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Swimming in the thermal lake of Sejar in the middle of the driest desert in the world, north Chile's Atacama, in November.
Chile's vast length - 4,000kms (2,500 miles) - encompasses a mass of potential activities which take place in varied and stunning locations, though many are inconveniently distant from each other and the rest of South America.
• The Atacama desert, the hub of which is San Pedro de Atacama, which is hundreds of miles north of the capital of Santiago.
• The World Heritage port of Valparaiso. This, in turn, is hundreds of miles north of Chile's premier activity base of...
• Pucon and the gorgeous Lake District. Pucon and its rival action centre, Puerto Varas, are hundreds of miles north of incredible mountains and treks in...
• Torres del Paine National Park, while all of the above are thousands of miles east of the wildest Chile sights of all on...
Hiking to the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park, southern Chile.
Photo by Liam Quinn
One interesting option for independent travellers with lots of time who are exploring not only Chile but southern South America in general is crisscrossing from Argentina to Chile (and/or Bolivia), though the geology of neighbouring landscapes are usually (and naturally) similar.
For example, instead of travelling south down Chile from San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago, one could bus across the border to Argentina's Salta, zigging down through Cordoba to Buenos Aires, then zagging back to Mendoza before crossing over to Santiago.
Further south it's common to cross from Chile's Lake District into Argentina's Lake District (or vice versa of course), and then back into Chile from El Calafate to Torres del Paine. These border crossings will involve lots of wiggly, mountainous Andean roads but immigration formalities are no problem and it's an efficient way to see two long thin countries if you have a tough butt and plenty of time.
Our rental truck in the Valley of Death, Atacama.
• it's expensive.
• driving's tiring because distances are long and dirt roads require intense concentration.
• sign posting of key sights in Chile is absolutely abysmal.
A lot of time can be lost searching for the location, even if your Castellano (Spanish) is good enough to get directions from locals. The magical desert pool pictured above, for example, was on a dirt road about 12 kms (8 miles) from the paved road to San Pedro, with no signs indicating direction at all, anywhere. Furthermore, directions from people in town were incorrect. A paranoid person might imagine that this is a conspiracy to force all tourists to employ a local guide or travel with a tour operator...
Having wasted several hours and considerable emotional energy finding
the pool pictured above in their rental jeep the Bugcrew felt compelled
to hire a guide to get to the Tatio geysers for sunrise, so the dastardly
tourist office plan worked.
The bottom line is, in the Atacama region at least, you will need a vehicle and a guide to get to two of the four best sights.
Remote, bleak Rapa Nui with its awesome moai.
Which of these
seasons suits you depends on your destinations and activities.
Worst: January, February (midsummer, extremely hot in the north/centre and crowded, expensive everywhere), also June, July, August (rain in the centre or extreme cold in the south; busy and expensive up north).
Another point that should be mentioned is that some Chilean pictorial guide books and even international guide books are years out of date, showing sights that have long since crumbled to dust, so don't believe everything you read.
Furthermore, some local tour operators are nothing more than a bunch of lying thieves who will take you to a couple of worthless sights for the pleasure of extracting a few dollars more. And if you think we're exaggerating read the thick book of complaints in San Pedro's official Tourist Office that has to be replaced very frequently! Beware!
This photo gallery starts in the north at San Pedro de Atacama, including pictures of some stinkers - what we believe are the most useless 'sights' in the Atacama area, heads down to the centre for a glance at dull Santiago and polychromatic Valparaiso, misses out on Pucon and the Lake District (thanks to a pilot's strike), visits Torres del Paine, then finishes with some spectacular pictures of the genuine wonders of Easter Island.