Chile is the longest country, along a north-south axis, in the world. Amazingly, it is roughly equivalent in length to the distance between the southern tip of Norway and Nigeria! There are three options for getting about, by plane, by road or by boat, with no real rail system to speak of, except in the capital city of Santiago. Because of the incredible length of the country, it spans a number of different climate zones from north to south and has some dramatically different landscapes along his length.
The southern section is analogous to Norway or Scotland, with pine trees, lush valleys and snowy peaks, and with glaciers and even ice bergs in the far south. The central zone has a pleasant, somewhat dry climate ideally suited to fruit growing, and is especially suitable for vineyards, which are plentiful. But from Santiago on up, the vegetation gradually begins to disappear, eventually giving way to the northern zone, the vast unforgiving Atacama desert.
A day’s travel north from Santiago is the picturesque seaside town of La Serena, probably the last stop before the desert proper. From there it is a long long haul to the next major city, the port of Antofagasta, which is a port serving the copper mining industry. The next couple of cities are Iquique another picturesque beach resort town and finally Arica, close to the border with Peru.
But what is surprising for travelers is just how empty the country is after one passes La Serena. There are few small industrial cities and ports, mostly related to the mining industry, but aside from that, nothing but a vast empty desert and almost no vegetation. Much of the scenery is simply spectacular, but somewhat bleak and desolate. The Atacama desert in Chile is famous for being the driest place in the world.
However, although the above may not appear to be a glowing endorsement for potential tourists, there is one absolute must-see in this region: San Pedro de Atacama. Situated a few hours immediately to the east of Antofagasta is the small town of Calama, surrounded by vast stretches of empty desert and another hour or so further on one finally arrives in San Pedro de Atacama. This section of the desert is an oasis-like valley on the edge of the Andes mountains and renowned for its breathtaking beauty. Within this beautiful oasis is the small village of San Pedro, which is sustained almost entirely by tourism
The village is situated beneath a spectacular chain of volcanoes lying along the western Andes, amongst some fascinating and complex rock formations that are maze-like in their complexity. One can spend days or even weeks exploring these awe-inspiring natural formations, on foot or by bike. Fortunately there are plenty of bike hire shops, which makes getting around the local scenery easy. But don’t forget to load up with plenty of water, sun cream and lip protector, as you are in the driest place in the world! You’ll even see some huge Sahara-style dunes between the craggy, twisted rocks, complete in some cases with dune surfers. If you want to give that a go yourself, the boards can also be hired in the village.
Another feature of the desert which soon makes itself known to visitors, is the extreme range of temperature between night and day. You can be seriously baked under the harsh afternoon sun and therefore not bother to carry an extra layer or two. This can be a mistake if you are caught out of doors when the sun goes down, as the temperature rapidly drops to zero and below.
But once the sun does drop below the horizon you are in for an awe-inspiring sight: some of the clearest skies in the world with unparalleled views of the stars and milky way.