A narrow country with a wide range of environmental diversity, Chile is a stunning example of South American prosperity. Ice, mountains, deserts, jungles, the remotest island and urban metropolises classify Chile: it is a country of the extremest extremes. Human history in Chile is ancient, stemming back tens of thousands of years until the clash of indigenous and European populations in the 1400s.
Despite the domination of the Spanish conquistadors, some indigenous ethnic groups have survived and maintained their traditional ways of life. You will have plenty of chances to see the traditional music and dress of local cultures during your visit, and you 11 also be able to explore the ways of ancient populations at places such as Easter Island.
The well-established and maintained tourist infrastructure, coupled with the fact that Chile is considered the safest nation in Latin America, makes this country a perfect destination for tourists with an eye for culture and nature. Tourists can hike, bike, watch wildlife, snorkel and mountain climb all in one place. If you aren’t already a nature lover, one trip to Chile will change your mind.
01. Atacama Desert
With the touristy San Pedro de Atacama at its heart, the Atacama Desert has drawn in fascinated tourists from around the world for years. Well-known for being the world’s driest location, parts of the Atacama Desert haven’t received even the smallest bit of rain for as long as humans have been keeping track. The desert spans the northernmost part of Chile to the southern border of Peru and is an awe-inspiring piece of landscape that will remind you why you love to travel.
Once the sun is down, star lovers will have a field day (or night) with the stargazing opportunities in the Atacama Desert. Light pollution is unheard of here and the skies are always clear. You can go by yourself or go with an informative guide (inquire in San Pedro), but either way will be absolutely stunning.
The salt flats of Salar de Atacama form the biggest salt flat in the country. It includes pools of water (saltwater, of course) that will offer you a crystal clear reflection of the landscape. If you’re craving more saltwater or taking an actual swim, go to the Cejar Lagoon (located south of San Pedro) to float in the buoyant salty water for a while. Showers are located on site; come prepared for cold water temperatures.
If you are a morning person, El Tatio Geyser Field is for you. Go there as early as possible to watch the steam rise from the ground during sunrise, then warm up in the nearby thermal pool. Finally, Death Valley will be the perfect place for adventure seekers. Also located within fifteen minutes from San Pedro, the sand dunes here can be up to 100 meters high and offer spectacular sandboarding opportunities.
02. Easter Island
Best known for the moai, the millennium-old famous head (and sometimes body) statues that are distinctly recognizable. Almost all of the permanent Easter Island residents live in Hanga Roa, the only continuous settlement on the island, and the best place to jump off for your Easter Island exploration. It has a fascinating anthropological and political history, not to mention its unique landscape and ecosystem. The island is shrouded in mystery and legend, leading to tens of thousands of tourists to come see for themselves.
Part of the draw to see the moais of Easter Island is the mystery behind it – it isn’t known how exactly they were built and transported, the tallest measuring nearly 10 meters high, weighing as much as 82 tons. It is frequently thought that the trees of the island, some species of which were brought into extinction, were cut down to use for transportation. It is surely an amazing feat for the early Polynesian society. You can see them on hillsides and along the coast, some toppled over and others proudly erected. Some standing moais (all 15 located at Ahu Tongariki) feature bodies as well.
03. Torres del Paine National Park
Known in Spanish as Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, this stunning national park will awe you with its rock towers, eerie blue glaciers, gushing waterfalls, turquoise lakes and rocky mountains. This marvelous showcase of Chilean Patagonia was rightfully designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and can offer you a myriad of day hiking or longer backpacking trips. Some call it the best national park in all of South America – you’ll have to see for yourself where it gets its stellar reputation.
Glaciar Grey, a 4-kilometer long glacier that dazzles boatloads of tourists with its bright blue sides, is worth a visit. If you are feeling more athletic and independent, you can also kayak past it on Lago Grey. The Horns of Paine (Los Cuernos), three granite peaks that are considered the centerpiece of the park, are equally awe-inspiring. All of the park’s sights can be seen on the popular W Trek or through the entire Paine Circuit, both long hikes with overnights required.
Weather in Torres del Paine is typically changeable, often going from sunny to windy to stormy within a matter of hours, so pack your bag accordingly. Perhaps the most important contributor to the park’s popularity is its cushy infrastructure: weeklong hikes are made possible for even the most average of hikers, providing them with real beds, warm meals and nice bathrooms. With reservations made well in advance, you can be immersed in incredible nature without leaving behind your modern-day comforts.
Santiago is both the capital and the most populous city in Chile, with a whopping third of the entire Chilean population residing here. It has recently been revamped and updated, making it a beautiful city that is worth a visit rather than just a jumping off point for other Chilean sites. Characterized by diverse, mouthwatering cuisine, beautiful parks, modern cultural centers and its backdrop of the Andes Mountains, the new Santiago has something for everyone.
Visit-worthy spots near Plaza de Armas are plentiful. To get a feeling for the culture of pre- Columbian populations, visit the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. To see the colonial historical side, go to the Palacio de la Real de la Audencia, the building that was the Supreme Court of Chile until the early 1800s. For some great shopping and eating opportunities, head to Paseos Ahumada and Huérfanos.
To get a good birdseye view of Santiago, make your way to Cerro Santa Lucia, a fantastic park with lovely walks and a view that Charles Darwin himself enjoyed. For more hilltop sights go to Cerro San Cristobal, where the strikingly white, iconic statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción was erected and still stands.
Another important museum not to be missed is the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory & Human Rights, free admission), which is both fascinating and shocking. It openly displays human rights violations during the ruthless dictatorship between years 1973 and 1990. To appreciate the modern democracy, check out the Palacio de la Moneda, where the presidential offices are located.
Easily recognized by its array of brightly colored houses practically piled on top of each other, impressively vibrant street art on many exterior walls, and its sunny harbor location, Valparaiso is sometimes regarded more highly than Santiago. It certainly has been the focus of more intrigue, with equally colorful ascensores (funiculars) running up the steep hillsides where streets can’t quite make the climb. Valparaiso is notorious for snatching the interest of unsuspecting visitors, causing them to stay much longer than they had planned.
The historic center of Valparaiso is Plaza Matriz, with the Iglesia La Matriz, a church from 1837, overlooking the square. Surprisingly near to the church are streets lined with brothels, illustrating a stark side-by-side contrast that has always been present in this city.
In a vibrant city like Valparaiso, seeing some art and beautiful views are a must – experience both by visiting La Sebastiana, the house of famous artist Pablo Neruda. His house has spectacular views of the harbor and includes interesting collections and artwork.
With the still-active, smoking Villarrica Volcano in the background, Pucon has an atmosphere of danger that clearly fulfills the role of best adventure sports city in Peru and offers adventurous attractions at all times of year. The town of Pucon is an expert in pampering guests, so you can expect to have a comfortable time here – when you’re not climbing cliffs, slipping down waterfalls or rafting through rapids, that is.
In the wintertime, skiing and snowboarding opportunities abound, but so does dog sledding. If you prefer a different animal-based adventure, horseback riding is available for either a full day or half day – or, if you are experienced and want a longer adventure, you could go for a whopping 9-day horse trek.
Villarrica Volcano is also worth a trip and will charge you with equal amounts of adrenalin – especially considering the fact that its last eruption was as recently as March of 2015. You can hike up the volcano in the summer (if the weather is bad, however, they won’t allow you to try), or in the winter you can rent skis or a snowboard to take advantage of the snowy mountainside. No matter what you decide to do, the opportunities are endless in Pucon.
07. Vina del Mar
Although its name refers to vineyards, this city is now known as the City of Gardens due to its extensive green areas, lovely beaches and luxurious palaces. It stands in stark contrast to its chaotic neighbor, Valparaiso, in that it is orderly, well kept, pleasant and peaceful. While it is certainly a lovely city, there is not too much in terms of deeper cultural layers, making it the perfect beach resort for a day or two’s visit, but probably not much more than that.
The Wulff Castle, or Castillo Wulff, is a 20th century piece of architecture that is beautiful in both appearance and location. The art exhibition inside is interesting, as is the view below your feet if you make it up to the tower.
In all honesty, however, most people don’t come to Vina del Mar for the cultural attraction – they come for the beaches and pleasant atmosphere. You will find that it is altogether enjoyable, comfortable and peaceful here, and a day well spent laying on the white sandy beaches. If you’re visiting in late February, you’re in for a real treat: the International Song Festival, one of the biggest musical events in Latin America, is held here each year in the third week of February.
08. Puerto Varas
The counterpart to Pucon, Puerto Varas is a hub of adventure tourism with not one but two volcanoes looming in the background. This is a place people come to for the available activities. It is in a prime location for adventure sports of all kinds, but it has a distinctly different feel than Pucon due to its influential German colonial style. You might forget you’re in South America altogether and think you’ve been transported all the way over to continental Europe.
One noteworthy event is the celebration of the city’s founding in 1854. It is celebrated at the end of January and the beginning of February, so if you are visiting during that time you will need to check out the festivities.
09. Chiloe Island
Chiloe Island, also known as Isla Grande (the Great Island) of the Chiloe Archipelago, has a fascinating history and culture that is highly distinct from mainland Chile. From food to architecture, from spiritual culture to landscape, Chiloe is a place in its own right, making a unique and exciting spot to visit for holiday makers. You will be stunned by its notorious morning fogs and proud Chilote people, as well as its ecosystem and flora. Tread lightly on this island – it sure feels like you’re not in Chile anymore.
A visit to Castro will bring you to a town that is as urban as any Chiloe towns can hope to be. It forms the capital of the Chiloe archipelago and is a mixture of modern and traditional, with the best view of the stilted structures called palafitos. The Iglesia San Francisco de Castro is one of the churches that qualify as a UNESCO site, and you will easily see why.
While on the island be sure to taste the local cuisine and do some whale watching, as well as kayaking in the Chepu Valley (which includes a sunken forest). There are also a number of hiking opportunities in Parque Nacional Chiloe.
An important university town and the capital city of Los Rios, Valdivia has a young energetic vibe unlike any other Chilean city. Although this was the landing point for thousands of Germans during the 1800s, the Germanic legacy and architecture is not as pronounced as in other towns (such as Puerto Varas). It is located along the seaside and stems back to the 1500s and is a pleasant and interesting city with many museums, cafes and public buildings.
The “heart” of Valdivia is actually along the waterfront; specifically, where Rio Valdivia connects to Río Cau Cau and Río Calle Calle. You can ride a ferry along these rivers, which is a popular experience amongst tourists. After that you should get a midday snack at the Mercado Fluvial, which is where lots of fresh fruits and vegetables are bought and sold. Expect to see humans, seagulls and sea lions all greedily eating here. You can also cross the street and buy some of the locals’ handiwork at Mercado Municipal.
Isla Teja, which can be reached by crossing the Pedro de Valdivia bridge, houses stunning views and informative museums. The three museums here are the Museo Hístorico y Antropológico (the most beloved of the three), the Museo de la Exploración R.A. Philippi and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo.
In order to appreciate this area’s German heritage, be sure not to miss a tour of the Cervecería Kunstmann, which includes some nice freebies and samples as well as an interesting history of the beer provided. Ten different brews are available here, as well as some typical German meals such as sauerkraut and spaetzle – but don’t expect to actually see any Germans.