A long, narrow sliver of land, clinging to the edge of a continent, Chile has often drawn attention to itself for its wholly implausible shape. Seen in the pages of an atlas, the country's outline strikes you as aberrant and fantastical: almost 4000km in length (the equivalent of Scotland to Nigeria), and with an average width of just 180km, the very idea of it seems absurd. Once you're on Chilean soil, however, these boundaries make perfect sense, and visitors quickly realize that Chile is a geographically self-contained unit. The Andes, the great mountain range that forms its eastern border, are a formidable barrier of rock and ice that cuts the country off from Argentina and Bolivia. The Atacama Desert, a thousand-kilometre stretch of parched wasteland separates it from Peru to the north. And to the west, only a few islands dotted in the Pacific Ocean break the waves that roll onto Chile's coast from Australasia.
All this has created a country distinct from the rest of South America, and one that defies many people's expectations of an Andean country. It is Westernized, relatively affluent, and - with the exception of the infamous military Pinochet regime of the 1970s and 1980s - boasts a long tradition of political stability and orderly government. It is, without doubt, one of the safest and most relaxing South American countries to travel in. Its buses are comfortable and run on time. Its people are warm, hospitable and generous. And, by regional standards, its police are honest, helpful and reliable.
Above all, though, it is for its remote and dizzyingly beautiful landscapes that visitors head to Chile. With its population of fifteen million largely confined to a handful of major cities, and a land area three times greater than the UK's, much of Chile is covered by vast tracts of scarcely touched wilderness - places where you can be days from the nearest tarred road, and where it's not unusual to stumble upon steaming hot springs, gleaming white salt flats or emerald lakes, and have them all to yourself. Few countries, moreover, can match the astounding contrasts of scenery you'll find here, ranging from the driest desert in the world to immense ice fields and glaciers. Spread between these extremes is a kaleidoscope of panoramas, taking in sun-baked scrubland, lush vineyards and orchards, virgin temperate rainforest, dramatic fjords and bleak Patagonian steppes. Towering over it all is the long, jagged spine of the Andes, punctuated by colossal peaks and smouldering volcanoes.
You can experience this wilderness in whatever style you choose - Chile is not a developing country, and you don't have to slum it while you're here. There are plenty of modest, inexpensive accommodation options and camping facilities up and down the country, while those on a more generous budget will find increasing numbers of luxurious, beautifully designed lodges in spectacular locations, particularly in the south. Whatever your budget, you'll probably want to take advantage of the numerous possibilities for outdoor activities, whether it be jeep rides, bird-watching, skiing, horse trekking, wine tours, hiking, volcano climbing, sea kayaking, white-water rafting or fly-fishing - all offered by an increasing number of local outfitters, and comprehensively detailed in this book. If you have less active plans in mind, you can sit back and take in Chile's scenery from various ferry rides in the south, on cheap LanChile flights or on organized bus tours from most of the main cities. However you do it, you won't be disappointed....Continua