Salar de Atacama. Image by Mike Green.

CHILE, A NATURE LOVER’S PARADISE

Chile’s cities are best as stopovers to the outdoors.

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It was the height of the holidays and I was nowhere near a shopping mall. It was, in fact, December 25 and I had neither opened a present nor listened to a Christmas jingle. Instead, my family and I hopped in our rental car and, under clear blue skies, drove up a bumpy, winding mountain road until we reached our destination, hidden in the forest — Termas Geometricas, one of Chile’s top thermal bath spots.

We spent the afternoon sitting and sweating in a steamy, rugged paradise, high up on the mountainside in Villarrica National Park in Chile’s south. We sat there, unmoving, unspeaking, unthinking, just letting our bodies and minds melt into one of the 17 thermal baths zigzagging along a stream, each one connected by a small red wooden bridge. Lush green fauna covered the walls of rock that hid us from the outside world.

A bowl of homemade soup and several cups of cucumber water later and I felt just like new. It was by far one of the most relaxing days I had spent in a long time.

Thermal Waters Chile BOLDmagazine
Termas Geometricas.

I was happy to have found this gem, one of dozens of thermal baths around the country. Termas Geometricas is tucked away in a remote spot but still reasonably priced — a full day will cost you around US$30 (although they accept only cash – there isn’t any electricity, meaning no debit machines, and most refreshingly, no cellphone network coverage. The simple food lodge has only a rotary phone).

My parents and brother had come from Canada to visit while I spent the year living in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Since Chile was their foray in Latin America, I felt pressure to show them a good time. But how do you get a real taste of a country that is as long as Canada is wide? The geography of the country changes so drastically, from desert to ice field, from the Andes to the ocean, it can be daunting to plan a trip that reflects its diversity.

Yet one thing was certain — if the trip was to Chile, it had to be outdoors. The capital city has nightlife, but it’s no Buenos Aires. There’s more coastline than any country could want, but its beaches are nothing like those in Mexico or Brazil. The world may know of Chile’s wines, its poets and writers, its dark political history or even, more recently, of its rescued miners, but the country’s true calling, in my opinion, is as a nature lover’s paradise, no matter the season.

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Three planets dance over the La Silla Observatory at sunset, in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. Photo by ESO/Y. Beletsky

So when my family arrived, we left the city and hit the road. The journey south was actually the last leg of our trip. We first travelled to the Atacama Desert in the north to sleep under its impressive blanket of stars. On our way back south, we stopped in the colourful, coastal city of Valparaiso, to look out over the Pacific as the romantic poet Pablo Neruda had done from one of his naval-themed houses.

Our last few days were spent around Pucón, about a six hour drive south of the capital, Santiago. Second only to the Patagonia in the far south, Pucón has become a top destination for all sorts of outdoor adventurers. From Santiago, it’s an overnight bus trip, the easiest and cheapest way to travel around this narrow country. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more comfortable, buy a ticket for a “semi-cama” seat (translated as ‘half-bed,’ you’ll ride in the lower level of the bus in a reclined, wider and softer chair). It’s worth it.

Once in Pucón, you’ll find the city centre is a bustling meeting place of kayakers, hikers, horseback riders and fly-fishing enthusiasts. It seems everyone is either buying equipment, fueling up at a restaurant or consulting a local guide. You can just feel the change in mood — like everyone around you is high on fresh air. It’s almost a bit much, but the true allure comes from out of the city, of course.

Ours in fact wasn’t the drive out to the thermal bath, though it was welcome. The soak was just a moment of relaxation before the real adventure — hiking up the Villarrica volcano. Like the Andes Mountains, the towering, snow covered Villarrica volcano is almost always in view when in the area. Many come here for the climb alone.

Snow Covered Villarica Volcano, Pucón. Pucón. © Chris Christie
Snow Covered Villarica Volcano, Pucón. © Chris Christie

The next morning we set out — all but my mother, who can’t stomach such a height. It was just past dawn but already Pucon was busy with people dressing for a full day’s hike in green and orange suits, big boots, sunglasses and ice picks in hand. Group after group began the slow ascent, first up the volcano’s rocky bottom, then past a burnt out old ski lift and up its icy side. The volcano is actually one of the country’s most active, with lava eruptions every twenty years or so.

The gruelling, leg-numbing, stomach churning, six-hour climb was worth it — the views from above the clouds were breathtaking. Unfortunately, the day we climbed, the top was covered in a thick layer of sulphuric gas, so we were unable to look down into the volcano. Instead, we caught our breath and, at the encouragement of our guides, jumped on the small plastic seats strapped to our packs and slid down the snowy mountainside, an exhilarating finish.

The next day, before heading back to the capital and ending our travels, we drove out to one of the many Mapuche towns, which serve as a humbling reminder of how rurally and simply many Chileans live in these parts. We stopped by an indigenous restaurant for some sopapilla (fried pumpkin dough) and a couple bags of Merken (a hot Mapuche seasoning) to go. There was nothing like a little spice to end a Latin American adventure.

Sunday afternoon tea time in Araucanía. Photo by Juan Jaeger
Sunday afternoon tea time in Araucanía. Photo by Juan Jaeger