Chile lends itself to a trip between the extremes, from north to south, from the Atacama Desert to the end of the world. Kilometer after kilometer changes nature, changes profoundly the way of life and probably will change your perspective on things. It will increase your desire to continue.
Narrow and endless, melancholic as a Latin song but full of momentum. The shape of Chile, the longest country in the world, is an exhortation of a trip without compromise. The one big choice seems to be the direction, from north to south, or vice versa.
Choose from the north, from Arica, in the Norte Grande, near the Peruvian border, and venture to once idyllic Parque Nacional Lauca. It is not just the high altitude (between 3000 and 6300 meters above sea level) that will leave you breathless. Even the views are memorable, sprinkled with snow volcanoes, sparkling lakes and remote hot springs. You've just started your race to the lowest part of the world map, and already you will find yourself struggling with the height, as if Chile had fun mixing plans and confounding the senses.
CONTRASTS ALONG PANAMERICANA
Alternatively, from Arica you can take the Panamericana Sur and along a beautiful stretch of this legendary road, race for the 300 km that separate you from the enchanting port of Iquique. Here awaits one of the extremes, or rather the paradoxes of the trip. Iquique is a beautiful seaside resort, but a short drive away is the ghost town of Humberstone, a thriving mining center of nitrates.
MIRACLES OF THE DESERT
From here the journey becomes almost surreal, because the next destination is another open-air wonder and miracles of Chile. Behind what is perhaps the driest place on the globe, the Atacama Desert is the main tourist resort of northern Chile, San Pedro de Atacama. It is said that the huge deposits of quartz and copper confer the region to its inhabitants the characteristic positive energy.
Loaded too, because the journey is still long, if you want to get to the bottom. Far to the south of San Pedro, do not miss a visit to the fantastic and sagging Valparaiso, which with the ghosts of Pablo Neruda, its indolent atmosphere, its locals and especially with the sea air seems the antithesis of the smog hood that awaits you in Santiago. Yes, it is not that great on a business card, and yet all roads lead to this megalopolis of Chile, and not just because of the geography of the country. Take a few days to discover the capital, a giant of more than five million inhabitants, which is a great example of a South American metropolis probably more to the measure of the Buenos Aires, Rio or Mexico City.
South of Valparaíso is an intoxicating stage among the vineyards and the wineries in the area of Talca and then the hot springs and volcanoes. You can do mountain biking in Pucon, a town in the Sur Chicom which is filled with backpackers, the followers of the New Age and even the Brazilian novice snowboarders.
FIRST WATER, THEN ICE, THEN THE MYTH
Now is the time to become familiar with the water, because you'll encounter a lot in your leap to the far south and Patagonia. Begin your apprenticeship in the north of the Lakes Region of Puerto Montt. This haven of nature is bounded by national parks from Puyehue and Vicente Pérez Rosales to settlements of German colonists and glacial lakes with green hues.
Speaking of green, this is the dominant color that awaits you in Chiloé, a place quite out of the ordinary that you can reach by ferry from Pargua, 56 km south-west of Puerto Montt, on the mainland. Two experiences not to be missed is a ride in kayaks at dawn on the misty and almost unexplored Río Puntra, and a visit to the wooden churches of the Isla Grande, protected by UNESCO.
The rest of the trip, at this point is an incursion into the myth. The tutelary deities are the Patagonia, Magellan, Tierra del Fuego, the outpost of Última Esperanza and the awareness of having arrived not so much at the end of the trip as the limit of human possibilities. Further south, along the Strait of Drake, there is only Antarctica. Experience all that the idea of limits has to offer and enjoy the thrill of a cruise through the fjords, which is coincidentally named after the great Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães.