Enchanted by Chile
Somewhere between the iconic peaks of Patagonia and the bohemian streets of Santiago, I fell in love with Chile. Now I go every chance I get. It is a place you never want to stop exploring. I was just there in April, and I am already planning my fourth trip. Here are some of my favorite parts of this wonderfully diverse country.
The Atacama is like another world. It is one of the best places on the planet to see the stars. In fact, famous scientists from across the globe come to this desert to stargaze. You can take a four-by-four out into the desert where there are no roads and just put down a telescope. It's really spectacular.
There are hot springs, flamingos, and lunar landscapes to explore. You can ride bikes and horses, and float in salt pools. Some valleys look like they are covered in snow, but it is actually salt. This high-altitude desert is one of the country's absolute highlights.
Move over Napa, because the Casablanca and Colchagua Valleys are where it's at! Wine in Chile is exploding right now. The rolling valleys are beautiful, the locals are friendly, and the wine industry is on the cusp of producing not just bulk wines, but sensational, high-end wines that are winning all kinds of awards. You can fly into the capital, Santiago, and be in the wine country 45 minutes later.
If you go during harvest season, stay at a boutique winery and watch them sort the grapes by hand. Or stay at one of the luxury properties that boasts spas, modern art pieces, horseback riding, infinity pools, and other impressive amenities. Why not go for a mountain bike ride before lunch and a tasting amid the vines?
The Chilean capital is evolving and it's great fun to see. If you spend an evening or a day walking around, you see that downtown neighborhoods are becoming revitalized, the energy is high, and Santiago seems like a good place to live. Take a stroll through one of the many parks and feel like you are in an orderly European city. Go have a cocktail on a rooftop and feel like you are in Manhattan. Go to the dive bar around the corner, order a glass of wine, and feel like you are in...South America! There are hip new restaurants all over the city, and their chefs are dispelling the myth that Chilean food isn't unique. In addition to delicious, interesting cuisine, you can find really, really good ice cream.
Pablo Neruda lived here, of course. His poetry and magic are everywhere.
Patagonia National Park
This Conservación Patagónica project is the future of Chile. It is helping to define how the country will care for its wild places. There is no comparison for how in-the-middle-of nowhere this place is. Once you get there (it's not easy), the landscapes and conservation work take your breath away. Remote lands stretch from mountains to marshes to forests to pampa. Guanacos are everywhere. You can hike the brand new trails, eat the organically grown food from their garden, and talk with locals—all of whom are hired to help this project succeed. Whether you opt to bed down in the luxury lodge or stay in a tent as I did while volunteering, don't plan on doing anything online: internet is practically nonexistent.
Another extremely isolated part of Chile is Chiloé Island. In addition to being scenically beautiful, with rare coastal rain forest and wetlands, it's home to a distinct culture that's been shaped by indigenous, Spanish, and German influences. The people live off of the land, fishing, raising sheep, and harvesting seaweed. They build their houses on stilts above the water.
Chiloé is sometimes called the Ireland of South America: it's green and lush and there are lots of sheep!
Alpine and gorgeous, the Lake District is a laid-back place to do just about any activity you can think of in the great outdoors: volcano hiking, river kayaking, boating on lakes, soaking in hot springs, picnicking. You can hike trails with no other people by day and see an active volcano glowing in the dark by night. Or you can just enjoy great food and downtime in a beautiful setting. I fell especially in love with the Vira Vira lodge: it has its own farm and cheese factory, and the charming hotel owners make you feel like you are a part of their family.
There are small towns in this region as well, so you can get a sense of Chilean life in the mountains. This below is a huaso, or Chilean cowboy. (In Argentina, they are known as gauchos.)
Torres del Paine National Park
Awesome. That's the word that jumps to mind when I think of Torres del Paine. Its famous, sculpted peaks rise up directly from the valley floor, making your jaw drop open when you see them. You could easily spend two weeks exploring this park's trails. The hiking is phenomenal. And to make it even sweeter, you can stay in stylish, luxury hotels. Hike all day, drink world-class Chilean wine in the evening. Want to experience four seasons in one day in the middle of summer? Have the wind blow you off your feet? Nature is powerful down there!
The farthest archipelago from land in the world, Rapa Nui is best known for its enigmatic moai, which "exude a kind of electric power, almost a spiritual force field," in the words of Don George. It's fascinating to explore these archaeological wonders and talk to the local people about their history, unique culture, and how they have managed to stay true to their roots. And there also happens to be terrific snorkeling, horseback riding, and hiking.
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Natalie Crow, GeoEx Director for the Americas, loves everything about travel, from researching destinations to exploring them in person. She has traveled extensively throughout Central and South America and her passion, regional expertise, and ability to negotiate complicated logistics enable her to plan complicated, customized itineraries.