With almost 3000 miles of coastline, from the arid desert of the north, on the border with Peru, to the windswept crags along its southern shores, Chile is the perfect getaway for the most discerning adventurer. With an ultra-modern capital like Santiago that can rival any of the first-world cities of the world, and vineyards producing some of the finest wines on the planet, the gourmand can find his niche here for luxury travel. The nature lover can follow his passion, from hiking the sand dunes of the Atacama, to admiring the cascading waterfalls at Petrohué, to delighting at llamas and vicuñas grazing on the altiplano. Perhaps a massive Andean condor will swoop overhead, casting an immense shadow on the horizon. For the adrenaline junkie, thrill-a-minute excitement awaits: rafting one of the top-rated whitewater rapids in the world at Futaleufú, skiing and snowboarding at Portillo or Chillán, or mountaineering the impressive peaks of Torres del Paine. Sometimes, however, the greatest thrills of exploration are unexpected, or completely off the grid.
1. See the albatross statue at Cape Horn
Literally at the tip of the South American continent, the jagged coastline of Cabo de Hornos shipwrecked many an unsuspecting ocean schooner. To commemorate the lives of all those lost to the seas, the steel memorial sculpture serves as a testament to man’s never-ending battle against the tides. Stand at the base of the monument; feel dwarfed by its sheer size. Feel the slap of the gusting wind and the sting of the salty spray as you turn your eyes in the direction of the southern pole…Cape Horn is the last stop before Antarctica.
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2. Witness a calving glacier at Pia
As a passenger from one of the Australis expeditionary cruise ships, you sit in silence to show your respect…waiting. Waiting with camcorders and cameras at the ready. Occasional nuances of aquamarine tint the distant ice, though only optical illusions to your naked eye. A momentary disturbance in the quiet sends a chunk of glacier crashing down, rumbling like thunder. Ripples fan out from the berg and a newly calved floe bobs gently in the bay.
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3. Kiss the Indian’s toe at the Statue of Hernando de Magallanes in Punta Arenas.
Conifer trees border the Muñoz Gamero Plaza, the main square of downtown Punta Arenas. Smack dab in the center of that square stands an enormous statue dedicated to Portuguese explorer Hernando de Magallanes (Ferdinand Magellan). At the bottom of the memorial sits a Sélknam Indian, part of an indigenous tribe from Tierra del Fuego. According to legend, whoever kisses the toe of the aborigine is guaranteed to return to the Patagonia. It’s supposed to bring good luck. As you bend down to touch your lips to that famous foot, think how many other lips have been there before yours.
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4. Eat a curanto and admire the palafito (stilt) houses on the island of Chiloé.
The time-honored tradition of cooking curanto, the specialty of Chiloé’s archipelago, pre-dates the time of the Spanish conquistador. Though curanto, prepared in giant tureens, is available all across the island, the authentic version simmers over red-hot stones in a shallow hole in the ground, covered with rhubarb leaves. Sunday is customary for genuine curanto, so drive down from the neighboring town of Puerto Montt and hop on the ferry. Plan to eat all the shellfish, longanizas (sausages), meat, potatoes, and vegetables you can hold. Burn off those extra calories sightseeing the colorful stilt houses clustered along the shore.
5. Sail by catamaran across Lago Todos Los Santos to Peulla
The floor-to-ceiling glass panes of the state-of-the-art catamaran will be crystal clear–not a smudge in sight–as you ply the tranquil waters of Lake Todos Los Santos. Having just left the outskirts of Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park and the emerald-green cataracts of Petrohué, your sailing excursion towards the delightful hotel at Peulla is underway. You can sit indoors if you like, but the best views are out on deck. Look for the reflection of Osorno volcano mirrored in the smooth waters of the lake.
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6. Get the massage of a lifetime at Termas de Puyehue
If you’re looking to splurge on your trip to Chile, this is the place to do it. After a rousing game of golf, an invigorating countryside cabalgata (horseback ride), or exploration of Puyehue National Park, delight in your luxurious suite at the 5-star resort, Termas de Puyehue. Stew in the therapeutic waters of the expansive pool till your appendages quiver like Jell-O; later, opt for the deep tissue massage. The subdued flickering of candles and the delicious scent of aromatic oils will make you feel pampered before the treatment even starts.
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7. See the floral clock at Viña del Mar.
On week-ends in the summer, the place to’see and be seen is the Reñaca Beach at Viña del Mar, but there’s more than sand and surf in this lovely coastal resort town, fondly known as La Ciudad Jardin. And what could be a more appropriate attraction for “The Garden City” than a gargantuan floral clock? Manicured to perfection, and changing with the seasons, the Reloj de Flores offers great fodder for the photographer, both amateur and professional alike. So, go on…have your Kodak moment.
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8. Soak in the outdoor thermal pool at El Tatio Geyser Field.
Located in the driest desert in the world, the Atacama, the geysers of El Tatio erupt briskly at dawn, sputtering and spewing their 185°F waters high into the air. Follow the trail amongst the géiseres and the hot pots carefully; DON’T stray from the path. The town of San Pedro (55 miles/90km south) and the nearest hospital are hours away. That being said, strip down to your swimsuit and tiptoe cautiously into the thermal pool. Where the underground water filters in, it’s scalding, so be wary of where you sit down or step. Be sure to BYOT (bring your own towel).
9. Watch the flamingos at El Salar de Atacama
The largest salt deposit in Chile, covering 3000km, plays host to the most beautiful bird species in the world–the flamingoes. You’ll get a chuckle watching the magnificent flamencos andinos (Andean flamingoes) contort their necks this way and that, trying to plunge their ebony beaks deeper into the salty brine. For a spectacular view, wait until sunset, when they take flight from the Chaxa Lagoon. The pinkish-red feathers along their back and the bright black underside of their wings melds timelessly into the waning light of impending dusk.
10. Stand atop el Morro in Arica and gaze out over the ocean
You might think el Morro is nothing but a giant rock overlooking the town of Arica. It is a giant rock, but a rock with a grand history. From Chile’s point of view, at least. Originally belonging to Peru, el Morro was a last defense garrison for their soldiers during the Pacific War. In 1880, under siege by Chilean troops, the fortress surrendered. Today, a commemorative museum charges entrance fees of 1.20/adults and 60¢/children, a pittance for the incredible view of the port and world-class surfing waves.