Destin-Nation Chile: An Adventurer's Southern Playground

Destin-Nation Chile: An Adventurer's Southern Playground

Kraig Becker, AOL Travel

When it comes to adventure travel options, few places on the planet can rival Chile. Squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, the South American country has long been a popular destination for backpackers, climbers and paddlers looking to explore some of the most remote and beautiful wildernesses on the planet.When it comes to adventure travel options, few places on the planet can rival Chile. Squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, the South American country has long been a popular destination for backpackers, climbers, and paddlers looking to explore some of the most remote and beautiful wildernesses on the planet.

Over 4,000 miles long, but averaging just 110 miles wide, Chile offers widely varying climates for visitors to enjoy, from the incredibly dry deserts of the north to the windswept mountains and fjords of the south.

The gateway to Chilean adventure is Santiago, the country's capital and cultural hub. Centrally located, it can be reached by overnight flight from several U.S. cities and its airport offers regular domestic flights to Tierra del Fuego and Punta Arenas in the south, as well as Calama in the north. Visas are available on arrival and are good for the life of a passport, making adventurers' inevitable return visits a breeze.

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Destin-Nation Chile: An Adventurer's Southern Playground

Located in Patagonia, the southern region of Chile, Torres del Paine National Park is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Its spectacular mountain peaks, crystal clear lakes, and rushing rivers are huge draw for backpackers, who come from all over to explore the park’s natural wonders, such as Lago Pehoe, an incredible crystal blue lake formed from a melting glacier.

Day hikes offer a taste of what Torres del Paine has to offer, but to really experience the place, you’ll want to devote more time. The popular “W” trail takes approximately five days to finish, while the full Paine circuit requires upwards of nine days to complete. Be sure to book one of the “Refugios” (beds from $40)  well in advance.

Getting There: Take the two-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to the trailhead. There are buses to Natales from Punta Arenas further to the south, which is in turn accessible on domestic flights aboard LAN Airlines for around $240 round trip.

Torres del Paine National Park is home to some of the best rock climbing in the world, and top climbers flock to the region to test their skills on the park’s famous granite spires. Chief among them are the three Towers of Paine, which soar more than 7500 feet into the air. These massive walls aren’t for the faint of heart and anyone who isn’t a world-class climber will want to look elsewhere for a challenge.

Beginner and intermediate climbers may want to hone their skills at Aguja Saint Exupery, located in southern Patagonia, before heading to the towers. 

Many travelers don’t realize that Chile is the gateway to the Antarctic, perhaps the ultimate adventure travel destination. Head south to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world, and hop a ship headed to the frozen continent. Travelers have to brave the infamous Drake Passage, not to mention the turbulent weather of the Southern Ocean, but they are rewarded with the opportunity to visit a place  few people ever see.

Once there, travelers will visit colonies of Emperor Penguins, kayak around massive icebergs, and spot whales off the Antarctic coast.  They’ll also have the chance to explore the desolate, yet beautiful, landscapes of the highest, driest, and coldest continent on the planet. A destination that is unlike any other. Check out the range of Antarctic options offered by Quark Expeditions.

Getting There: The surest way to get to Antartica is to become a polar scientist though taking a cruise also works. Most boats leave from Punta Arenas

The remote and rugged wilderness of southern Chile is home to a fantastic array of wildlife, making it a popular destination for animal lovers.

Among the creatures that call Patagonia home are: the Guanaco, a distant cousin to the domesticated llama, the giant Andean Condor, with a wingspan more than ten feet in length, and Vizcacha, which resemble rabbits with long tails. Penguins inhabit the rocky coastlines, while the mysterious gray fox wanders far and wide across the entire region. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the Patagonian Puma, which makes its home among the rocky cliffs of Torres del Paine. 

Getting There: Cascada Expeditions offers nicely catered trips out of Punta Arenas for a little over $500 a day. Might be cheaper to hire a taxi.

Located in southern Chile, the famous Futaleufu River is an incredibly popular paddling destination that combines clear blue waters and fantastic scenery with adrenaline-fueled thrills. The river has more than 40 miles of rapids to run, ranging from easier Class III whitewater up to wild and challenging Class V rapids.

The whitewater isn’t the only thing that will take your breath away. The Futaleufu runs through dramatic and beautiful scenery as well. The river cuts through a deep, lush green canyon, with towering rock walls all around. Snowcapped peaks line the horizon, as waterfalls tumble into the turquoise blue waters. Book your own Futaleufu adventure with OARS, one of the premiere rafting companies in the world.

Getting There: The tiny town of Futaleufu is most easily reached by rental car or bus from the somewhat larger town of Chaiten, which is serviced by a few flights a day from Santiago on Aerocord for about $80.

Because Chile’s southern region is such a popular adventure travel destination, the fantastic landscapes of the north are often overlooked. For instance, the Salar de Atacama, an expansive salt flat located in the heart of the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert.

Surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains, the terrain in the Salar is encrusted with a thick layer of salt and covered in shallow pools of water, which serve as nesting grounds for flocks of Chilean and Andean Flamingoes. Travelers should visit the Salar at sunset, when the light of the setting sun paints the landscape in shades of red, orange, and pink that they didn’t even know existed in nature.

The nearby town of San Pedo de Atacama, a sort of base camp for travel in this part of Chile, has accommodations ranging from basic hostels to luxury resorts. Anyone with money to burn should head to Tierra Atacama, a beautifully austere luxury hotel with rooms from a little less than $1000.

Getting There:San Pedro sits on Chile’s major bus routes, but getting there from Santiago can take as long as 12 hours. Flights on small planes are available from Chilean carriers, but travelers will have to ask a travel agent in the capital to find a reasonable price. 

As one of the most mountainous countries in South America, Chile is home to dozens of volcanoes, both active and dormant. The peaks make excellent climbs for both beginners and experienced mountaineers, offering plenty of high altitude challenges that are guaranteed to leave them breathless.

First time climbers can make the hike up El Toco, an 18,600-foot peak that requires no technical skills whatsoever. Those looking for more of a challenge can set their sights on Lascar, which is 300 feet shorter than Toco, but is a more challenging climb. Unlike Toco, Lascar is an active volcano, which adds a unique element to the climb as well.

Getting There: El Toco is about an hour's drive away from San Pedro. Find a taxi or rent a car.

Shaped by centuries of howling winds and rushing water, the Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon, located in the Atacama Desert is one of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet. Surrounded by miles of soft, fine sand and featuring a maze of twisting canyons, the valle looks otherworldly, particularly in the soft light of the rising and setting sun.

While it is possible to drive the valle, the best way to explore it is on foot. Walking the narrow canyons reveals strange rock formations, miles of underground caverns, and salt deposits left behind by lakes that have long since evaporated.

Visitors to the valle, which is located 35 miles to the south of San Pedro de Atacama, will be impressed with just how quiet it is there. The almost complete lack of sound only adds to the beauty and mystery of the place.

Getting There: Cars can be hired in San Pedro for the drive into the Valle.

Sitting 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, Easter Island has intrigued travelers for centuries.  Well known for its large and mysterious stone statues, called moai, Easter Island remains a cultural and archaeological wonder few travelers ever get to experience for themselves.

Visitors to the island will discover an abundance of archeological sites to visit, three volcanoes to explore, and fantastic scuba diving opportunities in some of the clearest ocean waters in the southern hemisphere. These waters are teeming with colorful sea life, including blowfish, moray eels, and sea turtles. Call the Orca Diving Center to arrange a $50 dive.

Getting There: LAN operates daily flights to the island from Santiago in Chile and Lima in Peru, charging basically whatever they feel like because the boat trip is only convenient for those trying to cross the Pacific.


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