Chile is a south American country with a very distinctive shape. It stretches 4630km along the south western coast, and at its widest only spans 240km. While the very narrow width of the country may be deceptive, Chile is smaller in area than only 37 other countries in the world. It is much larger than the United Kingdom.
The country’s remarkable landscape is dominated by the peaks of the Andes mountain range, which is home to a number of active volcanoes. The Pacific laps against the country’s western coast. Bolivia, Argentina and Peru have borders with Chile.
Contrasting sharply with the unwelcoming ruggedness of the Andes is the southern Lake District which is home to Araucanians who are indigenous to the country. The northern landscape stretches to the Atacama Desert which is scorched and has conditions which are so harsh and dry that it is very difficult to inhabit. The Incas once began to move to the desert thousands of years ago, but because of the conditions found it very difficult to settle. The desert area is rich in copper, nitrates and other minerals.
The Strait of Magellan, in the south of Chile, takes its name from Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who stumbled across it in 1520. Peruvian Spanish gold-seekers came in search of fortune towards the middle of the sixteenth century, and the capital city of Santiago was founded in 1541. Rich in agricultural potential, Chile officially became part of Peru. After centuries of struggle against Peruvian Spanish rule, Chile became independent in 1818.
As well as this distinctive and variable area of South America, Chile possesses some Pacific islands: Easter Island, about 3700km from the mainland, and the Juan Fernandez islands which lies about 670km away from Chile itself. Hundreds of very small islands lie close to the country. Chile also claims 1,250,000km of Antarctic land.
Santiago, the largest of Chile’s cities, is the country’s capital. It is located in the central valley and locals enjoy a good standard of living. Impressive sky scrapers, a high speed motorway linking the east and west of the city, a metro and cutting edge apartment blocks are a result of steady economic growth. However, the climate means that smog and pollution can be a problem, especially in large and busy cities such as Santiago.
The official language of Chile is Spanish, although it is quite different from the language spoken in mainland Spain. The dropping of some final consonants, the missing out of certain syllables, the use of a lot of colloquialisms and the high speed of the speech in Chile can make it difficult for even a Spanish speaker to keep up.
The currency is the Chilean Peso. For an immediate and up to date currency converter, take a look at xe.com. Credit cards are widely accepted in the towns, although you should carry cash in more rural areas in case cards are not taken.
With the different landscapes of Chile comes a varying climate. The summer runs from April to September, and the winter is during the UK summer.
The desert regions of the north of the country are incredibly dry, and it almost never rains. Despite its latitude however, it can be cloudy. The temperature and climate is similar throughout the year.
Santiago, typical for central Chile, has mild winters with changeable weather and warm and largely dry summers.
Wet and windy weather dominates the southern region of the country, with rain turning to snow in the mountainous areas.
For a more detailed description of Chile’s climate, and a look at a weather forecast for when you plan to visit, have a look at the BBC Weather website.
Things to see and do
- Easter Island is one of Chile’s most popular tourist attractions. The Pacific island’s bizarre Moai Stone statues stand along the coast and were originally carved out of volcanic ash.
- The extreme and varying landscape of Chile has recently found itself a tourist attraction among travellers and backpackers. Volcanoes such as Parinacota, which stands at 6350m on Chile’s border with Bolivia, are a must to get a sense of the country’s incredible natural history and varying breathtaking views.
- Also in the north of the country in the Tarapaca region, at the foot of Parinacota, is the stunning and serene Lake Chungara. The calmness of the lake today starkly contrasts with its origins – it was create as the result of a violent avalanche from Parinacota.
- San Pedro de Atacama, a settlement built around an oasis in the Atacama Desert called offers visitors an insight into the Inca culture. Museo Arqueologico R P Gustavo Le Paige, a museum in San Pedro de Atacama, has interesting exhibitions displaying ancient mummies, and a looking around the area you will not be able to miss the intricate Inca architecture.
- In stark contrast to the desert terrain of the north, visitors can also get some alpine action in ski resorts such as Valle Nevado in the Andes. This popular snow resort is about 50km west of the capital, and offers skiing, snowboarding and heliskiing.
- For a beach holiday head to Lake Villarrica in the south, or one of several resorts in the north such as Coquimbo, Arica, or Le Serena.
The main airport in Chile is about half an hour by road from Santiago and is called Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport.
The Chilean airline, LanChile, offers flights around the world as well as internal flights to cities in Chile. If you are planning to travel around the country, be sure to ask for a book of loyalty vouchers called the Lanpass from LanChile which will get you discounts on internal flights. These internal flights usually leave from an airport a short taxi ride from Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez called Pudahuel National Airport.
The railways in Chile are generally out of use because of the risk of earthquakes. Flying is a quick option for long journeys. Tur Bus is a major bus company which runs services all over Chile for long distance journeys. Beware though – these journeys can be very long and hot.
Santiago itself has a quick, efficient and clean metro, which is user-friendly and you can buy a rechargeable ‘multivia’ ticket to save you buying a ticket for each trip. The metro stops running at around 10.30pm every day, but buses, known as ‘micros’ run later.
Taxis can be expensive, but it is definitely worth taking advantage of the ‘collectivo’ taxi service. These cabs run the same routes daily, and often work out cheaper than buses. You will share with others and the price can vary but is generally lower than a standard taxi.
The last decade has seen the numbers of tourists in Chile increase, and the accommodation on offer now caters for your needs, especially in the capital and main tourist areas.
Backpacking hostels are the cheapest places to stay, and are usually comfortable and clean. But always be sure to look after your valuables.
For instance, a place in a dormitory in a hostel called Casa Margouya in Puerto Varas, costs as little as £9 a night. This price is fairly standard, even in Santiago. The Andes Hostel, for instance, charges just over £6 per night in a dormitory, and is located in a lively, trendy part of the capital.
Do your research before booking anywhere – word of mouth is always the best recommendation. Failing this, check out websites specifically designed for backpackers, such as vipbackpackers.com. If at all possible, book your accommodation before you arrive, particularly in the more popular and more remote areas, where it may be difficult to find somewhere at short notice.
Health care issues
While there are no compulsory vaccinations you should have before entering Chile, you should be immunised against tetanus and hepatitis A before travelling. Ask your GP’s advice for other vaccinations – you may be recommended protection from typhoid, rabies, hepatitis B, diphtheria, and tuberculosis depending on the nature of your visit.
There are many companies which offer insurance, including Insure and Go. This website offers an insurance option specifically for backpackers, and allows you to choose between different packages ranging from £24 to £64 for 31 days travelling worldwide. Check the website for current prices and offers.
The Chilean health service treats emergency cases immediately, without asking for payment or proof of medical insurance beforehand, but it is vital you have insurance before you travel to prevent large costs.
The following are the three digit emergency telephone numbers to dial for emergency services in Chile:
Police – 133
Fire brigade – 132
Ambulance – 131
For tourist information, contact Servicio Nacional de Turismo (known as SERNATUR), based on Avenida Providencia 1550, Providencia, Santiago. If you need to contact SENATUR when you are in Chile, telephone 2731 8336 or 2731 8337.
For help or advice in Chile visit: British Embassy
Avenida El Bosque Norte 0125,
Tel. 00 56 2 370 4100.
- SERNATUR, the Chilean tourist information service should be able to provide answers to any of your questions.
- For details of the British Embassy in Chile, have a look at the www.britishembassy.gov.uk.
- The Chile Information Project website provides details of most aspects of living in, or visiting Chile. The site includes information on earthquakes, education and food and drink.
- Visit Chile is a useful website to learn about the geography, history and culture of the country. It also has information about hostels and lodges, and the seasons and climate.
- For more accommodation suggestions, have a look at the VIP Backpackerssite which is aimed specifically at meeting the needs of backpackers.
- To call a Chilean telephone number from the UK, the dialling code is 0056. For the area codes of the different cities in Chile, take a look at countrycallingcodes.com.