Experience Chile’s natural playground
Starry, starry nights
Chile’s Atacama Desert is a mecca for stargazers. The lack of light pollution and arid environment, one of the driest on the planet, make for unbelievably clear skies. Serious astronomy fans can visit one of the region’s world-class observatories, like ALMA, the largest radio telescope in the world. Those new to exploring the celestial realm have multiple options near the town of San Pedro de Atacama for an expert-guided evening of stargazing.
Visitors to San Pedro de Atacama can venture on a day trip to Salar de Talar, a stunning salt flat surrounded by massive volcanoes near the Argentina border. At 13,000 feet the high desert landscape appears painted by a rainbow of geological hues with accents of blue skies and turquoise lakes. Further exploration of the foothills of the Chilean Andes will please wildlife watchers at Laguna Chaxa. Part of Los Flamencos National Reserve, the area is home not only to the eponymous flamingo, but also protects the gopher-like tuco-tuco, the Andean fox, and the elusive puma.
Hiking through the Atacama’s Valley of the Moon with its sand-swept, rugged rock formations approximates walking on our moon. Ironically, the harsh conditions of the Atacama have been used by NASA scientists and engineers as a stand-in for testing technology and equipment for use on Mars. Though visitors may not feel they are on planet Earth, the desert beckons as a multi-terrain playground perfect for exploration via car, foot, bike, or horseback. Don’t forget to catch the fabulous sunsets.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, lies over 2,300 miles from mainland Chile in the Pacific Ocean. Rapa Nui National Park protects nearly half of the island, which is famous for its moai, monumental stone statues carved by the Rapa Nui people. A lone moai stands at the entrance to the Ahu Tongariki site, the island’s largest ahu, or ceremonial platform, with 15 moai standing in a row. Visitors to Easter Island can visit this site on the southeastern coast via guided tour, rental car, or even bike.
Villarrica is one of the volcanoes that serves as a picture-perfect backdrop to explorations of Chile’s Lake District. This very active volcano belches ash and occasionally lava, but with a guide and proper gear, the crater is normally accessible for those eager to make a four- to six-hour trek to the summit to peer down into the crater at molten lava. Nearby activities include boating and fishing on the various lakes.
Huilo-Huilo Biological Reserve is a 100,000-hectare slice of paradise set in the southern Chilean Andes. This privately owned reserve on the eastern slope of the Mochu-Choshuenco compound stratovolcano protects the unique ecosystem of the Valdivian temperate rainforest. Ecotourists have abundant lodging, dining, and activity options at their fingertips. Visitors can easily revel in the ancient forests decorated by glacially fed rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. A short 30-minute walk leads to La Leona, a waterfall on the Fuy River, which can also be experienced by river raft or kayak.
Chile’s Patagonia region is home to over a dozen of the country’s more than 40 national parks, including Torres de Paine, with its jaw-dropping iconic granite massif surrounded by glistening glacier-fed lakes. The park is a playground for nature lovers who can experience its unapparelled beauty by car, boat, horseback, or foot, with options spanning all budgets. Watch for guanacos and huemul deer, Andean condors swirling around rocky spires, and perhaps catch a glimpse of a puma.
Trek on ancient ice
Visitors to Torres del Paine National Park won’t want to miss the opportunity to see the intense blue beauty of Glacier Grey, part of the immense Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The deep-blue sculpted ice can be reached in several ways. See the glacial face by boarding a boat that tours the ice formations on Lago Grey. Hike to the glacier on foot on a day hike or as part of a multi-day circuit. The most adventurous can hire a guide to trek on the ice ancient ice itself.
Kayaking and rafting afficionados test their skills on Chile’s Futaleufú River in northern Patagonia. Fed by glacial snowmelt in Argentina, this pristine turquoise river crosses the border into Chile and tumbles through dramatic granite canyons. The Class IV and V whitewater rapids draw kayakers from all over the world for the unparalleled experience and spectacular scenery. Take advantage of the beauty of the Futaleufú (“large river” in the indigenous Mapundungún language) without an adrenaline boost by opting for fly-fishing, hiking, or horseback riding.
Beyond the beaten track
The vastness of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the largest ice field in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica, is apparent from high in the peaks of the Cordillera Sarmiento, located south of Torres de Paine and west of Puerto Natales. Intrepid mountaineers willing to make the journey into this remote region will find untouched mountain peaks and jaw-dropping views, assuming the infamously cloudy weather clears. Here two climbers make their way to the summit of the second highest peak, Cerro Trono, at 6,150 feet. For easier access into the region, opt for a sea-level perspective on a cruise through the fjords.
The face of the Garibaldi Glacier dwarfs tourists as they watch a calving event from inflatable boats. This tidewater glacier, one of many in Alberto de Agostini National Park, is slowly surging and retreating, continuing to erode the massive u-shaped valley it lies within. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the dramatic mountains of the park drip with waterfalls and hanging forests with turquoise glaciers nestled within its valleys. This area of the Tierra del Fuego region at the southern tip of the South American continent is best explored by sea to appreciate the last peaks of the Andes range as they fade into the ocean as mountainous islands.
Cross to the White Continent
Though Antarctica is not owned by any single country, Chile governs a territory that covers the arm of the continent stretching toward the Drake Passage and South America. Multiple species of penguins, including gentoos, make their breeding grounds on the White Continent. Navigating through the iceberg-strewn waters is like sailing through nature’s constantly changing art gallery.