Few countries can match the sheer diversity of things to see in Chile – from the world’s driest non-polar desert to immense ice-fields and glaciers. Spread between these extremes is a kaleidoscope of panoramas, above which tower the colossal peaks and smouldering volcanoes of the Andes. Here is a selection of just a few of Chile’s most breathtaking sights.
Just south of San Pedro de Atacama lies the Valley of the Moon, a dramatic lunar landscape of wind-eroded hills surrounding a crust-like valley floor, once the bottom of a lake. An immense sand dune sweeps across the valley, easy enough to climb and a great place to sit and survey the scenery. Tour operators in San Pedro offer daily sunset trips, but a more memorable (and more demanding) experience would be to get up before daybreak and cycle here for sunrise; you can rent a bike in San Pedro.
Close to the Parque Nacional Navado de Tres Cruces and the border with Argentina, the stunning blue-green Laguna Verde lies at the foot of the highest active volcano in the world, the Volcán Ojos del Salado. The lake lies at 4500m above sea level and the intense colour of its waters – green or turquoise, depending on the time of day – leaps out at you from the surrounding landscape. At the western end of the lake, a small shack contains a fabulous hot-spring bath, where you can soak and take blissful refuge from the biting wind outdoors.
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Chile’s northern desert impresses not only with its otherworldly geography, but also with fascinating testimonies left by humankind. One of these is a trail of decaying nitrate ghost towns. These once thriving Saltpeter mining towns are largely intact. In Humberstone, the largest of the ghost towns, just about all of it is still standing – from the white, terraced workers’ houses (now in total disrepair) and the plaza with its bandstand, to the theatre, church and company store. The theatre, in particular, is highly evocative, with its rows of dusty seats staring at the stage. Several of the homes have been refurbished to show what life was like in the 1930s.
The fascinating Chiloé archipelago in southern Chile is a haven of rural tranquility. One of the most unusual things to see in Chile is found here – the Chepu Valley. The valley was created in 1960 when a tsunami caused by the most powerful earthquake ever recorded flooded a section of coastal forest. Today the sunken forest provides a thriving habitat for over a hundred different bird species, as well as ground for kayaking and fishing.
More than 4km wide, and rearing out of the water to a height of 70m, the giant San Rafael glacier is a dizzying sight. The boat ride to reach the glacier – through the labyrinthine fjords of Aysén – is a spectacle in itself, as boats edge their way through channels hemmed in by precipitous cliffs dripping with vegetation, passing the odd sea lion colony along the way. Once on the Laguna San Rafael, the cruise boats keep at a safe distance, but you’ll be given the chance to get a closer look at the glacier from an inflatable motor dinghy. The dinghys get close but not too close, as the huge blocks of ice that calve off into the water with a deafening roar create dangerous waves.
Chile’s northern skies are the most transparent in the southern hemisphere, as testified by the many international observatories stationed here. The Cerro Mamalluca Observatory in the Elqui Valley is one of the most accessible. Evening tours start with a high-tech audiovisual talk on the history of the universe, and end with the chance to look through a 30cm Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. If you’re lucky, you'll see a dazzling display of starts, planets, galaxies, nebulas and clusters, including Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy and Sirius.
Lost in the vastness of the ocean, tiny Easter Island remains one of the most fascinating things to see in Chile. Scattered across the island are dozens of moai, the intriguing monolithic statues that have made the island universally famous. The moai range in height from 2m to about 20m, with their strange, long-fingered hands placed across their abdomens. Their heads are long and rectangular, with pointed chins, prominent, angular noses and thin, tight lips. At Ahu Tongariki fifteen impeccably restored moai line up to be admired against a backdrop of green cliffs and roaring waves. Watching the sun rise here is one of the most memorable experiences you can have on the island – or anywhere.
Top image: Easter Island © Skreidzeleu/Shutterstock