Thin and uniquely long in shape, it can be hard to know where to start in a country like Chile. This 13-day itinerary explores three distinct regions known for urban culture and outdoor adventure. After a taste of Santiago and its nearby wine region, fly north to the driest desert in the world known for geysers, moonscapes, and starry skies. Then fly south to the Lake District for volcanoes, waterfalls, and a road trip to Chiloé Island—a booming food destination with coastal trails.

Highlights

  • Tour Santiago's cobblestoned streets and Valparaiso's street art with a local
  • Go stargazing with an astronomy expert while sipping Chilean wine
  • Soak in a natural geothermal pool near the highest geysers in the world
  • Enjoy several hikes in two national parks, plus an active volcano
  • Visit a contemporary art museum in Castro followed by lake-side espresso

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago Food Tour Santiago
Day 3 Valparaiso, Viña del Mar & Casablanca Valley Santiago
Day 4 Flight & Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 Atacama Desert Tour: Lagoons & Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 7 Flight to Puerto Montt - Transfer to Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 8 Tour of Osorno Volcano, Petrohué Falls & Todos los Santos Lake Puerto Varas
Day 9 Trekking in Alerce Andino National Park Puerto Varas
Day 10 Chiloé Island Self-Drive Tour - Part 1 Castro
Day 11 Chiloé Island Self-Drive Tour - Part 2 Castro
Day 12 Cultural Tour of Castro - Return to Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 13 Puerto Varas to Santiago - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Santiago de Chile

Hike or take a gondola up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal
Hike or take a gondola up 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. Stroll past colorful houses adorned with graffiti art and choose between 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: Santiago Food Tour

Savor some tasty Chilean empanadas on a food tour
Savor some tasty Chilean empanadas on a food tour

Today is your day to get out and explore the city on a half-day food tour of Santiago with an English-speaking guide. This is an immersive experience that reveals the true beating heart of the city, which is found in its people, marketplaces, and cuisine. It's so informative, in fact, that by the end of it, you'll be an honorary Santiaguino. 

Tour highlights:

  • Wander the aisles of Santiago's labyrinthine central market. This is the beating heart of the city, overflowing with vendors and local residents eager to get their hands on the day's freshest produce. 

  • Sample traditional Chilen dishes. It's not enough to experience the kinetic energy of the marketplace—you'll want to do like a local and indulge your taste buds as well. You'll also get a glimpse into how some of Chile's most famous dishes are prepared.

  • Ascend to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal. If you haven't done it yet, it's time to hop on a cable car to the top of this hill that sits about 300 meters (984 feet) above the city.  Enjoy the 360° panoramas and take plenty of photos, as these are the most incredible views in Santiago.

  • Take a lunch break in the fashionably bohemian enclave in Barrio Bellavista. It's time for even more food, this time in the trendiest neighborhood in the city: Bellavista. Here you'll find a diverse array of funky cafés, international eateries, and high-end restaurants.

After parting ways with your guide, you will have the rest of the day to spend exploring Santiago on your own. 

Day 3: Valparaiso, Viña del Mar & Casablanca Valley

Check out street art in hilly Valparaiso
Check out street art in hilly Valparaiso

This morning, after breakfast, you'll depart from your hotel in Santiago and drive about an hour west towards the coast. Your destination is the Casablanca Valley, which is home to many top wineries. Here you'll take a tour, tasting, and enjoy lunch at the wonderful Casa del Bosque Winery.

After lunch, you'll continue the short distance to the coast and the cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. First up is the port city of Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its colorful hillside neighborhoods, winding stairways, and abundance of street art. It's a throwback to a time when electric trollies coasted along the waterfront and funicular elevators carried people high into the hills. On a city tour, you'll visit some famous sites, such as Plaza de la Victoria and the Naval Academy, and ride a funicular high into the hills where panoramic vistas of the bay await. A real highlight is visiting the former home of Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda. 

From here, you'll drive a short way to the adjacent town of Viña del Mar, which couldn't be more different in terms of style than its neighbor. Whereas Valparaiso is a retro artistic haven, Viña is a modern seaside hotspot abounding with sleek shopping centers and upscale restaurants. Once you've explored the city and waterfront, you'll return to Santiago in time for dinner.

Day 4: Flight & 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 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 5: Atacama Desert Tour: Lagoons & 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 6: 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 7: Flight to Puerto Montt - Transfer to Puerto Varas

The German-influenced, lakeside town of Puerto Varas
The German-influenced, lakeside town of Puerto Varas

This morning it's time to say goodbye to the desert and transfer to Calama for your flight to Puerto Montt, via Santiago. Once you arrive at Puerto Montt, you'll meet up with an English-speaking guide, who will transfer you 30 minutes north in a private vehicle to Puerto Varas, located on the shores of Llanquihue Lake.

Once you arrive, you'll have time to drop your luggage and have lunch before re-joining your guide for a tour of this charming lakeside village and the surrounding beauty of the area. Puerto Varas is an interesting mix of cultures including a rich German heritage as well as the influence of the Mapuche indigenous people.

Later in the afternoon you'll return to your hotel in Puerto Varas and choose between the town's hearty supply of restaurants. In addition to traditional Chilean cuisine, you'll find pizza, burgers, seafood, Asian, and even a Pacific Northwest spot run by a former Seattleite.

Day 8: Tour of Osorno Volcano, Petrohué Falls & Todos los Santos Lake

Petrohué Falls with Osorno Volcano in the background
Petrohué Falls with Osorno Volcano in the background

After breakfast in Puerto Varas, a driver will pick you up for a full-day scenic tour of the area, including the most famous sites such as Osorno Volcano, the Petrohué waterfalls, and Todos los Santos Lake

The first part of the drive takes you along the shores of Llanquihue Lake, where you'll pass the mouth of Río Pescado (Fish River). You'll also pass by the villages of La Poza and Los Riscos before reaching Ensenada, a small town that sits at the foot of Osorno Volcano. You'll begin a hike up to Osorno, stopping at different vantage points for photo opportunities.

After hiking back down, lunch will be served, after which time you'll continue toward the waterfalls of the Río Petrohué. Fed by the nearby Lago Todos Los Santos, the Petrohué is famous for its electric blue waters and cascading waterfalls that have carved a network of chutes into the surrounding basaltic lava rock. There are various pathways all around the area that offer different vantage points where you can observe thundering falls in all their glory.

The tour finishes with a visit to the turquoise waters of Todos los Santos (All Saints Lake) before returning to Puerto Varas in time to enjoy dinner in town.

Day 9: Trekking in Alerce Andino National Park

Trekking through Alerce Andino National Park
Trekking through Alerce Andino National Park

Today you've got an early start and a full day of trekking ahead of you. After breakfast, you'll depart from Puerto Varas for the 30-minute journey to Puerto Montt. Then it's another 30 minutes south to the coastal town of Lenca and the gateway to Alerce Andino National Park.

The trek you'll take follows a route that runs along the edge of the Chaicas River. The scenery in this part of Chile's Lake District is nothing short of spectacular. You'll pass through great swaths of unique, temperate forests abounding with mañio, tepa, arrayán, and alerce trees. You'll also stop at Lagos Chaiquenes and Triangulo—two glassy mountain lagoons that happen to be great spots for birdwatching.

At the end of the trek, you'll return to Puerto Varas by van.

Day 10: Chiloé Island Self-Drive Tour - Part 1

A beach beckons in Chiloé
A beach beckons in Chiloé

This morning, you'll snag a rental car in Puerto Varas and embark on the two-hour journey southwest to Chiloé Island—the main island in the archipelago of the same name. You will spend two nights in total on the island with plenty of time to relax and take in the sites at your own pace.

The drive from Puerto Varas is a scenic trip that involves taking a ferry from Puerto Montt to the northern tip of the island. From here you're in for a beautiful 90-minute drive amid rolling green hills south to the colorful port city of Castro, which is famous for its waterfront stilt houses (known locally as the Palafitos de Gamboa) and brightly painted old churches. These iconic wooden churches were built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The time is yours to explore the island however you see fit, and a map of its most famous sites and attractions will be provided as will recommendations of where to go and what to do. Maybe you'll want to visit the penguin colony just outside the northern island city of Ancud. You can even chat up some friendly locals and learn more about Chiloé's mythical lore (some say witches patrol the coastline of the island at night). 

In the evening be sure to sample some delicious local cuisine with several restaurants to choose from. One dish, curanto, is a rich seafood stew that has been around as long as the island has been settled, maybe even longer (perhaps dating back to the indigenous). Typically the dish is prepared by burying shellfish, meat, and potatoes in the ground and cooking it over hot rocks.

Day 11: Chiloé Island Self-Drive Tour - Part 2

Hit the open road in Chiloé
Hit the open road in Chiloé

Wake up this morning surrounded by the rhythms of island life. No need to rush out of bed—you'll have the entire day to explore as you please. A good recommendation is to spend the day getting some exercise at Chiloé National Park with a number of trails (ranging from 30 minutes to 8 hours in length) that meander through rugged lenga forests.

In addition to outdoor activities, the park is also one of the richest cultural heritage units in the region. Adjacent to the entrance grounds are indigenous Huilliche communities that keep their traditions alive (several elements are integrated into the development of the park). 

For an easy walk, stroll along the folkloric 'Dock of Souls', built in 2007 by architect Marcelo Orellana. The curved boardwalk spans along an outrageously cinematic landscape and seemingly disappears off a cliff into the Bay of Cucao. According to legend, wandering souls must call to a passing boatman for transport to the afterlife or they will mourn in the area for all eternity.

No matter how you spend your day, keep an eye out for the island's endemic species of mammals and birds like foxes, monkeys, mole mouses, river otters, and sea lions.

Day 12: Cultural Tour of Castro - Return to Puerto Varas

Castro's waterfront buildings are built on stilts
Castro's waterfront buildings are built on stilts

After breakfast at the hotel, you'll meet a private guide for a cultural tour of Castro. Here, you’ll have the chance to visit the UNESCO-listed Churches of Chiloé for photographs. For instance, on Plaza de Armas, the early-20th-century San Francisco Church has two steeples and a distinctive yellow wooden interior. You'll also visit the Museum of Modern Art Chiloé, which displays works by Chileans, as well as shops featuring arts and crafts. 

In recent years, Castro's culinary scene has evolved and the town now boasts a handful of excellent restaurants making it a foodie destination. Make sure to check out the cafe-gallery called Palafito Patagonia that serves Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle (two of North America's best coffee brands) along with great views, especially from the outside deck overlooking the water. 

By late afternoon, you'll return to the Puerto Varas by the same ferry where you'll stay the night. Take advantage of any restaurants for dinner that you may have missed at the beginning of your stay. 

Day 13: Puerto Varas to Santiago - Departure

Farewell, Lake District!
Farewell, Lake District!

This morning, your guide will pick you up from Puerto Varas and take you to El Tepual Airport (Puerto Montt) for your flight to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago, you'll transfer to the international terminal for your return flight home. ¡Buen viaje!

Map

Map of Central Chile, Lake District & Atacama Desert - 13 Days
Map of Central Chile, Lake District & Atacama Desert - 13 Days