Skinny Chile, squashed between the Pacific and the Andes, is one giant playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Its landscape embraces glacial wilderness and moonscapes, lakes and volcanoes, beaches, salt flats and the burnt colours of the desert. In one day you can scale a snow-capped mountain, soak off the exhaustion in a thermal bath and rest beneath the desert stars. Chile’s capital, Santiago, is a great place to see Chileans at play. The nearby port of Valparaíso shouldn’t be missed – a warren of narrow streets, brightly coloured houses perched perilously on steep hills and ageing bars frequented by sailors. In the north of Chile, San Pedro de Atacama is an unlikely oasis set among the geysers, volcanoes and salt flats of the world's driest desert. Heading south, forests, lakes and conical snow-capped volcanoes make up Chile's Lake District, with clear air perfect for hikes to small towns and villages topped by high-spired, clean-cut churches. The mysterious archipelago of Chiloé is the place to spot penguins and gorge on freshly dug oysters. In the far south lies the awe-inspiring Torres del Paine National Park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and Mecca for trekkers and wildlife enthusiasts. Throughout the year, the park offers constantly changing views of the glaciers, peaks and the iconic granite towers which overlook vividly coloured lakes and quiet green valleys filled with carpets of wild flowers.
Don’t call pisco a Peruvian drink – Chileans claim the hooch as its own. You can spot the world’s largest-ever creature, the blue whale, on a whalewatching trip from Punta Arenas.
You can explore Chile’s south anytime between November and April but unless you're there for the skiing avoid midwinter – some southern areas are almost impenetrable between June and September. The middle of Chile is best in spring (November to December) and autumn (March to April) while the desert in the north can be explored year round. The capital, Santiago, can be smoggy during the winter (June to September) but for picture-postcard views of the snow-capped Andes, the city is never better than after the winter rain.
Santiago (SCL) 21 km from the city.
Getting around in Chile
Chile has an excellent long distance bus network with a fast and comfortable service between all major destinations. There are very few train services in Chile, aside from a newly modernised route between Santiago and Temuco in the south. Frequent domestic flights service the major towns. For cyclists and bikers, Chile is a joy, two wheels being a great way to access some of the more remote national parks. The Carretera Austral is a classic trip for pedal pushers.
Chile has accommodation to suit every pocket with plenty of hostels and guesthouses for budget travellers. Top-end hotels are often functional but rather uninspiring: for something different, try a rural homestay instead. Prices rocket from December to mid-March but it’s well worth asking for a discount out of high season. Chileans respond well to beaming smiles and polite requests. Camping is easy but bring gear with you – it’s expensive in Chile.
Market stalls groan under the weight of giant fruit and veg, steaks are almost as good as those in Argentina and everything can be washed down with world-class wines. Try paila marina, a stew crammed to bursting with shellfish, or cazuela de ave, a soupy chicken dish that keeps away the cold in the winter. Vegetarians should try humitas – delicious, filling corn tamales – or the divine porotos granados con mazamorra, a moreish bean, pumpkin and corn stew. Look out for Chilean brewed ales like the dark and fruity Austral Calafate, but beware of the pisco sour – this tart twist on the nation’s favourite drink produces a killer hangover.
Chile is prone to earthquakes and although buildings are constructed to withstand them and it’s very unlikely to happen while you’re there, make sure you know what to do if one hits. In San Pedro de Atacama and on higher peaks, altitude sickness can be a problem. Take it slow for the first few days and avoid alcohol. In summer months and in the desert, be sure to slap on plenty of sun cream and wear a hat if you’re going to be outside for long periods.
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