"And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river."
-Chilean poet Pablo Neruda
Name one thing you know about Chile.
Tango? That's Argentina.
Tortillas? Not here.
Carnival? Try Brazil.
Think. Think of a long, skinny South American country in the shape of a backward "J" hemmed in between the Andes and the blue Pacific. The one where a poet named Neruda and a dictator named Pinochet lived. The one where wine comes from, the one with alpacas in the north, with penguins in the south, with deserts, forests, beaches, mountains and a middle-class standard of living, yet which remains a 2,600-mile ribbon of mystery, often even to its citizens.
Si. Yes. You've got it now.
"People come here expecting to see something primitive," says Felipe Moreno, a Santiago painter and musician. "They're very surprised."
Chile has one of Latin America's most stable democracies, its highest GDP per capita, safe streets and a reputation as one of the least corrupt nations in the world - an amazing feat, considering its past of dictatorship and coups.
Its tourist infrastructure is very good, especially in the central valley and coast, where 80 percent of the population lives.
Yet even experienced American tourists who have visited Brazil, Columbia, Peru or Argentina usually miss Chile, a 9-hour plane ride from Dallas or Miami. The dilemma for travelers? In Chile, distances are so vast there is no way to see everything in one trip.
The best one can hope for is to choose two drastically contrasting areas of the nation - for instance, Arica, a small port town in far northern Chile; and Santiago/Valparaiso, big cities in the center - and hope to get a larger feel for the place.
Even then, Chile has a way of slipping out of your grasp. Like winter or a river.
To me, Santiago seems a solemn grownup. Skyscrapers loom over its 6 million scurrying citizens. Snowy peaks of the Andes loom vaguely in the distance behind a wafting veil of haze. Santiago has a haughty European atmosphere and an excellent metro system - signaling an orderly lifestyle minus the wild eccentricities of other South American capitals.
But all is not as it appears. Santiago has a passionate past.
Visit the La Moneda presidential palace on Santiago's main plaza, and see the spot where, on Sept. 11, 1973, elected socialist President Salvador Allende, power stripped by a coup and trapped in the palace, broadcast a radio announcement to the nation, then took his own life as jet bombers soared overhead.
That started the iron rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, dictator from 1973 to 1988.
Since then, four democratically elected presidents (the current one is Michelle Bachelet) have brought Chile into modern democracy.
Santiago also is partly defined by one of its most famous citizens, Pablo Neruda, the lyrical poet, who died in 1973.
Never one of those poor, struggling poet types, Neruda loved the finer things in life, including women (he was married three times), nice digs (he had multiple houses in Chile), and traveling (he was a diplomat, sometimes in exile).
Track down his home in the restaurant-rich Bella Vista artists section of Santiago, and you will be delighted. Neruda's love nest, La Chascona, is a bright blue, funky abode with curved windows and one of his most famous love poems engraved on six pillars in front. The poem is "I Ask for Silence" ("and inside me I am dark: like a well whose water/ night drops stars into/ then moves on alone through the field").
As was said about Hemingway, Neruda didn't use many words - he just used the right ones.
"We have many things in front of us, but only a few people can see deeper than that," says Moreno.
Sixty miles west, Chile's second largest city, Valparaiso, is the refreshingly goofy sister to Santiago. Houses are a hodge podge of bright blue, yellow and pink, roofed with shipping container metal and painted with nautical paint. They perch on the hillsides of the port city on the Pacific founded by the Spanish in 1536.
Valparaiso's claim to fame? Its creaky yet efficient funicular lift system, which transports citizens up steep hillsides.
Try one, and you'll see the ground through the floorboards, which don't quite meet.
Think of it as a metaphor for this slapdash port city.
Neruda also had a house in Valparaiso. The quirky four-story house, called La Samana, is topped by Neruda's writing study, which is paneled with bookshelves on two walls, has a giant photograph of Walt Whitman on the third and huge windows on the fourth. The panoramic view of the crescent-shaped Valparaiso harbor is enough to start anyone spouting poetry.
Immediately north of Valparaiso? The town of Vina Del Mar, the spoiled baby of the family. Rich Chileans vacation on its beaches.
Between Santiago and Valparaiso you will drive through the Casablanca Valley, one of Chile's most trendy vineyard regions for white wine. As in California, you can do winery tours here - but the cheapest prices for wine still seem to be in the grocery store in Santiago - US$2-$4.
One spot to get out and see Chile's amazing geographical range is Arica and the nation's far north. Home to salt lakes and flamingos, llama and alpacas, mountains that soar to a literally breath taking 15,000 feet and the world's oldest mummies, it's far different from the big cities.
First cool thing: Just outside Arica in the Azapa Valley is a small museum that contains the 8,000-year-old Cinchorro Mummies. Boy, do they look their age. Lying beneath glass in the Museo Arqueologico, there are three of them, appearing to be dad, mom and baby (although that's just imagination; nobody knows who they were). Their arms and legs stick out like sticks of brown clay. Their faces are covered with masks. Shreds of linen strips wrap around their bodies. Remember, they're 2,000 years older than the oldest-known Egyptian mummies.
Often called the driest place on Earth, the desert around Arica preserved these ancient remains.
Second cool thing: Arica has a church designed by Gustav Eiffel - yes, the designer of the Eiffel Tower.
He designed a church made of iron parts, which was shipped in pieces to Arica and constructed in 1876. While the exterior of the Church of San Marcos is cutely painted white and brown, the interior shows the flair that Eiffel had - the graceful iron buttresses elegant and slim, the proportions, the charm.
At this far northern end of Chile, too, you can see wonderful olive farms and a bounty of vegetables and fruits in the market. So spend some time here. Slowly, the picture of Chile fills in. Go 1,000 miles south to the lakes district or 2,500 miles south to the Chilean Patagonia with its penguins and fjords. If you have another year or two, you might start to understand this country in its totality.
"And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived