Given Chile’s great length, and the huge distances that separate the main attractions, it’s important to give careful thought to your itinerary before you go. Chile splits roughly into two halves, with Santiago the jumping-off point for both the sunny north, all vineyards, beaches and desert, and the capricious south, comprised of glaciers, mountains and steppe. Many travellers choose to focus on one half or another rather than spread themselves too thin, especially if time is a factor. If, however, you want to hit both extremes, a LAN air pass or inexpensive Sky Airline flights should aid you in your quest.
Santiago, though boasting some fine monuments, museums and restaurants, with its ceaseless noise and traffic and heavy pollution, is not a destination city like Río or Buenos Aires, and two or three days here is enough for most visitors. The capital is handy for visiting some of the country’s oldest vineyards, while both a string of splendid beaches and the fashionable if rather bland seaside resort of Viña del Mar sit on its doorstep. Nearby, the quirky port of Valparaíso – Chile’s other major city – provides an interesting contrast, with its snaking alleyways decorated by local street artists, its gritty vibe and the funiculars allowing splendid views of the bay from its many hills.
North of Santiago, highlights include the handsome colonial city of La Serena and the lush, deeply rural Elqui Valley, with hills ideal for horse treks. The valley is also home to pisco – a drink that’s the source of great dispute between Chile and Peru. Another succession of idyllic beaches lies spread out along the dazzling fringe of the Norte Chico, a region comprising semi-arid landscapes and hardy vegetation that takes all the moisture it needs from the mist rising from the sea. At the northern edge of this region, the tidy little mining city of Copiapó serves as a springboard for excursions to the white sands and turquoise waters of Bahía Inglesa, one of the country’s most attractive seaside resorts, and east into the barely trodden cordillera, where you’ll find the mineral-streaked volcanoes of Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and the almost impossibly turquoise Laguna Verde.
Further north, the parched Atacama Desert, stretching over 1000km into southern Peru, presents an unforgettable, moonlike landscape, whose sights number ancient petroglyphs (indigenous rock art), abandoned nitrate ghost towns and a scattering of fertile, fruit-filled oases. Up in the Andes, the vast plateau known as the altiplano, as high and remote as Tibet, encompasses snowcapped volcanoes, bleached-white salt flats, lakes speckled pink with flamingoes, grazing llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, tiny whitewashed churches and native Aymara communities. The best points to head for up here are Parque Nacional Lauca – the highest of Chile’s many national parks, and accessible from the city of Arica – and Parque Nacional Volcán Isluga, near the busy seafront city of Iquique, popular with surfers and paragliders.
South of Santiago, the lush Central Valley, with its swaths of orchards and vineyards, dotted with stately haciendas, invites you to find Chile’s best vintage by sampling the offers of the various vineyards. Further south, the famous, much-visited Lake District presents a picture-postcard of perfect, conical volcanoes (including the exquisite Volcán Osorno), iris-blue lakes, rolling pastureland and dense native forests, perfect for hiking. A short ferry ride from Puerto Montt, at the southern edge of the Lake District, the Chiloé archipelago is a quiet, rural backwater, famous for its rickety houses on stilts, unique wooden churches, rich local mythology and a Polynesian-style regional dish.
Back on the mainland south of Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral – a 1000km-long unpaved “highway” – carves its way through virgin temperate rainforest and past dramatic fjords, one of which is the embarkation point for a 200km boat trip out to the sensational Laguna San Rafael glacier – a fast-disappearing landmark. Beyond the Carretera Austral, cut off by the Campo de Hielo Sur (Southern Ice Field), lies Patagonia, a country of bleak windswept plains bordered by the magnificent granite spires of the Torres del Paine massif, Chile’s single most famous sight, and a magnet for hikers and climbers. Across the Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego, shared with Argentina, sits shivering at the bottom of the world, a remote land of harsh, desolate beauty, steeped in dreams of a gold rush past.
Finally, there are Chile’s two Pacific possessions: Easter Island – one of the most remote places on earth, famed for its mysterious statues and fascinating prehistoric culture – and the little-visited Isla Robinson Crusoe, part of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, Chile’s largest marine reserve, sporting dramatic volcanic peaks covered with dense vegetation and a wealth of endemic wildlife.