It seems as though the gods at the end of the earth strove to create their favourite country, throwing extreme landscapes about like nobody’s business; from the arid salt flats of the north, through active volcanoes and crystal lakes, onto the fjords and twisting, icy coastline of the south. Once completed, so perfect, they took hold of each end and fought for the right to claim it their own, pulling and stretching the land to a length of 4,300km, but leaving little width. Welcome to Chile.
The northernmost 1,000 or so kilometres of Chile, spilling into Bolivia and Peru, is a vast expanse of largely barren land. Mountain ranges to each side of the Atacama Desert mean there are patches of land up here which have never seen rain. Its altitude and dryness combine to form an otherworldly sight, indeed, filmmakers chose the spot to represent the surface of Mars, and NASA use the place to test equipment for future Mars missions. The altitude combined with the large uninterrupted sky, free from clouds and light pollution, make for the perfect stargazing setting, with a number of observatories cropping up to keep up with rapidly expanding astro-tourism demands.
San Pedro, a past one horse mining town, is now the gateway to the Atacama Desert for the many tourists visiting the area each year. From here, your options for sightseeing tours are abundant. A typical day trip will see you on the boundless salt flats and onto the vibrantly coloured Flamingo National Reserve, where a sea of pink birds among the rocky wasteland makes for a dynamic visual contrast. The Geysers Del Tatio are another popular sight. Setting off at 4am may sound unpleasant, but catching the sun rising over the many plumes of steam make the early start well worth it. You can brave the morning cold, strip off, and relax in a small pool of hot geyser water. Be careful not to dunk your head, your hair might freeze. The rising of the sun is a quick remedy for the freezing temperatures, and the transformation from cold to hot is complete, too hot if anything.
As always with these kind of trips, a few days, or even a week long excursion into the desert will yield the most satisfaction, with the best of them taking you across the border to Bolivia or Argentina for further exploration.
Heading south, out of the Atacama Desert, but before you reach the nation’s capital, you’ll find the bohemian, coastal city of Valparaiso. On entry, it’s easy to see how Valparaiso earned the nickname The San Francisco of South America. The cities share the same ocean, have numerous artisan shops and eateries, and they are both more of a hilly labyrinth of endless breathlessness than anything else (in a good way). You don’t come here so much to ‘do’ as you do to ‘feel’. It’s one of those cities where the charm lies within wandering around the streets, not knowing where you’ll end up, but safe in the confidence the journey will be a pleasant one. If you ever get too lost, just head downhill and rediscover your bearings observing the vandalism on the walls morphing into complex and fascinating murals. As with most South American cities, you need to be aware of crime. As a general rule in Valparaiso (use the common nickname ‘Valpo’ in an attempt to appear cool), the higher up the hills you climb, the rougher it gets, but you’ll want to take extra care with your wallet wherever you go.
Other than walking around aimlessly, you can walk along the promenade for a few minutes and come across a group of sea lions battling it out for some space on a bit of concrete in the water. Half a day can be wasted watching them leap into the air, attempting to dodge the resident sea lions upon landing, only to be pushed back into the water in an endless water mammal-based gang territory war. Once bored (if ever), you can take a ride on the city’s ascensores up to a pleasant mirador. Indeed, some people make a point of trying to ride all of the funicular railways, all of which have their own names, some of which are more terrifyingly dilapidated than the others. Out of the original 26, there are only about a quarter still operating today, so get a ride in while you still can. They’re also pretty practical for when your tired little legs grow useless.
As night draws, you may be wondering where to spend your evening enjoying a tipple. Well, not too dissimilar to Spain, most of the club type places won’t open until around midnight, but when they do, you’ll be spoilt for choice. With cheap, electronic, students clubs, higher end salsa dancing joints, and nifty little jazz bars, you’re bound to find something to tickle your fancy.
Hop on a bus for 100km or so to the east, and you’ll find yourself in the capital city, Santiago, where are the general rules of safety for South America apply. In what is likely to be your entry point to the rest of Chile, try not to waste your days fighting the fatigue inducing monster that is jetlag. If you plan to stay a number of days in the city, head to the nearest metro station and get yourself a Bip! travel card, which can also be used on the busses.
There’s something about going to a city that makes you want to find the tallest building, go to the top, and have a look at stuff from up high. In the Sky Costanera observation deck you will be the highest (in the purest sense of the word) person in South America with 360 degree views of the city and the Andes to the east. I wouldn’t want to be up there during an earthquake though… Speaking of which, similarly to the rest of the country, Santiago has a rich history, but as it lies on the unmerciful Pacific Ring of Fire, it is relentlessly struck by powerful earthquakes. Consequently, the oldest (colonial) building you can visit is the San Francisco Church, which itself has seen its fair share of damage over the years. The central point of the city’s origins, The Plaza de Armas, is a quaint spot hosting a few other buildings of note including the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Central Post Office.
The parks of the city create pockets of calm to enjoy the cityscape and the mountains beyond. But why stop there? The Andes are only a day trip away and are there to be used for your hiking or skiing pleasure. Furthermore, the beach is also within driving distance, and Chile’s coastline presents many an opportunity for the avid surfer. For bonus points, try skiing and surfing in the same day. Of course, it wouldn’t be a travel article without the obligatory mention of a little vineyard trip, and Chile’s wine is world famous. Jump onto one of the many day tours to visit some vineyards and taste some of the local wine before it gets exported to your local Mercadona.
Head further down the thin strip of a country and things start to get really beautiful. Snow-capped volcanoes, untouched forests, vast national parks, and serene lakes hosting picturesque towns: this is Chilean Lakes District.
Probably the main stop for most tourists is the town of Puerto Varas, which looks as though it’s been plucked straight from Bavaria and plonked on the edge of the earth. The architecture hails from German immigrants arriving to found the town in a state-sponsored colonisation move, whereby Chile wanted to build residential settlements on the land to enhance its long term claim to the area and protect against forced colonisation that was popular in those days. Today Puerto Varas looks over Llanquihue Lake, onto the Calbuco and Osorno volcanoes on the other side, which makes for a rather pleasant base for a few days as you shoot off in each direction for your day’s activities.
Have an early night, climbing Osorno is one of those silly o’clock starts, and won’t see you back to shelter until around 8pm. Although you don’t technically need any climbing experience to get yourself up the volcano, be prepared for a crash course in harness and ice axe use, this isn’t your afternoon stroll up the Rock. After a few hours climbing up a glacier, the summit will provide you with great views of the mountains, four or five lakes, and a nice sense of achievement at having climbed up an active volcano. Aside from climbing up icy, conical mountains filled with bubbling lava, there are all the other activities you’d expect from such setting. Kayaking on lakes and rafting through the rivers, trekking through the forested mountains, or just sitting down for a spot of relaxing fishing, there’ll be something to keep you in this town for a good while.
Elsewhere in the region, for those wanting to dip their toe into the area rather than spend a good length of time, Pucon sits on the northern side of the lakes district and can have more of a water activities feel to it, although, there’s obviously a few little volcanos for you to make your way up if you want. After you’ve had your fill of trekking to various waterfalls and lagoons, you can indulge in the town’s adventure activity industry. Few places can claim to boast a better aerial view for your first experience of freefalling from the heavens. A skydiving experience over the volcanic peaks and glacial lakes can be yours for a couple of hundred dollars, although, I prefer the slightly less exhilarating aerial experience in the form of paragliding, which provides views from slightly lower down, but at a less terrifying pace. Trek the area for a few days, go water-skiing, ziplining, and finish off with a spot of tranquil horse riding through the woods. Pucon is another town you could easily spend a week exploring.
Further south still is the frozen adventure land of Patagonia. Admittedly, 90% of Patagonia is over the border in Argentina, but there’s still plenty to do on the Chilean side. There’s an abundance to see and do down here, so I’ll gloss over the highlights. Many tourists fly into the southernmost city of Punta Arenas, principally for its airport, but it does have a brewery, and can be used for various day trips to the following places:
A couple of hours by boat from Punta Arenas is a dirty looking island with a funny smell, which you can only access from December to February. Why would you want to? Well, over 100,000 little birds dressed for a dinner party waddle along the shores of Isla Magdalena and it is said to be the closest thing to Antarctica (without actually going there). If penguins aren’t your thing, how about rough seas and strong winds? The black cliffs, white icebergs, and extreme weather make visiting Cape Horn a spiritual experience for many travellers, indeed, much literature can be found on the area, including the many struggles sailors have had with the notorious seas over the centuries. Cape Horn lies on the edge of Tierra Del Fuego, which (obviously) has an incredible national park ready for your exploration, but for many, it’s the gateway to Antarctica. The small town of Porvenir is a nice place to put your head down after you’ve had your fill of emerald lagoons and blue hued glaciers.
For the hikers among us, make a beeline towards Torres del Paine National Park, where there are a couple of popular walks. The quickest of the two takes around five days, but the serious nature lovers won’t want less than a week to explore the edge of the earth. ‘The Circuit’ is a ten day walk circumnavigating the entire national park, taking you past stunning views of the Paine Horns, a serious of greyish/yellowish rocks unapologetically jutting out 3,000 or so metres from the ground and dramatically altering the landscape. The walk will also encompass rich wildlife and woodland, as well as glistening lakes, including one which a massive glacier, Glacier Grey, is slowly self-destructing into. Very scenic stuff.
After making your way round the many natural wonders this place has to offer, you can rest easily knowing that Argentina boasts the majority of this majestic land, so plan a longer holiday and come back next year.
Away from the harsh conditions, and everything else in the world, is a remote little island. About as remote as you can get. Easter Island lies 3,500km from the motherland, with its original inhabitants actually arriving from the west, most likely Taiwan (rather than Chile), in an attempt to flee an island slowly being swallowed by the sea, according to the legend. Apparently, the link between this spec of land on the map and Chile is the sweet potato, which originates in South America, proving that the two civilizations crossed paths at some stage. Before Christianity forcibly threw its cloak over the nation, the island had some interesting beliefs, principally, that the dead and the living were connected. It was this belief that led to the erection of the huge stone statues, the moai, which are believed to resemble/honour past ancestors. As time went on, the island sported fewer resources and more humans, leading to an overpopulation problem of about 15,000 inhabitants. Around this time, the moai were no longer considered the medium to contact the dead, and instead the inhabitants relied on local competition and the aptly named god responsible for creating humans, Makemake. Today, most of the moai have been purposefully toppled due to past civil wars. During the 19th century, the problems colonialists bring to foreign lands, such as disease and slavery, saw the population plummet to just over one hundred, sadly losing much of the cultural practices and beliefs of the past.
Many people believe that visiting Easter Island is a costly, timely experience for the experienced traveller. Well, it is a five hour flight from Santiago, but if you’re lucky, you can get it for $500. You can visit the moai and other archaeological sites in two or three days, and hop back on a flight without too much disruption to your carefully planned trip, and although the island relies largely on tourism for its economy, you won’t find yourself in a sea of tourists. There are also a couple of beaches, if you’ve come out here to sunbathe. Makes a nice change from the icy heartland of Patagonia.
And so you have it, a true eclectic mix of cultures and landscapes forming a yet another part of the world which needs to be given more time than we have. Sweep through as part of a larger trip, or tackle the individual gems of the country systematically in separate holidays. Just remember to pack appropriately, in the summer, it can be rather toasty, and in the winter it get quite… cold.