Regions in Brief
By FROMMER’S via The New York Times
Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Chile‘s lengthy, serpentine shape at first glance seems preposterous: nearly 4,830km (3,000 miles) of land stretching from the arid northern desert to the wild desolation of Patagonia, and a width that averages 180km (112 miles). Chile encompasses such a breathtaking array of landscapes and temperate zones (the only zone not found here is tropical), it is hard to believe such variation can exist in just one country.
Santiago & the Central Valley — The central region of Chile, including Santiago and its environs, features a mild, Mediterranean climate, which reminds many of California. This is Chile’s breadbasket, with fertile valleys and rolling fields that harvest a large share of the country’s fruit and vegetables; it also is the site of world-famous Chileanwineries. Santiago’s proximity to ski resorts, beach resorts, and the idyllic countryside with its campestral and ranching traditions and colonial estates, offers a distinct variety of activities that make the Central Valley an excellent destination.
La Serena & the Elqui Valley — Aside from tiny villages in the Atacama Desert, La Serena is the only town in Chile that still lives and breathes the colonial Spanish heritage. La Serena’s rough-and-tumble neighbor Coquimbo is experiencing a renaissance as a nightlife hub and boasts Chile’s biggest outdoor fair, La Pampilla; and numerous beachesmake this one of Chile’s top summer holiday destinations, particularly for families. But it’s not just beach-hopping and watersports: An array of attractions (including some of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories, archaeological sites, religious festivities, nature preserves, and the relaxing Elqui Valley in the Andes) offers something for anyone seeking a quiet country rest or a desert, ocean, or mountain adventure — in other words, a little bit of everything.
The Desert North — This region claims the world’s driest desert, a beautiful “wasteland” set below a chain of purple and pink volcanoes and high-altitude salt flats. The most popular destinations here, including the Atacama Desert, sit at altitudes of 2,000m (6,560 ft.) and up. The extreme climate and the geological forces at work in this region have produced far-out land formations and superlatives such as the highest geyser field in the world. The earth here is parched, sun-baked, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen, but it gives relief through many of its tiny emerald oases, such as San Pedro de Atacama and Valle del Elqui..
The Lake District — Few destinations in the world rival the lush scenery of Chile’s Lake District, and for that reason it’s the most popular destination for foreigners visiting Chile. This region is packed with a chain of conical, snowcapped volcanoes; glacier-scoured valleys; several national parks; thick groves of native forest; hot springs; jagged peaks; and, of course, many shimmering lakes. Temperatures during the summer are idyllic, but winter is characterized by months of drizzling rain. It’s an outdoors-lover and adventure-seeker’s paradise, especially in Pucón and Puerto Varas, offering biking, hiking, kayaking, rafting, fly-fishing, and more, but it is also a low-key destination for those who just want to kick back and enjoy the marvelous views.
Chiloe — The island of Chiloé is as attractive for its emerald, rolling hills and colorful wooden churches as it is for the unique culture that developed after 300 years of geographic isolation. Picturesque fishing hamlets and views that stretch from the Pacific to the Andes make for fine sightseeing drives, and Chiloé National Park offers ample opportunity for hiking along the island’s untamed coastal rainforest.
The Carretera Austral — Across the sound from Chiloé sits Chile’s “frontier” highway, commonly known as the Carretera Austral, a dirt road that stretches nearly 1,000km (620 miles) from Puerto Montt in the north to beyond Coyhaique in the south. Along the way, this relatively new road passes through virgin territory visited by few travelers: tiny villages speckled among thick virgin rainforest, and rugged peaks from which waterfalls descend. This area could be one of Chile’s best-kept secrets.
Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego — Also known as the Magallanes Region, Patagonia has soared in popularity over the past decade, drawing visitors from all over the world to places such as Torres del Paine National Park. Patagonia is characterized by vast open pampa similar to a prairie, the colossal Northern and Southern Ice Fields and hundreds of mighty glaciers, the peaks of the Andes as they fade into the southern Pacific Ocean at their terminus, emerald fjords, and wind, wind, wind. Getting here is an adventure — it usually takes 24 hours if coming directly from the United States or Europe — but the singular beauty of the region renders the journey worth it. Cruise through emerald fjords, walk across a glacier, stroll through frontierlike immigrant towns such as Puerto Natales, and, without a doubt, visit Chile’s national jewel, Torres del Paine.
Tierra del Fuego, South America‘s largest island, sits across the Strait of Magellan and is shared by both Chile and Argentina. There is one town here on the Chilean side, Porvenir; the rest of the island is populated with more beavers than people.
Easter Island — Easter Island, or “Rapa Nui,” is the world’s most remote island, located farthest away from land than any other island. Annexed by Chile in 1888, the island is famous for its moai sculptures that dot the landscape and awe every visitor. Easter Island offers much more by the way of archaeology — the entire island is a veritable living museum — and there are two dreamy beaches, phenomenal scuba diving in the island’s crystal-clear, periwinkle blue water, wild horses, and a people whose Polynesian culture is thriving despite having been nearly decimated. This is a destination that will exceed all expectations, but you’ll need to come with a hang-loose attitude.