Chile's copper mountains

In the north of Chile are the open-cast mines of the arid Atacama desert; the lush southern forests seem like another country,
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At Chuquicamata in the Atacama Desert, a monster the size of a small block of flats advanced towards us and came to a lazy halt, panting, on the edge of the canyon. The siren had gone off, and over the radio we could hear the countdown to detonation. And so the enormous truck, with wheels the size of a two-storey house and tyres costing pounds 11,000 each, had to cease its labour of carting 225 tons of copper ore to the smelter as we waited for the big bang.

Industrial sites are rarely part of a holiday itinerary, but Chuquicamata - Chuqui to its friends - was one of the most awesome sights I had seen on my visit to northern Chile. At more than 4km long, 2km wide and nearly 1km deep, this working copper mine is one of the world's largest man-made holes. The scale of human endeavour is awesome, too. Here, you can watch the furnacemen nonchalantly tapping the smelter and sending streams of sparkling molten metal hissing into the moulds.

"Tres... dos... uno... Fuego!" Back at the canyon, 200 tons of explosive went up with a roar 1,000 yards away and a cloud of dust and debris started to fill the pit. The loose ore was ready for the monster to take to the smelter to be transformed into gleaming copper ingots.

Nothing much may grow there, but you could never call the Atacama Desert boring. If you have hired a four-wheel-drive vehicle whose chassis is high enough off the ground, you can drive along highways across desert without trees or flowers, birds or animals - the driest place in the world, where the only living things are weeds which somehow get enough water from the dew. There are deserted mining towns and volcanoes and dry lakes of salt, sulphur and iodine. In the oasis of San Pedro you can gaze at the mummies of the Incas. I drove from the Pacific coast at Antofagasta with perfect ease up to 10,000ft, and looked down on clouds a mile below covering the Pacific Ocean, and over to the Andes and the Argentine border.

Going to the Atacama Desert is one way of getting a sniff of the amazing variety of this long ribbon of a country which reaches from the Tropic of Capricorn to, Chilean diplomats claim, the South Pole.

There are two ways out of Chuqui. Either you seize your sleeping bags and blankets and take the British-run railway up from Calama station to more than 12,250ft to Bolivia and the roof of the world, or you funk it and go down to the Pacific Ocean and the warmth and normal atmosphere of Antofagasta, 200km away. I decided I wanted to hear the Chilean pianist Roberto Bravo play Debussy at the Municipal Theatre in Antofagasta. In other words, I funked it.

A day or two later I was in southern Chile which, but for the ever-present Andes, would be unrecognisable as the same country. The waterless, treeless Atacama gave way to beech forests, rivers and waterfalls, and a string of lakes of amazing beauty. Much of this part of Chile was populated 150 years ago by Germans, and Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquihue is the only part of the world where the children have come up to an outsider and asked me: "Sprechen Sie deutsch?"

The Germans took the place of the original inhabitants whose weaving and metalwork, some of it a little lumpish, is readily available. (I should not be rude about native crafts, the roughly dyed wool blanket I bought at Puerto Varas 30 years ago has been in daily use since then and seems good for another three decades.)

But all journeys start or end in Santiago. With Chile Limited making so much money from its copper and its wine and fruit and forest products, the capital is transformed from the dour place I once lived. Santiago's attractions are more natural than man-made. If you are lucky the setting sun will fall on the west face of the Andes, and turn a delicate shade of pink that enormous wall of rock which keeps the outside world at a distance. But the city was never an architectural beauty. Colonial Chile was a primitive place, lacking the silver which enriched Mexico and Peru or the gold and diamonds which added to Rio's already extravagant natural beauty. And earth tremors every week for centuries meant that the architecture of Chile's colonial period relied on fat walls and unadventurous designs.

The export of nitrates - like today's copper, dug out of the Atacama - brought prosperity at the end of the 19th century and a series of swanky churches, libraries and public buildings in Victorian and Edwardian styles. These have now been refurbished and look better than they did but none rises above the level of the vaguely handsome. Today's buildings, the new Hyatt Hotel, a big shopping arcade are born of the boom and are the quintessence of 1990s lottery-winner glitz. If they last, they will one day make an interesting foil to the monuments of the nitrate boom.

The unique charm of Santiago is in the way it can show off Chileans' love of nature, and passion for gardening and landscaping. Some of the avenues in the richer parts of town are laid out with great grace and taste, in the greys, greens and olives of Chilean native flora. The highways up toward the Andes seem to be lined for miles with nurseries catering to the Chileans' horticultural frenzy.

And no national capital on earth can be so wedded to the grape. Between the airport and the city there is a large vineyard, and wineries producing some of the most famous wines in Chile, Undurraga, Macul, Concha y Toro, Santa Rita are seldom more than an hour from the centre of the city. The vines sit on flinty ground, drinking in the water flowing straight off the Andes, their fruit warming in the hot summer sun ready for the Easter harvest.

Many of the vineyards, such as Undurraga and Concha y Toro, have kept the mansions of their original owners. With their high ceilings, landscaped gardens and hunting trophies from Africa they give an impression of the high life which their owners at the end of the last century glimpsed in London and Paris and did their best to reproduce back in the Southern Hemisphere. And there's July skiing in the Andes, the flight to Easter Island and cruising the fjords of the deep south and the Antarctic. If you can't find something to enthral you in Chile you are in bad shape. And I don't mean physical shape.


GETTING THERE: Return fares with British Airways (0181 897 4000/0345 222111) from London to Santiago range from pounds 869. But any good bucket shop can get you there for less than pounds 500.

TOUR OPERATORS: Journey Latin America (0181 742 2320) offers a 19-day inclusive package from pounds 1,906.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The South American Handbook (Trade and Travel Publications) is particularly good on Chile, pounds 21.95. Chile Tourist Service (0171 976 5511), 47 Causton Street, London SW1P 4AT.