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3 stunning destinations to visit in Chile

When it comes to stunning landscapes, rich wine regions, hipster lifestyle and ancient culture, Chile is bursting at the seams.

What do you call a long, narrow, spaghetti-strand sliver of land wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains? Nobel poet and native son Pablo Neruda called it “the thin country”. Everyone else calls it Chile. Within its borders in this south-western corner of South America is a multi-faceted, geographically diverse nation of 18 million that the indigenous Mapuche peoples named for the word chilli, or “where the land ends”.

Visitors to the continent typically set their sights on Brazil for beach and samba, Argentina for barbecue and tango and Peru for its myriad delights, cultural and culinary. Chile remains a little further down the list and separate somehow from the rest of the world – including Singapore, 16,000 km distant.

Yet in a continent where economic disparity is the rule and political stability is never a sure thing, Chile has a deserved reputation as a resource-rich country (copper, seafood, fruit and wine are major exports) where services – such as those provided by banks, utilities and transportation networks – actually function like they’re supposed to.

(RELATED: Chile winemakers embrace new frontiers for taste of terroir)

Despite the unique challenges of travel within a country that is 4,300 km long and just 180 km wide on average, the country’s infrastructure is among the best in Latin America. Since its return to democratic rule in 1990 (after a 16-year military dictatorship), Chile has emerged as a visitor destination with considerable appeal.

The capital city Santiago is cool and cosmopolitan, a modern metropolis defined by a changing skyline, vibrant neighbourhoods and citizens who are friendly and urbane. In the swanky Providencia district, the tallest building in Latin America, the 64-storey, 261-metre-high Gran Torre Santiago, stands alone – literally – as a harbinger of greater achievements to come.

On the flip side, Santiago and its seven-million residents have been hobbled by suffocating smog that literally brings the city to a standstill. In recent times, a string of earthquakes, floods and forest fires has afflicted various parts of the country. Throw in dozens of active volcanoes (among more than 2,000) and the threat of a natural disaster is never far away.

(RELATED: 10 remote hotels and resorts to escape from it all)

Even so, Chile’s allure as a world-class destination is undeniable. Visitors are quick to whip out the superlatives when describing places such as the remote Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; Atacama, a parched, inhospitable and mineral-rich expanse of desert in the north; and the famous wine regions spread over the central section of the country.

On the urban front Santiago’s bohemian cousin, the port city of Valparaiso, is hipster central and heaven for creative types. When you’re able to attract graffiti artists from around the world to spray paint exteriors throughout the city, you must be doing something right.

A tour of Chile is likely to include three of the top visitor destinations in the country, reflecting the remarkable diversity on offer:

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    Atacama Desert

    "Otherworldly" doesn't begin to describe Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), an area within northern Chile's Atacama Desert of windblown, sandy mountain ranges and stony, salt-encrusted dry lakes that could - and has - been used as a stand-in for the lunar surface. Over the years, film crews and NASA research teams have recreated moon landings and various other scenarios at the Valle, which is a short distance from the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, the main jumping off point for excursions into the desert. Here, on a high plateau starting at 2,500 m above sea level in an impossibly strange and spectacular landscape, visitors will discover what it's like to be left high and dry - literally. Atacama extends to more than 100,000 sq km and is often cited as the highest, driest desert in the world, with an average annual rainfall of just 15mm. A drive up to the altiplano (high plains) at around 4,000 m tells a different story altogether. Here, against a classic backdrop of mountains and volcanoes, herds of vicuna graze on hilly fields of grass while finches and flamingos, giant coots and Andean crested ducks forage for sustenance in the cool wetlands. It's an idyllic scene, one that will evoke a sense of awe at the wonders of nature.

Adapted from SPH – The Business Times