This extensive 12-day itinerary covers the major highlights of central and southern Chile: the Lake District and Torres del Paine National Park. The Lake District is justifiably famous for its charming villages, Prussian-blue lakes, and snow-capped volcanoes. Torres del Paine, on the other hand, is the crown jewel of national parks in Patagonia, and here you will embark on a multi-day hike known as the W Circuit Trek. Throw in a visit to a Patagonian penguin colony and a jaunt to the mystical and beautiful island of Chiloé, and you have the perfect recipe for the trip of a lifetime.

Highlights

  • Spend time in the towns and villages around Lake Llanquihue, in the Lake District
  • Visit the most famous waterfalls and volcanoes in central Chile
  • Walk with Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island, in Patagonia.
  • Enjoy the splendor of Torres del Paine on a multi-day circuit trek around the park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt - Transfer to Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 3 Osorno Volcano, Petrohué Falls, and Todos los Santos Lake Puerto Varas
Day 4 Chiloé National Park Tour & Overnight in Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 5 Puerto Varas to Puerto Montt - Transfer to Punta Arenas Punta Arenas
Day 6 Isla Magdalena Penguin Colony & Transfer to Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine
Day 7 Puerto Natales - Torres Del Paine & W Trek - Day 1/5 Torres del Paine
Day 8 W Trek - Day 2/5 Torres del Paine
Day 9 W Trek - Day 3/5 Torres del Paine
Day 10 W Trek - Day 4/5 Torres del Paine
Day 11 W Trek - Day 5/5 Torres del Paine
Day 12 Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas & 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: Fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt - Transfer to Puerto Varas

The village of Puerto Varas
The village of Puerto Varas

After breakfast at your hotel in Santiago, you'll depart on a short flight to Puerto Montt, a port city in southern Chile that is also known as a gateway to the Andes mountains and Patagonian fjords. When you arrive, you'll meet your English-speaking guide who will transport you in a private vehicle to Puerto Varas.

From here, you'll drop your luggage at the hotel, enjoy lunch, and then re-join your guide for a tour of the charming little village of Puerto Varas next to Llanquihue Lake. Enjoy the village’s mix of German architecture and Mapuche indigenous cultural influence.

In the afternoon, drive to the famous Petrohué Waterfalls, where you'll get a great view of the snowcapped Osorno Volcano. At the end of the day, drive back to your hotel in Puerto Varas where you'll have the rest of the evening to explore the "ciudad de las rosas" or city of roses.

Day 3: Osorno Volcano, Petrohué Falls, and Todos los Santos Lake

Petrohué Falls with Osorno in the background
Petrohué Falls with Osorno 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, 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 that offer different vantage points where you can observe these 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 4: Chiloé National Park Tour & Overnight in Puerto Varas

Punta Pirulil, Chiloé National Park
Punta Pirulil, Chiloé National Park

After breakfast, a driver will meet you and you'll embark on a full-day tour to Chiloé Island, and in particular Chiloé National Park, one of its natural highlights. This 430 square-km (166 square-mile) protected area encompasses a large portion of the western side of Chiloé. The region is notable for its vast Valdivian forest comprised of southern beech and alerce trees.

Your journey will take you to Playa Rahue, where you'll embark on a short hike to the famous Punta Pirulil. This lookout point offers sweeping vistas of the green Chiloé coastline and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Also here is the symbolic Muelle del Alma ("dock of the soul"), a wooden boardwalk that rises over the grassland and looks out over the western edge of the island. You'll take a rest nearby as your guide recounts some of the local history and lore. 

Afterward, you'll head back to the car and transfer to Quilque, an indigenous community where you'll stop in at a local house for a traditional lunch. Then, later in the afternoon, there's one last stop in Chiloé National Park for an easy hike on the El Tepual Trail, which will take you along more boardwalks surrounded by stunning temperate rainforest.

Afterward, you'll return to your hotel in Puerto Varas and will have the remainder of the day free.

Day 5: Puerto Varas to Puerto Montt - Transfer to Punta Arenas

Panoramic view of Punta Arenas
Panoramic view of Punta Arenas

It's time to go deep into Chilean Patagonia! The journey starts in the morning with a private transfer to the airport at Puerto Montt where you'll catch a flight to Punta Arenas, a city located near the tip of Chile's southernmost Patagonia region. Due to its location on the Strait of Magellan, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Punta Arenas is often used as a base for excursions to the surrounding wilderness and Antarctica.

Upon arrival, you'll transfer to your hotel and will have the rest of the evening to explore the city at your leisure. Founded in 1848 on the eastern shore of the Brunswick Peninsula, in its heyday Punta Arenas was home to the creme de la creme of Patagonian society. Today it's a tourist hub, and from here you can easily access some of the most impressive natural attractions in Patagonia, like Torres del Paine National Park and Magdalena Island. There are also a number of sites in and around town that deserve your attention.

Suggested activities include:

  • Stroll the Plaza Muñoz Guerrero. This is a good starting point for a walk around the city. Not only is this leafy central plaza a gem (the pathways are lined with French streetlamps and a statue of Magellan sits in the center), the surrounding architecture is impressive as well. All around the plaza are a number of majestic neoclassical mansions once owned by the monied sheep-ranching families of the 19th century.
  • Tour the Palacio Sara Braun, which is one such neoclassical mansion fronting the plaza. If you want to get an idea of just how much wealth the sheep trade generated in the 19th century, take a tour of this former home of the family Braun. Inside is a testament to luxury in the form of opulent dining halls and billiard rooms. 
  • Take a seaside walk. In recent years Punta Arenas has revitalized its waterfront area, so come and enjoy the boardwalks and outdoor spaces complete with artistic sculptures. 
  • Reserva Nacional Magallanes. If you're interested in an active excursion just outside the city, head seven km west of Punta Arenas to this 33,000-acre forested reserve (known locally as Parque Japonés). There's a self-guided nature trail lined with lenga and coigue trees, and it makes for a great, brisk hike. 
  • Watch the sun go down at Mirador Cerro de la Cruz. This viewpoint overlooks the city all the way out to the Strait of Magellan. It's a great place to come and watch the sun go down over Patagonia.

Also, be sure to head out in the evening and enjoy a local dinner. Obviously, seafood is the order of the day here, so sample some local specialties, like chupe de centolla (souffle of king crab), as well as oysters, scallops, and other shellfish.

Day 6: Isla Magdalena Penguin Colony & Transfer to Torres del Paine National Park

The colony of penguins on Isla Magdalena is enormous
The colony of penguins on Isla Magdalena is enormous

This half-day tour begins bright and early. You'll transfer from downtown Punta Arenas by vehicle to a pier on the Strait of Magellan, at which point you'll board a vessel that will take you 30 km (18.6 miles) northeast to Isla Magdalena. On this island is Los Pingüinos Natural Monument, a protected area home to Chile's largest colony of penguins.

First, though, you will travel to Marta Island, located in the middle of the strait. It's home to a large colony of Patagonian sea lions whose numbers top a thousand. However, these aren't the only residents on this rocky outpost. You'll also find a number of seabirds, which include cormorants, skuas, arctic pigeons, and more.

Now it's time to arrive at Isla Magdalena, where you'll disembark and spend one hour on shore. During this time you'll follow a 2,624 foot (800 m) path to an old lighthouse that offers sweeping views of the Strait of Magellan. On your way, be sure to enjoy the company of the island's residents: a Magellanic penguin colony that can reach up to 170,000 in number. There's no experience on earth quite like hiking alongside penguins near Patagonian waters first mapped by Magellan and made famous by Charles Darwin.

Afterward, it's time to return to the vessel and make the journey back, reaching Punta Arenas by midday.

After enjoying lunch in Punta Arenas, you'll transfer to the iconic Torres del Paine National Park. On the way, you'll certainly spot some of the local fauna, including many species of birds as well as the guanaco, a wild camelid related to the llama. 

Upon arrival in Torres del Paine, you'll check in to your hotel, and you'll have the rest of the day to relax and explore the scenery at your leisure. 

Note: the order of the destinations you visit is subject to change on the day of the excursion.

Day 7: Puerto Natales - Torres Del Paine & W Trek - Day 1/5

Start the trekking
Start the trekking

Early this morning, depart your hotel in Puerto Natales for Torres del Paine National Park (about a one-hour drive). Upon arrival in the park, you will begin your trekking experience. 

The trekking circuit begins with a pleasant walk on the Cuernos Trail, which runs alongside the bright turquoise waters of Lake Nordenskjold. This section is more of a warm-up hike, and its easy pace allows you to admire Patagonia's remarkable flora and fauna while being surrounded by the park’s central lakes and the peaks of the Paine Massif. The hike ends at Refugio Los Cuernos, a cozy mountain refuge located on the shore of Lake Nordenskjold.

Alternatively, depending on the schedule, the trek could end at Domo el Francés, a campground featuring three dome bungalows, located between Cuernos and Refugio Italiano, which affords an amazing view of Lake Nordenskjöld. Regardless of where you overnight, you'll have the evening free to relax and enjoy dinner.

Day 8: W Trek - Day 2/5

The French Valley
The French Valley

After breakfast, you'll transfer to the dock at Pudeto where you'll board a catamaran and take a 30-minute ride across Lago Pehoé. From here you'll begin the challenging trek to Valle Frances (French Valley) on a steep trail leading near the Paine Massif. How far in you go depends on the overall speed of your particular group. If you make good time, you'll reach a hanging bridge over the French River, located at the foot of the southeast face of the massif. Here you'll be treated to stunning valley views.

You'll then hike to the upper section of the valley where you can marvel at the geological formations and glaciers. After this portion of the trek, we will pause for a picnic and relax. Your group will then descend through grassland and forest until you reach Refugio Paine Grande, located on the shores of Lake Pehoé, where you will overnight.

Note: the excursion to French Valley varies throughout the season depending on the schedule of the catamaran connecting Pudeto and Refugio Pehoé.

Day 9: W Trek - Day 3/5

Grey Glacier
Grey Glacier

Today you'll hike from Refugio Paine Grande along Lake Pehoé to the northern side of Lake Grey, which is fed by the glacier of the same name. Here you'll enjoy a picnic lunch before boarding a vessel that sails right up to the massive and jagged ice wall of Grey Glacier. From the boat, you'll likely witness great chunks of ice breaking off the wall and crashing into the water below. This is a process called "calving," which is the result of the glacier slowly encroaching ever further into the water.  

If the boat trip is canceled due to weather conditions, your group will instead trek up to a viewing point where you can marvel at panoramic vistas of the glacier. You'll also have the chance to take a kayak excursion on the lake and maneuver around the small icebergs. After, you'll return on foot to Refugio Paine Grande and take a catamaran to the dock at Pudeto, where a vehicle will meet you and transfer you to the next base camp.

Day 10: W Trek - Day 4/5

The base of the Paine Massif
The base of the Paine Massif

This is your penultimate day on one of the most famous nature treks in the world. As such, we've saved the best view for last. Today you'll be trekking up to the base of the famous Paine Massif. In the morning you'll hike to the Hotel Las Torres, at which point you'll gradually ascend through the Ascencio Valley, located on the massif's eastern face.

It's a rigorous hike but an incredible one. Along the way, you'll pass below jagged mountain ridges, through beech forests, and over small rivers. Just before the base of the massif lies the greatest obstacle of the trek: a steep moraine that requires deftly maneuvering around masses of boulders. At this point, you'll look up and the site of three gigantic granite monoliths, the result of millennia of glacial ice erosion, will tell you that you've arrived at the base of the Paine Massif. 

After the tough uphill climb, you've earned a break. So now you'll kick back on the shore of the turquoise lagoon at the foot of the massif and enjoy a picnic lunch. Savor the memory and take plenty of photos, because there aren't views quite like this anywhere in the world.

After eating, you'll backtrack along the same trail through the Ascencio Valley and return to camp for a hearty dinner.

Day 11: W Trek - Day 5/5

Laguna Azul, Torres del Paine
Laguna Azul, Torres del Paine

In contrast with yesterday's ascent to the Paine Massif, the fifth day of the W Circuit involves a much less arduous hike. After breakfast, you'll transfer by vehicle to Laguna Azul, which is notable for the views of the Paine Massif looming over it. En route you'll pass by Cañadón Macho, an area of golden hills home to wild guanacos and ñandúes (a type of Rhea). 

At Laguna Azul, you'll hike to a lookout point where you'll be treated to a gorgeous view of both the lagoon and the granite towers of the massif. After lunch, you'll drive to the northern shore of Lago Sarmiento where the Fauna Trail begins. As we hike northbound, you'll see an impressive range of Patagonian fauna on the vast plains, including guanacos, ñandús (a type of Rhea) and maybe even a puma. After approximately five km (three miles) of relaxed walking, you'll reach the Laguna Amarga ranger station. A driver will meet you here and transfer your group back to camp where you'll enjoy a celebratory dinner.

Day 12: Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas & Departure

Goodbye, Patagonia!
Goodbye, Patagonia!

It's time to say goodbye to Torres del Paine and Chile. In the morning, you’ll transfer from Puerto Natales to the Punta Arenas airport. There you'll take a domestic flight to Santiago and catch your connecting flight back home. ¡Buen viaje!

Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Mar 18, 2019