Land of Contrasts
Exploring Chile from Top to Bottom
Text by and photographs by Eric Pasquier
From the Atacama Desert in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south, Chile is a land of contrasts. Having overcome the political dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the country is now preparing to make its way in the 21st century as a popular ‘must see’ off the beaten tourist track. ERIC PASQUIER explored this country and uncovered its startlingly unique diversity.
Chile, spreading from the north to the south over 4300km and 180km from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Cordillera, is a land of ever-changing topography and climates. The harsh environment and rocky political past explain why this country has remained relatively untouched by tourism.
The country underwent a string of political upheavals following independence in 1818, and has seen both ends of the political spectrum, from the Pinochet dictatorship to democracy, which was restored 13 years ago.
Coinciding with its new-found political stability, the country’s economy has recovered and is starting to blossom. In other words, the time is ripe to discover Chile.
The Great North
In the northernmost tip of this country of extremes, lies the driest desert in the world – the Atacama, as well as some of the world’s highest volcanoes. Only the coastal cities like La Serena and the odd desert oasis are populated. The fertility of the oases form a striking contrast with the barren desert.
The town of San Pedro is a small island of life in the heart of the Atacama Desert. The archaeological sites nearby bear silent witness to the ancient Andean civilisations that once inhabited the region. The local museum traces the history of these ancient cultures. Perfectly conserved mummified remains have been found here thanks to the arid desert climate.
The Tatio Geysers at an altitude of 4300m shoot hot water out with clockwork regularity, whereas in the arid Valley of the Moon, there’s not a drop to be found. The bleak, rocky lunar-like setting gave rise to the valley’s name and there are few signs of life in this unusually beautiful eerie, empty expanse.
The wide salt flats and saline lakes between the foot of the Andes and the Oceanic Altiplano by way of contrast are simply bustling with activity and colonies of nesting flamingos thrive here.
The Central Region
The central region is the economic heart of the country and is the home of Santiago, the county’s capital. Santiago is a modern metropolis and with a population of 5 million, it’s South America’s fifth largest city. Santiago is nestled in the fertile valley between the Pacific Coast and the Andes.
Santiago sights not to be missed are: the San Francisco Church, the Basilica of the Merced, the Museum of Santiago and the Cathedral on the western side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas, in the centre of the city. The Colonial Museum of San Francisco and the Pre-Colombian Museum of Art are also worthwhile. To get a taste of the city’s vibrant nightlife, head for the bars and discotheques of Sucia, Nunoa Place and Bellavista, Chile’s “quartier Latin”.
Just south of Santiago are the vineyards of the Maipo Valley. The warm Mediterranean climate is perfect for producing top quality grapes and the valley is renowned both for its wine and its beautiful scenery. Chile exports large quantities of wines such as Cousino Macul, Veramonte or Santa Rita.
Outside Santiago, only about an hour’s drive northwest, are the seaside resorts of the Pacific. Valpairaiso is the capital’s main port and Vina del Mar, named the city-garden and the picturesque rocky coastline attract lots of visitors. Just 100km outside of Santiago, you can even go skiing!
To the south of the capital, after passing the Rio-Bio’s forested national parks, is an area of lakes and volcanoes with stunning snow-capped summits. This quiet area forms the link between central Chile, where two-thirds of the country’s 15 million people live, and the more isolated south. It is heaven for nature-lovers and is also the homeland of the Mapuches, an important ethnic minority representing about 3% of the population.
The coastal town of Puerto Montt makes a good base for exploring the surrounding national parks, waterfalls, mountains and lakes. The area is ideal for a whole range of outdoor activities, from rafting to hiking to fishing. Temuco, Villarica or the waterfalls of the Petrohue River make beautiful excursions. On the large island of Chiloé, numerous 16th century wooden churches originating from the time the Spanish colonised Chile, still stand. The island makes an interesting day trip from Puerto Montt.
The South: Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego
Southern Chile has a rather forbidding landscape and climate. It is this harsh quality that makes the area so fascinating. Along the coast the land suddenly drops into the Drake Sea. An incessant wind blasts the landscape dotted with grand fjords, glaciers and snow-capped summits that give the area a strange and wild beauty.
Punta Arenas, is the southernmost city on earth, and overlooks the Strait of Magellan. In this city of sailors, with a population of 100,000, you can visit the regional Museum of Magellan, which traces the history of Patagonia. Every year, 100,000 penguins flock to the aptly named Los Pinguinos National Park nearby, to breed.
Boats to Tierra del Fuego, or the “Land of Fire” depart from both Punta Arenas as well as Usuhaia. Despite its name, the island off the southern tip of South America could best be described as a land of ice. Because this is where two of the world's major oceans meet, storms rage over the island throughout the year. The stunning glaciers, narrow fjords, enormous icebergs and unique Antarctic wildlife make a trip to the island an unforgettable experience.
No trip to Patagonia is complete without making a stop at South America’s foremost nature reserve, the Torres del Paine National Park. It has been officially recognised as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve because of its rich diversity of plants and animals. Covering 242,000 hectares, the park is home to more than 200 kinds of trees and plants. The park is also teeming with wildlife, with more than 170 types of birds and 25 species of mammals. With a little luck, you can spot a guanaco – the wild cousin of the llama.
Located 3700 km from the coast, Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, was home to an ancient civilisation, of which little is known. The enormous statues, sculpted in stone, can reach heights of 21m. Their origins are shrouded in mystery and they remain one of the world’s great archaeological enigmas. In order to preserve the island, visits are strictly regulated: only 60 people are allowed on the island at a time.
Because of its amazing diversity, a trip to Chile is like visiting several countries in one. Each area; from the Atacama Desert in the north, to the Mediterranean vineyards of the central region, to the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south, has its own distinct character and appeal. One trip is simply not enough.
Most international flights arrive in Santiago, Chile’s capital. From here you can take domestic flights to other destinations. The national airline is LAN-Chile.
The money is the Chilean Peso. The following Credit cards are frequently accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops: Visa, MasterCard, Diner’s Club and to a lesser degree, American Express. In big cities, cash dispensers are common.
Spanish is spoken, but because of the accent it can be difficult to understand. English is not commonly spoken outside of the larger tourist areas.
Best Season to Visit
From October to April.
In Chile, you can find semiprecious stones like lapis lazuli, silver and copper artifacts, leather crafts, flutes, wooden figurines, ceramics, woven ponchos and carpets. Don’t forget the famous Chilean wines! The craft market in Santiago and the numerous shops in San Pedro are both worthwhile.
The summer season is from January – March. The winter season is from July – September.
From the north to the south, Chile has an incredible diversity in climates. The high Andes Mountains and the cold currents of the South Pacific Ocean play an important part in determining the climate.
Four main climatic areas can be distinguished. The north spanning from the Peruvian frontier to the Atacama Desert is dry and desolate. The central area from Santiago to the coastal resorts have a Mediterranean climate. In the lake areas, around Puerto Montt, the climate is temperate, and gets wetter towards the south.
Finally, around Punta Arenas and Tierra Del Fuego, it’s cold, often rainy with rough winds around the Strait of Megellan.