South America Sojourn
Chile has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, says Nicky Holford. In Argentina, it’s time to learn the life of the gaucho way of life.
Flying over the Andes on the way to Santiago, Chile seems shrouded in superlatives. This narrow strip of a country that borders Peru, Bolivia and Argentina has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world.
From the Atacama Desert, driving across the altiplano, to the southern lands of volcanoes, national parks and Patagonia, there are so many regions with spectacular sights.
The south of Chile may have a reputation for outdoor activities, but startling landscape makes the whole country a playground for exploring and being out in the open. Chile also has some lovely wine country with organised tours that can be quite an activity in itself.
The capital Santiago is a good place from which to start. Chile is the most developed country in Latin America with the strongest economy. The city itself is not that exciting but a day to delve into the country’s political history – see where Pinochet stormed into the government buildings, and have lunch at the Central Market, where you will realise that the fish in Chile is better than anywhere in the world and cheap by western standards, gets you into the mood of the country. Santiago is a cross between a modern westernised city and a Wild West outpost, so it’s great to get your bearings and recover from the journey.
The ideal time of year to visit is in the Chilean summer. But if you happen to be there between June and October Chile has two sizeable ski areas. The largest, Valle Nevado, is just 64 kilometres from Santiago (although a treacherous road with switchbacks makes it a two hour drive).4 The one with more character is Portillo, the oldest ski area in South America that has an almost cultish reputation. It’s 40 kilometres from the last Chilean town, Los Andes, right on the Argentine border. The setting is magical, a bright yellow hotel, curved around the Laguna del Inca, a deep inky blue lake surrounded by 19,000ft mountains. Just over the ridge is Aconcagua, at over 22,000ft; it is as high as some of the Himalayan mountains and the highest in the western hemisphere. Most people stay for a week, but it is possible to get a weekend lift ticket and rent all the necessary equipment and clothing in Santiago.
For most travellers the decision will be whether to head north to the driest desert in the world or the Lake District in the south. Wherever you go the outdoor activities abound whether it is bird watching, horse riding, walking, skiing, 4X4 driving, climbing volcanoes, sea kayaking, white water rafting, fishing, the list is endless.
The Atacama Desert crosses the borders into southern Peru and is over 1000km of extraordinary landscape where there are ancient petroglyphs, ghost towns and oases.
Higher in the Andes in the altiplano are snow-capped volcanoes and white salt lakes where you will see pink flamingos, llamas and other indigenous creatures.
If you like being in a 4X4 a great adventure is to drive across the altiplano, the plateau that is in the middle of the east and west ranges of the Andes.
The altitude is high, sometimes up to 4,500m where you can feel the lack of oxygen. There are national parks and the scenery is stunning and desolate.
There are remote villages and huge open spaces. It’s easy to arrange tours here from the cities in the north.
Heading south is the famous Lake District where colour and space merge in an extraordinary fashion. The lakes are perfect, turquoise and dark blue, the volcanoes conical and rocky, all surrounded by grass pastures and natural forest.
This vast wilderness is ideal for hiking and Chile is well geared up for adventure tourism. Visit the Parque Nacional Los Galciares and the Glaciar Perito Moreno, favourites for climbers and hikers.
Another favourite destination is Easter Island, but Chile is a country of such diversified landscape that you may find yourself re-visiting.
Saddlin’ Up in ARGENTINA
From Top of the World a microcosm of varied landscaped stretched in front of us. Beyond the first range of hills was the town of Cordoba, a vision of sugar cube houses blurred in the haze. Straight ahead was Sugarloaf mountain where a tiny cable car was just discernible at the top. Salt flats stretched to the east and in the near distance running hills, soft valleys and acres of pampas grass surrounded us. The moment of utter peace was rudely interrupted by the beep of a previously forgotten mobile phone. We had been riding for an hour and had just reached an area high enough to get a signal; the idea of being in contact with the rest of the world again seemed rather intrusive.
Not long ago I had been met at the small airport of Cordoba in a pick-up truck.
Cordoba is only an hour’s flight from both Buenos Aires and Santiago. The drive became more and more remote until we left the road completely and followed a track into the hills, dust obscuring the view behind the pick-up. Soon we came to a gate and cattle grid. “This,” said Duncan, who was driving me “is where the farm begins.”
The farm, or Estancia Los Potreros is a 6,000 acre working cattle farm, which has been owned by the same Anglo-Argentine family for four generations, although the Estancia is much older than that. It is located in the middle of nowhere in one of the oldest mountain ranges in South America, the Sierras Chicas. If you ever wanted to get out of the city and find somewhere remote, timeless, beautiful and relaxing, this is it.
It was late August so not the time to round up the cattle, although guests can help with the round up if they want. There are lots of activities to choose from: there’s a pool, and bikes and wonderful hiking but most people come to chill out, absorb the scenery and gallop across the plains where there is no-one in a land that can’t help to remind you of old John Wayne films.
You don’t have to ride to come here, but the horses have made many a convert.
What makes the difference is that the horses are all bred here. There are two main breeds: Crillos and Paso Peruanos and crossbreeds. For anyone who thinks the idea of being on a horse for four hours or more is hell is usually right, but these horses are so comfortable it’s like sitting in a moving armchair.
The Paso Peruanos have an extra gait, a walk that is the speed of a canter and convinces even sceptics that riding can be fun.
Robin Beg who owns the farm and runs it with his brother Kevin managed to get a number of British cavalry saddles, so with those and a thick soft sheepskin even wafer thin models could get used to it.
Top of the World is one of the many rides on the Estancia. One day we set out to the local school, a small concrete building where a single teacher is in charge of all children of several ages. The children still ride to school, two come on the same horse, and one child travels for over two hours each way every day. You are deep in the land of the gauchos. After the school (where we noticed the Falkland Islands were on the map as the Malvinas), we stopped to explore an old Jesuit church in beautiful surroundings.
Gin and tonic is usually the order of the day after a morning’s ride and a hearty lunch. The beef in Argentina is sublime and we were on a cattle farm with 1,000 head of Aberdeen Angus. It is easy to fall asleep after lunch in a nearby hammock listening to the paraqueets gossiping in the trees. The wild life and birds are plentiful. Maurice Rumbell, co-author of Birds of South America and Antarctica identified 37 breeds on his visit, including the ringed kingfisher and Andean Condor.
Later we have to decide whether to learn polo or take the old bell ride (so named from a rock that sounds like a bell when you hit it) to the top of a hill to watch the sunset. Late at night I walk from the lodge, where we have dined like kings, to my cosy cabin where the log fire is roaring. I find myself bewitched by the stars and the moon. They are so bright that the shapes of the trees and hills are bathed in a hazy light. The pampas grass glows and sways, in this vast yet soothing landscape.
* pictures supplied by AA World Travel