Hence begins the Chilean south. The regions of La Araucanía, Los Ríos and the Lakes District jar travelers with menacing ice-topped volcanoes, glacial lakes overflowing with what looks like melted jade, roaring rivers running through old growth forests and coastal enclaves inhabited by the indomitable Mapuche people.
Surprising, cosmopolitan, energetic, sophisticated and worldly, Santiago is a city of syncopated cultural currents, madhouse parties, expansive museums and top-flight restaurants. No wonder 40 percent of Chileans call the leafy capital city home. It's a wonderful place for strolling, and each neighborhood has its unique flavor and tone.
Devil dusters zoom wantonly through sun-scorched Norte Grande with its undulating curves of rock and stone, Andean lagoons, snow-capped volcanoes, salt flats and sensuously perforated coastline. Famous as much for its hilltop observatories as its massive copper mines, those vast, uninhabited spaces touch the soul and the imagination.
South of Santiago, squeezed between the Andes and the coastal cordillera, the central valley is Chile's fruit bowl. With a Mediterranean climate and endless orchards and vineyards, this region produces most of Chile's wine. The Andes in this sector are spectacular, with deciduous beech forests climbing their slopes and broad gravel-bedded rivers descending into the valley.
Pounding westerlies, barren seascapes and the ragged spires of Torres del Paine – this is the distilled essence of Patagonia. The provinces of Magallanes and Última Esperanza boast a frontier appeal perhaps only matched by the deep Amazon and remote Alaska. Long before humans arrived on the continent, glaciers chiseled and carved these fine landscapes.
For such a small sliver of land, Chile's Norte Chico (Little North), offers up fantastic diversity. La Serena, a coastal colonial capital and the region's largest city, is a must-see for anybody visiting. From there, move on to the mystical Elqui Valley: the verdant home to Chile's pisco producers, new-age communes and cutting-edge observatories.
Valparaíso & the Central Coast
This distinctive coastline is dominated by the twin maritime cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. Tanned-and-tawny beach destinations stretch to the north and south and are hugely popular with vacationing Santaiguinos. Inland, you can explore Chile's best white wines in the Casablanca vineyards or head off track to Parque Nacional La Campana.
Syncopated, dilapidated, colorful and poetic, Valparaíso is a wonderful mess. Pablo Neruda, who drew much inspiration from this hard-working port town, said it best: 'Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.' But Neruda wasn't the only artist to fall for Valparaíso's unexpected charms.
With a name that translates to Last Hope, the once-remote Última Esperanza fills the imagination with foreboding. Storms wrestle the vast expanse and the landscape falls nothing short of grand; after all, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field are in the back yard.