Chile’s eccentric capital—home to 40% of Chileans—is gaining world-class appeal and the travel industry is taking notice. That, coupled with the city's spectacular mountain views, translates to more tourists.
Most first-timers will want to start with the classics: a gondola ride (or hike) to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, the opulent Palacio de la Moned (presidential palace), and Santiago's historic center called Plaza de Armas dating to 1541. Foodies will want to explore the counters of Mercado Central during lunchtime for fresh sea urchins, octopus, razor clams, and ceviche.
Doing Santiago differently
Follow the locals to get to the heart of Santiago. There’s much more to see and do outside of the city center with a number of rapidly changing neighborhoods, each with their own distinct flavor and charm. The best way to get around is on foot and by using the efficient underground railway.
The barrios (neighborhoods) of Brasil and Bellavista both offer a vibrant and trendy restaurant scene with sidewalk cafes, wine bars, and beer halls. Meanwhile, the historic neighborhood of Barrio Italia is buzzing with local art galleries and boutique shops. Popular with backpackers, Barrio Yungay has dive bars and colorful street art, as well as a cultural center called Nave.
In Barrio Lastarria, you could practically spend a whole afternoon at Gabriela Mistral Centre for affordable live performances, film screenings, and the Museum of Popular American Art (free admission) on the lower level. The center's café is a great place to sip coffee and watch the world go by.
Before you depart, shop for unique souvenirs at Los Dominicos Handicraft Village. Part of a former monastery, you can browse the workshops for jewelry made with Andean gemstones, ceramic tableware, and natural textiles. While here, snack on an empanada at one of the local stands.
Torres del Paine National Park
One of the world’s best hiking destinations, Torres del Paine National Park is never a tough sell. With staggering peaks, glaciers, and turquoise lakes, along with rare wildlife like guanacos and pumas, the UNESCO-listed park usually ranks high for travelers. This is one of the most beloved places in South America, yet thanks to its remote Patagonian location and limited lodging choices, it remains relatively undisturbed, only receiving a fraction of the Machu Picchu crowds.
Doing Torres del Paine differently
Still, how can you experience this spectacular place differently from the 150,000 people a year who visit? The main draw of the park is its three towers, or Las Torres. Most visitors opt for a day-hike to the base of the towers or tackle the five-day "W" route. This is the most accessible multi-day trek, while the more challenging "O" circuit beats the crowds on the remote backside of Torres del Paine.
Then there's a six-day tour through the Zapata Valley, home to Torres del Paine’s hidden valleys and canyons, where paleontology is still very much alive offering a glimpse into Patagonia's prehistoric life. Far from the park's more crowded trails, you’ll enjoy a remote trekking and camping experience, while getting closer to lesser-known glaciers and the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.
For a leisurely experience, skip the shelters and campgrounds which trekkers often book far in advance, and reserve one of the new EcoCamp Patagonia for well-mounted day excursions and excellent food and wine.
With it’s impossibly-long Pacific coastline to the west, and the jagged Andean mountain range to the east, Chile’s unique wine geography is like no other. The Spaniards first established vineyards here back in the mid-16th century, and today the country is one of the largest and best wine producers in the world.
If you imbibe, no trip to Chile is complete without experiencing the varietals that come from these Chilean wine valleys. Most visitors head to a few prestigious wineries outside of Santiago (great for day-trips), especially in Maipo Valley and Casablanca Valley. If this is where you'll go, consider staying a night at one of the vineyards to experience the valley after the tourists have returned to Santiago.
Doing Wine Country differently
Those who wish to go deeper should consider the Colchagua Valley, often considered Chile's premier wine region and a great spot to stay for two or three nights. Here, the valley’s granitic and volcanic soils merge with an arid Mediterranean climate, causing grapes to ripen slower. Colchagua's consistent heat allows red wine grapes to flourish, thus creating an organic red wine industry known for berry and tobacco notes. And the valley offers endless sunny landscapes with bright green vegetation and mountain views.
Travelers can also attend the harvest festival, an annual event in each valley attended by few foreigners. Certain vineyards also offer work stints during harvest season, which would create more of an experience than a simple tasting.
This tiny dot in the middle of the South Pacific is often called the most isolated, inhabited place on earth. The main draw on Easter Island are the hundreds of stone statues peppered over the island called moai, often overlooking the ruins of the settlements that created them. Most visitors come for a few days of guided tours and excursions, as well a little sunbathing on one of two beaches (the best being Anakena).
Doing the Easter Islands differently
If you want to try something different, consider biking and scuba diving. Cycling on this piece of Chilean territory is a rewarding alternative to organized tours, though it requires effort to get around. You'll feel as if you have entire sections to yourself since few people choose to travel this way. Bike rentals are available in a few locations along the main street, just make sure to try them out before starting a long tour. Most of the roads are paved but remember to take caution when it rains due to slippery conditions.
Easter Island is an excellent scuba diving destination due to the lack of pollution and algae, making the water here one of the world's clearest. There are several great diving spots around Easter Island offering an abundance of undisturbed marine life. Several scuba diving centers can be found in the town of Hanga Roa, which follow official PADI rules and safety routines.
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on the planet with dramatic landscapes including red canyons, rocky valleys, gorges, thermal lakes, and geysers. This otherworldly region of Chile is gaining more attention each year, as more travelers search for ways to unplug.
Doing the Atacama Desert differently
While many travelers come for a day, those who want to do it right will base themselves in San Pedro de Atacama. This charming adobe town is no secret to backpackers and bohemian types who discovered it long before the term “unplug” even existed. Now, in addition to the town's small hotels and cozy restaurants, there are a smattering of more luxury options available.
In any case, the skies at night are something to see, so you'll want to join an expert-led astronomical tour and visit a proper observatory. You can also take great daytime excursions from San Pedro. Visit the Tatio Geysers early in the morning to appreciate the fumaroles before the temperatures warm up—and after lunch, when the sun is less intense, you can visit the Valley of the Moon and Valley of Death to watch the sunset.
Another unique idea from San Padro is to combine the Atacama Desert with a trip to the Salir de Uyuni (salt flats) across the border in Bolivia.
The Lake District
Chile's Lake District receives peak crowds during summer months when locals come for evergreen forests, deep-blue mountain lakes, and snow-capped volcanoes. Most will likely stay in the region's commercial and transportation hub of Puerto Montt where Osorno Volcano meets the Llanquihue Lake. This is also where most volcano tours start and end.
Doing the Lake District differently
Another volcano option that few tourists know about: the El Solitario trail. This hiking excursion covers a large section of the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park from the lava-formed waterfalls of the Petrohué River to the slopes of the Osorno Volcano. This is an excellent choice for photographers and hikers who want to visit the park without feeling rushed.
You'll also want to visit one of Puerto Montt's traditional German-style breweries, there thanks to German immigrants who arrived in the 1850s. Sign up for a tour and tasting to get the full experience. Or, rent a car and take a day-trip to Bariloche on the Argentine side of the Andes for a feast of outdoor activities.