Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

A first-timer’s guide to Chile

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By Anna Kaminski
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Stretching north to south for 4270km and only 64km wide at its narrowest point, this land of ice and fire, periodically shaken by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, is one of the most geographically diverse on earth. Most travellers fly into the capital of Santiago, roughly in the middle of the country, and head either towards the fjords, forests and mountains of the south, or the beaches, stargazing observatories and deserts of the north. To help structure your trip, here is our first-timer’s guide for things to do in Chile (see our map of these top sights here).

Around Santiago

The mountains around Santiago and Chillán, further south, in the foothills of the Andes, are prime skiing spots. Just an hour from the capital, you can ride the funiculars up the many hills of the historic port city of Valparaíso, or visit the excellent wineries of the Maipo and Casablanca valleys.

Santiago, Chile

Northern Chile and the Atacama Desert

North of Santiago, the arid Elqui Valley is the place to sample pisco (Chilean brandy) and gaze at the stars through powerful telescopes at the Cerro Mamalluca observatory. The Humboldt Current that keeps Chilean waters frigid provides an ideal environment for penguins at its namesake coastal reserve just off the mainland north of La Serena, and even further north, the teal-coloured waters of Bahía Inglesa could fool you into thinking that you’re in the Mediterranean.

The Nevado Tres Cruces National Park, reachable from the mining town of Copiapó, boasts Chile’s highest peak, Ojos del Salado (6893m) and the electric blue of high-altitude lagoons – Verde and Santa Rosa attract flocks of flamingos and roaming herds of guanacos and vicuñas.

Atacama salt flats

The adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama, at the heart of Chile’s vast northern desert, is the jumping-off spot for sand-boarding down dunes and visiting the otherworldly crimson landscapes of the Valley of the Moon, the Atacama salt flat, aquamarine high-altitude lagoons, and the El Tatio geysers with natural hot springs. Atacama’s clear skies also make the desert an ideal location for the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Heading north from there, seaside Iquique is one of South America’s top paragliding destinations; you run off the giant sand dune that backs the city. From Iquique, the scenic route to the border town of Arica takes you past the Giant of Atacama petroglyph, the picture-perfect adobe church of Isluga, the vast dirty-white Surire salt flat – home to three flamingo species – and through the elevated Lauca National Park – all green meadows, snow-tipped volcanoes and peacefully grazing alpacas and vicuñas. Arica’s biggest attraction, the ancient Chinchorro mummies – some of the world’s oldest examples of artificially mummified remains – are found in a museum in the nearby Azapa valley.

The Lake District & Chiloe

Heading south of Santiago, you see the smoking snow-tipped cap of the Villarica volcano long before you arrive in Pucón – the Lake District’s activity centre for hiking, biking, rafting, horse-riding and the challenge of the all-day volcano climb. More technical climbs await on the volacnoes in Puerto Varas, further south – a supremely picturesque spot on the shores of Lago Llanquíhue. The Río Petrohué attracts rafters and kayakers, and the Lake District’s flat, deserted roads, snaking around a profusion of crystalline lakes and waterfalls, is a paradise for cyclists.

Lake District, Chile

A short ferry hop across the channel from Puerto Montt takes you to South America’s second largest island: fog-shrouded Chiloé. Its biggest draws are the tiny villages, each sporting a unique wooden church; two wild national parks – Parque Nacional Chiloé and Pargué Tantauco – and birdwatching while kayaking at dawn in the sunken forest of Chepu Valley; or else checking out Magellanic and Humboldt penguins off the Puñihuil coast.

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

South of the Lake District, northern Patagonia is a lush, untamed mass of forest, rivers, fjords and mountains, bisected by the infamous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway). At its north end is Pumalín Park, a virgin protected area; the southern half is good for hiking, whereas the north is only reachable by private boat. South of the park is Chaitén, a town half-destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 2008; from here a road leads east to Futaleufú, South America’s most challenging white-water rafting destination.

Pumalin Park Chile

The potholed dirt-and-gravel Carretera Austral is Chile’s biggest driving challenge. The road cuts through spectacular mountainous landscape before terminating by the glacial waters of the vast Lake O’Higgins, passing the unique boardwalk village of Caleta Tortel along the way. From Villa O’Higgins, the end of the line, there is a spectacular hike to Argentina’s El Chaltén that involves two river crossings.

Southern Patagonia – a land of vaqueros, mountains and huge swathes of scrubland, dotted with roaming guanacos and ñandú (ostriches), has two main towns: historic Punta Arenas, and the smaller Puerto Natales – gateway town to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. Natales is where hikers and climbers gather before and after their assault on the distinctive bell-shaped mountains, rock towers, glacial lakes and backcountry trails of Chile’s most popular natural attraction.

Chile, Torres del Paine National Park

Across the stormy Magellan Strait, and south of Tierra del Fuego – South America’s largest island and Chile’s southernmost settlement – is Navarino Island. Tiny Puerto Williams, a remarkably warm and hospitable community of king crab fishermen, nestles at the foot of the bare Dientes de Navarino mountain circuit. This is the continent’s most challenging multi-day hike, and the best place to organise yachting adventures to the ships’ graveyard of Cape Horn. Flying here gives you unparalleled views of the jagged southern Andes, while the a weekly ferry to Punta Arenas provides a close-up look at the most pristine of Chile’s fjords, where you’re likely to spot dolphins, penguins and the occasional whale.

The island territories

The country’s most far-flung territories include Easter Island, far out in the Pacific Ocean, home to a now extinct civilisation and the world-famous moai (stone statues). Closer to home is the Juan Fernández archipelago consisting of tiny islands; the main one, Robinson Crusoe Island, is famous for the castaway who inspired the eponymous novel. Inhabited by a couple dozen lobster-fishing families, it boasts incredible topography and endemic wildlife species such as the firecrown hummingbird.

Moai Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island

Getting around

Getting around Chile, from the far north down to the Lake District, is straightforward. There are two major bus companies: Tur Bus and Pullman, both of which run fleets of comfortable buses. You can choose between cama (bed), semi-cama (reclining seats) and regular seats. Fairly frequent minibuses ply the Carretera Austral, connecting the main town of Coyhaique with Chaiten and Futaleufú up north and as far south as Villa O’Higgins. To reach Patagonia, you either have to take a bus via Argentina from either Pucón or Futaleufú, take the scenic four-day Navimag ferry cruise south through the fjords, or fly. Travel in the Lake District, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego may also involve ferries. LAN and Sky Airline cover all major cities in Chile between them, flight-wise, though to reach Robinson Crusoe Island you’ll need to hop in a tiny six-seater Cessna from Santiago. During the colder months, bus, plane and ferry services in the south are greatly reduced, whereas transport in the northern half of the country is generally unaffected. Inaccessible by public transport, the national parks of northern Chile are easiest done as part of an organised tour.

If you want to explore more of this small but exciting country, buy the Rough Guide to Chile. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. You can see the author’s photographs of her trip in Chile here.