Whenever I think of Chile I get lyrical. It’s hard not to hear the late Joe Strummer in the song “Washington Bullets,” crooning about Salvador Allende and Victor Jara, the famous folksinger murdered by Chilean soldiers in Santiago Stadium. Similarly, a poem by Stephen Dobyns comes to mind called “General Matthei Drives Home Through Santiago.” Dobyns lived for a time in Chile and several of his poems are set there, but that’s probably the best of them.
Fernando Matthei lives in Chile still. Former commander of the air force and Augusto Pinochet’s right hand man, he was never “shot and dragged by his heels through the streets,” as Dobyns predicted, and Chile has come a long way since the days of junta and upheaval in the 1970s.
Santiago, the country’s modern capital, sits at the foot of the Andes — tall white peaks visible when the omnipresent curtain of air pollution allows. Of course, Chile being Chile, everything sits at the foot of the Andes. Only a few hours northeast of the capital, just beyond the border into Argentina, is Mt. Aconcagua, at nearly 23,000 feet the highest summit in the world outside of Asia.
Hardly the most alluring city in the world, Santiago is a clean (at ground level), predominantly charmless sprawl of five million inhabitants and, I’m compelled to point out, a roughly equal number of public buses. Back in January I made a fuss about the buses in Buenos Aires, but I’d be hard pressed to believe there is anywhere in the world with more smog-spewing public transit vehicles than Santiago. Lingering over a twelve-dollar pizza in a small Santiago restaurant, I count nine in a row roaring through the intersection outside.
I attach the dollar value to the pizza because, say what you will of Santiago, and for that matter Chile in whole, it’s not cheap. I’d been spoiled in Argentina, where a four-star hotel is yours for $35 a night and a bountiful meal goes for about $5. The budget traveler — or starving online columnist — can shop around, but the average tourist in Chile is paying American/European prices, making it arguably the most expensive country in Latin America.
I mention this to the keeper of my overpriced hotel and he nods and smiles firmly. Chileans are sometimes described as an evasive people, reluctant to disagree or contradict. “and, in a way that is typical of the people of Santiago,” writes Dobyns in his Matthei poem, “he will half roll and half shrug one of his shoulders…” On the contrary, I find Chileans direct and unambiguous, a trait I correlate not with culture but with geography. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in a nation that averages about a hundred miles wide yet is more than 2,500 miles long. With the tall peaks of the Andes constantly to one side, the country often seems taller than it does wide — an endless mountainous spine at last bottomed out by the rocky fish-hook of Cape Horn. (I also suspect Chileans are sick and tired of people noting and analogizing the odd physical shape of their country.)
About 1,400 miles due south of Santiago — roughly the distance from New York to Havana — is Punta Arenas, the largest city in the famous region of Patagonia. This stark, wind-battered corner of the planet is the most southerly point you can visit short of Antarctica. Many of the research vessels and cruise ships to Antarctica depart from Punta Arenas. It’s an agreeable city of a hundred thousand laid out in an easily navigable grid, bordered on the east by the Strait of Magellan. The island of Tierra del Fuego is visible across the passage.
A few hours north of Punta Arenas by bus is Puerto Natales, gateway to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. There’s nothing offensive about Puerto Natales, but those who’ve been around will be reminded at once of places like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe — Turkey’s Goreme and the Lao town of Vang Viang also jump to mind — recognizing that peculiar sort of place that seems to exist for and because of the tourists who throng there. Puerto Natales overflows with young adventure seekers and is chockablock with outdoor outfitters, camping suppliers and internet cafes. An afternoon spent weaving amidst the gaggles of hearty, windburned twentysomethings is like living in an REI catalog.
Torres del Paine itself is similarly crowded, particularly in summer when the campgrounds and trails are foot-to-foot with hikers. Fortunately the scenery — Torres is considered by many to be the most beautiful national park the world — more than makes up for it. This is what I came to Chile for.
There are, you can argue, two kinds of natural beauty. On one hand there’s the soft, impressionistic variety. The south of France or a tropical beach come are good examples, theirs being a delicate, interpretive beauty that usually needs a bit of help — a flattering sunset, the warmth of a spring day, a conducive state of mind. Then there’s the other kind. It does not care who you are, what you think, or what your predispositions might be. It simply knocks the breath out of you and yanks your jaw from its sockets.
The scenery in Torres del Paine tends toward the latter. The park is beautiful the way a gathering thunderstorm is beautiful: commanding, overscaled, and a little bit frightening. I never thought I’d see anywhere more impressive than the vertical green fantasy that is Machu Picchu, far to the north in Peru, but Torres makes it a close call.
Namely, it does so in two specific places. First, at the astonishing spectacle of Las Torres (the Towers), a jagged threesome of immense granite spikes rising from the edges of an azure Andean lake — the sheer vertical walls reaching some ten thousand feet into the sky. The second locale is the vista, perhaps best appreciated from the trail behind the camp at Pudeto, of Punta Bariloche and Los Cuernos (the Horns), a pair of enormous, bizarrely sculpted mountains, their forbidding summits snarled by blue glaciers. No use trying to describe it further. As you stand there gazing, you need a splash of cold water to prove you’re not hallucinating.
And the Patagonian climate is happy to oblige. As a Bostonian, the next time I hear some local meteorologist bantering how the New England weather is so changeable and unpredictable, I’m going to laugh out loud. In the park, it’s not uncommon for conditions to swing from blue skies and 65 degrees to a savage gray cauldron of 80-knot winds and freezing rain — and back again — in less than 20 minutes. You’ll never witness scenery like that of Torres, and you’ll never experience wind like that either — icy cannonballs of air, as if the glaciers themselves are exhaling, billowing out your cheeks until you look like one of those rocket-sled drivers whose head is about to blow off. At times, the force of the gusts is strong enough to send you pirouetting from the trail.
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004″ by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.