Chile is like a Katy Perry song. It’s hot (Atacama Desert), then its cold (San Rafael Glacier); it’s up (Cuernos del Paine), then it’s down (Elqui Valley); it’s in (Mylodon Cave), then it’s out (Villarrica Volcano). To get to know it, acquaint yourself with both its majestic and quirky destinations, from glassy salt flats and ghost towns to mountain trails and valleys of vineyards.
Located on the most remote island in the world, Easter Island, Rapa Nui National Park contains nearly 900 moai statues. The main draw of the park is walking or driving around it to see these statues, famous for their disproportionately large heads and mysterious history. Watch the sun rise over Ahu Tongariki, a ceremonial platform with a line of 15 well-restored moai, and see the birdman petroglyphs at Papa Vaka. After hiking, relax on the white sands of Anakena Beach. To learn more of the history of the island, consider booking a tour with a local guide. Legally, all guides must be Rapanui, meaning you’ll have the bonus of being able to hear the history of the island from a native’s perspective. Tickets to the park are 54,000 pesos ($80) and can be purchased at the airport.
The most famous of Chile’s national parks, Torres del Paine is home to rolling grasslands, emerald lakes, subpolar forests, and neon blue-tinted glaciers. With the Cuernos del Paine, the park's famous granite peaks, towering over the landscape, you'll find wildlife like the puma, guanaco, huemul deer, condors, Darwin's rheas, and flamingos here. Plan a day hike up to the peaks, or opt for multi-day treks like the W, the O, or the Q. In order to hike the longer routes, hikers must book campsites and refugios (mountain huts) on the trail far in advance, as 252,000 people visit Torres del Paine each year. Other activities include ice walking Grey Glacier or kayaking around it.
The Atlantic and Pacific meet with a crash of waves and a cacophony of spray at Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn). The southernmost point of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, Cape Horn was first sighted by Sir Francis Drake, but due to its violent sailing conditions (like 60 mph gale force winds), it was not discovered until 1616 by a group of Dutch sailors. Cape Horn became an indispensable trade route for two centuries, connecting Europe to Australia and Asia, and even played a role in the California Gold Rush. Now, it can be reached (weather permitting) via cruise ship or boat. The island has a small lighthouse, chapel, and two monuments to the sailors who ventured there, one being an iron albatross that symbolizes the souls of some 10,000 sailors who lost their lives in the surrounding waters.
For poetic barrenness, diverse geographical phenomenon, and healing geothermal pools, venture to the driest place on earth: The Atacama Desert. See the bursting waters of the geyser field of El Tatio and float in the bright blue hidden lakes of Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. Hike the lonely red earth of the Valle de la Luna at sunset, as the last rays stretch long over the wind-sculpted rock formations. Descend into one of the Atacama’s canyons to soak in the eight pools of the Puritama Hot Springs, and bike to the shimmering Salar de Atacama, Chile’s largest salt flats.
A Bohemian haven on the coast, Valparaíso consists of colorful houses, never-ending graffiti, and philosopher-artists on its 42 hills tumbling towards the Pacific Ocean. Walk up and down its streets on a group or self-guided tour to see graffiti on the sides of buildings and sprawled across stairs. Eat fresh fish and seafood at Caleta Portales, the main fish market, or Caleta el Membrillo, a fishing cove. See the bay from an elevator on railroad tracks (funicular), and wander through Pablo Neruda’s house, La Sebastiana, for a glimpse of the poet’s life and eclectic decorating style. To really get a sense of what makes this city so special though, chat with locals. The friendliness, inclusiveness, and open-mindedness of its residents is a driving force behind Valpo’s free spirit reputation.
Place of enchantment, pisco, health, and stars, Elqui Valley has vast clear skies and rolling hills. Surrounded by the Atacama Desert and full of shining ground due to deposits of quartz, it draws lovers of libations, yogis, and astronomers to its small towns and vineyards. Get a massage, sit in a sauna, and meditate along the shores of the Elqui River in El Molle. Discover the distilleries of Chile’s pisco-producing capital at Pisco Elqui, or visit one of its resident mystics. Stargaze at the Gabriel Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary, and sample the valley’s Syrah and Carménère when you visit its vineyards.
Along the Carretera Austral, near the sleepy town of Puerto Río Tranquilo, lies a natural wonder within Lago Carrera General: The Marble Caves. Only accessible by boat, rent a kayak to reach it and paddle through its mesmerizing white, aquamarine, yellow, and purple-gray-colored grottos. The Patagonian winds, which helped form these caves in the lake’s calcium carbonate cliffs over the course of 6,200 years, still blow strong and can create large waves. Go with a guide (easily hired via one of the tour agencies in town) or take a speedboat there if you are not an experienced kayaker.
The distinctive culture of this island includes curanto (a clam bake), boat architecture churches, and brightly colored palafitos (stilted houses). See the 16 UNESCO World Heritage Site churches, which combine Spanish design with local Chilota-style boat building methods and flamboyantly decorated interiors. An archipelago, Chiloé's closest neighbors are blue whales, which can be spotted via boat or from the shores of Chiloé National Park. The southern portion of the park includes Chepu Valley, home to more than 120 species of birds and a sunken forest caused by the massive 1960 Valdivia earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
One of the few permanently active volcanoes in the world, Villarrica rises above the town of Pucón, puffing smoke into the air and holding a lake of lava in its crater. Ice hike on your own or with a tour to its rim in about three to five hours to see the glow mass for yourself. Afterwards, slide down on a toboggan (the standard descent for most hikers) in just 15 minutes. Ski Pucón, the area ski resort, perches on the side of Villarrica and offers several beginner and intermediate runs. After hiking, relax in Pucón or venture to the nearby Termas Geometricas Hot Springs for a soak.
San Rafael Glacier
Only reachable by boat or kayak, the San Rafael Glacier is a 293-square-mile sheet of ice continually calving into Laguna San Rafael. A key player in the Northern Patagonia Icefield, it stands 230 feet high in Laguna San Rafael National Park, surrounded by the lagoon and temperate rainforests. While a boat tour will allow you to see the glacier and cruise through fjords, a kayak tour will give you more freedom to glide closer to the glacier, as well as land at the park and hike its trails. Marvel at pudus, foxes, and sea elephants, and enjoy the lack of tourists. Few visitors to Chile come here, as most opt to explore the country's more easily accessible glaciers.
The capital of Chile, Santiago contains diverse museums, buzzing cultural centers, and a history intimately tied to Chile as a whole. Learn about indigenous culture at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino and the crimes of the dictatorship at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. See exhibitions, theater, and dance at the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral (GAM). Tour Palacio la Moneda, where President Allende’s government was overthrown, and hike to the top of San Cristóbal Hill for one of the best views of the city. Also, Santiago is the best city to base yourself for skiing in the Andes and surfing in the Pacific in the same day.
Formerly an abode of mylodons, saber-toothed tigers, dwarf horses, and prehistoric humans, the Milodón Cave Natural Monument (El Monumento Natural Cueva del Milodón) is a group of three caves located in Patagonia, just outside of Puerto Natales. In 1865, a German explorer descended into the largest of the caves, a 650-foot deep cavern, and discovered the preserved skin and excrement of the extinct mylodon (a 10-foot tall sloth). Now a life-size mylodon replica stands in the cave, greeting visitors and marking the spot where the original was found. Explore all three caves and hike to Devil’s Chair, a nearby rock formation with views of Eberhard Fjord and the surrounding mountains and glaciers.
Ghost Towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura
About 50 miles (30 kilometers) away from the city of Iquique, the once prosperous mining towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura now stand as a dusty open-air museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to the world’s largest deposit of potassium nitrate, some 200 saltpeter mines were worked by thousands from Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. Known as pampinos, the miners developed a distinctive culture of social justice and hard work. Go to Santa Laura to see abandoned refining equipment and the railroad station, while Humberstone contains many homes of the former workers, an empty swimming pool, and a supposedly haunted theater.
Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are three of the main reasons to go to Colchagua Valley. With ocean breezes and mineral-rich soil, it’s one of the most highly regarded wine producing regions of Chile. Fresh air, clear skies, relatively flat terrain, and 50,000 acres of vineyards make the valley ideal for biking. Consider joining a bike tour or renting your own to cycle to any of its 20 wineries for a tasting. The Santa Cruz Vineyard is one of the best known, who addition to producing inky wines, offers cable car rides to its hilltop cafe and two resident llamas to pet.
Years ago, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid passed through this valley on the “Cowboy Trail” en route to Argentina. These days the valley’s lush rainforests, granite domes, and waterfalls are only traversed by hikers, rock climbers, and people going fly fishing. Often compared to Yosemite in California, Colchamó’s granite walls reach over 3,280 feet, making it one of the main hiking hubs in Chile. Most of the trails seem to have been made by hikers cutting through brush, meaning that many are not well-maintained and can be challenging. To cool off, head to the Toboganes de la Junta, a natural pool with a waterfall of stone waterslides made by natural erosion.