By Rachel Mostyn Americas & Far East Specialist

A country that stretches from the arid Atacama to the frozen South Pole can be hard to get to grips with. We present to you Chile – unfeasibly thin and unreasonably long but nonetheless a land of remarkable contrasts that's best explored slowly on a tailor-made luxury holiday.

The Atacama in northern Chile is a desert stripped of almost everything but beauty. It’s among the driest places on earth. But with next to no vegetation, visibility is exceptional. Wide windows look out toward a backdrop of striated volcanic cones rising 20,000ft – pink, purple, tawny and as red as embers, depending on the light. The night skies are clearer than anywhere else on the planet; so clear that astronomers will soon be able to see the earliest known galaxies from a billion dollar observatory. Below the volcanoes are giant salt lakes, lunar valleys, bird-filled lagoons and rocky scrub where guanaco, relatives of the llama, roam free. 

Hand sculpture in the Atacama Desert

Hand sculpture in the Atacama Desert

Atacama salt flats

Atacama salt flats

Church in San Pedro de Atacama

Church in San Pedro de Atacama

Closer still is the town of San Pedro de Atacama, 7,500ft above sea level. Pepper trees shade its sandy streets and colonial plaza. Amid the stone and adobe houses are a whitewashed church and well-organised museum. Adventures in the area include climbing in the Andes, treks at 12,000ft, cycling, horse riding and archaeological tours. An absolute must is catching the sunset in Moon Valley, an otherworldly universe of escarpments and hollows, dunes, cliffs and intricate formations of salt and sediment.

Competing for the top sunset spot is Chaxa Lagoon, in the midst of the 3,000 square kilometre Atacama Salt Lake. Pink flamingos stare at their own reflections in its ultramarine waters, surrounded by a crust of salt as rough as coral that stretches as far as the eye can see. In the nearby village of Toconao, locals use cactus spines to weave garments from llama wool. The most popular of all excursions is to the Tatio geysers, where the collision of cold water and volcanic magma fires water over 10m high through a series of crusted fissures. It takes an early start to catch sunrise at the world’s highest geyser field, but it’s more than worth the effort. Explore the Atacama and more on our 13 day Highlights of Chile holiday.

Santiago skyline with the Andes in the background

The skyline of Santiago, in front of the Andes

More than 1,000 miles south of San Pedro is the Chilean capital of Santiago. To the east are the uptown haunts of the rich and powerful – all wide avenues and golf clubs. To the west are rickety pastel houses and Dickensian alleyways. All around are yet more volcanoes. A trip to the statue of the Virgin, 2,800ft up on Cerro San Cristóbal, is essential – the views are spectacular. In the city’s old heart is the Catedral Metropolitana, a baroque masterpiece, while street performers gather along the banks of the Río Mapocho.

If the mist does occasionally roll in then don’t worry, it’s one of the reasons for the area’s vinicultural prowess. The high altitude, humidity and cooling currents from the mountains and ocean make Chile a wine heaven. Cooler vines give the grapes structure and a pure fruitiness, where hotter climes can induce sweat and slightly stewed flavours. The best wine routes are all within an hour of Santiago.

You’ll find herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs, well-defined Cabernets, pungent Pinot Noirs and plummy Syrahs. The grape of the moment is Carmenère. Thought lost to the phylloxera plague that struck French vineyards in the 19th century, Carmenère was rediscovered in Chile in 1994 and has become the taste à la mode. Pick up a bottle of reserve before you go home.

Vineyard in Chile's Central Valley wine region

In the centre of the country, explore the Lake District around Puerto Varas; pause to climb picture prefect conical volcanoes as you meander around a dozen major lakes in the region between Temuco and Puerto Montt. Take in the misty, mystical Chiloé Archipelago lying off the west coast. Beautiful to behold and alive with tradition, myth and folklore, these islands are unlike anywhere on the mainland and make a pleasant detour. The truly adventurous may wish to tackle sections of the Carreterra Austral, a rough highway that provides access to some of Chile's remotest areas and granting you stunning views of fjords and glaciers, white water rivers and dense forest.

As the country thins towards its tip, the scenery changes again. Chilean Patagonia is a remote, desolate, untamed wilderness of quite spectacular beauty. Unlike the arid north, this is a land of rushing rivers and groaning glaciers, of waterfalls, forests and windswept lakes full of slowly melting icebergs. There are also a number of luxurious lodges in Torres del Paine in which to base yourself before venturing out to explore.

Condors stretch their 12ft wingspans among its peaks. Guanacos stand sentry on bluffs. And hungry-looking pumas forage in the foothills. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile's finest national park and one of its standout natural attractions, lies just north of Puerto Natales, one of the southernmost cities in the world and a base for adventure travel. The Park's 10,000ft towers of rose-coloured granite are an icon of South America, as much photographed as Machu Picchu or Iguazu Falls. Discover Patagonia's Glaciers & Fjords on our 16 day itinerary.

Further south still is Punta Arenas. Use this town to access southern Patagonia and the Argentinian town of Ushuaia, where you can swap your car for an expedition style ship to explore the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. As well as cruises in the Beagle Channel, luxury Antarctic cruises also depart from here, allowing you to continue south. Follow explorers past on our holiday that combines Torres Del Paine with an Antarctic cruise.

Petrohue Falls and Osorno Volcano with its snow peak in Puerto Varas in cloudy weather, south of Chile

Petrohue Falls and Osorno Volcano, Puerto Varas

Magellanic penguins near Punta Arenas

Magellanic penguins near Punta Arenas

Houses on stilts (palafitos) in Castro, Chiloe Island, Patagonia, Chile

Houses on stilts (palafitos) in Castro, Chiloe Island

Almost as far away is Easter Island. Out in the Pacific, midway between the Chilean mainland and Tahiti, this isolated rock, known locally as Rapa Nui, is one of the world's most isolated outposts. It can though be easily visited on a three-night excursion from Santiago; Easter Island is just a five-hour flight from the capital.

A tiny volcanic speck, it nonetheless boasts archaeological wonders, white-sand beaches and warm and welcoming people. The main attractions though are the hundreds of giant stone moai that line the coast and cliff tops. Mysterious monoliths, they stand as silent witness to the island's past.

Getting to Chile

From 3 January 2017 British Airways started operating a direct service from London Heathrow to Santiago four times weekly. The flight is served by the airline’s newest aircraft, the four-class Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

British or EU passport holders do not require a visa to visit Chile for trips under 90 days.