The superbly-preserved Chinchorro mummies pulled from a 7,000-year-old burial chamber near Arica are potent emblems of Chile's ancient cultural roots. But you can experience living native culture today among communities such as the Mapuche in the Lake District, the far north's Aymara, Patagonia's Kaweskar – plus the Rapa Nui who remain among the brooding statues of remote Easter Island.
Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet will beguile even the poetry phobic. Every Chilean has an opinion: excéntrico to some, maestro to most. Shop names quote poems, while tourist slogans lift lines celebrating the joys of a land as close to Neruda's heart as he is to Chile's. Three of his former homes have been converted into wonderful, quirky museums – try to visit at least one.
Atacama has among the clearest skies on Earth, making it a global centre for astronomy – both hi-tech observatories or visitors just gazing up at the cosmic galactic panoply above. You can visit observatories at Paranal. Ahlarkapin or Cerro Mamalluca (in the nearby Elqui Valley), or take star-gazing tours from towns like San Pedro de Atacama.
The potato is a Chilean staple, wreathed in quirky traditions re times of sowing, and bringing locals together for communal labours known as mingas. Delicious potato dishes include mayocan (spud, seaweed and dried shellfish stew), colao (potato cakes with wheat, pork fat and crackling, cooked in hot embers) and papas rellenas – mash filled with meat or shellfish.
Chile's southern tip is where the land splinters into a cool adventure wonderland of glaciers, fjords and the granite peaks of the Torres del Paine, plus the remote islands of Tierra del Fuego. Alpine lakes nestle amid snow-capped mountains. Wildlife ranges from blue whales and penguins to sleek puma, flamingos, condors, skunk and llama-like guanacos.
The world's driest and oldest desert is a 1,000km-long plateau of unique other-worldly beauty – a place of salt flats and emerald lakes, ancient lava fields and far horizons, dotted with 6,000m peaks. Atmospheric settlements like San Pedro de Atacama contrast sharply with over 170 ghost towns. In Sep/Oct, spring rains can spark stunning floral blooms in southern Atacama.
The haunting giant moai statues fashioned by the island's ancient Rapa Nui culture are among humanity's most distinctive icons. Gaze into the giant Rano Kau crated and the quarry at Rano Raraku. The sense of isolation in one of Earth's most remote places breaks in late Jan/early Feb with the Tapati Rapa Nui carnival celebrations.
Hemmed by the Andes, Pacific and Atacama desert, Chile boasts a unique biosphere, with a host of unique mammals like the pudu (pygmy deer) or colo-colo wildcat. High-profile beasts include puma, king penguins, dolphins, giant blue whales plus soft-furred vicuna. For twitchers, look out for gorgeous hummingbirds, soaring condor or wonderfully-named Hudsonian godwit.
It might seem convenient buying artisan products in a handy city craft market – but there is a big chance they weren't lovingly fashioned by indigenous craftspeople like the Mapuche. If you want Mapuche crafts, buy them from the Mapuche themselves in southern Chile and ensure you get genuine goodies which also benefit the indigenous people.
With thousands of kilometres of Pacific coast, Chile has some fabulous beaches. And since the 1800s, Santiaguinos have flocked to Viña del Mar and nearby Reñaca as seaside escapes from the city's summer heat. The beaches are fine but we're less keen on the towering condos, noise and expensive restaurants. Chile has many quieter, more charming beaches.
Chile's most famous wine brand has a winery outside Santiago firmly on the capital tourist itinerary. But though it's a pleasant enough setting, the tourist vineyard is mainly for show (main production is elsewhere), tours can be impersonal – and there are no free tastings. If you love wine, visit the Central Valley wineries instead.
Rodeos are a tourist draw in Chile's Central Valley, marketed as showcases for 'traditional' skills seen as a stirring part of cowboy culture. But 'traditional' doesn't necessarily mean 'good'. There is powerful evidence that animals suffer during many rodeo events – and we believe that isn't a part of responsible tourism.