Forty Degrees of Latitude

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A Journey of Extremes

This is a land of smoking volcanoes, dramatic fjords, temperate rain forests, the world’s driest desert and the loftiest mountain range outside the Himalaya. It is a preposterously skinny land, wedged incongruously between the high Andes and the Pacific, embracing some stunning landscapes and inhabited by a strange and wonderful bestiary. With its head sweltering within the Tropic of Capricorn and a toe tickling Antarctica, that same geographical circumstance has also given birth to a culture unique in South America.
This is not just any land. This is Chile.
There are many contradictions to this fascinating country. It is sufficiently remote to feel exotic, but is only five hours behind western Europe. It has the largest icecaps outside Antarctica, yet parts of the country bask in 360 days of sunshine. There are spitting camelids, armadillos, flightless ñandús and shimmering humming birds, and General Pinochet is no longer around to pee on your empanada and chips. Moreover, the beanpole geography — 6,435 kilometres of coastline — lends itself admirably to a linear journey of some considerable distance. These were the stimuli that drew me here, inexorably, like so many iron filings to a magnet.
Considering where I should begin my travels I opted, on balance, for Isla Navarino in the far south, between the remote Cape Horn and romantic Tierra del Fuego, largest island in all of South America. With simple reasoning I chose to start at the close of November, anticipating that throughout the following months I would benefit from more amicable conditions in southern Patagonia — Region XII (Magallanes y Antártica Chilena), that is renown for its severe weather. My other concession to planning consisted simply of a desire to explore every last kilometre of the country. Quite how I might achieve this would be decided on a whim from day to day.
Chile without the Andes is like India minus its Taj Mahal, or China without a Great Wall. Throughout my lengthy journey these regal mountains were my ever-present travelling companion, a shining palisade one moment, at other times dark and brooding, sometimes ghost-like in a pre-dawn start. The Andes were with me at the beginning, in Tierra del Fuego, and they were there waiting for me in the arid north. I felt by then as if they were my friends, having been with me for so long, yet the geological forces that are still remorselessly uplifting this great cordillera also, from time to time, gave me a good shaking.
Travelling in Chile demands stamina — the distances are great — and endless supplies of patience and determination. The country is like an uncut diamond, the more effort put into it the more its potential beauty is revealed, and the greater the rewards any journey will provide. Eight ferries, over sixty buses, two rickety bicycles, one rowing boat, two 4x4s, an inflatable Zodiac, two seat-of-the-pants light aircraft, eleven taxis, a trusty pair of Scarpa hiking boots and over 15,000 kilometres after leaving the extreme south, I had begun to feel like a clock in need of rewinding. Yet I could reasonably claim, by that time, to know Chile and its people better than I did at the outset.
Join me now on my travels through almost forty degrees of latitude, and share with me the stunning landscapes and wild places, my moments of euphoria, the disappointments and the unexpected encounters that made my time here such an unforgettable experience.

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