Walking and trekking
Chile’s bewildering spectrum of latitudes, excellent and brilliantly affordable public transport system and good infrastructure makes travelling through the country a dream - and as it is so narrow (on average only 130 miles wide) you can literally tick places off as you trickle down its length. Arrive into Santiago as most do, and immediately you have the Andes forming a massive wall to the east, the highest point being Aconcagua, which despite being over the border in Argentina, is readily accessible from Santiago. This mountain is one of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each continent), and is arguably the most accessible of all of them. The mountain itself is massive, dwarfing many Himalayan peaks and earning itself the distinguished title of highest peak in the western hemisphere at 6,962m. As any mountain of its height climbing it is very serious, but it is an eminently trekkable peak, and serves as a warm-up for many who are heading for 8000ers as an altitude notch. The mountain is worth experiencing for itself alone, however as it is an excellent trek, its summit ridge offering views to the greater peaks of the Andes’ continent-spanning belt of volcanic peaks - truly a contender with the Himalayas for the world’s most staggering mountain range. North of Santiago lie border peaks and volcanoes such as Chile’s highest, the Ojos Del Salado (6,891m), a volcanic eminence recently though to be higher than Aconcagua. There are fabulous mountaineering opportunities here; permission needs to be obtained if you want to climb Ojos del Salado (see contacts, below.) The northern extremes of Chile is a high-level plain of spectacular desert canyons such as the Valley of the Moon, and beige, bleak mountains which harbour many walking opportunities, notably some interesting walks around Parque Nacional Lauca and San Pedro de Atacama. The national parks in Chile are co-ordinated by Conaf, and there are offices throughout Chile which can help you when planning a trip.
The Chilean Lake District occupies a region to the south of Santiago, and is home to many towns nestled beneath active volcanoes. The area is wet in summer and cold in winter, but offers a true range of walking experiences, from rainforest trekking to volcano climbing around the town of Vallarica. Here you can see the sort of volcano a child would draw: elegant, snow-capped cones of rock with – occasionally – fire coming out the top. It’s an exciting place to love the outdoors. The Andes wall most of Chile, as scowling black towers through the borderlands of Bariloche, and as a pristine backdrop to the rainforested wilderness of Aisen. This ferocious part of Chile is a draw for many brave adventure travellers, and is home to both the Carretera Austral - Chile’s notorious 1,000km southern ‘highway,’ driven only by the adventurous or the crazy – and the Cochamos valley, where trails penetrate what is often referred to as the ‘Yosemite of South America.’ The Andes getting wilder and more unpredictable as they scream their last towards Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Ocean, and it is here that Chile’s most legendary peaks lie, in the wind-whipped scrub of Patagonia: a vague region which inhabits the lower snip of South America across both Chile and Argentina. Argentina got the rougher deal; a few border peaks aside (including the unquestionably astounding Fitz Roy), their Patagonia is a spirit-level flat prairie land of dustbowl towns in the south and a hilly, forested area in the north. Chilean Patagonia is wild, wind-ripped and home to some of the most iconic mountains on the planet. The place to go for these is the Torres del Paine National Park, a couple of hours bump on a minibus from the rustic, rusting town of Puerto Natales. Here lie mountains that everyone should see at least once in their life: the Cuernos (horns) and the Torres (towers) del Paine. The Cuernos are most peculiar, scooped and chiselled from a massif into a visage that is more weird art than mountain. The Torres are the more famous amongst climbers, and occupy a different, more remote part of the massif. Cerro Torre (the Central Tower) has occupied the dreams of any mountaineer who has seen it and the nightmares of any who have attempted it, amongst them Chris Bonington and Don Whillans, whose lives were almost claimed by the tower twice in a single climb. The area surrounding the Paine Massif is invigoratingly vicious landscape of gnarled, wind-slanted trees, scrubland, caves, glacial-blue lakes and high mountain passes and - although its weather patterns distinctly resemble the Lake District's rougher days in a vile temper - is utterly unique as a landscape and destination. Further south across the penguin-flecked Strait of Magellan lies Tierra Del Fuego (Land of Fire) which is split between Argentina and Patagonia, though border crossings are merely a nuisance than a chore. Here lie frozen mountains and many unclimbed peaks which lure mountaineers from all over the world. On the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, the more-trodden Dientes de Navarino is a five-day circuit which is hugely challenging, but unmissable if you can get here. The Argentine port and outdoor mecca Ushuaia is a leaping off point for many who want to tackle the Vinson massif in Antarctica – another one of the Seven Summits. This is a fearsome place, but its position as the most southern city (town, really) in the world and an intoxicatingly remote, international flavour make it an experiencial must for anyone who finds themselves this far south.
Chile is home to almost every possible outdoor activity: here you can raft back-country rivers hundreds of miles from the nearest town in Aisen, surf off Valparaiso, dune-surf near Copiapo, kite-surf in the Atacama, penguin-watch on the Straight of Magellan, et cetera, ad nauseum. There are a many experiences which Chile has a particular knack for delivering: these include a bus ride onto the Altiplano, a Tibet-alike high-level plateau studded with geysers, snowy mountains, goethermal anomalies and archaeological curiosities. Though Bolivia has a similar area, Chile’s is the most impressive in scale, covering a large area of Northern Chile and rising to 4,100m in altitude. North of Santiago lies pleasant, hilly country home to Vicuna, a pretty little town home to some of the clearest skies in the world. Hence, there is a brimming stargazing culture, and you can visit one of the many observatories in the Elqui Valley by night and peer into the heavens through a telescope the size of a lorry. Isla de Chiloe is a charmingly battered island with a brimming local folklore which is well worth spending a few days amongst, and if you want to grab a truly unique experience, head for Chile’s furthest-flung outpost, Rapa Nui - better known as Easter Island. It is one of the loneliest places on earth, and round-trip flights from Santiago can be bought from about £400. It’s worth every penny.
There is an isolated group of Welsh-speaking villages in Patagonia: TRUE. The first group of 150 settlers formed the ‘Wladfa’ village in 1865, and the descendents have recently revived an interest in their culture. Visit the excellent Glanaid website for pictures and stories of these early settlers: www.glanaid.com
Portuguese is the language which is mainly spoken. FALSE. Chileans typically speak Spanish, though it differs from the pure language due to heavily accented ‘s’s.
Chile owns Antarctica: FALSE. It does own 482,628 sq miles of it, though, which interestingly includes Mount Vinson, which technically means that this one of the Seven Summits belongs to Chile.
Must see and do