Introducing Chile: Land of extremes
Measuring 2600 miles from North to South but averaging only 110 miles in width, Chile is home to both the driest desert on the planet and some of the world’s most prolific glaciers. Wedged between the bountiful Pacific Ocean and the towering Andes, this is Nature on a grand scale. There’s kayaking, skiing, fishing and trekking galore but there’s also oodles of culture, food and fun.
For nature lovers
Chile spans nearly 40 degrees of latitude, and it offers some of the most diverse climates and landscapes on the planet. The town of San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert is like Arizona on steroids: some weather stations have never recorded precipitation, and the snow-capped volcanoes, high altitude geysers, and freakish rock formations make it a fantastic place for photography, star gazing and contemplation.
A little further south you come to the beaches of La Serena (rustic) and Viña del Mar (snazzier), but be warned: the water in Chile is almost as cold as an Oregon beach in January. The pastoral Central Valley surrounding the capital, Santiago, is known for its wine and apple farms – with the ever-present Andes providing a spectacular and unexpected backdrop.
South of the capital is the magnificent Lake District; a fairytale land of Halcyon lakes, evergreen forests, jagged peaks and crystalline rivers. “Like Switzerland without the Swiss,” a jovial Irish hostel owner told me. You could easily spend two weeks in the Lake District and not run out of beautiful places to see.
Next is Patagonia proper, a vast underpopulated region which spans the southern halves of both Chile and Argentina. In winter Patagonia can be pretty rough but in summer its fjords, islands, glaciers and cliffs put on a show that’s far better than anything Hollywood could come up with. The whole region is incredible but the Torres del Paine National Park, with its fairytale peaks and mirror smooth lakes, will redefine your understanding of the word ‘stunning’.
Finally you reach Tierra del Fuego, a mythical island of extreme beauty and hardship. Tierra del Fuego is the closest continental landmass to Antarctica, and even today it retains an air of adventure and heroism which more than justifies the extremely high prices!
For thrill seekers
All that nature means Chile has an outlet for every kind of adrenaline junky, but it does have a self-proclaimed adventure capital. Pucón is located on the shores of picturesque Lago Villarica, and surrounded by forests, mountains and national parks. Pucón’s biggest drawcard is hiking to the edge of the crater of still-smouldering Volcan Villarica, which at 2800 metres above sea level can be reached in a day – be sure to hire a guide, though, as the hike requires crampons and an ice axe. In summer the kayaking and rafting on the Colaico River is out of the very top drawer, while there’s great skiing in the winter months. Year round attractions include mountain biking , canopy (whiz across valleys while strapped to a metal cable) and numerous hot springs.
But of course Pucón is not the only place to get your kicks. Other bucket list experiences include horseback-riding in the Atacama Desert, going on a multi-day trek through Torres del Paine and casting a fly for the jumbo trout of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
For culture vultures
The majority of the population lives in the fertile Central Valley where they have been making art, poetry and wine for millennia. Santiago is home to some fantastic colonial architecture, art galleries and museums as well as a thriving food and wine scene. Chile’s best wineries are also found close to the capital, and every itinerary should include at least one day of wine-tasting.
The ramshackle port town of Valparaiso, with its colourful houses and hair-raising funicular has attracted loads of creative souls and it boasts an energy that’s second to none. On the other end of the spectrum the simple wooden churches on the remote archipelago of Chiloe are evocative in the extreme.
Chile is known throughout South America as ‘The Land of Poets’, but far and away the most famous of these is the Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. Neruda was a national hero and all three of his houses – in Santiago, Valparaiso and Isla Negra – have been turned into truly exceptional museums. His quirky sense of architecture and design and his obsession with all things maritime have stuck with me forever.
As if this isn’t enough Chile has one more ace up its sleeve: rugged and enigmatic Rapa Nui (Easter Island), located 3500km from the mainland, is home to the mysterious carved heads or moai which have fascinated explorers and academics for centuries. Most people don’t have the time or money to include Rapa Nui on their itinerary. But those who do never forget their time on the mysterious island.
Chile is so vast and so diverse that you can’t possibly experience everything it has to offer on one holiday. But choosing which spots to visit is half of the fun, isn't it?
With the exception of the image of Neruda (stock) and the wine country (supplied by Caliterra Vineyards) all other images were supplied by Explora Hotels.