A long journey through a thin land

Jeremy Atiyah arrived in Chile by tunnel and shivered in the Andes before dropping headlong into lush valleys and on to packed holiday beaches
CROSSING THE longest, thinnest country in the world, you face a very simple choice. You can take the long way: 2,500 miles from the rainless Atacama desert to the mountainous glaciers of Patagonia. Or you can take the thin way: a 100-mile drive from the Andes to the Pacific. I chose the second way.

A lack of ambition? Or the voice of moderation in a country of natural extremes? No wonder Chilean politics gets polarised with geography like that. In the southern summer last December, during my visit, I heard constant boasting about the climatic differences between the Chilean Antarctic and the far north. Luckily for me, I was in the middle, tracing my moderate line.

Not that there was anything moderate about the Chilean Andes. This was indeed summer, but arriving by bus through a tunnel from Argentina, I found a winter's worth of Pacific snow still dumped on the mountainside. Immigration formalities took place in a freezing hanger. And from up here on the top of the mountain, the descent to the Pacific looked almost vertical.

I caught a last glimpse of Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America, just as a man and guitar was regaling the passengers with a rustic, grating song of Chile. The road plummeted a couple of thousand feet in 10 minutes. Amazing that trains used to clamber up and down this precipice - the old line from Mendoza (in Argentina) to Santiago was still visible, though the service had been suspended years ago. Down in Santiago itself, as I would soon see, the old Mapocho train station had turned into a cultural centre.

It was like driving from Mont Blanc's glaciers to Tuscany in less than an hour. Suddenly this was the benign landscape of central Chile. Rich deciduous trees began to dot golden hills. Crickets chirruped and vines burgeoned under squintingly blue skies. You couldn't fault the taste of those conquistadors who felt more at home in Chile than in the jungles of Peru or on the pampas of Argentina. And for all the country's thinness there was a surprising amount of space. I glimpsed avenues of palms leading to latifundia-style mansions, and peasant shacks with mules tied to gum trees outside. Meanwhile, inside the bus, a fat man kept offering me leaky empanadas stuffed with bolognese sauce. We stopped at the town of Los Andes, where girls in school uniform read comics in silence. Heat and torpor had settled over the land.

Time for something extreme? An hour later I was in Santiago, the middle of the middle of Chile, surrounded by short, stocky people of mixed indigenous and European blood The town centre, the Plaza de la Constitucion, was how Croydon would have looked had Hitler won the war. Lots of people have disappeared from around these streets in the last few decades, but today just one policewoman with a helmet and lipstick was eyeing the traffic. Occasional churches, a pink plaster post office and 18th century posadas - Atlantic buildings wrapped in wooden balconies - varied the architectural menu.

I sat about in traditional bodegas, or wine cellars, drinking iced fruit punch in the company of men wearing straw hats. In the Plaza de Armas where grass was being mown in hot sunshine, snowy Christmas cards were on sale. Dogs slept in the shadows, men with Clark Gable moustaches sat in cafes, kissing lovers canoodled on park benches. And Santiago's big avenue (a mere four lanes compared to Buenos Aires' fourteen) was named after the man for whom Chile's eternal flame burns: the unlikely Bernard O'Higgins, he who liberated Chile from the yoke of Spanish rule. To have chosen the illegitimate son of an Irishman as its national hero will endear Chile to me forever.

And then there was the central market of Santiago, a place to reassure yourself of the pleasures of living in the middle of the world. Fat olives, exotic fruits, strings of garlic and seafood lay about in piles. It was the Mediterranean but not quite as you know it: maduritos instead of apricots; sundried chillies instead of tomatoes.

Come to think of it, was this really the Old World masquerading as the New World? Or was it a third way - something in between? I skidded over the old flag-stones of the central museum, to find the painting which depicted the moment of the founding of Santiago, the moment when Pedro de Valdivia in a plumed helmet and long boots decided upon the spot "with his Indian friends". In the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, I looked at displays of fishing spears, in use, according to the caption, "between 4000BC and 1900AD". But it did not say what happened after 1900AD.

Well, I still had the second half of my journey to work things out. It was perfect timing for a trip to the seaside: Saturday morning in early summer. The whole of Santiago was queuing at the bus station. The fact that I still managed to reserve a seat for an instant departure reminded me yet again what an easy place Chile was in which to travel. We descended through valleys of vineyards backed by blue mountains. The fact that Valparaiso was Chile's second city did not make it a large place. Nevertheless, the government has moved its National Congress here and it now occupies a handy location outside the bus terminal. Handy for MPs that is.

But I doubted whether fabulous Valparaiso needed those MPs. Why should it? A 16th-century city which resembled a fantasy medieval port town and still managed to act as a large modern harbour? From a waterfront smelling of wet cat fur I was only worried about buildings sliding into abrupt ravines. Colourful streets were piled high in the sky. The way to reach them was via 100-year-old rickety funiculars shunting up almost vertical cliff-faces.

But to round off my thin journey, I was heading for the beach, at nearby Vina del Mar. And here I found myself in the land of the leisured. There were no more short, dark people, but lots of tall, fair ones. Kids were holding surfboards and eating hot dogs with kaleidoscopic layers of mayonnaise and ketchup. The beach was as packed as a beach should be. And the waves tearing in from the Pacific were real rollers - ten-thousand-mile ripples from New Zealand.

From the Andes to the Pacific. Hmm. This thin slice of Chile, I reflected, had been really quite a long one.



Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Journey Latin America (tel: 0181-747 3108). British Airways flies daily to Santiago (except Tuesday) from Gatwick. Flights take 16 hours 45 minutes, including one stopover. Journey Latin America offers return flights (autumn season) for pounds 425, including tax, with Avianca, via Bogota, departing from Heathrow. Over the Christmas period prices rise to pounds 724. For those seeking the full Chilean experience, the company also provides a "Penguin" 19-day tour, flying to Santiago with Iberia. The price is pounds 2,177 per person, based on two sharing, and includes flights, tour guide, internal travel, three-star accommodation and excursions to Lauca National Park, the Atacama Desert and the Chilean Lake District.

Where to stay

Accommodation for various budgets can be arranged for individual travellers before departure through Journey Latin America. Alternatively, there is a growing network of Chilean youth hostels which can be contacted through the Asociacin Chilena de Albergues Tursticos Juveniles (tel: 00 562 2333220).

Further information

UK citizens do not require visas to enter Chile.

Tourist information can be obtained from the tourist section of the Chilean embassy in London (tel: 0171-580 1023).

For more comprehensive information, exhaustive Chilean guide books are available from Footprint (pounds 10.99), Lonely Planet (pounds 11.99) and Insight (pounds 13.99).