Planning Your Trip to Chile
Make no mistake: despite Chile’s narrow landmass (the country is 2,653 miles long and a mere 110 miles wide), it holds enough to stretch the limits of any travel itinerary. The highlights are many, be they the northern Atacama Desert or Chilean Patagonia in the south. Between these regions exist some of the most fertile wine country on the planet as well as towering Andes mountains perfect for a ski holiday.
The principal question, then, is how many days should you spend in this lesser-visited gem on the South American continent? Below you’ll find recommendations to plan the perfect holiday, from 3 days to 3 weeks.
Chile in 3-4 days
Only planning on being in Chile for a long weekend? Not a problem. With such limited time, you’ll want to stick to the glories of Santiago and get away for a day on the coast.
First up, Santiago. Chile’s capital is a massive, often unheralded metropolis bursting at the seams with culture and history. And no matter where you go in this country you’ll likely arrive at Santiago International Airport, located 26 km (16 miles) northwest of the city center. If you’re feeling peckish after your journey, head right to Mercado Vega Central, one of the principal municipal markets in the city. Here you’ll find a wide selection of market stalls selling fresh produce as well as a good amount of small seafood restaurants serving some of the best fish and shellfish in the country.
From there, head east to Cerro San Cristóbal. This hill rises 300 meters (984 feet) over Santiago and offers prime 360° views of the city as well as the Andes mountains that encircle it. You can hike to the top on foot or, if it’s a hot summer day, ride up in a funicular elevator or cable car. From San Cristóbal head to the heart of the city and the Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s central plaza lined with arcades as well as the colonial Catedral Metropolitana. From here you can also walk or take a short taxi ride to the Presidential Palace, also known as La Moneda.
Later in the day, pay a visit to the fashionable yet bohemian district of Bellavista for a selection of the city’s best restaurants (as well as some fine street art). Then, if you have the energy, you can party until the wee hours of the morning at one of the city’s famous salsotecas—nightclubs geared towards hip-shaking salsa music.
After a day or two in Santiago, make a break for the coastal enclave of Valparaiso, located a mere 1.5 hours west of the capital. This little port city is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of the capital. It represents the artistic and bohemian soul of the nation. It’s a hilly neighborhood filled with colorful houses and winding staircases that looks like something out of Dr. Seuss’s imagination. Street art abounds, there are cafés and bars on every corner, and near the waterfront you’ll find remnants of the city's earliest origins in the form of old cable cars and creaky funicular elevators. There are few better ways to enjoy a sunset on the coast of Chile than on the patio terrace of a bar or restaurant in the hills of Valparaiso, sundowner in hand, and overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Chile in 5-7 days
In a week or a little less, you can spend time in the capital and the coast as well as indulge in a wine tour and mini-excursion into the Andes mountains.
First, take a couple of days to enjoy Santiago according to your interests and the advice recommended above. Then it's off towards Valparaiso. This time, however, you'll stop en route to the coast at the Casablanca Valley for an afternoon wine tasting. You'll tour the vineyards and production facilities of one of Chile's many renowned bodegas (wineries) and sample a number of varietals, including the nation's famous Carménère, a full-bodied wine denoted by its smoky and spicy aromas. And if wine is indeed your thing, check out this six-day itinerary that should help you plan a fun and tasty week in Chile.
After the tour, you can continue on to Valparaiso, where you'll overnight and enjoy the activities mentioned above. But instead of spending all your time in "Valpo" you can also enjoy some beach time in the adjacent town of Viña del Mar. Viña couldn’t be more different than its neighbor. This is where well-heeled Chileans come to shop at upscale malls and boutiques as well as dine in fancy seaside restaurants. It’s a modern area because much of it has been rebuilt after the region’s many earthquakes over the years, but you can still find some architectural remnants of the town’s early 20th-century origins. One architectural gem is Wulff Castle, which was built for a well-to-do German family in 1906 and overlooks the sea.
The next day you'll head to the airport in Santiago and hop a flight to the city of Calama, in the far north of the country. From here it's an hour transfer to the tiny colonial village of San Pedro de Atacama, located in the Altiplano (high-altitude desert). San Pedro is charming, what with its dusty streets and old central chapel (which dates to the 1600s), but the town is mostly a base for excursions into the desert. You can embark on a day-trip to the surrounding salt flats and mineral-rich saline lakes, which are home to exotic birds like flamingos. Other highlights of the Atacama Desert include towering volcanoes, the lunar landscapes of the Valle de la Luna, and the Tatio Geysers, a geothermic geyser field whose fumaroles of volcanic gases spout from beneath the earth and look amazing at sunrise. For more specifics on this, see this trip plan.
Chile in 10 days
With 10 days to spare you can enjoy the capital, the coast, do some wine tasting, and even venture down to Patagonia. For the first three days, enjoy Santiago and make the trip to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar while stopping off for wine tasting in the Casablanca Valley. After that, it's time to fly south from the capital to the city of Temuco, which is located at the doorstep to Patagonia in Chile's Lake District. This region is notable for its abundance of snow-capped volcanoes, royal blue lakes, waterfront holiday towns, and running rivers.
From Temuco, you can transfer a short distance to the town of Pucón, which sits on the eastern shore of Lago Villarrica under the shadow of the towering Villarica Volcano. This is one of Chile's most active volcanoes, and it's an impressive sight to behold. Over the next couple days, you can embark on a number of excursions in the area, such as hiking to Pichillancahue Glacier, which is located at the foot of Villarrica Volcano, as well as hiking and kayaking through the native forest and lakes of Huerquehue National Park. For other ideas of what to do in the area, see this eight-day itinerary.
Next, you can journey further south to the port city of Puerto Montt. It's a quick trip from here to the German town of Puerto Varas, located on Llanquihue Lake, where you'll stay for the next two or three days. All around the lake are opportunities for adventure and excitement. You can hike up to lookout points of the nearby Osorno Volcano, hike to the mammoth Petrohué Waterfalls, and enjoy some whitewater rafting fun on the Petrohué River.
Finally, you can fly from Puerto Montt down to Puerto Natales, in the heart of Chilean Patagonia. It's a port city that sits on the Ultima Esperanza Sound and is the embarking point for excursions into Torres del Paine National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage protected area might be the most famous national park in the world for hikers, and it has earned this distinction. After overnighting in Puerto Natales, you'll make the transfer to the park the next morning and embark on a solid full-day hike around 9 am.
It's an 11-mile (18 km) hike that will take you from the base of Torres del Paine over the Ascencio River to a lookout featuring sweeping panoramas of the stunning valley below. You'll continue ascending through sections of native forest until the final 45 minutes or so, which involves scrambling over a moraine and a steep hike to the glacial lagoon that sits at the final viewpoint of the Paine Massif—the three granite pillars that jut into the air like giant's fingers. It's a hard hike that takes all day, but once you see the stunning views from the top, you'll forget all about your exhaustion.
After overnighting in Puerto Natales you can hop a flight back to Santiago and then catch a flight home. For more ideas along these lines, check out this 10-day Patagonia itinerary.
Chile in 14 days
With two weeks you can see both the north and south of the country and embark on some longer treks in Torres del Paine National Park. After enjoying the capital, hop a flight to the north and discover the Atacama Desert. This high-altitude region also makes for the perfect vantage point in which to view the constellations of the night sky, and there's no better way to experience this majesty of the universe than on a stargazing tour. For an itinerary that includes just such a stargazing tour, check out this 14-day tour.
Then it will be time to head south to the Lake District. Although you'll have time to explore the volcanoes, national parks, and rivers around lakes Villarrica and Llanquihue, you'll also be able to discover the island of Chiloé. Located just west of Puerto Montt, it's a fertile bit of land notable for its rolling green hills and Valdivian forest of beech and alerce trees. There are two colorful port cities here: Ancud, in the north, and Castro in the south, which are famous for their UNESCO World-Heritage churches. These old wooden cathedrals date back to the 18th century and are a highlight of any trip to the island, as is Chiloe's regional seafood and shellfish dishes, like curanto.
After some days in the Lake District and Chiloé, you'll then head to Punta Arenas, which lies further south than Puerto Natales, on the Strait of Magellan. This is a pleasant seaside city that has historic roots and in the 1800s was the playground of the creme de la creme of Patagonian society. However, you'll want to head outside of town on a quick boat trip up the strait to Isla Magdalena, a small island home to a large colony of Magellanic penguins that top out around a whopping 170,000. On a tour of the island, you can walk on shore alongside these waddling birds.
After Punta Arenas, you'll transfer to Puerto Natales and then head into Torres del Paine for a much more in-depth trekking excursion. In fact, you can spend your remaining time in Chile on a four-day hike of the park famously known as the W Circuit. This route is so-named because it runs in a "W" shape and passes by all the highlights along the way. This includes Torres' famously beautiful lakes like Nordenskjold and Pehoé, mountain glaciers, river valleys, and a trek up to the aforementioned Base Torres. On the trek, be on the lookout for exotic local fauna like Andean condors and guanacos (a type of llama). For more info about the W Circuit, see this 14-day itinerary.
Chile in 21 days
With three weeks, you can experience everything mentioned above plus a lot more of Chile's gorgeous natural landscapes. However, the itinerary will change a bit upon reaching the Lake District. After visiting Chiloé and Pucón, and Chiloé, and the volcanoes and rivers, you'll head off on a driving tour along Chile's famous Carretera Austral.
This highway (Route 7) runs south from Puerto Montt 1,240 km (770 miles), through unspoiled Patagonian wilderness to the southern outpost of Villa O'Higgins, located near the border with Argentina. Along the way, you'll pass through the Aysén region, notable for fjords that rival any found in Norway or elsewhere in the world. There's also plenty of crystalline rivers, fertile lenga forests, rows of golden poplars, and a number of unique natural sites like the otherworldly marble caves on General Carrera Lake, whose surfaces sculpted by thousands of years of water erosion glow iridescent in the reflection of the water.
After road-tripping for a few days, you'll transfer from the Patagonian town of Balmaceda to Punta Arenas, where you'll visit Isla Magdalena and the penguins before heading to Torres del Paine. But rather than embarking on the standard W Circuit, you'll tackle the slightly longer O Circuit, which lasts about six or seven days. The O trek visits all the places you'd see in the W, but it circles back around to the furthest edge of the park to form a loop (hence the "O"). You not only get to see more of the park on this longer trek, but you also get some better vantage points of Glacier Grey and the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields.
After completing the trek, you'll return to Santiago and say goodbye to Chile.