Santiago has seen some turbulent political unrest over the years. A coup to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973 led to a 17-year reign of terror by General Pinochet where political prisoners were executed in the national stadium — which can’t have been good for tourism.
But democracy replaced Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990 and now Chile’s capital is regarded as one of the safest and most westernised cities in South America, with wide avenues, gleaming skyscrapers and an extraordinary amount of green spaces.
What’s more, Chile is on the UK’s travel corridor list, its borders recently reopened and BA’s direct flights have resumed, so it’s back in business.
Thrills: The Daily Mail’s Jo Kessel went on an unforgettable adventure to Chile with her husband and three teenage children
It’s a long way to go, of course. In fact, at nearly 15 hours it’s British Airways’ longest direct flight — and expensive if you’re travelling as a family, which in our case meant my husband and I plus our 17-year-old twins Nathalie and Gabriel, and their 14-year-old sister Hannah. But I was determined that this would be an unforgettable adventure.
And where better to begin than Santiago’s swish new Mandarin Oriental hotel, from where we could see the Andes mountains from our room on the 14th floor? Mandarins are normally heinously expensive but at £170 a room we thought this one was great value.
Santiago is in the middle of Chile and home to 40 per cent of its 19 million inhabitants. And the best view of this bubbly city is from hill-hugging park Cerro San Cristobal. A gondola lift took us to its summit, from where we could see the whole metropolis sprawled beneath us.
Santiago is made up of a series of neighbourhoods, and walking from one to the other gave us a flavour of their personalities. Barrio Bellavista was buzzing with bars and graffiti; Barrio Lastarria was full of artisan shops and markets.
But the pulsing heart of the city is its central museum district and grandiose Plaza de Armas. It was here that Gabriel ran a hand over his head and made an unexpected request. ‘Can I have a haircut and an empanada?’
The empanada came first, in the cafe Emporio Zunino. The pasties were freshly baked and hot from the oven, oozing with a delicious, meaty filling.
Chile is the longest country in the world and has extreme landscapes, from the north’s Atacama Desert, where you might find camelids, to the southern glaciers and icefields
The hairdo proved trickier but we got there in the end, with Gabriel pointing to where he wanted blade ‘uno’, ‘dos’ and ‘tres’.
At 2,600 miles from top to bottom, Chile is the longest country in the world and has extreme landscapes, from the north’s Atacama Desert, where you might find camelids, to the southern glaciers and icefields.
And while Santiago is great for a couple of nights, we wanted to explore further. An hour’s flight south brings you to Chile’s Lake District, where we based ourselves at Pucon, a mecca for adrenaline junkies.
Pucon is known for its extreme sports offerings, one of which is white-water rafting on the Trancura River
Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 3553 9647) offers a seven-night B&B holiday in Chile from £2,546pp, including direct BA flights, three nights at the Mandarin Oriental in Santiago and four at Hotel Malalhue in Pucon, plus excursions, private transfers and domestic flights. For more information visit chile.travel/en.
We were struck by the vastness of the landscape, passing swathes of arid mountainous wilderness, but Pucon itself is lush, with massive blue hydrangea bushes at every corner. Its wooden chalets feel part Wild West, part Alpine. Chile has 10 per cent of the world’s volcanoes, 122 of which are still active, and the majority of those are in this region. One of the largest overlooks Pucon. It’s called Villarrica and shares its name with the town’s lake.
I felt we were close enough to the volcano, but the children wanted to see it from a different vantage point. So one morning we embarked on an all-day hike in nature reserve El Cani — a slow, strenuous climb through forest where topography changes according to altitude.
At first we passed orchids, redwoods and lagoons. Higher up we were surrounded by monkey puzzle trees, some 2,000 years old. Higher still, our legs started complaining. One step, then another until eventually, after four hours, we reached the top. From here the 360-degree panorama was other-worldly. It wasn’t just ever-puffing Villarrica and its crater, but three other majestic snow-capped volcanoes, too.
Wherever we went in and around Pucon, Villarrica was omnipresent. We could see it from our central self-catering maisonette; it overlooked bar terraces where we sipped Chilean merlot at only £2 a bottle.
In contrast to the country’s wild scenery and history, the people we met were all laid-back, gentle souls who were endlessly helpful in the face of our poor Spanish.
Pucon is known for its extreme sports offerings, one of which is white-water rafting on the Trancura River. Guide Tito showed us how to paddle, position our feet and sit on the raft’s rim. ‘It’s unlikely, but in an emergency I’ll shout “GET IN” which means curl up like a ball in the raft.’
My pulse raced as we set off. Rapids one and two were straightforward; then I saw number three — a downhill torrent bubbling over jagged rocks. ‘Whatever you do, don’t stop paddling,’ said Tito. I paddled as if my life depended on it. But what were the rest of my family doing? Nothing — they were frozen with fear! ‘GET IN,’ yelled Tito. We threw ourselves in, curled up and our prayers were answered — we didn’t capsize. Then everything settled, and in between ten miles of paddling we spotted three volcanoes.
A trip to the Geometricas thermal springs offered the perfect antidote to rafting. It’s a collection of 20 geometrically shaped steaming pools of varying temperatures chiselled into the side of Villarrica.
A couple of them were too hot to handle; all were fringed by tropical leaves the size of tractor wheels. Soaking here was so sublime that nobody wanted to get out. And we all felt fabulous afterwards, with soft skin and invigorated limbs.
Before going I kept fretting about this trip’s expense, but it was worth every penny. It was the unforgettable adventure I’d hoped for, and we all fell in love with Chile. I’ve started saving for a second visit.