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San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Chile – a traveller’s guide

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18 July 2016 by Rachel Mostyn

A guide to when to go, what to see and where to stay in Chile

"Love beauty; it is the shadow of God on the universe"
Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral

If this is indeed the case, then God certainly cast a very long, albeit thin, shadow across Chile, a country undeniably blessed with beauty.

Unfeasibly long and uncommonly beautiful, Chile stretches almost 3,000 miles from north to south and never more than 110 miles from east to west. Flanked by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes - the world's longest and second highest mountain range - on the other, the scenery, from the arid lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert to the wild, windswept wilderness of Patagonia, is as diverse as it is spectacular. In the centre of the country, the capital Santiago, surrounded by a ring of giant Andean peaks, is modern, yet infinitely charming. Packed with fascinating museums and characterful neighbourhoods, this most colourful of cities is an attraction in its own right, while also acting as gateway to the renowned Central Valley vineyards of Maipo and Colchagua - home to some of the New World's finest wines. And let's not forget remote Easter Island, some 2,200 miles west of the Chilean mainland, in the heart of the Polynesian Pacific, where ancient stone statues gaze out across azure seas and the descendants of the aboriginal Rapa Nui people still hold sway.

King Cormorant Colony, Old Dock, Puerto Natales in Chile
Puerto Natales

Chile at a glance

  • Capital: Santiago (Population: 6 million)
  • Flight time: Around 16h 45m with Air France via Paris but can be longer depending on airline and connections
  • Currency: Chilean Peso (£1 = approx. 900CLP)
  • Read: The Motorcycle Diaries charts the thrills and spills of a young Che Guevara's journeys through Chile and beyond in the 1950s. Alternatively, try Sara Wheeler's Travels in a Thin Country, a lighthearted account of her travels from the Atacama to the southern tip of Patagonia.
  • Eat: Like many South Americans, the Chileans love meat, and in large quantities. The Asado Chileno (Chilean Barbecue) is an event in itself, with the whole family gathering round the grill to enjoy the smell and sizzle of beef cooked on a traditional parilla. Empanadas are also a firm favourite. These tasty pasty-like snacks are the perfect fuel for hungry travellers and come in meat, seafood and vegetarian varieties.
  • Drink: Chile is famous for its wines, many of which come from the Central Valley vineyards. For something a little stronger, try a Pisco. This potent grape brandy is Chile's national drink - although its origin is hotly disputed by neighbouring Peru, who've claimed exclusive rights to the name, which has in turn been hotly disputed by the Chileans etc etc...

When to go

Chile's climates are as varied as its landscapes, and there's never really a bad time to visit. In the south, Patagonia and the Torres del Paine are at their best during the summer (December through March), and only need to be avoided in winter (June to September), when bad weather makes travel almost impossible and many hotels are closed. Chile's central regions, including Valparaiso and the Valle Central, are best seen in spring (November and December) and autumn (March and April). The Atacama can be explored year-round, while Easter Island is at its sparkling best in February. A trip in early autumn is ideal if you're looking to experience the whole of the country in near enough perfect conditions.

When to go to Chile

Getting there and around

Despite its intimidating scale, travel in Chile is relatively straight forward, and it's more than possible to see a good chunk of the country in one trip. However, the appeal of travelling somewhere as jaw dropping in its beauty as Chile, is that quite often it's the journey as much as the destination, which you'll remember most.

Yes, if you want to see the Atacama, the Valle Central and Patagonia, you're going to have to board a plane at some stage, but for many visitors it's the joy of the open road and the chance to explore the vastness of the Chilean wilderness behind the wheel of a car that's the real draw.

There are currently no direct flight from the UK to Chile, with services routing either through Europe (Paris or Madrid), or the US. There's also plenty of services into Santiago and other Chilean towns and cities from countries within South America, including neighbouring Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. LAN Chile offer the most comprehensive service and represent the best way to access and explore the country via internal flights.

Where to go / Essential experiences

Map of Chile

Where to go / Essential experiences

Click the links for more on each region

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert, a 600 mile-long strip of land sandwiched between the Pacific coast and the Andes of northern Chile, is the world's driest desert, so dry in fact that in some parts no rainfall has ever been recorded. The Atacama's Martian-like landscape, characterised by vast salt lakes, twisted lunar rock formations and cone-shaped volcanic peaks, is at first glance both inhospitable and desolate, yet life does exist here. Huge flocks of pink flamingoes feed from the mineral-rich lakes and salt flats, colonies of penguins can be found nesting in the coastal scrubs, and hundreds of species of plants have managed to adapt to life in this unforgiving environment.

San Pedro de Atacama - Serving as the gateway to the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos, San Pedro de Atacama, at 2,438 metres above sea level, is the main tourist town in the Atacama Desert. Here you'll find a selection of hotels and restaurants, a pretty tree-lined plaza and the fascinating Archaeological Museum, where you can learn about the history and culture of the pre-Incan Atacameno people. The town is the starting point for tours to the Valley of the Moon, the El Tatio Geysers, the spectacular mountain lakes of Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde and the Salar de Uyuni in neighbouring Bolivia.

The Valley of the Moon - Located eight miles west of San Pedro de Atacama, the desolate lunar landscapes of the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), part of the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos, is one of the Atacama's most impressive sites. Explore the valleys twisted rock formations and giant sand dunes at sunset when the changing colours of the desert are at their most intense.

El Tatio Geysers - Best seen at sunrise, this spectacular geothermal field - the third largest on earth - is home to no less than 80 gurgling geysers. In the early morning, hundreds of fumaroles (volcanic vents) release steam from bubbling underwater pools into the crisp Andean air. Wrap up warm and take care; several tourists a year fall through the earth's fragile crust and into the hot water below, leading to severe burns. If you do feel like getting wet, there's a large hot spring nearby with temperatures of around 35° Celsius, perfect for relieving that early morning chill.

Stargazing in the desert - An undoubted highlight of a trip to the Atacama is a visit to one of a number of world-class observatories that make this region among the best on the planet for stargazing. The high altitude, coupled with crystal clear skies and minimal light pollution has turned the Atacama Desert into a mecca for astronomers, drawn to the astonishing views of constellations, galaxies and planets, which are only enhanced by the lunar landscapes of the desert itself.

Stay - Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, located in the desert just outside San Pedro de Atacama, offers luxurious accommodation and an exclusive programme of activities throughout the Atacama region. Stylish rooms, a wonderful outdoor pool, first-class cuisine, a superb spa and gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding desert and volcanoes, make Tierra Atacama the place to stay in the Atacama Desert.

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Santiago and Valparaiso

Santiago, Chile

Chile's pulsating capital Santiago is most people's first glimpse of Chile. Surrounded by an amphitheatre of snow-capped Andean peaks, its setting is quite astonishing. Sadly, the smog from the city's traffic-filled streets often blocks any view from sight, and, particularly in the winter when the pollution is at its worst, it's easy to forget the mountains are there at all. Still, view or no view, Santiago is a city on the move, a forward thinking metropolis with a historic heart, who's quirkiness is matched only by its ambition, and who's rewards are greatest for those patient enough to delve beneath the surface.

History and culture - Beyond the bland high rises of the capital's CBD, Santiago is awash with historical and cultural attractions. The Plaza De Armas, The city's main square, is home to the impressive national cathedral and historic central post office. The Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda, an underground cultural centre showing art and cultural exhibitions is also well worth a visit. Perhaps the city's best museum is the fascinating Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which houses pre-Columbian artifacts from the Olmec, Maya and Incan civilisations.

Cerro San Cristobal - Rising 300 metres above the streets of Santiago, Cerro San Cristobal offers some of the finest views of Santiago. Accessed from the charming barrios of Bellavista and Providencia, a gondola-style cable car and old funicular carry visitors to the summit, where a 14 metre-high statue of the Virgin Mary casts a watchful eye over the city below. Amongst the paths and viewpoints of the city's largest green space, are a small zoo, a botanical garden, some quite spectacular fountains and two huge public swimming pools.

Bellavista - At the foot of San Cristobal Hill, the neighbourhood of Bellavista is perhaps Santiago's most enchanting districts. Ornate architecture and colourful streets hide an abundance of the city's best eateries, along with a host of snazzy cafes and lively bars, which really come alive at the weekend, as the city's nightlife gets into full swing. Bellavista is also home to La Chascona, one of three houses once owned by famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Barrio Brasil - To the west of central Santiago, the district of Barrio Brasil plays host to some of Santiago's quirkiest restaurants, cafes and nightspots. Quaint, cobbled streets and faded mansions set the scene for the city's most creative neighbourhood, home to a bohemian crowd of artists, musicians, poets and writers. Spend an afternoon wandering its narrow lanes and pretty plazas and you'll soon fall in love with this colourful and eclectic enclave.

Valparaiso - Located 70 miles northwest of Santiago, the charming seaside town of Valparaiso, known for its laid back bohemian culture, brightly coloured houses and steep Ascencores (funiculars), is well worth a visit. Take one of the funiculars from the port area of El Plan to the artistic hillside communities of Cerro Bellavista and Cerro Polanco, for beautiful views across the city and ocean beyond.

Stay: Santiago, as you'd expect, has a huge range of accommodation options to suits all tastes and budgets. A couple of good options are The Singular, in the Lasterria neighbourhood, or Le Rêve, in the trendy neighbourhood of Providencia.

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Central Valley vineyards

Colchagua Valley, Chile
Colchagua Valley

Chile's vast Central Valley, which runs from the Chilean Coastal Range to the foot of the high Andes, produces some of the world's finest wines. This beautiful region, less than two hours from Santiago, offers a stark contrast to the bone-dry deserts of the north and the remote mountainous wilderness of the south. Although it's possible to get a taste of the wine regions on a long day-tour from Santiago, spending a few nights here will prove far more rewarding.

Colchagua Valley - Perfectly set up for tourists, the Colchagua Valley is one of Chile's most visited wine regions. Often compared to California's Napa Valley, due to both its scenery and climate, Colchagua produces some of Chile's best red wines, including syrah, cabernet, malbec and, in particular, carmenére, a variety of red that flourishes in the higher temperatures found here.

Maipo Valley - To the southwest of Santiago, between two mountain ranges - the high, snow-capped Andes to the east and the more verdant Coastal Range to the west - Maipo Valley is Chile's best-known wine producing region. Rich in tradition and famed for its superb Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for more than 50 percent of the region's wine production, Maipo Valley is not only one of the country's largest wine growing regions, covering an area of more than 10,000 hectares, but also one of its most beautiful.

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Chile's Lake District

Volcan Villarrica viewed from Santuario El Cani near Pucon Chile
Volcan Villarrica viewed from Santuario El Cani near Pucón

Spanning the regions of La Araucania and Los Lagos, Chile's Lake District is a spectacular land of deep blue glacial lakes, peaceful valleys, ancient forests and snow-capped volcanoes, stretching almost 200 miles from Temuco to Puerto Montt, is one of the country's true gems.

Pucón - The picturesque town of Pucón, set on the shores of Lago Villarrica, is the Lake District's adventure capital. The summer months see adrenaline-seekers from all corners of the world descend on the town to enjoy hiking, climbing, white water rafting and skydiving, while in the winter, its skiing and snowboarding that bring in the crowds. If you're not the daredevil type, the town's beautiful black sand beach offers the perfect spot to relax and soak up the scenery, which is dominated by the snow-capped cone of the nearby Villaricca Volcano.

Puerto Varas - Often tipped as the southern Lake District's answer to Pucón, the pretty town of Puerto Varas, just 15 miles or so from Puerto Montt, enjoys a dreamlike location at the southern tip of Llanquihue Lake. On the horizon, the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes stand ever watchful, guarding the entrance to the beautiful Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, 25 miles to the east. Puerto Varas has some wonderful opportunities for adventure sports enthusiasts, with canyoning and kayaking both high on the agenda, as well as some memorable hikes, with the trails around the Osorno volcano offering some particularly spectacular views.

Stay - There is a variety of accommodation available in the Lake District including the exceptional Tierra Chiloe.

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Chiloé Archipelago

Chiloe Island, Chile

Myth and legend surround this beautiful series of islands just a short distance from Puerto Montt and Chile's Lake District. Chiloé's unique history and culture, achieved through a long standing, self-imposed autonomy, has continued to grow and develop away from the otherwise all-encompassing influence of Santiago.

Easily reached from Puerto Montt, via ferry across the Canal de Chacao, this mysterious island destination is fast becoming a popular addition to Chile's well-trodden tourist route. Famed for its collection of 18th century wooden churches and superb seafood - oysters are a prized speciality - the islands also offer up some memorable hikes along wild, windswept coastal paths and dense forest trails, as well as the chance to indulge in cycling, fishing and birding. But it's the chance to learn about the island's unique mythology that really captures the imagination, as you delve into a centuries-old world of witchcraft, ghost ships and axe-wielding forest dwarves.

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Guanaco at Torres del Paine National Park

Patagonia, an astonishing region of fjords, glaciers, mountains and steppes stretching from Puerto Varas to the southernmost tip of Tierra de Fuego, is a land like no other. Vast in both its scale and beauty, it remains one of the world's great wildernesses.

The Carretera Austral - Passing through the rugged landscapes of Northern Patagonia, from Puerto Montt to the remote town of Villa O'Higgins on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the 750-mile long Carretera Austral is one of the world's great overland touring routes.

Finally completed in the 2003, after 27 years of construction, which began under the de facto presidency of Augusto Pinochet, this mostly dirt highway traverses some of Patagonia's remotest regions. The most popular section, a seven-day round-trip, following the course of the Rio Baker from the town of Balmaceda to Villa O'Higgins and back again, passing the vast Lago General Carrera - South America's second largest lake after Lake Titicaca - and on to the picturesque fjord-side town of Tortel, set amidst the mountains and glaciers of the Laguna San Rafael National Park.

Stay: The Mirador de Guadal, at the south-west end of Lago General Carrera and just eight miles east of the Carretera Austral, features just eight wood cabins with cosy living rooms, private decks and a peaceful lakeside setting.

Torres del Paine National Park - The towering granite spires of Torres del Paine, rising more than 2,000 metres above the plains of the Patagonian steppe, are one of the most iconic and photographed sites in South America. These spectacular peaks are the dominating feature of the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park, a rugged wilderness of roaring rivers, jagged mountains and emerald lakes, four-hours drive north of Punta Arenas in the wilds of Southern Patagonia. Visitors to the park can expect to see an abundance of wildlife, from Andean condors to huge flocks of flamingos and of course the ubiquitous herds of guanaco, which graze on the grasses of the open steppes and represent one of the park's most important conservation success stories.

Adding to the Torres del Paine National Park experience is the superb infrastructure and volume of high-quality accommodation both inside and outside the park boundaries. Indeed, its possible to complete the renowned W Trek - a four-day circuit taking in the sites of the park's two main valleys - while enjoying comfy beds, showers, hot meals and even the occasional glass of wine. Elsewhere inside and outside the park, the luxury is ramped up a few notches further, with hotels such as Tierra Patagonia and Explora Patagonia offering fine dining, spa treatments and swimming pools with uninterrupted views across the Paine Massif.

Stay: Tierra Patagonia, a luxurious lodge on the shores of beautiful Lago Sarmiento on the eastern perimeter of the National Park, is the newest luxury hotel in the immediate vicinity of Torres del Paine. Opened in 2011, Tierra Patagonia offers stylish rooms, a stunning spa, personalised touring and perfectly framed views of the Paine Massif.  Inside the park, Hotel Lago Grey sits perfectly poised beside the Grey Lake and Glacier and Explora Patagonia has by far the best views of the park's famous horns and towers. For those willing to stay a way out of the park, or are looking to break the long overland journey from Punta Arenas, The Singular Patagonia, around an hour from the park's southern entrance, will reward guests with a quite unique accommodation experience. Rated as the best hotel in Chile and third best in South America in 2013 by Tripadvisor, this converted abattoir on the shores of Last Hope Sound incorporates cutting edge design, imaginative cuisine and breathtaking views across the Patagonian fjords.

Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean Fjords - South of Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan, is a spectacular wilderness of iceberg-filled lagoons and icy mountains known by locals as 'the end of the world'.

This remote region, which incorporates part of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and the complex maze of channels and fjords that line Chile's southern coast, is best explored by cruise ship. Get up close and personal with the penguins on Magdalena Island; observe groups of South American Sea Lions from on board a Zodiac; marvel at the giant glaciers at De Agostini Sound in the heart of the Darwin Mountains; and navigate your way through the jaw-dropping amphitheatre of Brookes Fjords, all the while enjoying the comforts of your very own luxury cabin.    

Stay: Ok, so the Cruceros Australis isn't a hotel exactly, but this expedition cruise ship with 64 comfortable cabins, is certainly the best way to experience the wilds of Southern Patagonia. Enjoy delicious dining, superb service and a range of unforgettable excursions on cruises lasting between three and seven nights.

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Easter Island

Easter Island, Chile

2,200 miles from Chile, in the heart of the Polynesian Pacific, the mysterious island of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island as its also known, offers an experience unlike anything the Chilean mainland has to offer. The island, surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific Ocean, is best known for its vast array of archaeological sites, most notably the giant moai statues that stand guard along Rapa Nui's rugged coastline. But there's so much more to this remote outpost than just its history, as enthralling as it is. The waters around the Easter Island, some of the clearest in the world, provide a playground for scuba divers, while hiking and horseback riding offer a wonderful way to enjoy the island's dramatic scenery. And there's something for beach bums too, with some wonderful stretches of sand offering the chance to kick back, relax and get acquainted with Rapa Nui's laid back Polynesian lifestyle.

Stay: Explora Rapa Nui is a stylish, luxury eco lodge, located in the Te Miro Oone are in the centre of Easter Island. The hilltop accommodation, known as Posada de Mike Rapu, blends into the landscape and is designed to have minimal impact on its surroundings. The lodge's 30 rooms offer peace, privacy and spectacular views of the island through huge picture windows. There's also a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, massage room and superb restaurant serving the freshest local ingredients. A full programme of activities, including guided treks, cycling tours, snorkelling and fishing excursions, enables guests to explore the stunning landscapes and fascinating culture of one of the world's remotest destinations. 

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