Nestled between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east, Chile is one of the longest countries in the world, but also one of the narrowest. From the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert in the far north to the dramatic, windswept scenery of Southern Patagonia, Chile is astoundingly diverse and with excellent domestic flights, it is easy to explore much of what this wonderful country has to offer.
Santiago, the capital, is more of less right in the centre of the country and acts as a springboard for exploring all there is to do and see. The city itself is one of the most cosmopolitan in Latin America, home to excellent hotels and restaurants. The city scape is an eclectic mix of traditional colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers, set against the dramatic Andes mountain backdrop. To the east of the city, world-renowned hotels can be found in the well-heeled neighbourhoods of Providencia and Las Condes. Whilst the bohemian Bellavista and recently renovated Lastarria districts offer charming boutique properties and a burgeoning culinary scene, closer to the city centre.
Heading out into the surrounding countryside surrounding the capital, you will find yourself in the heart of Chile's winelands. Mediterranean temperatures and fertile soils have been used to grow wine grapes, originally brought from Europe during the colonial period.
This beautiful region, not far from the city, is a must for those seeking a little relaxation before, during or after their trip. Experts and sommeliers are on hand at most local wineries to guide you through the world class rounds.
An hour’s drive north of Santiago lies the charmingly chaotic, colourful city of Valparaiso, Chile’s main port. Whilst most of Chile’s cities follow neat grid systems, Valpo as it is known, is a wonderfully messy, urban sprawl, set across seven hills and linked by sixteen funicular railways. It is not hard to see why the vibrant city has churned out many of the country’s leading writers and artists. A steep maze of crumbling mansions, hidden alleys and some of the most spectacular street art in Latin America, this faded coastal beauty exudes attitude.
The north is mostly barren due to the presence of the vast Atacama Desert which receives virtually no rainfall throughout the year. This high, dry and unpolluted region offers some of the clearest skies on earth which allows for the ultimate stargazing experience and has led several top-level observatories to set up home in the area. In the far north of the country, bordering Peru and Bolivia, the lesser visited Lauca National Park lies at the heart of the Chilean altiplano where wildlife includes llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, vizcachas (chincilla family), and over a hundred bird species. Further south, the popular small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama is within easy reach of many of the dramatic desert highlights - salt flats, geysers, sand dunes, lagoons and snow-capped mountains are just some of the spectacular sites you can visit, either on horseback, by bike or on foot. The area is also rich in culture with some fascinating archaeological sites and museums nearby.
As you venture further south in Chile the landscape becomes greener, entering the extensive Lake District, snow-capped mountains are reflected in deep blue lakes, active volcanoes rumble and dense temperature forests carpet mountain slopes. In the north of the region the small town of Pucón, set on the stunning Lake Villarica in the smouldering eye of its namesake volcano, is the adventure capital of Chile and a popular summer spot for rafting, canyoning and hiking. Continuing south, the spectacular Lake Crossing into Argentina is possible year-round, though best done under the clear skies of summer months. The busy port town of Puerto Montt and the picturesque, Germanic Puerto Varas are the best bases for exploring the southern part of the region. From here it is a short ferry ride to the mist-shrouded archipelago of Chiloé. This wild, windswept spot is home to a local seafaring population who are fiercely independent and celebrated for their rich mythology, colourful stilted homes and atmospheric wooden churches.
Construction of Chile’s iconic southern highway, the Carretera Austral began in the seventies; partially paved, some sections remain dirt road today. Before this time there was no main road linking the small settlements dotted throughout the wild, southern section of Chile. The highway paves the way for one of South America’s most adventurous and scenic road trips through Patagonia’s towering mountains, virgin forests, hanging glaciers and villages trapped in time. Highlights of the northern stretch include, the privately-owned Pumalín Park, created by American billionaire Douglas Tompkins; the tumbling Futaleufú river; Queulat National Park with its hanging glacier; and the picturesque Simpson Valley. Further south, past Balmaceda, the wilderness the road snakes through is the very definition of remote until reaching the impassable barrier of the South American icefield where a diversion into Argentina is necessary to continue overland.
Southern Patagonia, home to fjords, rivers, lakes and glaciers offers some of the most dramatic scenery in the entire Southern hemisphere. For many, the jewel in Patagonia’s crown is the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park, a land of sheer granite peaks, azure lakes and seas of ice. As well as the spectacular scenery all around, the wildlife in the region is also excellent – guanacos graze the steppe as condors circle overhead, the cat that rules the park is the elusive puma. Whilst far from guaranteed, chances of sighting these tawny coloured cats, Patagonia’s largest and most dangerous predator, in the wild are at their highest in Torres del Paine. The national park offers a network of well-marked trails and despite being such a remote region, the accommodation in and around the park is some of the finest in the country.
Last but not least, lying thousands of miles to the west of mainland Chile, just south of the Tropic of Capricorn is Chile’s unique and utterly remote outpost, Easter Island. Rapa Nui, as it is known to locals is a mystical land of white sand beaches, volcanoes, crater lakes and the 900 logic-defying moai, stone statues, each up to nine metres in height. Explore the savage beauty of the most remote inhabited island on earth with expert local guides who can offer authentic insight into the Rapanui culture. Far from just an open-air museum, the white sand beaches of the island beckon water sports enthusiasts from all over the world for excellent snorkelling, diving and surfing.
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