jAlong theChile – Land of Contrasts
Chile, the long, thin country truly is a country of extremes. Stretching from the Atacama desert in the north, to Tierra del Fuego, virtually on the edge of Antarctica. The contrasts, from north to south could not be greater and thus, Chile is exceptionally rich in habitat diversity and species. From the desert and salt planes of the altiplano to the Mediterranean terrain of the central valley, famous for its vineyards, to the lake and volcano land of northern Patagonia, with its temperate rainforests and fjords, and finally, the Patagonian pampas, and the glaciers of the southern ice-field.
Chile is a country for nature lovers and outdoor adventure seekers. Hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, and white water rafting are among the top activities. And yet, Chilean hospitality lets you enjoy these thrills in exquisite comfort. There are fabulous, top-rated adventure lodges in every part of this amazing country. Or, you can keep things simple – the choice is yours.
Northern Chile – Altiplano & Atacama Desert
The northern altiplano is sparsely populated, with few notable towns or cities. Arica, in the very north, lies just south of the Peruvian border. The surrounding desert is extremely dry and almost hostile to life. The region is marked by signs of past economic booms – derelict remains of mining ventures that thrived here, especially during the 19th-century. Today, the most significant towns tend to be dotted along the coast – most notable, Antofagasta and Iquique. But the most amazing features of this incredible landscape are hidden among the high, volcanic mountains of the Andes. A remote and starkly beautiful landscape and surprisingly colorful striations. It is also amazingly rich in wildlife, a refuge to species such as vicuñas, guanacos and even flamingos. There are a number of National Parks and protected areas, especially in the mountains, where these species can be observed.
The Atacama desert is generally better known, for its otherworldly formations, salt flats, and sand dunes of the Valley of the Moon. Once in a while, when it does rain in this region, get ready for spectacular wildflower bloom. Against the odds and as incredible as it may seem, indigenous peoples have managed to eke out a living in this harsh environment. Today, it is one of the main destinations for nature and adventure tourists.
Norte Chico – the Little North
South of the Atacama, but north of Santiago stretches a vast expanse of outback territory. Vineyards hugging rugged hills, dried riverbeds and a landscape that is reminiscent of the American Southwest. This is not a top tourist destination, although the grapes that make the country’s favorite drink, Pisco Sour, are grown here. This is also an area that is well known to star-gazers. There are a number of observatories accessible to visitors, that makes it easy to watch the starry night skies. Since there are few places of habitation, the night is jet black and the stars seem almost close enough to touch.
La Serena is the main hub of this region, a coastal town that is popular with Chilean holidaymakers.
Santiago and the Central Valley
Santiago is the capital of Chile and practically all international flights land here. It is a vibrant city and the ‘nerve center’ of the country. It is almost a world upon itself as signs of modernity soon fade once the city is left behind. The city itself has at its core the remnants of its colonial past, but many old buildings fell victim to earthquakes and a booming economy has expanded the cities horizons rather quickly and in all directions. Santiago today is modern and dynamic, but not exactly charming, with its crazy traffic, and numerous high rises. But, the towering Andes provide a redeeming backdrop to the hustle and bustle.
Surrounding the city is a vast expanse of vineyards, as far as the eye can see. Chile has caught up with the best wine producers anywhere and exploring the vineyards in the vicinity is an enjoyable treat. Just get someone else to drive!
Slightly to the northwest, along the coast, are the twin cities of the old and ramshackle Valparaiso in juxtaposition with the ultra-modern and chic Viña del Mar.
The Central Valley is Chile’s most important agricultural region with grapes as the premier crop. Chilean wines have come a long way and nowadays some excellent wines can be had for a reasonable price. Colchagua Valley is the most accessible wine region, just a 2-3 hour drive from the capital. Some people like to take an overnight trip and spend the night at a winery B&B or small hotel. Winery tours can be booked through the local tourist office. Some wineries now offer short packages which include cycling or walking tours through the vineyards.
Araucania & Lake District
Volcanoes and Lakes line the foothills of the Andes, while agricultural land covers the lower territory, between the mountains and the sea. The region between Temuco and Puerto Montt is beautiful and diverse. The picturesque town of Pucon, situated on Lago Villarrica, at the base of the volcano bearing the same name, has become the regional hub for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking, fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding are just some of the activities that are on offer here. This region is exceptionally rich in nature reserves and national parks, and needless to say, stunningly beautiful.
Those, exploring the country with their own rented wheels have the choice of heading down south along the coast or crossing over to Argentina to tour the beautiful Argentinean Lake District. The famous 7-Lakes route to Bariloche is simply gorgeous.
The port town of Puerto Montt is the end of the road for northern and central Chile. Beyond this point, the wild and rugged fjord lands of northern Patagonia start. Between Pucon and Puerto Montt is dotted with a string of lakes amidst rural farmland. The largest lake is Lago Llanquehue in the south, with the pretty town of Puerto Varas sitting on its southern shores and facing the perfectly cone-shaped Osorno volcano. To the east, Mountains rise along the Andean spine – many of them active volcanoes.
There are many Nature Reserves and National Parks in this area of outstanding natural beauty, including Chile’s oldest National Park, Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, which protects the ‘Todos Los Santos’ Lake and the eastern slope of Osorno Volcano and the Petrohue Falls.
The Carretera Austral and Southern Patagonia
The Carretera Austral still represents one of the great modern adventures. Following the ‘Fernweh’ – the longing for far flung places into the deep south, to the end of the world is both a challenge and a dream. Lonesome wilderness that is remote, yet traversable by 4×4 vehicle as the rough road snakes south through what appears to be almost untouched wilderness. The temperate rainforest that clings to the hills that touch the sea exude a primeval feel with their lush, verdant mossy softness. Along the shore, the mountains are deeply carved into fjords, creating secret tidal worlds. Wild white rivers rushing down from the Andes continue to shape and polish the wild and rugged landscape. It is a naturalist’s world full of wonder and awe. Chile has recently inaugurated its largest nature protection effort in this very region. A vast swath of land is now protected, for nature and for future generations to enjoy one of the last wildernesses on this planet.
Where to stay
National Parks & Protected Areas