Chile – Long Read

What is it that defines a Chilean?

A trumpet player at the Presidential Palace in Santiago has his instrument decorated with the national flag. Known as La Estrella Solitaria (The Lone Star), Chile’s flag was adopted in 1817, more than 20 years before Texas adopted a flag of the same name. The blue symbolizes the sky and the Pacific Ocean, the white represents the snow of the Andes, and the red stands for the blood spilled in the battle for independence.

Photo by Steve Allen / Alamy

Chile – Long Read

What is it that defines a Chilean?

Hello Chile, where the fertile center strikes a balance between the too hot north and the icy south. The rich soil and abundant water have nourished the land and its people, producing the fruit for its wine and the inspiration for poet Pablo Neruda. Isolated by desert and the mighty Andes, the nation has always stood apart from its neighbors – but what is it that defines a Chilean?

Nori Jemil
Nori Jemil Travel Writer & Photographer

I suppose we are the self-styled English of Latin America: sophisticated and hard-working but a bit class conscious,” says my friend Claudia Diaz as we walk through the chic Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago. “But that is an image other countries like to have too. A lot has changed since my parents’ day.”

Claudia has lived most of her life in Santiago, where she manages a fashion boutique. Over a Pisco Sour – the national drink whose birth both Chileans and Peruvians lay claim to – I ask her why the people of Chile have a reputation for being less, well, Latin than the rest of the South American continent. “Chileans tend to do their sinning in private,” she says. “It’s a cultural thing.” Rather than a social life revolving around bars, Chileans prefer house parties with drinks placed on a central, communal table and indulged in freely. “Behavior is less reserved when you’re in a friend’s house,” says Claudia. Entertaining at home is a natural reaction to the poverty that grips large swathes of society here but the outwardly abstemious behavior may be one reason for the unfair reputation Chileans have as being a little dull.

Chile has north and south, but no east and west. As the world’s longest country, it stretches for more than 4,000km from the hot Atacama Desert in the north, to the frozen tip of Patagonia – with a claim beyond that to large swathes of the Antarctic. Squeezed between the high Andes and a tortured coastline, the country’s widest part is 440km but the average is less than half of that. This is a country with a lot of geography. “The European immigrants became isolated from home and their neighboring countries by the Andes and Atacama,” says Claudia. “It forced them to become self-sufficient and mix freely with the indigenous people. As a result, we are one of the most homogenous nations in Latin America.” Wealthy and modern, but still struggling to lift the urban and rural poor out of poverty, self-confident yet with an insecurity about what might be going on outside, the country’s contrasts make it difficult to understand what makes it tick.

We are on our way to visit La Chascona, one of poet Pablo Neruda’s three homes: in Santiago, Valparaíso and nearby Isla Negra. It was built as a secret hideaway for his mistress and muse, Matilde Urrutia, and he named it for her wild red hair (chascona means “uncombed”) and later made her his third wife. She appears in the 1995 Italian film Il Postino, about his life in exile.With three wives, and many mistresses, here is a man who was very far from dull. I wonder if understanding the poet and his complex love life might be a good way of understanding Chile. His poetic inspiration came from the land around him, from the sea and, notably, from his many women – building his houses in a triangle based on the coastline and pointing at the capital. All sit in the center of Chile, as though the Nobel Laureate could not bear to be too far from the country’s heart.

He died in disputed circumstances

As we wander through a maze of rooms stuffed with his eclectic collections of glassware, nautical memorabilia and faded poetry books, Claudia tells me of the complexity behind Neruda’s position as a Chilean national hero. He died in disputed circumstances only two weeks after the 1973 military coup that killed his friend, the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. General Augusto Pinochet took over and his rule saw the death or disappearance of at least 3,000 people, with an estimated 40,000 tortured. “Neruda left his homes to the Communist Party but the government seized them and it took years of legal battles by his widow to have them returned,” says Claudia. “Now all three are filled every day with visitors.” Neruda is a national business, as well as a national icon.

To see his second home, La Sebastiana, I travel 120km to the port of Valparaíso. The roads here are smooth-tarred and fast, with efficient service stations everywhere and regular, cheap-but-comfortable buses run from the station in downtown Santiago to almost any part of the country. If they are not the English of Latin America, then Chileans must be the Swiss. Before the opening of Panama Canal, Valparaíso was one of the richest cities in the Americas, profiting from ships bound for the California Gold Rush putting in to refit after the treacherous rounding of Cape Horn. The riches built a now-faded downtown of imposing banks and government buildings, while houses sprawled up the steep slopes around the harbor, built fast and with no proper town planning. The result, once the outside world moved on, was to leave cheap housing that attracted the usual response: artists and young people.

Neruda, however, beat them all to it. La Sebastiana, named for the Spaniard he bought it from in 1959, is preserved as a museum to the poet’s life and built like a ship stranded by the Pacific. Brass portholes look out on the view, while every nook is filled with nautical references, from model ships and well-worn sea charts, to brightly painted fish and storm-tossed rope. A portrait of Walt Whitman, his poetic hero, occupies a prominent place, but so does one of Lord Cochrane (see mini-feature). At the home’s heart is a pink ship’s galley-style that conjures up memories of the parties he and Matilde hosted here.

The party carries on in Valparaíso, now famed for its alternative culture and nightlife, while next door Viña del Mar is a more upmarket place of golf courses and “sporting clubs”. “Viña has less soul but great beaches and a better range of restaurants and hotels,” says musician Caro Perez, who lives there. Her hometown is now a popular playground for wealthy Santiaguinos and visiting Argentines.

The Pacific Coast beaches are beautiful

Chilean society is still a stratified one and it is possible to identify class and political leanings by people’s preference for Viña or ‘Valpo’, as Valparaíso is known. However, the wealthy Santiaguinos have a point. The seafood restaurants around Viña are some of the best in the country – and the Pacific Coast beaches are beautiful. “That’s one thing Santiago has over Buenos Aires,” she says. “The porteños have no great beaches within an hour of the city.”

Chile moved its Congress to Valparaíso in an attempt to rejuvenate the town after its decline as a center of commerce – one reason Neruda wanted a home here when he was elected a Communist Party senator – but its downtown remains rough and run down. However, its hills are alive with the sound of rebuilding, growing into another world of retro cafés, vintage clothing stores and boutique hotels.

Sitting on one of town’s characteristic rickety funicular ascensores, Caro tells me that the subversive nature of Valpo’s counter culture attracts students and backpackers in equal measure. At the top of Cerro Constitucion, we sit in bright sunlight to share fantastic views of the port and town below. Artisans set up stalls here in the early evening, selling jewelry fashioned from the country’s famed copper, silver and minerals. A bracelet made of lapis lazuli, Chile’s national stone, can be picked up for a steal.

At night Valparaíso is a draw for goths and emos, all of whom seem to enjoy the dark, sweaty nightspots that play 1980s music into the small hours. “Valparaíso kind of sucks you in,” says Dan, an American visitor I meet in a bar. “It’s the mixture of picturesque charm, counter culture and seediness that comes with its history as a port town. The place is rife with prostitution, and crime makes the docks a no-go area at night, but possibly the only one in the whole country. Valparaíso is unsanitized and edgy but, under it all, it is still safe and traveler friendly.”

Many travelers join tours to see Neruda’s third house, just over 40km south, at Isla Negra. It is not an island, as its name might imply, but a small community of artists and holiday homes. Neruda built a home here in the 1940s that is just as quirky as La Sebastiana but with an even better view of the ocean, standing as it does on the beach. “The Pacific Ocean overflowed the map,” he wrote. “There was no place to put it. That’s why they left it in front of my window.”

This is the first house he built for himself, designing it after a time in exile around the world as a diplomat from 1927-1942, and a visit to Machu Picchu in Peru, had awakened in him an awareness of his identity as a Latin American. “I can live only in my own country,” he wrote. “I cannot live without… feeling my roots reach down into its soil for maternal nourishment.” Here, Neruda’s remains lie beside those of Matilde. The house, built of local stone and wood, grows organically out of the earth of Chile behind them, with an anchor symbolically linking it to the land.

Rich Chilean soil flows through his broad hands

Back in the Casablanca Valley, just south of Santiago, I watch the rich Chilean soil flow through the broad hands of noted local winemaker Ignacio Recabarren. He looks like a man in love, his eyes closed as he sniffs the aroma with a rather wonderful nose. We are talking about how much more fertile the earth is here than on the other, rain-shadowed side of the Andes in Argentina. Ignacio works for Concha y Toro wines, the Chilean company that in 1944 became the first winery in the world to trade on the New York Stock Exchange. Its worldwide success is built in these valleys of Central Chile, each offer their own unique terroir. All the familiar grape varieties are here, and one unique one: the ruby-red Carménère.

“I put my life into this wine,” says Ignacio and, when we taste a glass that he pronounces “Magnificent” after a healthy sniff, I am glad he did. Such skills as his have put Chile’s vineyards firmly on the tourism map and the Concha y Toro’s visitor center, an hour from downtown Santiago in the Maipo Valley, is thriving. The former home of the company’s founder, Don Melchor de Concha y Toro, it dates to 1883 and stands in beautiful, eucalyptus tree-shaded gardens, like something between a French vineyard, an English country house and a Spanish colonial hacienda.

As part of the entertainment at Concha y Toro, I am drawn into a cueca, the national dance, which emulates the courtship of chickens and hens. It is danced by a lovely señorita and handsome cowboy in massive spurs. The Argentine gaucho might be a more famous figure in worldwide terms but Chile’s equivalent, the huasos, also have a prominent place in their own country. Rancagua, their spiritual home, stands a few miles further south on Route 5, part of the Pan-American highway that runs the length of the continent. Rodeo attracts more spectators than soccer and, every April, Rancagua hosts the national rodeo championships.

“Chilean rodeo is very different to what people are used to seeing in North America,” says Claudia. “Two riders have to work together to pin a calf against a special padded area of the arena. There’s none of the bucking-bronco-style performances.” Indeed, Chilean rodeos owe more to the equestrian world of dressage, with the horse’s appearance first inspected by judges before any further individual displays of skill. Like much that goes on in public in Chile, rodeos are a graceful and stylish affair.

Tensions of poverty and class

Underneath it, there are the tensions of poverty and class. Like the Mexican vaquero or Uruguayan gaucho, the huaso was a hard working ranch-hand, hired when landowners needed to round up cattle. Most had roots in the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples of the Americas, who had never seen a horse when the Spanish Conquistadors first arrived but soon learned the skills needed. They can stop a galloping horse with a voice command, and skilfully throw a bolas – leather ropes with small stone or metal balls attached – to bring cattle quickly to the ground.

“Even so, they are badly paid and often have little job security,” says Claudia. Their life is a harsh one, a far cry from the romanticized version on show in the rodeo, all immaculately attired horsemen in straight-brimmed straw hats, striped ponchos, ornate spurs and polished knee-high leather leggings.

“The rodeo competitors are often from the upper middle-class, traveling down from the city to compete,” says Claudia. “Everyone wants to think of the huaso life as one of simple, rural pleasures and city dwellers want a part of that.” In the city, “huaso” is Chilean slang for an unsophisticated country hick, so it is ironic to see what are actually the upper echelons of society, in their expensive costumes, being snapped by tourists who imagine they are traditional cowboys.

Even more divisions boil under the surface in Chile. Neruda, President Allende and musician Victor Jara are a holy trinity of heroes synonymous with Chile’s historic struggle for democracy. All three men were dead within two weeks of each other and, while Chileans do not want to be defined by those Pinochet years of military dictatorship, torture and death, the past is not escaped so easily. Many of those who disappeared remain unaccounted for and even former president Michelle Bachelet, while openly speaking of the detention, torture and death of her father, will not go into any further detail. No-one really wants to go on record about their views.

“The country is divided,” says another friend, Michael Avis, a Canadian who has lived in Santiago for several years. “The upper classes have moved on and are glad to see Chile progressing so rapidly, while many from the middle and lower classes are angry to see active members of the current government who were huge supporters of Pinochet.” Attitudes seem largely dependent on age, class and how your family fared personally under the regime.

Despite any such divisions beneath the surface, as I stroll around, past the displays of saddles, sombreros and ponchos for sale, I am approached by everyone and invited to eat or drink. Before I know it, I am sitting amid a dozen cowboys with jangling spurs eating lamb being roasted over a fire, and drinking a strong pisco sour. The rodeo is one large family and, as I see the Chilean lone-star flag fluttering in the evening breeze, I wonder if the Chileans are the Texans of Latin America?

What the spring does to the cherries

Driving back to Santiago, I pass again through a landscape of grapes and other fruit for export. “I want to do with you what the spring does to the cherries,” wrote Neruda and, traversing these back roads, it is easy to see why these surroundings of fruit trees, rivers, valleys and forests of beech would move anyone to poetry. This is where the climate becomes more obviously Mediterranean. Men tend the fields and a huaso rides his bicycle back home, dressed in rough clothes and covered in dust, but his broad-brimmed hat sitting square on his head.

In Santiago, it is time to put any social or political division aside to celebrate National Day, which falls on September 18 but is a whole month of partying. Coinciding as it does with the winds of spring which blow away Santiago’s smog and bring out the nation’s kite-fliers, it feels like a time of rebirth and new beginnings. The fun climaxes over the weekend of Dieciocho (18), when alcohol and asado are the order of the day. Somehow, the Chileans manage to retain a level of decorum at odds with their pisco sour and chicha consumption but, if you are ever going to see one drunk, this is the time.

Then there is the food, showing the abundance of the land here. Empanadas de pino are pastries packed with meat, olives and egg. The pastel de choclo is a warming sweet and savory two-layered pie, topped with creamed corn. The smell of grilled meat wafts from the asado, while piles of humitas, pebre, palta and sopaipillas await.

“We’re proud of our country and our traditions,” says Claudia, as we tuck into a bowl of cazuela – meat stew. “Chilean food is the best in Latin America.” OK, if they are not the English or the Swiss, perhaps the love for family, wine and food tells us they are the Italians of Latin America. A silly thought on a national day, of all days. They are, of course, just proudly Chilean.

As Pablo Neruda wrote: “I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.”