On this itinerary, you'll get to experience the two most beautiful regions of Chile: the northern Atacama Desert and southern Patagonia. Your adventure begins in the capital city of Santiago, where you'll glean insight into the culture on a city tour. Then it's off to the north and the otherworldly desert landscapes of Atacama. You'll visit geysers, lunar valleys, and even do some high-altitude stargazing. Finally, you'll head to Chile's unspoiled Patagonia region, where you'll visit one of the most unique sites on the continent: the marble caves of Lago General Carrera.

Highlights

  • Stroll the streets of Santiago, one of the most dynamic and romantic capitals in Latin America
  • Tour the Atacama Desert and visit lagoons and geysers
  • Visit Chilean Patagonia, Lago General Carrera, and the famed Marble Caves

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago - San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 3 Full-Day Atacama Desert Tour - Lagoons and Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 4 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago & Transfer to Balmaceda Balmaceda
Day 6 Marble Caves Full-Day Tour Balmaceda
Day 7 Balmaceda to Santiago & Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile

Santiago is an eclectic, artistic, and historic city
Santiago is an eclectic, artistic, and historic city

Welcome to Chile! Upon arrival at Santiago International Airport, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel. You'll have the rest of the day to explore the city at your leisure. 

Suggested activities include:

  • Hike to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, the most magnificent viewpoint in Santiago. When visiting any new city it's a good idea to get your bearings by surveying the area from a high vantage point. Pathways lead 850 meters (2,788 feet) up this central hill to a series of lookouts that offer wraparound views of Santiago. Enjoy the reconnoitering, and if you aren't the hiking type not to worry: you can catch a scenic gondola to the top.

  • Stroll the cobblestone streets of Barrio Bellavista. On the north side of Santiago, you'll find this trendy enclave, at once fashionable and bohemian. Brightly painted old houses adorned with graffiti art sit alongside modern shopping complexes featuring an eclectic array of eateries and bars. It's a great place to come for dinner out, a glass or two of Chilean red, and people watching from a patio table. 

  • Visit the Plaza de Armas, located in Santiago's historic center. There's a lot of history within the four corners of this expansive stone plaza, as it was founded all the way back in 1541. Also here is the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 and whose towering twin bell towers dominate the north side of the plaza.

  • Snap pics in front of the Palacio de la Moneda. Chile's opulent Presidential Palace (known simply as "La Moneda") is just a short stroll from the Plaza de Armas, and like the plaza, it's filled with history. It was here in 1973 that Chile's armed forces, backed by the U.S. government, overthrew President Salvador Allende, kicking off a brutal right-wing military dictatorship that would last for 17 years. Today the country is under democratic rule, and visitors are welcome to visit the palace. 

For dinner be sure to get out of the hotel and enjoy a culinary adventure in the city. In recent years Santiago has emerged as a global foodie destination. Chilean chefs are reinventing traditional dishes like empanadas, cazuelas (stews), and seafood with ingredients harvested all the way from the northern deserts and southern Patagonian regions. You can find great restaurants and wine bars not only in the Bellavista neighborhood but also in the revitalized historic barrios of Yungay and Italia.

Day 2: Santiago - San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert

This morning, transfer from your hotel in Santiago to the airport for your flight to the city of Calama, located in the far north of the country. Upon arrival, another driver will meet you for the hour-and-20-minute drive to the desert outpost of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the embarkation point for all excursions and adventures into the Atacama Desert.

During the journey between these two places, you will see some of the most evocative and ancient landscapes anywhere in the world. This high-altitude desert abounds with seemingly endless salt flats, painted hills that change color depending on the light, towering Andean peaks, and the volcanic Domeyko Cordillera, whose flaming red mountains form the base of the Valley of the Moon.

Upon arrival at San Pedro, you will check into your hotel and relax for the remainder of the afternoon until it's time for your first excursion. At the scheduled time, a driver will meet you and you'll transfer 15 minutes outside of town into the desert. This is where you'll enjoy the evening's stargazing outing. 

First, you will sit for a 20-minute presentation where you'll learn some basic astronomy concepts. You'll then head outside to the open Altiplano and learn how to identify various constellations. This desert plateau is an ideal spot for stargazing due to its high altitude (about 2,308 meters/7,900 feet). Even seen from the naked eye, the stars here are more vivid than anything you've likely experienced before. Finally, the outing culminates by viewing the sky through high-powered telescopes and binoculars. You'll be able to spot a wide array of celestial objects, including planets, binary stars, spherical clusters, and others. Even better, you'll do your stargazing accompanied by a glass of good Chilean wine.

At the end of this astronomical outing, you'll return to San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 3: Full-Day Atacama Desert Tour - Lagoons and Salt Flats

Laguna Chaxa
Laguna Chaxa

Today you'll embark on a full-day excursion into the Atacama Desert. After breakfast, a driver will pick you up at the hotel and you'll head out to the first destination: Laguna Chaxa. Located 50 km (31 miles) from San Pedro sits this desert oasis in the middle of the Atacama Salar salt flats. Also here is the Los Flamencos National Reserve. Even from afar you'll be able to spot the Chilean flamingos that call this reserve home as their pink feathers shine brightly against the contrasting blue of the shallow water.

At lunchtime, the tour will stop in Socaire, a humble agricultural village famous for its simple adobe homes, rustic chapel, and slow pace of life. After eating, the tour will continue towards the Altiplano (high plateau) lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, which are located at a whopping 4,200 meters (13,779 feet) in elevation. You might feel a bit lightheaded, so try not to exert yourself and be sure to drink plenty of water. Enjoy the panoramic views of an altiplano desert surrounded by towering volcanoes and abounding with wildlife like flamencos, foxes, and vicunas.

The last stop on the tour is a visit to the town of Toconao, an oasis with a climate ideal for the cultivation of native fruits and vegetables. You'll stroll the streets, shop for handicrafts, and admire local homes cobbled together out of volcanic rocks. You'll also visit the white-washed church with its famous three-storied belltower. The church itself dates back to 1750 and has been declared a national monument. 

Finally, at around 6 pm, you'll return to your hotel and can enjoy the rest of the evening in town. Note that the day's itinerary may vary according to weather and road conditions

Day 4: Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village

Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers
Sunrise over the Tatio Geysers

Today's an early start as you'll depart the hotel at 4:30 am for the 1.5-hour trip to the Tatio Geysers. Getting a jump on the day will pay dividends, though, as seeing the sun rise over the Atacama Desert is a singular experience. Also, sunrise is the best time to visit Tatio. The contrast between the cold outside temperatures and the boiling water of the geothermal field beneath the earth's surface causes the pillars of steam here to rise as high as 10 meters (30 feet). 

At an altitude of 4,320 meters (14,173 feet), the Tatio Geysers are the highest in the world. So take your time and admire these otherworldly landscapes, snap plenty of photos, and at the appropriate hour breakfast will be served on site. Another option is to take a relaxing soak in a natural geothermal pool—mother nature's jacuzzi.

On the return drive to San Pedro, you'll stop at Machuca, a small, humble village on the Altiplano whose residents have bred llamas and harvested Yareta (moss-like evergreen plants that can survive for thousands of years) for generations. It's a small but welcoming town, comprised of only about 20 homes and a simple chapel. That said, some locals sell crafts, and you can admire the llamas in the area as well as the flamingos that reside in nearby marshlands.

You'll then return to San Pedro for lunch and can spend the remainder of the day relaxing in town.

Day 5: San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago & Transfer to Balmaceda

Say goodbye to the Atacama Desert
Say goodbye to the Atacama Desert

In the morning you'll transfer one hour from San Pedro to the airport in Calama for your flight to Balmaceda via Santiago. You've now gone from one extreme to the other, from the arid deserts of Northern Chile to the untamed nature of Chilean Patagonia. Balmaceda itself is tiny, a little village of merely 500 people. Upon arrival, you'll transfer to your hotel and check-in. You'll have the remainder of the day to relax and explore.

Day 6: Marble Caves Full-Day Tour

The Capillas de Mármol (marble caves)
The Capillas de Mármol (marble caves)

After breakfast, a driver will meet you and you'll ride south about four hours to Puerto Río Tranquilo, a town located on General Carrera Lake. The drive down may be long, but it's packed with stunning scenery as you make your way through Cerro Castillo National Park and its thick Nothofagus forest, passing the Chiguay Lagoon and into the Río Murta Valley before reaching the azure waters of General Carrera. 

Puerto Río Tranquilo is the base for boat tours to the Capillas de Mármol, a network of marble caves near the lakeshore. These are the result of thousands of years of erosion, and the deep white crevices at the base of the giant marble pillars shine iridescent in the reflection of the water. Be sure to take plenty of photos when you tour these caves because they're guaranteed to impress.

Later in the day, you'll return to your hotel.

Day 7: Balmaceda to Santiago & Departure

Goodbye, Patagonia!
Goodbye, Patagonia!

It's been quite the adventure, but as the old saying goes, all good things must end. At the appropriate time, you'll transfer to the airport for your flight to Santiago and meet your connecting flight home.