Ah, Chile. Where else can you see both desert and glacier, walk at the end of the world, and bathe in thermal waters? Lovers of astronomy, wine, art, and epic road trips come to this country to gaze up at its unparalleled night skies, sip in its vineyards, admire its unorthodox churches, and drive routes that wind through rainforest and volcanoes. Whether you want to hike the Andes, kayak or walk through fantastic geological sites, or simply soak up the healing energy of its valleys, Chile contains worlds within it for all varieties of interests.
Torres del Paine National Park contains magnificent water falls, horn-shaped peaks, emerald lakes, and roaming herds of guanacos in grasslands. Totally immerse yourself in the park by hiking the full circuit trek. Known lovingly as the “O,” it takes six to eight days for hikers to make a giant circle around the park. For those wanting a similar experience but less of a time commitment, the “W” trail is part of the “O” and takes only four to five days. See Grey Glacier on this hike or climb it by booking with a company that can provide a guide and equipment.
Stargaze at One of the World's Best Observatories
The astronomy capital of the world, Chile contains half of the world’s telescopes. San Pedro de Atacama, the Elqui Valley, Antofagasta, Iquique, and La Serena all have observatories open to the public. Located just outside of San Pedro, the largest astronomical project on the planet, ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), is open on Saturday and Sunday mornings. You can also see plenty of constellations and celestial bodies simply by driving into the desert at night and looking up with your naked eye.
Drive the Carretera Austral
Take a two-week road trip on Carretera Austral, a 770-mile highway running from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. This mostly unpaved road offers outdoor enthusiasts the chance to stop and hike volcanoes, picnic by lakes, swim in the wild, and walk through rainforests. For those who want to wander at their own pace and have ample opportunity to quite literally venture off the beaten path in Patagonia, this is the trip for you. Alternatively, if you'd rather appreciate nature from the comfort of your car, the route still offers spectacular views of forests, mountains, and wildlife.
Kayak through the Marble Caves
Formed over the last 6,200 years by the waves of Lago Carrera General, the Cuevas de Mármol (Marble Caves) look like something out of a room in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Swirls of varying hues of blue, white, and gray create pockets and openings in calcium carbonate cliffs, forming an otherworldly cave system. Hire a kayak from a local operation on the main road of the closest town, Puerto Río Tranquilo. Consider hiring a guide, too, as sudden winds can make the water choppy. There’s no fee at the caves and you can explore and photograph at your leisure.
Wander Among Moai Statues
Easter Island contains the famous giant-headed statues built by the Rapa Nui people more than 500 years ago. Over 900 statues can be found throughout the island, with half of them located in Rapa Nui National Park, an open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage site. The park also contains a volcanic crater in which you can swim, and the quarry from where the stone was sourced to craft the statues. Go around 9 a.m. for the least crowds and best light for photography. Drive to the park yourself or book a tour to learn more about the history and mystery of the monolithic stone guardians.
Brave the Atacama Desert
Base yourself out of the bohemian town San Pedro de Atacama to visit the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. Walk through the rock and sand formations in the Valle de la Luna to feel like an astronaut exploring a far-off planet. Watch geysers erupt at nearby El Tatio, the third largest geyser field in the world. Float in salty lagoons at Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache, and take landscape photos of Chile’s largest salt field, Salar de Atacama.
A wooden path weaves through 20 stone pools of geothermic water at the Termas Geometricas Hot Springs, the largest hot spring complex in Chile. Found deep in the forests of Villarica National Park, this oasis is surrounded by rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and Villarica Volcano, which heats the water of the baths. Though open every day of the year, consider coming in January and February when the complex is open at night and you can gaze up at a sky full of stars while you soak.
Street art and graffiti spills into Valpo’s streets, coloring the sides of its buildings and running up its stairs. Each one of its 42 hills has at least some form of art on it, making the city look like a ragtag rainbow. Go to Beethoven Street for a photo op on a giant piano painted on a flight of stairs. Walk to the mirador of Paseo Atkins to see the three buildings-wide mural of an indigenous god of abundance by Inti Castro, a world-renowned artist. Plan a route or just start walking uphill and you’ll be sure to stumble onto a painted passageway, creative political message, or some whimsical land sprawled across a wall.
La Sabastiana, La Chascona, and Isla Negra were more than homes for Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most famous poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. They were extensions of his art, places to display his collections of furniture, paintings, glassware, and treasures collected from close friends and far flung places. Turned into museums after his death, La Chascona sits at the base of San Cristobal Hill in Santiago, La Sabastiana floats between earth and sky in Valparaiso, and La Isla Negra, Neruda’s favorite, sits on the island of the same name.
Go Wine Tasting
Chile’s unique geography of seemingly endless coastline and mountains create climates in which vineyards easily produce Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Simply pick your favorite wine and head to the valley that specializes in it. Reds thrive in the warmer regions, like Maipo Valley, and whites flourish in the cooler ones, like Casablanca Valley. If you’re on a time crunch, day trips can be arranged to wineries outside of Santiago via tours or self-driving. True oenophiles should come in March or April to Vendimias in the Colchagua Valley, a giant grape harvest festival where you can drink the region’s finest pours and see a grape blessing.
Walk with Penguins on Isla Magdalena
From Punta Arenas, book a ferry ticket to Isla Magdalena, a penguin colony with thousands of Magellanic penguins. After a 30-minute ferry ride, most tour groups allow for an hour on the island to walk the path through the penguin nests. November through February is the best time to go (especially December) to see baby penguins learning to walk with their parents. Also keep an eye out for austral seagulls and cormorants. Penguins frequently cross the wooden path and get quite close to visitors, but touching the birds is strictly prohibited.
Rejuvenate in Elqui Valley
Surrounded by the peaks of the Andes, the mystical Elqui Valley is known as the Ruta de la Sanación (Healing Path). In the community of Alcohuaz, fields of quartz make the ground literally shine, and mystics reside in the town of Pisco Elqui. With many wellness offerings throughout the valley, you can take a yoga class, have a massage, or experience a sound bath. Stay in a refurbished barn or geodesic dome with retractable roofs for stargazing. Should you want libations on your relaxing getaway, go to one of the old-school pisco distilleries in the area, as the valley is the pisco producing capital of Chile.
See a Collapsed Mine
Rent a car in Copiapó and drive 31 miles to the northwest through arid landscape. There you’ll find the former gold-copper mine, Mina San José (San José Mine). The mine became world-famous in 2010, when it collapsed with 33 miners inside. Through relief efforts involving multiple countries, all of the men were eventually rescued, the first emerging 69 days after the incident via a specially designed rescue pod. Visitors can tour the site and see where friends and families held vigil for the miners, watch videos of the rescue, and meet one of the original 33, Jorge Galleguillos, who maintains the site.
Book a tour and take a boat from Puerto Natales to see the the largest glacier outside of Antartica, Pío XI, in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Bernardo O'Higgins National Park contains cormorant colonies, grazing Chilean huemul, playful marine otters, and giant Andean condors flying high above the neon blue spirals and sheets of ice. Once at the park’s edge, take a Zodiac to land and spend a few hours hiking through this unspoiled frozen paradise. Some tours offer an overnight camping service as well.
Church Hop in Chiloé
Colorful stilted houses rise out of the mist in the Chiloé Archipelago, which contains 70 historic churches. Built by the Jesuits in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, 16 of the churches are now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Comprised mostly of wood, the churches were constructed using the Chilota style of architecture, which drew from Spanish design and local boat-building techniques. The interiors are equally as colorful and intriguing as the exteriors. All of the UNSESCO-designated churches are within six miles of each other, so plan to see several of them for a perfect day trip.
Surf in Pichilemu
Host of the International Big-Wave Contest every year, this beach town is Chile’s surf capital. Located in the center of the country, pro surfers come here in the fall when the waves are biggest and crowds thinner than the summer season. (Since the water is always cold due to the Humboldt current, amateur surfers and complete novices typically come in the summer when the temps are warmer.) Newbies can rent surfboards and wetsuits, as well as purchase lessons from local surf schools.
Portillo—with its bright yellow hotel, old world charm of smartly dressed waiters, and incredibly steep runs—is the place to ski in Chilean Patagonia. Though it's known as the place where the 200 kilometer per hour speed barrier was broken, and it's famous for its expert and advanced runs (World Cup teams come to train here during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer), plenty of beginner and intermediate runs are available, too. All runs are above the tree line and wide open, with lots of opportunities for off-piste and backcountry skiing. Heliskiing is offered as well. The resort season runs June through October.
Walk to Argentina
Between Villa O’Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina is a no man’s land you can cross on foot in two or three days. In addition to the calm of the nearly deserted trail, you can enjoy the serenity of emerald lakes and distant snowy mountain peaks. From Villa O’Higgins, take the bus to the ferry pier at Bahamondez, which will bring you to Candelario Mancilla. Here you can camp the first night. The next day you’ll walk about 14 miles to the Argentine border at Punta Norte of the Laguna del Desierto, then either walk or take another ferry to Punta Sur of the Laguna del Desierto. From there, hop on a bus or hitchhike to El Chaltén.
Eat Mapuche Cuisine
The Mapuche people were a tribe native to Chile and Argentina, known for their independence, prowess in war, and hearty food from which many modern day Chilean recipes were created. To try traditional Mapuche cooking, head to Curarrehue, a Mapuche community outside of Pucón. Alternatively, Peumayén is a restaurant in Santiago that incorporates the culinary styles of the Mapuche, Rapa Nui, and Atacameños people in their kitchen. Expect local fruits like green plums and maqui berries, as well as llama, lamb, and horse meat.
Take a Funicular Up a Hill
Find these boxcar elevators going up and down Bellavista Hill in Valparaíso. Declared National Monuments of Chile, only seven are functioning today, with more being restored thanks to recent preservation efforts. The elevators date back to 1911 and can be ridden for the equivalent of about $0.50. Two of the most popular are Acensor Reina Victoria, which gives great views of the hills Cerro Concepción and Cerro Cárcel, and Acensor El Peral, which looks out over the Pacific Ocean.