Chile is one of my favorite South American countries because of its extreme diversity in its landscapes. There are the soaring Andean Mountains, the desolate windswept plains of Patagonia, the lush temperate forests of the Souther fjords and the driest desert on Earth in the north, the Atacama Desert. Let’s not forget the mysterious Rapa Nui Island in the South Pacific with its giant statues of Moai. These are a few travel stories from some of the places I have been to on the Chilean mainland from when my wife and I rented a car and car camped in the coastal Atacama Desert and from a visit to the Patagonia gem Torres Del Paine National Park. 

About Chile

Location of Chile

Chile is a huge country that is 87% larger than California but has 19.1million fewer people. It runs along the spine of the Andes Mountains from the northern Atacama Desert all the way down to the southern tip of South America. It is rich in rare earth minerals and is a mining economic powerhouse. The population is relatively low compared to its neighbors and it is considered one of the wealthier nations in South America per capita. Chile like most South American countries has had its fair share of poor governments in the past. The country still struggles to escape the long dark shadow of its past under the tyrannical military dictatorship of Pinochet (1973-1990) that saw thousands executed and many more detained and tortured. Civilians under Pinochet deemed a threat to the government just simply disappeared and were never heard from again. Although Pinochet is dead, many of the people that served as his regime’s instruments of terror are still free and have not been brought to justice. A fascinating museum in Santiago dedicated to Human Rights is dedicated to memorializing the memory of those that suffered under Pinochet. 

Overview of Photographs of all of Pinochet’s Victims in the Human Rights Museum, Santiago

Close-up of Photographs of all of Pinochet’s Victims in the Human Rights Museum, Santiago

Torres Del Paine National Park

March 2008: My first visit to Chile was in March 2008 from El Calafate as part of a larger trip enroute to Antarctica. On one of the longest day trips of my life, I visited Torres Del Paine National Park. The park was simply mind blowing. The jagged majestic mountains and abundant wildlife, herds of guanacos, giant Ostrich like Rhea birds, curious Patagonian fox and soaring condors left me wanting more. Torres Del Paine is one of the best places in the world to spot a wild mountain lion. The guanaco herds attract them into the open and they are commonly seen. Additionally, there are hundreds of miles of wilderness trekking trails to explore. I will definitely return someday. 

Torres Del Paine National Park

The Towers

Wild Guanaco

Patagonian Fox

Wild Guanaco

Atacama Desert

September 2013: I returned to Chile to visit Rapa Nui, the South Pacific Island with giant moai statues. Since Rapa Nui is part of Chile, the best way to reach it is via Santiago, the capitol of Chile. As part of this trip Paula and I also visited Santiago and the Atacama Desert in the north. 

About the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert, which lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Andes of northern Chile, is the driest desert in the world outside of Antarctica. It is 50 times drier than Death Valley and there are parts that have never received any rain since recording of precipitation amounts has begun. As a result, most of the Atacama is completely without vegetation, even cactus.  Despite the lack of water, life always finds a way. On a Planet Earth episode on deserts, I learned about the fog deserts of the Atacama. In these deserts coastal cactus and the animals that feed off of them flourish in the Atacama. This is made possible not by rainwater but from the fog from the freezing Humboldt Atlantic Ocean current that meets the warm desert air. The fog condenses and cactus adapted to collecting the condensation thrive along the coastal Atacama. Desert animals such as guanaco and birds feed off of the cactus and its water and in turn predators such as fox and Puma feed off them. The nutrient rich Humboldt current also attracts a wealth of marine life like the Humboldt penguin, sea lions, and whales to the Atacama coasts. 

After visiting Easter Island, Paula and I explored Santiago and from there flew to Copiapo in northern Chile, where we rented a car and drove to Pan De Azúcar National Park. This national park was the perfect example of the fog desert ecosystem and had miles of trails to explore that lead up to the top of towering cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. 

Political themed street graffiti on buildings in Santiago

Copiapo Old Building

Paula and I spent 4 days exploring the Atacama Desert from our rental car. The base of our travels was a lonely campground on the beach on Pan De Azúcar National Park. The campground was more a wilderness campsite and was very remote and we appeared to be the only guests camping. We had a stone shelter to block the wind, and a fire grate. There was also a separate shower and toilet. We set up our tent and cooked all of our food that we purchased at a grocery store on the drive from Copiapo on the way to our campsite. Watching the sunset from our lonely little campsite over the ocean, with dolphins swimming by, a cozy warm campfire and glass of red wine was about as close to paradise as it gets. 

Our Campsite at Pan De Azúcar National Park

Paula Preparing Food at Our Campsite at Pan De Azúcar National Park

Going for a Freezing Swim at Pan De Azúcar National Park Beach

The main attraction of the park is the hike up to the clifftops where you can find groves of cactus with small hairs designed to collect condensation from fog.  This area is also home to desert guanaco and fox. But the best part of the hike is the incredible views. 

Desert Guanaco

Desert Fox that came very close to us looking for food

Paula next to a cactus inthe fog desert with a towel to protect her from the sun

Fog desert cactus

Paula looking out over the desert

Incredible views

The dry interior desert was void of any life and we quickly found ourselves returning to the coastal desert, which was far more beautiful. 

Small roadside memorial to car accident victim on the road in the interior desert

Inside Pan De Azúcar National Park, there is one small fishing village with incredibly cheap sea food that is as fresh as it gets. We did a day trip to the village and indulged in sea food and joined a small fishing boat trip to a nearby island where sea lions and Humboldt penguins can be found. Humboldt penguins are the only species of penguin that lives near the equator and live in the waters of Chile because of the cold Humbold current flowing from the Souther pacific northward. 

Sealion

Humboldt Penguin Colony

While waiting for our flight in Copiapo I discovered why Chile is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for earthquakes. Some of the largest earthquakes in the world occur in Chile because of the huge subduction fault that cross crosses Chile along the Andean Mountains. It is very actve and produces some terrifyingly powerful earthquakes. In the airport I felt one of them. it was brief only a few seconds long, but it felt fierce and powerful. It didn’t result in any damage that I saw, and people seemed oblivious, probably because they are used to such earthquakes. But I shuttered to think what that earthquake would have felt like if it was 30 seconds to a minute long. 

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