Hard to believe, but this rugged, weather-battered land has actually been inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. While modern inhabitants have little in common with the natives who once paddled the channels in canoes and hunted guanacos, they still remain cut off from the rest of the continent by formidable mountains and chilly waters.
A sprawling metropolis on the edge of the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas defies easy definition. It's a strange combination of the ruddy and the grand, witnessed in the elaborate wool-boom mansions and port renovations contrasted with windblown streams of litter and urban sprawl.
Hanga Roa is the island's sole town. Upbeat it ain't, but with most sights almost on its doorstep and nearly all the island's hotels, restaurants, shops and services lying within its boundaries, it's the obvious place to anchor oneself. It features a picturesque fishing harbor, a couple of modest beaches and surf spots, and a few archaeological sites.
Say what you will about Puerto Montt (locals certainly don't hold back, with Muerto Montt, meaning 'Dead Montt,' topping the list), but if you choose to visit southern Chile's ominous volcanoes, its celestial glacial lakes and its mountainous national parks, you will most likely be visiting the capital of the Lakes District and the region's commercial and transportation hub.
Barefoot surfers, paragliding pros, casino snobs and frenzied merchants all cross paths in the rather disarming city of Iquique. Located in a golden crescent of coastline, this city is counted among Chile's premier beach resorts, with a glitzy casino, beachfront boardwalk and more activities (from paragliding to sand-boarding) than any sane person can take on in a week.
A formerly modest fishing port on Seno Ùltima Esperanza, Puerto Natales has blossomed into a Gore-Tex mecca. The gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, this town is reaping the benefits of its business savvy: boutique beers and wine tastings are overtaking tea time, and gear shops have already replaced the yarn sellers.
Chile's second-oldest city and the thriving capital of Región IV, La Serena is doubly blessed with some beautiful architecture and a long golden shoreline, making it a kind of thinking-person's beach resort. The city absorbs hoards of Chilean holidaymakers in January and February, though it is fairly peaceful outside the summer rush.
San Pedro de Atacama
They say the high quantities of quartz and copper in the region gives their people positive energy, and the good vibes of northern Chile's number-one tourist draw, San Pedro de Atacama, are sky high. The popularity of this adobe precordillera oasis stems from its position in the heart of some of northern Chile's most spectacular scenery.