Stretching thousands of miles in length, Chile can feel a world away with its mountains, glaciers, deserts, and rugged coastline. This 12-day trip hits the highlights with a series of unique guided tours. Move at a relaxed pace as you make your way from the Atacama Desert in the north, to Patagonia in the south. You'll also make urban stops in Santiago, Valparaiso, and upscale Viña del Mar for two days of beachy fun.

Highlights

  • Check out hip eateries and street art in Santiago and Valparaiso
  • Explore Viña del Mar's best beaches, manicured parks, and shops
  • Go stargazing with an astrologist in the desert (while sipping Chilean wine)
  • Spend a day gawking at scenery in Torres del Paine National park
  • Take a boat trip for glacier views, hiking, and a Patagonian BBQ

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Viña del Mar & Valparaiso Viña del Mar
Days 3-4 Beach Hopping in Viña del Mar Viña del Mar
Day 5 Viña del Mar to Santiago - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Cejar Lagoon, Ojos del Salar & Tebenquiche San Pedro de Atacama
Day 7 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 8 Moon & Death Valleys San Pedro de Atacama
Day 9 Fly from Calama to Punta Arenas - Transfer to Puerto Natales Puerto Natales
Day 10 Myladon Caves & Torres del Paine National Park Puerto Natales
Day 11 Mount Balmaceda & Serrano Glacier Puerto Natales
Day 12 Puerto Natales 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: Viña del Mar & Valparaiso

The street art of Valparaiso
The street art of Valparaiso

This morning, you'll depart the capital and head for two incredible cities along the Pacific Coast: 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.

Get to the heart of 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, return to Viña del Mar where you'll have the rest of the evening to relax and explore the dining scene.

Days 3-4: Beach Hopping in Viña del Mar

One of several beaches in town
One of several beaches in town

Today you'll have the whole day to relax in Viña del Mar, nicknamed Ciudad Jardín (Garden City). Perhaps start the morning with a walk, jog, or bike ride along the wide, palm-lined boulevards and manicured parks. 

From here, take some time for yourself and relax on the seashore. There's a popular stretch of sand called Playa del Sol—open to the public—perfect for sunbathing accompanied by a good book. You can even take a dip in the Pacific Ocean provided it's warm enough. Another option is Playa Acapulco, a beach that gets a lot of attention due to its proximity to the downtown restaurant district. Meanwhile, Playa Caleta Abarca gets its fair share of visitors, too, especially families with kids since the beach remains largely protected from strong currents, making it relatively safe for swimming. 

For lunch or dinner, you can choose between many upscale bars and restaurants on the waterfront for a seaside drink or meal. 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 5: Viña del Mar to Santiago - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour

Check out San Pedro's architecture
Check out San Pedro's architecture

After breakfast, you'll begin an exciting day of travel to the driest desert in the world! First, 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 transfer you 15 minutes outside of town into the desert for the evening's stargazing outing. 

It starts with a short 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 of 7,900 feet (2,308 m). 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, your stargazing is accompanied by a glass of good Chilean wine.

At the end of the astronomical outing, you'll return to San Pedro de Atacama.

Day 6: Cejar Lagoon, Ojos del Salar & Tebenquiche

Contrasting colors in Salar de Atacama
Contrasting colors in Salar de Atacama

After breakfast at your hotel, a driver will pick you up for a transfer (just 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, you'll 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 7: 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.

Return to San Pedro for lunch where you'll spend the remainder of the day relaxing in town.

Day 8: Moon & Death Valleys

The aptly named Moon Valley
The aptly named Moon Valley

Today, you'll depart early 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 9: Fly from Calama to Punta Arenas - Transfer to Puerto Natales

Aerial view of Punta Arenas
Aerial view of Punta Arenas

After breakfast, a driver will meet you at your hotel and transfer you to the Calama airport for your flight to Punta Arenas via Santiago. Upon arrival in Punta Arenas, transfer to your vehicle for your drive to Puerto Natales (about 3 hours). Upon arrival in Puerto Natales, you'll transfer to your hotel, and you'll have the rest of the evening to relax and explore the town. 

This small port city is the main base for excursions into Torres del Paine National Park. It's far less touristic than many other Patagonian hubs and thus retains its air of small-town tranquility. Puerto Natales offers simple pleasures like strolling its waterfront promenade, which sits on the Ultima Esperanza Sound. Facing north from here you'll see the peaks of Cerro Benitez and Cerro Toro, and the view is phenomenal at sunset.

Day 10: Myladon Caves & Torres del Paine National Park

A wild guanaco sighting in Torres del Paine
A wild guanaco sighting in Torres del Paine

Early in the morning, you'll depart Puerto Natales for the Cuevas del Milodón (Mylodon Caves). The largest of this network of caves houses a replica of a mylodon, a giant herbivore that became extinct in the late Pleistocene era. Then, you'll visit Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most beautiful protected areas on the planet. Recently, it was chosen as the 8th Wonder in the World.

On an extensive full-day tour, you will visit some of the park's main attractions, such as the Amarga Lagoon. Nearby you'll find the iconic peaks of the Horns of Paine (part of the Cordillera Paine), the glacially fed Grey Lake, and the thundering waterfalls of Salto Grande. At noon you'll enjoy lunch at a restaurant in the park before continuing on the excursion. Finally, at the end of the day, you'll return to Puerto Natales.

Day 11: Mount Balmaceda & Serrano Glacier

Start your boat tour in Puerto Natales
Start your boat tour in Puerto Natales

Early this morning, you'll head to the dock at Puerto Natales and hop on a boat bound for Mount Balmaceda, located in the southern end of Bernardo O'Higgins National Park. The park is only accessible by foot or by boat, and this nine-hour day tour follows the Ultima Esperanza Sound from Puerto Natales to the mountain (in other words, keep your camera close). 

On the boat ride, you'll be treated to vast, panoramic views of native forests comprised of coihue, canelo, and lenga trees. You're also likely to spot sea lions as you head north towards the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers. You’ll then disembark and have an opportunity to enjoy views of these glaciers from land. After a short hike, you’ll then reach the Hosteria Perales, where a typical Patagonian barbecue will be served. 

In the afternoon you'll return by boat to Puerto Natales.

Day 12: Puerto Natales to Santiago - Departure

Farewell, Chile!
Farewell, Chile!

Today, you’ll transfer from Puerto Natales to the airport in Punta Arenas. You'll then hop on a domestic flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago where you'll transfer to the international terminal for your flight back home. ¡Buen viaje!

Map

Map of Chile's Beaches & Natural Wonders - 12 Days
Map of Chile's Beaches & Natural Wonders - 12 Days