LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 96
Pag. 70 - 75
By: Ana Schlimovich
Photos: Federico Quintana
CHILLAN IN SUMMER
Famous for its thermal waters, the Chilean resort maintains the high standard of its hotel offer and its outdoor activities. To the already existing programs of rappelling, mountain climbing, horse riding, trekking and mountain biking, it now adds the descent to a local coal mine and a visit to vineyards with wine sampling.
It is almost nine p.m., and still full daylight. The slopes of Chillan Volcano shine bare in mid-December, having shed their winter snow cover. From the picture window in my room, I can see a landscape full of mountains and leafy forests that cover ten thousand hectares.
The thermal pools and baths of the Gran Hotel complete this panorama that is full of promise. Here, 480 km south of Santiago and at 1,650 meters altitude, in a true natural spa, Termas de Chillan Resort perfectly combines "the good life" with a healthy offer of activities. The volcano keeps busy emitting sulfurous vapors and producing thermal waters that reach the hotel along an efficient system of terraces.
These balmy waters, full of curative and relaxing properties, fill all the different pools in the area. These are of the indoor and outdoor type, equipped with water beds, hydro-massage jets and fountains. But all these variants pale by contrast with night-time dips up to one's neck, with a starry ceiling over one's head at the time when everybody else is asleep.
By mini-bus one can get to Parque de Aguas, where there are four more pools, a water slide and games for children. By trekking upwards, one can get to the very sources of the sulfur vapor that emerges from the sides of the volcano; you just have to get close to these vapor vents and baste yourself from head to foot with a light-colored, almost odorless mud that will leave your skin smooth and shining.
The lazybones that won't dream of setting foot outside the hotel, can take a tour of the ground floor to decide what therapy they are going to try out: hydro (therapy), mud (therapy), thalasso..., maso..., aroma..., reiki, shiatsu, and so it goes on. Results, and I can vouch for a number of them, are fantastic. For example, I really enjoyed the reflexology and relax massage treatment I received at Beva's expert hands, as well as the (novel, in my case) stress-elimination treatment of aromatherapy: 30 minutes in a vibrating, warm "sensorial capsule", listening to gentle music, sounds of bird calls and falling water in a lavender-perfumed atmosphere.
I was able to prove to myself that this kind of treatment does effectively eliminate stress, although one's appetite seems to increase. In the Shangri-la restaurant, long tables are stacked with delicacies for the buffet.
Machas, picorocos -a delicious crustacean typical of Chile-, salmon, trout and a great variety of fish and seafood, all freshly brought from Puerto Montt and Concepcion, make up the star-studded cast for gourmandizers. All this in addition to the cheeses, dried fruit, meats, salads and vegetables in season.
If you are in doubt about the choice of a main dish, listen to what the maitre, Patricio Badillo, recommends: fillet of mahi mahi -a fish from Easter Island- with veloute of coriander and potato quenelles, conger eel with margarita dressing, stuffed leg of lamb... And those with a sweet tooth can start booking places at the lavish dessert table, spread at the end of the banquet in the manner of a grand finale. A wide-ranging wine menu, featuring Chilean specialties at knock-down prices, closes the Gran Hotel's gourmet offer.
Going over the list of activities is as tiring as trying to carry them all out. Squash, tennis, six-hole golf -three more will be ready by mid-February-, classes of aquaerobics and stretching, tai-chi, yoga, oxygenating walks, rappelling and rock climbing, cycling, horse riding and even tours organized by the entertainment team, like the one we did to the Pangues Grotto, to see that enormous Chilean plant that grows in pre-Cordillera habitats.
The Wine Trail
Beyond the limits of the complex, a possible walk is through the vineyards in the Itata Valley, in Chile's VIII region, south of Chillan.
Meanwhile, take note that here there are two interesting attractions: the Market, one of Chile's largest, and the Escuela Mexico, where the mural painted by Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros en 1941, during his exile in Chile, is displayed.
Regarding the Wine Trail, a novel proposal of this resort, there are still some details to be ironed out. In short, the idea is to visit some of the wineries that are located in the valley; first one gets to Casas de Giner (this is done in the company of enologist Juan Ledesma), a winery that for over 70 years carried out bulk wine production.
The colonial (1890) premises, that look like they've come straight out of a fairy tale book, included the growing of fine strains of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay in 1995; using the wines obtained from these strains, the winery offers a "directed" wine tasting. The second stage on the trail is the commune of Bulnes, home to Viña Tierra y Fuego, a new-breed (1999) winery owned by three Swiss nationals who manufacture Dolce Vita, an exquisite rich wine, as well as other fine wines that are almost totally exported. This visit can end with a lunch at the Tierra y Fuego Restaurant. The third and final stretch of the trail is a visit to the area of Quillon, where local wines and liqueurs are craft-produced.
Back at the resort, if one soaks for a while in the thermal baths, all the effects of the previous day's excesses will be washed away completely. The blessed waters of these mountains also have this miraculous restoring power.
Down the coalmine
Lota, in the Mapuche tongue, means "little town". That's the name of the town that emerged on the Pacific coast in 1662 in the area of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, chosen by the Cousiño family, said to have been the wealthiest in 19th century South America, for their coal mining activity.
The ensuing prosperity is well proven by the parks and palaces that they were able to build. Today one of these is the premises of the Historical Museum. The most important parkland space in the area is Isidora Cousiño, 14 hectares of plants including over 350 species brought by its namesake from the remotest areas in the world.
Lota is also supposed to have been the first Chilean town to have electric light, thanks to a project created by Thomas Alva Edison himself, and one year after the telephone had been invented, there was already one working there. The Cousiño's firm started up in 1852 and operated until 1970, when it was taken over by the government, finally closing in 1997.
The Chiflon del Diablo is a mine that has been open to the public for four years. It is 800 m deep and has 11 km of tunnels that go under the seabed. Classical hard-hat on one's head, one descends some 40 meters in a cage-elevator in the company of guide, Jorge Calabriano.
This is a spine-chilling experience, made more so by Jorge's stories about the mine, dating from the tender age of 11, when he started working there. With the aplomb of one who has come through it all, he tells us that a total of 2,400 miners were at one time employed here, and each had to fill 20 500 kilo coal carts in 14 hours to earn four pay tokens per fortnight -two for clothes and two for food. They lived with the constant danger of explosions and collapses caused by pockets of fire-damp gas, that until 1980 -the year in which the methane gas meter was introduced- was detected, occasionally in time to avert disaster, by a little bird tied to a stick: if the bird died, there was gas present.
The excursion ends at the village of Chivilingo, where a hydroelectric power station was built in 1897 changing the history of the coal mining industry forever in Chile. Right next to the power station is the Casino; here is where the miners used to eat and now the tourists do just that. The jaiva casserole with parmesan cheese is a delicacy. Have one after a pisco sour, the ideal combination.