Chile is geographically like an island, but rather than being enclosed by the sea at all sides, formidable landscapes isolate this narrow, western slice of South America. Chile is walled off by the steep ridges of the Andean Mountains to the east, bordered by the frigid Humboldt Current of the Pacific Ocean to the west, scorched by the driest desert on the planet, the Atacama, to the north, and the ice-covered landmass that is Antarctica lying to the south.

This isolation has created a unique suite of flora and fauna found nowhere else, and its narrowness means you can traverse this country in a single day, riding switchbacks up the high mountains of the Andes and ending on the coast, watching the sunset on a Pacific island dotted with penguins.

The Andean Mountains with the author's motorcycle.
The Andean Mountains extend the length of South America, making up the longest coastal mountain range in the world, with an average height of approximately 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).Janelle Kaz

Kickstands up, leaving from Santiago and heading east, you’ll ascend 42 steep, hairpin curves that will lead you to the top of the El Plomo mountain range. Here you’ll find a few ski resorts, some cozy ski-town restaurants, and incredible views.

The Cordillera of mountains just east of Santiago.
The Cordillera of mountains just east of Santiago.Janelle Kaz

Few know that the peak of this mountain, Cerro El Plomo, was used as a ceremonial site by the Incas in a practice called Capacocha. This ceremony was one of child sacrifices, alongside offerings of gold, silver, and other precious artifacts. Due to the freezing temperatures on the tops of these mountains, the remains from these rituals are typically very well preserved. In 1954, the mummified body of a 9-year-old boy was discovered, now known as the "Plomo Mummy." Without written records, it is unknown what the motivation or intention for this practice was.

Riding through those mountain switchbacks, you are likely to see wild foxes. I pulled my bike over to watch them and was shocked to see how close they came to me on my motorcycle, showing no fear.

Whenever a vehicle drove by, their ears perked up and they trotted out to the road, approaching the cars and vans full of tourists. This is a sign of habituation, which happens when an animal is exposed to a stimulus so many times it loses sensitivity or stops viewing the stimulus as a threat. This behavior is clearly a result of being fed and these clever foxes were making the most out of any opportunity for food to be thrown out the window by passersby.

Fox with the author in the Chile mountains.
One of the foxes you may see while snaking through the 42 switchbacks.Janelle Kaz

Although I was delighted to see them (I saw three), it is alarming that they are so used to being fed by people that they now associate cars with food. This is problematic for many reasons.

Unless you’re hunting down one of their natural prey species (such as a rodent), the scrap food you’re sharing with them is corrupting their natural diet and their health.

More importantly, feeding wildlife disrupts the balance of the ecosystem to which all things are connected. You’re not just changing the day or lives of those individual foxes, but changing the entirety of the food chain they belong to. Predators, like foxes, and prey usually balance each other out on a landscape, but that balance is easily upset when we feed predators. With extra food from people, their numbers can increase and become artificially high, resulting in too many predators, thereby making them dependent on artificial food sources and outstripping the landscape of natural resources lower on the food chain.

So, please enjoy the wildlife but don’t give in to the temptation to feed them and share the message if you see others doing so.

Interestingly, South American foxes are not true foxes (Vulpes) but of a unique canid genus (Lycalopex) related to wolves and jackals. There was once a domestic companion known as the Fuegian dog, domesticated from the Andean fox, used by the indigenous to hunt otters and to cuddle with for warmth. Now extinct, apparently they were exterminated by Spanish settlers for being aggressive toward their goats.

Hopping back on the road, the descending switchbacks will snake you back down the mountain, heading west. The ascending trucks have the right-of-way, so make sure to leave plenty of room for them to make the turn.

Just west of Santiago, Casablanca is revered as a cool-climate wine valley.
Just west of Santiago, Casablanca is revered as a cool-climate wine valley.Janelle Kaz

Once down the mountain, you’ll have to pass through the northern end of the metropolis that is Santiago, with only about 134 kilometers (83.3 miles) to reach your next destination, Casablanca. The beauty of Casablanca is within its excellent vineyards.

A flight tasting at Emiliana, Chile’s largest organic vineyard.
A flight tasting at Emiliana, Chile’s largest organic vineyard.Janelle Kaz

Make sure to visit Emiliana, as not only is this the largest organic winery in Chile, but it has an outstanding restaurant using locally grown produce and “bio-dynamic” techniques perfected by the viticulturalists on site. It is important to recognize the agriculturalists who give back to the land, ensuring its nourishment far into the future. They also have quite a few adorable alpacas living on the land, as their valuable manure is incorporated into the composted fertilizer for the grapes.

Alpaca in Chile.
Alpaca manure is used to improve soil health as well as reduce disease and pest problems.Janelle Kaz
The entrance to Emiliana vineyard in Casablanca, Chile.
The entrance to Emiliana vineyard in Casablanca, Chile.Janelle Kaz

Glorious back roads await, out past another beautiful vineyard known as Casas del Bosque, which will lead you to some lovely country scenes overlooking the many vineyards of Casablanca. One of these roads is particularly wonderful, though will turn into dirt (rather unexpectedly) if you continue on it toward San Antonio, instead of making the loop that will keep you going toward our next stop, Valparaíso.

Valparaíso is a coastal city full of enchanting colors, steep hills lined with lovely dilapidated architecture, street art, and truly run by dogs.

The eclectic, colorful streets of Valparaíso, Chile.
The eclectic, colorful streets of Valparaíso, Chile.Janelle Kaz

There’s something about motorcycles that ignites in canines a primal urge to attack. Don’t be surprised if you’re chased by packs of roaming, well-fed dogs around every corner. Therefore, seeing this city is highly recommended but try to avoid riding around the interior of it for exactly this reason.

Streets lined with dilapidation throughout “Valpo,” as Valparaíso is known to locals.
The streets are lined with an enjoyable mix of creepy yet lovely dilapidation throughout “Valpo,” as Valparaíso is known to locals.Janelle Kaz

For lunch there are a few restaurants along "La Caleta" which is basically the cove where all the fresh seafood comes in. Here you can try some local favorites, like ceviche and a Chilean empanada. Later, head to Fauna in Cerro Alegre for some incredible food, drinks, and a gorgeous sunset view. There is no shortage of accommodation options here in Valparaíso.

Sunset view from Fauna in Cerro Alegre, Valparaíso.
If these buildings could talk; sunset view from Fauna in Cerro Alegre, Valparaíso.Janelle Kaz

Further north, the road is lovely and winding, leading you to Maitencillo, a small beach town that feels quite similar to those on the coast of northern California. In Maitencillo, a good stop for a break is at Cafe Chungungo, where the tables extend out directly on the beach.

"Chungungo" is the word for the endangered marine otter (Lontra felina), and here on the coast, the Chinchimén organization is rehabilitating rescued, orphaned otters to prepare them for life in the wild. This is a long (18 months) and arduous job, because baby otters learn everything from their mothers, and without one, their learning curve is a bit slower.

Baby Chungita, an orphaned, endangered marine otter who later became the first otter to ever be rehabilitated and released into the wild in Chile.
Baby Chungita, an orphaned, endangered marine otter who later became the first otter to ever be rehabilitated and released into the wild in Chile.Janelle Kaz
Otter at nonprofit organization.
Volunteers or the nonprofit organization, Chinchimén, work tirelessly to care for otters as they prepare them for life in the wild.Janelle Kaz

In the summer (Southern Hemisphere), Chinchimén sets up aquariums on the beach for the children (and adults, if you’re like me) to come learn about the small animals that live in the water here on the coast of central Chile.

When it is time to let the urchins, crabs, invertebrates, and other collected creatures go, all the children take part in releasing them back into the wild. The volunteers of Chinchimén have noticed a change in some of the children; they have become guardians, passing on knowledge of the animals and how to keep them safe. This amazing organization is not only dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of endangered otters back into the wild, but also raising awareness, educating the public, and increasing empathy among children.

The small coastal town of Maitencillo on a blue sky day in April.
The small coastal town of Maitencillo on a blue sky day in April.Janelle Kaz

Further up the coastal highway, you'll find a small town called Cachagua. On the north end of the beach is an area called Los Pingüinos. There is a stone pathway, not far from where you'll park your bike that will give you a better view of the island, which is speckled with penguins. These are Humboldt penguins, a smaller sized penguin which thrive in the frigid Humboldt Current of the Chilean coast. This is an excellent stop for a guaranteed sighting of penguins in the wild.

Humboldt penguins line the shores of this small island off the coast of Cachagua, central Chile.
Humboldt penguins line the shores of this small island off the coast of Cachagua, central Chile.Janelle Kaz

A stone pathway links the beach of Los Pinguinos to that of Zapallar, a gorgeous and peaceful beach town. There is an upscale restaurant directly on the beach where you are likely to feel delightfully out of place in your riding gear, especially among the more affluent crowd that makes this beach their getaway home.

Zapallar is a quaint and scenic town, with a lovely coastal pathway that extends the length of its shore.
Zapallar is a quaint and scenic town, with a lovely coastal pathway that extends the length of its shore.Janelle Kaz

After Zapallar, there is a quick way back to Santiago or you could make the more pleasant loop back through Los Andes, a quaint mountain town surrounded by vineyards. If you have the time and the weather is good in the high Andes, the route east of Los Andes will cross you over to Mendoza, Argentina, by way of Portillo.

Not often do you get to span such different landscapes and altitudes in a single day, curving up alpine mountain switchbacks in the company of foxes and descending through vineyards to beaches and islands home to penguins. Chile has much to behold in this regard, and with the best pavement and most infrastructure in South America.