This comprehensive 15-day tour allows visitors to see the most interesting cities and regions in the whole of Chile. Moreover, some of this adventure is of the self-drive variety, meaning you'll get to hop behind the wheel and make it a road trip. It begins in the capital of Santiago with excursions to nearby Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, two of the most beautiful coastal cities in the nation. Then it's off to the high-altitude deserts of the northern Atacama and its otherworldy landscapes. The tour culminates with road trips in the Chilean ecological wonderland known as the Lake District.

Highlights

  • Explore Santiago, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar—the most beautiful of central Chilean cities
  • Visit the Atacama desert and do some vivid stargazing
  • Take a tour of the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama, as well as high-altitude lakes and geysers
  • Enjoy a road trip around Chile's mountainous southern Lake District
  • Tour the Lake District island of Chiloé, one of the most mythical places in Chile

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Exploring Viña del Mar & Valparaiso & Overnight in Viña del Mar Viña del Mar
Day 3 Beach Time in Viña del Mar Viña del Mar
Day 4 Viña del Mar to Santiago -> Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 Excursion to the Cejar Lagoon, Ojos del Salar & Tebenquiche San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 7 Half-Day Tour - Moon Valley and Death Valley San Pedro de Atacama
Day 8 Flight from Calama to Puerto Montt & Transfer to Puerto Varas Puerto Varas
Day 9 Puerto Varas: Osorno Volcano, Petrohué Falls and Todos los Santos Lake Puerto Varas
Day 10 Puerto Varas to Chiloé Island Self-Drive Castro
Day 11 Chiloé Island Self-Drive Castro
Day 12 Drive from Castro to Pucón Pucón
Day 13 Pucon Self-Drive & Hot Springs Pucón
Day 14 Pucón Self-Drive & Villarrica Volcano Pucón
Day 15 Pucón to Temuco - Farewell Chile  

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: Exploring Viña del Mar & Valparaiso & Overnight in Viña del Mar

The colorful streets of Valparaiso
The colorful streets of Valparaiso

Today you'll leave the capital on an excursion to central Chile's Pacific Coast. You're in for a treat because on this trip you'll be visiting two incredible neighboring cities: Viña del Mar and Valparaiso. These places are unique in that they're as different atmospherically as they are close in proximity. 

First, you'll arrive in Viña del Mar, an upscale coastal resort city teeming with shopping complexes, commercial high-rises, boutiques, and well-manicured gardens. The city's modern image is the result of many buildings being rebuilt after the numerous earthquakes that have hit the Chilean coast over the years. That said, you can still find some early 20th century landmarks, like the Germanic Wulff Castle and the Venetian-Gothic Vergara Palace, the former home of the founder of Viña del Mar. This city is the perfect place to enjoy a seaside lunch at one of the many upscale restaurants on the shore. 

Your next visit is to the port city of Valparaiso, located adjacent to Viña del Mar. This colorful metropolis is the artistic and bohemian soul of the country. It's filled with street art, music, and poetry. Moreover, it's a throwback to the turn of the 20th century when electric trollies coasted along the waterfront and lurching funicular elevators carried passengers to the highest points in the city.

You can start exploring Valparaiso by visiting the old plazas of Sotomayor and Aníbal Pinto. Then hop in the Reina Victoria funicular and ascend to the top. From here you can wander the hilly neighborhoods of Cerro AlegreCerro Concepción, and Cerro Florida. It's on this last hill where you'll find La Sebastiana, a museum that was once the home of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. No matter where you go, you can always find sweeping views looking out over the colorful houses to the Pacific coast and the blanket of blue water running out to the horizon. Valparaiso is like San Francisco reimagined by Dr. Seuss.   

At the end of the day, transfer to your hotel in the adjacent city of Viña del Mar. You'll have the remainder of the evening to relax and explore.

Day 3: Beach Time in Viña del Mar

The beaches of Viña are inviting during the summer months
The beaches of Viña are inviting during the summer months

Today is yours to enjoy the city of Viña however you see fit. Perhaps take some time for yourself and relax on teh seashore. There's a crescent beach here perfect for sunbathing accompanied by a good book, and you can take a dip in the water provided it's warm enough. Afterward, enjoy a seaside lunch at one of the many upscale restaurants on the waterfront. There's also plenty high-end shopping malls and boutiques in this city, so if you're jonesing for a shopping spree, you needn't look far. 

Day 4: Viña del Mar to Santiago -> Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert

After breakfast, you'll transfer from your hotel in Viña del Mar to the Santiago 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 5: 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 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: Half-Day Tour - Moon Valley and Death Valley

The Moon Valley
The Moon Valley

The tour leaves in the morning from San Pedro de Atacama and passes along the mountains of the Cordillera de la Sal. This region was once a giant lake that eventually dried and rose above the Atacama Desert. Millions of years of erosion by rain, wind, and sun resulted in the stratifications, different colorations, and natural sculptures that exist here today.

The first visit is to the Valley of the Moon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve. It's particularly famous for its salt sculptures known as "Las Tres Marias," which were also formed by wind erosion. This caused the terrain to become similar to the lunar surface, which is how it got its name.

Then it's off to the Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death). Hyperbole aside, it actually earned its name due to the high dunes with narrow ridges that exist throughout the area. Not surprisingly, these dunes also make ideal spots for sandboarding. There are also large salt formations here that have been sculpted by the elements over the millennia. 

The tour ends at one of the highest points of the Cordillera de la Sal, where you'll watch the sunset from the Mirador de Kari viewpoint, which is a singularly beautiful experience. Afterward, you will transfer back to your hotel in San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 8: Flight from Calama to Puerto Montt & Transfer to Puerto Varas

The lakeside town of Puerto Varas
The lakeside town of Puerto Varas

This morning, transfer from your hotel in San Pedro de Atacama to Calama for your flight to Puerto Montt via Santiago. Arrive at Puerto Montt and meet your English-speaking guide, who will take you in a private vehicle 30 minutes north to Puerto Varas, located on the shores of Llanquihue Lake. After dropping your luggage at the hotel and having lunch, join your guide for a tour of this charming lakeside village. Puerto Varas is an interesting mix of cultures in that there is a rich German heritage as well as an influence of the Mapuche indigenous people.

In the afternoon, you'll take a short drive east to the famous Petrohue Waterfalls, where you'll have a great view of the Osorno Volcano. At the end of the day, you'll return to your hotel in Puerto Varas.

Day 9: Puerto Varas: Osorno Volcano, Petrohué Falls and Todos los Santos Lake

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

Today's excursion leaves from Puerto Varas along Llanquihue Lake northeast towards the Osorno Volcano. Along the way, you'll pass the mouth of the Río Pescado (Fish River), the villages of La Poza and Los Riscos. Once you reach the small town of Ensenada you'll begin the ascent of Osorno Volcano, stopping at different sights until you reach the Ski Center and the Osorno Volcano Mountain, located at 1,240 meters (4,068 feet) above the sea level.

Afterward, the excursion continues with a stop at the nearby Río Petrohué Waterfalls. These thundering falls are an epic site, as you'll see firsthand how the raging waters crash against the large masses of crystalized lava that were formed by eruptions from the Osorno Volcano.  The tour finishes at the Lago Todos Los Santos (Lake of All Saints).

Day 10: Puerto Varas to Chiloé Island Self-Drive

Chiloe's ruggedly beautiful coastline
Chiloe's ruggedly beautiful coastline

In the morning you'll hop in your rental car and embark on the approximately two-hour journey southwest to the island of Chiloé. This 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. 

All told you will spend two nights in Chiloé. 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 or walk the coastal hiking trails of Chiloé National Park through rugged lenga forests. Perhaps you can even chat up some friendly locals and learn a bit 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. 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

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

Today you'll hit the road again with the freedom to explore Chiloé at your leisure.

Day 12: Drive from Castro to Pucón

Volcán Villarrica dominates Pucon's skyline
Volcán Villarrica dominates Pucon's skyline

Today you'll drive from one stunning locale to another. It's a journey that will take you from Castro to the northern end of Chile's Lake District and the town of Pucón. This village is deservedly famous as it sits on the shore of Lago Villarrica in the shadow of the towering Volcán Villarrica.

As you drive towards Pucón, the famous volcano will come into view, and you'll see why Pucón is such a tourist draw. More than the beautiful views, however, Pucón is a popular destination for those looking for seasonal activities, such as hiking and skiing. Zip-lining is a fun activity as well, and there are a number of nearby excursions you can make from town, such as to the geothermic pools.

But that's for another day. For now, you'll likely be tired after the long drive. If you would like to get out and stretch your legs, then here a couple options for easy activities in and around Pucón.

  • Stroll the city center and waterfront. Pucon's main drag, Av. Bernardo O'Higgins, is the epicenter of activity in town. Here you'll find any number of bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Also, you can walk down the road to where it terminates at the lakeshore.

  • Go on a boat tour around the lake. Many tour operators offer boat excursions around Lake Villarrica. This is a fun and relaxing way to experience the natural beauty of the area. Depending on the climate you'll also be able to take a dip in the water.

  • Dine out. Because Pucón is such a hotbed of tourism, many quality international restaurants have opened up to cater to the crowds. In this town, you'll find all kinds of fare, from sushi to Italian to Arabian to Uruguayan and Argentine steakhouses.

Day 13: Pucon Self-Drive & Hot Springs

Take a nice long soak in perfectly heated hot springs
Take a nice long soak in perfectly heated hot springs

Today is more or less of a free day in which to explore in and around Pucón in your rental car. The only firm stop on the itinerary is to one of the many termales (geothermal hot springs) that abound in this region. The network of roads around Pucón are easy to follow, and we will provide recommendations for the best hot springs to visit. A nice long soak in these volcanically heated waters is the perfect way to relax and decompress after so much traveling. It will also fortify and rejuvenate you for the remaining adventure ahead!

Day 14: Pucón Self-Drive & Villarrica Volcano

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After breakfast, you will drive outside of town to the base of Volcán Villarrica, the snowcapped monolith that overlooks Pucón from the southeast.

Villarrica—also known as Rucapillán, a Mapuche word meaning "Pillan's House"—is one of Chile's most active volcanoes, erupting as recently as March 3, 2015. This was no innocuous light show either—it was a furious ignition of lava and lightning that blanketed the skies in great plumes of thick grey smoke.  Not to worry though, as access to the volcano is only open when Villarica shows no signs of activity. In fact, guided ascents up this stratovolcano are popular during summer months. 

You can drive around the lake and right up to its base, admiring it and snapping photos from various lookout points.

Day 15: Pucón to Temuco - Farewell Chile

Sunset over Santiago's skyline
Sunset over Santiago's skyline

Your great Patagonian adventure has now come to end. In the morning, savor one last leisurely breakfast in Chile before a driver meets you and transfers you 1.5 hours to the airport in the city of Temuco. Here you'll catch a flight to Santiago and make your connecting flight home.

Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Mar 18, 2019