Chile is nature on a colossal scale, but travel here is surprisingly easy, if you don't rush it.
Meet a Land of Extremes
Preposterously thin and unreasonably long, Chile stretches from the belly of South America to its foot, reaching from the driest desert on earth to vast southern glacial fields. Diverse landscapes unfurl over a 4300km stretch: parched dunes, fertile valleys, volcanoes, ancient forests, massive glaciers and fjords. There's wonder in every detail and nature on a symphonic scale. For the traveler, it's mind-boggling to find this great wilderness so intact. The human quest for development could imperil these treasures sooner than we think. Yet for now, Chile guards some of the most pristine parts of our planet, and they shouldn't be missed.
La Buena Onda
In Chile, close borders foster backyard intimacy – bookended by the Andes and the Pacific, the country averages just 175km wide. No wonder you start greeting the same faces. Pause and it starts to feel like home. You've landed at the end of the continent, and one thing that stands out at this final frontier is hospitality. Buena onda (good vibes) means putting forth a welcoming attitude. Patagonians share round upon round of maté tea. The ritual of relating and relaxing is so integral to the fabric of local life, it’s hardly noticed. But they do say one thing: stay and let your guard down.
In Chile, adventure is what happens on the way to having an adventure. Pedal the chunky gravel of the Carretera Austral and end up sharing a ferry with SUVs and oxcarts, or take a wrong turn and find heaven in an anonymous orchard. Serendipity takes over. Plans may be made, but try being just as open to experience. Locals never rush, so maybe you shouldn’t either. 'Those who hurry waste their time,' is the Patagonian saying that would serve well as a traveler's mantra.
Before wine became an export commodity for the luxury set, humble casks had their place on every Chilean table and grandparents tended backyard orchards. Now Chile has become a worldwide producer catering to ever more sophisticated palates. Rich reds, crisp whites and floral rosés – there is a varietal that speaks to every mood and occasion. But at home, it's different. Chileans embrace the concept of la buena mesa. This is not about fancy. Beyond a good meal, it’s great company, the leisure of overlapping conversations with uncorkings, and the gaze that's met at the clink of two glasses. ¡Salud!
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Soaring almost vertically more than 2000m above the Patagonian steppe, the granite pillars of Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) dominate the landscape of what may be South America's finest national park. Before its creation in 1959, the park was part of a large sheep estancia, and it's still recovering from nearly a century of overexploitation of its pastures, forests and wildlife.
Dubbed as the Serengeti of the Southern Cone, the 690-sq-km Parque Nacional Patagonia features Patagonian steppe, forests, mountains, lakes and lagoons. Located 18km north of Cochrane, this new national park was an overgrazed estancia. Tompkins Conservation (www.tompkinsconservation.org) began its restoration in 2004. Now it's home to flamingo, guanaco, huemul (endangered Andean deer), puma, viscacha and fox. The park stretches from the Río Baker to the Argentine border, which can be crossed in a private vehicle at Paso Roballos.
Nearly covered in a bog of floating totora reeds, the crater lake of Rano Kau resembles a giant witch's cauldron and is a wild greenhouse of endemic biodiversity. Perched 300m above, on the edge of the crater wall on one side and abutting a vertical drop plunging down to the cobalt-blue ocean on the other side, Orongo Ceremonial Village boasts one of the South Pacific's most dramatic landscapes. It overlooks several small motu (offshore islands), including Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao.
Known as 'the nursery,' the volcano of Rano Raraku, about 18km from Hanga Roa, is the quarry for the hard tuff from which the moai were cut. You'll feel as though you're stepping back into early Polynesian times, wandering among dozens of moai in all stages of progress studded on the southern slopes of the volcano. At the top, the 360-degree view is truly awesome. Within the crater are a small, glistening lake and about 20 standing moai.
This striking cultural and performing-arts center – named for Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature – is an exciting addition to Santiago's art scene, with concerts and performances most days. Drop by to check out the rotating art exhibits on the bottom floor, the iconic architecture that vaults and cantilevers on the inside and looks like a giant rusty cheese grater from the street, the little plazas, murals, cafes and more.
Beach bums in search of a place to wallow will love this postcard-perfect, white-sand beach. It also forms a lovely backdrop for Ahu Nau Nau, which comprises seven moai, some with topknots. On a rise south of the beach stands Ahu Ature Huki and its lone moai, which was re-erected by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl with the help of a dozen islanders in 1956.
The spectacular setting on a windswept ocean headland makes it easy to understand why Isla Negra was Pablo Neruda’s favorite house. Built by the poet when he became rich in the 1950s, it was stormed by soldiers just days after the 1973 military coup when Neruda was dying of cancer.
The vast majority of Rapa Nui falls within the boundaries of this national park. Think of it like an open-air museum with mysterious archaeological sites and scenic hikes through barren volcanic cones. Spending the extra cash on a guided tour, or on an islander who can explain what you are seeing, is a very worthy investment.
The monumental Ahu Tongariki has plenty to set your camera's flash popping. With 15 imposing statues, it is the largest ahu ever built. The statues gaze over a large, level village site, with ruined remnants scattered about and some petroglyphs nearby; some figures include a turtle with a human face, a tuna fish and a birdman motif.
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