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A first-timer's guide to Chile

Stretching north to south for 4270km and only 64km wide at its narrowest point, this land of ice and fire, periodically shaken by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, is one of the most geographically diverse on earth. Most travellers fly into the capital of Santiago, roughly in the middle of the country, and head either towards the fjords, forests and mountains of the south, or the beaches, stargazing observatories and deserts of the north. Read our guide here: http://bit.ly/1fFiCim

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North of Santiago, the arid Elqui Valley is the place to sample pisco (Chilean brandy).

Southern Patagonia: A land of vaqueros, mountains and huge swathes of scrubland, dotted with roaming guanacos and ñandú (ostriches), has two main towns: historic Punta Arenas, and the smaller Puerto Natales – gateway town to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. Natales is where hikers and climbers gather before and after their assault on the distinctive bell-shaped mountains, rock towers, glacial lakes and backcountry trails of Chile’s most popular natural attraction.

Pumalin Park, Chile: Pumalín Park is a virgin protected area; the southern half is good for hiking, whereas the north is only reachable by private boat.

Moai Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile: The country’s most far-flung territories include Easter Island, far out in the Pacific Ocean, home to a now extinct civilisation and the world-famous moai (stone statues).

Lake District, Chile: Pucón is the Lake District’s activity centre for hiking, biking, rafting, horse-riding and the challenge of the all-day volcano climb. More technical climbs await on the volacnoes in Puerto Varas, further south – a supremely picturesque spot on the shores of Lago Llanquíhue. The Río Petrohué attracts rafters and kayakers, and the Lake District’s flat, deserted roads, snaking around a profusion of crystalline lakes and waterfalls, is a paradise for cyclists.

Atacama Desert, Chile: The adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama, at the heart of Chile’s vast northern desert, is the jumping-off spot for sand-boarding down dunes and visiting the otherworldly crimson landscapes of the Valley of the Moon, the Atacama salt flat, aquamarine high-altitude lagoons, and the El Tatio geysers with natural hot springs. Atacama’s clear skies also make the desert an ideal location for the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Santiago, Chile: The mountains around Santiago and Chillán, further south, in the foothills of the Andes, are prime skiing spots. Just an hour from the capital, you can ride the funiculars up the many hills of the historic port city of Valparaíso, or visit the excellent wineries of the Maipo and Casablanca valleys.