Exploring Chile and beyond

Lorna Cowan

There are plenty of things to see and do in Chile from discovering Santiago's city streets to trekking across a desert or glacier. Whether it's a city break or an adventure you're after, Chile is a country of contrasts that won't disappoint. Written by Lorna Cowan.



City breakers, adventure seekers, lovers of nature and the great outdoors — Chile caters for everyone. A country of contrasts, it’s possible to people-watch in a café in Santiago de Chile then trek across a glacier in Patagonia a few days later. Prefer to relax by a pretty lakeside, explore a national park or climb a volcano? In Chile, you can do that too.

From the Atacama Desert north of the capital, to the Lake District and remote landscapes of the south, Chile is a diverse destination that captures the imagination and leaves visitors wanting more.

Santiago de Chile

Surrounded by the snow-capped Andes mountain range, Santiago de Chile is a captivating and cosmopolitan city. Historic colonial buildings share the streets with modern shiny skyscrapers. Fashionable cultural districts share borders with lively bohemian neighbourhoods. And if you want to shop, boutiques selling designer labels are as easy to locate as market stalls selling traditional alpaca wool ponchos.

On a stroll around the capital, don’t miss the Plaza de Armas, a bustling square filled with palm trees and fountains where you’ll find the neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, Royal Court Palace and Central Post Office. While here, listen out for the local chinchineros, entertaining street drummers that are unique to Chile, and in particular Santiago.

Tours of the Presidential Palace, La Moneda, will fascinate those with an interest in Chile’s political history, but they must be booked online at least one week in advance. Alternatively, just turn up for the palace’s elaborate changing of the guard ceremony — every other day at 10am (11am at weekends).

Art aficionados will love Santiago too, especially the National Museum of Fine Arts with its contemporary collection of works, and the free Ralli Museum, home to seven bronze sculptures by Salvador Dalí. Over 30 exhibits by Chilean artists are also on display in the city’s open-air museum, known as Sculpture Park.

For the best panoramic views of Santiago, and the impressive Andes in the distance, head to the summit of San Cristóbal Hill. If you don’t fancy a 45-minute hike to the top, take the Bellavista funicular railway. Give yourself time to look around the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and awe and wonder at the 14-metre high white statue of the Virgin Mary.

Plaza de las Armas square in Santiago, Chile

Patagonia

Awe-inspiring sights also await holidaymakers in Patagonia, a dramatic region of south Chile and neighbouring Argentina that’s wild, wind-swept, rugged and remote — and will take your breath away. Daring adventurers, wildlife enthusiasts, keen photographers — Patagonia has the capacity to charm everyone, and create memories that will last a lifetime.

Many visitors to this region of Chile spend time in Torres del Paine National Park, famous for its soaring mountains, sparkling glaciers and the Andean condor with its three-metre wingspan. Wrap up for a chilly expedition sailing between the vivid blue icebergs on Grey Lake. Or trek along a relatively easy trail pass the Salto Grande Waterfall to the scenic Horns Viewpoint, on the shores of Lake Nordenskjöld. Feeling more adventurous? Then explore the park by bicycle, kayak or on horseback.

Perito Moreno glacier, Patagonia, Argentina

Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off South America’s southernmost tip, is where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet, and where you’ll discover fjords, islets and nature reserves. A thriving population of over 100,000 Magellanic penguins reside on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, accessible on a day trip from Punta Arenas.

If you’re keen to see more natural wonders, take a boat ride to the magical and stunningly beautiful Marble Caves of Lake General Carrera, near the small town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. For the past 6,000 or so years, wind and water have slowly eroded the cliffs, resulting in some of the world’s most amazing caverns and geological formations.

 

The Lake District

Still in Patagonia, but further north and with a more alpine feel, the picturesque Lake District is, as you’d expect by its name, an area of outstanding beauty, full of lush landscapes, large lakes — and a cluster of volcanoes.

Puerto Varas, a city famous for its German traditions, is located on the shores of the vast Lake Llanquihue, and has views over to two volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco. It’s a great base for those seeking an adrenalin rush — mountain biking, river rafting and canoeing is available. Prefer something a little more sedate? Then spend a day fly fishing or take a dip in the region’s numerous wild rivers.

Not surprisingly, the Lake District is also home to multiple parks. Huerquehue National Park, with its impressive rain forest, has several inviting lagoons, while the centrepiece at Villarrica National Park is a line of three volcanoes stretching to the Andean mountain range. While on your wanders, look out for the monito del monte, one of three marsupial species in Chile, as well as the culpeo fox and pudú, the world’s smallest deer.

Atacama Desert in Chile, South America

The Atacama Desert

Barren yet beguiling, the Atacama is one of the world’s driest deserts and a real contrast to Patagonia and the Lake District. With its peculiar rock formations and lunar-like landscape, the Valley of the Moon, along with nearby Death Valley, has an extremely dry and forbidding terrain, making time here somewhat eerie, but equally enchanting. Visit as the sun sets for a colour-changing spectacle that is both mystical and mesmerising

As there’s no light pollution in the Atacama Desert, it’s also a great spot for stargazing. Telescope-obsessed astronomers should take in a trip to the La Silla Observatory, everyone else can just stare up into the night sky. The clearest and darkest skies occur from March to October.

Sunrise is the best time, however, to watch some steam activity at El Taito Geysers, the world’s third largest geyser field (there are around 80 gurgling geysers), located approximately 4,300 metres above sea level, near the Bolivia border. Then head to Puritama Hot Springs, a series of large pools of geothermal spring water. Full of natural minerals to soothe aching muscles, bathers will return refreshed and reinvigorated.

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