Isabel Allende: My Chile
Isabel Allende is the acclaimed and beloved author of more than 15 books of fiction and nonfiction. Her novels include The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, The Infinite Plan, Daughter of Fortune and Zorro. Her memoirs include Paula, Aphrodite, and The Sum of Our Days. Here she reflects on her favorite places in her homeland, Chile, where she was raised and where she worked as a journalist from 1964-74. During a visit to California in 1988, Allende met her current husband, Willie Gordon, a lawyer, and they have lived in San Rafael ever since.
I know my country very well, actually my two countries. I have a Chile in my heart, in my mind, that is frozen in the ‘70s. That’s the old country.
And then there’s the country I see when I travel now, and fortunately, this is a much better country. There’s less poverty. Chile has been able to diminish poverty from 39 percent to 18 percent in ten years. It has a huge middle class. It’s an educated country. It has great roads to travel. Good coffee and clean bathrooms and clean water everywhere. No scorpions or poisonous snakes or gorillas. The people are generally very hospitable. And the food is delicious. All over the country you eat very fresh vegetables and fruit, and the best seafood. Chilean cuisine is not sophisticated like Mexican cuisine or Peruvian cuisine because we have so many great raw materials. Everything is fresh and wonderful.
Santiago is the capital of Chile, and most travelers begin their visit there. I would not suggest that you spend much time in Santiago, but if you are there, you must go to one of my favorite places, the Mercado Central or central market, and eat. The restaurants here serve the cheapest food in the world, and the most delicious. And the atmosphere! The same people who work in the market go to these restaurants. They are very popular and very wonderful; the smells and the colors and the noise and everything – it’s just fantastic!
The other thing you must do in Santiago is go to the beaches. There is a rosary of little beach towns within day-trip distance of the city that are very quaint, and you can eat wonderful fish and seafood in all the local fishermen’s restaurants. They have very good wine too, though not as affordable as California wine. (In Chile you can get excellent wine, but you have to pay more for the very good ones, and the other ones are not that good.)
One of my favorite places in Chile is Patagonia. You fly to Punta Arenas, and then you have to take a car for more than six hours into the middle of nowhere. I mean there’s just pampa, nothing else. Then after all those hours of driving you get to a lovely ecotourist hotel, run beautifully by people who really know what they’re doing.
This part of Patagonia is a national park, and everything that you can do involves nature, of course. So you go for long, long walks. You go to the glaciers and lakes. And you have wonderful guides, young men and women who are students and who are spending a year or two as guides. They’re young and full of enthusiasm – for them it’s like a vacation.
And they are so protective of the place! Our group was resting near a lake and eating a snack, and one of us dropped a nut on the ground. Well, we spent 15 minutes looking for that nut! You cannot leave anything that does not belong to the land; they are so careful about this. So you don’t see anything that might disturb nature in any way, and in that sense too it’s fantastic.
One of the beautiful things we did was to go to a hacienda where they had a barbecue. The cowboys had a large hut with a huge fire in the middle, and they had prepared lamb and goats for cooking around the fire, and they cooked very slowly. It took almost a whole day. We ate empanadas and drank excellent wine and pisco sours and it was just a whole day of eating and drinking. Eating and eating and drinking and drinking. It was great.
The full moon between the two incredible mountain towers of the Cuernos del Paine, reflected on the lagoon, is an unforgettable sight. The air is crispy, like paper, so that you feel you can cut it with scissors. And the silence.
Then there’s the southern archipelago of Chiloe, which is a very strange and wonderful place. Chiloe is composed of a large island and several smaller islands, with a culture that has been almost untouched for centuries. People still speak Spanish with certain influences of the old Spanish from the Spaniards. Also, it’s full of witches and wizards and black magic and hidden treasures and pirates.
We took a little funky ship to a place called Laguna San Rafael, the San Rafael Lagoon, with one of the most beautiful glaciers in the world. It’s blue. Your little ship takes you as close to the glacier as possible. I’ve never been so cold in my life. (I was sitting on top of the engine, so at least my butt was always warm.) It’s so cold, and so beautiful. Every few minutes you hear this rumbling that is like a deep sigh, and then a piece of the glacier falls in the water and you see a splash of blue water and the blue ice. Amazing!
And then there’s the north, of course, the Atacama Desert. San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most extraordinary places in Chile.
You can camp here. But there are ecotourism hotels everywhere too. And now the indigenous people of the north, the Aymara, have organized Indian tourism. You can go to live with the Indians, and they will show you the ruins and give you their version of the place and the history and the archaeological site. It’s fascinating.
These are just a few highlights of my Chile. The wonderful thing is that every time I return there, I find something new. And I know that if travelers go there in search of my highlights, they’ll find a Chile of their own too!
For more information on and insights into Isabel Allende’s life, awards, and work, visit her web site.
For further information on Chile: Adventure Collection members offer a variety of Chile adventure travel packages and guided tours.