By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Cortesía ProChile
If you asked me what I remember of Chile, I would tell you its mountains. Ochre in the northern Atacama Desert and imposing in the south, where they are reached by the Route to the End of the World. In Santiago, atop Santa Lucía Hill, I could see the Andes Mountains. Spring was already upon us —it was the end of September— and just a scant bit of snow remained on the peaks.
A visit to Chile was on my bucket list because its history includes so many events that marked the history of Latin America. It is also the country of “el cigarrito” and “la jardinera,” the “mote con huesillo” (husked wheat and dried peaches), and “la cueca,” the dance I heard so often in my elementary school.
The pilot on the flight to Punta Arenas announced that he had received authorization to detour slightly from our route and show us the blue and white peaks rising vigorously from the ground: the Torres del Paine mountains. You see? The mountains once again. And again in Valparaiso: the entire city is made of hills, and on these hills the lives of the residents unfold.
If you then asked me what I would want to tell you, it would be this.
We Ran Across the Streets Looking for La Chascona
I stayed in a hotel in Lastarria, one of those neighborhoods in the center of Santiago that make walking a pleasure. The streets are narrow and the buildings have a human dimension; there are cafes everywhere and an ice cream parlor near Forest Park that is a temptation for those with a sweet tooth: believe me, there is no greater pleasure than enjoying a strawberry ice cream sitting under the trees of this park.
I wanted to go to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos), but time got the better of my plans. I found a good alternative: I decided to walk to La Chascona, the house that the poet Pablo Neruda built in Santiago for Matilde Urrutia, located in a nearby neighborhood called Bella Vista, about twenty-five minutes from the hotel. To get there I had to cross a bridge on the Mapocho River. There were vendors screaming and shouting; a small piping hot city spot. I waited on the corner for the pedestrian traffic signal and then ran across, not because I was in a hurry but because in Santiago everyone runs across the streets… Once on the other side, I checked my map and made my way towards Constitution Street. A few minutes later I was at La Chascona. Bella Vista, I must say, was similar to Lastarria, because of its low roofs and cafes.
You walk through the poet’s house on your own, with the help of audio guides. They seemed somewhat impersonal to me but very useful, because I went through every room at my own pace, taking the time I wanted to look, observe, absorb…
Built on the slopes of the Cerro San Cristobal hill, La Chascona is a succession of rooms arranged in an anarchic and labyrinthine way; a true paradise for playing hide and seek. Filled with collectibles, as well as paintings, books, and sculptures, I liked the residence precisely for its spontaneous construction, the unusual windows, and the garden full of freshness and silence, which serves as the hallway.
The story goes that Neruda died on September 23, 1973 and his body lay in state in La Chascona, amid the destruction caused by the military coup. His funeral turned into a protest and I can almost assure you that you can feel all of these events when you visit, but somehow you come out happy, because there is nothing quite like being in a place where so much history took place.
For a Panamanian It’s No Small Thing to Be on the Edge of the Strait of Magellan
It wasn’t too cold in Punta Arenas. Nothing I couldn’t handle with a thick coat, although from time to time a draft of air sliced right through my jeans, a garment too flimsy for these southern temperatures, even in spring.
Punta Arenas lies on the southern tip of Chile and was, before the opening of the Panama Canal (1914), a cosmopolitan and prosperous port city that saw ships passing through the Strait of Magellan, the natural sea passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
I saw three boys at the edge of the strait dressed in dark jackets and khaki pants, talking as they kicked at shells, with their hands in their pockets. I looked at them and thought of the peace of the scene and also how incredible, if I can call it that, it seemed to me that in these areas that are so cold and distant, people live, people love, people sing… And I, coming from the country that is the belt of this continent, was there too, contemplating the place where so many ships passed before the trench was opened through the country where I live.
From Punta Arenas we went to Puerto Natales by a road called the Route of the End of the World. What an extraordinary thing! The end of the world! Can you imagine?
On both sides of the road there was apparent desolation until suddenly a flock of guanacos would surprise us, or an ostrich would appear running through the pampa, or we would see a small house off in the distance, with a smoking chimney. Looking out the window of the van I was reminded of the scene in the novel In Cold Blood, where Truman Capote describes the vast, lonely town in the United States where the Clutter family was murdered.
We arrived in Puerto Natales at 6 p.m., although the sun made it seem more like 3 p.m. I went for a walk to contemplate the waters of the fjord and see the black-necked swans. A frigid wind that cut to the bone came down from Torres del Paine … I looked curiously at the homes on the edge of the street: small and wooden, with large windows to take advantage of the few hours of light in winter.
With the last light of day I returned to the hotel, numb with cold. In the distance, the oranges and reds of the afternoon were reflected in the snows of Paine.
The Deep Silence in Atacama
There was a dramatic shift in the landscape as we traveled towards the north of the country. We went from the blue and white of Patagonia to the ochre of the Atacama Desert, and a town, San Pedro, that was full of tourists, shops, kiosks, bars, and small handicraft stands. The buildings had colorful facades and walls made of mud and straw. We saw a woman with a flock of sheep pass by and an old church from another time. They sell ponchos everywhere, along with hats, gloves, and coats, for the cold. These are worth buying if you live in a cold climate: the intricate designs are woven in lambs wool or alpaca.
The desert is a land only for connoisseurs. In the middle of that solitary, dry place, the streets look like roads made for mule drivers, now lost in the sand. Here and there are groups of tourists arguing about the best place to see the great dune, the best place to watch the sunset, and even where to find the shortest line for the only bathroom for miles around. But I have to say, none of this matters. None of it. Because it’s not every day that you walk in the most arid desert in the world, with a sky full of so many stars; it’s not every day that you can enjoy this unimaginably deep silence, so impossible in a city.
The Collection of Hats at Liberty Bar
I stayed in Valparaíso for a couple of hours and, near the end of a walk through alleys, stairs, and unpredictable streets, I arrived at Liberty Bar in the oldest part of the city. The bar has been in the Plaza Echaurren since 1897. What most caught my attention were the at least two hundred hats and caps that hang in perfect order in the upper part of the premises. “They are hats that people have forgotten on their tables,” says Felipe Muñoz, the guide. “They left so many that the owners decided to make a collection,” he added.
It’s fascinating to observe these garments and realize that each one fits on a specific head. For example, the rigid top hat surely dressed some man with slicked back hair, while the wide-brimmed straw hat was worn by a woman in her 30s, who arrived in Valparaíso one summer day and wanted to protect herself from the sun. There are others that tell more recent stories: the almost new baseball caps and the little woolen cap knit for a baby’s small head.
They say that Thursday nights are good for going to Liberty, because there is an exceptional dance that takes place to the rhythm of the “cueca brava.” I went on Monday, so I missed this experience, but I hope to return some day to this country full of mountains.
Copa Airlines offers five flights daily to Santiago de Chile from Tocumen International Airport in Panama.
Hotel Cumbres Latarria: José Victorino Lastarria Street 299. Near restaurants, bookstores, parks, and museums. From the hotel you can walk to iconic locations such as Plaza de las Armas, the La Moneda building, the Cerro Santa Lucía, the Cerro San Cristóbal, and La Chascona, the poet Pablo Neruda’s home. www.cumbrelastarria.com
The Singular Patagonia: Luxury hotel located in Puerto Bories, in the city of Puerto Natales. It used to be a cold storage plant, where sheep meat from the Chilean and Argentine Patagonia was processed for export to Europe. www.thesingular.com/patagonia
Hotel Alto Atacama: Pukará, Suchor, Ayllu de Quitor road. San Pedro de Atacama. An all-inclusive hotel that offers daily trips to the desert’s most impressive sites. www.altoatacama.com
Hotel Casa Higueras: Higuera Street 133. Cerro Alegre, Valparaiso. Its rooms are bright and some overlook the port of Valparaiso.
Where to Eat
Boragó: Nueva Costanera Avenue 3467, Vitacura.
La Mensajería: Nueva Providencia Avenue 2034, Providencia.
La Caperucita y el Lobo: Ferrari 75, Cerro Florida.