Highlights of Highlights of Santiago
Chile's capital city is an excellent introduction to the stunning geography throughout the country with the impressive backdrop of the Andes dominating the eastern horizon. Santiago is located in the Great Central Valley, almost exactly half way down Chile's coastline. The city has a host of excellent museums including one of the most important collections of pre-Columbian art in South America, as well as great culinary and shopping options, particularly for lapiz lazuli which is mined only in Chile and Afghanistan. Whilst a rapidly modernising city with infrastructure similar to that of first world countries, Santiago retains a charming centre. Areas such as the bohemian Bellavista and the Santa Lucia hill afford vistas over the cityscape and onto the mountains beyond, and are well worth visiting on foot.
This bustling port seems to have been lifted straight from a fairytale. With its colourful wooden houses and winding cobbled streets, it is a city best appreciated on foot. Built on 27 different hills and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, they say that every house in Valparaiso has a view, and one of the best can be found at La Sebastiana, the house of the Chilean Nobel Prize wining poet, Pablo Neruda. The city itself lost much of its importance in 1914 with the opening of the Panama Canal and for many years was left slowly decaying. However it has now been declared a UNESCO Word Heritage Site and a large scale project of restoration is increasingly recuperating the city's magical corners whilst maintaining its distinct coastal charm. Valparaiso is just over 90 minutes from Santiago by road.
Chile is fast becoming an important destination for wine experts. The wine country surrounds Santiago to the north, west and south with each of the many valleys displaying unique characteristics. It offers possibilities for the novice and expert alike, and is easily accessibly from Santiago on a day trip or a longer sojourn. Be it the big reds of the Maipo Valley, the delicate whites of the Casablanca Valley or Chile's signature grape, Carmenere, found in abundance in the Colchagua Valley, a visit to Santiago's nearby vineyards provides an excellent opportunity to learn about Chile's wine culture as well as sample the country's unique flavours.
The Atacama Desert
Located right in the very heart of the driest desert on earth is the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. The town itself is constructed almost entirely of adobe and is dotted with rustic open air restaurants, handicraft markets and a number of excellent hotels. The real adventure lies beyond the town walls and out into the desert with landscapes including enormous salt flats, the crater-like Valley of the Moon where NASA tested their lunar vehicles, or the extraordinary colours of the high Andean plateau known as the Altiplano where unusual flora and fauna dot the volcanic landscape. The town has excellent opportunities for the active traveller with sand boarding, hiking, horseback riding and cycling amongst the possibilities. For those less energetic, the surrounding landscapes and some of the clearest night skies in the world are more than enough to spark the interest of any adventurer.
The Lake District
The forces of nature come to life in Chile's Lake District, stretching from the towns of Temuco and Pucón in the north to Puerto Montt in the south. Ancient alerce forests dominate the landscape, broken only by vast lakes reflecting the snow capped volcanoes to the east. Once the territory of the fearsome Mapuche who defended their homeland against the Spanish for almost three centuries, the wilderness was quickly settled by Europeans once the Mapuche eventually negotiated Chilean rule. Today there is a somewhat alpine feel with a strong German influence in the neat towns and villages. As with many areas in Chile, this region is fantastic for its world class fly fishing and other outdoor activities including hiking, rafting, cycling, horseback riding, bird watching and even mountaineering. Importantly, the southern cities of Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas are excellent access points to cross over the border into Bariloche, Argentina by a combination of road and boat.
The extreme southern reaches of Chile possess a wildness worthy of its position as the world's southern most landmass before reaching Antarctica. Despite being the largest of Chile's 15 regions only 1% of the population has made a life in this harsh environment which rewards anyone visiting the area an uncensored contact with nature. The access city of Punta Arenas was once an important outpost for all shipping passing through the Straights of Magellan and is full of fascinating maritime history. However the real Patagonia is revealed on the journey to Torres Del Paine National Park in the north. Often described as one of the world's most beautiful national parks the visitor is treated to spectacular vistas of vertical granite peaks interspersed with vast glaciers calving into azure lakes and valleys full of local flora, much of which is endemic, as well as sought after fauna including the mighty Andean condor and the enigmatic puma. Far to the south of the Straights of Magellan, the true 'end of the world' can be found at Cape Horn. This geographic behemoth was once feared by sailors the world over and still constitutes an unforgettable experience to those rounding the cape today. A trip through Chile's southern fjords reveals the untouched and unpopulated wilds found in the Darwin range, named after the English biologist who was left awe struck when he navigated the area in the 19th century onboard the 'Beagle'.
Known locally as "Rapa Nui", Easter Island is surely the world's largest outdoor museum. At one point the most isolated population on Earth, the island has a clear Polynesian influence despite falling under Chilean rule. Rapa Nui has become best known for the massive Moai statues, hundreds of which dominate the volcanic landscape throughout much of the island reaching heights of over 20 metres (65 ft). Due to the island's long isolation from external influences, the culture is entirely unique to the islands and the story of its development and downfall remain in large part a mystery. Thankfully however, the local people are extremely proud of their history and in maintaining a number of key traditions. The island is accessed by a five hour flight from Santiago.
Northern Patagonia, an unexplored land
South of Puerto Montt, the population thins and the vegetation thickens. This is the region of northern Patagonia that is commonly called the "Carretera Austral" named after the main road that runs south to the city of Coyhaique and terminates farther south at Villa O'Higgins between 48 degrees and 49 degrees latitude. The Carretera Austral opened little more than a decade ago to the traveling public;it is a 1,240km (769-mile) dirt-and-gravel road that bends and twists through thick virgin rainforest, past glacial-fed rivers and aquamarine lakes;jagged, white-capped peaks that rise above open valleys;and precipitous cliffs with cascading ribbons of waterfalls at every turn. The scenery is remote and rugged, and is perhaps Chile's quintessential road trip. Along the way there are also some of the country's best fly-fishing lodges, one of the world's top rivers for rafting, and awe-inspiring glaciers. It is also home to fjords that are ideal for kayaking, and the rainforest jungle of Pumalín Park. The Carretera Austral runs from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O'Higgins in the south, and passes through two regions: the southern portion of the "Región de Los Lagos" and the "Región de Aysén", whose capital city, Coyhaique, is home to almost half the population in the area
Just off the west coast of Chile, Chiloé Island, known for its stilt houses, clear waters, nature reserves, diverse wildlife and untouched beauty, is the second largest island of South America after "Tierra del Fuego". Largely unknown by travellers until recently, this island is undergoing somewhat of a transformation. An airport providing easy access from mainland Chile (previously a ferry would have to do) has, together with new hotels and sightseeing activities, converted this ancient and untouched paradise into a very attractive destination for the adventurous traveller. Visit the various UNESCO-protected churches, explore the island's rocky coastline by boat, and indulge in marine wildlife, including blue whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea otters. Don't miss out on the local handicraft markets and be sure to taste the traditional food, Curanto, which is cooked in a hole in the earth. With a slowly developing tourism infrastructure, making for a perfect match of 'naturally rustic' and 'luxury', now's the time to visit Chiloé.
A Skier's Paradise
One of the benefits of skiing in Chile is that the ski season runs during the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, which gives those visitors another option of year-round skiing. Numerous resorts are located within a variety of landscapes such as volcanoes, glaciers, forest and mountains. Some resorts are very close to Santiago, allowing guests to enjoy the rhythm of the city at night while being able to ski during the day. Others, however offer a total respite from the city, located in the middle of Patagonia and lush forest areas. For those after a serious adrenaline rush and perfect powder, we recommend off-piste skiing and even Heli-skiing.