Two things bothered me about the Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2018 video. The first was I felt like I was watching CBBC (that’s probably me being unfairly cranky about the Blue Peter-esque enthusiasm of the presenters). The other was their number one recommended country for 2018 was Chile.
We visited Chile last year and felt like old school adventurers exploring a wilderness still to be discovered by the masses. With LP pushing it as a cool dude destination there’s a danger those endless empty roads and vast valleys will become full of right-on travellers clutching Lonely Planet bibles. I’m a hypocrite I know. We visited Chile and wrote about it and Andy’s putting together Chilean hotel reviews for a UK broadsheet as I write.
The truth is I did want to write about Chile, but I didn’t really want to share it.
It’s a conundrum I’m experiencing about the place we are now, Setúbal. There’s not a lot been written about it online yet, so it’s still off the radar. But already we can see below the handful of attractive qualities briefly been mentioned in articles lies a deep vein of rich material ready to be mined.
Chile reminded me of heroin; not that I’ve actually ever done a “Rent Boy” Renton. In my previous incarnation I was involved with implementing projects in the north west of England which were designed to support the more disadvantaged in society. In a drug rehabilitation centre I listened transfixed as a former user described the unbelievable ecstasy of the first heroin hit and how subsequent hits could never match its intensity. Our first long haul trip was the travel equivalent of heroin.
In 1990 we honeymooned in Sri Lanka just as an Indian peacekeeping force had pulled out and fighting flared between the Tamil Tigers and government forces. It was breathtakingly beautiful, exciting with a hint of danger, and nothing was remotely familiar (except for the occasional Coca-Cola sign). We fell head over heels with Sri Lanka and its people. No subsequent trip has equalled that first hit.
From the moment we picked up our Mitsubishi truck at an airport which was more of a big hangar, it was one intoxicating adventure. Just us, our luggage, and an unfamiliar but reassuringly chunky car on an often unmade road which dissected the country for 1240 kilometres.
There were times when we felt as though we were the only people on the planet. It was exhilarating and unnerving. If a tyre popped in a particularly remote spot we’d been advised it could be hours before anybody passed. It was a thought which never strayed far from our thoughts, especially in the long stretches where sharp stones snapped relentlessly at the wheels.
Plains weren’t just expansive, they stretched forever and some of the wildlife looked positively prehistoric. The adrenalin rush at being exposed to a big country with immense scenery was akin to being engulfed by wave after wave of warming Pacific rollers. The hits just kept on coming. Unlike heroin, their intensity never abating:-
A trek through a lush forest, with appropriate jungly bird calls, to a luminescent glacial lake; crossing rickety wooden bridges over various abysses; wading barefoot across a rocky river where the rushing water numbed flesh the second it touched; being attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes so viscous we had to cover every inch of flesh and still they were able to bite through clothing; watching a condor take to the skies shortly after dawn.
We drank whisky chilled by ice from the ice field we were sailing through; ate steaming hot kidneys and mash in a fire station; sipped sweet water in a wine glass filled directly from a waterfall; struggled with our luggage for over a kilometre along the wooden walkways which passed for streets in strange little Tortel; wrapped mouths around beefy sandwiches in a converted bus in a town whose only attraction was it had a cafe which was a converted bus; and crunched our way across a glacier wearing crampons.
Every day threw up more than one memorable experience. Some were travel standouts, others were everyday occurrences to the people who lived there but uniquely wonderful to us. Most of the time we were on our own, but every so often our paths crossed with a couple of fellow adventurers, or we walked with lodge owners.
We drove a meandering route from Quelat to Tortel, hardly an inch of it where we didn’t gawp at scenery which continually chopped and changed in a bid to try to outdo that which had wowed us around the previous corner.
We felt humbled and in awe of the land; a microscopic fragment of nature’s jigsaw in a vast landscape.
Chile is big and beautiful. I grudgingly have to concede those annoyingly chirpy Lonely Planet folk have picked a stormer of a country as their number one recommendation this year.
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+