A Chilean vacation – Visiting Santiago, Atacama Desert, and Northern Patagonia

A Chilean vacation – Visiting Santiago, Atacama Desert, and Northern Patagonia
A viewpoint overlooking a canyon in the Atacama Desert is a favorite gathering spot for tourists at sundown. Photo by Kitty Morse

 

Chile is not on most people’s vacation radar, but the South American country has occupied a line on Kitty Morse’s dream-trip list since she was a grade-schooler in Casablanca, Morocco.

A rare rain in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, transforms the landscape and creates looking-glass lagoons. Kitty Morse lucked out; a storm had come through a week before her visit. Photo by Kitty Morse

A rare rain in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, transforms the landscape and creates looking-glass lagoons. Kitty Morse lucked out; a storm had come through a week before her visit. Photo by Kitty Morse

“My geography classes made me dream of exotic locations like Antofagasta, Valparaiso and the Atacama Desert, even though the Sahara dunes were only a day’s drive from my school,” explains the longtime Vista resident. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to see my hometown’s namesake in Chile — Valle de Casablanca,” – heart of the country’s wine region.

Kitty Morse, long-time Vista resident, poses in front of a sand dune in the Atacama Desert. Located in northern Chile, the desert is 600 miles long and covers between 41,000 square miles and 49,000 square miles, depending on where the borders are drawn. The arid climate is the result of its location between two mountain ranges. Photo by Kitty Morse

Kitty Morse, long-time Vista resident, poses in front of a sand dune in the Atacama Desert. Located in northern Chile, the desert is 600 miles long and covers between 41,000 square miles and 49,000 square miles, depending on where the borders are drawn. The arid climate is the result of its location between two mountain ranges. Photo by Kitty Morse

According to a Chilean tourism organization, nearly 187,000 U.S. residents traveled to Chile in 2015. (Total visitors number about 3.8 million; most are from neighboring South American countries.)
Morse was born in Casablanca of a French mother and British father, and grew up speaking English and French equally. She immigrated to the United States at age 17, and is the author of 11 cookbooks. She was surprised that, during her two-week stay in Chile, “practically every tourist I encountered was a native French speaker. There was hardly a gringo in sight.”

A vendor at the Castro market on Chiloe offers Peruvian potatoes, for which the Chilean island is known. Photo by Kitty Morse

A vendor at the Castro market on Chiloe offers Peruvian potatoes, for which the Chilean island is known. Photo by Kitty Morse

Once Morse decided to go, she cashed in her frequent flier miles, worked with a “delightful” travel agent in Santiago (via the internet), and decided to give Airbnb a try in Santiago.

“I had success on all counts,” she says.

Morse’s itinerary included six days in Santiago, four days in the Atacama Desert in the north, and five days in Northern Patagonia in the south.

“I decided to forego the glaciers in Patagonia, since I had seen some in Alaska last year,” she explains. “I flew instead to the Region de Los Lagos Andinos (the Lake Region) and spent a day cruising Lago de Todos Santos, the first in a series of seven lakes that eventually leads to Bariloche, Argentina.”

Despite its bubblegum pink exterior, this hotel in the town of Castro, on the island of Chiloe in southern Chile, is named Unicornio Azul (Blue Unicorn). “It has a resident ghost and creaky stairs, and all the staff lined up and gave me a kiss when I left,” says traveler Kitty Morse of Vista. Photo by Kitty Morse

Despite its bubblegum pink exterior, this hotel in the town of Castro, on the island of Chiloe in southern Chile, is named Unicornio Azul (Blue Unicorn). “It has a resident ghost and creaky stairs, and all the staff lined up and gave me a kiss when I left,” says traveler Kitty Morse of Vista. Photo by Kitty Morse

Photo opportunities were at every turn: the pink flamingos, herds of wild vicuñas, steaming geysers and colorful canyons of the Atacama Desert; the palafitos (homes on stilts) and the Castro market on the island of Chiloe; the spectacular Volcan Osorno (volcano) in the Lake Region;  and the two-hour cruise to Peulla at the far end of Todos Santos Lake.

These houses on stilts (palafitos) are found on the island of Chiloe, in Chile’s Lake District. Founded in 1576, Castro is Chile’s third oldest city. Much of it was damaged or destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1960. (Photo by Christian Córdova)

These houses on stilts (palafitos) are found on the island of Chiloe, in Chile’s Lake District. Founded in 1576, Castro is Chile’s third oldest city. Much of it was damaged or destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1960. (Photo by Christian Córdova)

And though Morse has a passion for ethnic foods, she didn’t expect to find gourmet offerings in Chile. Surprisingly, though, she found excellent cuisine in several places. On the island of Chiloe, “the seafood is outstanding,” she recounts. “And there was mouth-watering Tablao Patagónico loaded with seafood, sausages and cheeses at La Gringa restaurant in Puerto Varas, and salmon ceviche purchased from a food truck kept me happy until it came time to take the ferry to the Island of Chiloe.”

And Morse finally visited Valle de Casablanca (Valley of Casablanca, outside Santiago), which had been on her wish list for many years.

“Friends took me to the gorgeous Casas del Bosque winery where I sampled the famed Carménère wine, which has its origins in the Médoc region of Bordeaux,” she says. “It was thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in Chile in 1994.”

Many historic wooden churches, which date to the late 1800s, dot the small island of Lemuy, off Chile’s coast. The island is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Kitty Morse

Many historic wooden churches, which date to the late 1800s, dot the small island of Lemuy, off Chile’s coast. The island is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Kitty Morse

In the end, Morse’s adventures in Chile were the result of a mix of good planning and serendipity.

Kitty Morse, a native Moroccan, cookbook author and long-time Vista resident, gets friendly with a Chilean llama near San Pedro de Atacama. The town sits at nearly 8,000 feet and receives less than one inch of rain a year. San Pedro is favorite with hippies, hikers and tourists who come to see the Atacama Desert. Photo by Kitty Morse

Kitty Morse, a native Moroccan, cookbook author and long-time Vista resident, gets friendly with a Chilean llama near San Pedro de Atacama. The town sits at nearly 8,000 feet and receives less than one inch of rain a year. San Pedro is favorite with hippies, hikers and tourists who come to see the Atacama Desert. Photo by Kitty Morse

“Sometimes I was traveling by the seat of my pants. My Morocco tours were much more organized.” (For many years, Morse led groups on sightseeing and culinary tours in Morocco.)

It’s been about three months since Morse’ return to Vista, but she still relives her trip with gusto.
“Northern Patagonia and Atacama Desert still sound so exotic that I can hardly believe I was actually there,” she confesses.

Glacier-covered Volcan Osorno, 8,701 feet high, towers above all in the Lake Region in the southern third of Chile. The volcano stands between two lakes, Todos Los Santos and Llanquihue, and is understandably compared to Mount Fuji in Japan. Photo by Kitty Morse

Glacier-covered Volcan Osorno, 8,701 feet high, towers above all in the Lake Region in the southern third of Chile. The volcano stands between two lakes, Todos Los Santos and Llanquihue, and is understandably compared to Mount Fuji in Japan. Photo by Kitty Morse

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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