Capital: Santiago

Size: 756,950 km²

Population: 14.3m

Currency: Chilean Peso

Language: Spanish

Visas: Not required for UK nationals.

Food: Seafood is the pride and joy of Chilean cuisine. Almost every port on the Chilean coast has a small market or a row of seafood restaurants where excellent seafood can be found. The varieties of fish are endless and entertaining! If fish is not your thing try cazuela de vacuno (meat stew with pumpkin, potato, coriander and a twist of lemon).

Drink: Chilean wines are excellent. Two delicious drinks are vaina, a mixture of brandy, egg and sugar and cola de mono, a mixture of aguardiente, coffee, milk and vanilla served very cold at Christmas.

Festivals: Fiesta de la Piedra Santa: the ancient festival of the Holy Stone is celebrated every year on 20 January. The women dress in their traditional costumes, with colourful belts and silver jewellery. It continues through the night with singing, dancing, music and prayers.

Sport: Much like South America as a whole, football is the sporting lifeblood of Chile and the three most powerful teams (Universidad de Chile, Colo Colo and Universidad Católica) are centred around Santiago each provoking fierce rivalry with each other. Tennis and basketball are also popular and some rugby is played around Santiago and fifth region mainly due to the existence of the traditional private 'English' schools.

When to go: The hottest months are December to March. The Central region has a sunny Mediterranean-like climate; in July and August temperatures can drop to 10ºC. The Lake District enjoys a temperate climate similar to northern Europe but with heavy rainfall. In the far south the winter (June to mid-September) is more severe: it can snow and temperatures often drop to well below freezing. In Easter Island the rainy season is March to October (wettest in May, when torrential rain can fall, although usually in short bursts).

Chile is a ribbon of land squashed between the Pacific and the Andes. Its landscape embraces glacial wilderness and moonscapes, lakes and volcanoes, beaches, salt flats, and the burnt colours of the desert. In one day it is possible to scale a mountain with ice axe and crampons, soak off the exhaustion in a thermal bath and rest beneath the desert stars of the Southern Cross.

Santiago, Chile’s sophisticated capital, nestles alongside the Andes: a frenetic collision of skyscrapers, noise and nightlife that is home to some of South America’s most experimental modern artists. The nearby port city of Valparaíso was described by Brian Keenan as a ‘Venice waiting to be discovered’, with warrens of streets and brightly painted houses.

In the far north is the small town of San Pedro de Atacama, an unlikely oasis set among geysers, volcanoes and salt flats. For the real stargazers, there are astronomical observatories to take advantage of the region’s pristine skies.

3,790km to the west lies Easter Island, famous for its 887 iconic stone heads known as moai, ranging from two to 20m tall.

Heading south, the mysterious archipelago of Chiloé is one of the most fascinating areas of Chile. Here you are almost always within sight of the sea, with dolphins playing in the bay and, on a clear day, views across to the twisting spire of the Corcovado volcano on the mainland.

Just north of Chiloé is the deservedly popular Lake District. Much of this region is protected as national parks, and the mixture of forests, lakes and snow-capped volcanoes is unforgettable.

The Carretera Austral (southern highway) is a large tract of sparsely inhabited, spectacular wilderness stretching away south of the Lake District. High rainfall and difficult access deter some but the attractions are considerable: temperate rainforests, glaciers, fjords, small islands and hidden fishing villages. There are hot springs at Chaitén and Puyuhuapi, excellent fishing and rafting in the cold clean waters. You can trek, climb mountains and cross ice fields, or cruise in comfort to the awe-inspiring sight of Laguna San Rafael's glacier.

In the far south of the country lies the awe-inspiring Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Mecca for trekkers and wildlife enthusiasts. Throughout the year, the park offers constantly-changing views of fantastic peaks, glaciers and icebergs, where the eponymous massive granite towers overlook vividly coloured lakes and quiet green valleys filled with wild flowers.

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Getting there