Chile takes great pride in preserving its fantastical landscapes and diverse wildlife. Over 25 percent of the country’s land surface is under some form of protection, allowing for its 43 national parks, 45 national reserves, and 18 natural monuments. Within its national parks, visitors can hike snow-capped volcanoes, kayak to the base of towering glaciers, camp on desert beaches, and bathe in hot springs. Both flamingos and penguins roost here, monkeys and otters play, and pumas slink through its subpolar forests.
In addition to its flora and fauna, another big draw for visiting Chile’s national parks is the country’s excellent infrastructure within and between the parks themselves. Seventeen of the parks can be found along its Ruta de Los Parque (Route of the Parks), a scenic route between Puerto Montt and Cape Horn covering 1,700 miles. However, many people will be traveling to and between the parks in the summer. Consider coming in the shoulder season of fall (March through May) when the summer rush has subsided, and you’re far more likely to see herds of guanacos than of people.
Torres del Paine
Majestic granite peaks, magnificent waterfalls, emerald lakes, neon blue glaciers—if you only go to one place in Chilean Patagonia, this should be it. Here in this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, condors soar overhead as herds of guanacos and prancing huemuls graze in its grasslands. Hike the "W," a famous four- to five-day trek that takes you throughout the park. Those with more time can opt for the "O," a six- to eight-day route that takes hikers in a complete circle around the park. Shorter hikes, like ice climbing Grey Glacier or trekking to the park's namesake, the torres (the horn-shaped peaks) themselves, are also options. The park is open year-round, and you can fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales, then travel overland via bus or self-driving.
Laguna San Rafael
Deep in the rainforest of Laguna San Rafael National park stands a 230-foot-high wall of blue ice, the San Rafael Glacier. Chunks of ice regularly calve and drop into the Laguna San Rafael below, creating a field of bobbing icebergs spanning out from the glacier. To reach it, visitors must go to Chile’s Aysén region to take a boat or kayak from Puerto Rio Tranquillo or Puerto Chacabuco, as it is only accessible by water. Once there, it’s customary to enjoy some whiskey with ice plucked from the water, and kayakers typically alight onshore to hike the forest trails and camp for the night. Sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, elephant seals, and marine otters call the park home, as do many species of birds like the black-bowed albatross and black-necked swans. Open year-round, consider coming to Laguna San Rafael National Park in the summer (December to March), when its other most famous attraction, Mount San Valentin (the highest peak in the Andes), is available for trekking.
Walking through misty peat bogs, kayaking above a sunken forest, seeing blue whales resting in fjords—these are scenes of Chiloé National Park. Encompassing 166 square miles of the island of Chiloé in the Chiloé archipelago, the park is lush with temperate rainforests, rushing rivers, and idyllic waterfalls. Hike the park’s seven trails or experience it by riding horseback. Fly-fish in its waters and bring some binoculars for birdwatching, as 120 species of bird can be found here. Trek to Cole-Cole beach, one of the most pristine and hardest to reach beaches in Chile, and camp the night on the shore before you head back. To reach Chiloé National Park, take the ferry from Puerto Montt or fly from Santiago.
Land of the moais (large headed statues) and Birdman petroglyphs, Rapa Nui National Park covers much of Easter Island, a Polynesian anomaly and the most remote island in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of the island’s 900 moais stand or lie within the park. Visitors can explore the ceremonial village of Orongo, the Rano Raraku quarry where the rock for most of the moais was sourced, and the largest volcano on the island Rano Kau, containing a lake and microclimate in its crater. Open year-round, the park can be reached by flying from Santiago or Papeete, Tahiti.
Salar de Huasco
See flamingos high stepping across glassy salt flats and the lakes of the Altiplano at Salar del Huasco National Park. One of Chile’s newest national parks and a Ramsar Site (meaning it’s an internationally protected wetland), Salar del Huasco is a two-hour drive from Iquique. While you can take a dip in hot springs or marvel at the red lake, most visitors come to see the three varieties of flamingos: Chilean, Andean, and James, that nest in here. You can find archeological sites and even workshops throughout the park, and the Aymara people still live in small communities within its borders. Should you want to drive to Salar del Huasco on your own, rent a car with four-wheel drive as the roads are rough.
Within Villarrica National Park stands the most active volcano in Chile: Villarrica Volcano. Though visitors can hike through the forests of araucarias (monkey puzzle trees) and lenga beech trees to see mountain monkeys, pudus, and black woodpeckers, the main attraction is summiting the volcano to peer down at its lava-filled crater. The park offers 17 trails of varying lengths, ranging from 2 to 14.3 miles, a ski resort on the volcano itself, and an extensive hot spring complex, Termas Geometricas Hot Springs. To reach Villarrica, fly or take a bus from Santiago to Temuco, then drive to Pucon.
Pan de Azúcar
Dusty hills, valleys of shrubs and cacti, and long stretches of beach meet the Pacific Ocean in Pan de Azúcar National Park. Foxes and guanacos roam during the day, and the Camanchaca (thick ocean) mists rise at night in this isolated land. Eat fresh seafood in Pan de Azúcar Cove, then hire one of the fishermen to sail you around Pan de Azúcar Island to see its Humboldt penguin colony and neighboring sea lions. Hike or mountain bike its trails, then pitch a tent or rent a cabin for the night. The easiest way to get here (and see the park once inside) is to rent a car in Copiapo and drive yourself.
Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park
Bathe in the Termas del Callao, hot springs nestled into the evergreen forests of the Andes mountains, or feel the spray of the Petrohué Waterfalls’ where torrent ducks swirl and bob in the rapids formed by lava flows. Cruise across Todos Los Santos Lake and admire the surrounding Osorno, Puntiagudo, and Tronador Volcanoes. Trek trails where Jesuit missionaries used to walk en route to Chile or spend a lazy day swimming or fishing throughout the park. Open year-round, the park is only 40 miles away from Puerto Vargas. Reach it by taking a tour or self-driving.
Kayak through chilly grayish-green fjords to see the Southern Patagonian Ice Field up close and visit Pío XI, the longest glacier in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica. In all, the park contains 49 glaciers as well as herds of huemul, and packs of sea lions and fur seals. Take the ferry to Puerto Edén, a small village where the last indigenous Kawéskar tribe lives. You can base yourself here or opt to camp along the river. Only open from October to April, the park can be reached by boat from Puerto Montt, Tortel, Villa O’Higgins, or Puerto Natales.
Full of snow-capped volcanoes, clusters of hot springs, lakes, and more than 140 species of birds, Lauca National Park is 532 square miles of beauty in abundance. Trek to the top of the Pomerape Volcano and cross into Bolivia, or walk the Chungará Trail to see crested ducks and speckled teales at one of the world’s highest lakes, Lake Chungara. Soak in the thermal waters of Chiriguaya, Jurasi, or De Las Cuevas Hot Springs, and visit the town of Parinacota to see their 17th-century colonial-indigenous-style church made of volcanic rocks. To come to Lauca National Park, fly from Santiago to Arica and then take a bus or self-drive the 88 miles to the entrance.
While you can sea kayak or visit the sea lion colonies in islets, the main reason to go to Isla Magdalena is to get up close and personal with its penguins. Home to the largest Magellanic penguin colony in Chile (over 150,000 penguins), which nest on the island from September to March, visitors can book a tour to the island form Punta Arenas which includes a ferry ride and an hour of walking a wooden path through the penguin nests. Penguins frequently cross the trail, but touching them is strictly prohibited. Other activities at the park include hiking the Mentolat Volcano (rising 5,446 feet above sea level) and circumnavigating the island by kayak. In addition to the Punta Arenas ferry, you can take a ferry from Puerto Cisnes or Puerto Chacabuco or hire a private boat from Puerto Cisnes to reach the island.