rolling waves began sloshing us around, we expected to feel it in our stomachs. What we didn’t expect was that the pummeling would last nearly a full day – through difficult-to-digest meals, perilous showers, and a lot of restless sleep – and that Dramamine would be no cure for the persistent urge to hurl.

“It’s called the Gulf of Punishment for a reason,” said German Balboa, the ship’s second mate, who like most of the crew seemed impervious to the queasiness as he monitored our course for southern Patagonia.

The passage through the Pacific was one leg of a 15-day trip my fiancée Jessica and I took late last year from the top to the bottom of Chile, a sliver of land that extends no more than 109 miles between the Andes and the ocean and stretches 2,700 miles from the sprawling salt flats in the north to the south’s snowcapped volcanoes – longer than any other country.

Our journey began some 14,000 feet above sea level at a lonely border post in the cold, dry mountains of southwestern Bolivia, where we had spent three days on a road trip through the desert. We stood in a field of rocks for about an hour, with strong winds nearly barreling us over as we waited with heavy backpacks for a bus to take us across the border.

When we finally left, the difference between South America’s richest and poorest country was apparent immediately, a contrast that makes it easier to understand how Chile fared as well as it did after being rocked by a massive earthquake last month. In Bolivia, we had traveled for hundreds of miles without roads, but as soon we crossed into Chile, out of the barrenness of the high mountains, there appeared a modern highway – with smooth pavement and clear dividing lines, reflecting signs and guard rails, even carefully constructed turnoffs for runaway trucks.

It was clear, even in this remote corner, that we had arrived in a developed country.

As we descended, we felt the atmosphere change, literally. The altitude slowly released its grip on our heads and the frigid air turned sultry. In the distance, as we pealed off layers, we began to see patches of green, an improbable copse rising from a seemingly lifeless land.

The road took us to San Pedro de Atacama, a 1,000-year-old desert outpost of squat adobe buildings, dusty streets, and flocks of tourists who come for the arid air and nearby natural wonders, including geysers, salt flats, and flamingo-filled lagoons. After the bus dropped us off near the central plaza, we changed money, found a place to stay, and set our watches forward an hour.

With little time to explore, and the afternoon slipping into dusk, we rented bicycles and rode into a howling wind for the Valle de La Luna, or the Valley of the Moon. It was a long 10-mile trip, against a sand-strewn wind, under a hot sun, and up steep hills, but the slanting light and the spreading shadows embossed an eerie, desolate beauty on the surrounding lunar-like landscape of goopy rocks and rolling dunes. As the sun sank over the horizon, the sky ignited in a slow symphony of colors, with orange and gold strands of light burning out in wisps of pinks and purples, until darkness revealed the bright arc of the Milky Way, lighting the way back.

The next day we hopped another bus for an hour ride to the copper mining town of Calama, where we caught a flight south to Santiago. The two-hour trip offered a glimpse of the oddity of such a long country, in which the small northern cities are separated from the capital by a vast emptiness of fallow plains, rocky mountains, and dry canyons. The only green we saw arrived with an accompanying cloud of smog just a few miles before we landed in Santiago, where nearly half of the nation’s 17 million people live.

Friends picked us up and drove us into the city on a modern highway with high-speed electronic tolls. They gave us a quick tour of the downtown, including a stop at La Moneda, the 205-year-old presidential palace that was partially destroyed in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet, then the army chief, ordered it bombed during the coup d’etat he led against President Salvador Allende. I was surprised to find in a plaza beside the palace a large statue of Allende, a democratically elected socialist who allegedly committed suicide before being captured. The controversial project was unveiled in 2003 by the ruling center-left administration, 13 years after Pinochet relinquished the presidency.

Our speedy evening tour of Santiago ended in a sprint for another bus, which we caught just as it was pulling out of the station. We spent the night rolling further south in seats that reclined considerably and had ample foot rests. When we awoke about 10 hours later, just outside the city of Pucon in central Chile, it seemed like we crossed into a different biome, where lush vegetation replaced parched deserts. There was a bounty of trees, lots of birds and flowers, and Lago Villarica, one of a series of large, shimmering lakes in the region.

We walked from the bus station to the city center, a tranquil retreat of cozy restaurants, chocolate shops, and dozens of tour operators, all below the towering Volcan Villarica, an active, perfectly conical volcano that rises more than 9,000 feet above the lake. We admired the menacing mountain on the horizon, which last erupted in 1971, until it disappeared in the clouds. Then we did what most tourists do in Pucon and spent the next few days riding horses through the nearby hills, whitewater rafting on a swollen river, and soaking in hot springs, among other things.

It was the closest we came to relaxing on a trip in which speed was a priority, but after two nights beside the lake, we were on the move again. We decided to make a brief excursion to Argentina.

In a heavy downpour, we boarded another bus for a journey on a muddy road over the Andes. It twisted through cloud-shrouded mountains covered with monkey-puzzle trees, indigenous evergreens that have long trunks crowned by symmetrical branches with thick, spiky leaves. It was an all-day trip that required hours of waiting at border posts from both countries for bureaucrats to stamp the passports and search the luggage of everyone on our bus, reflecting a legacy of mistrust between the neighbors that made it feel as if we were passing through the Iron Curtain.

When we finally crossed the border, we stopped for a few hours in San Martín de los Andes, a lakeside city like Pucon that has the alpine whiff of Switzerland. The next bus took us on a curvy, dirt road past the so-called seven lakes, the last being the most majestic, Lago Nahuel Huapi. The 200-square-mile stretch of cobalt looks like a small sea beside the mountains that make up San Carlos de Bariloche, the continent's mecca for skiers, boaters, and climbers, including everyone from groups of Israeli tourists to high-ranking Nazis, some of whom lived here for decades after World War II.

We arrived at midnight, found a guest house, and after a brief sleep woke early to explore the city on foot and bicycle. We sampled chocolates and gobbled up the famed steak, even though Jessica is a vegan. We petted the puppies of St. Bernards used to lure tourists into overpriced photo shoots. And we peddled a hilly route that took us beside waterfalls and poppy-covered fields, to hidden beaches and aromatic welcoming breweries, and up 8,000 feet to the top of Cerro Catedral, one of South America's largest ski resorts, where the rushing wind purrs with a cool serenity.

After three days in Argentina, we made the long trip back over the Andes and through the slow motion of customs, until we reached another lakeside city called Puerto Varas. We arrived there just in time to join a large crowd by the Lago Llanquihue and watch an unexpectedly impressive fireworks show to celebrate New Year's Eve. Strangers shared champagne, offered up hugs, and helped us find a place for the night.

The next morning a minibus took us a half hour south to Puerto Montt, where we boarded the Navimag ferry for our three-day sail through the fjords of southern Chile. Guidebooks warned us to keep our expectations in check. We knew there could be rough seas and foul weather. But there was no preparing for the Golfo de Penas, and the way our stomachs responded.

Along with others on the old cargo ship that ferries food, livestock, and other goods between northern and southern Patagonia, we asked ourselves more than once why we chose to spend hundreds of dollars and precious time cooped up in such misery. The answer came when the clouds lifted and we passed back into the smooth waters of the protected canals: We stood on an outside deck as a breeze washed over us and the ship cruised through narrow, dolphin-filled channels with dramatic views of uninhabited islands, moss-covered mountains, and the wall of jagged ice called Pio XI, the largest glacier in South America.

The voyage ended when we arrived in Puerto Natales, a century-old port at the southern tip of Chile in a province called Última Esperanza, or Last Hope, where the sheep industry once reigned. It's now better known as the gateway for Torres del Paine, the nation's premier national park.
We piled into the back of a pickup truck owned by an older couple who persuaded us to stay at their bed and breakfast for about $20 a night. After dropping our bags there, we stocked up on food, consolidated our camping supplies, and took a two-hour bus ride to the national park.

Even though it was late in the afternoon, we were so far south that we had hours of light to hike, enough that we kept going until 10 p.m. We climbed for six hours over glacier-fed lakes up thousands of feet to the base of the three granite towers that give the park its name. We camped through a freezing night but warmed up the next morning by sweating up the steep, boulder-covered ascent to the massive spires, which rise from a bed of snow like skyscrapers and overlook an emerald lagoon in a bowl-shaped space that feels like a holy temple.

Over the next days, we kept moving. We hitchhiked to different parts of the park. We took a short cruise beside the famous Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. We took another bus further south to Punto Arenas, the country's most southern city, and then we hopped on a flight back to Santiago.

A day later, we were on another flight headed home, where for the first time in weeks, we finally got some sleep, exhaled from the visual intensity, and yearned for a vacation from our vacation.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.