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Wandering in the far, far south: Chile makes the pilot get lyrical.

Published April 15, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

Whenever I think of Chile I get lyrical. It's hard not to hear the late Joe Strummer in the song "Washington Bullets," crooning about Salvador Allende and Victor Jara, the famous folksinger murdered by Chilean soldiers in Santiago Stadium. Similarly, a poem by Stephen Dobyns comes to mind called "General Matthei Drives Home Through Santiago." Dobyns lived for a time in Chile and several of his poems are set there, but that's probably the best of them.

Fernando Matthei lives in Chile still. Former commander of the air force and Augusto Pinochet's right-hand man, he was never "shot and dragged by his heels through the streets," as Dobyns predicted, and Chile has come a long way since the days of junta and upheaval in the 1970s.

Santiago, the country's modern capital, sits at the foot of the Andes -- tall white peaks visible when the omnipresent curtain of air pollution allows. Of course, Chile being Chile, everything sits at the foot of the Andes. Only a few hours northeast of the capital, just beyond the border into Argentina, is Mount Aconcagua, at nearly 23,000 feet the highest summit in the world outside the Himalayas.

Hardly the most alluring city in the world, Santiago is a clean (at ground level), predominantly charmless sprawl of 5 million inhabitants and, I'm compelled to point out, a roughly equal number of public buses. Back in January I made a fuss about the buses in Buenos Aires, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe there is anywhere in the world with more smog-spewing public transit vehicles than Santiago. Lingering over a $12 pizza in a small Santiago restaurant, I count nine in a row roaring through the intersection outside.

I attach the dollar value to the pizza because, say what you will of Santiago, and for that matter Chile in whole, it's not cheap. I'd been spoiled in Argentina, where a four-star hotel is yours for $35 a night and a bountiful meal goes for about $5. The budget traveler -- or starving online columnist -- can shop around, but the average tourist in Chile is paying American/European prices, making it arguably the most expensive country in Latin America.

I mention this to the keeper of my overpriced hotel and he nods and smiles firmly. Chileans are sometimes described as an evasive people, reluctant to disagree or contradict. "And, in a way that is typical of the people of Santiago," writes Dobyns in his Matthei poem, "he will half roll and half shrug one of his shoulders." On the contrary, I find Chileans direct and unambiguous, a trait I correlate not with culture but with geography. There's not a lot of wiggle room in a nation that averages about a hundred miles wide yet is more than 2,500 miles long. With the tall peaks of the Andes constantly to one side, the country often seems taller than it does wide -- an endless mountainous spine at last bottomed out by the rocky fishhook of Cape Horn. (I also suspect Chileans are sick and tired of people noting and analogizing the odd physical shape of their country.)

About 1,400 miles due south of Santiago -- roughly the distance from New York to Havana -- is Punta Arenas, the largest city in the famous region of Patagonia. This stark, wind-battered corner of the planet is the most southerly point you can visit short of Antarctica. Many of the research vessels and cruise ships to Antarctica depart from Punta Arenas. It's an agreeable city of a hundred thousand laid out in an easily navigable grid, bordered on the east by the Strait of Magellan. The island of Tierra del Fuego is visible across the passage. (Not far from here is the Argentine city of Ushuaia, home to the southernmost commercial airport in the world, described in a column several weeks ago.

A few hours north of Punta Arenas by bus is Puerto Natales, gateway to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. There's nothing offensive about Puerto Natales, but those who've been around will be reminded at once of places like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe -- Turkey's Goreme and the Lao town of Vang Viang also jump to mind -- recognizing that peculiar sort of place that seems to exist for and because of the tourists who throng there. Puerto Natales overflows with young adventure seekers and is chockablock with outdoor outfitters, camping suppliers and Internet cafes. An afternoon spent weaving amid the gaggles of hearty, windburned 20-somethings is like living in an REI catalog.

Torres del Paine itself is similarly crowded, particularly in summer when the campgrounds and trails are foot-to-foot with hikers. Fortunately the scenery -- Torres is considered by many to be the most beautiful national park in the world -- more than makes up for it. This is what I came to Chile for.

There are, you can argue, two kinds of natural beauty. On the one hand there's the soft, impressionistic variety. The south of France and a tropical beach are good examples, theirs being a delicate, interpretive beauty that usually needs a bit of help -- a flattering sunset, the warmth of a spring day, a conducive state of mind. Then there's the other kind. It does not care who you are, what you think, or what your predispositions might be. It simply knocks the breath out of you and yanks your jaw from its sockets.

The scenery in Torres del Paine tends toward the latter. The park is beautiful the way a gathering thunderstorm is beautiful: commanding, overscaled and a little bit frightening. I never thought I'd see anywhere more impressive than the vertical green fantasy that is Machu Picchu, far to the north in Peru, but Torres makes it a close call.

Namely, it does so in two specific places. First, at the astonishing spectacle of Las Torres (the Towers), a jagged threesome of immense granite spikes rising from the edges of an azure Andean lake -- the sheer vertical walls reaching some 10,000 feet into the sky. The second locale is the vista, perhaps best appreciated from the trail behind the camp at Pudeto, of Punta Bariloche and Los Cuernos (the Horns), a pair of enormous, bizarrely sculpted mountains, their forbidding summits snarled by blue glaciers. No use trying to describe it further. As you stand there gazing, you need a splash of cold water to prove you're not hallucinating.

And the Patagonian climate is happy to oblige. As a Bostonian, the next time I hear some local meteorologist bantering how the New England weather is so changeable and unpredictable, I'm going to laugh out loud. In the park, it's not uncommon for conditions to swing from blue skies and 65 degrees to a savage gray cauldron of 80-knot winds and freezing rain -- and back again -- in less than 20 minutes. You'll never witness scenery like that of Torres, and you'll never experience wind like that either -- icy cannonballs of air, as if the glaciers themselves are exhaling, billowing out your cheeks until you look like one of those rocket-sled drivers whose head is about to blow off. At times, the force of the gusts is strong enough to send you pirouetting from the trail.

So, I'm a sucker for a good walloping view, and who isn't? The grandeur of Torres del Paine has enticed me to put together the following ranking of the world's most visually stunning locations.

With my earlier classifications of beauty in mind, admittedly this is one of the most subjective lists a person can possibly compile -- and from guy who has never been to the Himalayas, Burma's Inle Lake, or to Guatemala's Atitlan volcano, among other purportedly majestic spots. Therefore feel free to nitpick, scoff, disagree, and share your own list.

Photos by the author:

1. "The traditional view" of the central plaza and Huayna Picchu

Place: Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca stronghold near the city of Cuzco, holds top honors. Atop the ruins, passengers stagger from the buses in a daze. An observation point sits just ahead of the drop-off zone, and everyone walks over to stare in disbelief at the unearthly panorama. Peaks and valleys surround the site, but their magnificence is not the sublime, sweeping majesty of the Alps or Rockies. Instead we see ghastly caricatures of mountains -- fierce, vertical protrusions of verdant green, like a preschooler's crayon rendering.

2. Three Towers and Los Cuernos

Place: Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

3. Mount Chimborazo as seen from 16,000-foot climber's refuge

Place: Near Riobamba, Ecuador

4. Sunset vista of Erg Chebbi

Place: Near Merzouga, Morocco
(Yes, a cooler site than the famous Sossusvlei dunes in Namibia.)

5. The mud mosque on Monday market day

Place: Djenne, Mali, West Africa
(Of the ten finishers, this is the only one featuring a human-made structure. Although better suited to a separate category, it's such a magnificent spot that I can't resist including it.)

6. Panoramas of "fairy chimney" formations

Place: In and around the tourist town of Goreme, Turkey

7. Jungle scenery and "tepuis" near and around Angel Falls

Place: Canaima National Park, Venezuela

8. The Dead Vlei

Place: Middle of nowhere, Namibia, southern Africa

9. Scenery around and from atop Mount Sinai

Place: Sinai Desert, Egypt

10. Landscape vistas in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Place: Botswana, southern Africa

No word yet, by the way, from Sky Airline on reimbursement for the sleeping bag heisted from my luggage during the trip from Santiago to Punta Arenas. Word of my column may or may not have made it to Sky's headquarters, but the article certainly drew its share of reader horror stories involving vandalized, stolen or misdirected property. "Think you had it bad," e-mails Paul Guinnessey from Silver Spring, Md. "Last November I had $1,900 worth of electronics accidentally diverted to Guyana. The bag turned up three days later, with nothing except some books left inside."

Domestically, the U.S. Department of Transportation has set an airline's maximum liability at $2,800 per passenger. Internationally the limit, mandated by the Montreal Convention of 1999, is about $1,500. This is a marked improvement over the old Warsaw Convention, which held airlines liable for only $20 per kilogram of missing or damaged property. According to DOT statistics, U.S. airlines alone are responsible for approximately 200,000 mishandled baggage reports each month. Some 2 percent of those are never located. Perhaps my sleeping bag will show up here.

Amid all the mishaps shared by readers were one or two more heartening tales. Consider this from Renee, writing from New York: "My husband and I flew to Reykjavik on Icelandair. At baggage claim we discovered the zipper on my husband's suitcase was ripped and broken. Oddly, all items were still neatly packed and nothing was missing. An Icelandair representative asked for the name our hotel, and when we arrived there a luggage repairman was waiting in the lobby. He took the damaged bag to his shop to fix the zipper, then brought it back to the hotel!"

I rode Icelandair about eight years ago and found the airline adequate if totally unremarkable. Renee's letter had me wishing they'd broken something.

Next time: Answer to last week's quiz (What do Pope John Paul II and St. Patrick have in common?). Everything you need to know about flying to India, and more.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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