Explore two regions of Chile where few travelers venture on this 9-day itinerary. After checking out Santiago, you'll fly to the northern coast for day trips to offshore islands and Elqui Valley wine country. From here, head to the Atacama desert—an oasis in the driest part in the world known for its geysers, salt flats, and starry skies. If that's not enough, you'll also meet local indigenous communities on a guided cultural excursion.

Highlights

  • Sample Santiago's eateries and bars in the trendy Barrio Bellavista district
  • Learn about the local pisco making traditions while driving around Elqui Valley
  • Photograph petroglyphs, magical religious expressions left cavaneers
  • Watch a sunset in the Moon Valley while sampling wine and cheese
  • Visit charming villages including a town known for native fruits and vegetables

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Flight to La Serena La Serena
Day 3 Day-Trip to Elqui Valley La Serena
Day 4 Tour of the National Reserve of Humboldt Penguins La Serena
Day 5 Flight to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Explore Yerbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley, Moon & Death Valley San Pedro de Atacama
Day 7 Full-Day Atacama Desert Tour - Lagoons and Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 8 Tatio Geysers & Machuca Village San Pedro de Atacama
Day 9 San Pedro de Atacama 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: Flight to La Serena

Look for pelican's along the coast
Look for pelican's along the coast

This morning, after breakfast in Santiago, you'll be picked up and transferred to the airport for your departing flight north of the capital to La Serena. Once you arrive, you'll be transferred to your hotel in the city.

For those who are feeling energized, you'll have the afternoon to get out and explore! The Coquimbo Region is known for its long beaches, scenic lighthouse, and neo-colonial architecture.

Consider a visit to the late-Renaissance Iglesia de San Francisco—one of many churches dominating La Serena's skyline. You can also visit the Archaeological Museum, which displays pre-Hispanic pottery and a massive stone head from Easter Island. If the weather is nice, walk around several indoor/outdoor Japanese gardens at Jardín del Corazón, a relaxing escape from the city. 

In the evening, check out La Serena's dining scene. A few notable options include:

  • Moscatel: This stylish spot serves pre- or post-dinner drinks with over 40 varieties of pisco. 
  • Donde el Guatón: Considered one of La Serena's best restaurants, Donde el Guatón has a beautiful covered courtyard and serves local cuisine including grilled seafood and meats. 
  • Lemongrass: Off the tourist path, this pan-Asian restaurant located in a residential neighborhood offers great food and an outdoor terrace for al fresco dining.

Day 3: Day-Trip to Elqui Valley

Colorful contrasts in this part of the country
Colorful contrasts in this part of the country

Start the day with breakfast at your hotel in La Serena. From here, you'll be picked up by your private guide for a full-day tour of the Elqui Valley!

This is a wonderful itinerary that includes stops in picturesque and charming Chilean villages. Along the way, you'll be able to photograph wineries and learn about local traditions including pisco-making, while getting a taste of several varieties. You will also learn about the life and work of Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean poet-diplomat and Nobel Prize in Literature winner.

Halfway through the day, stop for lunch in a restaurant serving authentic cuisine and learn about the area's unique gastronomy. Your guide will also teach you about the copao and papaya derivatives. 

In the late afternoon, return to the city and rest at your hotel before having dinner in town.

Day 4: Tour of the National Reserve of Humboldt Penguins

Humboldt Penguins
Humboldt Penguins

Get ready to embark on another great day-trip from your base in La Serena—this time to the National Reserve of Humboldt Penguins.

Dress in layers for your morning at sea! Located offshore from mainland Chile, the reserve consists of three islands: Chañaral, Damas and Choros. The excursion starts by sailing around Isla Choros to identify distinct marine fauna. Continue by boat to Isla Dumas, where you'll disembark on a beautiful island of white sands and crystal clear blue water, with plenty of time to check out the scenery and take photos. 

In the early afternoon, you'll return to the mainland for lunch, which will be served at an authentic Chilean restaurant. This is where you'll learn more about local cuisine and also get a lesson in the process of making olive oil. Later in the day, your guide will help you look for terrestrial fauna such as foxes and guanacos before heading back to the city. 

In the evening, take advantage of free time to explore more of La Serena's dining scene.

Day 5: Flight to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama - Stargazing Tour

Otherworldly landscapes in the Atacama Desert
Otherworldly landscapes in the Atacama Desert

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 6: Explore Yerbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley, Moon & Death Valleys

Death Valley topography
Death Valley topography

Today's Chilean adventures begin with breakfast at your hotel before meeting your guide for two distinct half-day excursions in the vast desert region.

It starts off with a visit to Yerbas Buenas. This important sample of rock art is expressed in petroglyphs with signage forms and magical religious expressions left by the Andean caravaneers in their mercantile routes. You'll then continue with a visit to the Rainbow Valley, which owes its name to the area's innumerable colors like red, green, blue, gray, and yellow, displaying the richness of minerals.

There will be time to have lunch on your own, and then you'll continue driving east to the Moon & Death Valleys. This natural sanctuary offers a landscape that resembles the moon with a variety of craters and wind-sculptured rock formations. The valley offers haunting beauty which will make you wonder if you are still on planet earth. After a chance to see a beautiful sunset, paired with a cheese and wine tasting, you will return to the hotel for dinner. 

Please Note: This itinerary may vary according to weather and road conditions, however, your guide will make every effort to ensure comfort and timeliness.

Day 7: 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 8: 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 9: San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago - Departure

Moon Valley at sunset
Moon Valley at sunset

This morning, you'll have free time to relax and explore San Pedro de Atacama on your own. In the afternoon, transfer to the Calama airport for your flight back to Santiago. Upon arrival in Santiago, transfer to the international terminal for your flight back home. ¡Buen viaje!

Map

Map of Elqui Valley & Atacama Desert - 9 Days
Map of Elqui Valley & Atacama Desert - 9 Days
Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Mar 18, 2019