A nation united: There's more to Chile than a well-priced Pinot Noir

The fate of the miners trapped half a mile underground, and their government's remarkably competent efforts to pull them out alive, has united the people of Chile and reminded the rest of the world that there's an awful lot more to this Andean nation than military dictators and well-priced pinot noir.

Its odd shape – a wafer-thin geographical curiosity, 2,880 miles long but averaging just 109 miles wide – is not its only distinction. Chile is the world's largest copper producer and has its driest desert, a fiord-filled coastline of more than 4,000 miles, stunning northern salt flats, snow-capped volcanoes, beaches full of penguins in Tierra del Fuego, a currency called the peso whose symbol, confusingly, is the dollar sign, and a whole Easter Island full of statues. Yet, to reach it, tourists must endure a 22-hour plane ride and the blankest of looks from most travel operators. As the British press pack have just discovered, you can't even catch a direct flight from London to Santiago.

Once here, visitors will find one of the region's most prosperous countries, with a can-do attitude, stable economic growth, low unemployment, and – almost uniquely in Latin America – a narrowing gap between rich and poor. Here are world-class ski resorts, fine surfing beaches, and mile after mile of vineyards yielding the excellent red wine that accompanies the national dish, empanadas, an utterly delicious meat pie.

At this time of year, the hilly desert around the San José mine looks like something out of National Geographic. Every few hundred yards is a banner either celebrating the nation's recent 200th birthday or offering fuerza, or strength, to the trapped men. Chile's hero of the moment is Laurence Golborne, the dashing mining minister who mixes ruthless efficiency with the effortless bonhomie of many of his countrymen.

On Friday night, he was sat round a campfire at the mine playing Radiohead on his guitar, to the miners' families. Yesterday, dressed in a red ski jacket that wouldn't look out of place on James Bond, he convened a hasty press conference to announce the completion of the rescue tunnel. "How are the miners?" shouted one TV newsman. "A lot calmer than the journalists!" he replied. That zinger – elegant, understated, and intentionally hilarious – was the perfect advert for his very under-rated country's charms.

Guy Adams

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