A long, narrow sliver of land, clinging to the edge of a continent, Chile has often drawn attention to itself for its wholly implausible shape. Seen in the pages of an atlas, the country’s outline strikes you as aberrant and fantastical; 4300km in length (the equivalent of Norway to Nigeria), and with an average width of just 175km, the very idea of it seems absurd. Once you’re on Chilean soil, however, these boundaries make perfect sense, and visitors quickly realize that Chile is a geographically self-contained unit. The Andes, the great mountain range that forms its eastern border, are a formidable barrier of rock and ice that cuts the country off from Argentina and Bolivia. The Atacama Desert, a 1000km stretch of parched wasteland, separates it from Peru to the north. And to the west, only a few islands dotted in the Pacific Ocean break the waves that roll onto Chile’s coast from Australasia.
All this has created a country distinct from the rest of South America and one that defies many people’s expectations of an Andean country. It is developed, relatively affluent and non-corrupt, and – with the exception of the infamous military regime of the 1970s and 1980s – boasts a long tradition of political stability and orderly government. It is, without doubt, one of the safest and most relaxing places to visit within South America. Its buses are comfortable and run on time; its people polite, respectful and discreet; and its indigenous minorities, in the main, coexist peacefully alongside the rest of the population.
A country of geographical extremes, Chile’s diversity is reflected both in its people – from the alpaca herders of the altiplano and the gauchos of Patagonia to the businessmen of Santiago – and its cuisine, which encompasses the tropical fruit of the arid north as well as king crab from the southern fjords. Above all, though, it is for its remote and dizzyingly beautiful landscapes that visitors head to Chile. With its population of fifteen million largely confined to a handful of major cities, much of Chile is made up of vast tracts of scarcely touched wilderness – places where you can be days from the nearest tarred road.Read More
Chile’s diverse animal kingdom inhabits a landscape of extremes. The country’s formidable natural barriers – the immense Pacific, lofty Andes and desolate Atacama – have resulted in an exceptional degree of endemism, with a third of Chile’s mammals, such as the shy pudú (pygmy deer) not found anywhere else in the world.
Four species of camelid alone are found in Chile’s barren altiplano, namely the shaggy, domesticated llama and alpaca in the north, and their wild cousins – the Patagonia-dwelling guanaco and the delicate vicuña with its highly prized fur, restricted to the high altitudes. Chile’s biggest cat is the elusive puma, another Patagonia resident, while smaller wildcats, from the colo-colo to the guiña, also stalk these grasslands. Endemic rodents, such as the mountain vizcacha, are found in the northern highlands, while several species of fox can be spotted in the desert, altiplano and coastal forest.
A country seemingly made for birdwatchers, Chile is home to a curious mix of the small and beautiful, such as hummingbirds (including the firecrown, endemic to the Juan Fernández islands), while at the other end of the scale is the mighty Andean condor, soaring over the mountains. High in the Andes near the Bolivian border, the Chilean and James’s flamingo gather at remote saltwater lakes, while the long-legged ñandú propels itself over the Patagonian steppe. Equally impressive sea birds include the Humboldt, Magellanic and king penguins, and Chile’s coastal waters host some spectacular mammals, such as the blue whale and several species of dolphins.
If you’re looking to experience an adrenaline rush in the great outdoors, you’ve come to the right place. Chile features some of the best skiing in the southern hemisphere and the finest resorts lie just 40km from Santiago, in Valle Nevado and Portillo, while the Termas de Chillán ski centre in the middle of the country allows you to combine the longest run in South America with steaming thermal pools for après-ski relaxation.
Eventually due to span the 4320km length of the country, the hugely ambitious Sendero de Chile (Chile Trail; senderodechile.cl) currently consists of numerous sections running through spectacularly varied scenery and skirting some splendid volcanoes. Volcanoes are in fact a defining feature of Chile’s geography. In the Far North, experienced trekkers can tackle behemoths such as Volcán Parinacota and Volcán Ojos del Salado – the tallest active volcano in the world – while the Lake District’s Volcán Villarica and Volcán Osorno make spectacular day climbs for novices. The most challenging vertical ascents are the giant granite towers at the heart of Torres del Paine National Park. If the mountains aren’t high enough, climb aboard a hot-air balloon or paraglide above Iquique’s giant sand dune – a favourite with sandboarders.
Water junkies will undoubtedly be tempted by Chile’s veritable playground of rivers and seas. While Río Trancura and Río Petrohue cater to beginners, Río Futaleufú remains Chile’s most challenging river for whitewater rafting and kayaking, while the northern sector of Parque Pumalín, the Gulf of Ancud, the southern fjords and the turbulent Magellan Strait are all prime sea-kayaking territory.