The ‘thin country’ is a deceptive nickname – Chile is stuffed with attractions. This meaty blueprint guide will help you plan your menu of volcanoes, deserts, vineyards and glaciers
Chile is a country of exhilarating extremes: a preposterously skinny tendril of land sandwiched between ocean and mountains. Chile freefalls 4,300km from the driest desert on earth to a glacial tail that shivers just short of Antarctica. It's a must for anyone with an adventurous spirit, an eye for beauty and a weakness for wine.
Chile's northern tip is dominated by the Atacama Desert, where large herds of wild camelids drift through stunning altiplano parks, rich in flamingo-flecked salares (saltpans), geyser fields, volcanic peaks and strange lunar landscapes. Coastal resorts tempt sun worshippers, while astronomers make the most of crystal-clear desert skies.
The parched brown fades to green the further south you go, and vineyards carpet the country's fertile midriff. This region boasts some of the southern hemisphere's best ski resorts and is also home to Valparaíso, a unique port of crumbling mansions, steep labyrinthine roads and creaky hillside funiculars.
Middle Chile also lays claim to the lively capital, Santiago. Though polluted and noisy, the city is framed by a mighty circle of mountains and boasts gourmet cuisine, fine museums and a flourishing arts scene. However, it's the south that draws most visitors. Follow Chile's jagged Andean backbone and you'll pass through ancient native forests, past shimmering lakes and towering volcanoes, to stumble upon the exquisite labyrinth of fjords, islands and milky-blue glaciers that graze the end of the Americas. And for a taste of truly unique culture, hop across to the island of Chiloé to enjoy its folklore-rich traditions, delicious cuisine and characteristic shingled churches.
Travel in Chile can be as hardcore or as pampered as you please. Vast areas of wilderness beckon to free spirits while luxurious resorts lie in wait for serious relaxation. Transport and infrastructure are well developed and, while the country still shudders with the aftershocks of a brutal dictatorship, it is emerging as a leading regional power.
But don't hang around: a sharp increase in foreign tourism was recorded last year. The next decade will see some of Chile's best white-water rivers tamed by hydroelectric plants, its forests gnawed by logging and some of its dazzling glaciers retreat. Now is the best time to enjoy the pristine mountains, permafrozen playgrounds and rich forests before the tourist crowds get there.
The driest desert in the world (two weeks)
Start at seaside Arica before venturing up to highland Parque Nacional (PN) Lauca for vicuña and volcanoes. Loop down to laid-back Iquique, catch some waves or try paragliding, and check out the eerie mining ghost towns nearby.
Detour to the gargantuan copper mine at Chuquicamata before hitting San Pedro de Atacama. Allow a few days to bounce around the surrounding altiplano, famed for weird landscapes: catch the sun setting at moon-like Valle de la Luna, boil eggs in the steaming geysers at El Tatio, horse trek through dusty canyons, sand-board giant dunes and spot flamingos in Chile’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Atacama.
Further south, relax on sandy bays beside the colonial city of La Serena, where you can also take day trips to explore astronomical observatories and drink pisco cocktail straight from the vineyards of the Elqui Valley.
The end of the Americas (three weeks)
Cast off from Puerto Montt on a four-day ferry ride through the Patagonian fjords. Rediscover your land legs in Puerto Natales before venturing into the nearby PN Torres del Paine to hike around the iconic stone towers.
Sidestep to Argentina’s nearby PN Los Glaciares and its awesome 15-storey-high Perito Moreno Glacier. Either journey via Punta Arenas, for a trip to teeming penguin colonies, or hop on an inexpensive flight from El Calafate (Argentina) to the 'Land of Fire and Ice' - Tierra del Fuego.
Savour that world's end feeling by taking a trip from Ushuaia by boat or plane to Chile’s Isla Navarino – setting for terrific trekking routes and the world's southernmost city, Puerto Williams - or to the actual end of the Americas on the islands of Cape Horn.
The ferry ride back through the Beagle Channel from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas is remote Patagonia at its absolute best.
Middle Chile & the lakes (14-17 days)
First, enjoy fast-paced Santiago and explore one of the revered wineries nearby. If you come in winter, scoot up into the Andes for some skiing fun at Portillo.
Head to the coast and catch a ride on historic funiculars in the gorgeous port of Valparaíso. Then ride a few waves at Pichilemu, Chile's surf centre, or indulge in more wine-tasting at vineyards around Talca. Then peer into a smouldering volcanic crater and try white-water rafting, hiking, mountain biking or horse-riding around Pucón.
Catch your breath in the handsome waterfront city of Valdivia before trekking across the Sahara-like dunes and looming volcano of PN Puyehue (ending each day by soaking in its hot springs), lake-hopping through stunning PN Vicente Peréz Rosales to Argentina or catching a ferry to explore the unique traditional villages and forests of Chiloé Island.
The Carretera Austral (two weeks)
The rough-cut Southern Highway winds 1,200km past pristine peaks, glaciers and fjords and into near-absolute isolation. Start by heading south on the ferry across from La Arena , and wander among 1,000-year-old alerce trees in Parque Pumalín. Then catch a boat from Hornopirén around to Pumalín's southern expanse.
Plough onward past Chaitén, then east for some white-water fun in the raging Futaleufú River. Continue on to the awe-inspiring suspended glaciers and steep-sided fjords of PN Queulat and the hot springs and spa resort of Termas de Puyuhuapi.
Before reaching Coyhaique, detour to Puerto Chacabuco and gawp at a glacier meeting the sea in PN Laguna San Rafael. Forge on past myriad fishing lodges, across a lake and fjord to tiny Villa O'Higgins - literally the end of the road, and the finishing point of an epic road trip.