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"The Rough Guide to Chile" covers the country in its entirety - from the arid Atacama Desert to the endless Pacific coastline and the cosmopolitan capital of Santiago, to the wild and rugged terrain of Patagonia, all the way down to the tip of South America itself, Tierra del Fuego. It also covers Easter Island with its mysterious prehistoric statues. As well as practical details on travelling around the vast interior and lively listings of the best places to eat, drink and sleep, the guide gives the low-down on the country's rich history and culture.
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Melissa Graham has travelled widely in the Andean countries of Chile, Peru and Ecuador, where she developed a love of the region's landscapes and people and a loathing for lomo con papas fritas (steak and chips).Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
WHERE TO GO
Given Chile’s great size, and the huge distances that separate the main attractions, it’s important to give careful thought to your itinerary before you go. If you want to experience both the northern and southern extremes, you should invest in a LanChile air pass, unless you’re prepared to spend many hours sitting on a bus, or are in the country for an extended period. Otherwise, most visitors with just two or three weeks to play with tend to choose between heading north or south from Santiago, even then singling out a few chosen targets, rather than trying to fit everything in. Something else to bear in mind is that, on the whole, Chile’s cities are not that exciting, and are best used as a jumping-off point to get out into the backcountry. In light of this, you should seriously consider renting a vehicle for at least part of your trip, as public transport to some of the most beautiful areas, including many national parks, is nonexistent. We discuss each region’s highlights in greater detail in the chapter introductions; what follows is a brief summary of the attractions of each area.
Santiago, though boasting some fine monuments, museums and restaurants, is not to everyone’s taste, with its ceaseless noise and traffic and heavy pollution, and two or three days here is enough for most visitors. The capital is handy for visiting some of the country’s oldest vineyards, while a string of splendid beaches, as well as the romantic port of Valparaíso and fashionable resort of Viña del Mar, also sit on its doorstep.
North of Santiago, highlights include the handsome colonial city of La Serena, the lush, deeply rural Elqui Valley, and another succession of idyllic beaches, the dazzling fringe of the Norte Chico, a region that mostly comprises semi-arid landscapes and brittle vegetation. At the northern edge of this region, the tidy little city of Copiapó serves as a springboard for excursions to the white sands and turquoise waters of Bahía Inglesa, one of the country’s most attractive seaside resorts, and east into the cordillera, where you’ll find the mineral-streaked volcanoes of Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces and the dazzling Laguna Verde. Further north, the barren Atacama Desert, stretching over 1000km into southern Peru, presents an unforgettable, if forbidding, landscape, whose attractions number ancient petroglyphs (indigenous rock art), abandoned nitrate ghost towns and a scattering of fertile, fruit-filled oases. Up in the Andes, the vast plateau known as the altiplano, as high and remote as Tibet, encompasses snow-capped volcanoes, bleached-white salt flats, lakes speckled pink with flamingos, grazing llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, tiny whitewashed churches and native Aymara communities. The best points to head for up here are Parque Nacional Lauca, reached from the city of Arica, and Parque Nacional Volcán Isluga, reached from Iquique.
South of Santiago, the chief appeal of the lush Central Valley is its swaths of orchards and vineyards, dotted with stately haciendas, while further south, the famous, much-visited Lake District presents a picture-postcard landscape of perfect, conical volcanoes (including the exquisite Volcán Osorno), iris-blue lakes, rolling pastureland and dense native forests, perfect for hiking. A short ferry ride from Puerto Montt, at the southern edge of the Lake District, the Chiloé archipelago is a quiet, rural backwater, famous for its rickety houses on stilts, old wooden churches and rich local mythology. Back on the mainland, south of Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral – a 1000km-long unpaved "highway" – carves its way through virgin temperate rainforest and past dramatic fjords, one of which is the embarkation point for a two-hundred-kilometre boat trip out to the sensational Laguna San Rafael glacier. Beyond the Carretera Austral, cut off by the Campo de Hielo Sur (southern ice field) lies Southern Patagonia, a country of bleak windswept plains bordered by the magnificent granite spires of the Torres del Paine massif, Chile’s single most famous attraction, and a magnet for hikers and climbers. Just over the easily crossed border in Argentina are two of the region’s star attractions: the Fitz Roy Sector in the north of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, a favourite for trekkers and climbers, and, to the south, the awe-inspiring Glaciar Perito Moreno. Across the Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego, shared with Argentina, sits shivering at the bottom of the world, a remote land of a harsh, desolate beauty.
Finally, there are Chile’s two Pacific possessions: remote Easter Island, famed for its mysterious statues and fascinating prehistoric culture; and the little-visited Isla Robinson Crusoe, part of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, sporting dramatic volcanic peaks covered with dense vegetation.
WHEN TO GO
The north of the country can be comfortably visited at any time of year, though if you’re planning to rent a 4WD and tour the altiplano, note that the unpredictable weather phenomenon known as the Bolivian Winter (or invierno altiplánico) can produce heavy, sporadic rainfall between December and February (the height of summer), washing away roads and disrupting communications.
In the centre and south of the country, you should avoid the months of June to September (unless you plan to go skiing), when heavy snowfall often blocks access to the mountains, including many national parks. The peak summer months are January and February, but as accommodation rates and crowds increase in equal measure, you’d be better off coming in November, December or March, when the weather is often just as good.
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