Firstly, I must say, at the risk of sounding cheesy and predictable, that Chile is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. And that’s pretty much for one reason alone: The Andes. They’re enchanting, breathtaking, and pretty much omnipresent in Chile- just take a look at the map. The country is bordered by the Andes to the East forming a natural border with Argentina, legendary for its precarious mountain crosses, which claimed the lives of many Spanish conquistadores. If all goes to plan I’d like to return to South America to trek in the Andes and take in their beauty in Argentina and Peru also. The mountains have a spirit, echoed by the friendly people you meet all over Chile, and that sort of sentimental kindness is infectious- I’m surprised they haven’t tried to bag it! So, with the Andes as my absolute number 1 highlight, here are my real top 5 destinations I visited during my time backpacking in Chile, from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama…
1. Valparaiso: Think eclectic, psychedelic, maybe a tad chaotic, picture that in every colour of the rainbow and you’ve got Valparaiso, or Valpo as it is affectionately referred to in Chile. Hundreds of multicoloured houses stacked almost upon each other line the steep hills of this seaside city. I’ve never been to such a fun, lively place. The city has attitude, a cheeky character. Jump in one of the old furniculars dating from the late nineteenth century and climb the steep hills to see gorgeous views all over the city. You’ll never forget this place, I know I never will- it’s summed up by the poetry of Pablo Neruda who loved Valpo, built a beautiful house with views of the bay and spent every New Years’ Eve there watching fireworks in the bay.
2. Valle del Elqui: A bit further north outside the seaside colonial town of La Serena you’ll find the breathtaking, rolling hills of the Valle del Elqui. The valley is a space of opposites- fertile green hills where pisco is grown and produced, deep, reflective reservoirs and then the arid, steep slopes of the pre-desierto. We visited the Valle in winter- mid-September – and the sun was powerful in a clear blue sky. Visit the towns of Vicuna, the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral; Valle del Elqui was the only place she said she ever felt happy. Visit it and you’ll understand what she meant.
3. Cajon de Maipo: The perfect day trip outside Santiago, and it will probably feel like an escape. See the Cascada de las Animas, horseride up the steep slopes of the foothills of the Andes, bathe in the Banos Morales with a beautiful view over the famous Cajon. You’ll feel spoiled to enjoy such outdoors freedom when you’re only an hour’s bus journey out of the capital.
4. San Pedro de Atacama: No doubt you’ll have heard of the natural beauty of the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. Marvel at the huge salt flats, the fifth largest in the world, float in the salt laguna (but beware it’s pretty cold) and warm up in the hot springs by the Geysers del Tatio at around 4,200 metres above sea level. San Pedro seems the most relaxed place on earth, as well as the most backpacker-friendly. You’ll never feel further from the daily grind.
5. Santiago: After visiting all the above Santiago might almost seem boring, but look beyond the smog and you’ll realise it’s a pretty funky capital where you can see the Andes every day, and pop over for a quick ski/ board if you’ve got the time. See the city from its two hills- Cerro San Cristobal and Cerro Santa Lucia- and spend an evening or two enjoying the tasty (and pretty damn cheap) food and drink of Barrio Bellavista. You’ll find that every major (and some pretty minor) city in Chile has a Plaza de Armas, and Santiago’s is one to remember. When I was there it was packed with tourists and some seriously competitive chess players who turned out to be the Plaza de Armas Chess Club! Santiago’s not worth a week’s stay, but you’d be crazy to ignore it on your travels along this beautiful country.
Image 1: flickr Juan C Ruiz
Image 2: wayfaring
Image 3: Backpackers Chile
Image 4: Tours in and around Santiago
Image 5: My own
Image 6: TravelPod