Stretching over half the South American continent, Chile is a home to extremities: from the driest desert in the world, to colossal glacial fields.
You should be prepared for long bus rides when you visit this spindly, flavourful (pun intended) country. That is especially true if you go all the way to Patagonia in the far south and to the Atacama Desert at the opposite end of the country. Somewhat unfortunate for travellers, these two are also Chile’s highlights – consider breaking the country up in two trips.
Santiago de Chile
Start off in the capital, Santiago, to ease into the experience. Visit the many museums to learn about the pre-Columbian civilization, then take a break from the city bustle and head to Cerro Santa Lucia for a bit of a climb up to the summit and – weather permitting - some great views of the city and the Andes. You can also try the Chilean version of the ceviche (marinated raw seafood) here, and the piscos - though we think the Peruvians piscos are better (but please don’t tell that to anyone in Chile).
North of Santiago: Heading to Atacama
From Santiago, you can go up north or down south - and we recommend you do both. To the north, two hours away from the capital, is Valparaiso, a charming seaside city much more worth visiting than Santiago. Take a walk to admire the many beautifully coloured houses. Start at Muelle Prat and walk over to Monumento a los Héroes de Iquique where tribute is paid to Chile’s naval martyrs of the War of the Pacific. Once dusk falls, go over to Mascara to join the young clubbing crowd or La Piedra Feliz for jazz, blues and tango music.
Further up north is Antofagasta, a city peppered with Victorian and Georgian buildings. If you spot the Big Ben and start questioning your geographical location, worry not, you’re only looking at the Torre Reloj, a replica of the famous London landmark. Be sure to check out the national icon, La Portada, a natural rock arch located just offshore, while you’re here. A true highlight is a trip to the huge open-pit copper mine in Chuquicamata. Everything is huge here, even the truck wheels alone easily outsize an adult. Tours begin every weekday at 2pm, and are best organized directly with the mining company Codelco or through the tourist office in Calama. We suggest that you visit the mine on your way to San Pedro de Atacama.
Travellers flock north to San Pedro de Atacama like it was an oasis in the desert when it is, in fact, the desert itself. The driest desert in the world, to be precise. Limit your water usage as much as you can, but keep yourself hydrated. Despite the recent tourist developments (which you’ll find in the steep prices, tour operators and overpriced offers), this is still a tranquil getaway from the rest of Chile. Watch the sun set and the moon rise in the Valle de la Luna, so called for its out-of-earth landscapes, and take a walk or horse ride through the Valle de la Muerte. Then get up early, put on lots of layered clothes and visit the El Tatio geysers at sunrise.
From San Pedro de Atacama, you can go to Salta in Argentina, to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and to Arequipa in Peru.
South of Santiago: Heading to Patagonia
Your first stop south is the Lakes District. Here, you can hike the smoking, lava-spitting crater of Volcan Villarrica and mountain bike along the Ojos de Caburgua Loop. Also explore the town of Temuco with its dynamic and colourful Mapuche produce and crafts market.
If you have a little time to spare, make Castro your next stop. Thanks to the salmon fishing boom, huge supermarkets and hotels litter what used to be a working-class town. Check out Iglesia San Francisco de Castro on the Plaza de Armas and the brightly coloured palafitos (houses on stilts that hover over the water) for a glimpse of what Castro used to be before the big money come in. If you are on a rush, skip Castro and head straight to Torres del Paine.
Your likely last stop in southern Chile is Patagonia’s Torres del Paine, one of the world’s finest and most famous national parks. The granite “Towers of Pain” rise almost vertically to heights of more than 2000 meters, and the views are fantastic. Access to the park is via the tourist town of Puerto Natales. If the coldness does not stop you, even further south is the city of Punta Arenas and the islands of Tierra del Fuego, which also offer great trekking with coloured lakes and lenga forests.
Detour to Easter Island
And then there is Easter Island. Somewhere in the southeast of the Pacific Ocean, this is the most remote inhabited island in the world. Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is famous for its 887 extant monumental statues, called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui settlers. You’ll also find the Catholic church here fuses Rapa Nui tradition with Christian doctrine, a unique blend of beliefs you’ll find appropriate for an island flung so far from the rest of the world.
The easiest way to get to Easter Island is to fly from Santiago.
(This itinerary is based on our Chile Backpacker CheatSheet, a visual guide available for free download. We offer Backpacker CheatSheets for many more countries.)