Chile is a fascinating country of contrasts. Huge mountains, snow-capped volcanoes, vast salt flats, moonscapes and desolate deserts, where only the most resilient and weirdest forms of life survive, enormous glaciers crashing into icy lakes, hot springs and geysers, archaic looking temperate rainforests, endless lakes smattered with islands of all shapes and sizes, and finally, the Antarctic south, refuge for penguins, sea lions and humpback whales. I know it sounds tacky, but Chile really has it all.
Why, one might well ask, is this long, thin country at the back of beyond endowed with so much natural beauty? Well, Chileans say that when God created all the countries he created Chile last - with all the leftovers. He had a bunch of sand and rocks left, so he put them all in the far north and created the Atacama Desert, the highlands and the endless coast. He put the left over mountains and volcanoes down along the spine of the country and created the Andes range. With the remaining water he created the beautiful Lake District, splashing a few hot springs here and there, and finally threw the rest of the crumbs of earth down at the bottom where they became the Patagonian archipelago. And so, Chile ended up with a little bit of everything.
The main problem any visitor to Chile will face is - where to start? The regions are so varied and there is so much to do and see in each of them that even an entire year would not be enough to see it all. There are tour agencies that actually try to pack a little bit of the whole country into one jam packed 2 week circuit tour. While one might get an impression of the country's diversity, one certainly would not be able to spend enough time anywhere to really get an in-depth impression. My advice would be, concentrate on one or two areas that interest you the most and spend as much time BEING there as possible.
Chile is a great country for nature lovers and 'the great outdoors' adventurers. It offers majestic landscapes, incredible National Parks, pristine, serene nature with an abundance of forests, mountains and lakes - endless opportunities to go hiking, kayaking, horseback riding or white-water rafting, mountain biking, paragliding or fly fishing. The featured adventures in this article and in these pages focus less on the high adrenaline thrills and more on the nature appreciation type of adventures.
Chile has always been a magnet for nature lovers, yet the concept of eco-tourism is a relatively new discovery here. in Chile Eco-tourism mostly means small scale, low impact nature orientated tourism. However, fresh winds are blowing, even thus far south, and the word is getting around that nature needs protection. And so a number of innovative projects have begun to take root. Very interesting in this context are several projects located in wilderness areas that use spacious, high quality geodesic dome tents to accommodate visitors. This is especially welcome in areas of ecological sensitivity, like Francisco Coloane Marine Park on Carlos III Island, where such an eco-camp provides an ideal base from where to go whale watching in the Strait of Megallen. Another such camp can be found in Torres del Paine National Park. The eco-camp provides a comfortable, low impact base from where to explore Chile's most famous National Park. The tents are supremely comfortable, yet can be taken down at the end of the season, thus allowing the ground to regenerate and minimizing the impact on the park's ecology.
The northern part of Chile is perhaps not the best area to explore independently. Civilization is sparse. If you rent a car make sure it is a four wheel drive vehicle as not all roads are blacktopped. Fuel consumption increases at high altitude and engines need to be especially adjusted. Rainy season between December and March can result in sudden downpours that make certain roads impassible. At night the temperature falls sharply. Bring warm clothes as well as light ones, plenty of sun protection, sun hat, and sunglasses. Always carry fresh water. Dehydration is dangerous. Also, take it easy until your body adjusts to the high altitude.
Far up in the northern part of Chile, bordering onto Bolivia and Peru, lies Chile's most desolate region. A land made of sand and rocks, it seems. The Atacama Desert is known as the driest desert on earth, a moonscape, seemingly void of all life. Paradoxically it is this region that has provided the economic resources for Chilean life about 100 years ago. This lifeless desert is extremely rich in minerals and when nitrate was found here a huge mining industry was soon developed which supplied almost the entire world demand for this chemical. Nitrate not only served comparatively benign purposes, such as in the manufacture of artificial fertilizer, but was also a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. Obviously, who ever controlled this precious resource had a huge stake in the burgeoning arms industry. This gave cause to the Pacific War between Chile, Bolivia and Peru, all eager to control of the richest deposits of this precious chemical. However, the region's economic importance soon diminished when Germany discovered a method of producing synthetic ammonia shortly before the outbreak of WWI.
However, for about a century the desert boomed, yet, as is so often the case, only a few really profited from the earth's riches. The majority of the population - most of them migrant workers from other parts of Chile, were exploited terribly in the mines, subjected to work conditions that were little better than slavery. Thus, it is hardly surprising that political discontent started here, which eventually sparked a civil uprising. Workers were protesting against the company's policy of paying employees with tokens that could only be spent at the company store, instead of real hard cash that could be spent anywhere...and the rest is history, as they say. Today the old mining towns have mostly become ghost-towns and might soon have vanished from our memory, had UNESCO not declared them 'World Heritage in Danger' sites. Today there are small museums at the old Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works that tell the story of the mines and the people who worked there.
Few people will especially plan a journey to this region to see the skeletal remains of an ugly industry, but historically it is a very important site in Chile and worth a visit on your way to the more beautiful hidden treasures of the far north. As you get up into the highlands where cone shaped volcanoes tower above otherworldly salt flats that seem to merge with the sky, sudden oasis emerge between the arid rocks and you will discover that this hostile land has in fact harbored life since ancient times. Numerous well preserved archaeological artifacts bear witness, to an era of civilization that even preceded the Inca, who built a major trading road from the coast to the high Andes.
The National Parks of Lauca and Las Vicuñas & Isluga opens the traveler's eyes to the amazingly rich wildlife that exists at this high altitude - Chugara Lake is an oasis for bird and highland animals. It is a completely otherworldly landscape that exists in a time out of time. Access to these National Parks is from the small village of Putre. Travelers to this remote region should not expect luxury accommodation, though some simple hosterias do exist.
A little further south lies the most frequently visited region of the north - the Atacama desert and San Pedro de Atacama, a little oasis town that has recently become quite a hub for trips to the famed Valley of the Moon and even further afield to Bolivia and the Uyuni Salt Flats. This area also has some lovely hot springs, which are managed by the local native communities. A small charge goes towards community funds and pays for things like schools etc. There are many ways to visit this region from trekking to expedition style overland tours with camping or accommodations in local hotels. Services here range from basic to exquisite and there are even some 5 star lodges to be found. One of those is Awasi Lodge on the edge of San Pedro de Atacama. While it may not represent the epitome of ecological standards, they have certainly made a good start. The buildings are constructed with local materials and in the local style, the water is partially heated by solar power and their 5 star cuisine features local, organic produce wherever possible. They also support a local artisan initiative. The operation is extremely small and exclusive, with only 8 rooms individual attention is their primary focus. Their packages are all inclusive and include not only the food and accommodation but also tour into the surrounding villages, mountains and desert, include walking and mountain biking trips for the more active travelers.
Trekking is probably the most exciting way to see this area and allows you to visit remote places that other tours just don't get to. However, it is not for everyone. At high altitude hiking is hard work and participants need to be in good physical shape. It is highly advisable to spend a few days at high altitude before you start a trek, although our featured trek actually takes acclimatization into consideration and starts off gently and culminates in a visit to El Tatio Geyser and the world's highest geothermal field at 4500m .
Leaving the far north we come to Norte Chico with the colonial town of la Serena and the Valle del Elqui. This area is famous for several things - la Serena has a long sandy beach and is a popular tourist spot during the summer. Due to the exceptional clarity of the sky this area has also been chosen to position the world's largest telescopes. The observatories can be all be visited by the public and some small hotels even specialize in stargazing tourism and provide special accommodations with sky view and telescopes (Although no trips to this part of Chile are listed, they can easily be arranged upon request). The small marine reserve Pinguino de Humboldt around the Isla Damas lets visitors observe penguins, dolphins and at times even whales.
Valle del Elqui is famous for its Pisco grape which provides the raw material for Chile's national drink - the Pisco Sour. It is also regarded as a sacred valley, regarded as a place of powerful earth energies similar to Sedona or Taos and extraterrestrial visitors are a frequent topic of conversation between locals. (If you are interested - please inquire for itinerary details
The capital Santiago is where most travelers will arrive in Chile. It does not have a great deal to offer in terms tourist interest. It is a big bustling metropolis with a traffic problem, surrounded by high mountain peaks, which make for a great backdrop, but don't allow the fumes to disperse. So, if you are suffering from respiratory problems it is a good idea to leave Santiago as quickly as possible - for example on a hiking in or horse riding trip into the nearby mountains. This part of the Andes offers some fabulous hikes and rides which any nature lover would appreciate and despite the short distance you quickly forget that fuming city as you enter into a pristine world of mountains, volcanoes, rivers, glaciers and hotsprings.
Just a little bit north of Santiago, on the coast is the city of Valparaiso, home of one of Chile's best loved poets and Nobel laureate, the late Pablo Neruda. Some of his former homes, which were ransacked by the Pinochet military junta after his death, have now been turned into museums. The old part of Valparaiso with its historic port has also been declared a World Heritage site. While in the area you shouldn't miss El Campana National Park one of only two places where you can see the native Chilean Palm tree in its native habitat. Darwin claimed that he 'never spent a day that he enjoyed more thoroughly than when he climbed Cerro La Campana'. Following his footsteps is quite a hike and will take a fair few hours, but there are many other, shorter hikes that also allow you to appreciate the vegetation and the fantastic views.
To the south of Santiago lies the city of Talca, which is a good starting point to explore the sparsely settled Melado Valley south of the Río Maule, a paradise for hikers and riders. This is also a good starting point for arrays into Chile's famed Central Valley vine growing region. To combine business with pleasure you can combine a bit of hiking with some serious 'wine tasting' as you visit Chile's fine wineries, some of which offer beautiful accommodations bundled into 'wine, dine and sleep in comfort' packages. (Tours with visits to some of Chile's finest wineries can be arranged. Please inquire).
With its semi-arid climate and high summer temperatures, Limarí is something of an oasis. Its topography allows sea breezes to enter the transversal valley during the day, and a fog, known locally as 'camanchaca' cools the air at around dawn. Predominantly Chardonnay and Syrah is produced here.
This northern hot and generally arid region is best suited for red wine production. Some quality Cabernet Sauvignon is produced.
One of the new quality regions in Chile, Casablanca is a relatively cool and largely coastal region producing classy Chardonnay and top-notch Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir was planted in an attempt to exploit its cool climate conditions with one of the top grape varieties appreciated amongst wine connoisseurs. Some of Chile's best wines come from this small region.
The Maipó region, just south of Santiago, is one of Chile's best-known and longest established quality wine regions. Here also are some of the biggest names of the Chilean production. Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay of the region and quality is high.
Recognized as an excellent zone for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot toward the warmer west, the eminence of the Carmenère is outstanding. The region has a particularly good reputation for full-bodied wines.
Stands out as the zone par excellence for the Carmenère variety and remarkable Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The valley is home to Chile's new boutique wineries that produce almost exclusively for export. At the heart of central Chile, Colchagua combines the best of country traditions, hospitality and modern winery, setting new standards in wine production as well as an example in local development and integration through cooperation at all levels. Colchagua Valley now can be experienced aboard the historic "Tren del Vino" a steam engine train offering wine tasting and folklore entertainment while passing by the valleys most famous vineyards.
The Curico is one of the cooler regions of Chile due, mainly, to the effect of the Pacific Ocean. Exceptional area for Sauvignon Blanc, and, in the warmer section, the most excellent wine is the Cabernet Sauvignon, although Merlot is also significant.
The Maule Valley is the most extensive winemaking region in Chile with the greater part of its vineyards in the valley and on the slopes of the coastal mountains. Many white varieties, predominantly Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and many red varieties, mainly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and recently Carmenère, are produced here.
Much of the vine planting is located on the eastern slopes of the coastal mountains amongst pine forests. The climate is similar to the Maule Valley but tending to be more humid. Soils are predominantly reddish-brown volcanic sand, suitable for red and white varieties.
Bio Bio Valley:
This climatically cool region is attracting much attention for its suitability, especially for such varieties as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, and more recently, Pinot Noir. Situated at about 600 km / 373 mi south of Santiago, Bío Bío is on the very southerly edge of viable grape growing, but the cooler temperatures and lengthy ripening periods give great acidity and freshness to the wines.
Beyond the vine growing regions it gets a little cooler as we enter the Chilean Lake District. The northern part of this region, also known as Araucania, is one of Chile's most beautiful areas, with clean lakes, crispy volcanoes, hot springs and lush forests of Araucaria or Monkey Puzzle trees, which gave the region its name. The Mapuche 'people of the land' are the indigenous inhabitants of the region who long resisted the Spanish conquistadores were eventually subjugated in the 1880 after Chile obtained independence from Spain, although the 'King of Araucania and Patagonia', a French lawyer who was elected by the Mapuche people to represent them, never relinquished the claim to the title and the throne. He was deported to France where to this day the 'royal house of Araucania' lives in exile. During the Pinochet years the abuse of the Mapuche people was particularly abhorrent and they were often persecuted under so-called anti-terrorism laws. Only recently has Chile begun to recognize their unique culture and is beginning to make some amends. Temuco is the capital of this region and situated at the heart of the ancient lands of Araucania. We offer a cross-cultural program that allows travelers to visit the Mapuche and learn a little bit about their lifestyle and culture from the people of the land themselves.
Northeast of Temulco, near the Bio Bio river, considered to be the natural border of Araucania lies the small town of Curacautin, a hub for visitors to some of Chile's best nature reserves: Lonquimay Volcano, Conguillo National Park and Llaima Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in Chile.
Further south, on the shores of Lake Villarrica lies Pucon, the central hub for the Lake District proper. From here you can explore the beautiful Villarrica National Park or take a boat ride on the lake. Huerquehue National Park with its impressive natural amphitheater of araucaria trees is also within the vicinity. This area is hot - if you climb Villarrica Volcano you can see the liquid fire of its lava simmering away in its gorge. This inner earthly fire also heats numerous hot springs in the area, many of which are incorporated within the grounds of beautiful spa hotels and resort, while others remain quite natural.
Still further south lies the town of Osorno, which gives access to an extensive region of adjoining National Parks that straddle the border between Chile and Argentina. Vincente Perez Rosales and Puyehue National Parks on the Chilean side of the border and Nahuel Huapi National Park on the Argentinean side of the border. The entire region is an absolute hiking paradise of waterfalls, volcanoes, hot springs, and gorgeous lakes. Well worth spending a little more time to enjoy the fantastic scenery this region has to offer.
Heading further south we soon reach Puerto Montt, the northern gateway to Patagonia, possibly Chile's most frequently visited region, with extensive fjords and glaciers that are constantly crashing into icy glacial lakes. This region is very sparsely inhabited and the sense of being in the back of beyond still prevails. Nevertheless - misguided colonization policies of earlier times, which promised free land to settlers if they cut down the forest and made the land arable are still all to obvious. In some areas the lush temperate rainforest still prevails, but it is one of the most endangered habitats in the world. Thankfully much of what is left is now protected in National Parks. Elsewhere the overwhelming sheep population is keeping the grass cropped, but is also threatening the natural habitat of some endemic species, including the small Chilean deer, guanacos and others who compete for the sparse food resources.
Patagonia is still one of those places that convey the sense of wilderness exploration at the edge of civilization. It is still possible to be alone with nature - for days if one so wishes. However, this will be hard to achieve in the most beautiful and most frequently visited National Park of Chilean Patagonia, the Torres del Paine National Park. It is a truly spectacular park to be sure and well worth a visit, preferably with as much hiking and trekking as you can handle. There is no better way to experience this glacial-mountain mountain wonderland. The same is also true of Los Glaciares National Park over the border in Argentina. But for those who want to experience the varied native forest of the region, the best place to do so is Pumalin Park, a privately owned Nature Reserve bought and set up by a north American millionaire. In fact, much land in southern Patagonia has been snapped up by the rich and famous of other countries, notably the US of A. This has been a bit of a controversial issue, as some Chileans feel that they are being deprived of access to their natural resources.
While talking about Patagonia we should not forget Chiloë, the second largest island of Chile and something of a mythical land. Chiloë is situated at the northern boundary of Patagonia and can be reached from Puerto Montt, but administratively belongs to the Lake District. Its geographical separation from the mainland, although not very far, has nevertheless given rise to a unique culture within Chile where strange tales of mythological creatures abound. Obviously efforts of early Jesuit missionaries, where only partially successful, despite the numerous wooden churches they set up all over the island in an attempt to convert the local indigenous people. These old churches display a unique architectural style, quite different from the usual colonial style of the time, which is why they have been declared a World Heritage Site. Back then the island actually belonged to the viceroyalty of Peru. Later it became the last stronghold of Spanish royalists during the Spanish reoccupation attempts. Eventually the Spaniards surrendered and Chiloe joined the modern Republic of Chile. Today Chiloë is mostly an agricultural island, though it is also home to a fair chunk of rare temperate rainforest, which enjoys protection under National Park status.
Last, but not least, there is of course the much fabled Tierra del Fuego, the island at the end of the world. Today the island is divided between Chile and Argentina. In Chile the region is known as 'Chilean Antarctica' which is famous as one of the last great wilderness habitats, with a very specialized ecosystem adapted to the cool and often rather severe weather conditions. Apart from a wide variety of sea animals, such as sea lions, penguins and even whales, there is also a special type of forest to be found, even though the permanent snow line begins at only 700m above sea level.
Navarino Island, located between Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn is home to Port Williams, the regional capital. It is also a great destination for wildlife observation and there is even an ethnobotanical park on the island.
Another great place to watch marine wildlife, and especially humpback whales, is Carlos III Island, where scientists have discovered a breeding ground of these gentle giants. Travellers can join the scientists in a special 'scientific tourism' project that allows visitors to observe these fascinating animals under scientific guidance.
And so we have come to the end of the world, and yet I have not even been able to mention all of Chile's wonderful sites, but as you can see, the possibilities for a fantastic adventurous, 'close to nature' vacation are endless here. So, the question remains, where to start? Perhaps take a look at the links interspersed in the text or just look here:Chile Tours
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