The longest, thinnest country on the planet boasts an enviable geographic diversity. From the driest desert on Earth up north to the rainforests and glaciers of the south, through the Polynesian traditions alive and thriving found on Easter Island, Chile has it all. The fault-line between the Nazca and Latin-American plates gifted us the Andean mountain range, oft-visited by international skiers, and not far from the snowy terrain lie our sandy beaches to the west.
The North: San Pedro de Atacama
This region possesses the driest desert in the world: the Atacama. Surprisingly, this is an area full of life and community, where the indigenous heritage is culturally front and center. The town of San Pedro de Atacama’s old and plain adobe houses are firmly planted at a crossroads between modern travelers and ancient culture. The town square is a great place to experience tradition and shop for goods in the true sense of the word; crafts and textiles. For those who love expansive territory for long-haul biking, wish to sand-board down dunes, or feel a desperate need for a privileged view of the stars (the region is host to world-class astronomical observatories), San Pedro is just the ticket.
The Center: Santiago and Valparaiso
Given that Chile’s financial and cultural hub is in its Capital, Santiago is undoubtedly Chile’s most metropolitan city: from chic restaurants to museums and nightlife. This is where the local traditions meet the international scene. Impossible to miss is the Andes Mountain range which towers over the city and is often an unexpected surprise for visitors.
Chile’s center is host to a range of ski lodges which rank amongst the best in Latin-America. More importantly, many of them are open all year long. This means you can go to the beach and up the mountain to ski, in one trip (this depends naturally on the amount of time of your visit). The Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range are separated by only 2 hours of travel by car.
Santiaguinos are valley-people. Cozily tucked away between two parallel mountain ranges, the uniquely hospitable weather provides an indulgently ideal environment for wine production. Wine is one of Chile’s biggest exports and no visit is complete without a wine-tasting trip to one of the numerous scenic viñas that a short ride away from the city.
For a different quick getaway, Valparaiso is a welcome change of scene, only an hour and a half away from Santiago. This coastal city is known for its many hills, artsy-colorful houses, quaint shopping opportunities, plentiful art galleries and delightful views. Historically an artist and activists hub, the town is a favorite among most Chilean artists working today.
Easter Island: Rapa Nui
No place on Earth is as isolated, geographically, as Easter Island. Annexed in 1888, the island has since become a powerful attraction for tourists that are curious to see the Moais, stone statues that have been silent witnesses to the island’s history. Unfortunately, some Moais were stolen from the Island in the past, by the British, as well as the French. Luckily these are but a minority, given that most Moais are still located on the Island. The small town of Hanga Roa is the Island’s capital. The beaches are always 20 minutes away. Scattered around the island are the Ahus, the bases upon which Moais stand. There is also a large volcanic crater Rano Kau which is undoubtedly worth a visit. Word on the beaches is ripe, sweet figs grow inside that lusciously green crater, if you dare retrieve them.
The South: a land of green
The south is the heart and the magic of Chile. Comprised of rainforests and lakes that are well protected, this area is noteworthy for its volcanoes (such as Villarica), many of which are open to hikers. The dominant culture here is courtesy of the Mapuche, the biggest aboriginal ethnicity in the country. The south also has a noticeable German influence, given that the Chilean state encouraged the arrival of German immigrants to the south of the country. This is obvious in picturesque cities such as Valdivia, Puerto Varas, and Frutillar, and in small bodegas where the baked good of choice is “kuchen”. These same bodegas usually have cheap, delicious home-made white bread (along the whole length of the country). Order marraquetas if you like light and fluffy, or hallullas if you prefer dense and chewy. Leave behind any pretenses to whole-wheat preferences. These will await you in your country of origin. And don’t forget the salted butter on top.
The island of Chiloe belongs to this region. A legendary spot, you’ll here find colorful houses on stilts (palafitos), plus 16 wooden churches that were declared Unesco national heritage. The island is a great place for those who demand a stunning backdrop to go with their trekking or kayaking.
But wait. There is still more south to be found, well, further south. Keep heading down, and you’ll feel you’ve fallen onto another planet entirely; the land of Patagonia. The Carretera Austral will bring you here. This point in time-space is home to one of Chile’s most incredible national parks: Torres Del Paine, a sprawling place that requires at least a week to explore properly. Delightfully safe (only a small family of reclusive mountain lions pose a risk) choose between luxury sleeping quarters or old-fashioned eco-friendly camping and soak in the beautiful territory. You won’t miss the iconic towering stone peaks, nor the impeccably blue glacier-water lakes. Watch out for the adorable Guanacos- essentially miniature llamas.
Once you’ve made it this far south, you might as well keep going and visit the Glaciers of San Rafael. Climate change has unfortunately reduced its size, but it is still possible to hike around the glacier via the “Zodiac tour”. Or, if you’re truly ambitious, hop on a brief plane ride and check out our icy slice of the south pole!