Contrasts of Chile: desert, pumas, art and architecture

Chile is a country of contrasting extremes, wedged along the Pacific Coast along a world-famous mountain range with a lunar-landscape desert in the north, and icy peaks and pumas in the south.  In between, a cultural hubbub of colourful street art, powerful poetry, ancient architecture, and award-winning wineries. From rural cowboys riding untamed horses to glaciers iced into jagged mountains, Chile’s wild side is exciting and full of adventure, while its cities are a combination of modern-day chaos and moments frozen in time. On this 12-night trip, we discover the contrasts of Chile and make sure we cover the bases to ensure one unforgettable experience of this rich and rugged South American territory.

We’re going from the northern Atacama Desert and to southern alpine Patagonia to experience the adventure, all tied together with the bohemian street art experience of Valparaiso and the combined historic and modern-day bustle of a capital city, Santiago. The trip offers the perfect blend of outdoor excursions, adrenalin and adventure activities in the arid desert and the alpine lake region of icy Patagonia, broken up by enriching city tours that portray the colourful cultural history of the Chilean people. Luxurious accommodation and gastronomy at Relais & Chateaux hotels in Atacama and Patagonia bring indulgence and comfort to the experience.

Awasi Patagonia guacho cowboys and horses

Awasi Patagonia gaucho cowboys and horses

Valparaiso

An old, eclectic port town surrounded by 17 tall hills is a colourful, bohemian part of Chile that celebrates the arts. Valparaiso was once the home of famous Chilean poet and writer, Pablo Neruda. It is bustling, cluttered, vibrant, and somewhat neglected, so it has immense character and is best explored on foot along the many old pathways, or on the ancient bus routes through town. 

The towering hills surrounding the port are full of colourful houses and facades built into the cliffs overlooking the bay. The town is lathered in interesting street art that covers everything from walls to staircases, buses, rooftops, and the many old funiculars that journey up and down the hillside, transporting people to the top and down again. These “elevator trams” date back to the 1800s when they used to be run on coal and are a fascinating and integral part of the Valparaiso experience. 

Visit Caleta Portales – the traditional fishing village of Valparaiso – to eat and enjoy local fare or watch the fishing boats come in first thing in the morning and purchase daily catch off the boat. Also, visit Cerro Alegre – a mythical mountain and cultural capital of Valparaiso – reach it via a funicular and arrive to see locals and tourists alike contributing to artwork, making music and poetry in the streets.

Colourful houses on hills at Valparaiso

Colourful houses on hills at Valparaiso

Valparaiso street art stairs in the city

Valparaiso street art stairs in the city

Atacama Desert

The driest desert in the world, Atacama is a jagged, mountainous region in northern Chile bordering Peru and Bolivia, where it’s iron peaks reach over 4500m above sea level. There are valleys, sandy deserts with dunes ideal for sand-boarding, canyons made for hiking, lunar landscapes that are entirely otherworldly and perfect for star gazing. There are salt flats full of flamingoes, and geysers that erupt and short steam high into the air. 

Over 2000km north of Santiago, this is where the historical evidence of hunter-gatherers is preserved. Privately guided excursions to visit the numerous natural attractions, and explore the unique landscapes are the only way experience the Atacama. From home base at Awasi Atacama, visitors can partake in plenty of outdoor, adventure-style activities.

Hiking through canyons, valleys, and ridges where petroglyphs have been discovered and multi-coloured volcanic rock create incredible natural contrasts; sand-boarding on the desert dunes; horse riding and mountain biking; paragliding over the desert looking over the coastal city of San Pedro; star-gazing trips to the Valley of the Moon to see the lunar landscapes, salt caves, and sunset panoramas; tours to Los Flamencos National Reserve for Chilean and Andean flamingoes.

Lunar landscape sunset and jagged terrain in Atacama Desert

Lunar landscape sunset and jagged terrain in the Atacama Desert

Volcanic lunar landscape, Atacama, Chile

Volcanic lunar landscape, Atacama, Chile

Awasi Atacama picnic on the lunar landscape

Awasi Atacama picnic on the lunar landscape

Santiago

The capital city of Chile, Santiago, is the bustling centre of activity, economy, tourism, business, and residential life. Here, absorb the electrifying mix of modern culture and historic architecture. Market places, museums, cathedrals, and monuments define the Santiago experience, offering a stimulating break from the nature-orientated focus of the desert before heading down to glacial lakes and alpine forests next. 

Visit Plaza de Armas, which symbolises the history of the city, built in the founding year of 1541 and still very much the centre of the city. Market activity, shoe-shiners, strolling romantics, elderly gentlemen, and vagrants alike gather in the palm tree-lined square. Las Chascona House is now a museum celebrating the life of Chilean writer and poet Pablo Neruda. Take an audio tour through the house he built and lived in with his lover and get a taste of his personal life, looking at the coloured glass, shells, furniture and artwork by famous friends.

Also worth a visit is La Moneda Palace, which are the presidential buildings of today, but dates back to the 1800s and are a delightful show of neoclassical architecture. Cerro San Cristobal is the iconic “viewpoint hill” overlooking the city and the surroundings. Hike up or take the funicular to the top and enjoy the breathtaking views. For clear views of the mountains, best to go after some rain. Statue La Virgen and a memorial for Pope John Paul II are both located on the hill, as are snack bars and curio shops.

Santiago cathedral at the city centre

Santiago cathedral at the city centre

Patagonia

Down in the deep south of Chile is Torres del Paine National Park, which is known as the home of the pumas. Also known as cougars and mountain lions, these wild cats patrol the cold territory at the foot of the Andes Mountains and are the star of a Patagonia trekking excursion. 

Icy winds characterise Patagonia, so prepare for the bite, but it does not stop adventure travellers from indulging in the numerous guided hiking and kayaking activities on ogre here. At Awasi Patagonia, overlooking the three famous granite rock towers of Torres del Paine and the deep blue Lake Sarmiento, luxury, comfort and warmth is found at the end of a day exploring some of the most breathtaking sites in the whole of Chile. 

Great lakes, alpine forests, snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, glaciers, and ice sheets define the area, offering spectacular beauty. Condors soar overhead, and pumas are spotted stalking guanacos in the hills. There are multi-day hiking circuits and day hikes to the base of the famous towers. Boat cruises to see Glacier Grey, and guided biking, caving, and rock climbing, and diving activities are all well worth taking advantage of. 

Patagonia peaks

Patagonia peaks

Awasi Patagonia puma foundation

Awasi Patagonia puma foundation

Guanaco - the pumas choice prey species in Patagonia

Guanaco – the pumas choice prey species in Patagonia

Awasi Patagonia villas

Awasi Patagonia villas

Read more about a puma trekking excursion at Torres del Paine in our blog dedicated to this iconic Patagonian activity here

Summary
Contrasts of Chile: desert, pumas, art and architecture
Article Name
Contrasts of Chile: desert, pumas, art and architecture
Description
From rural cowboys riding untamed horses to glaciers iced into jagged mountains, Chile’s wild side is exciting and full of adventure, while its cities are a combination of modern-day chaos and moments frozen in time.
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Sun Safaris
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Author: Chloe Cooper

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