Where to go in Chile
When it comes to visiting Chile, the hardest decision isn’t whether or not to go, it’s where. This is a vast country, a long thin land that stretches over 2,600 miles from the middle of South America’s west coast down to the southern tip of the continent. Some of its alluring destinations sit 2,200 miles of the coast, which means you’ve got a lot of area to cover. As the capital city of Santiago is the largest and home to the country’s international airport with connections to even some of the most remote reaches, it’s the place where most visitors begin. From there, it all depends on what you hope to get out of the trip. You might head south to the continent’s extreme tip where the wild Patagonian landscape awaits with its glaciers and turquoise lagoons, providing an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. Or delve into the mystery of the moai on Easter Island.
The Atacama Desert is one of the world’s best destinations for stargazing, thanks to its high altitude, lack of rainfall, and nearly always clear skies. During the day there is plenty to see too, the dry, isolated terrain boasts stunning, ever-changing hues in an array of reds, yellows, greens, and blues that stretch for 600 miles in the northern region of Chile. At Calle de la Luna, the ‘Valley of the Moon’ there are soaring sand dunes and rock formations that mimic the moon’s surface as the result of centuries of winds and floods. The desert is even home to azure lagoons that attract a wide variety of wildlife, including three Chilean flamingo species. Surrounded by snow-dusted mountains reflected in still waters, it’s a jaw-dropping sight. If you’re lucky, you might witness a magical vision of the countless pink birds quickly evaporating into the horizon with only a few flaps of their feathers.
Torres del Paine National Park
Often called South America’s finest national park, the granite spires of Torres del Paine rise for more than 6,500 feet above the wild Patagonian landscape. One of the world’s most stunningly beautiful destinations, if you’re willing to venture to the southernmost region of Chile, you’ll discover miles and miles of scenic trails for hiking that wind through dense forest, passing jewel-hued lakes, rushing rivers, and glistening blue glaciers. The glaciers carved this jagged landscape and now lie hanging over cliffs, sweeping down to valleys before calving into turquoise lagoons. If you’re looking to do something active you can hike, explore on horseback, mountain bike, or kayak. There’s plenty of wildlife here to watch too, with the park home to Andean condor, flamingos, rheas, and guanacos, a relative of the camel. Guanacos were nearly hunted to extinction but after years of protection, the herds are now large and continue to grow.
Ringed by the Chilean coastal range and snow-capped Andes Mountains, Santiago is the capital and cosmopolitan epicentre of Chile. It boasts a spectacular setting and a wide range of attractions as well as being a great base for wine tasting, skiing, hiking, climbing, and even sunbathing on the sand. Art enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy while wandering the cobblestone streets in the older barrios and in modern cultural centres, particularly those underneath Palacio de la Moneda and at Estacion Mapocho. It’s also jam-packed with interesting museums, suburban parks, fine dining restaurants, and nightlife spots, such as the lively bars in the bohemian Barrio Bellavista. For one of the best views over it all, head to the epic Sky Costanera, a glittering glass skyscraper that rises high above the city. From the Sky viewpoint which sits nearly 1,000 feet above ground, you’ll get one of the best views in Latin America.
Remote Easter Island sits over 2,300 miles from the Chilean coast and is known for one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries. It revolves around its famous giant rock statues called moai, created by the Rapa Nui people. Centuries ago, a small group of Polynesians rowed wooden outrigger canoes across the vast open sea, navigating by the stars. They chiselled away at the volcanic stone to carve the moai, believed to have been built to honour their ancestors. We don’t know why they left their native land or how they were able to move the massive stones, which weigh 14 tons and stand 13 feet high on average. They were placed on various ceremonial structures throughout the island, something that has puzzled archaeologists, ethnographers, and visitors alike ever since the first Europeans arrived in 1722. In addition to marvelling at the moai, one can enjoy white sandy beaches, surfing, snorkelling, and diving.
While traveling the winding roads of Chile’s Lake District, you’ll encounter magnificent landscapes with snow-capped volcanoes coming into view before disappearing and materializing again with glimpses through the trees. It’s home to a dozen large lakes, waterfalls, rivers, hot springs, and densely forested national parks that offer a wealth of opportunities for outdoor adventure, along with a wide range of restaurants serving mouth-watering local fare, particularly seafood. It also has an interesting history and rich cultural past as the historic homeland of the indigenous Mapuche. They revolted against early Spanish colonists in the late 16th-century and drove them out, keeping foreigners away for nearly 300 years. Much of the region was viewed as an entirely separate country until the 1881 treaty that tended Mapuche control. Waves of Swiss, Austrian, and German immigrants arrived to settle, and it soon took on lots of Bavarian-Tyrolean influence that visitors will see today.
The largest island in the 41-island archipelago of the same name, Chileo is a favourite vacation destination among Chileans but it’s become increasingly popular among outsiders as well. An extension of Chile’s coastal mountain range, separated by the Chacao Strait, there is little development here. The island is characterized by historic wooden churches and colourful stilted homes, stunning natural scenery with everything from wild beaches to dense temperate forests, finely made handwoven woollen sweaters, and tasty cuisine, including rich seafood stews, called curanto. They’re made of seafood, meat, and potatoes which are place on hot coals in the earth, covered with large leaves, and allowed to steam. Just some of the activities enjoyed here include hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, whale watching, and kayaking. The island’s seafaring people attract many too, with an interesting spiritual culture based on a distinctive mythology of ghost ships, witchcraft, and forest gnomes.
Patagonia Ice Fields
The Patagonian Ice Fields straddle the border of Chile and Argentina as one of the world’s largest non-polar glaciers. Even visiting in person it’s hard to appreciate the vast scale of the place that would easily dwarf large cities if they were to be dropped here. There are seemingly endless tracks of jagged ice that stretches towards the horizon, with the ice field stretching the along the Andes’ spine for nearly 220 miles. The glaciers serve as a massive resource of fresh water that nourishes mountain habitats throughout Patagonia, helping to sustain diverse wildlife and plants. They hang, crumbling over cliffs and sweeping down to valleys before calving into turquoise lagoons. Visitors can explore them many different ways, from ski tours and ice hikes to kayak or boat trips. In Chile, hikers can get up close to them in a wild, remote setting via treks in Torres del Paine National Park.
The second largest city in Chile behind Santiago, Valparaiso is located 90 minutes north of the capital along the Pacific coast. A historical city with colourful ramshackle streets, tucked into the hills, it’s renowned for its bohemian culture. A walking tour is a workout, with pathways meandering around the slopes, while magnificent Victorians and tin-walled buildings cling to the steep hillsides. For those who prefer, there are rickety funiculars to get you to the hilltops. The city offers lots to do, with its bohemian vibe found in the street art, architecture, and nightlife. As it’s near the coast, there are lots of beaches, including two of the most popular in the country, Vina del Mar and Renaca. Enjoy sunbathing or join the surfers who come to ride the solid swell. Renaca even hosts international surf championships. There’s a happening art scene and thriving food scene, with dishes often paired with outstanding local wines.
Nestled between the Chilean coast and the soaring Andes, the Winelands’ fertile valleys around Santiago are home to world-famous wineries, including exclusive estates that are some of the country’s oldest and most beautiful. Visitors can expect warm hospitality and relaxing stays in boutique lodges and colonial haciendas, along with the chance to sample some of Chile’s finest wines. While wine has been produced here since the 19th-century, the quality has markedly improved over recent decades, with a number of Chilean wines now ranked among the world’s best. Those sauvignon blancs, cabernet sauvignons, and merlots grace the menus of many restaurants here, with the food often just as impressive. Vineyard tours frequently include a visit to charming Santa Cruz and the outstanding Colchagua Museum known for its pre-Columbian artifacts. While visitors can enjoy it on a day trip from Santiago, spending a night or two is best to appreciate the tranquil surroundings.
Tierra Del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego which translates to “Land of Fire” is the kind of destination that frequently lands on bucket lists. It sits at the southern tip of South America, famous for its remarkable natural beauty. It’s in the heart of Patagonia, which covers both Chile and Argentina, filled with jagged mountain peaks, rushing rivers, sapphire lakes, and glistening glaciers. The wild landscapes are so stunning it’s hard to believe they’re real, making the unpredictable weather worth the reward when the clouds part. Adventure seekers come in droves to hike, fly fish, and embark on cruises to the Antarctic. In Tierra del Fuego National Park there are easy trails to hike bringing jaw-dropping views that include seasonal wildflowers blanketing the forest floor, red foxes, and “flag trees,” double bent by powerful Patagonian winds. It’s even more impressive in April with beautiful fall colours highlighting it all.
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