Wedged between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, the best-known fact about Chile is its wholly improbable shape. Stretching 4,000 km (2,500 mi) south from the base of Peru right to the tip of the continent, it has almost three times as much coastline as its neighbor, yet only half the total landmass.
As you might expect of such a country, Chile features enormous extremes in its landscape. The very north of the country is occupied by the world’s driest desert, some parts of which have never felt a drop of rain, while deep in the south, the ice fields of Tierra del Fuego stretch out into the distance like giant floating boulders. In between, more hospitable terrain greets visitors; palm-fringed sandy beaches and well-developed ski resorts can be reached in a couple of hours from Santiago and further south, the Lake District and Patagonia both feature world-class hiking. On your way down, you can stay in a comfortable hacienda in the midst of Wine Country.
In comparison to Chile’s natural wonders, its cities are something of a disappointment. Santiago certainly doesn’t have the 24-hour party reputation of other Latin capitals, and its buildings are mainly modern; frequent earthquakes have gradually claimed most of the colonial buildings here, which have since been replaced with more stable, but unattractive, concrete structures. However, they do tend to be clean and safe, with all the modern conveniences (and prices) of a European city, and are good jumping-off points for exploring the backcountry. Also, more reminiscent of Europe than Latin America is Chile’s transport system. If you have traveled in other countries on the continent, Chile’s safe, efficient and fast bus service is a joy to use – and not that expensive either. LanChile’s flights around the country are surprisingly good value considering the vast distances covered.
The best time to visit Chile depends on which areas you are planning to visit. You can visit Northern Chile all year round, although rain falls in January and February, which can occasionally make road travel difficult. Santiago and the central region are best between September and April when the smog (in Santiago) is minimal, and the skies are blue.
Chileans take their holidays in January and February, so the beaches can get very crowded at this time. Ski resorts are open between June and September. For Patagonia and the Lake District, October to April is a good time – it can rain at any time of year, and falls more the further south you go.
Regardless of when you go, how you go is also essential. Camping here is more prevalent than any other Latin American country (with the possible exception of Argentina), and backpackers will find plenty of hostels but also find it hard to keep under budget in Chile. Luxury travelers may want to have a custom-made tour designed for their precise needs and interests.