It's easy to let your imagination get the best of you in Chile, especially when you find yourself—as I did—camped at 14,150 feet in a corridor of volcanoes in the Norte Grande, the country's arid northernmost region, with Bolivia and a scattering of minefields, planted in 1973 to discourage Bolivians from entering Chile, about five miles to the east; El Chupacabra, a chicken- and sheep-killing machine that's hyped by the media as some sort of mythical beast (but is probably just a pack of wild dogs) rumored to be due west; and your guide's Toyota pickup, with a dead battery, between you and the El Tatio geysers three miles to the north. Its wilderness is so vast and unexplored, and its history so rich, that you have to will yourself not to get swallowed up by your own insignificance.
Chile is a sliver of land that averages just 110 miles in width but occupies more than half of South America's Pacific coastline; all told, it contains 32 national parks, 47 nature preserves, and 13 national monuments, covering a total of 38.8 million acres—about 20 percent of the country. Add Parque Pumalín, American clothing magnate Doug Tompkins's 1,042-square-mile private eco-playground in northernmost Patagonia, and it starts to seem like Chile is one giant wilderness reserve. And for foreign visitors, who have only had access to the country for the last ten years, it might as well be a mapless frontier. Tourists stayed away during the 1970s and 1980s, while the regime of General Augusto Pinochet brutally suppressed its left-wing and centrist opposition. But Pinochet was voted out of office in 1989, and the democrats who replaced him, including current president Ricardo Lagos Escobar, are promoting tourism. Now that it's open, what you'll need to take advantage of wild Chile is a couple weeks' vacation time, a sizable chunk of change (expect U.S. prices), and an attitude adjustment. Since local entrepreneurs are only just beginning to tap into the adventure-travel market, the going can be rough, which means getting to your adventure will probably be an adventure in itself. (Need I remind you of the ill-timed dead truck battery?) In towns like San Pedro de Atacama, the hub for exploring the Atacama Desert, all that's needed to set up shop as a "guide" for mountain-bike rides, volcano hikes, or geyser tours is a catchy advertisement on the side of a four-wheel-drive truck (in other words, first-aid and safety training may not be a priority). Chilean adventure means minimalism and self-reliance, so if you decide to hire a guide, he'll likely expect you to fend for yourself. Whether you interpret such behavior as capriciousness or hard-core adventure, enduring it is a price you must occasionally pay.
I spent a few weeks ferreting out adventure in some of Chile's wildest, most diverse regions, including the gorgeous, Alaska-scale wilderness of Torres del Paine National Park, where you can stage a hut-to-hut trek over a glacier and climb 8,000-foot-plus granite spires; northern Patagonia's General Carrera Lake, a remote body of water in a region with mountainbiking, fly-fishing, and sea kayaking, where the concept of visitors is so new that there's only one road, still unfinished after ten years of construction; and the volcanoes and salt bed of the Atacama Desert, arguably the most desolate part of the country.