This long and thin South American country on the Pacific
coast has a superb range of attractions for tourists of all kinds, from the extreme landscapes of the sub-Antarctic Patagonian south to the surreal desert scenery of the Atacama in the north, wine regions, culture, and, yes, dark history tourism. These are the sites that are given separate chapters here:
former prison camp and nitrate industry ghost town
Chile is still associated in the international public consciousness with the 17-year military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet.
In a violent coup, engineered and actively supported by the CIA
, Pinochet seized power from the popular and democratically elected president Salvador Allende
. Allende had formed a socialist government striving to distribute wealth more evenly, with some initial success. But as foreign investors shied away and domestic capital fled, it also ran into economic difficulties. More importantly, however, it was the rich elite's and the USA
's ever so paranoid fear of communism
and the alleged possibility of a "domino effect" that sealed Allende's fate.
On September 11 (yes, another fateful 9/11
) 1973, just short of three years after having come to power, Allende was not only replaced in Pinochet's military coup, he even lost his life in it. Quite exactly how, was, and to some degree still is, a matter of controversy. Supporters said he was killed by the military, but the official story was (and still is) that he committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the right-wing attackers.
Of all the countless military coups that Latin America has seen, the 1973 putsch in Chile was the most dramatic and the one that produced the most captivating images and enduring media coverage. Fighter planes attacked the presidential palace in Santiago – while Allende was delivering a melodramatic farewell speech on live radio.
Images of thousands of people being held under arrest in a sports-stadium-turned-concentration-camp
shocked the world ... well, parts of the world – Nixon and Kissinger were probably rather happy to see the putsch proceeding so successfully. Many Chileans went into exile. Thousands of opposition members in the country were imprisoned, tortured and in many cases simply "disappeared".
-Junta lasted 17 long years – but Chile has been remarkable in its recovery from that dark past. It managed more or less successfully to get back on the path of democracy, even electing a woman president for the first time in 2006, Michelle Bachelet (in office until 2010). It has also been an economic success story, and that includes tourism. It is now one of the touristically best developed countries in South America. Politically, things are still a bit fragile, as I found out during my visits to the country in December 2011/January 2012, with a lot of opposition to the current right-wing president on the one hand and some heavy-handed suppression of protests by security police on the other.
Even though the country's coming to terms with the dark chapters of its history isn't as enthusiastic as it perhaps could be, it has generated a few formidable dark tourism memorial sites, especially in the capital Santiago de Chile
Chile's main coastal city, Valparaiso
, also has a few things to offer for the dark tourist, less than Santiago, but on the other hand it is a much more charming place in many other respects.
Much further afield, in the middle of the Atacama desert in northern Chile, the spectacular sight of the Chuquicamata
open-pit copper mine and smelters, which, due to the partly apocalyptic atmosphere and dimensions, should probably be included in an account of Chile's dark tourism offerings as well.
Also located in the Atacama is Chacabuco
, a former nitrate mining ghost town
that during the early Pinochet years was used as a detention centre/concentration camp
for dissidents too. It is now part ghost town, part museum. The former theatre has been restored and houses a small exhibition as well. It's now one of the best developed sites out of the once hundreds of nitrate mining towns all over the area.
Humberstone and Santa Laura
World Heritage sites) further north near Iquique are the only real competitors to Chacabuco left, but lack the latter's Pinochet-junta association. Most of the other ghost towns of the nitrate boom era have been more or less completely demolished, except for the last working or recently closed ones, Maria Elena and Perdo de Valdivia.
The scenery of the Atacama
desert as such, especially with its geysers, volcanoes and moonscapes, further towards the Andes may be of sort-of dark interest too (see also neighbouring Bolivia
Another copper mine, this time underground (the largest of its kind in fact), is El Teniente
, close to the historic mining ghost town
, in central Chile, south of Santiago in the mountains east of Rancagua. In fact I was supposed to go on a tour of these places during my visit to Chile in January 2012, but they were temporarily suspended by Chile's national copper company CODELCO for unspecified reasons, so I didn't see it, unfortunately. I had similar bad luck with Chuquicamata
Finally, in the far south of the country, Patagonia, there's another infamous place that served as a major detention centre during the dictatorship: Isla Dawson or Dawson Island. However, as this is still military territory, it's not open to (dark) tourist visits.
Politically part of Chile (annexed in the late 19th century), but treated here as a separate entity, is the most isolated Polynesian speck in the Pacific
known most widely as Easter Island
(Isla de Pascua in Spanish, and Rapa Nui in the local language). It is conveniently reached by daily plane from Santiago de Chile
, so one can quite easily work a visit to the island into a travel itinerary of Chile (as I did in December 2012).
Another remote island archipelago belonging to Chile is that of Juan Fernandez – which includes the original Robinson Crusoe island ... indeed named after Daniel Defoe's classic character, inspired by the real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk who was marooned on Juan Fernandez for several years in the early 18th century. It's a tricky place to get to, though, and from a dark tourism perspective it doesn't offer anything in particular, other then its extreme remoteness.
Chile also serves as the most convenient jumping-off point for travel to the Falkland Islands
by scheduled flights, since this is still not possible to do from neighbouring Argentina
... that country, in its renewed row with Great Britain
over these islands, for a while even threatening to block Chile from operating these flights – but fortunately the sabre-rattling over this old territorial dispute has meanwhile subsided again …
Many cruise ships to Antarctica
(whether or not they include the excursion to the Falklands and South Georgia
) depart from Chile too, especially from the country's southernmost city, Punta Arenas
(although Ushuaia over in Argentina
is used as the stepping stone to the white continent much more regularly).
Punta Arenas is also the main hub for explorations of the legendary lands of Tierra del Fuego
(including Cape Horn
) and the whole of Patagonia
– although the single most famous scenic attraction of Chile's south, Torres del Paine
national park, is better reached through Puerto Natales. Both are served by domestic flights from Santiago
In general, the tourism infrastructure in Chile is excellent, possibly the best in the whole of South America, as regards transport, security and accommodation standards. Price-wise, however, it's also on a somewhat higher level compared to some neighbouring countries (such as Bolivia
In culinary terms
, Chile offers an extremely interesting melting pot of Hispanic and local traditions with an emphasis on fish and seafood – predictably so for a country that consists mostly of coastline, thousands of miles of it. The carnivorous influence of the eastern neighbour Argentina
has become more noticeable in recent years too, though. For me the influence of the northern neighbour Peru is much more welcome – as I regard Peruvian as one of the top cuisines of the world ... certainly for chilli-heads
like myself – it's one of spiciest of the continent.
It hardly needs highlighting, but Chile is renowned worldwide for its wines too – in particular some of the reds reach exceptional quality levels. And since Chile did not fall victim to the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed the viniculture of Europe in the 19th century, some pre-epidemic growing techniques and grape varieties survive here, some of which are unique. On a less top-rank level, a national tipple shared with Peru is the grape spirit pisco, and the ubiquitous cocktail made from it, the pisco sour. In fact the two neighbouring countries are fierce competitors when it comes to who makes the better variety … on this I personally tend towards the north, but find out for yourself.
On a healthier note, Chile is a producer of some of the world's best berries – though their export by planes to supply supermarkets in the northern hemisphere (esp. in winter, when it's summer in Chile) is somewhat dubious from an environmental
perspective. So rather have them while you're there, in the country.
- Chile 01 - flying over the Andes
- Chile 02 - Andean observatory
- Chile 03 - open-cast copper mine
- Chile 04 - red and blue
- Chile 05 - Salar de Atacama with flamingos
- Chile 06 - reflective flamingos
- Chile 07 - expansive vistas
- Chile 08 - Licancabur volcano in the distance
- Chile 09 - Moon Valley
- Chile 10 - glorious Atacama scenery
- Chile 11 - El Tatio geothermal field
- Chile 12 - mountain viscacha
- Chile 13 - active volcano with fuming fumaroles
- Chile 14 - in a rural Atacama village
- Chile 15 - reconstructed Andean village
- Chile 16 - high altitude
- Chile 17 - fjords and mountains
- Chile 18 - ferry and boat
- Chile 19 - tsunami warning sign
- Chile 20 - Puerto Natales
- Chile 21 - old building in Puerto Natales
- Chile 22 - soaring sculpture in Puerto Natales
- Chile 23 - deep south
- Chile 24 - Nandus by the roadside near Punta Arenas
- Chile 25 - nearly Antarctic in the deep south