Way Out There Chile

Pan de Azucar

Punta de Choros
Valle de Elqui
Valle del Encanto
Fray Jorge
La Campana

Voyage to Chile: Flying to Santiago

I started my trip to Chile on a Friday morning, hopping in an airport shuttle to take me to San Francisco International Airport. I soon found myself flying down the coast, looking out the window for familiar landmarks. I waved goodbye to San Francisco and passed over the curving expanse of Monterey Bay. A few minutes later, Morro Rock could be seen looming over Morro Bay, looking like a pebble from the high altitude.

The first leg of the trip brought me to Mexico City, where the plane landed just after sunset. It was a dramatic arrival in this sprawling metropolis of 20 million people. The twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl stood out against the twilight sky, an inspiring start to my further explorations in Latin America. A long cloud of smoke streamed from Popocatépetl, evidence of the Earth's ongoing volatility at a time when we humans think we rule the world.

The four-hour flight from San Francisco to Mexico City was easy, but the next leg of the trip was an eight-hour flight from Mexico City to Santiago. After a long night in the air, the plane started to make its descent over the Central Valley of Chile. I looked out the window to see the long range of the Andes rising up above the valley and one mountain stood out up above the rest. My guess is that this was Aconcagua, which at 22,841 feet above sea level is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.

Cerro Aconcagua rises up above the cordillera of the Andes.

I arrived in Santiago early in the morning, my first time in South America. I had two weeks to explore Chile, which is barely enough time to scratch the surface. I decided to focus on the Norte Chico, an area comprised of two regions, Coquimbo and Atacama, that make up the southern part of the Atacama Desert. Norte Chico, which means "Little North," starts about 100 kilometers north of Santiago and extends for another 900 kilometers to the north. It differs from the Norte Grande, or "Big North," which is the furthest north part of the country, bordering on Peru and Bolivia.

Chile is a land of improbable geography. The writer Isabel Allende describes her homeland eloquently, writing that "Chile lies at the end of all roads, a lance to the south of the south of America, four thousand three hundred kilometers of hills, valleys, lakes, and sea." She goes on to detail the extreme geographic features that make this land so unique:

This elongated country is like an island, separated on the north from the rest of the continent by the Atacama Desert—the driest in the world, its inhabitants like to say, although that must not be true, because in springtime parts of that lunar rubble tend to be covered with a mantle of flowers, like a wondrous painting by Monet. To the east rises the cordillera of the Andes, a formidable mass of rock and eternal snows, and to the west the abrupt coastline of the Pacific Ocean. Below, to the south, lie the solitudes of Antarctica.

Other writers have lauded the country's mild and pleasant climate, such as Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who wrote that "The whole land is like one favored spot for human life." I knew as soon as I arrived that I had landed in a place where I was going to have some amazing experiences. This is the story of my 16 days in Chile.

Next up: Discovering Santiago Next