Places To See
Parque Nacional Lauca
Lauca is northern Chile's treasure. Within the huge park are herds of llama and alpaca, groups of vizcachas (related to the chinchilla) and over 100 bird species, including flamingos and Andean gulls, plus archaeological landmarks. An especially spectacular feature is Lago Chungará, one of the world's highest lakes, at the foot of the dormant twin Payachata volcanos.
San Pedro de Atacama
This tiny colonial village has excellent access to the spectacular geysers, volcanoes, salt flats and lakes of the northern altiplano, and is one of Chile's most popular destinations. The town itself has an excellent archaeological museum and pretty 16th-century adobe buildings. Locals still farm terraces that are over a thousand years old.
San Pedro is the access point to the world's highest geyser field at El Tatio, Chile's largest salt flat, and a flamingo breeding ground. Numerous volcanoes and natural hot springs, pre-Columbian archaeological sites, and other-worldly landscapes such as the famous Valle de la Luna are located in the vicinity too. The village is also a gateway to Bolivia's dazzling salt flat, Uyuni.
Settled by German colonists in the mid-19th century, this is one of southern Chile's most important cities. It features middle-European architecture, with shingles, high-pitched roofs and ornate balconies. The redwood cathedral on the city's plaza is the city's oldest building, dating from 1856.
Puerto Montt is the transport hub and access point to the southern Lakes District, the island of Chiloé and Chilean Patagonia. The nearby port of Angelmó and the island of Tenglo offer a more relaxed atmosphere. Angelmó has an outstanding crafts market and fabulous seafood.
When to go?
Chile always has a region or two ripe for exploration whatever the season. But if your heart is set on one part of the country, pick your trip dates carefully. Santiago and Middle Chile are best in the verdant spring (September through November) or during the fall harvest (late February into April), while Chile's southern charms, Parque Nacional del Paine in Magallanes and the lakes region are best in summer (December through March). The parched Atacama Desert can be explored year-round, although summer days sizzle and nights are bitterly cold at higher altitudes throughout the year. In the northern altiplano, summer is the rainy season, though this usually means only a brief afternoon downpour.
Chile in the winter can be a wonderland for skiers; the country's resorts attract hordes from July through September. Easter Island is cooler, slightly cheaper and much less crowded outside the summer months. The same is true of the Juan Fernández archipelago, which can be inaccessible if winter rains erode the dirt airstrip; March is an ideal time for a visit. Summer is high season.
Many of the country's best festivals, including Semana Musical, Fiesta de Candelario and Carnaval, are held in February, so consider this a good time to come if you want to hang out with the locals.
Travel Visa Overview
Nationals of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the EU do not need a visa to visit Chile. The Chilean government collects a US$132/56/132 'reciprocity' fee from arriving US/Australian/Canadian citizens in response to these governments imposing a similar fee on Chilean citizens applying for visas. The payment applies only to tourists arriving by air in Santiago and is valid for the life of the passport. Payment must be made in cash; exact change necessary.
On arrival, you'll be handed a 90-day tourist card. Don't lose it! You will be asked for it upon leaving the country. You can renew a tourist card for 90 more days at the Departamento de Extranjería in Santiago or other regional capitals. Many visitors prefer a quick dash across the Argentine border and back.
European plug with two circular metal pins
The Hantavirus infection has recently come to the attention of the international health community, with several cases reported in Chile's summer of 2005-6. Precautions should be taken in Chile's lake district; specifically, when choosing camp sites, check for the presence of long-tailed mice, stay away from garbage and keep your own rubbish covered. Initial symptoms are similar to those of a flu. In such a case you should go to the nearest hospital and let them know you were hiking or camping in such an area. More information can be found in tourist offices and hospitals, especially in the south of Chile. Overall risks are small if precautions are taken.
Chile's mountainous geography spanning over 30° of latitude makes for some strange climatic variation. Summer and winter in Chile's north are quite restrained with temperatures in the 15-25°C (63-77°F) range throughout the year with only slight seasonal change. Rain is of no concern as this coast-to-desert landscape is one of the driest in the world, despite heavy cloud cover from April to December. Central Chile has far more pronounced seasonal change with average daily highs of 29°C (85°F) from December to February and dropping to around 14°C (58°F) in June. Rainfall is heaviest in the winter months but still only moderate and falling on a few days at this time. Down south rainfall increases dramatically, peaking in June with most days succumbing to the wet. Temperatures in this region are slightly cooler with low 20°C (around 70°F) summer highs and plunging into the single digits (around 42°F) in the middle of the year.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Century History
Pre-Columbian Chile was peopled by a variety of ancient cultures, many of them politically subject to the Incas who they predated by many centuries. The country's varied topography governed the character of its population groups and the extent to which they were exposed to Incan aggression. Native groupings included Aymara farmers in the desert north, who cultivated maize and tended flocks of llamas and alpacas; fisherfolk in the coastal areas; Diaguita Indians in the mountainous interior; Araucarian Indians in the center and south, whose fishing and agricultural settlements were barely touched by Incan incursions; and numerous groups of archipelagic hunters and fishers in the remote south.
All territory west of Brazil was granted to Spain by the 1494 Spanish-Portuguese treaty. The Spanish assigned the task of conquering Chile to Pedro de Valdivia, whose expedition reached Chile's fertile Mapocho Valley in 1541. Santiago was founded in the same year, with the cities of La Serena, Valparaíso, Concepción, Valdivia and Villarrica following soon after. The Río Biobío marked the southern extent of Spanish incursions, where they were barred by the resistance of the fierce Mapuche tribes. Valdivia rewarded his followers with enormous land grants, which resembled the great feudal estates of his Spanish homeland. Although mining and business outstripped agriculture as Chile's merchant megaliths, it was the social structure of these estates that shaped colonial Chile. The native population was devastated by the unwitting introduction of infectious diseases, and the mestizo population, the offspring of Spanish and Indian unions, were used as tenant laborers on these huge estates, many of which were still intact in the 1960s.
By the 1820s, the cumbersome methods by which taxation was extracted by a stagnant and complacent Spain allowed a flowering pan-American identity to blossom into a push for full independence. Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín led armies of freedom fighters from Venezuela to Peru, and from Argentina into Chile. Bernardo O'Higgins, son of an Irish immigrant and erstwhile viceroy of Peru, became supreme director of the new Chilean republic. The newly independent Chile was a fraction of its eventual size, consisting of Santiago and Concepción, and had fuzzy borders with Bolivia and Argentina. The coming of the railways and military triumphs over Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879-83) incorporated the mineral-rich Atacama Desert to the north and the southern temperate territories. Chile quickly achieved political stability and relative democracy, enabling rapid agricultural development and the advancement of mining, industry and commerce. The now empowered working class and the nouveau riche both challenged the political power of the landowning oligarchy in a brief but bloody civil war in the 1890s.
The first half of the 20th century saw the political climate swing between right and left. Infrastructure development was generally sluggish, leading to rural poverty, and urbanization through desperation. By the 1960s social reforms were instituted by the Christian Democrats, who targeted housing, education, health and social services. Chile's politics were becoming increasingly militant and polarized when Salvador Allende's leftist coalition crept to victory in 1970. Allende introduced sweeping economic reforms, including the state takeover of many private enterprises and the wholesale redistribution of income. The country was plunged into economic chaos.
General Augusto Pinochet seized power in a bloody coup on September 11, 1973. Allende died, apparently by his own hand, and thousands of his supporters were murdered. Dark days followed, with assassinations, purges and enforced exiles; up to 80,000 people were tortured or murdered. Rumors of CIA involvement in the coup were given credence by the US-instigated suspension of credit from international finance organizations, and the contemporaneous financial and moral support given to Allende's opponents.
Pinochet dissolved Congress, banned leftist parties and suspended all opposition. His monetarist economic policies brought stability and relative prosperity, but in a 1988 referendum to approve his presidency, voters rejected him. In the 1989 multiparty elections, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin beat Pinochet's candidate, Hernan Buchi, and power was peacefully transferred. Democracy returned to Chile, although many of the previous regime's power brokers wielded a lingering influence for many years.
Elected president in 1994, Eduardo Frei undertook the challenge of reconciling Chileans with their difficult past by accelerating human rights tribunals and inquiries into the fate of Chile's 3000 disappeared. Unfortunately, resistance from the political arm of the military machine severely hampered his efforts. Frei's economic reforms, however, did help alleviate crushing poverty to some degree.
Pinochet has continued to dominate recent political history. In September 1998 he was put under house arrest in London following investigation of the deaths and disappearances of Spanish citizens in the 1973 coup aftermath. Despite international uproar, both the Court of Appeals (in 2000) and the Supreme Court (2002) ruled him unfit to stand trial. Pinochet returned to Chile, where he died in 2006. His legacy remains extremely controversial among Chileans.
The 21st century governments across South America became increasingly left-leaning. In Chile the trend resulted in the 2000 election of moderate leftist Ricardo Lagos, followed by his 2005 successor, Michelle Bachelet. A watershed event, it marked Chile's first woman president, a single mother who had been detained and tortured under the Pinochet regime. Suddenly, conservative Chile looked a lot more progressive.
Unfortunately, the Bachelet presidency was plagued by divisions within her coalition (La Concertación Democrática),which made pushing through reforms difficult. Crises like the chaotic institution of a new transportation system in Santiago, corruption scandals and massive student protests made her tenure a difficult one. However, Chile's stability during the 2009 world financial crisis (due to the government reserves from copper exports) was a tremendous boost.
Presidential elections were held at the end of 2009. Pundits were predicting change, since the Concertación, the ruling center-left coalition hoarding power since Pinochet's fall two decades ago, had grown stale and corrupt in the eyes of the public. The center-right Coalition for Change was successful, with wealthy businessman Sebastián Piñera becoming president in January 2010.