Swaying in the basket of a hot air balloon high above the arid Atacama Desert, you may have to remind yourself that what you see below you is still Chile. How can one nation have produced so many different landscapes? From the desert-bound north to the iron-grey peaks in the south, and the wetlands and glacial valleys in between, a visit to Chile can feel like a greatest hits tour through some of the world’s most spectacular terrain. That makes it a fantastic place to travel for a few weeks, a month, or even longer.
Most flights will arrive in Santiago, and it’s worth exploring the capital before you head out. There’s an excellent museum and shopping scene around the Centro, while barrios Brasil, Lastarria and Bellavista are blessed with affordable and delicious places to dine, and a nightlife lively enough to rival Rio de Janeiro’s. When you’ve had your fill of cosmopolitan comforts, jump on a plane and head north. It’s about to get a lot more wild.
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The Atacama Desert is the driest non polar desert in the world. It’s also beautiful, an otherworldly landscape that starts at sea level before climbing 4,000 metres to meet the Andes. Base yourself in San Pedro de Atacama, a fertile oasis the indigenous Atacama people once called home, and you’ll be perfectly positioned for trips into the wilderness. A balloon tour is a must for the breathtaking vistas on offer, and can be easily arranged by Rainbow Tours, but there’s plenty to see on foot too. Rise at dawn for a trip to the El Tatio geysers: if they erupt at the right moment, you can capture unforgettable photos of them framed against the rising sun. Keep an eye out for wildlife as you go: if you’re observant (and in luck) you’ll spot everything from flamingos, llamas and vicunas (a camel-like mammal native to South America) to the rhea, a giant, flightless bird.
No trip to the Atacama would be complete without a visit to the Valley of the Moon. Its lunar landscape has been created by millions of years of flooding and wind erosion, and it’s also the setting for one of Chile’s more dazzling and colourful sights. Perch yourself on top of a sand dune and wait for the sun to dip below the distant volcanoes on the horizon; as it does, the salt flats, the valley and your surroundings will be suffused in deep purples, golds and pinks.
Almost 2,000 miles south at the other end of Chile is the Torres del Paine National Park, famous for its strikingly vertical peaks and dramatic landscapes. It’s a Unesco-protected habitat, and there’s plenty of wildlife to spot on your hikes, including soaring Andean condors, stealthy pumas, and herds of grazing guanaco, another camel-like native creature.
It’s not the only southern spot famous for its beauty. Up the coast you’ll find the Lakes District, a vast wetland area of looming volcanoes, clear glacial lakes and small, pretty towns. Explore by horse and kayak to get the best views, and head to Cochamo Valley for exhilarating rock climbing. Chiloe Island, a little further to the north, is home to the Chile people, who live in brightly coloured wooden houses on stilts over the water. Spend a few days exploring their unique settlements and visiting some of the island’s churches, 16 of which are designated Unesco World Heritage sites, before kicking back with a warming bowl of curanto, the local meat, potato and seafood stew.
No visa is required for British citizens to visit Chile, and from January a new British Airways route will get you from Heathrow to Santiago in just over 14 hours. It’s best to visit in our spring, early in the new year, though make sure you come adequately prepared for the range of weather: in January, temperatures stretch from the high thirties in the north to near zero in the extreme south. Book with Rainbow Tours and you’ll be paired with a dedicated Chile specialist, who’ll help arrange a bespoke itinerary, flights and accommodation.