With the launch of direct British Airways flights to Santiago de Chile in 2017, Chile's popularity has continued to grow. And with good reason too - this thin strip of land is home to breathtaking national parks, towering ice-blue glaciers, cinematic Mars-like landscapes and a cosmopolitan capital city that boasts one of the most magnificent urban vistas in the world. The wine isn't bad either... But with so much on offer, how do you narrow down the best places to visit in Chile?
Chile can broadly be divided into three distinct sections; the arid north, the fertile wine growing centre and the huge expanse of Patagonia, which covers the entire southern half of the country. Added to that is the mysterious Easter Island, located over 2,000 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, the capital Santiago is located somewhere near the middle, offering us easier connections between these wonderful places.
According to our experience, the most popular places in Chile are the Torres del Paine national park in Southern Patagonia, the Lake District at the top of Patagonia and the Atacama Desert near the Bolivian border in the north. Together with the capital Santiago and usually the colourful port city of Valparaiso, they form the basis for most trips here.
1. Discover the other-worldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert
Northern Chile is dominated by the sprawling Atacama Desert, which accounts for much of the territory below Peru and Bolivia and is the driest non-polar desert in the world. It is reached by Calama airport and most visitors stay in the charming town of San Pedro de Atacama. From here there are numerous places of interest to visit, our favourites being the cinematic Moon Valley, the equally impressive Death Valley and the huge Salar de Atamaca (salt flat). Days here can start as early as 5am, for the two hour drive to the Tatio Geysers, the third largest and highest geyser field in the world, and they can end past midnight if you want to enjoy the world class stargazing facilities nearby. The Atacama Desert is also one of the best places to watch the sun go down, with the huge rock formations and distant Andes tinged soft hues of pink and fiery orange. The Moon Valley and Death Valley are great places to see this, but one of our preferred spots is Pucara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian archaeological site, from where we can enjoy the Andes stretching out as far as the eye can see. There is a wonderful collection of excellent lodges and hotels clustered around San Pedro, from luxury to comfortable, giving a great choice to suit most budgets.
Closer to the border with Peru is the Lauca National Park, an area of brilliant blue lagoons and conical volcanoes. It is possible to spot vicuñas, llamas, alpacas and guanacos, as well as a number of different bird species, including Andean condors and Chilean flamingos.
2. Sample the world class wines of the Central Valley
Most of Chile's best wine growing regions are located in the central part of the country, south of the capital. The largest of which, Raphael Valley, is best accessed from around Santa Cruz, where vines are able to enjoy a climate more Mediterranean than Andean. The area's Ruta del Vino is perfect for deeper exploration of Chilean wine, either on a self-drive basis, or on an escorted tour for those who want to sample the award-winning reds of the area, without having to spit it all out. Santa Cruz is located around 100 miles from Santiago, but you can actually visit historic and deeply traditional vineyards within a thirty or forty minute drive of the city centre. The Central Valley is home to a huge concentration of sub-regions, of which the most famous is the Maipo Valley. This region spreads out from near the coast, across the narrow width of Chile, separated only from the celebrated Mendoza region in neighbouring Argentina by the Andes Mountains.
3. Admire the mesmerising view over Santiago de Chile
Aside from wine, central Chile is noted for its European-style capital Santiago de Chile. Among the many highlights here is the view from the top of San Cristobal hill, where gleaming skyscrapers contrast sharply with the crisp snow-capped Andes which loom large in the distance. Few cities offer a natural setting to compete with Santiago. There are a huge variety of optional activities and excursions in and around the capital. Besides the vineyards, the most popular of these are the artistic coastal city of Valparaiso and, just to the north of that, the beaches of Viña del Mar (a rarity in Chile) both less than two hours drive west.
4. Marvel at the alpine scenery of the Lake District
The sprawling land referred to as Patagonia is bookended by two distinct regions which Chile shares with Argentina. At the top of Patagonia is the magnificent Lake District, offering a conveyor belt of fabulous views of snow-capped volcanoes, verdant forests, charming Germanic villages and, of course, glistening blue lakes. Crossing the Andes by boat is one of the best ways imaginable of moving from one country into another. The best bases from which to explore the Chilean Lake District are the small towns of Puerto Varas and Pucón. The town of Puerto Montt is the launching point for five night expedition cruises to the San Rafael Glacier, via remote communities and the colourful Chiloé Island, with its collection of UNESCO protected churches. The cruise also passes abundant sea life on the way.
View of Villarica Volcano in the Huerquehue National Park near Pucón (photo by Elemaki)
5. Cruise the icy waters of Tierra del Fuego
In the extreme south of Chile is Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago that represents the last vestiges of South America before the land breaks up and gives way to the open sea, beyond which lies only Antarctica. It is for this reason that the area is often referred to as the 'End of the World'. The main reason to visit such a remote place is the opportunity to cruise through the icy channels towards isolated penguin and elephant seal colonies, historic bays and Magellanic forest and glide down the vividly (and accurately) named Glacier Alley.
6. Hike through the glorious scenery of Torres del Paine
In between these two regions lies one of the world's greatest national parks; Torres del Paine, charactarised by chiselled granite peaks and beautiful turquoise lakes and dotted with luxury lodges and roaming vicuñas. The hiking here is outstanding, whether a seasoned pro or a casual walker. There are a number of trails to follow of varying degrees of length and difficulty, as well as boat trips out to the immense Glacier Grey.
7. Meet the Moai Statues of Easter Island
It's a five and a half hour flight from Santiago to Easter Island, amongst the most remote islands in the world, but as soon as you arrive and start to explore this magical place, you'll know it is worth it. Of course, the main attraction is the collection of Moai statues that stand watch over the ancient lands on Rapa Nui. The huge carvings remain a mystery to this day, with no one quite sure about what they mean or how they ended up in such a remote place. A visit here though is about much more than the statues and our three or four night tours will show you around the white sand beaches, crater lakes and ceremonial villages of Easter Island and immerse you in its fascinating culture.
Where to combine with Chile
Now that we've tackled the best places to visit in Chile, let's spread our horizons and look to where you could head to next. Patagonia is a gateway to Argentina, offering several natural crossing points. As previously mentioned, the Lake District is perhaps the most spectacular way to do so, travelling between Puerto Varas in Chile and Bariloche in Argentina. Torres del Paine is also around three hours drive away from the town of El Calafate, where visitors stay to visit the renowned Perito Moreno Glacier. The five night Tierra del Fuego cruise starts in Punta Arenas in Chile and actually ends in Ushuaia, over the Argentine border. Our Magellan and Yamana tours offer plenty of opportunity to explore both countries at length.
The most common crossing point in the north is that which divides Chile from Bolivia, close to San Pedro de Atacama. It is about a 45 minute drive to the Bolivian border, once across you can continue through the remote lagoons of the Altiplano, all the way to Uyuni and the world's biggest salt flats. You can do this on our 21 day Laguna tour through Chile, Bolivia and Peru.
When to visit Chile
Chile is generally a good year-round destination, particularly in the north where it rarely rains and temperatures remain comfortable throughout the year. Santiago and the wine regions are perhaps best to visit in the Autumn (March to May) or Spring (September to November), when it remains warm, days are bright and sunny and the nearby vineyards are looking their best. Autumn is the time of the wine harvest, with festivals to celebrate, whereas Chilean independence weekend in September can be in an interesting time to visit and join in the local celebrations. Winter (June to August) brings lower temperatures and higher rainfall, whilst in the summer (December to February) Santiago can get up to 30 degrees.
The temperatures in Southern Patagonia generally can reach highs of around 15 degrees in the summer months, though rainfall remains fairly consistent and relatively low throughout the year
How to get to Chile
In January 2017 British Airways began offering direct flights from London Heathrow to Santiago de Chile, four times a week. The journey takes 14 hours and 40 minutes, the longest of all British Airways long-haul flights. Alternatively you can fly direct with British Airways from London Heathrow to Buenos Aires in Argentina and then continue your journey onwards into Chile, returning via Santiago.
Better with experts
Travelling in Chile can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time here. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life, giving you their inside knowledge and offering an authentic and personal perspective, that will leave you both informed and inspired.
The Veloso Tours website has all the ideas and inspiration you'll need to get you started on your Chilean adventure. Now that you know where to visit in Chile, our expert staff would be delighted to work with you to sort out all the little details and craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip to Chile with Veloso Tours.
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