A long, narrow sliver of land, clinging to the edge of a continent, Chile has often drawn attention to itself for its wholly implausible shape. Seen in the pages of an atlas, the country’s outline strikes you as aberrant and fantastical; 4300km in length (the equivalent of Norway to Nigeria), and with an average width of just 175km, the very idea of it seems absurd. Once you’re on Chilean soil, however, these boundaries make perfect sense, and visitors quickly realize that Chile is a geographically self-contained unit. The Andes, the great mountain range that forms its eastern border, are a formidable barrier of rock and ice that cuts the country off from Argentina and Bolivia. The Atacama Desert, a 1000km stretch of parched wasteland, separates it from Peru to the north. And to the west, only a few islands dotted in the Pacific Ocean break the waves that roll onto Chile’s coast from Australasia.
All this has created a country distinct from the rest of South America and one that defies many people’s expectations of an Andean country. It is developed, relatively affluent and non-corrupt, and – with the exception of the infamous military regime of the 1970s and 1980s – boasts a long tradition of political stability and orderly government. It is, without doubt, one of the safest and most relaxing places to visit within South America. Its buses are comfortable and run on time; its people polite, respectful and discreet; and its indigenous minorities, in the main, coexist peacefully alongside the rest of the population.
A country of geographical extremes, Chile’s diversity is reflected both in its people – from the alpaca herders of the altiplano and the gauchos of Patagonia to the businessmen of Santiago – and its cuisine, which encompasses the tropical fruit of the arid north as well as king crab from the southern fjords. Above all, though, it is for its remote and dizzyingly beautiful landscapes that visitors head to Chile. With its population of fifteen million largely confined to a handful of major cities, much of Chile is made up of vast tracts of scarcely touched wilderness – places where you can be days from the nearest tarred road.