Stretching 4,270 kilometers (2,653 miles) from north to south, Chile is one long, lean, and epically diverse country. It’s a place where you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from the mountains or the sea, with a remarkable assortment of places to hike, spot animals, and soak up Chilean history and culture.
Promising a broad introduction to Chile’s magnificent landscapes, this ultimate itinerary spans the extreme dusty north of the Atacama Desert and the montane, glacier-riddled south of Patagonia. It’s an ambitious plan for just a week and you’ll be covering quite some ground, so expect to rely on Chile’s network of low-cost flights to transport you across vast distances. Alternatively, slice out a destination or two to free up time to dive deeper into a select few destinations.
Touch down in Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez to begin your Chilean adventure. Airport shuttle services from the arrivals hall transport you into the chaotic but thrilling modern city of Santiago. The Chilean capital is a place of five-lane expressways and high-rise blocks owned by flashy multi-nationals. But, if you peer a little deeper beneath this contemporary façade, you’ll find a city of history, ample parks, and dynamic neighborhoods packed with intriguing restaurants and bars.
Your first stop is the Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s cavernous main square. It's a hive of activity, from the elderly gentlemen playing chess in one corner to the shoe shiners and stray dogs who roam between the towering palms. Nearby, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art) is a wealth of Indigenous artifacts, including funerary statues used by the Mapuche people.
In the afternoon, enjoy a leisurely stroll around the trendy Lastarria neighborhood before taking the winding paved pathways to the bench-fringed top of leafy Cerro Santa Lucía. This rounded hill that rises out of the city center offers some of the finest views across Santiago. You’ll want to bring a camera to capture a skyline of rooftops offset by the vertiginous backdrop of the snowy Andes Mountains.
For a final flavor of Santiago’s unique culture, book a table at pioneering restaurant Peumayen to sample enigmatic flavors from Chile’s indigenous populations. Afterwards dive nose-first into a tasting at Bocanáriz, home to more than 300 of the country’s finest wines.
The antithesis of Santiago’s urban modernity lies a two-hour bus journey west in the tumbling coastal city of Valparaíso. Lavish, late 19th-century European buildings and aged funiculars that creak their way up into the city’s 42-or-so hills typify this colorful bohemian city that was once among the world’s most important shipping ports.
While Valparaíso has certainly lost its wealth, it will never lose its spirit. Much of the main tourist neighborhoods of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción are now daubed in a lively lick of paint from the internationally-renowned graffiti artists who have left their mark here. To understand the vivid history of these sights, you’re best off exploring with a tour.
Another creative who fell for the city is Chile’s much-loved poet, Nobel Prize-winning Pablo Neruda. Famed for his passionate poems written for a string of lovers, his Valparaíso home, La Sebastiana, is a place to delve into his love of whimsy and childlike décor—as well as admire some of the finest views of the city and harbor from his living room. The free audio guide is a must to understand the house and its famous former inhabitant.
For lunch, soak up the sun on the shady terrace of Restaurant El Peral, where the razor clams and seasonal fish give you a taste of traditional coastal Chilean dining straight off the boat.
Leave the city to return to Santiago for the night and enjoy a sundowner on the rooftop terrace of the exclusive The Singular Hotel. Then make your way to Argentine steakhouse Happening for an expertly grilled entraña (skirt steak) paired with a robust Chilean cabernet sauvignon.
Day 3: San Pedro de Atacama
An early, two-hour flight heading north to Calama Airport, followed by an easy airport shuttle (no need to book; they leave when full from outside arrivals), brings you to northern adventure capital, San Pedro de Atacama.
Drop your luggage at your hotel and slather on the sunscreen: At 2,433 meters (7,982 feet) above sea level, you’ll want to take care. The altitude can hit—and fiercely—so spend your afternoon gently to acclimate. Devote an hour or so to the Museo del Meteorito (Meteorite Museum) and their collection of more than 3,200 meteorites that have landed in the surrounding desert, some of which are a remarkable 4.5 million years old.
To catch the sunset as it fades behind the wind-buffeted sand dunes of the Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley), either hire a bike from a business along Toconao road and cycle the 45 minutes, or book a horseback riding tour with Atacama Horse Adventure if you’re feeling less energetic. Take plenty of water for the dry desert air and warm clothes; when the sun drops, the air quickly turns cold.
Back in town, enjoy classy Andean dining beside an open fire at Adobe, where live Andean music begins at 8 p.m.
Day 4: Los Flamencos National Reserve
It’s an early start—think 4 a.m.—for a tour up into the mountains that encircle San Pedro de Atacama. You’ll arrive as the sky begins to bleed with the dawn at the Géiseres del Tatio (Tatio Geysers), the world’s highest and third largest geyser field. As they’re located at 4,320 meters (14,173 feet) above sea level, you may well be struggling for breath, so take things slowly as you admire jets of steam that erupt from the earth’s crust. Pack a swimsuit for a morning dip on the way back in the luxuriously hot Puritama hot springs, a series of eight, crystal-clear pools fed by geothermal water.
Back at your hotel, take an afternoon nap before joining a tour out to Laguna Chaxa, a saline lake surrounded by the gray-white salt flats of the Salar de Atacama. You’ve a great chance to spot Andean, James’s, and Chilean flamingos (although good luck telling them apart), who come here to dine on the waters’ veritable feast of algae. Just before sunset, you’ll be whisked across to Laguna Tebinquinche for a pisco sour and a dramatic display as the light drops beneath the surrounding wall of volcanoes, turning the lake pink.
Chow down on a llama burger and wash it down with beer, made on the premises and infused with herbs plucked from the desert. Wrap up warm for a stargazing tour with local experts SPACE, who’ll whisk you out into the desert to observe the night skies using their 15 professional telescopes; with more than 300 clear nights annually, the Atacama Desert is one of the world’s best places for stargazing.
Day 5: Punta Arenas
It’s another early start as you make your way back to Calama Airport to board a five-hour flight to Punta Arenas, with a layover in Santiago. The main gateway to Chilean Patagonia, this wind-battered town lies on the northern shore of the Magellan Strait, where eagle-eyed visitors may spy squat-nosed Chilean dolphins frolicking in the waters if you take a wander along the coastal road.
Book onto an afternoon speedboat tour with Fiordos del Sur out to Magdalena Island, a 97-hectare reserve with some 120,000 resident Magellanic penguins between November and March. Expect to get up-close-and-personal with this chattering mass of birds and their newly-hatched chicks thanks to pathways that allow you to roam between their nests.
In the evening, enjoy a local delicacy—king crab—and pretty bayside views at fine-dining establishment La Yegua Loca. You'll then catch a late, three-hour bus ride across plains to Puerto Natales.
Day 6: Puerto Natales
A ramshackle town hugging the depressingly-named—yet enchantingly picturesque—Last Hope Sound, Puerto Natales is deep in cowboy country.
To get to grips with the Patagonian pursuit of sheep farming, board the speedboat to Estancia La Península on a one-day tour of their 19,000-hectare family ranch. You’ll spend a morning trotting along the fjords atop a criollo horse before catching a display of sheep shearing and digging into the ultimate in Patagonian lunches: spit-roasted lamb.
Back in Puerto Natales, sample the locally-made Calafate berry gin at the Australian-run Last Hope Distillery. Save room for dinner at uber-luxurious The Singular Patagonia for a first-class feast of scallops, hare, or salmon ceviche, all paired with one of dozens of different options of Chilean wine.
Your final day dawns on the outskirts of Chilean Patagonia’s most famous national park: Torres del Paine. Revered for its three spire-like peaks of granite that rear out of a landscape awash with glassy lakes and thunderous glaciers, it epitomizes remote Patagonia. It’s a two-hour drive from Puerto Natales and best visited with a rental vehicle.
The main attraction is the eight-hour hike up to the three towers, although you can shake things up a little and instead go ice trekking on the park’s 3.7-mile-wide glacier, Grey, or paddle out to its snout across the glacier's namesake lake for a completely new perspective.
Finish the day back in Puerto Natales ahead of your flight back to Santiago. Or, you could opt to extend your trip to include Argentine Patagonia, just across the border.