Story: DINH HANG
Greet the new year in Chile with a journey to discover the magnificent sights of this beautiful country.
On New Year’s Day in Chile, my kind hosts treated me to a traditional breakfast that included lentils and plenty of fresh grapes.
Both, I would learn, are must-haves for year-end gatherings. Any Chilean wishing for prosperity, riches and luck in the new year will want to eat at least a heaping spoonful of lentils. My hosts also explained that Chileans eat 12 grapes and make 12 wishes as the clock strikes midnight. Each grape represents a month of the coming year and whether it is sour or sweet will foretell how good the month will be. I happily dug into the plate of grapes – thankfully, all of them were plump, juicy and deliciously sweet, a positive sign for my travels in Chile.
THE ISLAND OF GIANT MOAI
After a five-hour flight from the capital city, Santiago, I landed on Easter Island – known as Rapa Nui to its indigenous people. The island, one of the most remote inhabited places on earth, is famous for its enormous and enigmatic stone figures known as Moai.
The monolithic Moai feature massive heads with broad noses, wide chins, elongated ears and deep eye sockets. They have disproportionately smaller torsos and arms, but no legs.
My long-held dream of seeing these statues in person came true as I stood in front of Ahu Tongariki, the stone platform (ahu) with the most Moai on the island. Against a background of the Pacific Ocean lapping against the shore, 15 hand-carved Moai statues rest on a platform nearly 100 meters long, a scene of grandeur that has earned Tongariki its status as the holiest ahu on Easter Island.
Overall, there are nearly one thousand Moai statues scattered around the island, each one created to honor a deceased leader or important figure. By carving the statues, the Rapa Nui people believed that the spirits of the departed would look after them and deliver good fortune. I hiked up the grassy slope of Mount Rano Raraku, the quarry where most Moai were born. El Gigante is the largest Moai on the island, weighing 136 tons. It was never completed and still sits in the “workshop.”
In addition to the Moai, Easter Island also enchants visitors with the kindness of its local population and the majesty of its nature. The island is home to sheer cliffs pouring down from the mountain into calm, small bays; vast and brilliant dawns on the sea; caves leading directly to endless waters; peaceful beaches made of fine sand; and a perpetually serene air.
SEEING THE BLUE TOWERS
To see Chile’s most stunning and impressive vistas, you must travel to Torres del Paine. The journey through this national park is filled with one breathtaking encounter after another: gigantic glaciers, endless sapphire lakes, 12-million-yearold snow-capped mountains and dense forests. My journey involved a 25-kilometer day trip to the base of the three Torres del Paine (Blue Towers) peaks, for a once-in-a-lifetime view of these spectacular granite summits. It was a challenging trek past vertical cliffs littered with boulders, as we traversed sheer mountain passes and forded cold creeks. The weather cycled from sun to rain to thick fog, punctuated by blasts of wind that felt as if they could send me into the abyss below. And yet I will never forget standing under frigid hail at our stopping point, as the clouds began to disperse and the three majestic towers appeared. The mountains soared toward the pure white fog-wreathed skies, a stark contrast to the lovely sapphire mirror of the lake below. Every cell in my body seemed to tremble with joy as I stood in front of masterpieces created by nature over 12 million years ago.
The national park also boasts incredible glaciers, and on a gloomy day I set out on a lake to approach the cold ice wall of the Grey Glacier. Floating icebergs loomed on the grey lake, so massive that they were visible from the mountain trail.
Even though I have seen larger glaciers, I was still captivated by Grey’s special colors. Just as its name suggests, there were grey strips lining the magnificent blue ice before me, formed by accumulated soil and stones. As the sun emerged, it resembled a giant carpet of ice over the mountains and the lakebed, with unique patterns woven randomly by nature. To satisfy my thirst for glaciers, on another morning I took a ride to Queulat Park. Even as I was on the Austral Highway, I could see Ventisquero Colgante, a unique glacier perched on tall mountains. Because of heavy rains, the mountain trail was closed. I followed rugged forest trails instead that took me through lagoons, waterfalls, and suspended bridges amid primeval greenery. Eventually, we got to Laguna Témpanos, where the glacier flows. The frigid surface of the lagoon was a beautiful shade of jade.
Ventisquero Colgante has been dubbed the “Hanging Glacier” because it is located at a precarious height of 1.4 kilometers, between two snow-covered mountains. The view was truly magnificent. Instead of flowing into the lake like other glaciers, the hanging glacier ends by tumbling from a 600-meter height, creating two tall waterfalls throwing up pure white icy “foam” and roaring sonorously in the ancient woods.
Anyone able to be dazzled by the beauty of nature here, on the first day of the new year, would be lucky indeed.