This narrow ribbon of land, longer than some continents, 2,666 miles (4,300 km) along the west coast of southern South America—farther, counting Chile’s Antarctic claims—embraces a dazzling array of wildlife habitat.From its rocky spine of Andes peaks and snow-capped volcanoes topping 19,680 feet (6,000+ m) where condors soar, it drops through icy deep blue glaciers and fjords, steep canyons and broad river valleys dotted with turquoise lakes to the world’s driest desert and finally to sandy sea-level beaches.
It is more underwater than terrestrial in some places, its land at narrowest less than 124 miles (200 km) wide, but with territorial claims extending 200 miles (320 km) offshore where the cold Peruvian or Humboldt coastal current, richest, most productive anywhere, brings nutrients and moisture-laden fog and cloud cover for rich sea and shore life.
Contentious seals and sea lions, looping dolphins, high-diving pelicans, and wave-dancing storm-petrels come for this bounty with cormorants, albatrosses, penguins and, cruising by the southern Magellanic Strait, a few streamlined blue whales 68–90 feet (20–30 m) long, weighing more than 100 tons, largest animals that ever lived. Once hunted close to extinction, now protected but still perilously few in number, a sighting is always cause for celebration.
Onshore wildlife is equally various, from extraordinary diademed sandpiper plovers,called world’s rarest, most beautiful shorebirds—Chile is the best place to see them—to dainty pudu, world’s smallest deer standing just over a foot (35cm) high at the shoulder, and their stately cousin, the regal and endangered huemul which gazes out of the Chilean coat of arms.
Four camel relatives thrive in the harsh altiplano: llamas and alpacas, wild guanacos and vicuñas, gentle bearers of some of the world’s softest fur whose only defense—spitting, to temporarily blind a nearby aggressor—proved ineffective against guns and ruthless demand for pelts. Survivors for 10 million years after ancestors crossed the Siberian land bridge, merciless shooting quickly brought them near extinction.
Solitary mountain lions or pumas are here along with smaller predators—Culpeo fox, sometimes called “Andean wolf”, and rare Geoffrey’s and colo coloor mountain cats. Recovering remnant populations of another once-numerous and softest of animals, tiny silvery-gray chinchillas, brought close to extinction by years when 350,000 skins were exported annually, forage on mosses and roots in desert terrain and rocky mountainsides.
In farther southern forests are small, rare Darwin’s or Chilote foxes, coypu ornutria, Magellanic woodpeckers, and green-backed firecrown hummingbirds sipping at wild fuschias. Shallow lakes on the southern altiplano brim with bright flamingos.
Chile’s island territories—famed Rapa Nui (aka Easter Islands) and Juan Fernandez Islands, sometimes called the southern Galapagos—nurture species which in isolation have formed their own unique gene pools.
Best times vary with geography and altitude—December–March for the Lake District and far south; spring (September–November) or fall (March–April) for the Santiago–Central Valley area. North can be extremely hot and dry—June–September will be cooler there. Avoid January–February in the altiplano,when “Bolivian winter” rains can be unpleasant. Hats and sun lotion protect against strong ultraviolet rays at high altitudes, and an extra jacket can be handy.
International flights enter Chile at Santiago; from there, travel is good via road, rail (to the south), or domestic air, with comfortable accommodations through much of this friendly country (higher elevation can give visitors“soroche” for which mate de coca can be an effective and legal remedy). In Santiago, the city zoo offers a survey look at creatures difficult to observe elsewhere. Good birding relatively nearby includes El Yeso Reservoir southeast in the Andes for diademed sandpiper-plovers and others; crag chilia and moustached turca at Farellones on the northeast; and at Laguna El Peral on the coast near Las Cruces.
Much can be seen as well from waterways. Over 20 rivers between Santiago and Tierra del Fuego have excellent rafting (some white-water) through spectacular mountain scenery and lush temperate rain forest—outstandingly Rio Petrohue.
Chile has 30 national parks and 36 forest reserves managed by CONAF comprising more than 26,000 square miles (70,000 km2), over 10 percent of Chile’s land surface, and they are some of the best-run in South America.
TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK as well as...
Lauca National Park
Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas
Monumento Natural Salar de Surire
Salar de Atacama
Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos
Tierra del Fuego
Parque Nacional Archipelago de Juan Fernandez
Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos
Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar
Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt
More about the Reserves in chili
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