Chile is a long, narrow sliver of landfilled located right at the edge of the South American continent. Unlike some other countries in South America, it’s relatively affluent and non-corrupt, and bar a couple of blips, boasts a long tradition of political stability. Travelling here is also surprisingly easy, especially if you have more than a couple of weeks to spare. It’s a land steeped in intriguing history and culture and dotted with vibrant cities although its enigmatic landscapes – which possess an almost unearthly beauty – are by far the country’s most attractive assets. This is our choice for 10 of the best and most beautiful places to visit in Chile…
San Rafael Glacier
Within the Laguna San Rafael National Park lies a very special lagoon- the Laguna San Rafael and looming in the farthest end of the lagoon is the majestic, immense San Rafael Glacier rearing a dizzying 70m out of the murky lagoon waters. The sail across the lagoon alone is particularly beautiful with the Patagonian mountains in the distance, lush forests lining the shore and the wild Patagonian dolphins frolicking among the smaller icebergs that dot the lake. Unfortunately, the glacier is retreating fast and gives you not only the opportunity to snap one of South America’s most stunning sites, but also to come face to face with the devastating effects of global warming which, certainly leaves you with food for thought. Get to it before it’s gone…which, according to scientists, will be 2030.
Valle de la Luna
Located in the Atacama Desert of Chile, this stunning place is considered one of the driest places on Earth but what gives this valley its name- Valley of the Moon, is its unusual landscape. This vast expanse of stone and sand formations embedded in an impressive range of colour and texture resembles the surface of the moon, so much so that NASA tested the Mars rover prototype there! Furthermore, the high composition of salt in the many dry lakes gives the area an eerie white covering. Get there for sunset and watch the transformation that occurs as the sun slips below the horizon and the valley is transfused with pinks, golds and reds. Organised tours leave San Pedro every day and ensure plenty of time to explore before the sun goes down.
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine National Park is part of the National System of Protected Forested Areas of Chile. The area also boasts valleys, rivers such as the Paine, lakes, and glaciers. With the first foreign visit being recorded in 1880, the numbers visiting has increased impressively ever since to 140,000 but the impact of tourists is scientifically measured to ensure it doesn’t impact negatively on the park. There are clearly marked hiking paths and many refugios which provide shelter and services. Hikers can walk the “W” route in 5 days or a full circle in 9 days but for those less interested in hiking and camping, there is a day trip to see the rock tower formations and a luxury hotel at the entrance!
Lauca National Park
Lauca National Park is located in the Andean range and consists of both mountainous and altiplano regions, the latter is made up mostly of striking but enormous volcanoes. It is the largest and most extensive of its kind outside of Tibet. Located thousands of feet above sea level the region both literally and metaphorically leaves visitor breathless and although the scenery is stunning, it is the variety of flora and fauna that is truly beautiful. The nimble-footed vicuña and the rabbit-like viscacha are the star attractions, but you’re also likely to see other South American camelids and a variety of bird species including the occasional condor.
Laguna Verde Chile
The first, sudden sight of Laguna Verde is stupefying, the intense colour of its waters – green or turquoise, depending on the time of day – jumps out at you from the muted browns and ochres of the surrounding landscape. This green lake lies in the Atacama region, near the San Francisco Pass and is most definitely one of the most beautiful places in Chile. High mountains surround the lake including, Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world. Although there are beautiful views, there is little fauna around. It is possible to hire a local guide to hike around the region to fully appreciate the topography.
The Capillas de Marmol
Deep in the heart of the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Rio Tranquilo are the Capillas de Marmol. The caves are a natural phenomenon when wind, water and rock collide over thousands of years and form heady colour combinations and shapes. With the mesmerising snow-capped Andes rising in the distance, lake General Carrera is stunning enough but once the marble caves come into sight, the majestic Andes are soon forgotten. Some of the rocks resemble familiar shapes; a dog’s head, a chapel and a cathedral, silhouetted against the skyline is enough to take your breath away but inside the caves is another experience, as the glow of the rocks reflects in the water creating an iridescent almost surreal quality. Tours are provided daily by local guides and offer a chance to disembark and scramble onto the rough galleries.
The Lake District
It is impossible not to be completely stunned, awestruck and dumbstruck by the regions of La Araucanía, Los Ríos and the Lakes District with its menacing volcanoes, glaciers and roaring rivers. The power of nature is evident everywhere and is a once-in-a-lifetime draw for adventure enthusiasts. For the ultimate in adventure, try the off the beaten path destinations like the Cochamó Valley and Caleta Condor. For those less adventurous, there are plenty of hiking paths in the eight national parks in the area.
The Beaches of Bahía Inglesa
The beaches of Bahía Inglesa are the stuff of daydreams and their white, powdery sands are much fantasised about on rainy days but in the flesh, the crystal waters, unusual rock formations and glittering sands are truly mind-blowing. There are several beaches strung together along the bay to the north of Caldera, some are busier than others during peak season but all are beautiful. However, the Bahía Salada is particularly striking with its tiny coves and sense of wilderness, it is the ultimate beach getaway (from it all).
Located high above sea level in the Atacama Desert, the Altiplanic lagoons are part of The Flamingoes National Reserve and are home to a variety of species, some unique to Chile. With the volcanoes and mountains looming in the background, the lakes take on an almost ethereal quality as unusual rock formation cast menacing shadows across the deserted landscape. Daily tours to this beautiful area of Chile are offered and can be arranged by your hotel, they are for a full day and accompanied by a knowledgeable, local guide. During your tour, you will visit local villages who make a living selling crafts and handiwork made from the spoils of this desert landscape.
Often compared to Mount Fuji, Osorno Volcano is known all over the world but it is also one of the most active volcanoes in the Chilean Andes. With its green slopes and snow caps, it acts as the perfect backdrop for the Chilean Lake District. Group tours can be organised to climb with a local guide and it takes approximately 6 hours. If you thought the view looking at it was stunning, imagine what the view is like from it! Your climb will be accompanied by the Patagonian fox, a variety of woodpeckers and countless other fauna.
So much of Chile is beautiful with its heady combination of colour, dramatic landscape, looming volcanoes and vast desert. There is something for every type of tourist from the most adventurous to the hobby hiker so go and explore for yourself!
How to get there
Chile has direct connections with North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand (as well as its neighbouring countries). You can often get good deals with international flights within South America unless they are purchased as part of intercontinental travel. LAN Airlines is the flag carrier of Chile and is one of the largest airlines in Latin America, they offer flights both internationally and across the rest of South America.