Planning Your Trip
Things to Do
South America’s skinniest country spans a volcano-fringed desert, fertile wine valleys, pristine fjords, and glacier stippled mountain ranges making it the ultimate destination for adventure travelers. This guide to Chile is a one-stop-shop for planning, covering everything from must-see places, tantalizing local cuisine, and money-saving tips to help you squeeze the most out of your trip.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Most trips are timed to make the most of fine weather in Patagonia in the south, with the austral spring, summer, and early autumn (October through April) good months for clear, warm days.
- Language: Chileans speak Spanish but thanks to their penchant for slang and dropping constants at the end of words, bringing a phrasebook is recommended even for advanced Spanish speakers. Most tourist-fronting businesses have good English, as do younger Chileans residing in Santiago.
- Currency: The Chilean peso ($ CLP) is the official currency of Chile.
- Getting Around: Chile has an extensive infrastructure of increasingly low-cost flights that connect most cities across the country and, if booked in advance, are often significantly cheaper than buses. However, most inter-city flights are indirect and pass through the capital, so expect to spend plenty of time in Santiago’s domestic terminal. For local travel, affordable and comfortable bus services cater to short and overnight journeys, while Santiago’s excellent Metro/subway system is an easy and cheap means of exploring the capital. Hiring a rental car is an excellent option in Chile, particularly for exploring Patagonia.
- Travel Tip: Chile is a vast country packed with far more than you can see in a short period of time. We know it’s tempting to cram a whole month’s worth of activities into a far shorter time period, but we strongly recommend stripping your trip down to just a small number of destinations. You’ll spend far fewer hours on flights or overnight buses and come away wowed by the deep and unforgettable moments you’ve had the time and space to experience.
Things to Do
Chile’s remarkable diversity of landscapes and culture means you’re guaranteed to find plenty to fill an action-packed vacation. The north is home to the Atacama Desert, with its world-class stargazing and otherworldly landscapes; Santiago brims with fine museums, trendy new restaurants, and a burgeoning street art scene; the Central Valley is a place of rolling vineyards and classy boutique hotels; while the Lakes region is volcano country, where the intrepid can summit a fiery giant. In the far south, Patagonia is a place of pristine national parks and outdoor adventure, while west across the Pacific brings you to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a UNESCO World Heritage site dotted with statues of long-lost ancestors.
On a first trip to Chile, don’t miss the following:
- Spend a day exploring coastal Valparaíso’s tumbling, street art daubed hills, dining on freshly-caught fish in its trendy eateries, and learning about the life and loves of the much-adored Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda.
- Strap on your hiking boots and discover Patagonia’s most striking wildernesses in Torres del Paine National Park. Clamber up to glassy lagoons or paddle a kayak across icy waters filled with bobbing icebergs to admire vast glaciers. Head out by boat to visit chattering Magellanic penguin colonies or learn how to be a cowboy at a sheep ranch before dining on local specialties of spit-roasted lamb and king crab.
- To appreciate a completely different side to Chile, take the six-hour flight across the Pacific to Rapa Nui—a Polynesian island home to almost 900 moai (stone statues)—to tour these sacred sites, dive into warm, crystalline waters, and sample tuna ceviche.
What to Eat and Drink
Chile might not be known for its dining scene, but prepare to be surprised. This is a country with a tradition of asado (barbecue) and expertly-cooked seafood, while growing indigenous culinary influences promise truly inventive flavors.
Santiago is a hub of increasingly fine dining, with a handful of restaurants that showcase unusual Chilean ingredients now on the world’s best restaurant lists. But it’s not all fancy: traditional markets and no-frills food trucks in the capital are great places for classic Chilean meat and fish stews and savory empanadas. In the south, Chiloé Island is proud of its traditional seafood dishes including curanto (a seafood stew cooked underground), while Patagonia lays claim to juicy lamb roasted for hours over an open fire.
Chile is home to two main alcoholic drinks: wine and pisco. A large proportion of the Central Valley is stippled with vineyards, with Colchagua and Casablanca the most sought after, for their red carménère and white sauvignon blancs respectively, and both offering tours, tastings, and even top dollar dining. Further north in the Elqui Valley, moscatel grapes are fermented to become the grape brandy, pisco, which is best sampled in the zingy cocktail, pisco sour, which any self-respecting bar across the country can whip up.
Learn more about what to eat with our list of must-try Chilean foods.
Where to Stay
Chilean accommodations run the whole gamut of basic campsites to exclusive five-star hotels, with plenty of family-run B&Bs, boutique hotels, and rental cabins in between.
Santiago is home to a wealth of affordable B&Bs and small hotels located right in the heart of the tourist districts of Lastarria, Bellavista, and Italia, granting quick access to the metro, as well as excellent restaurants, bars, and shops on your doorsteps. In more rural parts and in national parks across the country you'll find increasingly stylish chalet-style cabins. They are a hallmark of Chile and a great option for self-catering, with many built to include hot tubs. In Chiloé, you’ll want to stay in an oceanside palafito (a traditional fisherman’s dwelling on stilts) for the best sea views.
In the south, long-distance treks through isolated national parks mean lodgings in campsites or hostel-style accommodation, although many parks are now home to at least one five-star hotel, generally tucked deep into the wilderness and offering outstanding, lavish accommodation. In more remote parts of Patagonia, sheep and cattle ranches, many of which are still operational, also provide comfortable, sometimes rustic lodgings—all with the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Patagonian barbecue feast.
Santiago’s one international airport, Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez, is the hub for all flights into the country with a record-setting 24.6 million people passing through the airport in 2019. Most U.S. airports have connections with Santiago, with many offering direct flights in the summer months. These include American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines.
If flying from within South America, budget companies including Sky Airlines and Jet Smart, as well as regional mainstay LATAM, provide the most frequent connections from hubs such as Lima in Peru and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Rickety buses also provide an overland connection to Chile from Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, although adventure cruise ships from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas in Patagonia in the south are a far more daring means of crossing the border.
For domestic travel, aim for budget carriers Jet Smart and Sky Airlines where possible and plan to book at least a few months in advance for the cheapest fares. If you do, you’ll often find that three-hour flights between cities are the same price, if not cheaper, than 12-hour bus journeys.
Culture and Customs
- Chileans greet family, friends, and visitors alike with a kiss on the right cheek (for women greeting women and men greeting women) or a brief one-arm hug (for men greeting men).
- Much the same as other South American countries, punctuality is not a national strength, and Chileans are known for arriving to social occasions late—although most tour operators and all transport companies pride themselves on their punctuality, so be sure to arrive on time for paid excursions or risk being left behind.
- In restaurants, a 10 percent tip is added to your bill though you’re under no obligation to pay it if the service doesn’t meet your expectations.
- Uber and other ridesharing apps are illegal but widely used in Chile with 85,000 Uber drivers across the country in 2019. Despite the technical illegality, rideshares are a convenient means of getting around and avoiding being scammed by yellow taxi cabs (an unfortunately common occurrence in the capital). Avoid using an Uber from Santiago’s airport to the city, however; police regularly impound Ubers operating here, so you’re better off arranging an official airport shuttle instead.
- In popular destinations such as Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Patagonia, prices rise considerably in January and February, so avoid these months for a chance to secure cheaper deals on airfare, hotels, and tours.
- Santiago’s excellent Metro is the fastest and cheapest means of exploring the capital - just keep a close eye on your belongings as pickpockets do operate here.
- Book domestic flights at least a few months in advance to secure the best deals. This is particularly the case for Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where prices can triple closer to the departure date.
- If traveling to Patagonia, take plenty of US dollars with you. Paying in this currency at hotels and tour agencies can save you up to 10 percent off the advertised price.
- Bringing US dollars to switch at exchange houses will also save plenty of cash as ATMs can charge up to US$10 per withdrawal, and these can often be capped at a maximum of US$150 each.
- Request small bills where possible when receiving change. Most national parks accept cash only and may refuse to change large, 20,000 peso notes. If hiring a car, you’ll also want small bills for toll booths on the highways.
Chile Travel. "Currency."
History.com. "Easter Island." February 28, 2020.
Arturo Merino Benítez Airport. "Santiago Airport Projects Passenger Traffic to Drop From 24.6 Million to 9 Million by 2020." September 8, 2020.
Reuters. "Chilean Bank Ordered to Open Uber's Accounts to Taxman." October 15, 2019.