Geographically quite isolated, Chile is dominated by a combination of the Andes Mountains, a long Pacific coastline, the dry, elevated Atacama Desert in the north and the dense forests in the south.
Gardens to see and visit in Chile feature a mix of colonial Spanish and European influences, which you can see in rose gardens and the wineries (estancia) estate gardens. On private garden tours around Valparaíso and Viña del Mar you may also see gardens in the newer, more natural "Gardens Landscapes" style of landscape architect Juan Grimm.
Garden Travel Guide to Chile
Geography and population of Chile
Chile’s long and narrow territory, on the western side of the southern tip of South America, stretches for 4,200 kms from north to south between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The current population is about 18 million, mostly in continental Chile.
The capital city, Santiago, has a spectacular backdrop of the Andes, and has maintained its old world charm within a first world infrastructure. There are a number of ski resorts within half an hour of the city and Chilean wine country surrounds the city on three sides. Just outside Santiago is the portside town of Valparaiso which was a major port town for trade between the Pacific and Atlantic and became known as ‘Little San Francisco’.
The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile is one of the driest places on earth. On the odd occasion when rain does come to the desert, the region breaks out into a sea of spectacular wildflowers. The oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama was built almost entirely of adobe (mud) bricks and is the base for exploring the vibrant landscapes of the surrounding desert and volcanoes reaching heights of almost 7,000 metres (22,500 feet).
Further south lies the Lake District – a natural playground of tranquil lakes, raging rivers and ancient forests. This southern region is the seat of Chilean culture and home of the fearsome Mapuche people who remained defiant to the Spanish colonial powers for 300 years.
Patagonia in Southern Chile is one of the highlight destinations of Chile with its spectacular and dramatic scenery and unique wildlife. Torres del Paine National Park with its towering peaks and glaciers is probably Chile’s most famous attraction and an ideal place for trekking.
Easter Island (Rapa Nui), 3,600km west of the mainland is one of the world’s archaeological and historical jewels, known primarily for the Moai stone statues. The island is a living open-air museum of archaeological, historical and anthropological interest.
Climate of Chile
Chile stretches so far from north to south that the climate varies greatly from one region to another. In the North Zone, from Arica to La Serena, the climate is in general mild and dry. Temperatures range between 14 and 18 degrees Celcius in winter and between 18 and 30 degrees in summer. The Atacama is famously the driest place on earth with some weather stations never having recorded rain, but the arid area stretches down to the coast and even La Serena at the southern end of this region records only 100mm of rain annually, all in the winter, and much of it as morning sea mist.
In the Central Zone, from La Serena to Puerto Montt, seasons are well defined with a Mediterranean style climate of cooler wet winters and warm dry summers. At Santiago the winter temperatures range from 4 overnight to 15 degrees maximum, but a daily range of 13 to 30 degrees Celsius in the summer. At the southern end of this region near Puerto Montt the rainfall is higher and has winter minimum temperatures down to zero.
The Austral Zone south of Puerto Montt is much colder, and gradually colder as you travel southbound. Summer runs from December to February but even on the coast doesn’t rise above 15 degrees C. Puerto Williams may reach -15 degrees in the winter.
When to Visit Chile
Northern Chile is relatively mild and accessible all year round, but Santiago and Valparaiso are best visited from mid-spring to mid-autumn, between October and March when temperatures are warmer and rainfall is lower. Patagonia is also best visited in the Southern Hemisphere summer months of December to March. Some areas remain open year round in Patagonia, but in winter the range of activities is much more limited and most visitors should avoid the very cold months of May to September.
Although rainfall can never be guaranteed, the months with the best chance of rain in the Atacama Desert, if it falls at all, are between September and November.
January to March is peak season for Easter Island but October to December and April to June are good time to go as well. The Tapati Rapa Nui festival is held during February.
Vegetation of Chile
The indigenous plant life of Chile varies according to climatic zone.
The northern region has few varieties of vegetation (such as brambles and cacti) and is one of Earth’s best examples of an absolute desert as it is completely barren along part of the coast between Arica and Copiapó, but with a coarse scanty vegetation near the Cordilleras along watercourses and on the slopes where moisture from the melting snows above percolates through the sand.
The higher summits of the Andes afford a larger and more continuous supply of water, and so dependent are the people in the cultivated river valleys on this source of water supply that they watch for snowstorms in the Cordilleras as an indication of what the coming season is to be. The arborescent growth near the mountains is larger and more vigorous, but the only shrub to be found on the coast is a species of Skytanthus.
To some degree the flora of central Chile is of a transition character between the northern and southern zones. But it has a large number of genera and species peculiarly its own. The more humid Central Valley supports several species of cacti, espino (a thorny shrub), grasses, and the Chilean pine, which bears edible nuts.
The evergreens largely predominate here as well as in the extreme south, and on the open, sunburnt plains the vegetation takes on a sub-tropical aspect. One of the most characteristic trees of this zone is the peumo (Cryptocarya alba), whose dense evergreen foliage is everywhere conspicuous. The quillay (Quillaja saponaria) is another characteristic evergreen tree of this region, whose bark possesses saponaceous properties. In earlier times the coquito palm (Jubaea chilensis) was to be found throughout this part of Chile, but it is almost completely extinct due to the destructive extraction process of its sweet sap, from which a syrup is made. Through the central zone the plains are open and there are forests on the mountain slopes.
South of Valdivia are dense rain forests containing laurel, magnolia, false beech, and various species of conifers. In the extreme south, a steppe vegetation of grasses is found.
One of the most striking forest trees is the pehuén or Chilean pine (Araucaria araucana), which often grows to a height of 100 ft. and is prized by the natives for its fruit. Three native species of the genus Nothofagus are widely diffused and highly prized for their wood, especially the first, which is misleadingly called roble (oak).
In the southern zone there are no plains and the forests are universal. They are made up, in great part, of the evergreen beech (Nothofagus betuloides), the deciduous antarctic beech (Nothofagus antarctica) and Winter’s bark (Drimys winteri), intermingled with a dense undergrowth composed of a great variety of shrubs and plants, among which are Maytenus magellanica, Gaultheria mucronata, Berberis buxifolia, wild currant (Ribes magellanicum), a trailing blackberry, tree ferns, reed-like grasses and innumerable parasites (including species of the genus Misodendron).
A peculiar vegetable product of this inclement region is a small globular fungus growing on the bark of the beech, which is a staple article of food among the Fuegians—probably the only instance where a fungus is the bread of a people.
Animal life is less diversified than in other parts of South America because of the barrier to migration presented by the Andes. Indigenous mammals include llama, alpaca, vicuna, guanaco, puma, Andean wolf, huemal (a large deer), pudu (a small deer), and the chinchilla. Birdlife is varied, but most of the larger South American types are absent. Aside from trout, which were introduced from North America, few freshwater fish inhabit Chilean streams and lakes. The coastal waters abound in fish and marine animals.
Chile Garden Styles
Chile is a land of stunning scenery, with the alps providing a wonderful backdrop. The historic wine-growing estancias tend to mostly of European style, with geometric designs roses, clipped hedges and shrubs and mature trees.
Contemporary designers such as landscape architect Juan Grimm are taking a different approach and working with the beauty of the surrounding landscape, creating large estate gardens with exquisite stonework, lakes, massed shrubs and trees (including many local species) and flowing, sinuous lines.
Best gardens to visit in Chile
Best gardens to visit in Santiago and central Chile
• Parque Araucano Rose Gardens
• Japanese Gardens on San Cristobel Hill
• Viña Santa Rita – winery in the Maipo Valley. Half day tours of winery and gardens
• Viña Conchay Y Toro – winery with 1 hour gardens, estate house, cellar and vineyard tour $19USD. English (6 daily), Spanish and Portuguese tours. Prebooking advisable. Pirque, Santiago.
• Viña Balduzzi, San Javier – winery with large gardens and colonial buildings. Paid tours
• Restuarant Parque Antumalal – explore the extensive gardens if you’re dining at the restaurant. Pecon, Araucania
Best gardens to visit in coastal Valparaíso and Viña del Mar (called the Garden City’)
The old coastal port of Valparaíso is known for its colourful buildings and artistic, bohemian style. The nearby newer city of Viña del Mar has a wonderful botanical garden and a flowering clock, Reloj de Flores, near Caleta Abarca beach.
• Viña del Mar Botanical Gardens, Camino El Olivar 305 in Viña del Mar. 360 hectare garden with a lagoon, curved stone bridge, small waterfalls, mature trees, native Chilean flora, endemic cactus collection. Very popular for family picnics and barbecues.
• Leading Chilean landscape designer Juan Grimm occasionally hosts tours in hacienda gardens, and his own brilliant coastal retreat overlooking the Pacific.
Getting to/from/around in Chile
Airport taxis and shuttle services are available in all Chilean Cities. In Santiago, there is also a bus service from the airport to the downtown area. Taxis and bus transport is available in all Chilean cities.
Train travel is limited and centres around Santiago as much of the original track network is now unused. Chile’s biggest bus company is Tur Bus offering services throughout the country.
Conveniences/water/power/public amenities in Chile
Business hours vary from city to city but is typically 9.00am to 5.00 pm but closed for a 2 hour lunch.
The electricity in Chile is 220v, 50Hz. The plug is a 2 or 3 round pin type as is used in Europe.
Public phone boxes are unreliable. Mobile phone coverage is good in built-up areas, less so outside of the towns.
Fun Fact about Chile
Valparaiso was home to Latin America’s first stock exchange and now the world’s longest continuously printed Spanish Language newspaper.
Whilst travelling in South America, we came across this intriguing plant by the name of Llareta – the Spanish name for the Yareta – Azorella compacta. It was highly conspicuous on the rocky and seemingly infertile mountainsides in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Only growing at high altitudes between 3200 m and 4500 m., the plants […]
We recently returned from an eight-week odyssey to South America – it was one of those ‘bucket list’ things that had been gestating for quite a while. Once the ‘retired’ flag went up, we were off. It’s a sign of satisfaction putting that ‘R’ word in occupation on immigration forms! Concentrating mainly on the west […]
Everyone responds to the gardens of Juan Grimm – leading South American designer – and I often wonder at their beauty and the reasons for their success. It is in his plantings and landscaping that we see how he harmonises with nature. In the garden at Melipilla, about an hour south of Santiago in Chile, […]
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