Travel: The Andes, Chile and Argentina

The train to Machu Picchu. Picture: Contributed
The train to Machu Picchu. Picture: Contributed
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IT’S probably the astonishingly vast landscapes and lake-scapes of Chile and Argentina that make the biggest impression on visitors – complete with snow-capped volcanoes and soaring condors which almost make you choke on your pisco sours (Chile’s favourite tipple).

There again, it might be an enthralling night at a tango show, or Argentinean steaks and Chilean seafood that you’ll recall as the highlight of your Andes visit. But for us, one aspect stood out even more. During our two-week adventure, which encompassed eight towns, a 250-mile rail trip, a 500-mile drive, including 30 miles of bumpy, unpaved road, and a 785-mile flight, we didn’t meet a single unpleasant person – e contrario, the fact that everyone was so friendly took a while to get used to after big city life in Europe.

Over the years, I had fallen in love with both countries and the magnificent and seemingly endless cordillera, or mountain ranges, that divide them, visiting 17 ski areas in the process. But I had never been there during the summer and I was determined to give Vivianne, my Swedish wife, the opportunity to experience this exhilarating subcontinent for the first time.

And although she was not best pleased at having a fortnight’s supply of her favourite snacks of mixed nuts and sunflower seeds confiscated on arrival at Santiago’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, the unaccustomed early March warmth melted her frustration. We acclimatised in Chile’s capital, where the nearby Andes looked strangely bare without the deep covering of snow I was used to seeing. We enjoyed the summer temperatures after a bleak send-off from late winter in the UK. We even spotted the odd swallow. Not to mention so many chimango caracaras, a type of common hawk, in the city’s Parque Forestal that they resembled flocks of pigeons. And the dogs! The dawn chorus was a cacophony of yapping, howling and barking in the park opposite. Dogs seem to live a life of their own here, but they appear to be in good shape, so someone must be feeding them.

Rested after our long flight from London via Madrid, we boarded a trundling train. Chile’s passenger railway “system” is now almost nonexistent, but one surviving route, from Santiago to Chillan, suited us well. Chillan was the birthplace, in 1778, of Chile’s first president, the bizarrely named Bernardo O’Higgins. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish-born Spanish officer, who became governor of Chile and later viceroy of Peru, and Isabel Riquelme, a young Chilean aristocrat. To this day every city in Chile has something named after him, be it a street, a hotel, a taxi service, a florist or even a football team: O’Higgins Fútbol Club.

As we pulled out of Santiago’s only remaining station, I remembered from previous visits that when Chilean rolling stock becomes obsolete, the railway company simply leaves it to its fate along various unused tracks and railway sidings, where it soon gathers colourful graffiti. So for many miles after you pull out from Estación Central, the view from your window is dominated by a legion of abandoned railway carriages.

At Chillan, where we arrived just under five hours later, the Hertz representative who delivered our shiny white Chevrolet spoke no English, and when we asked for directions to Temuco, he misheard and sent us zooming off towards a totally different town called Pemuco. It didn’t help that I had stupidly left our maps of South America back in the UK, 7,450 miles away.

Having found our way, eventually, to the all-important Pan American highway, we could relax and make for the extensive farm run by Robert and Killy Stanton, old friends I’d met on my first skiing foray into the Andes 20 years earlier. Temuco, at the heart of the Araucanía Region, is the principal base of the Mapuche, who steadfastly resisted the Spanish conquest of Chile, and are still frequently at odds with local farmers, much of whose land they regard as theirs.

Suitably rested during two days with the Stantons, we had time for long walks and distant views of three volcanoes before moving on to attempt a closer look at another one – the awe-inspiring Villarrica volcano, whose spectacularly blazing crater I’d photographed 20 years earlier when Robert Stanton had flown me above it in a light plane after a morning’s skiing there.

The final six miles to the volcano’s base ski area are unpaved, but our bumpy ride went unrewarded. The volcano was almost completely shrouded in mist, and we waited in vain – cameras primed – for it to clear. Of course the following day, as we headed for the Argentine border, the still snow-covered peak soared spectacularly into a blue sky that was cloudless except for the wisps of smoke belching from the crater.

In winter there are only two mountain passes open between Chile and Argentina, but in March we were able to make our way across the Mamuil Malal pass and enjoy impressive views of yet another volcano, Lanín, on our way to the picturesque little lakeside town of San Martin de los Andes. At various times we had to cope with cows, a pig and a cyclist coming straight at us on the “wrong” side of the road.

The contrasting behaviour of the border officials was perhaps predictable, echoing the two countries’ different attitudes – the Chileans were formal, though perfectly friendly; the Argentineans much more relaxed and jokey. Not once was I asked for my driving licence, never mind the international licence I’d gone to such pains to organise.

And then here we were, in Argentina, the world’s eighth largest country and further from New York than Moscow. In the lakeside town of Villa la Angostura we met another couple I’d first met 20 years ago. A Belgian, Jean-Pierre Raemdonck, now 76, fell in love with the Andes during a motorcycle tour when he was about 20. He started selling waffles in the picturesque Lake District town of San Carlos de Bariloche, but denied the chance of owning the franchise, he stubbornly moved 60 miles round the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. There he started his own ski area, Cerro Bayo, mainly to enable him to sell his own waffles. Back then, he even built the lift towers himself out of wood with the occasional assistance of a companion who rarely turned up to help as he was so often hungover.

Our 500-mile drive ended at Bariloche, the beautiful lakeside town founded by Swiss and German immigrants. Many layers of dirt had built up on our gallant rental vehicle over the previous 10 days, but just before we handed it over and boarded our flight for the 785-mile flight to Buenos Aires en route for home, the heavens briefly opened and a short, sharp shower washed it all away. For a moment, in the rain, it felt just like home.

• Arnie Wilson’s visit to Chile and Argentina was organised by Journey Latin America www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 8622 8422

• There are no direct flights from the UK to Santiago. Air France fly there from Edinburgh via Paris (from £1,052 per person in January 2015, including taxes, at the time of writing). Arnie Wilson flew with Iberia from London Heathrow via Madrid. In Santiago, he stayed at the Hotel Ismael 312, www.hotelismael312.com (modern and comfortable, with excellent parkside location).

• In Pucon he stayed at the Hotel Casa Establo (very scenic views of Lake Villarrica but tricky steep drive to reach it) www.casaestablo.cl/en

• In San Martin de los Andes he stayed at the delightful little boutique hotel La Casa de Eugenia (www.lacasadeeugenia.com.ar)