Between the Pacific Ocean and the base of the Andes, one of world’s great mountain ranges, Chile boasts some of the world’s most varied and dramatic landscapes. To comprehend its diverse geography, imagine a single country stretching from Baja California through California, the Pacific northwest coast and up to the Alaska Panhandle. Chile’s length—including the entire length of its jagged coast and islands—is an amazing 7,633 mi/12,606 km in all, making it the 19th-longest country in the world when measured by coastline, and the second-longest in South America.
Once considered remote, Chile is now one of South America’s most modern and convenient travel destinations, with contemporary infrastructure and comforts, and an outstanding reputation for safety. Combined with its booming economy and strong peso, that also means prices are high in comparison with the rest of the continent. Among Chilean specialty tours are those focusing on wine production, desert flora and fauna, fly-fishing, skiing, river rafting and kayaking, and hiking through stunning Patagonian landscapes.
Modern Chile reflects Spanish, Basque, British, German and Croatian ancestry, but the bulk of the population is mestizo. Even so, there are still a million indigenous Mapuche in the south, a nation that remained autonomous until the late 19th century.
Recreational activities in Chile range from bicycling, bird-watching, fishing and horseback riding to hiking and walking, and surfing. And, with its steep transverse rivers descending from the Andes, Chile is one of the world’s top white-water rafting and kayaking destinations. Though threatened by hydroelectric development, the remote Futaleufu remains one of the world’s top 10 white-water rivers, and plenty of people think it’s the best.
No Chilean operator specializes in cycle touring, but lakes-district towns such as Pucon and Puerto Varas have plenty of rental bikes for visitors who don’t take their own equipment, or you can book a tour through a foreign operator.
Rainbow trout caught in Chilean lakes and streams can easily weigh 8-14 lb/3-6 kg. The best fishing is November-March. Fishing lodges dot the lakes district and the Southern Highway.
There are many options for hiking in and around Torres del Paine National Park. For less-visited destinations in almost equally spectacular countryside, try the mountains east of the city of Talca (about four hours south of Santiago).
Chile’s mountainous terrain is ideal for horseback explorers on multiday trips. You can ride in the desert north or in the southern lake district, which has its own backcountry camp.
It’s not exactly an organized sport, but every winter, beginning in April or so, the town of Pichilemu (about three hours southwest of Santiago) sees a huge influx of surfers from around the world. Still, with its long Pacific coastline, Chile abounds in surfing spots.
Traditional Chilean food tends to be simple and hearty peasant fare, such as cazuela (a thin stew with potatoes, corn on the cob and either chicken or beef), empanadas de horno (baked meat pies, usually with ground beef), locro (a meat dish with potatoes and vegetables), charquican (a dish with vegetables and dried beef), humitas (similar to Mexican tamales) and pastel de choclo (a corn-based casserole with onions, hard-boiled eggs and minced beef or chicken, easily the best traditional meal).
Fish and seafood, though, are the highlights of Chilean cuisine. Try parrillada de mariscos, a mixed grill of seafood, but don’t miss corvina (sea bass is its more commonly known trade name), congrio (conger eel), locos (abalone), centolla (king crab) and machas (razor clams). More adventurous diners can try less conventional shellfish such as the picoroco (giant barnacle) and erizo (sea urchin). On the Island of Chiloe, the curanto, a massive combo of shellfish, seaweed, dumplings and meat, is legendary. In Patagonia, game dishes such as wild boar, guanaco and rhea (the latter two are now farmed in captivity) are becoming common menu items.
With vineyards ranging from Limari Valley in the north to the Maule and beyond in the south, Chilean wines are diverse, and many wineries are open for tours and tasting, though much of the best is for export only. The signature varietal is the red Carmenere, extinct in its native France but rediscovered in Chile in 1994.
Chile’s national cocktail is the pisco sour, which blends the local grape brandy with sugar and lemon, then tops it with bitters. Other drink specialties include borgona, a red wine punch prepared with sparkling water and fruit, and cola de mono, a Christmas drink similar to eggnog. German settlers brought with them the tradition of brewing tasty beers, and the local chopp—draft lager—is excellent. In recent years, many new artisanal brews have appeared on the market.
Because it extends from the tropics to the subantarctic, Chile encompasses a variety of climates (ranging from barren deserts to soggy tundra and almost everything in between). There’s no one time that’s perfect to visit every part of the country, but from spring (October) through summer and into early autumn (March and April), it seldom rains, humidity is low, midday temperatures rarely exceed 90 F/32 C, and the nights are cool. The worst time is May-August, when it rains a lot from Santiago south. It’s also colder then. A sweater (and, in the south, a heavy jacket) should be taken no matter when you go, as nights can be cool to cold nearly everywhere.
The best times to visit Easter Island are August-October and March and April; the worst months are June and July, when it rains, and December-February, the busiest tourist season. Temperatures there average 70-90 F/21-34 C year-round.
Chile requires at least two weeks if you want to see it adequately, but for those with only one week, the following itinerary provides a good introduction:
Day 1—Arrive Santiago. As most flights arrive early in the morning, spend the afternoon touring the city and perhaps a vineyard.
Day 7—Depart Chile.
If 10 nights are available, consider this schedule:
Day 1—Arrive Santiago, visiting downtown sights including La Moneda palace and its cultural center.
Day 2—Fly to Calama, visiting Chuquicamata if scheduling permits and then continuing to San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 3—San Pedro de Atacama, including an early morning excursion to the Tatio geysers.
Day 4—Fly to Santiago, with an afternoon vineyard excursion.
Day 5—Fly to Puerto Montt and, after lunch at Angelmo, proceed to Puerto Varas.
Day 8—Overland by bus or rental car to Pucon. Afternoon hike at Huerquehue National Park.
Day 9—Pucon. Climb the Villarrica Volcano or raft the Trancura River, then overland to Temuco for a flight back to Santiago. Alternatively, take a comfortable sleeper bus from Pucon or Temuco, arriving in Santiago the following morning.
Day 11—Visit Santiago’s pre-Columbian museum or other cultural attractions in the capital before an evening flight.
If more time is available, increase your stay in Santiago and Puerto Varas by one night each to see the surrounding countryside, add at least four nights in the south (Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, and Torres del Paine) or spend time enjoying special interests, such as fishing, rafting, skiing and the like. A magnificent climax to a trip to Chile would be a seven-day cruise to see the fjords, glaciers and wooded wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, including a landing at Cape Horn and a day at the Argentine port of Ushuaia.
How would you like to explore Chile?
[Cover Photo: Conguillio National Park by Turismo Chile]
[SOURCE: Pocket Travel Guide App]
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