Santiago is the international gateway to Chile and is located near the midpoint of the 2670-mile long country. North of the capital, you’ll find the Elqui Valley, the vast Atacama Desert, and the beaches and national parks of the country’s northern reaches. The south presents a dramatic contrast from the arid north, with fertile wine valleys, misty forests and thundering rivers winding through glacial valleys.
From Santiago, you can catch handy flight connections to far-flung parts of Chile. If you’re just visiting the Central Coast, or are game for a very big road trip, you can get around by car. Flying, however, is the best way to reach far-flung places, particularly in southern Patagonia, where it’s the only practical option. If you have limited time, a highlights tour is the best way to see the country’s most iconic landscapes.
One of South America’s most captivating capitals, Santiago is a city of grand boulevards, picturesque colonial districts and fascinating museums. On a wander through Centro (downtown), you can explore pre-Columbian galleries, 18th-century churches, and massive markets.
By nightfall, head out to stylish neighborhoods like Barrio Lastarria and Bellavista for some of the city’s gastronomic highlights. There are also some great destinations just outside of Santiago. Good places for a day trip include the Main Valley, with its excellent wineries, and resorts like Valle Nevado, which has the country’s best skiing, plus hiking, horseback riding and other adventures in the summer.
The Central Coast
Near the middle of Chile, you’ll find enchanting coastlines, charming cities and lush vineyards. A 90-minute drive west of Santiago, Valparaíso is a seaside enclave famed for its hilltop neighborhoods and bohemian vibe. The meandering lanes are lined with some of the best urban art in the country. Nearby, the town of Viña del Mar has palm-lined boulevards, white-sand beaches and scintillating nightlife that make it a favorite summertime escape. This part of Chile also offers plenty for wine lovers, including the Casablanca and Colchagua Valleys, home to the country’s most celebrated vineyards.
El Norte Chico
The so-called ‘Little North’ has a surprising variety of attractions, from idyllic mountain valleys to gorgeous stretches of untouched coastline. Located about six hours’ drive north of Santiago, the Elqui Valley is famed for its sleepy villages set amid rolling hills and crisp mountain streams. You can go mountain biking and horseback riding by day, and spend the evening at an observatory taking in the star-filled skies.
Straight west of the valley is the buzzing city of La Serena, which has a small colonial center, a vibrant dining scene and picturesque Japanese-style gardens. Wide beaches dot this stretch of coast.
The Far North
The upper reaches of Chile are home to serene Andean villages, archeologically rich valleys and several majestic high-altitude national parks. Gateway to the region is Arica, a seaside city with pretty beaches and excellent surf breaks. Nearby, the Azapa Valley is home to massive geoglyphs as well as a museum housing the famed Chinchorro mummies — the world’s oldest preserved bodies. Further inland, you reach the edge of the Andes, with traditional Aymara villages. These are fine bases for exploring the breathtaking landscapes of Parque Nacional Lauca.
The Atacama Desert
The vast, sun-baked sands of the Atacama lure outdoor lovers with its high-altitude lakes, multi-hued valleys and jagged peaks. The best place to experience it all is in San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny village and travelers’ hub near the region’s most jaw-dropping wonders. You can spend weeks exploring sputtering geysers, surreal salt fields, mountain-backed topaz lakes where flamingos roam and Mars-like rock formations. Surprisingly, you can do it in comfort, with stylish inns and eclectic restaurants sprinkled around the buzzing desert village.
The Lake District
One of Chile’s most beautiful regions, the Lake District is packed with natural wonders. Soaring, snow-topped volcanoes, glacial lakes and old-growth forests set the stage for a dazzling range of outdoor adventures. Villages like Pucón put you in the heart of the action, with its access to stunning Villarrica National Park, where you can hike, ski or climb a volcano. Other appealing activities include white-water rafting, rock-climbing, visiting waterfalls or relaxing on a black-sand beach overlooking Lago Villarrica.
The fifth-largest island in South America has mist-covered forests, rugged shorelines and proud residents with a seafaring past and a strong independent streak. Villages here are a delight to explore with their buzzing markets, brightly painted palafitos (stilt houses) and photogenic wooden churches — including more than a dozen listed Unesco World Heritage Sites. This is also a fine place to explore Chile’s wild side, with island hopping on the Islotes de Puñihuil (home to a colony of penguins), and wildlife watching in the stunning Parque Nacional Chiloé.
Remote and rugged, northern Patagonia offers a vision of Chile’s great untouched wilderness. This sparsely inhabited region has sublime national parks, set amid rainforest, glaciers and mountain-filled horizons. There’s plenty of ways to get off the beaten track here, whether driving the famed Carretera Austral, a 770-mile gravel road that runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins or riding the world-class rapids of the Río Futaleufú.
Carved by glaciers, the chiseled southern reaches of Patagonia form the backdrop to unforgettable adventures. This is the land of azure lakes, emerald forests and thick herds of guanaco grazing on the open steppe. The highlight here is Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, which offers Chile’s most spectacular multi-day treks. Another big draw is the Isla Magdalena, home to more than 50,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins. It’s accessible by boat tours operating out of Puerto Arenas.
A world apart from mainland Chile, Easter Island has a mystical air thanks to its massive carved figures known as moai. These enigmatic figures, some of which stand over 30 feet (9.1 meters) tall, are sprinkled around the island, and provide a window into the fascinating Polynesian peoples who once flourished here.
Eco-friendly adventures are the name of the game here, with great coastal walks, horseback riding or simply basking on a white-sand beach. It’s also a fine place to disconnect: located 2300 miles (3700 km.) west of mainland Chile, Easter Island is one of the most isolated places on earth.