Chile Off the Beaten Path
On a visit to Chile, you could spend all your time in popular destinations like Santiago, the Atacama Desert, and Torres del Paine National Park. But you'd be missing out on many of the lesser-known pleasures between them. Some of the country's off-the-beaten-path attractions are easy to access from cities and national parks, while others require more of a detour—and, depending on the destination, a rental car, a plane ticket, or a boat and bus combination ticket. Rest assured that these detours, from ghost towns in the desert to far-flung islands, are worth the extra effort.
Ready to go? Start planning your adventure with this guide to Chile's best regions.
Visit a Ghost Town at Humberstone
In the imaginations of many travelers, ghost towns only exist in old Western movies. But one of the world's most interesting examples is actually located in Chile's Atacama Desert. Outside the city of Iquique, the Humberstone Saltpeter Works have been abandoned since 1960.
During the project's heyday, Humberstone was the busy headquarters of the Peru Nitrate Company. James Thomas Humberstone founded the project in 1872, and a town quickly grew around the saltpeter works, complete with English-style civic buildings, a school, a church, and a theatre. The Great Depression of 1929 hit the region hard: both Humberstone and the adjacent community of Santa Laura eventually went bankrupt, and workers left in droves.
Today, Humberstone and Santa Laura are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring the old-fashioned saloons and schoolrooms that have gone untouched for the better part of a century feels like stepping into the past. Getting there is half the adventure: the site is located on the side of the desert highway A-16 leading to and from Iquique. If you're not driving yourself, you can flag down any bus headed into town (or ask the driver to drop you at Humberstone on almost any bus headed out of Iquique) — drivers are used to picking up and dropping off tourists who are curious about the region's famous ghost towns.
Stargaze and Hike at Parque Patagonia
The night skies over the Atacama Desert are some of the clearest on earth. So it makes sense that the futuristic ALMA observatory, the world's largest astronomical project, is located there and that star-gazing tours abound in the region. But if you want to gaze at the night sky without other people around, Parque Patagonia is an excellent alternative.
Located in the Aysén region, the nature reserve was founded by Doug and Kristine Tompkins (the late founder of North Face and the former CEO of Patagonia, respectively), joining together tracts of land they'd previously purchased in the Chacabuco Valley with the intention of opening a new national park. That process is underway. For now, the future Patagonia National Park is a "park-in-progress," privately operated but open to the public, and positioned to be the first energy-independent park in the world.
So what's there to see in the sky? The Magellanic Clouds, for starters—two dwarf galaxies on either side of the Milky Way, only visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere surrounded by millions of stars. Since there's no civilization or light pollution nearby, there's nothing to obstruct the fabulous views after dark. During the day, there's hiking, bird-watching, boating, fly-fishing, and mountain biking. Camp at one of the designated sites, or stay at the park's sustainably built lodge (open October through April).
Hit the Pisco Trail in Valle del Elqui
Nearly every visitor to Chile tries a pisco sour, the national cocktail, at some point during the trip. But not many travelers make it to the region where the spirit is produced. Valle del Elqui, located roughly 330 miles north of Santiago in the province of Coquimbo, is ground zero for Chile's pisco production. On a guided distillery tour, you'll learn how the grape brandy is made and compare various versions during a tasting session.
Pisco isn't all that Elqui has to offer: the peaceful valley is an off-the-beaten-path getaway for all kinds of travelers. There's great hiking and star-gazing, wine tasting in the region's vineyards, kite-surfing at the Puclaro reservoir, and a museum in the village of Montegrande dedicated to the legacy of the valley's most famous citizen, the late poet Gabriela Mistral, the first South American ever to win the Nobel Prize.
Road Trip at the End of the World
Up for a road trip? Fill the tank (and make sure you have a spare tire or two) and hit the road in Chile's southern region of Aysén. This magnificent stretch of the Carretera Austral, lined with glacial lakes, snow-capped peaks, and lenga forest, runs 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins. Even if you only have time to travel along part of it, you'll probably still count it among one of your greatest adventures in Chile. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time for pulling over: with hairpin turns and narrow passages, you won't be able to focus on the gorgeous scenery while keeping both hands on the wheel.
Find out more about places travelers often miss in Chile (but shouldn't) by reading this article.
Explore the Quiet Coastline around Valparaíso
Lots of travelers make the pilgrimage to the colorful port city of Valparaíso (an easy two-hour bus or car ride from Santiago) to wander the hilly streets, soak up the bohemian atmosphere, and take in sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean below. If you want to get away from the crowds, consider exploring the coastline outside the city.
Heading north, you'll pass through busy Viña del Mar before entering the quieter region outside of it. The coastal road is dotted with old fishing villages and beach communities, perfect detours for a seafood lunch, sunbathing on a beach blanket, or a stroll along the sand. Rustic Zapallar and pretty Maitencillo, with dramatic rock formations along the beach, are laid-back destinations along this stretch.
South of Valparaíso, a visit to Isla Negra, home to one of several residences of the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is worth the trip. You'll run into other tourists at the museum itself, but not overwhelmingly so: daily entrance is limited to a certain number. And Isla Negra, with its tall pine trees and crashing waves, feels pleasantly remote.
Step Back in Time in Chiloé
The remote archipelago of Chiloé, located off the south-central coast of Chile, is unlike any other place you've seen. The main island, (also named Chiloé) is famous for its colorful houses on stilts and the charming wooden churches built by Jesuit settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is perhaps the best place in the country to try curanto, a traditional dish made with shellfish, meat, potatoes, and vegetables, baked over hot stones in a hole in the ground. Outside of town, blue whales swim in the water and Humboldt penguins build nests on the beach.
Needless to say, it's worth the effort to get there—you'll arrive by ferry from Pargua, a short drive southwest of Puerto Montt—especially when you hear that it's possible to spot dolphins during the journey.
Get Away From It All on Easter Island
If you want to get far away from all the tourists visiting mainland Chile, board a flight for far-flung Easter Island. (Technically, the island is in Polynesia, but it's a Chilean territory.) Travelers come to see hundreds of moai, the massive statues carved by the native population between the 13th and 16th centuries. And the volcanic island is a wonderful destination in its own right. Rapa Nui National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the site of the famous moai; in and around it, you'll discover empty beaches and quiet roads for cycling or walking. Swim in the crystal-blue water of Anakena Beach, pedal to the petroglyphs at Papa Vaka, wander through the caves at Ana Kakenga: there's plenty to see and do on Isla de Pascua, and you'll practically have the place to yourself.
Learn more in this Ultimate Guide to Easter Island.