The long sliver of Chile spans a large portion of the Southern Hemisphere’s latitudes to give you plenty of climate choices. Wander through scorched earth deserts, surf Polynesian waters under the watchful gaze of towering Moai, or play with penguins in an Antarctica-like environment. Some of the most spectacular natural sights await you in Chile where the environment is protected and cherished. Find your once-in-a-lifetime experience and, as always, respect mother nature in this South American wonderland.
1. Hand of the Desert
Chile’s Atacama Desert sits 3,600 feet above sea level and it is an alien landscape. The smooth, white sand dunes drift quietly without any visible creatures, plant life or human interference. You can experience the isolation by driving the Panamerican Highway that cuts through the heart of the sunbleached moonscape; hundreds of miles of desolation in each direction. But between the 1309 and 1310 km markers, about 47 miles south of the city of Antofagasta, stands a startling sight — the Hand of the Desert. The 36-foot-tall sculpture is a ghostly human hand ripping through the desert to reach for the stars. It’s as if a giant was flash-buried in a wave of moon dust. The lonely artwork was built in the early ’80’s by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal.
2. Laguna San Rafael
The Andes Mountains of Patagonia tower over this National Park in the south of Chile. Established in 1959, this monstrous park is roughly six times larger than the state of Rhode Island. The principle attraction is the San Rafael Lagoon that was carved out by the retreating San Rafael Glacier. The 197-foot face of the glacier is only accessible by rubber raft navigated over the azure glacier melt waters of the lagoon. Park access is only available by cruise ship or a 48-mile dirt road that carves its way to the park from Rio Tranquilo. Hear the glacier moan, creak and crack at night in your tent. Make your way to this remote attraction before the glacier retreats so far that it is unrecognizable.
3. El Tatio
El Tatio, a native Quechua word for oven, is a geyser field that sits a breathtaking 14,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains near the Bolivian border. This popular Northern Chile tourist attraction is the highest elevated geyser field in the world. It is also the largest in the southern hemisphere and third largest on earth. Geysers shoot six meters high like clockwork. The most impressive time to go is sunrise when the geyser’s moisture condenses into thick, visible spouts. The Chilean government has reintroduced an idea of harnessing the geysers for electrical power. It’s an idea that failed decades ago and you can see the ruins of a factory at the geyser field as proof.
4. Easter Island
Halfway to Tahiti, far off in the Pacific Ocean, lies one of the most remote islands in the world — Chile’s Easter Island. The Polynesian island is filled with 887 towering, human-like statues called Moai. The largest of which is 33 feet tall and weighs 82 tons. The indigenous culture of the island became so obsessed with constructing larger and more impressive Moai statues that the island’s natural resources were eventually depleted. The population plummetted from a flourishing 15,000 in 1622 to just 2,000 a century later. This bountiful island offers beaches, hiking, and a look into an extremely inventive and dark past.
5. Torres del Paine
The granite spires of the Torres del Paine are perhaps the three most beautiful peaks in Chile. Looming nearly 7,000 feet over the national park, the pillars cradle snow nearly year round. Over 200,000 visitors make their way to this popular national park every year to enjoy the roaring rivers, hikes through snow fields and a shimmering blue glacier. In fact, Paine is a native word for blue. The blue of glacier melt water is like no other blue on the planet and you’ll get plenty of it here. Plan your trip to this Patagonian paradise well in advance as hotels fill up quick.
6. Osorno Volcano
Towering nearly 9,000 feet tall in the south of Chile is Osorno Volcano. Don’t let the beautiful snow-capped peak fool you — it is an active volcano. In fact, there have been 11 recorded eruptions between 1575 and 1869. You can witness the destruction of the volcano’s lava fields all the way to nearby Llanquihue and Todos los Santos Lakes. The near-perfect symmetry of the mountain coupled with the fact that it is covered in glaciers suggests this is a very youthful volcano. Osorno Volcano is popular because it stands so tall between two beautiful lakes.
7. Churches of Chiloe
Take a boat to the remote archipelago of Chiloé to experience a unique fusion of cultures. The islands may remind you of Ireland, with cold waters, crisp breezes and rolling hills, rather than Chile, but on a clear day, you can still see the towering volcanos of the mainland. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these islands were a Spanish Crown possession. They brought Christianity and locals embraced the culture by building unique churches with local timber to withstand the cold, harsh, oceanside climate. These 16 all-wood churches are unique the world over for their heavy use of shingles. The churches are now kept and protected by the University of Chile.
8. Isla Magdalena
More than 120,000 penguins temporarily make their home on Isla Magdalena during the months of December, January and February. Those are the only three months the island is accessible. For about $30 USD, you can take a boat from Punta Arenas in Southern Chile. The boat ride takes about two and a half hours, but the payoff is worth it. Well-marked hiking trails take you to the colonies of friendly penguins that are eager to strut their stuff for you. Travelers often remark that Isla Magdalena is an experience closest to that of visiting Antarctica, but for a fraction of the price. Be warned: Penguin colonies are often pungent and dirty, but the experience cannot be duplicated.