The Carretera Austral for Road-Tripping
When you think of the world’s most incredible road trips, the Carretera Austral may not come to mind—that’s because it is relatively unknown to anyone outside of the continent. Attracting both drivers and road cyclists, this quintessential Patagonia route is a whopping 769 miles long (1,240 km) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins on a partially-paved, yet otherwise dirt-and-gravel road through lakes, jungles, glaciers, hot springs, snow-capped peaks, and wide open valleys. Did we mention very few tourists?
A few ideas for a two-week trip: You can go white-water rafting down one of the world’s most well-known rivers for rafting, the Futaleufú, and see the Tortel Cove, with its cypress footbridges and remarkable landscapes. There’s also fishing on the Baker River, visits to San Rafael Glacier (which can be reached by boat), and General Carrera Lake for the Marble Caves. Or, hike one of several undisturbed trails in this part of the Andes while everyone else is in Torres del Paine National Park.
For a shorter route, say a week, consider leaving from Puerto Montt and driving to Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa for a few nights (about 10 hours by car, or a third of the route). You’ll have to cross by boat to the hotel but the location is singular—and as a bonus, there’s even a hot spring. Nearby is Queulat National Park, with the Hanging Glacier only 15 minutes away from the jetty of the lodge.
Arica & Iquique for Surfing
Chile is not particularly noted for its beaches, but the northern coast on the edge of the Atacama Desert is spectacular, with surf conditions that are almost entirely untapped. If you travel the Pan American Highway, which skirts the edge of the desert, you can spot the perfect breaks. Waves here are best during spring months, between September and November.
Two coastal cities in the Atacama, 250 miles (400 km) apart, are home to great waves. Chile’s northernmost city of Arica, practically at the border of Peru, is packed with classic surf spots and spectacular breaks. With a year-round, springlike climate and string of pleasant beaches, Arica has become a popular area for vacationing Chileans. Non-surfers can take day-trips to the nearby Azapa and Lluta valleys to experience tiny settlements and archaeological history.
Iquique, for its part, is a busy port town and the big draw is the beaches with some of the best surfing around, with waves that are often much bigger than they appear from shore. For beginners, Playa Cavancha, located in the central part of the city, offers classes taught by instructors who will guide you through small waves to practice, while intermediate and advanced surfers can head for bigger world-class waves nearby in El Colegio and La Bestia.
Southern Fjords & Channels to Unplug
While picking a Patagonian destination, most head for Torres del Paine National Park, but there are countless wild fjords, channels, and islands to explore below the park on the southern tip of the continent. This is where the Andean mountains meet the sea for truly unspoiled surroundings like no other place in the world.
The area is saturated with sites, big and small, that are mostly uninhabited. The largest island, Tierra del Fuego, which is divided between Chile and Argentina offers sheep farms on the plains surrounded by wildlife, including penguin colonies, sea lions, and even condors live alongside guanacos. There are also hundreds of archaeological sites south of the Beagle Channel near the continent’s most southerly settlement, Puerto Williams.
This is a place to come and unplug. You can take a self-guided tour, but the logistics are complicated. The best way to experience this remote area it is to join a cruise. Sail through the Magellanic fjords and channels to glaciers in the Southern Ice Field, or hit the main attractions of Tierra del Fuego.
Portillo, Valle Nevado, and Termas de Chillan for Skiing
Skiing in Chile doesn’t usually make the list for tourists, which is exactly why you should consider it. The season runs from May through October, and most local skiers head to Portillo, one of Chile’s most famous ski resorts known for powder, steep slopes, and also close proximity to the capital (about two hours by car). Portillo offers 23 ski runs, 12 lifts, and a history that holds an important place in the legend of skiing—international teams like Italy, Austria, and the U.S. come here for training during their summer months.
Another popular spot for locals is Valle Nevado—also close to Santiago with 17 lifts including the country's only gondola. Due to the resort's altitude of 9,924 feet, Valle Nevado typically receives the most snow of the Central Valley resorts, with a seasonal average of 300+ inches.
An even more notable mountain further south is Termas de Chillán, a beautiful ski area just over an hour from the town of Chillán. Though it's more of a trek from Santiago, Termas offers excellent snow quality along with upscale mountain-style hotels, spa services, and several choices for restaurants and bars. It is also blessed with natural hot springs from nearby volcanic waters—a spectacular way to end a day on the slopes.
Pucón for Adventure Sports
To experience summer like the Chileans, this village surrounded by volcanoes and the volcanic black sand beaches of Lake Villarrica draws local crowds, especially in January and February. It’s also popular with adrenaline junkies seeking activities such as white-water rafting, zip-lining, and skydiving.
For trekking, you can venture 13 miles (20 km) from town for Santuario El Cañi—a 1,500-acre private reserve makes for one of the best hikes in the entire region. There's plenty of natural diversity on this hike, which you'll notice immediately once you embark. You'll ascend in altitude as you traverse the Andes (the hike takes between 6 to 8 hours), passing lagoons and observing the unique flora. This region is also home of the Araucaria, or "monkey puzzle" tree, a type of evergreen conifer that can live an impressive 2,000 years.
Back in town, all types of excursions are on offer around Lake Villarrica including kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals—depending on the time of year, you'll also be able to take a dip in the water.
Elqui Valley for Health & Wellness
This peaceful, mystical place—a five-hour drive north of Santiago—is the heart of pisco production in Chile. It is also the home to adobe villages like Vicuña and Pisco where you can learn about local traditions and the poet-diplomate and Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Gabriela Mistral.
The area is also becoming a beacon for health and wellness seekers. Hotels are beginning to offer ayurvedic treatments, yoga classes, and other natural therapies, though the accommodations tend toward basic, with an atmosphere of reflection and calm. Low-key activities include hiking, biking, and horseback riding. At night, the area offers one the purest skies for stargazing, with about a half-dozen observatories in the area. Note that Elqui can get crowded with vacationing locals in February.