Explore two spectacular regions of Chile where few travelers venture on this 9-day itinerary. After checking out Santiago, you'll fly to the Atacama desert—an oasis in the driest part in the world known for geysers, salt flats, and starry skies. From here, head to Patagonia where you'll experience Torres del Paine National Park via a range of activities while staying in a fully sustainable EcoCamp.

Highlights

  • Spend the first night exploring Santiago's dining scene
  • Go stargazing with an astronomy expert while sipping Chilean wine
  • Take a dip in a desert lagoon with high salination for easy floating
  • Visit a wildlife reserve known for local pink flamingos
  • Get active in the mountains of Patagonia while sleeping in dome huts

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Flight to Calama - Transfer to 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 Excursion to the Cejar Lagoon, Ojos del Salar & Tebenquiche San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Fly from Calama to Punta Arenas & Transfer to Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine
Days 7-8 Outdoor Adventures in Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine
Day 9 Torres del Paine to Santiago & Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile

Hike or take the gondola to the top of Cerro San Cristobal
Hike or take the gondola to the top of Cerro San Cristobal

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, where you can get your bearings by surveying the area from a high vantage point. Pathways lead 2,788 feet (850 m) up this central hill to a series of lookouts that offer wraparound views of Santiago. If you aren't the hiking type, not to worry: catch a scenic gondola instead.

  • Stroll the cobblestone streets of Barrio Bellavista. On the north side of Santiago, you'll find this trendy enclave, at once fashionable and bohemian with colorful houses adorned with graffiti art, and an eclectic array of eateries and bars—great for people watching.

  • Visit the Plaza de Armas, a stone plaza located in Santiago's historic center dating to 1541. There's also the impressive Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 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 a short stroll from the Plaza de Armas. 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. Visitors are welcome.

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: Flight to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour

Valley of the Moon
Valley of the Moon

This morning, transfer from your hotel 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, where flaming red mountains create the base of Moon Valley.

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 excursion. 

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

The Chilean Altiplano
The Chilean Altiplano

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: Excursion to the Cejar Lagoon, Ojos del Salar & Tebenquiche

Cejar Lagoon
Cejar Lagoon

After breakfast, a driver will meet you at the hotel and you'll transfer a little over an hour to the Salar de Atacama, the famous salt flats of San Pedro de Atacama. Here you'll find the Cejar Lagoon, notable for its electric turquoise water and shoreline turned bright white by crystallized salt. If you're lucky, you might spot some local avian wildlife, such as flamingos and coots. Believe it or not, this desert lagoon is perfect for an afternoon bath. That's because the salination content of the water adds buoyancy, which means, like in the Dead Sea, you'll easily float on the surface. 

After a swim in the Cejar Lagoon, you'll head south to visit the Ojos del Salar, two desert lagoons where you can take another dip. These are unique pools in their own right, as their geological formation resembles a crater complete with a high outer rim that makes a perfect diving spot. The ambiance here is great, too, as surrounding you are the Domeyko and Andes mountain ranges and myriad volcanoes.

Finally, we will travel to the Tebenquiche Lagoon, another lake where you might see more flamingos and even foxes. It's the perfect spot to watch the sunset as the glassy waters of the lagoon create a mirror effect. When the sun goes down, the surrounding painted hills flash bright red and the image of mountain peaks is reflected in the water. At the end of the tour, you'll return to your hotel in San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 5: 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. 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 6: Fly from Calama to Punta Arenas & Transfer to Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine, with the Cuernos del Paine in the background
Torres del Paine, with the Cuernos del Paine in the background

It's time to say goodbye to the Atacama! Today is a big travel day, as you have a few transfers before arriving at the ultimate Chilean outdoor destination: Torres del Paine National Park. This is one of the most iconic and beautiful protected areas in the Patagonia region, and it's here you'll embark on an epic five-day trekking excursion known as the W Circuit. It's so named because one of the more common treks follows a "W" pattern around the park. 

After breakfast, a driver will pick you up for the transfer to Calama airport for your flight to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago, you'll catch a flight to Punta Arenas, a city located deep in Chilean Patagonia on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. You'll then drive, via private transfer, about three hours to Torres del Paine.

During the road trip, you'll likely spot some of Patagonia's famed wildlife, including guanacos (a type of camelid similar to a llama) and rheas. You'll then enter the park and arrive at your home base called EcoCamp Patagonia, a unique, award-winning dome hotel that combines rustic luxury with environmental sustainability.  

If traveling during the summer months, sunset usually occurs around 11 pm at this latitude. Even though you'll arrive at the park later in the day, you'll still have ample time to admire the surrounding mountain scenery. You certainly won't miss the iconic triple peaks of the Paine Massif, part of the Cordillera del Paine. They rise sharply into the sky like jagged horns, hence their nickname, the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine).

Days 7-8: Outdoor Adventures in Torres del Paine National Park

Walks and trails for every fitness level
Walks and trails for every fitness level

Wake up in your dome and enjoy the spectacular views over breakfast. Today, you will be able to choose from several activities offered by the property and/or park, including cycling, kayaking, wildlife viewing, and horseback riding offered by the EcoCamp, not to mention a number of hiking trails to suit every level. 

A suggested trail option is the Full-Day Base Torres Viewpoint Trek (8 hours), a deservedly famous and challenging excursion. After crossing the Ascensio River you will walk uphill for around 1.5 miles (2.5 km) until reaching "Paso del Viento" pass at about 1574 feet (480 m) above sea level, with a beautiful panoramic view of lakes and the Ascensio Valley.

From there, you will descend to the "Refugio El Chileno" shelter where vegetation is that of the pre-Andean scrubland bioclimate. Climb uphill from here where the vegetation changes as you penetrate the ancient lenga tree forest all the way until you reach the Torres Glacier moraine at 1968 feet (600 m). Once out of the forest, you'll make a final 45-minute push of continuous uphill trekking that will take you to the Base of the Towers viewpoint at 2854 feet (870 m). Behold: Directly in front of you are three granite giants, the ultimate reward for your efforts!

As you make your return trip, keep your eyes peeled for fauna such as condors, mora eagles, caranchos, and other birds of prey.

When you've completed the trail, head back to camp for a relaxing dinner. Finish the evening in your cozy dome and experience harmony with nature.

Day 9: Torres del Paine to Santiago & Departure

Goodbye, Torres del Paine
Goodbye, Torres del Paine

Today, you’ll take a private transfer from Torres del Paine National Park to the Punta Arenas airport. You'll then hop on a domestic flight to Santiago. From there you'll meet your connecting flight home. ¡Buen viaje!

Map

Map of Best of Chile - 9 Days
Map of Best of Chile - 9 Days
Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Mar 18, 2019