A South American Gem

Chile, a long, narrow slice of land on the southwest coast of South America, has been and continues to be a popular destination for American travelers. Three main cities—Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt and Santiago—located in the south, central and northern parts of Chile respectively, offer travelers many diverse options depending on their interests. Ideal for wine lovers, trekkers, scenery seekers and nature buffs, Chile is a friendly country that offers a warm welcome to tourists.

Punta Arenas for Patagonia

The southern-most settlement in mainland South America is Punta Arenas. This bustling city of 120,000 is the gateway to Patagonia, one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country. As an avid hiker, I have trekked through much of South America, and Patagonia is one of my favorite spots. While there are a variety of trails depending on your athletic level, a hike to the peak of Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most scenic national parks on the continent, is well worth a visit. Here you can view glaciers, granite peaks and pure blue lakes from a different vantage point each day. The weather changes at a moment's notice—from hot, sunny days to hail storms with icy winds—so it's important to dress in layers. A penguin couple at the Seno Otway colony near Punta Arenas

Most people who visit Patagonia go on an organized tour; that way you don't have to worry about permits and reserving campsites. The types of travelers you'll meet on a Patagonia tour are usually adventurous, fit and well seasoned. Most first-time hikers will visit Peru to hike the Inca Trail, and then will visit Patagonia in Chile for a bit more of a challenge. Having hiked in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Chile, I found Patagonia to be some of the most challenging hiking on the continent.

Another reason people come to this region is for the wildlife. There are a great variety of penguin tours available, and taking one is a must. Two of the most popular tours are to the penguin colonies at Isla Magdalena and Seno Otway. Visit between October and March to see them nesting, or between November and February to view the tiny, fuzzy chicks.

Puerto Montt for the Lake District

While Punta Arenas is famous for its trekking and penguins, Puerto Montt is the capital of the Lake District, home to forests, volcanoes, waterfalls and, yes, hundreds of lakes. This is one of the most popular regions in Chile due to its lush scenery. The city of Puerto Montt offers colorful shingled houses, a neo-classical cathedral in the Plaza de Armas and the picturesque Angelmo fishing wharf.

One of the more popular day trips is a visit to Lake Llanquihue, Chile's largest lake, and the impressive snow-capped Osorno Volcano, which can be visited by tour bus or a private 4x4 vehicle. The latter is the recommended way to travel, since the roads are bumpy and dusty and the Jeeps have better traction.

Other popular excursions include boat trips across the crème-de-menthe-colored waters of Lago Todos los Santos. The scenery makes spending a day here peaceful and fruitful. For anglers, fly-fishing on the Río Maullin is not to be missed. To get out on the water, canoeing on the Laguna Escondida affords amazing views and a great workout.

Santiago for the Wine Trail

Santiago is the pulse of Chile. With five million people, it is home to a third of Chile's population. Its skyline dominated by the highest peaks of the Andes mountain chain, this city is as picturesque as it is historical. The city's past and present can be viewed in the town's classical cathedrals, plazas, various museums and high-rise buildings. Many visitors take a city tour to explore the city's highlights, which include the Presidential Palace, Constitution Square and San Cristobal Hill for panoramic views of the city.

The surrounding regions of Santiago are home to Chile's world-famous wine district. The Casablanca Valley is well known for its top quality wine, some of the finest in Chile. Vinedos Veramonte and Santa Emiliana are two wineries that boast world famous reputations; wine tours and tastings are offered at both.

Resources to customize trips

Details on tour operators, ground transportation, dining options and useful web links

Airlift: LAN (www.lan.com; 866-435-9526) is the main airline that flies from the United States to Santiago. LAN also flies to Easter Island from Santiago. Santiago's Palacio de la Moneda ("Mint Palace," )

Ground transportation: Most organized tours start in Santiago, and tour operators arrange for transport to and from the airport. However, if you're arranging for transport from the airport to a hotel, contact TransVip shuttle service (+ 2-677-3000) which charges around US $5.50 for transport to the downtown area.

Since Chile is a long, spread-out country, most people fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas to begin their trek into Patagonia (as opposed to renting a car).

Passports/Visas: A passport valid for six months post-travel is required. A visa is not required.

Tour Operators: Most organized tours to Chile include Patagonia and Santiago; the Lake District or Easter Island are on other itineraries. Each company offers a varying degree of activity level. Of the three mentioned below, Mountain Travel Sobek is the most strenuous, appealing to the very active traveler. With Country Walkers, clients walk along the base of mountains each day, as opposed to hiking up them. Travcoa is the least strenuous. A glacier in  southern Chile

Mountain Travel Sobek was one of the first hiking tour operators in Patagonia. They have been running tours for more than 20 years, constantly tweaking their itineraries to best fit the active traveler. Their current Patagonia itinerary involves hiking and camping in Torres Del Paine National Park, with modest-to-strenuous hiking eight hours a day. The pay off is experiencing the glaciers, valleys and mountains of the region from the best vantage points. Santiago's downtown skyline

The age range of most travelers on this itinerary is 40-60. The company offers 10 percent commission, but agents can increase the overall package price—and make more in commissions—by including add-ons to such destinations as Easter Island or shorter excursions to the Lake District or Santiago. Agents can contact Alicia Zablocki (510-594-6000 x6019), program director of Latin America.

Travcoa appeals to very high-end clients who are looking to travel with a small, intimate group. Travcoa targets travelers who desire the independence of FIT travel, but want a tour director to handle all the details like finding the best rooms in the best hotels.

Guests start their Chile itinerary, which includes Patagonia and Easter Island, staying in deluxe rooms at the Ritz-Carlton in Santiago, and have the option to upgrade into the "grand" suite category.

Travcoa offers the standard 10 percent commission; when agents upgrade clients to the grand category, it increases the overall price of the package, thereby increasing the amount the agent makes.

Additionally, agents can work with Director of Vacation Planning James Crowder ([email protected], 800-992-2003 x230) to not only upgrade the category of the package, but to book commissionable air and add-ons.

Country Walkers visits two areas within Chile—the Lake District and Patagonia. Their local guides have a strong background in history, culture and the flora and fauna of the region. This tour operator attracts the active traveler—there is an ample amount of walking on each itinerary, but not the intense hiking found on the Mountain Travel Sobek trips.

More than 40 percent of Country Walkers' guests are solo travelers, making this the tour operator for travelers who want to be adventurous without feeling out of place by traveling with all couples. Many of their guests are repeat visitors and the Chile itineraries continue to rank high among their clientele.

Also, the family trips—which accommodate all ages and can be catered to specific interests—are becoming increasingly popular.

They pay 10 percent commission. Agents can contact Christine Kolter ([email protected], 800-464-9255 x127), Chile's regional manager.

Restaurants: For food aficionados, Santiago offers a slew of great choices. Here are three good options. In downtown Santiago, Zully (www.zully.net; +2-696-1378) is not cheap, but it's the perfect place for a special night on the town. There's a wine-tasting cellar, an outdoor patio and the food—best described as eclectic cuisine, including African-style ostrich and American-style prime rib—appeals to a variety of palates.

Santiago's oldest restaurant, Confitería Torres (+ 2-688-0751) has been serving Chilean specialties like beef marinated in cilantro, for more than 120 years. There's jazz and tango music on the weekends.

Azul Profundo (+2-738-0288) is a moderately priced, popular seafood restaurant especially favored by families. The variety of fish—bass, swordfish, eel—served with local sauces always gets good reviews from locals.

Online resources: Agents looking for information on Chile should check out the following web sites: The web site of the Chile Tourism Board (www.visit-chile.org) is the most comprehensive site out there, giving information on hotels, attractions, camping, hiking and scenic excursions. The Chile Information Project (www.chip.cl) is a thorough site about the country and includes information on tourist attractions and a link to the local paper The Santiago Times. Inter-Patagonia (www.interpatagonia.com) is a great resource for booking tours to Patagonia, with links to outfitters, hotels and adventure operators.



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