This itinerary allows you to experience the major cities and wine regions of central Chile as well as the arid desert landscapes in the country's north. First, you'll arrive in Santiago and take a city tour before discovering the nearby wilderness and wine country. Then it's a trip to the coastal seaport and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valparaiso. Afterward, you'll jet off to the Atacama Desert in the north, where you'll visit the indigenous villages, geysers, painted mountains, salt flats, and lunar landscapes for which the region is deservedly famous.

Highlights

  • Take a city tour of Santiago and sample some local wine in the nearby Casablanca Valley
  • Stroll the colorful streets of coastal Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Visit Cajon del Maipo, a stunning mountain region near Santiago
  • Discover San Pedro de Atacama, an ancient town on Chilean's northern Altiplano
  • Visit geysers, lagoons, salt flats, and lunar landscapes on full-day tours of the Atacama Desert

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Santiago de Chile Santiago
Day 2 Santiago City Tour Santiago
Day 3 Santiago to Valparaiso & Wine Tour Santiago
Day 4 Maipo Valley Full-Day Tour Santiago
Day 5 Fly from Santiago to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama & Stargazing Tour San Pedro de Atacama
Day 6 Atacama Desert Tour: Lagoons & Salt Flats San Pedro de Atacama
Day 7 Explore Yerbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley, Moon & Death Valley San Pedro de Atacama
Day 8 El Tatio Geysers - San Pedro de Atacama - Calama - Santiago de Chile Santiago

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: Santiago City Tour

Santiago's bustling central market
Santiago's bustling central market

Like any great city, Santiago's cultural pulse is found in its people, marketplaces, and cuisine. To that end, today you'll head out on a guided city tour. Depending on your preference, this will either be a full-day or half-day tour with an English-speaking guide. Regardless of which one you choose, you'll become an honorary Santiaguino!

Tour highlights:

  • Wander the aisles of Santiago's labyrinthine Mercado Central and Mercado La Vega. These markets are the beating heart of the city, overflowing with vendors and local residents eager to get their hands on the day's fresh produce. 
  • Visit the Catedral Metropolitana, a neoclassical church dating to 1748 and whose towering twin bell towers dominate the north side of the plaza.

  • Head to the glittering Costanera Center, an epic skyscraper encased in glass! For one of the best and certainly highest views in Latin America, go to the Sky viewpoint. At nearly 1,000 feet (304 m) high, the top offers 360-degree views of the city below, as well as the surrounding Andes.

  • Visit Cerro Santa Lucia, a small, manicured park in the center of Santiago. As you stroll up the hill, make sure to stop and see Fuente Neptuno and Castillo Hidalgo, two impressive structures located within the grounds. 

  • If you haven't done it yet, ascend to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal via hike or cable car. Enjoy the 360° panoramas and take plenty of photos, as these are the most incredible views in Santiago.

Day 3: Santiago to Valparaiso & Wine Tour

Colorful Valparaiso
Colorful Valparaiso

After breakfast, you will depart from your hotel bound for the historic Chilean coastal city of Valparaiso. This is a special treat because Valparaiso is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it's also the most romantic and artistic city in the country. 

But that's not all. En route you will stop at an organic winery in the Casablanca Valley for a guided tour and tasting. The owners of the Emiliana Winery pride themselves on their all-natural approach to growing grapes, which utilizes the combined efforts of plants and livestock to help fertilize the crops. You'll tour the vineyard and the production facilities and then taste four different wines paired with local cheeses and chocolates. 

Shortly after the tour, you'll arrive in Valparaiso. This colorful, well-preserved seaport is 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. The tour of Valparaiso begins at the port, where you'll travel by trolley between Plaza Sotomayor and Plaza Aníbal Pinto. Then it's time to hop in the Reina Victoria funicular and ascend to the top, where you'll be greeted with panoramic views of the city.

You'll then wander the high streets through hilly neighborhoods like Cerro Alegre, Cerro Concepción, and Cerro Florida. This is the best way to get to know Valparaiso, as there's nothing quite like strolling among the brightly painted houses, old churches, and cobbled squares that comprise this city. And no matter where you happen to be, you can always find sweeping views of the Pacific coast and the blanket of blue water running out to the horizon. Valparaiso is like San Francisco reimagined by Dr. Seuss.   

After the tour, you can enjoy an optional lunch in a local restaurant (try the seafood; it's some of the best in South America). Then it's time to hop back in the minivan, transfer back to Santiago, and return to your hotel.

Tour Duration: Full day

Day 4: Maipo Valley Full-Day Tour

Maipo Valley
Maipo Valley

Today you'll experience even more of Chile's famous natural beauty with a visit to Cajón del Maipu. After breakfast, embark on a 45-minute road trip southeast of Santiago to this popular gorge. You'll first arrive in the fertile San José de Maipo region, with its hills and vineyards. Then it's an ascent into the mountains and the landscapes become even more dramatic as massifs and snow-capped peaks dominate the skyline. That's to say nothing of the sparkling rivers and streams that wind through this paradise.

After reaching 3,000 meters above sea level (9,843 feet), you'll exit the vehicle at the shores of the Embalse de Yeso, a reservoir nestled in the Andes whose glassy surface shines bright turquoise. There will be ample time to marvel at this landscape and snap photos of the panoramic vistas. You'll also walk around the shore as your expert guide offers insight into the geology of the area as well as the history of the reservoir, a result of damming the Yeso River back in 1964.

For lunch, pull up a seat near the water and enjoy a picnic accompanied by a selection of top Chilean wine. Afterward, you'll return to San José de Maipo and stop in at a local restaurant to try a traditional Chilean empanada. Finally, you'll transfer back to your hotel in Santiago.

Day 5: Fly from Santiago to Calama - Transfer to San Pedro de Atacama & Stargazing Tour

The Valley of the Moon
The Valley of the Moon

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: Atacama Desert Tour: Lagoons & 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 7: Explore Yerbas Buenas, Rainbow Valley, Moon & Death Valley

Moon & Death Valley topography
Moon & 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 Valley. 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 8: 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.

Map

Map of Exploring Santiago & the Atacama Desert - 8 Days
Map of Exploring Santiago & the Atacama Desert - 8 Days
Deborah
Written by Deborah Hayman, updated Mar 18, 2019