Chile by region: where to go
The wine valleys
On the coast, Valparaiso is a colourful and charming port town originally built on seven hills linked by sixteen funicular railways - the historic inner city was declared a World Heritage site in 2003.
An hour’s drive southeast takes you into the impressive Cajón del Maipo in the central Andes, a majestic river valley dominated by towering Andean peaks and raging rivers. A popular weekend retreat, the valley is dotted with small, sleepy villages and offers everything from hiking and climbing to riding, rafting and kayaking. Further east are several ski resorts (the season runs from June to early October).
Arica and Lauca
In the far north, near the borders with Peru and Bolivia, are the coastal oasis town of Arica and the Aymara village of Putre, both of which provide a good base for exploring the Lauca National Park. Here on the altiplano wildlife includes llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, vizcachas (chincilla family), and over a hundred bird species.
The Atacama desert
Further south the vast Atacama desert is one of the driest places in the world. From the picturesque oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, whose church is roofed with cactus wood, many of the desert’s most dramatic sights are within reach. Visit the geyser fields at El Tatio at dawn as they thaw, blowing plumes of steam into the air. Bathe in the many natural hot springs, or drive through the Valley of the Moon where almost no rainfall has ever been recorded. Here too is the great Atacama salt lake, harsh homeland to flocks of flamingos framed in the distance by smouldering volcanoes.
La Serena and the Elqui valley
The Norte Chico, about 450km north of Santiago, has an arid landscape of towering mountains which are punctuated by green and fertile valleys irrigated by the rivers that flow towards the Pacific. The Elqui valley is famous for the grapes used to make Pisco brandy, and also for astronomical observatories: with virtually no rain, clear nights are almost guaranteed.
The Lake District
Northern Lake District
In the Chilean lake district deep blue lakes reflect snow-capped volcanoes and mountains, the slopes of which are carpeted with dense temperate rainforest. Pucón, a small town on Lake Villarica, is very popular in the summer as a centre from which to go rafting, play golf, or try the quite easy ascent (4 hours) of Villarica volcano. Near the Argentine border the Conguillio National Park, which surrounds the active and smoking Llaima volcano, has amazing lava flows, beautiful lakes, and monkey puzzle forests.
Southern Lake District
Renting a car is an excellent way to explore, and there is wonderful walking, riding and fishing. The spectacular crossing of the Andes into Argentina by lake and land is possible all year, although it is more likely to be clear in the summer (December to March).
Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt
The towns of Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas, the former with its busy port and bustling market, and the latter with its picturesque Germanic feel and panoramic lake views, are the most usual bases for exploring the surrounding countryside.
From the Lake Districtit is a short ferry ride to the island of Chiloé, with its shingled houses, many churches and rich mythology. Ferries, either from here or from the mainland, form the first link of the southern highway or Carretera Austral.
The Carretera Austral
Just south of Puerto Montt, where the first section of the southern highway peters out, is Pumalín Park, an isolated area of mountains, fjords and volcanoes stretching the width of Chile from the eastern border to the sea, and reaching as far south as Chaiten. This privately owned park covers a pristine wilderness of temperate rainforest, sheer granite rock faces and countless hot springs, much of it only accessible by boat. In fact, the park (which effectively divides Chile in two) leapt to contention some 10 years ago when the land was bought by the American billionaire Douglas Thompkins as a showcase for his 'Deep Ecology' concept, creating Chile 's largest foreign-owned ecological park.
Chaitén to Aisen
The isolated town of Chaitén is the unofficial start of the famous Carretera Austral, the remote road that has opened up Chilean Patagonia’s land of hanging glaciers, towering mountains and mist-shrouded temperate rainforest. Highlights of the northern stretch include Pumalín Park, a privately owned park and a pristine wilderness of temperate rainforest, sheer granite rock faces and countless hot springs; the tumbling Futaleufú river, which offers some of the finest white-water rafting in the world; the Queulat National Park with its hanging glacier; and the picturesque Simpson Valley.
Balmaceda to Villa O'Higgins
South of Balmaceda (the town’s airport) the Carretera Austral defines the word remote: through the imposing mountains of Cerro Castillo, the gravel highway skirts the Ibañez river through a spectacular array of landscapes from rugged steppe, narrow gorges and the desolation caused by the eruption of the Hudson volcano in 1991 and opens out as it reaches the picturesque scenery bordering Lake General Carrera. Eventually, just past Villa O’Higgins the road meets the impassable barrier of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (the largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland) and a diversion along Argentina’s famous Ruta 40 is necessary.
The Far South
Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales
The gateway to Chile’s far south is the port of Punta Arenas. Founded in 1848, the city was an essential stop for ships rounding the southern tip of South America and an outlet for the sheep products of Patagonia. Nowadays, Punta Arenas is the departure point for cruises heading south-east through stunning fjords towards Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego. Three hours by road north of Punta Arenas is the isolated town of Puerto Natales, on the shores of Last Hope Sound and the ideal jumping-off point for the spectacular Torres del Paine and connections to Calafate (for Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park).
Torres del Paine
In the 1,630 square kilometres of the Torres del Paine, sheer granite walls rise up to heights of 8,000 feet, glaciers and a sea of ice stretch into the distance and turquoise lakes are constantly replenished by water from the Patagonian ice field. This stunning national park has a network of well-marked trails, and comfortable refuges, lodges and hotels.
Easter Island (Rapa Nui) lies 3,790km off the coast just south of the Tropic of Capricorn - a unique and utterly remote Chilean outpost. It was first inhabited by Polynesians, who are believed to have arrived by sea about 1,200 years ago. The main attraction is the more than 600 stone statues, or moai, each up to 9 metres in height.
Juan Fernández Islands
The Juan Fernández islands were made famous by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (inspired by the real life adventures of Alexander Selkirk). Discovered in 1574, the group is made up of the islands Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk and Santa Clara and with rugged scenery and challenging walking, tourism is slowly growing.