Gathered around a huge wooden dining table, slowly devouring a bottle of wine, I asked a fellow tourist the first three words that entered his mind when I said the word ‘Chile’.
(Back then I was still confused by the country, a little worried I was missing something.)
“Pinochet,” he replied. I forget the other two, but Pinochet? Really? The first thing to be said about Chile was the name of its 17-year-long dictator?
Now I appreciate that somehow we Britons managed to embroil ourselves in that mess – such is our great talent – but still, the guy has been dead five years and out of power a lot longer. Should he really be the first name on anybody’s lips?
With that in mind, I think it’s finally time to take the ‘P’ out of Chile… but if that letter still lingers on your tongue, here are 10 excellent alternatives…
I’ve found Chileans to be dryer, more sarcastic and often funnier than your average, albeit lovely, Latin American. As someone who loves to hear a person joke without smiling, the people of Chile are definitely my favourite thing about the country.
Astounding. Torres del Paine may just be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. It has to be, a wine-and-chocolate loving girl wouldn’t walk eight days, hauling a 20kg backpack, for nothing.
The wine is, er, very good in Chile.
Probably my favourite Chilean night out was in Valparaiso, at a brilliant live salsa bar called La Piedra Feliz (The Happy Stone) Four guys played relentless salsa to a packed floor, then somehow switched to rock’n’roll at around 4am – ending with Easy Like Sunday Morning. Dawn broke as we bought our avocado-stuffed hotdogs from the stall outside.
You’re not supposed to like street dogs, even friendly, well-fed ones, but I do. Like the iguanas in Cartagena, they’re a pet you don’t have to feed. I’ve noticed the strays in Chile are even more personable than their northern counterparts. If they hadn’t seemed so at home, I would have adopted several.
6. Peculiar forms of transport
The Navimag (the popular tourists’ ferry through the Patagonian fjords) is a real Chilean gem. It’s four days of being looked after – from the moment the skipper wakes you up, to the moment you’re gently told to leave the bar. You eat, you nap, you look at the scenery and you nurse a glass of red. Bliss.
I don’t know how much I love Chile’s famed avocado-stuffed hotdog (see above) but if this country of coastline was to make fish its national dish, I wouldn’t complain. The seafood was excellent, from Valparaiso to Chiloe, with the salmon and chorizo speciality I ate in Ancud probably taking top spot.
They say: ‘He who hurries in Patagonia, loses time’ and the majority of people I met followed that mantra to the letter. Whether it was questions about camping or worries about the weather, someone always had time to listen. Similarly, the dear and patient Chileans always seemed to understand my ‘gypsy’ Spanish, whereas their Argentine cousins have a tendency to look at me like I’ve fallen from another planet.
There’s a whole big drama about whether Pisco is a Chilean or a Peruvian thing but whatever, the Chileans mix theirs with coke and call it… Piscola. Er, beat that Peru.
You’re not going to make me explain that one, are you?