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Tasting Chile's highs and lows

© By Alex Eberspaecher
 
Mount Villarricca Rising In The Distance The drone of the single-engine plane upped a notch. At 10,000 feet, we were climbing slowly as some of the higher Andes' peaks loomed ahead. Judy, my photographer, was up front beside Diego, our pilot; I was crouched in the back.
     Earlier, Diego suddenly rolled the plane on its side and pointed at one of the peaks. Remember the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed back in October of 72? he mentioned casually, it was down there. Then, he slid the windows open so Judy could take better pictures while I ensured my lap belt was as tight as possible.
     Gradually, we neared the Lake District. At 10,500 feet we swung slightly to our left and I looked directly ahead at a snow-covered mountain. The engine laboured as we flew directly toward it. Diego and Judy were engaged in an animated conversation when not opening windows to take pictures. I pointed out the obstacle. I know, he said, that's where we are going.
     Peaking at 9,341 feet (2,847 meters) Mount Villarrica is not one of the higher Andes mountains, yet it seemed the most ferocious as our little plane reached over the peak with fifty feet to spare. The air reeked of sulphur from the yellow cloud atop Mt. Villarrica.
     Fiery lava boiled within the crater creating a ghostly scene with puffy, yellow clouds. It was unbelievably beautiful. We made many passes for Judy to obtain the best shots.
     The sheer rugged vastness of the Andes and the Pacific shores shelter a countryside that stretches in length as long as mainland Canada is wide. From the Atacama, the driest desert in the world at the top, through the most fertile plains that grow some of the finest wine-making grapes, to the Lake District which many compare to Swiss Alp foothills or Ontario's Muskoka district, we end up in the south, a rugged countryside that compares to our northern Arctic Circle.
     The relatively narrow stretch of land is constantly intersected by clear, cold and fast rushing mountain streams from Andes snowfields and glaciers, ultimately disappearing in the ocean to the west. Chile's great wines originate beside the Heading Back Home Into The Mountains pure streams of the Maipo, Rapel and many others.
     In the morning on a calm, clear and sunny day, we hit the winding road that continuously crossed the Maipo. Less than an hour outside Santiago, Chile's largest city, we had completely abandoned civilization, the ascending road a mixture of gravel and boulders occasionally allowing glimpses of the glaciers we had come to see. The engine overheated, our vehicle suddenly stalled and Mary-Anne, Diego's wife, suggested we should have lunch.
     Judy concocted an enormous bowl of salad, but as she walked around the truck, the wind grabbed lettuce, tomatoes and avocado chunks and the salad disappeared into a swirling mess. My attempt to bake potatoes also failed without enough heat on the barbecue in the high altitude. The last I saw of lunch was a gang of goats and a lama fighting over a scrap of lettuce by the river.
     Later, after navigating around boulders, through and over creeks and monstrous Andes chunks that had rolled off cliffs, we found a spring of hot, sulphur-laden water, a small pool of welcome heat amidst cold evening wind. A local farmer told me that hot sulphur springs were good for all things that hurt, and explained that it also slows down the aging process. Accordingly, we remained longer, just in case.

Beautiful Colours Of The Maipo Valley  Peeping Into The Belly Of The Villarricca Volcano  Smoking Volcano  Wooden Flowers - Made Only In Pucon Chile

     I recommend Chile, but it's underdeveloped for tourism. Most visitors disembark from cruise ships and take day-long bus tours to Santiago. The more adventurous join guided tours to the Atacama Desert in the north. Still fewer venture to Tierra del Fuego.
     Santiago, like most large cities is congested with traffic. Nevertheless, there are reasonably priced hotels and restaurants. Specific travel arrangements should be made at point of departure well in advance, for once the larger cities are left far behind, there are few amenities such as car rental agencies, travel agents, B&B's or hotels. Chile, beautiful and rugged, is not a country for soft tourism but it is a haven for true travel adventure.

Alex Eberspaecher is an award-winning author and journalist with a number of Canadian and international lifestyle magazines and trade publications, and a contributor to the Toronto Star. His main focus is travel, wine and food and nature. He is a member of SATW, NATJA, TMAC and WWCC. Contact Alex at www.winecop.com Judy Eberspaecher enjoys travel, wine and nature photography. She has been published in Centre of the City, West of the City and Good Life amongst other credits. Contact her at Judy@eberimage.ca

Photo Credits
Judy Eberspaecher

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Tourism Chile: http://www.tourismchile.com/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Villarrica

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