When you think of Chile, what comes to mind? A picturesque white sand beach nestled amongst vibrant green jungle foliage? Or perhaps the more well-known region in the south called Patagonia, where glaciers make up a large portion of the land mass? For me, Chile is a place that teased my fascination, a land so distant, so unknown, I had to explore it. As a proficient traveler, it was a place I knew I wanted to go.
When the opportunity presented itself to visit the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, I jumped with excitement and disbelief. Geographically speaking, my understanding of the area was similar to that of California: Long and skinny, sharing its entire western edge with the Pacific Ocean. It was easy for me to lump the two places in the same general category. However, a quick look at the atlas revealed that Chile is actually much closer to the size of Texas, and with a population density of only 56 people per square mile, it is a stark contrast to California's 217. So despite my generalization, it was probably safe to say that the most pristine areas of Chile are largely wild and still unspoiled.
I embarked on the journey excited and nervous. This would be my very first opportunity to practice what little I remembered from junior-high Spanish classes. As my redeye flight touched down, I became consumed with the surreal desertlike landscapes that lay below. Literally a geographic extravaganza, Chile has it all: from sub-Antarctic regions in the far south, to lush green rainforests, to a Mediterranean heartland and the unbelievably vast northern deserts, some of which are considered to be the driest places on earth.
My invitation came via e-mail from Patricio Rios, the director of Raid Atacama, Chile's largest organized 4x4 gathering. You could classify it as the South American equivalent of Moab's Easter Jeep Safari, only they call it a "raid" instead of a safari. Raid Atacama lasts a full week and covers several hundred miles of desert track around the base camp located in the city of Copiapo (population 125,983). Copiapo is a thriving mining community known as the gateway to the rarely visited high deserts to the east. With less than 23 millimeters of rainfall annually, I found it hard to believe that the community could sustain life in such a barren region. The only trees to speak of were planted by man, and the surrounding lunarlike landscape reminded me of images taken on the planet Mars.
The single most important thing I learned from my week in Chile was the kind, welcoming nature of her people. From the very first day, I was accepted by everyone I encountered. Men, women, and children are easy-going and tolerant. The 4x4 scene wasn't at all what I expected. Chilean four-wheelers are typically the more affluent members of society. As such, most of them spoke English. This was great, as my lacking Spanish no longer plagued my confidence. Astronomers, business owners, mining engineers, and fruit exporters were just a few of the cultivated folks I was acquainted with right off the bat.
The Raid draws participants from all over Chile and even Argentina. Diesel is the primary fuel used for outback adventure; subsequently, I was salivating all week at the unique turbodiesel variants of vehicles available in the United States. Some 500 paid participants kicked off the event in fine Chilean style, dancing to popular music and drinking a potent grape derived brandy known as pisco.
Chile stretches some 2,700 miles along the southwestern coast of South America, a distance roughly the same as that from San Francisco to New York. At the same time, its width never exceeds 150 miles, making the country more than eighteen times longer than its widest point. Santiago is the capital and the largest city, with more than 5 million residents. Chilean culture follows American popular culture closely. Younger generations have grown accustom to all the modern conveniences of the First World. Cell phones, satellite television, and fast food are everywhere. Economic strength comes largely from copper excavation and produce exportation. Major trading partners include the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea, Netherlands, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and Argentina.