There aren’t many destinations where you can go skiing after breakfast and surfing before dinner. But that diversity is a major part of the appeal of a trip to Chile, which boasts a range of topographies unlike most others, from verdant forests to arid deserts, and just about everything in between.
“Chile has so many different types of climates, that you can be in the middle of a snowy landscape in the morning and floating on a lake in the afternoon,” notes Matías de Cristóbal, general director of Awasi, a hotel in the striking Atacama region of northern Chile. “It is such a long country,” says Cristóbal, in reference to the fact that the country measures approximately 2,700 miles from north to south, but less than 100 miles from west to east, “that it has many different types of landscapes and climates.”
To showcase this and the many other charms of this South American gem, we consulted with Cristóbal, as well as two other locals—Nicolás Sahli, managing partner of the Singular Patagonia hotel, and Javier Echecopar, Abercrombie & Kent’s regional sales director for South America—who paint a portrait of a dream destination few countries can top.
What makes Chile so special?
Cristóbal: “Chile is one of the most developed countries in Latin America. There’s great infrastructure in most of its main tourist destinations, it has good airports, an excellent local airline with excellent connections, it is very safe and the locals are very friendly. Also because it has such different types of landscapes and climates, it is a great place to visit year-round.”
Sahli: “It is a very stable country, politically and economically. It is also an amazing place with beautiful landscapes, a pristine environment and wild flora and fauna. One of the attractions for visitors is the little population the region has.”
Echecopar: “Chile is blessed with dramatic scenery. The Andes Mountains, with their varied forms and colors, provide a constant backdrop from the northernmost tip to the very end of the world. The mountains serve as the backbone of a country that’s riddled with contrasting landscapes, from one of the most beautiful deserts in northern Chile to some of the most remote and pristine locations on the continent, in between the fjords, granite walls, rivers, lakes and glaciers of Patagonia. And unlike other places on earth, these landscapes remain mostly untouched, providing a unique sense of discovery and exploration.”
Where would you send someone for the ultimate Chilean experience?
Cristóbal: “I would recommend both Atacama and Chiloé Island, and its neighboring archipelago. Atacama is in the north and Chiloé in the south. Both have very different landscapes, climates and cultures, which is shown in their local festivities, customs and food.”
Sahli: “Definitely Patagonia and Atacama.”
Echecopar: “Three days in the Atacama Desert would be memorable. The combination of wildlife, multicolored desert lagoons and the spectacular scenery provided by the mountains is enough for a month.”
You each mentioned Atacama. What can you tell us about the area?
Cristóbal: “Atacama is the driest desert on earth and is located only two hours by plane from the capital of Chile, Santiago.”
Chile’s other immensely popular region, located farther south, is Patagonia. What does it have to offer?
Sahli: “The weather in Patagonia is unpredictable, as you can easily experience four seasons in one day. But that’s part of the experience. It includes fjords, mountains, emerald lakes and Torres del Paine National Park.”
Echecopar: “The northern part of Patagonia remains one of the truly unexplored destinations in South America. Fjords, granite mountains, rushing rivers and glaciers have jealously guarded this beautiful area from mankind. It has some of the best fly-fishing in the world, in beautiful blue rivers that quickly descend from the Andes into the sea. The rivers are also a premier location for rafting and kayaking in some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere. The mountains, glaciers and forests provide exceptional trekking adventures. Yet one of the least known facts about northern Patagonia is the presence of blue whales, which are observable from boats that navigate the fjords.”
It sounds like there’s a lot of opportunity for outdoor adventure throughout Chile.
Echecopar: “Chile is well-known as a playground for outdoor activities. The diversity of outdoor experiences, from horseback riding in the beautiful deserts to kayaking pristine rivers in Patagonia, is something unique to the country.”
Can you fill us in on some of the most popular outdoor activities?
Cristóbal: “You can ski in one of the ski resorts located less that an hour from Santiago. If your physical condition is adequate, I would recommend hiking up one of the volcanoes or descending, with a bike, down the road from a small town called Talabre, while taking in the sights of the vast Atacama salt flat. In the salt flat, one can enjoy majestic views of the geological formations that have been built up over thousands of years. Another great option would be sandboarding on the dunes of Death Valley.”
Sahli: “Patagonia offers a wide range of expeditions, including kayaking, sailing through the fjords, trekking, horseback riding, bird watching, etc.”
Echecopar: “I love how close the mountains are from Santiago. You can leave the city and be hiking under glaciers in just a couple of hours. That’s something very few world capitals can offer. The El Morado National Park is my favorite hike in the Andes.”
What about for visitors who prefer a more relaxed approach for taking it all in?
Cristóbal: “If they love culture and local archaeology, I highly recommend a walk around Talabre and Catarpe, two small towns in the Atacama area full of history. Specifically, they might want to check out Pukará de Quitor, a national monument that speaks about the Spaniards’ arrival and discovery of the area hundreds of years ago. The nearby Tambo de Catarpe ruins show the Incas’ influence on the Atacama Desert and all of its people. The Termas de Puritama hot springs are another great option for enjoying a relaxing afternoon, as is taking in the sunset in the Salar de Atacama, observing the flamingos that are reflected on the lagoon.”
Sahli: “In Torres del Paine National Park, you can explore a very rich and pristine array of flora and fauna. The main animals are guanaco, ñandu, puma and different kinds of birds.”
Echecopar: “I’m a big fan of relaxing in the wine country. The combination of copious amounts of wine and the rolling hills of the vineyards makes me unwind completely.”
Can you tell us about a favorite spot that visitors won’t read about in all the guidebooks?
Echecopar: “One of the most amazing landscapes in Chile is near the city of Copiapó. To reach this area, called Laguna Santa Rosa and Salar de Maricunga, you must drive for five hours through dirt roads and then overnight in a tent or a small cabin. Rugged as it may seem, the area provides ever-changing scenery and some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen, in almost complete isolation. It is truly one of the hidden gems of Chile.”
When it comes to food, what are some of your favorite restaurants in Chile?
Cristóbal: “I would recommend La Casona, in San Pedro de Atacama.”
Sahli: “Two that I like are Afrigonia and Mesita Larga, in Puerto Natales.”
Echecopar: “One of my favorites is Tiramisu, in Santiago. Besides the great pizzas, the atmosphere is fantastic, with all the locals mingling and having fun. It’s the only restaurant in Chile that has a waitlist every single day of the year. Sometimes you don’t need a Michelin-starred restaurant, just a good Italian-style pizza and bottle of Chilean wine.”
Can you suggest a good place for visitors to pick up some souvenirs?
Cristóbal: “In San Pedro de Atacama, there is the local handicraft market. Look for aguayos [traditional textiles known for bright colors and patterns], locally made dolls and ceramics.”
Sahli: “Puerto Natales. There are some artisans there and many souvenir shops. A foundation called Artesanias Chile that gathers the work of artisans from all over the country who exhibit and sell their art there.”
Echecopar: “Santiago offers several shops that work directly with local artisans. One of my favorites is Pura, which has a great combination of stylish taste and locally made items.”
Any final tips for travelers before they go?
Cristóbal: “Given the varied climate, pack clothes for both winter and summer. And make sure you know how to ask for a pisco sour [the national drink of Chile].”
Sahli: “Most people visit Chile between October and March, which is summer in the southern hemisphere, but every season has its own charm.”
Echecopar: “Chile is a very travel-friendly country. While it has local cuisine and cultures, the food is mostly based on fresh local produce and hardly ever is spiced up. The people are kind and will spontaneously try to help make your trip easier by lending a hand if you look in need.”
For more on Chile, please see the March 2012 issue of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report.