The Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, stands out as the highlight of any trip to Northern Chile. In this imposing scenery it is possible to visit numerous ancient fortresses and villages, tour colonial towns, marvel at moonlike valleys, relax at natural hot springs and observe the tallest geysers in the world. The other natural highlight of the region is the Altiplano, a wide plateau located in the middle of the Andes. An oasis of unique climatic conditions, it offers a wide range of national parks and exceptional landscapes dotted by small communities of Aymara shepherds. The world-famous Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum is located in the village of San Pedro de Atacama, 60 miles from the city of Calama. San Pedro was once the center of the Atacamanian civilization. This museum contains a collection of over 300,000 pieces, which include pottery, woven fragments and mummies discovered in this area. Also scattered around San Pedro are the ruins of Indian fortresses or 'pukaras' such as Quitor, a 12th-century fort perched on a hill above the San Pedro River and the hilltop fortress of Lasana, the best preserved remnant of the Atacamena people complete with solid stone architecture typical of the period. Also worth mentioning is the primitive village of Tulor, , an intact site of enigmatic circular dwellings founded 2,800 years ago and roughly covered by the sand of the desert.
Since their discovery in 1722, the monumental stone statues on Easter Island, a 64-square-mile volcanic island in the South Pacific, have been among the world's most curious relics of antiquity. Carved from volcanic tuff, the statues, which weigh an average of 14 tons each, were erected some 500 years ago by descendants of Polynesian seafarers who had settled the remote island around the close of the first millennium A.D. Just how these monuments, or moai, were carved, transported, and erected has been the subject of an intense and long-standing scholarly debate. The most important sites on Easter Island are:
Ahu Akivi, situated nine miles from the quarry. It has been estimated that the moai at this site were probably transported and erected after AD 1400. Ahu Akivi is an unusual site because it is inland. Although many visitors assume the statues were placed here to face the ocean, in fact they were meant to look out over a very large village which today is in ruins.
If size signified importance, Ahu Vinapu was one of the most important ahu on Easter Island. The precisely fitted large basalt cut slabs have perplexed some archaeologists, in particular Thor Heyerdahl. He points to this Inca-like stone ahu as a key indicator to a distinct Peruvian influence on the island.
Anakena Beach is the most Polynesian-looking part of the island, a true paradise with a grove of coconut palms that stretches to a white sand beach and a calm blue cove of warm Pacific waters. Anakena is one of two sand beaches on an island that is otherwise surrounded by a rough, black rock coastline. The idyllic setting here is interrupted by an ahu with six moai, a stark reminder that you are still on Easter Island.
Paro is the island's largest transported moai. It is difficult to imagine how the islanders moved such a large statue from the quarry four miles away. Lying face down, toppled from its ahu, Paro weighs 82 tons and is 32.45 feet long.
Hanga Roa is the only town on Easter Island. Most of the 2,000 Rapanui people that live on the island reside here. The only port on the island is situated here, as is Cook's Bay, where Captain Cook anchored his boat just offshore in 1722.
Rano Raruku is the main quarry for Easter Island's statues, a volcanic crater which is a virtual moai graveyard. The stone-faced giants lie in various states of production. Some are half carved, many are broken, and many seem to have been abandoned in mid-transport. Most remarkably, at the base of the quarry, moai stand half buried in the slope from years of erosion. To some observers the quarry looks like a graveyard of stone giants. This quarry and the nearby transport road is the staging area on which many speculators base their theories on how the moai were transported.
The Lake District
The scenic Lake District is a collage of millenary forests, emerald lakes, snow-capped volcanoes and mighty rivers. It is this variety of stunning landscapes and natural wealth that has gained the region the title of the adventure and ecotourism capital of the country. Several impressive national parks protect native forests and volcanoes and are great areas for rafting, hiking, mountain biking and sightseeing. The volcanoes are probably the most striking aspect of the landscape. As long as the weather permits you are never out of site of a snowcapped volcano anywhere in the Lakes Region. All of these parks have great trail systems allowing visitors a close up look at the natural environment. Day trips to national parks are available from most towns in the Lake Regions. Multi-day itineraries usually combine moderate hikes in lush national parks and more demanding climbs to dormant volcanoes. Accommodations are provided in quaint German-style bed and breakfasts or small inns.
In addition to its natural treasures, the region features charming colonial towns such as Puerto Varas, Frutillar and Valdivia, where the traditions and customs of the original European settlers are still alive. In Valdivia, founded in 1558, you can still admire the ruins of three old Spanish forts located in strategic places near the mouth of the river. Also, the influx of the numerous German immigrants can be appreciated in the colonial houses built at the turn of the century.
The island of Chiloe is a world apart when compared to its German-influenced neighbors. In the two urban centers of Ancud and Castro, all houses and specially the splendid churches dating from the 17th century are totally built in wood. Of the 150 churches built on the island (one every six miles), nine have been named National Monuments (the oldest one was built with wooden pegs instead of nails). These have an important place in worldwide architecture as few wooden constructions of this kind have survived the pass of time.
Renowned as one of the most beautiful trips in the area is the lake crossing from Puerto Montt to Argentina (Bariloche), sailing through emerald lakes and winding roads across the Andes mountain range.
Santiago is an architectural collage of old Spanish colonial charm, European elegance, and North American suburbia. In the city center you can find pedestrian malls with cobblestone walkways lined with shopping galleries, fountains, cafes, movie theaters, ice cream shops, and banks. Santiago is located in the Central Valley, an area famous for its world-renowned ski resorts, the summer resorts of Vina del Mar and La Serena, the wine country around San Fernando and Santa Cruz Valleys, where wine tours are regularly conducted, and the Maipo River Valley, a great area for outdoor activities such as ballooning, horseback riding, hiking and white water rafting.
San Rafael Lagoon National Park
With an expanse of 1,742,000 hectares, this park is the largest in Aysen and includes all the so-called ice fields of the north where countless rivers and lakes originate. The tallest summit in the Southern Andes, Mount San Valentin (4.058 m), is found in the park. A field of ice extends from this mountain to surrounding hills and is the origin of 19 glaciers. The highlight of the park is the impressive blocks of ice that can be seen falling from the glaciers and crashing into the lake with a deafening sound. Although the glaciers and the lake are the park's major attractions, the park also accommodates a rich variety of both water and land birds, including the black-browed albatross, huala duck, black-neck swan, and the cormorant. There are also dolphins, wolves, chungungos, and elephant seals. The best way of visiting the lagoon is aboard one of the small cruise ships that depart from Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, or Puerto Chacabuco.
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine is, undoubtedly, one of the most spectacular national parks in the Americas. Located 250 miles north of Punta Arenas and 70 miles of Puerto Natales, this world biosphere reserve houses one of the largest varieties of plant and animal species in the country. The incredibly beautiful setting of snow-capped mountain peaks, cascading rivers, forests, spectacular waterfalls, glaciers, and mirrored lakes has made it a paradise for hikers, trekkers, climbers, nature lovers, and adventurers alike.
Most of Chile's finest rootstock was imported from France in the 1800's - just in time, as it turned out, to avoid the disastrous phylloxera plague, which destroyed some 2.5 million acres of vineyards in Europe and across the world. Isolated by its imposing geography, Chile is now home to the only remaining strains of these original vines. Grapes for white wine grown here include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin-Blanc, and Semillon. Grapes for reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
Chile's wine region, from 30°-40° south latitude, includes eight separate valleys, each with its own characteristics and wines. The Casablanca Valley is generally considered the finest producer of whites, principally Chardonnay but with a growing reputation for Sauvignon Blanc. The Maipo valley, meanwhile, is Chile's most traditional wine region and producer of the country's finest Cabernets and Merlots.
Wine and gourmet tours generally combine wine tastings with tours of historic haciendas and bodegas (wine cellars), some of which have been declared national monuments. Near Santiago, they make a great weekend escape or luxury vacation all on their own.