In Benjamín Subercaseaux’s memorable phrase, Chile embodies una loca geografía — literally, “a crazy geography.” Here northern deserts, Mediterranean heartland, deep mountain lakes, soaring volcanoes, temperate rainforests, and Patagonian wildlands exist within a land area only a little larger than Texas.
The arid north and its uplands were outliers of the Inka and other Andean civilizations. The Spaniards left behind colonial churches and chapels, but indigenous llama and alpaca herders have outlasted them in wildlife-rich steppes at the foot of snow-topped cones. Desert rats find the Atacama’s crumbling ghost towns irresistible. Farther south, the world’s clearest skies have made the Norte Chico a stellar site for astronomers.
Getting there is more than half the fun along the Carretera Austral, the scenic southern highway that reaches almost to the end of the earth: Tierra del Fuego, where glaciers still reach the sea and penguins and whales cavort in the Strait of Magellan.Middle Chile is home to the underrated capital of Santiago and its surrounding wine country, as well as Valparaíso, one of South America’s most progressive cities. That port city has been called Chile’s San Francisco; its nearby coastline even boasts its own surfers’ mecca at Pichilemu. Home to the indigenous Mapuche, the southern mainland is a land of lakes and forested mountains, where national parks abound. The archipelago of Chiloé is a verdant outlier with a unique cultural heritage.
Still farther south are the steppes, mountains, fjords, and ice fields of Patagonia, offering some of the world’s wildest country — and its greatest adrenaline rushes, from kayaking on the Río Futaleufú to hiking in exhilarating Torres del Paine. Getting there is more than half the fun along the Carretera Austral, the scenic southern highway that reaches almost to the end of the earth: Tierra del Fuego, where glaciers still reach the sea and penguins and whales cavort in the Strait of Magellan.
Chile is also the gateway to the distant western Pacific. Easter Island is an iconic destination for its megalithic, enigmatic monuments. Nearer the continent, the Juan Fernández archipelago helped bring world literature the story of Robinson Crusoe, but its modern treasure is its luxuriant flora and fauna.
From the perspective of international air travel, Chile feels close (it’s just about 8 hours from Miami, 10 hours from New York, or 14 hours from Los Angeles). But in its landscape and its spirit, it’s another world, or a collection of worlds. It’s like nowhere else on earth.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.