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Captivated by Chile

Article - September 8, 2011
Chile is a vast country waiting to be explored. Its people, landscapes, delightful food and myriad destinations make for a fantastic vacation. However, choosing where to go and what to do can be difficult...
Extreme, challenging, inhospitable, arid and harsh. Spectacular, endless, diverse and colorful. Freezing, humid, lush and impenetrable. Exotic, unique, delicious, traditional and modern. Chile is quite simply, captivating.

To say that Chile is a land of contrasts would be a total understatement. No other country in the world comes close to exhibiting Chile’s extreme and unique geography in a single land area. For example, this skinny – the term narrow simply doesn’t do it justice – republic on South America’s western coast boasts 4,000 miles of coastline (compare to California’s measly 840 miles). Chile spans 2,700 miles from its northern tip and border with Peru down to its southern islands that appear to reach out to Antarctica.

Not impressed yet? Consider then, that Chile’s width is just 109 miles on average. That’s less than the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego, Albany and Yonkers, or Omaha and Des Moines. Now, pick two cities of your choice and stick between them a mountain range that includes some of the highest peaks in the Americas. Oh, and throw in some active volcanoes for good measure, as well as some 5,000 or 6,000 islands. 

This is what Chile looks like on a map. Discovering it on land is even better.

Central Chile

When flying into Santiago, some of the finer details of those Andes mountains can be seen close-up as the plane dips down soon after crossing them to land at the Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport.

Mind you don’t attempt to bring in any animal, dairy or fruit products, however. Chile’s strict policies at its borders may seem harsh to some, yet they’ve served to keep the national agricultural industry (and especially its cherished wine and fruit sectors) healthy and free from the harmful viruses and insects that have wreaked havoc in other nations.

Once on the ground, Santiago’s modern infrastructure, extremely friendly people and comfortable climate welcome you to discover this booming metropolitan area and gateway to Chile’s 15 regions that in some cases are as different as night and day.

Dubbed ‘Latin America’s city of the future’ by British publication Financial Times and the ‘second best city to live in’ in Latin America by The Economist, parts of Santiago de Chile are reminiscent of North America and Europe’s most beautiful cities.

The local flavor is apparent, however, in the slower pace of life, the unique Chilean dialect and Santiaguino slang, and in the Mercado Central, where one can buy all manner of food downstairs and eat in one of the simple restaurants upstairs, or enjoy a pisco sour no matter the time of day. The fast food joints are fun too: try the completos – hot dogs with bountiful toppings, including avocado and sauerkraut – or the chacareros  – meat sandwiches piled high with tomatoes and green beans.

Meanwhile, Chile’s rather saucy side can be experienced at a cafe con piernas, literally a cafe with legs, where coffee is served by scantily clad waitresses.

The capital city’s more famous sites include Palacio de La Moneda, the 18th century presidential palace where former President Salvador Allende died during the 1973 military coup d’état; Cerro Santa Lucia, a delightful park on a hill in the center of the city that played a historic role as far back as 1541; the Cathedral of Santiago; the Church of San Francisco; and the aforementioned Mercado Central. Other popular visits include the Bellavista neighborhood, known as an artists’ haven and the location of one of Pablo Neruda’s several homes, and Cerro San Cristobal, a hill rising nearly 1,000 feet above Santiago, offering excellent views of the city and its surrounding mountains.

In January, the New York Times named Santiago the #1 travel destination for 2011. The city offers everything from top luxury and boutique hotels and fine dining establishments, to backpackers’ hostels and eateries to fit every budget.

A short drive to world-class ski resorts in the nearby mountains is a must for enthusiasts in the winter months of June through September, or for hikers during the rest of the year. Valle Nevado Ski Resort – South America’s largest ski center – is in the heart of the Andes, yet just 30 miles from Santiago. At an altitude of over 9,000 feet, Portillo Ski Resort is only 100 miles from the capital and within reach of Mount Aconcagua (on the Argentine side of the border), the tallest mountain in the southern hemisphere.

The superb quality of Chilean wine is no longer a secret, and wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts interested in visiting the bodegas need not travel far from Santiago either. Just south of the capital city lies Chile’s fertile Central Valley, where wineries have little to envy of Napa Valley or the Bordeaux region. 

Due west of Santiago is Valparaiso, a World Heritage Site. In this most unique and colorful port city, funicular elevators (a type of cable car) transport residents and visitors to the quirky neighborhoods precariously hugging the steep hillsides. Viña del Mar, just 40 minutes north, is a popular beach city with white sandy beaches and a vibrant nightlife. Viña is home to one of the oldest casinos in South America, a prestigious Latin American song festival, and several old palaces.
The North

An attempt to “see” Chile all in one go is virtually impossible. Given its geography a simple solution is to divide Chile into north and south. For those seeking green forests, icebergs and varied flora and fauna, the south is the answer; for desert-lovers and sun seekers, the north is the best choice. Limiting oneself to just the northern half is not without its surprises however: while Chile’s cold ocean currents make a dip in the sea an experience not for the faint of heart, they also guarantee penguin sightings as far north as the border with Peru.

Flanked on one side by the Andean mountains and the Altiplano (high desert plains) to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, northern Chile’s most famous destination, the Atacama Desert, is the most arid spot on the planet. Nevertheless, this harsh and inhospitable environment provides some of the most magnificent backdrops imaginable. When a trace of rain does fall, Atacama’s desert floor transforms itself into a blanket of color, vivid with a bewildering assortment of wildflowers. By night, Atacama becomes a paradise for stargazers: 345 clear nights per year and a phenomenally transparent atmosphere combine to make the heavens more visible here than from any other place on Earth, which is why it is home to some of the world’s largest telescopes.

One of the more emblematic towns in the far north is San Pedro de Atacama, whose attractions – such as an archeological museum, an enormous salt flat, geysers, hot springs, the Valley of the Moon, flamingos, stargazing and sandboarding – lure in plenty of visitors, despite its remote location. Sitting on a high plateau at nearly 8,000 feet elevation, San Pedro lies east of Antofagasta, the region’s capital and affluent coastal city, and southeast of Calama, one of the driest cities in the world and gateway to the Atacama Desert.

A tour around Chile’s northern half would not be complete without a trip to the coast. Unexploited beaches await the intrepid traveler who ventures beyond the more popular destinations of Antofagasta, Arica, La Serena, Mejillones and Iquique.

Likewise, no visit to Chile would be complete without trying one of Chile’s national drinks, pisco. This wood-aged grape brandy – drunk on its own or combined in the more palatable pisco sour cocktail – also comes from the north, specifically from the Elqui Valley, south of the Atacama desert. 
The South

Southern Chile is as humid as the north is dry. As you make your way south from the Central Valley, the landscape becomes progressively greener, and more akin to Northern Europe. In the 19th century, the Chilean government encouraged middle and upper class Europeans, many of whom were German or Austrian, to settle between Valdivia (the northern limit of Chile’s granddaddy of sites: Patagonia) and Puerto Montt.

The most visible result of this demographic change is the predominance of colorful wooden buildings, central and northern-European foods, and a curious linguistic mixture of first and last names. In this area you’ll find places like Frutillar, Puerto Varas, and Pucon, delightful lakeside towns with a surprisingly cosmopolitan element. Pucon is also one of the most popular bases for adventure activities, such as river rafting, water and snow skiing, zip line rides, and hiking (including exhilarating guided ascents of the still-active Villarrica volcano). Also found in these regions full of rivers and lakes are various hot springs, some of which are rugged and free, while others have been developed and converted into health resorts.  

Southwest of Puerto Montt (the starting point for the several-day long inland passage cruises to the Laguna San Rafael National Park and the magnificent San Rafael glacier) lies Chiloe, Chile’s largest island. Dotted with painted wooden churches (16 of which are World Heritage Sites) and crowned by a colony of Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, the misty archipelago of Chiloe is famous for its architecture and cuisine. If fish and shellfish are staples on this isle of fishermen, the flagship dish is curanto (meat, vegetables, potatoes and shellfish traditionally stewed in a deep hole in the ground). Also worthy of mention is the Chiloe potato: evidence indicates that the world’s most widely cultivated variety of potato originally came from this green isle.

Opposite Chiloe on the mainland the lush mountains, volcanoes and forests are cut through by just one main artery: the Carretera Austral. Access to the towns south of Puerto Montt is easiest by air and sea. Reaching these remote areas is well worth the hassle, however, especially for fans of sport fishing.

Further south, just north of the Tierra del Fuego and where the country’s land mass seemingly disintegrates into thousands of islands, is the Torres del Paine National Park. One of Chile’s most emblematic and breathtaking destinations where jagged, rocky ‘horns’ dramatically peak up from Technicolor lakes and relatively flat and treeless plains, the park is easily accessed by road from Puerto Natales, a charming town with ample choice of accommodations.

Hard-core hikers can choose between the popular ‘W’ route (in five to six days) or the full circle (eight to nine days) around the park. The former gets its name from the five points it hits, namely Glacier Grey, Refugio Pehoe on Lake Pehoe, Valle del Frances, Hosteria las Torres, and the Torres del Paine themselves.

The Islands

As if searing desert temperatures in the north and eternal snows and glaciers in the south weren’t enough, Chile’s extremities are further diversified by its islands.

Discovered by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday 1722, Easter Island or Rapa Nui is the most remote inhabited island on the planet and forms part of Polynesia. With its over 850 giant stone heads called moai, Easter Island is also a “certified member” of the unexplained mysteries club, along with Stonehenge and the Nazca Lines.

The monolithic moai, which stand gazing inland with their backs to the sea, were created by the early Rapa Nui people a few hundred years after their arrival on the island, which probably occurred as early as 300 A.D. The tallest moai erected reaches 33 feet high, and the heaviest one weighs some 86 tons. Where the greatest mystery lies is in how the statues were transported from the quarry to their current positions and in the purpose of their creation and erection. Even with wooden sleds and rollers, moving 80-ton stones was no easy task, and many modern experiments to replicate the moving process ended in failure.

Apart from the Moai Route, visitors to Easter Island can also see caves, extinct volcanoes and sandy beaches lapped by turquoise waters. The beaches at Hanga Roa, Vaihu and Tahai offer waves for surfers of all levels, and curiously enough, as far back as hundreds of years ago historians recorded the natives using a kind of bodyboard, called haka nini. Scuba diving is another popular activity on Easter Island, owing to the clarity of its deep waters, caves, coral and multicolored fish.

World-class diving and fishing, as well as unique endemic flora and fauna (including Juan Fernandez hummingbirds and fur seals) and breathtaking cliffs, are also to be found in Chile’s Juan Fernandez Archipelago, located some 325 miles off the coast of Valparaiso. The chain’s three main and sparsely populated islands – Robinson Crusoe, Santa Clara and Alejandro Selkirk – certainly make for an off-the-beaten-track excursion, where tranquility and nature reign.

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish sailor marooned on one of the islands – at the time uninhabited – in the early 1700s after a dispute with the ship’s captain. He survived there for more than four years before being rescued and returned to England. It was his story that served as inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s famous literary work of 1719.

From head to toe, Chile is fascinating, distinctive and delightful. From the landscapes to the people to the food and drink, each and every corner holds surprises and memorable experiences. No other country on Earth boasts moon and Mars-like landscapes at one end, and mountains and valleys reminiscent of the Alps at the other.

Indeed, Chile feels like several countries rolled into one. And while contrasts in vegetation and topography are stark as you travel the length of the country, Chile has some common threads running throughout, including hospitable people, natural beauty, and a love of life and food.