Chile takes the protection of its staggeringly varied natural wealth seriously. In total, nearly 19 per cent of the country is protected – much of this grouped into 36 national parks enclosing everything from snow-capped volcanoes to vivid high-altitude lakes, ancient trees, immense sculptures and crumbling glaciers. Torres del Paine, in Patagonia, is typically considered to be the most spectacular of Chile’s national parks, but there are several more that at least warrant consideration – depending on exactly where in this stretched-out country you plant your feet.
Secreted away in the north-eastern tip of Chile, Lauca National Park is situated at 3,200 to 6,430 metres above sea-level. It encompasses three snow-capped volcanic peaks over 6,000 metres in height, two large lakes, lava fields and two charming 17th-century churches, and is home to over 100 species of bird (including flamingos), as well as llamas, alpacas, pumas and the rabbit-like vizcacha.
Nevado de Tres Cruces
A 110-mile drive from the city of Copiapó into the higher reaches of Chile’s ‘little north’, Nevado de Tres Cruces features strikingly blue lakes overlooked by mineral-stained mountains streaked with orange, purple and green. Add in the pink of the flamingos and the intense turquoise of nearby Laguna Verde and it adds up to an otherworldly scene painted with a Fauvist’s eye for colour.
A 2,300-mile flight from Santiago, Rapa Nui National Park rings the main archaeological sites of what, in English, is known as Easter Island. Here, stone statues continue their lonely vigil over the hills of the island and out across the Pacific – but why? It’s the mystery surrounding these lines of moai – which range from 2 to 20 metres high – and the culture that created them that holds the attention on this bleak, intensely deforested land.
Five-hundred miles south of Santiago in Chile’s Lake District, Conguillio National Park provides a time-capsule landscape of Araucaria-covered hills rising from lake-filled valleys that abut fields of lava spewed out by the immense Llaima volcano. Also known as ‘Monkey Puzzle trees’, Araucaria are rooted in a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Enfolded in the western reaches of the island of Chiloé is an eponymous national park that comprises lakes, wetlands, dense forests, sand dunes and empty beaches. A destination for cycling, horse-riding, camping and kayaking, Chiloé also features remote communities living in the dilapidated wooden dwellings typical of the island.
San Rafael Lagoon
Formed by the retreat of the San Rafael Glacier, the lagoon of the same name is typically filled with icebergs from its conveyor-like ice-provider. A flight over the area provides extensive views of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, but a day-long boat trip to within metres of the collapsing tongue delivers the most mesmerizing experience.
Torres del Paine
Tucked away in Chilean Patagonia next to the border with Argentina, Torres del Paine National Park takes its name from three towers of granite that protrude dramatically into the sky. The park does, though, have so much more to offer the visitor who has four-to-five days to spare and is prepared to hit the many trails that weave through the landscape, passing peaks, glaciers and iceberg-filled lakes that linger long in the memory.