Way back in 1992 I travelled the length of Chile, from the blanched badlands around the Peruvian border to the channels of Tierra del Fuego and, finally, Cape Horn - the full stop at the end of what must be the most bizarrely shaped country on the planet. The journey took six months. I won’t say it was all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but, well, I was young then.
The book that came out of the trip was called 'Travels in a Thin Country'. Fourteen reprints and thirteen years later my publishers suggested that I return to Chile to gather material for a new introduction to a second edition. I knew immediately that I was keen - I had not returned in the intervening years, as there had been other journeys, and other books. I would only go, though, if I could take my eight-year old son Wilf. I wanted to show him Chile. But what would there be for a child to do?
As it turned out, I was amazed at the opportunities for family travel in Chile. After landing in Santiago, Wilf and I took an internal flight up to Calama, and from there we were whisked off to explora, a luxury concept hotel in the Atacama desert (there was nothing like that back in 1992, I can tell you). Since explora specialises in adventure travel, for four days Wilf cycled, rode a horse, hiked through the cordillera, swam in salt lakes and wandered among geysers, entertained and amused throughout by the fabulous Pedro, our twenty-seven-year-old guide.
Surely, I thought to myself as we flew south to the Lake District, nothing could match explora for small boy heaven. But I wasn’t anticipating the thrill of a three-day horse trek into the Andes, following an old trading route into Argentina. We began at Riverside Lodge just outside the village of Cochamó on the Reloncaví estuary - possibly the prettiest place I have ever stayed in Chile - and rode up to La Junta, a wild and furious landscape of alpine meadows, impossibly tall waterfalls and jagged mountain peaks. While our horses recovered from the rigours of the climb we camped in a simple wooden lodge, eating cazuela stew around a fire in a clearing among 3000-year-old alerce trees, emperors of the temperate Chilean forest. (I should add that Chilean saddles are more forgiving than their European counterpart. The rough terrain requires more padding and fewer hard ridges. I rarely ride, and I wasn’t a bit sore, even after two days on horseback.)
Next up was a terrifying wilderness eco-adventure at Petrohué in the lee of the Osorno volcano - terrifying for me, that is - Wilf loved it. Basically this involved walking across steel cables using carabiners and handrails; flying across valleys on zip lines, abseiling down trees and rock climbing. The following day’s white-water rafting session was equally thrilling for Wilf and much less of an ordeal for his ageing parent. Our three-week trip took place in the Christmas holidays, and we celebrated the festivities on the island of Chiloé, staying in a farmhouse on a new scheme whereby tourists lodge in the homes of local people. Farms are natural amusement parks for small boys. Wilf rode Farmer Hardy’s tractor, milked his cows, caught unidentifiable fish from his rowing boat. On Christmas Day we spit-roasted a sheep. For the rest of our time on Chiloé we explored the island with another fantastically impressive guide - the lovely Juan - and highlights for Wilf included a visit to a penguin colony and a day ocean kayaking.
We concluded the holiday at Hacienda Los Lingues, an estate in the fertile central valley which has remained in the same family since the first conquistadors were granted tracts of land in the sixteenth century. Wilf did yet more horse riding - this time on the fabled Aculeo thoroughbreds - and declared himself unwilling to go home. The thin country had enchanted him, just as it had enchanted me all those years ago. Of course, I missed the reckless bad behaviour of the old days. But comfortable beds, excellent food and a brilliantly organised Journey Latin America schedule which never went wrong - well, let’s just say motherhood has its compensations.
Sarah Wheeler, Author of Travels in a Thin Country.