Take advantage of sun-kissed Pacific coast, wild arid desert and epic Andean rises with our handy guide
Without planning it, I’ve come to know Chile in fragments. Years ago, I took a bus from the Atacama desert to Santiago. More recently, I drove the Southern Highway in Aysén, Central Patagonia. When teaching in Buenos Aires, I arrived in the lake district by boat from Argentina, and later, as a journalist, I toured the vineyards in the shadow of Aconcagua. I have even swum (as best I could) in the heaving surf at La Serena.
All of these experiences were on different trips, in different years and seasons, via various modes of transport. The reason for this patchwork approach is partly due to the country’s uniquely long, thin shape – its 12 political regions broadly describe a dozen distinct topographical zones. All of which makes in-country travel time- consuming and to some extent dependent on the season.
Chile is best known to travellers for its extremes: on the one side, Atacama and the northern deserts; on the other, the wilds and glacial wonderlands of Patagonia and the Andes. But my many journeys have taught me that there’s comparable beauty – and less tourist traffic – in other areas, especially the edges of its lakes and near to La Serena. This is especially true of the temperate zones of the country’s long middle section, which offers far more than wining and dining.
Broadly speaking: the further south you go, the better things get for hiking, biking and camping. Most first-time visitors will want to see some of Chile’s photogenic wildernesses, perhaps after a few days in stylish capital Santiago or the arty coastal city of Valparaiso – both ideal for stopovers.
The following itineraries have, therefore, been kept short, so those with two weeks or more can combine a few routes. And since Chile is one of the best countries in South America for driving – roads and traffic are good, the drivers are not all insane – the majority can also be done as self-drive trips, pit-stopping at sights and cities en route.