Chile by region: where to go
In the capital, Santiago, historic architecture jostles for space alongside modern-day skyscrapers. Around Santiago are many of the country's best vineyards, several of which are open to visitors. Close by are several ski centres with excellent skiing conditions, favoured by many Olympic teams for training during the European summer. The season runs from June to early October.
The wine valleys
Just north of Santiago, Valparaiso is a colourful and charming port town and important naval base. The city was built on 7 hills linked by 16 funicular railways dating from 1880-1914. The historic inner city was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 and various buildings and monuments are protected due to their unique architecture.
An hour's drive south-east of the capital takes you into the impressive Cajón del Maipo, a majestic river valley dominated by towering Andean peaks and raging rivers. A popular weekend retreat for the Santiaguinos, the valley is dotted with small, sleepy villages and offers all manner of adventurous activities from hiking and climbing to riding, rafting and kayaking.
Arica and Lauca
In the far north, near the borders with Peru and Bolivia, lies stunning altiplano, whose well-watered grasslands contrast strongly with the Atacama. The area is usually reached from the coastal oasis town of Arica, and the Aymara village of Putre (3,500m) provides a good base for exploring. One of Lauca National Park's highlights is Lake Chungará (4,512m), whose waters reflect snow-capped peaks. The wildlife includes llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, vizcachas (chincilla family), and over 100 species of birds.
The Atacama desert
The vast Atacama desert is one of the driest places in the world. From the picturesque oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama, with its cactus wood roof on the church, 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. To the south 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 the astronomical observatories: with virtually no rain, clear nights are almost guaranteed. In the highlands you will see enigmatic petroglyphs left by previous cultures, while on the coast you can see much marine wildlife.
The Lake District
Northern Lake District
Pucón, a small town on Lake Villarica, is very popular in the summer as a centre from which to go rafting, play golf, visit the nearby Huerquehue National Park, 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 and beautiful lakes and monkey puzzle forests.
Southern Lake District
Deep blue lakes reflect snow-capped volcanoes and mountains, the slopes of which are carpeted with dense temperate rainforest. The towns of Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas, the former with its busy port and bustling market at Angelmó, and the latter with its picturesque Germanic feel and panoramic lake views, are the most usual bases for exploring the surrounding countryside. Renting a car is an excellent way of getting around, 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).
From the Lake District it 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 temperate rainforest often shrouded in mist. Highlights of the northern stretch include 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.
Coyhaique is the regional capital of Chile's XII region, located half way between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas along the famous Carretera Austral - Southern Highway. Though it still has very much the feel of a frontier town, Coyhaique is an up and coming tourist destination, especially popular with fishermen who come to enjoy the raging Simpson and Baker rivers. Surrounded by diverse landscapes ranging from Patagonian steppe to the east, lush forested mountains and picturesque pacific fjords to the west and dramatic, rugged mountains further south, Coyhaique is also the jumping off point to explore the spectacular glacier of the Laguna San Rafael.
Balmaceda to Villa O'Higgins
South of Coyhaique is where the Carretera Austral enters the wilds! Through the imposing mountains of Cerro Castillo, the highway skirts the River Ibañez 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 the Lake General Carrera. Eventually, just past Villa O'Higgins the road meets the impassable barrier of the Patagonian Ice Cap (the largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland) and a diversion through Argentina's famous Ruta 40 is necessary.
The Far South
Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales
2,000km south of Santiago is the port of Punta Arenas, gateway to southern Chile (and Argentina) and capital of Region XII. Founded in 1848, the city was an essential supply 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, frontier town of Puerto Natales, on the shores of the Last Hope Sound and the ideal jumping off point for the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park 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 National Park, 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 Cap. The park has a network of well marked trails, and several comfortable lodges.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, lies 3,790km west of Chile, 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, and called it Te Pito, or ‘navel of the world’. Today there is a population of around 2,500, mainly of Polynesian origin, with a justified reputation for warm hospitality. The island, half of which is a National Park, is triangular in shape with 3 extinct volcanic craters. The main attractions are the more than 600 stone statues, or Moai, up to 9 metres in height. The bodies were carved in the spectacular Rano Raraku quarry and then transported on wooden rollers to their destinations, and the red top-knots came from another quarry at Puna Pau. The last statues were erected around 500 years ago, when the supply of trees for rollers ran out.
Juan Fernández Islands
A 2½ hour flight from Santiago, the Islas Juan Fernández are a small group of volcanic islands some 667 km west of Valparaiso, made famous by Defoe's classic tale Robinson Crusoe, inspired by the real life adventures of Alejandro Selkirk. Discovered in 1574, the group is made up of the islands Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk and Santa Clara and was declared a UN World Biosphere Reserve in 1977. With rugged scenery, excellent walking and seafood, tourism is slowly growing though accommodation and infrastructure are still simple and there are only a limited number of flights per week even in high season.