Perfect for adventure seekers, wine lovers and empty-nesters, Chile could be set for a boost as its tourist board courts UK travel agents. Karl Cushing reports
UK visitors heading to Latin America often overlook Chile in favour of its better known neighbour Argentina. But this could be set to change as Chile Turismo is on a mission to raise awareness in the UK travel trade.
Chile makes a great travel destination either in its own right or twinned with nearby countries. Explore's 27-day Rio Explorer tour, for example, couples it with Argentina and Brazil.
Essentially a thin strip of land running 2,600 miles down the bottom left-hand side of South America, framed by the Andean mountain range on one side and the Pacific on the other, Chile is a land of contrasts. It ranges from the vast Atacama desert in the north, through to the gently rolling, central winelands, to the glaciers, lakes and windswept pampas of Patagonia in the south.
When to go
Being in the southern hemisphere, Chile's summer coincides with our winter so it's a good choice for winter sun. This is also a good time to visit the south of the country (it can be cold, windy and wet in the local winter months) and the dry north. December to March is also the best time to see penguins and whales.
A one-week trip would be enough for a taster, allowing for a brief exploration of the central area and one of the other two itineraries below. However, due to the flight time and the size of the country travellers should ideally allow at least two weeks for their trip.
Central for wine and culture
Home to six of the country's 15 million inhabitants, the capital Santiago is the main point of entry for UK travellers. Santiago has some excellent bars and restaurants in areas such as the bohemian Bellavista district, and getting around is easy thanks to the efficient metro service.
Its hotel stock includes offerings from Marriott, Radisson, Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton and Starwood will open a 205-room W hotel there next month. However, the region's highlights are outside the city.
The old port of Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage site just over 70 miles from Santiago, is a gem. The colourful, corrugated iron-clad buildings that hug its hills are serviced by a fleet of creaky-but-cute funicular railways.
The city also boasts a wealth of excellent restaurants and boutique hotels such as Casa Higueras. Neighbouring Vina del Mar, with its esplanade, casino and new Sheraton hotel, offers more classic seaside pursuits.
Alternatively, visitors can kick back on the wine train (El Train del Vino) and sample the region's award-winning wines without leaving their seats.
Winter sports fans will love the fact that the High Andes are within striking distance of Santiago, with the popular resort of Valle Nevado just an hour away.
Other popular adrenaline sports in the area include rafting, kayaking and mountain climbing, while excellent surfing can be had around two hours from Santiago.
LAN operates flights to Easter Island, with its sub-tropical climate and more than 600 mysterious moai carved heads hewn from volcanic stone, some 2,300 miles offshore (high season November to March).
South for national parks and wildlife
While many travellers forego southern Chile in favour of Ushuia in Argentinean Patagonia, Chile's share of the region is well worth a look. Highlights include whale watching and visiting the penguin colonies at Magdalena Island or Otway Sound (video by YouTube user ParleUsted).
Cruises taking in the fjords of southern Chile are increasingly popular, with Porto Mont a good starting point. Highlights include wildlife spotting and a visit to Chiloé Island.
A major entry point to Patagonia is the town of Punta Arenas with its nearby airport and boat service to the fabled Tierra del Fuego and even Antarctica from November to February.
Further north, the cute town of Puerto Natales makes a good stop-off for the magical Torres del Paine national park, with its spectacular granite towers, snow-capped mountains, glaciers and turquoise lakes.
Accommodation ranges from budget, to modern design hotels, such as Hotel Altiplánico Sur and Indigo Hotel and Spa.
Inside the park, options range from the expensive Hotel Explora to the more affordable and newly opened Hotel Serrano and highlights include boat rides among glaciers, excellent hiking and guided tours.
Go north for desert landscapes and geysers
The main tourism hub in the north, San Pedro de Atacama is served by Calama airport. The tiny town boasts a dizzying choice of accommodation, including high-end options such as the Explora and the simple but stylish Tierra Atacama, which opened early last year.
All-inclusive packages at the Tierra Atacama include a choice of 30 daily excursions amid the stunning landscapes of the Atacama Desert, which recently played host to Daniel Craig in the latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. They also include meals and spa sessions.
If travelling up north by road from Santiago, the seaside town of La Serena makes a pleasant stop-off.
Chile fact file
- Air: no direct flights from the UK. LAN and Iberia operate via Madrid, and TAM operates via São Paulo.
- Visas: none needed for UK citizens.
- Currency: Chilean peso. Language: Spanish.
- Getting around: LAN and Sky operate domestic flights. Car hire firms such as Budget are in the main centres, and operators such as TurBus offer bus services.
- Who to sell to: cash-rich clients looking for long-haul adventure, with good food and wine; snow sport fans looking for something new.
- Sunvil Traveller’s 10-night Northern Chile trip takes in Santiago, Arica, Putre and San Pedro De Atacama. The lead-in price of £2,700 includes domestic and international flights, bed-and-breakfast accommodation and excursions (020 8758 47748).
- Abercrombie and Kent’s Signature Chile package starts at £5,625 per person, including accommodation, transfers, excursions, flights and some meals. The 13-day itinerary takes in the Atacama Desert, the central wine country and Patagonia (0845 070 0610).
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