Santiago, Atacama Desert, Easter Island,
Lake District, Northern and Southern Patagonia
Chile’s long and lean topography manages to squeeze an enormous variety of landscapes into its skinny frame. The longest, thinnest country in the world, on your Chile holiday you’ll find extremes as wide-ranging as the granite peaks and glaciers of its deepest south to the bewitching barren desert landscape of the north. Take a journey from north to south or west to east and you’ll encounter rolling vineyards producing the finest New World grapes, volcanoes dusted with snow and a coastline peppered with islets like beautiful, mysterious Isla de Chiloé.
Don’t be confined to the mainland. Chiloé and its neighbours make for a deep exploration of the fascinating indigenous cultures who have lived this way, untouched by modern technology, for many centuries. The most dramatic of Chile’s many islands is surely the tiny speck in the crashing Pacific Ocean, some 3,200 kilometres off the coast.
Here, towering granite statues known as ‘moai’ stand sentry over the inconspicuous island, some of the last relics of an ancient culture with customs somehow more curious than its stone symbols. In the south the fertile winelands eventually give way to the enormous expanse of Chilean Patagonia and the Torres del Paine National Park, Chile’s most famous wilderness area. In the centre of it all lies Santiago, the country’s atmospheric capital. How will you fit it all in?
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REGIONS OF CHILE
With the Andes twinkling in the distance, Santiago boasts an impressive setting. The fifth largest city in South America is russet coloured, contrasting with the snowy peaks behind its surprisingly modern high rises. It’s a wonderful city for a stroll, with each neighbourhood affording its own unique character. Chile is a year round destination so the best time to visit Chile is… whenever you can travel! Santiago is best in the spring and autumn, which also a great time to visit the Lake District when there are fewer crowds. The Central Valley, just south of the capital, is one of the most fertile wine producing regions of the world and is ideal for wine tours and enjoying a gentler pace of life.
In steep contrast to the fertile wine regions, wetlands, lakes and glaciers, not to mention a long coastline, Chile is also home to the driest place on Earth. At its most beautiful at sunrise and sunset, the hostile environs of the Atacama Desert make for incredible stargazing across its barren plateaus. Vistas here are huge: literally as far as the eye can see. At sunset the sky and horizon appear to meld, glowing scarlet and gold before giving way to an inky blackness littered with so many stars it would be impossible to count before sunrise. When the sun is up you can explore the lunar landscape and its geysers and salt lakes in detail.
Just five hours by air, the insignificant volcanic rock that is Easter Island holds incredible cultural significance for South America. The squat bodies and brooding faces of the moai stone figures, the curious Birdman ceremonies: traditions have been astonishingly well preserved here and nothing compares to seeing it all in person on your own Easter Island tour. Come face to face with the statues and make up your own conclusions as to how they got there and who put them there. The main town of Hanga Roa is well placed for exploring the rest of the island, which also has three volcanoes and a beach, though isn’t brilliant for swimming.
Head south from Santiago and you’ll discover the Lake District, where shimmering blue lakes are interspersed with thundering waterfalls, glaciers and thermal pools, set against the backdrop of the dramatic Andes. Until 1880 the entire region was blanketed in forest, when small farm settlers arrived and took advantage of the natural benefits of the land. Impossibly pretty, this region is ideal for outdoor pursuits such as hiking, biking and horse riding, fishing or taking to the waters on a relaxing cruise. Thermal pools will help you relax further after all that activity.
The great region of Northern Patagonia is South America’s ‘wild west’, of rugged backdrops and stunning scenery, pioneer towns and cattle farming. In the past visitors may have bypassed the northern regions on the way to the Torres del Paine. Driving the Carretera Austral, Chile’s famous Route 7 highway which leads from the Lake District into Patagonia, has become a pilgrimage of sorts for intrepid travellers. In Puyuhuapi you can relax in the hot springs, before continuing on your Patagonia tour. The San Rafael Glacier in the Patagonia Ice Field is located here, over four kilometres wide and nearing 70 metres tall. Approaching the eerie sight from the end of the lagoon, the spectacle, though dramatic, is literally just the tip of the iceberg, as it stretches some 15 kilometres from its original source.
The only exception the Chile’s ‘year round’ rule is Southern Patagonia, as inclement weather in winter (late June to the end of August) renders the area effectively closed. The southern reaches of Patagonia are better characterised as the Torres del Paine, one of South America’s best national parks. The granite pillars tower into the sky more than 2,000 metres above the Patagonian steppes, but its natural beauty extends to azure lakes, trails that wind through verdant forests and roaring rivers that invite you to cross on rickety bridges. The main draw is the enormous glacier, Perito Moreno, one of only three Patagonian glaciers that are actively growing. From here you can embark on Chile cruises around the southern fjords for spectacular views from the water or sail from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, in Argentina, which links to the rest of Latin America and the Antarctic regions.