In order to do research for a novel, I spent January and February of this year in Chile, thereby avoiding a particularly bitter winter in Washington, D.C. My intention was to pass most of my time in Santiago and spend only a couple of weeks touring the South. After about a week in the capital, I met up with a Californian named Jeff who was going “trekking” (the hip term for “backpacking”) in the Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia. Like most of the foreign “ecotourists,” he was lingering in Santiago only for as long as necessary to coordinate travel plans to the South. He needed a Spanish-speaking travel companion, and I needed a tent, so we teamed up and flew down to Punta Arenas.

I finally returned to Santiago a month later, having been sidetracked at every turn by the natural attractions of this longitudinal land. In retrospect, the journey proved to be an indispensable part of my cultural survey of the country: in few other places is the connection between geography and cultural destiny more consistently tangible than in the case of Chile.

The central fact of this geography is, naturally, the Andean cordillera, the imposing and omnipresent wall of rock and ice that has served to isolate the country in a remote corner of the New World for most of its history. The Andes serve as a constant symbol of Chile’s frontierish situation—ecologically, culturally, economically, and politically—vis-à-vis the modern world. Even though Santiago is now as accessible as any other large capital city in the world, the vast and sparsely populated hinterlands of the country remain in another age.

On the ecological frontier, the country’s attempts to balance the interests of economic development and conservation are being shaped in a large way by the demands of the million-plus ecotourists who come to Chile each year to trek across the glaciers of Patagonia, climb to the tops of 20,000-foot peaks and smoking volcanoes, and kayak and river-raft down the country’s 40 major rivers. This year, many of the rafters and kayakers had come specifically to take on the Bio-Bio River, one of the world’s most outstanding collections of Class 5 rapids, in the last summer season before it is to be dammed up for a hydroelectric project. Although the project has caused an outcry among First World river-riders, they will probably keep coming back to do the other 39. Much of the time, this California-style invasion did not seem out of place. From the brown coastal foothills to the semigreen central valley to the steep rise of the eastern sierra, the temperate latitudes of the country look startlingly like the Golden State. I was not even surprised to run into a couple of archetypal Santa Barbara surfers who were spending part of their endless summer on a large section of the country’s 2,600 miles of coastline. Still, the extent of this movement was impressive. In the resort town of Pucon, I stayed at a hostel run by École, one of several American foundations that have purchased sections of native forest for conservation purposes. The hostel, which covers its costs by taking guests on nature-education hikes, was a surgically transplanted slice of Humboldt County, complete with a vegetarian menu and Grateful Dead music on the stereo.

One of the prime movers in the greening of Chile is American Douglas Tompkins, a former owner of the Espirit and North Face companies and a devotee of “deep ecology” environmentalism. Four years ago, Tompkins began quietly buying up parcels of forested land 100 kilometers to the south of Puerto Montt, for the purpose of creating a private national park. By the time the government caught on to his plans, he had become the second largest private landowner in the country, with a domain stretching from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean.

The resulting controversy has brought about an illuminating convergence of issues. Even though the neoliberal (in the sense of “liberal” used everywhere except the United States) Chilean constitution promotes the security of private property, a wide variety of politicians from conservatives leftward have objected to Tompkins’ plans on pro-development and economic-nationalist grounds, and the armed forces have talked about the strategic value of his border properties. When I brought the topic up with common Chileans, I heard a variety of conspiracy theories, most of them surrounding the notion that Tompkins is bent on creating an exclusive society like the infamous Colonia Dignidad, founded after World War II by a group of German émigrés.

On the cultural frontier, Chileans work rather hard to maintain the outward appearance of conservative propriety, while their society slips (however slowly) toward the general state of permissiveness of Western democracies. Divorce, for example, while not yet legal, looks to be gaining ground steadily, especially in the wake of Ireland’s recent narrow approval of the act. Instead, “separation” of married couples is widespread. It seemed that half of the men I met in their mid-20’s had already been married and separated, often with children. Infidelity is part of the pattern, and helps to fuel the considerable industry of hotels that rent rooms by the hour. These facilities range from simple hotel rooms to the kind of extravagant sexual theme parks described by Isabel Allende in The House of the Spirits. They are also used by young unmarried couples, since Chilean youths tend to live at home until they tie the knot. As it is, nearly every available public space seems to be filled with make-out artists.

In spite of the general trend, legalized abortion, for now, is barely a blip on the political radar screen. Accounts vary greatly concerning the incidence of the practice. Only the upper-class women are wealthy enough to go to another country for an antiseptic operation, and they are, according to all reports, the most conservative of the nation’s women. In only one regard is the United States more outwardly prudish than Chile. I refer to the presence of half naked girls on the front pages of some of the major daily newspapers. While I have nothing against half-naked girls— especially the Argentine beachgoers who are regularly featured—I did take some pride in the fact that in America our mainstream journalism has not sunk to this particular tactic in its quest for readership.

While the invasion of American culture, and especially pop culture, is extensive in practically every sphere, it is far from the point of overwhelming native Chilean elements. The Viña del Mar music festival, for all of its glamour-pop cheesiness, I take to be a sign of the resilience of such elements. The internationally televised February festival is a showcase of Latin Rock and hemispheric folklorical music. This year’s nod to American pop was the brief resurrection of Laura Branigan—worse, perhaps, than no nod at all. One of my leftist friends told me that during the Unidad Popular years, bands like Santana and Joe Cocker came to Viña, which is far and away the best thing I have heard about the Allende period.

Chile is famous as an economic frontier. In melodramatic shorthand, it is the former socialist basket case that was rescued from the fate of Alan Garcia’s Peru by the free-market technocrats of the Pinochet government and set on a course for the First World along with the other Pacific Rim economies. But what really makes the country frontierish are the places where the Chile of the economic “miracle”—with its pagers and cellular phones and per-capita standard-of-living statistics—meets the old Chile of entrenched habits, intransigent simplicity, and continuing poverty.

Roughly 15 percent of the labor force works in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, where two decades of often grueling modernization have made these sectors internationally competitive. Even so, much of the cultivation and extraction in these sectors remains traditional. And while this made for some wonderfully rustic scenery in the southern farm country and the fishing villages of the island of Chiloé—where it often helped to have an off-road motorcycle with good shocks—I did wonder about the fates of these rural people in the ever-advancing age of big business and international free trade.

Officially, Chile is eager to join NAFTA. As it is, the country has unilaterally lowered its general tariffs to 11 percent, and it has set up tariff-free zones in its northernmost and southernmost regions. Still, many Chileans I talked to expressed the concern that their nation is on its way to becoming an American territory. One traditional business practice, that of the multiple receipts, brings both frustration and amusement to foreigners. It occurs mostly in pharmacies and school supplies stores, and seems to be more common in Santiago than in the South. After the customer has selected an item, the salesman behind the counter hands him a receipt, or boleto. Even though the customer may have held the item in his hand, he must give it back to the salesman and then take the receipt to another employee who works at the caja, or cash register. Once the customer has paid for the item and received a stamped receipt, he must then go, not back to the sales counter, but to a third station, empaque, where he at last exchanges the receipt for the item he has purchased. This process, which takes on Monty Pythonish aspects when there is only one employee in the store, occurs regardless of whether the store has a bar-code reader, so it probably cannot be pinned on old-fashioned methods of inventory accounting.

Now, whenever I see a widespread practice that appears to be inefficient, I suspect that the government is behind it. But none of the clerks I asked seemed to think that there was any kind of perverse legislation, tax or otherwise, prompting the multiple receipts. This was further confirmed for me by a young UCLA-trained economist during a visit to a right-wing think tank, the Instituto Libertad y Desarrollo. Though the practice was a staple of life in the Soviet Union, the whole phenomenon remains a mystery to me.

Some quick investment tips for Chronicles readers follow. First, I was unable to find a single cigar store in the country that had a real humidor; aside from having narrow selections of Havanas, none of the best tabaquerías could compare to the fashion-mall cigar stores in Tucson, Arizona. Second, although the Coffee Revolution is several years off at this point, there may be rewards for early entrants; Au Bon Pain has already made a tiny beachhead in Santiago, but demand remains to be created in a nation that lives in the extremes of Nescafe and espresso. Third, I hope that there is money to be made by disrupting the annoying monopoly in maritime tourist travel between Puerto Montt and points in the Far South. Fourth—a challenge for big-thinkers—would be to generate an exchange market for commodities and commodity-derivatives; such markets are technically allowed by law, but none (other than a gold exchange) have started up since the financial-market wipeout in the early 1980’s.

In general, the country appears to be moving steadily forward at around six percent GDP growth per annum, with infrastructure continuing to modernize. Many economists attribute this rapid and steady growth to the high level of domestic savings created by the nation’s system of private retirement insurance. In a neat case of historical symmetry, Chile, which was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to create a Social Security System (1924), in 1981 became the first nation in the hemisphere to privatize its system. Faced with the imminent bankruptcy of its social insurance pyramid scheme (sound familiar?), Chile replaced withholding taxes with mandatory contributions to individual retirement accounts managed by private investment companies (AFPs). The designer of the AFP system, former Labor Secretary José Piñera, is now working with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., to promote a similar reform of the American system. The irony of this is not lost on Chileans.

Only seven years this side of a 16-year military dictatorship, Chile is very much a political frontier. Nearly every Chilean sounds optimistic about the prospects for democracy, but Pinochet continues to loom in the background as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and unelected senators continue to hold nine of the country’s 47 senate seats. As it is, the principal conservative party, Renovación Nacional, and the main right-wing coalition. Unión por Chile, are being torn apart by divisions over constitutional reforms that would alter the juridical contours of the military’s relationship to the civilian authorities.

When I asked Chileans about the history of the Pinochet regime, most people said something like this: 1) the regime was reprehensibly brutal, but the radical leftists brought it on themselves by undermining the constitution; 2) the country is democratic now, with a good economy, so we should be honest about what happened but not dwell on it to the point that we get bogged down and forget to move forward. (For a nuanced version of this thesis, read the commentaries of author Jorge Edwards in his 1994 collection, El Whisky de los Poetas.) Many Chileans I talked to had little to say about the dictatorship, and described themselves as “apolitical.” But as my friend Jamie, who is in Santiago writing his history dissertation, explained, to be “apolitical” in today’s Chile usually means being a tacit Pinochet supporter. Still, it is not difficult to find bitter anti-Pinochet sentiment—just visit any university other than the Universidad Católica.

The Frei government continues to privatize state-held companies and run an orderly fiscal ship. Further, the politicians of the ruling center-left coalition, the Concertacion, appear to be restrained in their policy tinkering by a (sometimes grudging) respect for the neoliberal policies that have put Chile ahead of its neighbors according to most indices of social and economic welfare. Still, the temptation—noble or otherwise —to find political solutions to the problems of the poor remains. While Chile’s private retirement insurance system is not under attack (despite a year of bad returns for the AFPs), the ISAPRE system—a medical savings account analog—may be undermined by plans to require all workers to contribute to the public health system. And, in a recent poll, Socialist Party public works minister Ricardo Lagos beat out all other national political figures by wide margins.

It will remain to be seen how the divided right responds as the center-left mounts future assaults on the edifice of neoliberal policy. Although its current synthesis is overwhelmingly neoliberal, Chilean conservatism in the 20th century —from Francisco Encina to Mario Gongora—has rarely been more than an uneasy ally of free-market liberalism.

As the modern world comes pouring over the Andes and washes up on the beaches of its long Pacific coast, Chile may eventually lose many of its more frontierish elements. In any case, it remains at present an exceptionally comfortable place to travel, thanks to helpful and friendly people, low prices, low crime, and low levels of official corruption (which have given it a reputation as the “South American Prussia”). And, while it’s too early to predict a trend, I did meet several Americans down there who had moved to Chile to work, winter, and retire. I understand their enthusiasm.