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JLW on the Road: Southern Chile

19 July 2017

Fresh from her epic adventures in South East Asia, outdoor hero JLW on the Road is trekking the length of Chile, and charting her highlights here. Having started in the North in San Pedro de Atacama, she’s cycled in the desert, been star gazing in the Andes and now, in the final part of her journey, she’s checking out the food in the South.

About five years ago I packed my bags and took a road trip with some friends. We drove the California Highway 101 – one of the most trodden coasts in the world – from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This month I decided to do another one; although, this time a slightly less popular route from Santiago to the south of Chile (Puerto Montt).

I’d highly recommend the trip, there are amazing sights and so much to do. Also, if you’re a food lover this is your trip; the Chilean cuisine isn’t as popular in the UK, but it is delicious and this is where you can see it at its finest.

Quickly; a couple of tips before you leave. UK citizens can drive with a pink driving license and an in date passport with you in the car. I read this information on the UK Government website (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/living-in-chile-guidance#driving-licences-and-vehicles). We got stopped by a police officer (happens a lot en route) and my friend who’s Chilean was driving, he showed his papers for the vehicle and license and away we went. Only before leaving I asked what the rules were for me driving to double check, he actually didn’t know! To be safe, follow the official UK Government guidelines above.

It’s also worth noting there are around six tolls between Santiago and Temuco (the first stop to the south) charging you £3 a pop. Make sure you have Chilean pesos ready because they don’t take card.

And finally it’s worth pointing out at this time of year the weather in the South is mostly wet and cold. Think England around Christmas, sometimes it’ll be raining, some days crisp, dry and sunny but it’s always chilly so pack for winter! I had my Trekmates Classic Dry Gloves for the wet, and Tryfan Stretch fleece gloves for those chilly afternoons, as well as a baselayer, fleece and insulated jacket.

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Of course, you could always plan your trip in Chile’s summer months which run from November to February.

Right, now all the boring bits are done here’s some tips for having the best adventure of your life.

Before you set off from Santiago, make sure you spend a bit of time in what is an exciting and picturesque city. The buildings aren’t something to write home about but, as with most stunning scenes in South America, it’s the natural wonders which make it such a beautiful place. The huge snow-capped mountains surrounding the entire city are stunning whenever you see them, and, if you’re a fan of skiing, there’s an opportunity to hit the slopes only a short car ride away.

Rather not risk breaking a leg before your trip? I hear ya. So make sure you head to the Costanera Centre, the tallest building in Latin America. This state of the art, glass surfaced building gives you a one of a kind view at the back drop of the Andes. Or, if you want to stretch your legs before getting on the road, take a bike in the cable car to San Cristobal Hill for epic views of Santiago city; grab a coffee at the top, drink in the amazing views then get on your bike and leisurely let gravity do its thing.

After all that, it’s probably time for your six hour drive to Temuco -the first stop to the South. There’s not much to see on the way unless you’re a fan of wine and the vineyards are in season. You’ll see rows and rows of grape vines covering miles of land on either side of the road. I visited in winter so the vines were barren, but well worth a visit if you’re planning to travel in spring or summer. Also, more importantly, you’ll need to be travelling with someone who’s willing to take over the steering wheel whilst you test out Chileans finest wines.

In Temuco get a rest, and make sure you set off early for Pucon. It takes two hours driving. Of all the incredible places I’ve been to in Chile, Pucon is one of my favourites. It’s got masses of activities on offer; from water skiing to snow skiing, countless hot springs, hiking treks including to the top of the stunning volcano, quad biking adventures, and paintballing (to name a few!) If you’re an adventurer and love the outdoors Pucon is really for you.

I decided to visit one of the many hot springs in and around Pucon; Termes Los Pozones is thirty minutes away from Pucon town and offers five different hot springs. Some are big enough to take a swim in, varying from warm to hot, depending on your preference. There’s one really hot pool which is not for the faint hearted. Although I welcomed the heat with open arms after getting into a bikini in the three degree open air! There’s enough hot pools to ensure you’ll never find it crowded, my friend and I had a pool to ourselves for hours which makes it even more mystical. The steam heat coming off the surface of the pool is a stark contrast to the rain drops and bitterly cold outside temperature – but it does make for a special moment. I’d particularly recommend the pools if you travel in the winter. Also, the pools are open at night for anyone who wants even more mystery.

Another huge highlight to Pucon is its eye catching volcano seen from almost everywhere in the town. Most of the hotels have strategically placed themselves in areas to take it in. I spent hours one clear evening, on a hotel rooftop watching the volcano erupt. I was spellbound by the orangey red lava glowing out of its crater every two or three minutes!

Photo 09-06-2017, 17 43 44In season skiing is another plus; a cable car will take you up to the top of the volcano and then you can say you’ve skied down a live volcano – which is obviously something everyone wants to say! You can also climb to the top of the volcano either on your own (with the right equipment) or with a company. There are dozens of tours every day. I opted for sledging! Families and friends head to a snowy hill nearby to the volcano and take it in turns to sledge down. It was so much fun although the kids made it look easy – but, I ended up crashing.

Leaving Pucon and its incredible atmosphere behind, I headed to a milk farm between Los Lagos and Panguipulli. It’s an amazing walk with views of rolling fields and it gets you close to the San Pedro River. The area is surrounded by green countryside and, since it’s on a hill, it boasts a beautiful sunset and wild horses. It definitely has an English countryside feel.

Next stop: Valdivia. Here we found wild sea wolfs (sea lions) casually chilling on the lake and wandering the town of Valdivia. Tried the famous crudos (raw meat) at Cafe Haussmann in Isla Tejaand (near to Valdivia), and headed to the universities botanical gardens, you’re welcome to walk in and enjoy the peaceful place away from the hustle and bustle of the busy town.

In the evening we stayed at Puerto Montt. Meat fans should visit Cotele, rated the best meat in Puerto Montt (and some say the world); owned by a friendly South African-Englishman who really knows his meats. Offering three different cuts of meat, tenderloin, rib-eye or sirloin, the chef comes to your table and asks what you’d like – then they cook it on a permanent BBQ in the middle of the restaurant, while you watch. It was a special evening, with great ambience, fantastic food and lovely wine.

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I have to say Chileans know how to put on a mean barbecue! It’s so simple but the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s mainly down to their style, they usually buy a huge slab of beef, throw it onto a BBQ, baste it with cracked sea salt and let the fire do its work for about an hour. The result is the most incredibly tender, juicy and salty beef which is then cut into bite sized chunks and eaten simply with a bottle of the finest Chilean red wine. I was lucky enough to visit another farm house en route back to Temuco in Freire where I experienced some of the most amazing meat!

Driving back from Temuco to Santiago is a slog. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tough even with a second driver to take in turns. Helping us through though was a delicious restaurant, halfway back, called Juan y Medio. The traditional Chilean joint was founded by Juan and he named the eatery after his nickname which, in English, means Juan and a half. The huge food fan became grossly overweight from eating massive portions including lots of meat and carb overloading. In memory of Juan I ordered loco meat and fries, there’s no suggestion to say it’s for two people but even for two of us we struggled to finish it!