Chile is an anomaly. While the rest of Latin America is a developing tangle of traditional cultures, clogged cities, and vibrant chaos—the kind that makes just about anything an adventure—Chile is a calm string bean of a country stretching 2,653 miles north to south yet just a mere 110 miles wide. The country as a whole is safe, well structured, and naturally spectacular.
The heart of the country is Santiago. While 85% of Chileans live in urban areas, 40% live in the greater Santiago area. Santiago is a clean, modern, and efficient capital. Within South America, Santiago has the tallest tower, the largest metro, and one of the strongest economies. Travelers who’ve explored other capital cities in South America will be shocked by Santiago’s orderly fashion and comparatively high prices. It’s the ideal city for leisurely strolls and lazy days at the museum. (Read our article about things to do in Santiago.)
Though Santiago may drive the economy and house the population, it’s far from the country’s best destination (it’s worth noting, however, that Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was listed as one of South America’s top 25 attractions). To fully experience the best Chile has to offer, you need to dedicate some time to long road trips or frequent flights. If you make the effort, the natural wonders of Chile await.
In the North
Starting in southern Peru and continuing into northern Chile, the Atacama Desert is an arid expanse of sand dunes, geysers, mines, and mountains. It’s the driest place on Earth and correspondingly one of the best places for star gazing, space study, and experimenting with extraterrestrial equipment. Case in point: Isolated in the Atamaca desert at an eye-watering altitude of 16,600 feet above sea level is the largest astronomical project on Earth.
It’s also a surreal travel destination. The Atacama and surrounding region contain enough outdoor adventures to keep an intrepid traveler busy for weeks. Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile and the third largest in the world, following Salinas Grandes in Argentina and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. The ground is a sheet of salt, resembling a snow-covered field blindingly brilliant in the sunlight. In a world that seems inhabitable, flocks of flamingos gather in a national reserve, representing three of the six existing flamingo species: Andean, Chilean, and James Flamingo. Andean flamingos are easily identified by their yellow legs.
To feel out of this world without leaving the atmosphere, head to Moon Valley. While the salt flats seem eerily endless, Moon Valley is a desolate expanse of jagged rocks and sand sculptures twisted by the wailing wind. The best time to visit is right before sunset when the dipping sun transforms the surrounding volcanic peaks with soft swaths of rose, sherbet orange, and soothing pastel. A detour to El Tatio is an explosive experience; it’s the largest geyser field in South America, containing more than 80 active geysers.
In the Middle
From sun and sand to chilly powdered slopes, the Andes run right down the middle of Chile, creating a plethora of ski opportunities. Santiago itself is surrounded by snowcapped peaks, making a mountain weekend getaway a popular sporty add-on to capital visits. Resorts closest to the capital include Portillo, el Colorado, and Valle Nevado. The latter has the largest skiable area in South America—23,000 acres of winter adventure—and is only 34 miles from Santiago. Seasons are reversed in South America, so ski season in Chile falls during the North American summer.
South of Santiago you’ll find the Lake District and Chico Sur, a 600-mile long expanse of dense forests, deep lakes, and plenty of mountain trails. It may be the most naturally beautiful area in all of Chile and is a perfect place for camping or relaxing at a hidden lodge. Visiting the area properly can be difficult, as there are few large cities and sparse public transportation options. Travelers who want to get lost in nature should rent a car or book a tour ahead of time.
One of the most visited places in the Lake District is Pucon. Though it was once a relaxed bohemian town, it’s now a thriving travel resort attracting mainly domestic tourists from Santiago. The main street is populated with tour agencies, restaurants, grocery stores, and hotels. But these modern conveniences are there to assist in leaving it all behind. Pucon is surrounded by forests and situated between a lake and an active volcano. The combination creates endless adventure opportunities, everything from white water rafting to volcano trekking to horseback riding. And when you’re done, you can sooth your muscles in natural hot springs.
In the South
Dominating southern Chile is Patagonia, a wild region the size of Texas shared amongst Chile and Argentina. It’s a mix of pampas, ice fields, fjords, and hardy villages. The shining star of Chilean Patagonia is Torres del Paine National Park. Though the Lake District may be the most beautiful place in Chile, Patagonia is the most spectacular. Travelers journey to the tip of South America and battle the natural elements, including sudden temperature drops and swirling storms, to experience firsthand the region’s innate allure.
Torres del Paine is a UNESCO biosphere reserve containing 935 square miles crisscrossed by hiking trails. The most popular are the W Trek (3 to 4 days) and the Circuit (5 to 8 days), though there are numerous options. Backpackers can stay in rustic housing called refugios or carry their own outback equipment. The best time to hike in Patagonia is November through February—though this is also the peak visitor season. Experienced trekkers may want to visit during the shoulder season.
The town closest to Torres del Paine is Puerto Natales, located on Last Hope Sound. It’s one of a handful of towns in Patagonia that serve as a convenient base for Patagonia excursions.
In the Ocean
We’d be amiss if we overlooked Easter Island. Though the minuscule island sits over 2,300 miles from Chilean mainland, it’s one of the country’s most unique, mysterious, and desired destinations. Chile annexed the island in 1888 and it became part of the Valparaiso province in 1965, when islanders received the right to vote in Chilean elections. Today Easter Island houses 5-6,000 fulltime residents, many of which work in the tourism industry that, despite the prerequisite 5 hour flight from Santiago (the closest hub), is growing. The initial draw is the massive moai. These stone statues dot the island as patient sentries and have likely done so since 1300 AD. Easter Island has more than 300 moai and travelers can visit other sites of interest, such as the Rano Raraku quarry.
One reason the statues, and the island, are so intriguing is due to their isolation. Experts debate who first landed on Easter Island, how they go there, and how a society developed on an island only 10 by 15 miles large. It’s generally believed Polynesians landed on Easter Island around 700-1200 AD and through skilled agricultural management developed surplus, leading to caste development. The history is fuzzy from there, but a civil war followed by European contact and sequential exploitation was the downfall of Rapa Nui.
Today 85% of the island is covered by Rapa Nui National Park. In addition to historic and archeological attractions, Easter Island is a serene location with numerous outdoor activities such as scuba diving, horseback riding, and biking opportunities. Or, you can always just relax on the beach.
Have we convinced you yet? Speak to a Destination Expert about curating a tailor made Chile & Easter Island itinerary just for you, or check out our most popular Chile & Easter Island tours here.
Thanks to Claudia Ruiz for the title image of this blog.