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Chile's Ecosystems

Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean with a width that averages just 180km (112 miles) and some 4,830km (3,000 miles) of land, stretching from the arid northern desert to the wild desolation of Patagonia, Chile encompasses a dazzling array of landscapes and temperate zones. It is hard to believe such variation can exist in just one country; in fact, the only zone not found here is tropical.

The central region of Chile, including Santiago and its environs, features a mild, Mediterranean climate, reminiscent of California, while the Atacama region claims the world's driest desert, a beautiful "wasteland" set below a chain of purple and pink volcanoes and high-altitude salt flats. The Atacama Desert sits at altitudes of 2,000m (6,560 ft.) and up. The extreme climate and the geological forces at work in this region have produced far-out land formations and superlatives such as the highest geyser field in the world.

Few destinations in the world rival the lush scenery of Chile's Lake District. Over 10,000 years ago, retreating glaciers formed barriers of rock producing magnificent lakes and perfect conical, snowcapped volcanoes that burst skyward from beneath the glacial shield here. Today the Lake District is a dense, temperate, rainforest ecosystem packed with thick groves of native forest and shimmering lakes. Across the sound from the emerald rolling hills of Chiloé sits Chile's "frontier" highway, commonly known as the Carretera Austral, where tiny villages are speckled among thick virgin rainforest and waterfalls descend from rugged peaks.

Also known as the Magallanes Region, Patagonia is characterized by vast open steppe; colossal Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields and hundreds of mighty glaciers; the peaks of the Andes, fading into the southern Pacific Ocean at their terminus; emerald fjords; and wind, wind, wind. At lower altitudes, valley ecosystems comprised of granite rocks have been chafed by glaciations and sedimentary deposits. Vegetation here is characterized by temperate, evergreen forests. There is no dry season, and rainfall is constant.

Easter Island, or "Rapa Nui," is the most remote island in the world, located farthest away from land than any other. With its distinctive ecosystem, comprised of subtropical forests and scant precipitation, this largely volcanic island is composed of three extinct volcanoes and a number of volcanic craters and caves, and is carpeted with grasslands. Recently, Easter Island has suffered from soil erosion as a result of mass deforestation that is denuding the landscape of its statuesque palm forests.

Flora and Fauna

Chile's climatic and topographical features correspond to defined botanical regions that boast a rich diversity of flora. Ethereal Atacama, which extends from the far north into Bolivia, is a desolate, lunar landscape where at higher altitudes cacti provide the only vegetation. In the central regions, greater rainfall and a humid environment produce shrubbery and trees with leaves known as sclerohyllous ("hard" leaves that facilitate a greater absorption of water). Predominant tree species include the guayacan, litre, lun, and peumo. The central valley is also characterized by hard espinos, a species of cactus, as well as the endangered Chilean palm, which can be seen in abundance at Parque Nacional La Campana.

Desert brush lands sweep the altiplano (a high Andean plateau comprised of intermontane basins), which yield to more verdant grasslands on the lower slopes of the Andes. In the region south of the Bío-Bío River, temperate rainforests with high precipitation have yielded over 45 species of endemic trees. Magnolias, laurels, oaks, conifers, and beeches thrive in the dense forests here, but perhaps the most striking is the distinctive monkey puzzle tree (araucaria), Chile's national tree.

The frigid temperatures and violent winds of Patagonia preclude a rich diversity of forestation. The coigüe, lenga, and ñirre are the three principal endemic tree species of Patagonian forests. The coicopihue (Philesia magellanica) yields Chile's national flower, the scarlet Chilean bellflower (copihue).

Only a handful of Latin America's characteristic fauna are to be found in Chile. Larger (and very elusive) mammals include the puma and the cougar, while the llamalike guanacos and vicuñas, the Patagonian mountain deer known as a huemul, the vizcacha rodent, and cunning chilla fox are more visible. The pudu, the world's smallest deer, inhabits dense forest regions along with several other species of marsupial, but they are very difficult to spot. Chile's waters harbor a rich variety of fish and an abundance of marine species and waterfowl ranging from frolicking seals and sea lions to playful dolphins and sea otters, magnificent whales, and penguins.

Searching for Wildlife

Various animals in the forests here are predominantly nocturnal. When they are active in the daytime, they are usually elusive and on the watch for predators. Birds are easier to spot in clearings or secondary forests than they are in primary forests. The vast open spaces of the altiplano and immense steppe of Patagonia are especially conducive to wildlife-watching. In the Atacama region, many species -- flamingos, vicuñas, and guanacos -- are easily encountered close to water sources such as lagoons, lakes, and oases.

Here are a few helpful hints for wildlife-watching in Chile:

  • Listen. Pay attention to rustling in the leaves; whether it's a Magellanic woodpecker in Torres del Paine National Park or a guanaco scurrying across the altiplano, you're most likely to hear an animal before seeing one.
  • Keep quiet. Noise will scare off animals and prevent you from hearing their movements and calls.
  • Don't try too hard. Soften your focus and allow your peripheral vision to take over. This way you can catch glimpses of motion and then focus in on the prey.
  • Bring binoculars. It's also a good idea to practice a little first to get the hang of them. It would be a shame to be fiddling around and staring into space while everyone else in your group oohs and aahs over a condor.
  • Dress appropriately. You'll have a hard time focusing your binoculars if you're busy swatting flies. Light, long pants and long-sleeved shirts are your best bet. Comfortable hiking boots are a real boon, except where heavy rubber boots are necessary. Avoid loud colors; the better you blend in with your surroundings, the better your chances are of spotting wildlife.
  • Be patient. The forest isn't on a schedule. However, your best shots at seeing forest fauna are in the very early morning and late afternoon hours.
  • Read up. Familiarize yourself with what you're most likely to see -- most hotels and lodges have field guides to Chile.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.