Experience Chile's beautiful extremes on this 10-day journey. Begin your adventure in the Atacama Desert - a region characterized by its lunar landscapes, geysers, salt flats, and starry skies. Next, head south to Patagonia to experience Torres del Paine National Park. Here, you'll enjoy an in-depth exploration of the park's natural beauty, including a hike to the base of the iconic towers, and an up-close look at the majestic Grey Glacier during a boat tour.

Highlights

  • Visit geysers, lagoons, salt flats, and lunar landscapes in the Atacama Desert
  • Enjoy incredible stargazing opportunities in the highest-elevation desert in the world
  • Hike up to the top of Base Torres, the most famous viewpoint in Torres del Paine
  • Visit the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and view Glacier Grey up close on a boat tour

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama San Pedro de Atacama
Day 3 San Pedro De Atacama - Moon Valley & Half-Day Astronomic Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 4 Full-Day Atacama Desert Tour - Lagoons and Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 5 El Tatio Geysers - San Pedro de Atacama - Calama - Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 6 Santiago to Patagonia - Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine
Day 7 Torres del Paine: Trekking to the Base of the Towers Torres del Paine
Day 8 Lake Pehoé and Lake Grey Torres del Paine
Day 9 Torres del Paine Torres del Paine
Day 10 Torres del Paine 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 to San Pedro de Atacama

Valley of the Moon, Chile
Valley of the Moon, Chile

After breakfast, you'll transfer by private car to the airport, where you’ll catch a flight to the city of Calama, in northern Chile. 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 de Atacama, you will check into your hotel and have the remainder of the day to enjoy the town however you see fit. The good news is that even if you're tired there's no need to worry—San Pedro is so small you can walk around the entire town in about 15 minutes.

Some recommended activities in San Pedro de Atacama include:

  • Visit the Church of San Pedro de Atacama. This little white-washed chapel in the center of town boasts a lot of history. Dating back to 1540, it's the nation's second-oldest church. Inside you'll find a three-tiered baroque altar, which is the only one of its kind in Chile. 

  • Tour the town. San Pedro is notable for its abundance of adobe homes and businesses. It's unique in Chile in that there is quite a bit of pre-Spanish indigenous influence. Just strolling the dusty streets you get a sense of the pre-Hispanic Atacameño culture that once thrived here. Today you'll find many souvenir shops selling basketworks, ceramic pottery, and artisan crafts.

  • Dine out in San Pedro. There isn't much to do in the town of San Pedro except plan your excursions and eat out. Luckily the town has plenty of restaurants to cater to every taste, from funky cafés and vegetarian diners to Chilean steakhouses, Italian pizzerias, Mediterranean restaurants, and pan-Asian-inspired eateries.

Day 3: San Pedro De Atacama - Moon Valley & Half-Day Astronomic Tour

Las Tres Marias Rock Formation
Las Tres Marias Rock Formation

Today you'll enjoy two amazing tours that showcase the best that the Atacama has to offer. Start your day with a tour of the highlights of the iconic Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). In the evening, take advantage of the clear desert skies for a breathtaking stargazing expedition. 
 
Moon Valley Tour

This is an opportunity to visit the amazing geological formations in the Atacama Desert. You'll travel to the nearby salt caves at the Cordillera del Sal, a mountain range formed millions of years ago in an old lake bed. You'll also witness unique geological formations like the “Three Marias" (Las Tres Marias), which were formed from a million year of erosion of the salt and clay of the landscapes. The highlight of this tour is witnessing the Atacama sunset, which is a veritable light show featuring breathtaking landscapes and colors of the mountains, with the Licancabur Volcano looming overhead. Don't forget to bring your camera!

Half-Day Astronomic Tour

The Atacama Desert skies at night are some of the best in the world for star-gazing. The combination of the high altitude, arid dryness, and lack of superficial light transform Atacama into the perfect platform to gaze at star constellations, planets, and galaxies. You'll also visit the world-renowned Ahlarkapin Observatory—"Ahlarkapin" being an indigenous Kunza word of the Lickan Antay people that means "bright star."

At Ahlarkapin you'll enjoy a presentation that expounds on the science of astrology while also detailing the significant role stars play in the culture and worldview of the Atacama people. You'll then have an opportunity to view these celestial bodies through the lens of one of the biggest private telescopes of the world. It's an unforgettable adventure through the southern skies and one of the best seats on planet earth in which to view our marvelous cosmos.

Day 4: 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 5: El Tatio Geysers - San Pedro de Atacama - Calama - Santiago de Chile

Tatio
Tatio

Early this morning, depart from your hotel for your adventure to El Tatio Geysers. You’ll arrive at Tatio at the perfect time to admire the sunrise and the geysers steaming in the cold air of the Altiplano. This valley is very geologically active and surreal. Boiling hot clear water springs (70°C/160°F) spurt from a frozen ground of volcanic formations.

After a few hours driving through the Machuca Valley, arrive at San Pedro. Next, join your English-speaking guide for a private transfer from your hotel to Calama airport. Stay overnight in Santiago.

Day 6: Santiago to Patagonia - 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

Today is mostly a travel day, as you have a few transfers before arriving at the ultimate destination: Torres del Paine National Park. This is one of the most iconic and beautiful protected areas in Patagonia, 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. 

In the morning a driver will pick you up for the transfer to Santiago's airport, where 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 transfer from the airport in Punta Arenas for the three-hour drive to Torres del Paine, stopping en route in Puerto Natales, an attractive city situated on the Esperanza Sound. Here you'll enjoy a hearty local lunch complete with views across the water to the snowy peak of Mt. Balmaceda.    

You'll then continue on to Torres del Paine. On the remainder of the drive, 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 EcoCamp Patagonia, a unique dome hotel that combines rustic luxury with environmental sustainability. This is where you'll overnight. 

Know that sunset usually occurs around 11 pm in the Patagonian summer months. So even though you'll arrive at your destination 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).

Day 7: Torres del Paine: Trekking to the Base of the Towers

Base of Torres del Paine
Base of Torres del Paine

After breakfast, your excursion into the park will begin. Today you'll be heading up to the base of Torres del Paine on one of the most popular hiking routes in the park. Although it can be completed in less than a day, this hike is strenuous and requires a good level of physical fitness. However, the stunning views at the base of the Paine massif make it well worth the effort. 

The trekking route covers 18 km (11 miles) and lasts about nine hours. Every step of the way you will enjoy views of beautiful scenery comprised of rivers, native forest, mountain peaks, and narrow valleys. You'll likely even spot some impressive local avian varieties, like condors and black eagles. 

Your route will begin at the Las Torres Hostel and will take you over the Ascencio River, at which point you'll ascend about 2.5 km to a lookout featuring panoramic views of the valley below and the surrounding mountains. Then you'll continue through sections of lenga forest until the remaining 45-minute stretch, which is a steep ascent that involves a hard scramble over a moraine to the final path leading up to the viewpoint. 

This is the hardest portion of the hike, However, once you arrive at the lagoon at the base of the Paine Massif and stare up at the nearby Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine) jutting into the sky, you'll likely forget all about your exhaustion. Upon arrival, you’ll have ample time to rest by the lagoon and marvel at the amazing rock formations as you enjoy a delicious picnic lunch.

Afterward, you'll begin the return trip back down the trail. The descent takes approximately four hours, at the end of which you'll arrive back to the hotel.

Day 8: Lake Pehoé and Lake Grey

Take an optional boat tour of Grey Glacier
Take an optional boat tour of Grey Glacier

After breakfast in your hotel, you'll meet your guide and transfer by car to the western lakes of Torres del Paine. On the way, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the surrounding mountains and especially the Cuernos del Paine. You'll of course stop off at viewpoints along the way to relish the scenery and take copious pictures. Be sure to keep an eye out for the local wildlife, like guanacos, condors, and foxes.

You'll continue south towards the edge of Lake Pehoé, which affords sweeping views further south to Lake Toro. Then you'll head a short distance east to Lake Grey. Once there, you’ll enjoy a delicious picnic lunch on the shore rest up before embarking on an optional boat tour of Grey Glacier. On this trip, you will get close-up views of the 30-meter (98-foot) walls of this impressive ice mass in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. If you get lucky and keep an eye on the surrounding southern beech forests you may even spot some endangered Andean deer. 

After the boat trip, you will return to your hotel.

Day 9: Torres del Paine

Today is a free day in Torres del Paine National Park. Take the opportunity to enjoy the park's breathtaking treks and views. 

Day 10: 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 Chilean Deserts & Towers Excursion - 10 Days
Map of Chilean Deserts & Towers Excursion - 10 Days
Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Oct 8, 2019