Chile, lying like an outstretched serpent along South America's Pacific shoreline, contains a vibrant mix of terrain and cultures for travelers to discover. Its landscape varies from pristine beaches to rugged volcanic peaks, while Catholic Spain vies with indigenous lore as the fount of the country's mythological wisdom. The five locations highlighted here allow you to experience a wide variety of the different threads running through this endlessly fascinating Latin nation.
Torres del Paine is an elemental landscape forged by glacial ice and fierce winds, lying at the southern tip of the Andes in Patagonian Chile. Cloaked with lakes, mountains, and gnarled Magellan forest, the park's centerpiece are the blade-like crags of the three Towers of Paine themselves: sharp-edged granite monoliths, looming over an exposed geologic landscape of sheer cliffs scything down into deep lakes. Hikers can also expect to see a profusion of wildlife, with condors soaring between crags, woodpeckers flicking through the forests, flamingos standing in the lakes and foxes and pumas prowling in the waterside scrub. The park can be reached via a spectacular bus journey from the neighboring town of Puerto Natales.
The archipelago of Chiloé presents a spectacular sight as your ferry crosses the Chacao Channel: colorful houses stand on stilts above the seawater, fronting equally vibrant towns and villages spread over the hills and fields beyond. The brutal colonizing forces that shaped the rest of Chile were far weaker out on these islands, and much of the work was left to missionaries, who built 150 exquisite wooden churches, recently made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Particularly special ones include the nineteenth century Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores, which has paintings bringing together Jesus with characters from indigenous mythology. Much of this mythology, drawing on witchcraft, the sea and the islands' shadowy forests, survived the Christian onslaught and are still recounted at local festivals. And Chiloe has a deliciously distinctive food culture culminating in curanto, a fabled meat, potato and seafood stew.
The Atacama Desert is the driest in the world, and the Valle de la Luna is its most atmospheric point. The valley is aptly-named, a fantastically surreal landscape of deep craters, sharp ridges, towering cliffs and barren valleys that closely resembles the surface of the moon. Once a small section of a huge inland sea, it was raised above water level by the Andes; through the millennia since, its already eerie landscape has been carved into ever weirder formations by the wind and rain. Be sure to stay overnight, so you can watch the sun rise and set from atop a huge sand dune, painting the desert purple and gold; and try to choose a night with a full moon, so you can see the silent landscape soaked in silver moonlight.
Clinging to a series of steep hillsides overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Valparaíso’s chaotic assemblage of colourful houses and people-packed plazas has drawn many of Chile’s most famous artists and writers, including Pablo Neruda, who lived in a house at the top of the town. Mix this with the fact that the town’s main industry is shipping, bringing an itinerant population of sailors, prostitutes, barhands and adventure-seekers, and you start to understand why it has a reputation a bohemian town where pretty much anything goes. But as well as this unpredictable edginess, it’s also simply beautiful, with a historic quarter recognized by UNSECO and sublime sea views from its higher vantage points. These can be reached by riding on the town’s ascensores, or funicular railways, whose rickety carriages are both historic and a key part of the town’s everyday life.
Encompassing the most spectacular stretch of Chile's verdant Lake District, Villarrica National Park centers on the volcano that gives it its name. Standing at 2847 meters, Villarrica is one of Latin America's most active volcanoes - a 1971 hiccup sent lava flowing over 14 kilometers - and hikers to its crater are greeted with a sulphurous stench, tectonic rumblings, bursts of steam and the sight of broiling molten lava. A network of volcanic caves pitted in Villarrica's side are definitely worth exploring, and there's also a ski center open in winter. Flanking the peak are two more towering conical volcanoes, while extensive forests, vibrant with animal life, cloak much of the rest of the park. The tourist town of Pucón sits by the side of a pretty lake in the shadow of Villarrica, and makes a fantastic base for trips to its summit - so long as the volcano doesn't decide to erupt while you're in town.