Preposterously narrow and almost comically long at 4,300km (2,670 miles), Chile’s outline on a map instantly inspires thoughts of a fantastical, quirky country. Luckily, visitors to this incredibly diverse land will not be disappointed.
Very distinct from its neighbours, Chile may begin at the belly of South America, but geographically is quite isolated, which is why it has managed to maintain a rich, colourful culture not mimicked anywhere else in the Americas. The formidable and jaw-dropping Andes make up a rather intimidating barrier of ice, rock and snow that cut the country off from Argentina to the east and Bolivia to the north. The expansive and daunting Atacama Desert (the driest in the world) separates it from Peru to the north, and adding to the feeling of isolation is none less than Antarctica to the south. To the west, outside of a few tiny islands dotted throughout the Pacific, there is nothing but thousands of miles of water separating Chile from Australasia.
Whether you fancy pedalling or road-tripping the relentless gravel of the Carretera Austral, want to try your hand at climbing in Torres del Paine National Park, or surf the brutal, expert-only waves of Punta de Lobos in Pichilemu where waves consistently reach 6m (20ft), Chile is more than deserving of its current rank as one of the best spots in the world for adventure tourism.
It’s not only for adrenaline-seeking athletes though. Lovers of the night sky can try to find their place in the galaxy – the world’s most impressive observatories are at your disposal in the Atacama desert. Music lovers will enjoy the native Andean music, historians and avid readers can explore the homes of notables such as Chilean-born literary heavyweight Pablo Neruda, budding anthropologists can busy themselves with getting to know the very vibrant Mapuche Indian culture, and foodies will be in heaven – think seafood as fresh as it comes, empanadas as comfort food, and slow-grilled barbecued lamb, all washed down by a hearty dose of the national drink, pisco.
Chile is much more than just a pretty face. ‘Buena onda’ is a Spanish term meaning ‘good vibe’ that suits Chileans very well. Chileans are always ready with a welcoming attitude, and hand in hand with this warm attitude is the patience you must learn if you are to fully absorb the authentic Chilean experience.
Diners linger for hours after the last bite has been eaten, and in the countryside, you will be expected (and should feel honoured) to share round upon endless round of bitter, communal maté tea. These rituals of relating and relaxing are so woven into the fabric of Chilean lifestyle that to not take part in them means that you are missing out on some of the best that Chile has to offer.
So whether you set out seeking solitude as a leisurely backpacker wandering your way through some of the world’s most awe-inspiring sites, or prefer to take on the big cities in full luxury mode, once there you won’t feel like you are at the end of the world - you just end up feeling somehow at home. Consider yourself warned - you may find that once you open your heart to Chile, it’s a difficult place for future travels to outshine.