From the sun-baked Atacama Desert in the north to Patagonia at its icy tip, Chile is a land of vast extremes. In between the two wild landscapes are rolling wine regions, the photogenic Valparaiso and the capital city, Santiago, in the midst of a cultural revolution. Once you’ve ticked these off the list, head to the Andes for some of the hemisphere’s best skiing
In the far north of Chile, the Atacama Desert is like no place on earth. Among the desert’s many geological highlights are the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a swathe of otherworldly land speckled with piles of sand and rock and renowned for being the driest place on earth, and the Salar de Atacama, an expansive salt flat encircled by soaring volcanoes.
The Chilean capital enjoys a particularly spectacular setting, with skyscrapers set against the snow-capped Andes. Its neoclassical centre is worth a day’s exploration, but it’s in the suburbs that Santiago’s true personality shines. Barrios Bellavista and Providencia buzz with energy as locals visit galleries, dine in world-class eateries and sip cocktails on verandas. The city’s grungier Barrio Brasil is the beating heart of the city’s arts scene.
The perfect climate and fertile soils stretching through the northern Coquimbo region to Austral in the south have made Chile a forerunner of the New World. Of the country’s six main wine regions, Valle Central is a favourite given its proximity to Santiago and its rich red wines, while the sun-drenched Elqui Valley is making a splash with its excellent sauvignon blancs.
The bohemian enclave
From Valparaiso’s loud, working port, a network of funicular lifts creak up the sheer hills to a very different city above. Here, a labyrinth of steep cobbled roads and alleys twist between crumbing mansions and a patchwork of multicoloured iron shacks. The artist galleries, tiny cafes and artisan shops ooze bohemian charm, while some great boutique hotels, seafood restaurants and bars have cropped up among the jumble of buildings in recent years.
The world’s end
Torres del Paine National Park is the epitome of wilderness and is named ‘The End of the World’ by the few locals who call this rugged land home. The park is named after three elegant fingers of salmon pink granite, which are flanked by the gnarled Cuernos del Paine to form a rise of twisted peaks. In the warmer months, expect crisp blue skies and mountains rimmed by a kaleidoscope of wild flowers.
SECOND TIME AROUND
The Andes are never far from sight, and skiing at any of the 20-plus ski resorts offers a fascinating mix of Latin culture and world-class terrain. Many are a short drive from Santiago, and Valle Nevado — part of the Three Valleys — has very reliable snow cover on its 45 kilometres of runs. For fresh tracks, head to El Arpa, a resort devoted to cat-skiing. There are no lifts or designated runs here, just two caterpillar trucks and a handful of very experienced guides.