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Chile

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Preposterously narrow and almost comically long at 4,300km (2,670 miles), Chile's outline on a map instantly inspires thoughts of a fantastical, quirky country. Luckily, visitors to this incredibly diverse land will not be disappointed.

Very distinct from its neighbours, Chile may begin at the belly of South America, but geographically is quite isolated, which is why it has managed to maintain a rich, colourful culture not mimicked anywhere else in the Americas. The formidable and jaw-dropping Andes make up a rather intimidating barrier of ice, rock and snow that cut the country off from Argentina to the east and Bolivia to the north. The expansive and daunting Atacama Desert (the driest in the world) separates it from Peru to the north, and adding to the feeling of isolation is none less than Antarctica to the south. To the west, outside of a few tiny islands dotted throughout the Pacific, there is nothing but thousands of miles of water separating Chile from Australasia.

Whether you fancy pedalling or road-tripping the relentless gravel of the Carretera Austral, want to try your hand at climbing in Torres del Paine National Park, or surf the brutal, expert-only waves of Punta de Lobos in Pichilemu where waves consistently reach 6m (20ft), Chile is more than deserving of its current rank as one of the best spots in the world for adventure tourism.

It's not only for adrenaline-seeking athletes though. Lovers of the night sky can try to find their place in the galaxy – the world's most impressive observatories are at your disposal in the Atacama desert. Music lovers will enjoy the native Andean music, historians and avid readers can explore the homes of notables such as Chilean-born literary heavyweight Pablo Neruda, budding anthropologists can busy themselves with getting to know the very vibrant Mapuche Indian culture, and foodies will be in heaven – think seafood as fresh as it comes, empanadas as comfort food, and slow-grilled barbecued lamb, all washed down by a hearty dose of the national drink, pisco.

Chile is much more than just a pretty face. 'Buena onda' is a Spanish term meaning 'good vibe' that suits Chileans very well. Chileans are always ready with a welcoming attitude, and hand in hand with this warm attitude is the patience you must learn if you are to fully absorb the authentic Chilean experience.

Diners linger for hours after the last bite has been eaten, and in the countryside, you will be expected (and should feel honoured) to share round upon endless round of bitter, communal maté tea. These rituals of relating and relaxing are so woven into the fabric of Chilean lifestyle that to not take part in them means that you are missing out on some of the best that Chile has to offer.

So whether you set out seeking solitude as a leisurely backpacker wandering your way through some of the world's most awe-inspiring sites, or prefer to take on the big cities in full luxury mode, once there you won't feel like you are at the end of the world - you just end up feeling somehow at home. Consider yourself warned - you may find that once you open your heart to Chile, it's a difficult place for future travels to outshine.

  • Capital:

    Santiago.

    Geography:

    Chile is situated in South America, bordered to the north by Peru, to the east by Bolivia and Argentina, to the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the south by the Antarctic. The country exercises sovereignty over a number of islands off the coast, including the Juan Fernández Islands and Easter Island. Chile is 4,329km (2,690 miles) long and nowhere more than 180km (112 miles) wide.

    The Andes and a more westerly coastal highland range run parallel with each other for much of the country's length. The coastal range forms high, sloped cliffs into the sea from the northern to the central area. Between the ranges runs a fertile valley, except in the north where transverse ranges join the two major ones, and in the far south where the sea has broken through the coastal range to form an assortment of archipelagos and channels.

    Wide variations in soil and a vast difference in climate are reflected in an uneven population distribution, and in a wide range of occupations. The Atacama desert, the driest in the world, is in the northern part of the country, which is also the main mining area. The central zone is predominantly agricultural, and is often referred to as the breadbasket of Chile. This is where the two-thirds of the population reside. Below Concepción, there are large tracts of forested land, although the area also has some agriculture. Chile is prone to frequent powerful earthquakes as the Liquine-Ofqui Fault lies just under the northern Patagonian Andes and runs for 1000km (621 miles).

    Government:

    Republic. Gained independence from Spain in 1810.

    Head Of State:

    President Michelle Bachelet since 2014.

    Head Of Government:

    President Michelle Bachelet since 2014.

    Electricity:

    220 volts AC, 50Hz. European plugs with two circular metal pins are used.

    Timezone:
  • Currency Information:

    Chilean Peso (CLP; symbol CH$) = 100 centavos. The local symbol is simply $. Notes are in denominations of CH$20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000. Coins are in denominations of CH$500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1, although the latter is no longer in circulation.

    Credit Cards:

    Visa and MasterCard are commonly accepted – although Diners Club and American Express slightly less so - in towns and cities, where ATMs are also largely available. Outside of the larger, more tourist-centred towns, currency exchange can be tricky.

    ATMs:

    Credit/debit cards (Visa, Diners Club, MasterCard and sometimes American Express) are widely accepted in towns and cities, where ATMs (also known as redbancs) are also largely available.

    Travellers Cheques:

    The government does not regulate the market of foreign currency in Chile, making it possible to exchange money and traveller's cheques at any casa de cambio at market-driven exchange rates. However, exchanging traveller's cheques in Chile has been reported to be problematic.

    Banking Hours:

    Mon-Fri 0900-1400.

    Currency Restrictions:

    The import and export of local and foreign currencies is unlimited, however amounts exceeding the equivalent of US$10,000 must be declared.

    Currency Exchange:

    Foreign exchange transactions can be conducted through commercial banks, casas de cambio, or authorised shops, restaurants, hotels and clubs. Casas de cambio are open daily 0900-1900 (Mon-Sat) and 0900-1400 (Sun). Ask to be given smaller denomination bills as these will be easier to spend, and you may run into trouble trying to get change from larger notes.

    Currencies: Exchange Rates:

    • 1 AUD = 447.86 CLP
    • 1 EUR = 755.40 CLP
    • 1 GBP = 969.94 CLP
    • 1 USD = 598.65 CLP

  • Best Time To Visit:

    Due to its long coastline, clearly Chile's weather is extremely diverse and unpredictable although it is seasonal in much of the country. Summer runs from December to February, and winter from June to August.

    It is difficult to pinpoint temperatures ranges for the country as a whole as they're so variable. There's the dry, arid Atacama desert in the north where temperatures reach a maximum of32°C (90°F) and can drop to -2°C (28°F). Chile's central region has a Mediterranean feel in its central region with a colder, wetter season (May to August), while it is usually cool and damp in the south. Easter Island has its own humid sub-tropical temperatures, while much of the south, from Region VII down has a very high annual rainfall.

    Arica, Iquique, Antofagasta, La Serena and Coquimbo are the principal summer beach hubs in the north for local tourists, while Pucón in the south sees high tourism numbers from January to March. Due to its proximity to Santiago, Viña del Mar and Valparaíso beach areas see plenty of sunshine and beach bums during the summer, often filling up with neighbouring Argentinians. As Chile is in the southern hemisphere, the ski season takes place between June and August.

    In terms of visiting Patagonia and south, the summer months from December to March are ideal as it is warmer for trekking and other outdoor activities. November and April are quieter times in terms of tourism but the weather is less dependable. It isn't advisable to visit the south from the end of autumn to the end of winter - May to September - as many trails close due to bad weather and strong winds and waterways ice over. However, places in the north, such as the Atacama, can be visited all year round.

    Required Clothing:

    If visiting the cities, bring lightweight, natural fabrics that can wick away sweat easily. During the wet season, you'll need to bring waterproofs – aim for breathable materials so you don't overheat. More substantial waterproofs and warm weather clothing are often needed in the south and at altitude.