|Country Information & Lifestyle|
The Place To Begin The Extraordinary
Chile is a country in South America stretching over 4,300 kms in a long thin line between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire, Chile borders Peru to the south, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east and the Drake Passage in the far south. Chilean territory includes the islands of Robinson Crusoe in the Juan Fernandez Islands, Salas y Gomez, Desventuradas and Easter Island.
Chile is a country of startling contrasts and extreme beauty, ranging from the towering volcanic peaks of the Andes, to the ancient forests of the Lake District. The land to the north rises and becomes more arid until you reach the forbidding Atacamba Desert in Antofagasta, the world's driest desert, and one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The Tropic of Capricorn passes through the desert, which lies in the rain shadow of Chile's coastal range, the virtually impassable wall of the Andes.
The small Central valley, which includes Santiago, dominates the country in terms of population and agricultural resources, and in the centre of the country is a long expansive river valley, a five hundred mile corridor occupied in the north by vineyards and great farms, and in the south by primeval forests and enchanting lakes.
The lush Lake District to the south is the homeland of Chile's indigenous people; southern Chile is rich in forests and grazing lands and features a strong of volcanoes and lakes. The southern coast is a labyrinth of fjords, inlets, canals, twisting peninsula and islands.
The Lake of the Incas is a bewitching place with the most soulful legend. It is said that on the nights of the full moon one hears the cries of sorrow that break through the deep quiet over the crystal of ice that covers the lake in winter.
Legend has it that the cries are the soul of the Inca Illi Yunqui that wanders restlessly over the watery tomb of his beloved Princess Kora-Lle. The Princess fell to her tragic death during the celebration of a nascu, or Royal Hunt. The Inca, whose sadness disturbs the peace of these mountains, believed with the soul of a poet, that no human tomb could be comparable to these deep waters.
The Imperial Court looked sadly on as the tiny body, wrapped in white linen, was lowered to the blue depths of the lake. From that moment on the water turned emerald, dyed by the colour of the Princesses lovely eyes that the Son of the Sun, Illi Yunqui could no longer awaken.
Thus came to be this spirit of love and mystery that wanders here covered by the silent mantle of snow, perhaps it is enchantment that produces these sad sounds?
The Araucanians, and further south a transformation takes place, the land falls away and the region between mountains and ocean fades into a baffling archipelago maze that terminates in Chilean Patagonia. This region offers all the dramatic landscape one would expect from the worlds ultimate lands end.
Here the South American continent falls away in a dazzling explosion of islands, glaciers, icebergs and mountains, and is truly on of mother natures grand finales.
Santiago the capital, basks in one of the most spectacular settings of any city in the world. Situated on an inland plain with the snow-capped Andes Mountains glimmering in the distance, Santiago is cultured, quirky and ambitious.
There are thriving culinary and artistic enclaves that are a joy to uncover. Gourmets feast on world-class cuisine in Bellavista and Providencia, Bohemians gather in the charming old district of Barrio Brasil, while the city is dotted with fine museums and a flourishing art scene. The city has wide avenues, leafy, exotic suburban parks, a booming cafe culture and a huge range of activities within easy reach of the city.
Valpariso, nicknamed La Perla del Pacifico, is undoubtedly the most unique city in Chile, and one of the most unusual in all Latin America. One of the continents best kept secrets, Val-po was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. From the flat city centre, funicular elevators creak at an improbable angle up to a very different city above.
These tumbling chaotic hills, with their steep labyrinthine roads, crumbling mansions and kaleidoscopic rooftops, have stunning vistas that hit you as you look down the unique, faded grandeur of the town and its spontaneous Bohemian charm.
Things move at a slow pace in Arica, the northernmost city, just 20 km from the Peruvian border. Best described as a city-cum-beach-resort, Arica enjoys summery weather year-round. It is also blessed with warm sea currents and exhilarating surfing breaks. However, there's plenty here for landlubbers too: an iron church, a dramatically situated battleground and some of the world's oldest known mummies, just to name a few.
Saunter through downtown La Serena with dignified stone churches, tree-shaded avenues and pretty plazas. In the surrounding countryside are charming villages and pisco vineyards as well as astronomical observatories that take advantage of the region's exceptional atmospheric conditions and clear skies.
Situated 160km northeast of Arica, near the Bolivian border, Parque Nacional Lauca features one of the world's highest lakes, the glistening Lago Chungar. Lauca is home to some breathtaking Altiplano scenery, snow-sprinkled volcanoes, sparkling lakes, and isolated hot springs. It also shelters pretty highland villages and a huge variety of wildlife.
Looming over it is the impossibly perfect cone of Volcan Parinacota, a dominant volcano with a twin brother, Volcan Pomerape, just across the border. These pristine white-capped volcanoes could almost be painted onto the landscape, but the ominous Volcan Gaullatire puffs up dark fumes a short distance to the south.
Tiny San Pedro de Atacama is a precordillera oasis village turned into a tourist boom-town, and is also the gringo gathering point of northern Chile. Its popularity stems from its position in the heart of some of northern Chile's most spectacular scenery. A short drive away lays the country's largest salt flat, spotted pink with flamingos and its edges crinkled by volcanoes.
Here too are fields of steaming geysers, a host of otherworldly rock formations and weird layer-cake landscapes. San Pedro is little more than a handful of picturesque adobe streets clustering around a pretty tree-lined plaza and postcard-perfect church.
Pucan's fame can be boiled down to three things: the lake, the volcano and its easy access to every kind of outdoor sport imaginable. How often do you come across a small town smack in between a divinely blue lake and a perfectly conical volcano? Just to add to the effect, the volcano's crater spends most of its day billowing smoke - even the occasional giant smoke ring - and on clear nights it gives off an eerie red glow.
The further south you go in Chile, the greener it gets, until you find snow-bound volcanoes rising over verdant hills and lakes, this is the Lake District. This bucolic region makes a great escape to a slower pace. The Araucana, named for the monkey-puzzle tree, is the centre of Mapuche culture. Colonised by Germans in the 1850s, the area further south is a provincial enclave of stocking-clad grannies, kuchen (cake) and lace curtains.
Tons of adventures await the traveller: from rafting to climbing, from hiking to hot-springs hopping, from taking onces in colonial towns to sipping mate with the local huasos. The isolated interior from Todos los Santos to Rio Puelo, settled in the early 1900s, maintains pioneer culture thanks to its isolation, but road building signals inevitable changes.
The misty, verdant archipelago of Chilo is worthy of a visit for its striking regional flavor. The Isla Grande de Chilo is the second largest island in Chile and easily accessed by a short ferry ride. The island is lush with undulating hills quilted in farm patterns to the north, and blanketed in dense forest to the south. Nearly 40 smaller islands strewn throughout the gulf are even more remote, isolated and traditional.
Forged by harsh rainy weather and the seafaring life, the differences run deep. On the surface you will see changes in architecture and cuisine: the famous Chilote wood shingles; palafitos (houses mounted on stilts along the water's edge); more than 150 iconic wooden churches (16 of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites); the renowned meat, potato and seafood stew, curanto; and a plethora of fish and shellfish dishes.
A closer look reveals a rich spiritual culture that is based on a distinctive mythology of witchcraft, ghost ships and forest gnomes. The mythology shapes a world view that has guided generations of Chilote life.
People generally assume that Southern Patagonia is the most desolate and pristine part of Chile. Aside from southern Tierra del Fuego, the narrow, fragmented lands of Northern Patagonia - Aisn and the Carretera Austral - are the least populated, least developed and least visited in Chile.
Northern Patagonia is, in fact, a spectacular region full of natural wonders. Beyond the Lakes District and Chilo, Chile becomes a serpentine swath of fjords, islands, glaciers, snowy peaks, aquamarine lakes, raging rivers, waterfalls, old-growth forests and grassy steppes. It's an area of immense beauty with the remoteness that people expect from Patagonia and won't find further south in Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas.
After a glance at the map, the land appears impassable and inaccessible, but the Carretera Austral actually winds itself all the way from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins, some 1200 km south. The northern region, Aisen, is home to the Parque National Laguna San Rafael, while the southern region, Magellane hosts the incomparable Parque National Torres del Paine, where a spectacular mountain range of the same name frames the park with heights up to 9,000 ft, hypnotic waterfalls, glaciers, lakes and the Verde and Azul lagoons.
Isolated from the rest of Chile by fierce storms and impassable mountains Magellane can only be reached by air or overland from Argentina and is home to the southern city of Punta Arentas which first became prosperous during the California gold rush. The city's site in the Pacific side of the Magellan Strait made it an ideal transshipment point for cargoes around the continent.
Located at the southern extreme of South America is an archipelago rich in history and beauty. It consists of one large, several smaller, and many tiny islands separated by inlets and channels. The place is Tierra del Fuego - the "Land of Fire." To the north of the main island is the Strait of Magellan and to the south is the Beagle Channel.
The Straits of Magellan is a navigable sea route immediately south of mainland South America and north of Tierra del Fuego. It is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, but because of the unpredictable winds and currents and the narrowness the most difficult route to navigate.
Tierra del Fuego is a 28,500 square mile archipelago shared by Chile and Argentina, though Chile has the greater share of the land -- almost two-thirds. Originally inhabited by aboriginal groups depending on hunting and gathering for their livelihood, it is a cold, windswept, and rather inhospitable place. The scenery is absolutely supreme!
Fjords of the Andean coastline along the Beagle Channel and Strait of Magellan are said to rival those of Scandinavia. European settlement began in the 1880s when sheep were introduced and gold was discovered. Seals and whaling were of importance too. Since that time, for a variety of reasons, the ethnic population has dwindled to zero. Today, sheep and livestock are still produced, but are of less significance than in the past.
There is lumbering along the Beagle Channel and Strait of Magellan, fish and crayfish canning, furs, and Chile's only oil field. Oil platforms are also in the Strait and pipelines lead to a small refinery and a loading dock for shipment to central Chile.
Transportation is difficult across the island with poor roads, and no railroads. Most interconnection with the world is by sea and by air. This is a land of cool summers and cold winters, Antarctica is not far away. Westerly winds here can be strong and last for days on end. It was not unusual for a sailing ship to be stalled waiting for the winds to abate.
South and west sides of the main island are part of the Andean Mountain System with peaks over 7,000 feet and mountain glaciers. Few people live in the region today, the population density is less than two per square mile. Petroleum and tourism drive the economy. Tourism is being promoted worldwide -- with the caveat that the winds of Magellan's day are still a factor in scheduling cruises!
Perhaps the most well known point in this part of the world is Cape Horn, a treacherous headland surrounded by almost continuously storm-tossed seas and passable only through the foggy stillness of the Straits of Magellan.
Easter Island, Rapa Nui, located 3,700 kms off the west coast of Chile, is the world's most isolated inhabited island and also one of the most mystifying places on earth. Rapa Nui is simply spellbinding! It will take your heart and soul in a few days.
One of the most isolated places on earth, this tiny speck of land is blessed with an extraordinary collection of archaeological sites, including the iconic Moai, scattered amid an eerie landscape. These huge figures have fascinated historians for centuries with the puzzle still remaining, why are they there?
Rapa Nui is a playground for action-seekers. Scuba-diving enthusiasts swear that the waters here are the most crystal clear in the world, while surfers rave about the powerful waves of the Pacific. There is no better way to discover ancient sites than on horseback or foot, and if you want to lie back and relax, a handful of sandy beaches await you. Rapa Nui is a magical place that never fails to maker visitors jaw drop in awe.
All the residents live in the town of Hanga Roa and it is an easy days drive from the town around the island in search of the enigmatic Moai and Ahu(the stone platforms on which Moai were mounted) statues, the most famous being Rano Rarku where 70 moai seem to rise from the earth.
Easter Island has another mystery in the restored village of Orongo where rock carvings have been found depicting a man's body and birds head, anthropologists believe that they were part of a religious cult, but who really knows.
The Juan Fernandez Islands, 670 kms off the coast of Valparaiso, include the isolated Robinson Crusoe Island. Castaway Alexander Selkirk whittled away years on this craggy Pacific outpost. In spite of its literary fame, the island has maintained relative anonymity.
Discovered in 1574, Archipelago Juan Fernandez sheltered sealers and pirates for over two centuries, including the British corsairs from whom Selkirk escaped. A UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and national park since 1935, the island's extraordinary vegetation has affinities ranging from Andean to Hawaiian.
But don't forget that Chile is as much about character as it is setting. Its far-flung location fires the imagination and has been known to make poets out of barmen, dreamers out of presidents and friends out of strangers.
Chile is waiting for you to discover her beauties, charms and people.