Main image: Laguna San Rafael near the San Rafael Glacier, Patagonian (Dreamstime)
Article Words : Chris Moss | 01 May

Trip Planner: Explore Chile's desert, Andes and coast with our handy guide

Now easier to get to from the UK than ever before with direct flights, it's time to take advantage of sun-kissed Pacific coast, wild arid desert and epic Andean peaks with our handy Chile guide

Without planning it, I’ve come to know Chile in fragments. Years ago, I took a bus from the Atacama desert to Santiago. More recently, I drove the Southern Highway in Aysén, Central Patagonia. When teaching in Buenos Aires, I arrived in the lake district by boat from Argentina, and later, as a journalist, I toured the vineyards in the shadow of Aconcagua. I have even swum (as best I could) in the heaving surf at La Serena.

All of these experiences were on different trips, in different years and seasons, via various modes of transport. The reason for this patchwork approach is partly due to the country’s uniquely long, thin shape, Chile's 12 political regions broadly describing a dozen distinct topographical zones. All of that makes in-country travel time-consuming and to some extent dependent on the season.

Chile is best known to travellers for its extremes: on the one side, Atacama and the northern deserts, on the other, the wilds and glacial wonderlands of Patagonia and the Andes

But my many journeys have taught me that there’s comparable beauty and less tourist traffic in other areas, especially the edges of its lakes and near to La Serena. This is especially true of the temperate zones of the country’s long middle section, which offerfar more than wining and dining.

Broadly speaking, the further south you go, the better things get for hiking, biking and camping. Most first time visitors will want to see some of Chile’s photogenic wildernesses, perhaps after a few days in stylish capital Santiago or the arty coastal city of Valparaiso, both ideal for stopovers if you’re arriving on the new direct British Airways flight from London Heathrow. 

The following itineraries have, therefore, been kept short, so those with two weeks or more can combine a few 'Routes'. Since Chile is one of the best countries in South America for driving – roads and traffic are good, the drivers are not all insane – the majority can also be done as self-drive trips, pit-stopping at sights and cities en route.

 

Atacama Desert and beyond:

Off-road adventures, desert landscapes, stargazing, dining, luxury hotels  Volcan Licancabur in the Atacama Desert (Dreamstime)

Duration: 10 Days

Route: Antofagasta • San Pedro de Atacama • Uyuni (Bolivia)

When to go? Year round. This is the driest place in South America, make that the world

Despite being Chile’s second largest city, Antofagasta is often ignored by travellers. Yet buried behind the high-rises lies the leafy Plaza Colón and a handful of wood-fronted Victorian and Georgian buildings found in its Barrio Histórico, which are worth seeking out.

From here, it’s a 3.5-hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama, through harsh, arid desert landscapes. This oasis town is the hub of the region, within day-trip distance of Chile’s largest salt flat, several photogenic volcanoes, including 5,916-metre Licancábur, the El Tatio geysers (impressive at dawn, when the spurting steam is visible) and all manner of dramatic rock formations. 

The Atacama is known for its ink-black skies and stargazers should seek out the Meteorite Museum and the ALMA and Ahlarkapin observatories before heading off on night sky tours.

Restaurants, beer bars and cafés of every class and budget adorn San Pedro’s tree-lined plaza, while hotels like the Explora, Alta and Tierra Atacama offer five-star stays. 

The three-day 4WD trip across the altiplano to Uyuni in Bolivia is also a backpacker classic, and several tours offer packages with guides, food and board. Look out for salt lakes, geysers and hot springs en route, as well as wildlife, such as flamingos and vizcachas.

 

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego:

Hiking, cruising, camping, luxury hotel  San Rafael Glacier in the Laguna San Rafael National Park, Patagonian (Dreamstime)

Duration: 15 Days

Route: Puerto Montt • boat to Puerto Natales • Torres del Paine National Park

When to go? During the austral summer and shoulder months, from November to March

South of Puerto Montt, there are all kinds of options, including driving the San Rafael glacier (a piddling 1,124km, and you’ll have to bring the hire car back unless you’re very rich), luxury cruises to the San Rafael glacier, a flight-hop down through Aysén or, the journey that we recommend here, a budget five-day boat trip down to Puerto Natales with Navimag.

The company uses basic vessels but the voyage is truly sublime, through jagged coasts, into silent fjords (the one stop, Puerto Edén, boasts a population of around 170 native Kaweskars), past ice-fields and soaring Andean peaks that plunge directly into the ocean.

On arrival in Puerto Natales, enjoy a few days R&R in the plush Singular Patagonia hotel, set in a renovated former cold storage plant, before setting off for Torres del Paine NP, one of Chile’s most dramatic parks. Here, excellent long and short hiking trails, mighty glaciers and well-equipped campsites await.

If visiting during summer, take advantage of the newly launched LATAM flight between Santiago and Puerto Natales to get back to the capital for your flight home.

 

Chillán to Chiloé:

Hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, Mapuche culture, camping
Osorno Volcano viewed from Lago Todos Los Santos (Dreamstime)

Duration: 14 Days

Route: Chillán • Temuco • Pucón • Valdivia • Frutillar • Puerto Varas • Puerto Montt • Chiloé

When to go? Shoulder season (Oct-Nov and Mar-Apr), when it’s mild but not overly busy. Check on volcanic activity before booking

This latitude boasts some of the most remarkable and visitor-friendly sites in all of Chile. Explore a string of impressive volcanoes (Osorno, Villarrica and Lanín are stunners), more than a dozen national parks with trails and conditions perfect for hiking and camping, several beautiful lakes, and plenty of native Mapuche culture, South America’s surviving indigenous group.

Chillán is familiar to locals as a ski resort, but it’s also the terminus of the country’s one extant inter-city railway. From here it’s an easy drive down the Panamerican to Temuco, formerly a frontier town between European and Mapuche Chile. It was also once home to two Nobel Prize-winning authors, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, the latter of whom once declared the town Chile’s ‘Wild West’.

South of Temuco, be sure to detour into the forested foothills of the Andes if you’re driving. From here the Route zigzags as it skirts the superb parks of Villarrica, where Pucón NP is a major adventure tourism hub, and Vicente Pérez Rosales. Camping is excellent around the lakes, and there’s a good variety of lodgings, places to eat and services around Puerto Varas and Frutillar.

The journey ends in the salmon-cultivating city of Puerto Montt, from where ferries leave for Chiloé, a rain-prone but fascinating island with its own native and post-colonial history and some good campsites.

 

Arica to San Pedro de Atacama:

History, surfing, paragliding, stargazing
Dancers at festival in Arica (Dreamstime)

Duration: 7 Days 

Route: Arica • Lauca National Park • Iquique • Chuquicamata • San Pedro de Atacama

When to go? Year round. It rarely rains here, but storms are likely in Lauca NP/the altiplano between January and March

Arica was acquired from Peru during the bloody 1878-83 War of the Pacific. Check out the battlefield site on the clifftops of El Morro and the iron St Mark’s church, which was, despite the claims on its brass plaque, probably not built by Gustave Eiffel.

Nevertheless, it’s a cool city with a laidback beach scene and good surfing, and also a handy gateway for Lauca NP, a beautiful stop, albeit one short of great hiking trails.

Around 310km south, following the Panamerican Highway parallel to the coast, Iquique is a lively, cosmopolitan coastal city with handsome buildings dating from the nitrate boom era of the late 19th century, when British capital and manpower poured in. 

Now it is a global hotspot for paragliders, thanks to cloudless skies and the dunes that propel Pacific winds skywards. It’s also a convivial base for visiting two UNESCO World Heritage sites - the former ‘nitrate towns’ of Humberstone and Santa Laura – as well as the hot-spring oases of Pica and Matilla and the starkly beautiful Volcán Isluga NP. 

The road to San Pedro de Atacama passes one of the world’s biggest open-pit mines, Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara claimed in The Motorcycle Diaries that he began to think deeply about workers’ rights. San Pedro, with its hip bars, smart hotels and nearby geysers, salt flat and star-gazing observatories, makes a fine end to any 1,000km road trip.

 

Into the Maule Valley:

Wine tours Horses carrying a charriot in vineyard in Colchagua Valley (Dreamstime)

Duration: 5–7 Days

Route: Isla Negra • San Fernando • Maule

When to go? November to May; the vendimia (wine harvest) is held between February and May

Take the Casablanca Valley Route to the coast, stopping at Isla Negra to visit poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda’s favourite house and to take in views of the wind-lashed coast.

 Follow Route 66 to San Fernando in the Colchagua Valley, then hop on the ‘Wine Train’ for a meandering ride (with tastings) around the area, or, better still, stay the night at a winery.

Finish south in Maule, a region that has been producing wine for a long time but is only now emerging as a competitor to the vineyards near Santiago. Stay at the Casa Bouchon amid the sweeping vineyards of the Mingre Estate.

 

Copiapó to Santiago:

Swimming, hiking, pisco tasting, stargazing, alternative therapiesVineyard in Elqui Valley, Coquimbo (Dreamstime)

Duration: 7 Days

Route: Copiapó • La Serena • Valle de Elqui • Coquimbo • Fray Jorge National Park • Cachagua • Santiago

When to go? Year round, but La Serena can get pretty busy between January and February

The temperate zone north of Chile is popular with locals, but typically flown over by foreign visitors. 

Start in the mining town of Copiapó, which is very pleasant and has some fine old buildings.

Head south from there to La Serena, one of Chile’s most popular beaches, with miles of golden sand and a rather sophisticated air. Rest your pins before heading for the hills.

Inland lies the Valle de Elqui, which locals often talk about as if it were some kind of Shangri-La. The array of alternative therapy centres might explain this, but it’s also a very pretty region, with attractive villages and pisco (brandy) wineries scattered among lush, steep slopes. Not to be outdone by the north, it is also the world’s first ‘International Dark Sky Sanctuary’ and has a handful of observatories.

Back on the coast, Coquimbo is perhaps less photogenic but compensates with its carefully restored 19th-century Barrio Inglés (English Quarter), good seafood and boat trips around the bay.

While there are a few nice walks around town, for proper hiking head to Socos and turn east for Fray Jorge NP. Here, trails extend through Valdivian forest that, in this arid zone, depends on condensation from coastal fog to survive. The park is listed by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve and its forest is a relic from the Quaternary Period; Atacama would have looked like this some 30,000 years ago. 

It’s around a six-hour drive to Santiago from here, so be sure to stop en route for a beach-side break at Cachagua.

 

Santiago, Valparaiso and Viña del Mar:

Gastronomy, beaches, art and culture, history, parks
Houses in Valparaiso (Dreamstime)

Duration: 5 Days

Route: Santiago • Casablanca Valley • Valparaiso • Viña del Mar

When to go? November to May. Avoid Viña del Mar between January and February – it’s packed

No matter where you go, be sure to stroll the capital and its two nearby coastal cities to gen up on Chilean history and indulge in some good food.

Santiago is now a serious rival to South America’s big capitals, with a slew of boutique hotels, fusion restaurants and craft ale bars found in its Lastarria and Bellavista areas. 

At its centre is La Moneda (presidential palace), which has a superb art gallery in its basement. And downtown lies Cerro Santa Lucía, the city’s green lung, although Metropolitan Park is the place to go for an urban hike.

Leaving the capital behind, take the Casablanca Valley Route, stopping off at the (mainly white grape) wineries en Route to Valparaiso, a wonderfully arty, colourful town with lots of seafood restaurants and fine views over the ocean. 

The last stop is Viña del Mar, a popular beach escape for residents of Santiago, which began its life as a vineyard, hence the name. Its palm-filled streets and parks earn it the moniker ‘The Garden City’. Wander their lush paths before restoring on the sands of Caleta Abarca.

 

Santiago to Mendoza:

Wine-tasting, mountain walks, horseriding, views, diningHikers with view of Aconcagua (Dreamstime)

Duration: 2–3 Days

Route: Santiago • Chacabuco • San Felipe • Panquehue • Portillo • Puente del Inca • Mendoza (Argentina)

When to go? October to May, when there’s no snow on the Chile-Argentina border

Only the intrepid ride over the Andes at these altitudes. It takes days, leather buttocks and quite a lot of pesos, whereas the road trip from the Chilean capital to Mendoza, Argentina’s famous wine-making city, can be completed in six hours. Nevertheless, it’s worth giving yourself two-to-three days to pit stop, explore and enjoy the mountain views.

Along the Route, see the Monument to the Chacabuco Victory, which honours the independence fighters who defeated Spanish royalists in 1817. Stop also at Panquehue, near San Felipe, for the two-hour tour of 136-year-old Viña Errázuriz, wandering its sun-kissed vineyards, then continue to the stunning Inca Lagoon at Portillo (a ski resort Jul-Sep).

After getting your passport stamped near the 3,810m-high Bermejo Pass, be sure to go hiking around Argentina’s Puente del Inca (a natural stone bridge) in order to glimpse the summit of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. 

Finish in Mendoza, which sits in the rain shadow of the Andes, and is a sedate, sun-baked city with some fine restaurants and cafés.

 

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Main image: Laguna San Rafael near the San Rafael Glacier, Patagonian (Dreamstime)