“Super” smiles Melania in a Germanic twang as her young apprentice thumbs another raspberry, fresh from the secret garden, onto the meringue. It looks like a scene of domestic bliss, a moment between grandmother and granddaughter. But they’re not related. Not officially, at least.
‘Family friendly’ is a term, beloved of travel agents and apprehensive parents. It screams resorts and ball pools and kids clubs and chicken nuggets and nothing too wild. It’s a term that’s scared us for years.
To us, family friendly doesn’t have to mean big hotels. To us, it means a place you can exist together in relative harmony. A place that’s not so fancy they’d throw a tantrum-throwing toddler out, but nice enough for a glass or three of wine once the kids are asleep. Above all, family friendly places are kind places, safe places. Places with open kitchens and open arms.
From day one of our trip, we’d been looking for ways to integrate into the communities we visit, to get under the skin of a place and live like a local. Pre-kids, that might have involved midnights on motorbikes and tuk tuk rides into the unknown, tequila contests with Mexicans and pool battles with ladyboys. But when you throw a five year old and a baby into the mix, things have to change whether you like it or not. Safety becomes a bigger priority, comfort is upped to a certain level and you need to find things they’ll actually enjoy. Because if we’re being honest, travelling the world with kids is a selfish decision, unless you find a way for them to fall in love with it too.
We’d been deliberately mixing up our accommodation for a while, bouncing from hotel to house to jungle lodge to bell tent. But eight months in, we were still looking for that elusive way of combining family life and ‘proper travelling’.
And so then to Chile. After eight wonderful, sweaty, elaborately spiced months in Asia, we needed a change. As our littlest was too little for Patagonia and the seasons were against us, we had decided on a lesser-known alternative — the Chilean Lake District. All volcanic landscapes and grazing cattle, the autumnal air was cool and the colours warm. It was there, set deep in the countryside around those glimmering lakes, that we found what we’d been looking for. And it was called ‘Turismo rural’.
Turismo rural is an organisation that enables families living in rural areas and villages to host tourists keen to experience a place in the most authentic way. It exists here, there and everywhere in some form, but in the Chilean lakes two men have made it mean business. There is a website, though it takes a bit of Spanish and a lot of digging. It is worth it though, because it’s a treasure trove of characters and cultures, of glimpses into how people really live. Each family has a story, a specialism, a particular passion, and all you need to do is contact the hosts directly and organise your stay. For around £40-£80 a day for a family of four, you can ride horses, help out on farms, sail, raft, hike, cook and the list goes on. We, being us, want to eat.
We have three weeks to spend around the lakes and we’ve chosen our people carefully. Our time in the countryside kicks off with a stay at Marta’s place, where she teaches us to cook a classic ‘cazuela de pollo de campo’ and all its accompaniments. It’s a chicken stew, yes, but with twists and turns and unusual ingredients all over the place. We pass out, full and happy, under a pile of knitted blankets, a Mapuche hanging on the wall above our heads.
The following day, we head off for a day on the Ruta Huilliche with Paula Álvarez Nempu. Paula and two other local women run this educational, fully immersive day as both a business and a way of teaching tourists about traditional Mapuche culture. We start with a breakfast in Matilde’s smoke-filled fogón, effectively a shack containing a large open fire in the middle of the room. Smoke belches around the table as she cooks “tortilla al rescoldo”, a loaf cooked directly in the red-hot embers on the floor. Olivia and River watch in awe and mild confusion as Matilde scrapes the ash from the bread, gives it a tap and drops it onto the table to accompany the rest of the feast.
We eat lunch with the formidable Elizabeth Sandoval, in her ramshackle house that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairytale. That evening, we listen to stories in a barn from another time, as we toast grains into the traditional ‘Cafe de Malta’. That night, back at the ranch, Marta heats up the ‘tina’, a hot tub that, far from being the 80s icons that spring to mind, is a traditional wooden tub that sends steam billowing out into the open air. We sit, splashing in the bubbles, watching the sheep shuffle across the chilly fields.
Next, we drive down to Fresia, further still into rural farmland. We’re staying with Melania, specifically chosen for her love of baking and instantly named “the pudding lady” by our sweet-toothed five year old. Our welcome snack is a table laden with caramel waffles and homemade biscuits and the best dulce de leche we’ve ever tasted. Olivia’s eyes pop out on stalks. She cannot believe this is allowed. For four days only, her luck is in.
But it’s not just about the sugar. We take walks through farmland, weaving our way through the cows and their calves. River, still wobbly on his newfound walking legs, holds hands with his sister as they throw feed to the chickens in the yard. Melania invites her grandchildren over to play with Olivia and yet again, language proves no barrier — the universal language of play is hard at work and reliable as ever. Our daughter returns from a fishing attempt with a look of shocked delight and a large river trout in her hand. They are learning so much. They’re just having so much fun they don’t notice it happening.
The food is a revelation. So many things are back on the menu (hello potatoes, after eight months of rice) and so many things are new, from the algae tang of rubbery cochayuyo to the sharp, bright pebres that spike life into every main. Jars of sunshine yellow papayas and scarlet pepper jelly line the walls. Great hunks of lamb are skewered in the fireplace for a family feast, the fat dripping and crisping with every slow spin. And then, of course, there’s the curanto. We should talk about that.
There are a few things you need to know. Firstly you need friends for a curanto. This is not a quiet, elegant dish. It is not a meal for one. It requires time and wine and chatter and the suspension of manners, for your hands will dribble in the juices from the mussels as you prise them open with your nails. Your face will be shiny from the broth and fat. You may want to undo your top button. Made from layer upon layer of smoked pork, luganica sausage, clams, mussels and two types of potato cake, the curanto was originally constructed in a hole and cooked underground on red hot rocks. But in recent years, it has graduated to a giant pot, as the Chileans realised they were losing the precious juices into the soil. So now the golden broth is ladled into teacups, the star of the show. We’re seriously debating one for Christmas dinner this year.
For us, that dish sums up the weeks we spent around the lakes. The curanto means family, and so does turismo rural. You live with the family, you cook with the family, you eat with the family. It’s safe, it’s welcoming, an immersive hug of an experience that teaches you everything and risks nothing. Your children are cuddled, coddled, entertained and all but adopted. It is, in short, the real family friendly.
Back on the farm, the curanto wreckage has been cleared. The raspberry meringue that Olivia helped to make lands on the table and the kids hurtle back in from the trampoline. “Super”, says our host, surveying the situation with a grin. Well, quite, Melania. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
We advise calling hosts personally to check availability and tariffs.