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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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. Combining this valley with Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni to the north and Reserva Nacional Tamango to the south will eventually result in a 2400-sq-km park, worthy of rivaling Torres del Paine. The valley is an important wildlife corridor with excellent wildlife watching. Foxes and herds of guanaco are easily spotted. Studies underway in the park look at grasslands ecology and track huemul populations. The park's roaming population consists of around 120 huemules, out of a worldwide population of 2000.
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. Built into the side of the slope, the houses have walls of horizontally overlapping stone slabs, with an earth-covered arched roof of similar materials, making them appear partly subterranean. Orongo was the focus of an islandwide 'birdman cult' linked to the god Makemake in the 18th and 19th centuries. Birdman petroglyphs are visible on a cluster of boulders between the cliff top and the edge of the crater. Orongo is either a steepish climb or a short scenic drive 4km from the center of town.
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. On the southeastern slope of the mountain, look for the unique, kneeling Moai Tukuturi; it has a full body squatting on its heels, with its forearms and hands resting on its thighs.
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. Facilities include public toilets as well as food and souvenir stalls.
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. Overenthusiastic commercialization gives a definite Disney-Neruda vibe to visits here as the house is surrounded by countless gift stands and themed cafes. Yet, the audio-guided tours now allow you to linger longer over the extraordinary collections of shells, ships in bottles, nautical instruments, colored glass, fine art and books. The seemingly endless house (Neruda kept adding to it) and its contents are awe-inspiring. On the terrace outside you'll find Neruda’s tomb and that of his third wife, Matilde, overlooking the sea.
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. The site was restored by a Japanese team between 1992 and 1996. A 1960 tsunami had flattened the statues and scattered several topknots far inland. Only one topknot has been returned to its place atop a moai.
The best views over Santiago are from the peaks and viewpoints of the Parque Metropolitano, better known as Cerro San Cristóbal. At 722 hectares, the park is Santiago's largest green space, but it's still decidedly urban: a funicular carries you between different landscaped sections on one side, while a teleférico (cable car) swoops you away on the other. A snowy white 14m-high statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción towers atop the cumbre (summit) at the Bellavista end of the park. The benches at its feet are the outdoor church where Pope John Paul II said Mass in 1984. To get here, take a steep switchbacked dirt trail or the funicular from Plaza Caupolicán (where you'll also find a tourist info kiosk). Alternatively, enter the park from Pedro de Valdivia and board the teleférico. Other attractions on the hillside include the Zoológico Nacional; the Jardín Botánico Mapulemu, a botanical garden; the child-oriented Plaza de Juegos Infantiles Gabriela Mistral, featuring attractive wooden playground equipment and an interactive water fountain; and two huge public swimming pools, the Piscina Tupahue and Piscina Antilén. The small but perfectly landscaped Jardín Japonés (Japanese Garden) is just above the Pedro de Valdivia entrance. Near the top of the funicular is the Terraza Bellavista, where there are a few snack stands and extraordinary views across the city. The park lies north of Bellavista and Providencia and has entrances in both neighborhoods.
Bellavista's most famous resident writer was Pablo Neruda, who made a point of watching Valparaíso's annual New Year's fireworks from his house at the top of the hill, La Sebastiana. Because entry operates on a first-come, first-served basis, it's recommended that you get here in the morning. Getting here involves a hefty uphill hike, and the climbing continues inside the house – but you're rewarded on each floor with ever-more heart-stopping views over the harbor. You can wander around La Sebastiana at will, lingering over the chaotic collection of ships' figureheads, glass, 1950s furniture and artworks by his famous friends. Alongside the house, the Fundación Neruda has built the Centro Cultural La Sebastiana, containing a small exhibition space and souvenir shop. To get here, walk 800m uphill along Héctor Calvo from Ascensor Espíritu Santo. Alternatively, take green bus O on Serrano near Plaza Sotomayor in El Plan, or from the plaza at the top of Templeman on Cerro Alegre and get off at the 6900 block of Av Alemania.
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