Five things you didn’t know about Chile

Having recently returned from a fantastic trip to Chile, I feel compelled to spread the good news about this long, thin pencil of a country. I’ve already sung the praises of its Torres del Paine National Park– now here are five more reasons to make Chile your next travel destination.

1. The Atacama Desert, the driest spot in the world. There are some spots in this desert where precipitation has literally never been recorded. But despite its stark, lunar landscapes (see photo), northern Chile’s Atacama Desert is actually one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the country.

San Pedro de Atacama, its largest and most popular city, is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, active volcanoes, and a massive salt flat. Also within a short drive are crystal-clear lakes, ancient fortresses, a geyser, and the archaelogical site of Tulor. Many restaurants have only outdoor seating– no need to worry about the rain– and your meals will often be eaten near a campfire– hey, the desert can get chilly at nights.

2. Penguins! Who said penguins only live in Antarctica or at the zoo? These well-dressed birds can be found in southern Chile’s Seno Otway Penguin Colony, where visitors will see them lounging on the beach and commuting to and from their nearby nests. The surrounding view would make it worth the price of admission by itself.

3. Punta Arenas. As traveler (and former Gadling interview) Tyler Cowen notes, “Chile is one of the world’s best countries for lovely small towns.” And Punta Arenas is without a doubt one of the nicest.

Located in the heart of Patagonia, Punta Arenas features hundreds of brightly colored homes and shops (including a North Face), as well as fantastic restaurants and a cool cemetery. (Can cemeteries be cool? If they can, this one is.) And hold on to your hat– literally– if you visit Punta Arenas. This is one of the windiest places on earth, with windspeeds regularly hitting 50 to 75 miles per hour. An experience unlike any other.

4. Easter Island. If you’ve got an extra US$800 laying around for a flight from Santiago to Easter Island, by all means check it out. (And if you’ve got US$800 more, I’d even go with you.) Famous for its moai statutes which were created by the Rapanui, this remote Polynesian island also offers a nice museum and adventure activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, and surfing. (Seriously, take me with you.)

5. Outstanding food and drink. Chile’s seafood is fresh, affordable, and top-notch, including its famous sea bass, abalone, salmon, crab, and lobster. You haven’t been to Patagonia until you’ve tried the lamb, or cordero, which is so good that several friends and I actually chanted COR!-DER!-O! on the way to a lamb fest at one of Punta Arenas’ finest restaurants, Puerto Viejo. Our driver thought we were insane, but that was how we felt.

And if you haven’t jumped on the Chilean wine bandwagon yet, I’m telling you, get on the wagon (or off it, as the case may be.) Chile’s vineyards produce a first-class sauvignon blanc and the Carmenère will make you want to be a better person.

For more on Chile, see my post on Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park.