Santiago and Northern Chile
Days 1-3: Santiago
No matter where you fly from, you'll likely arrive in Chile's capital early in the morning after an all-night flight. Unless you're one of those rare people who can sleep the entire night on a plane and arrive refreshed at your destination, reward yourself with a couple of hours' shut-eye at your hotel before setting out to explore the city.
The neighborhoods, small and large, that make up Santiago warrant at least a day and a half of exploration. A trip up one of the city's hills—like Cerro San Cristóbal in Parque Metropolitano or Cerro Santa Lucía—lets you survey the capital and its grid of streets. Any tour of a city begins with its historic center; the cathedral and commercial office towers on the Plaza de Armas reflect Santiago's old and new architecture, while the nearby bohemian quarter of Bellavista, with its bustling markets and colorful shops, was built for walking. But Santiago's zippy, efficient metro can also whisk you to most places in the city, and lets you cover ground more quickly. Avoid taking the metro during the morning and evening rush hour.
Alas, if you're here in the winter, gloomy smog can hang over the city for days at a time. Your first instinct may be to flee, and one of the nearby wineries in the Valle de Maipo will welcome you heartily. If it's winter and you brought your skis, Valle Nevado, Chile's largest downhill resort area, lies a scant 16 km (10 mi) outside Santiago.
Days 4 and 5: Valparaíso and Viña del Mar
A 90-minute drive west from Santiago takes you to the Central Coast and confronts you with one of Chilean tourism's classic choices: Valparaíso or Viña del Mar! If you fancy yourself one of the glitterati, you'll go for Viña and its chic cafés and restaurants and miles of beach. But "Valpo" offers you the charm and allure of a port city, rolling hills, and cobblestone streets with better views of the sea. Nothing says you can't do both; only 10 km (6 mi) separate the two, and a new metro system connects them. Overnight in either city.
Days 6 and 7: San Pedro de Atacama
You certainly could drive the nearly 1,500 km (900 mi) to Chile's vast El Norte Grande, but a flight from Santiago to Calama, then a quick overland drive to San Pedro de Atacama will take you no more than 3½ hours. That a town with such a polished tourism infrastructure could lie at the heart of one the world's loneliest regions comes as a great surprise. This is one of the most-visited towns in Chile, and for good reason: it sits right in the middle of the Atacama Desert, with sights all around. You'll need at least two days here to do justice to the alpine lakes, ancient fortresses, Chile's largest salt flat, and the surreal landscape of the Valle de la Luna.
Day 8: Iquique
San Pedro to Iquique is a drivable 500-km (300-mi) journey, but a flight up from Calama saves you more hours of precious vacation time. There's not much of interest in Iquique itself, other than some nice white-sand beaches and the nearby ghost town of Humberstone, but the town makes a good base for visiting the hundreds of geoglyphs at the Cerros Pintados—it's the world's largest collection—in the Reserva Nacional Pampa del Tamarugal. The largest geoglyph on Earth, the Gigante de Atacama, is nearby.
Days 9 and 10: Arica/Departure
If you've come this far, head to Chile's northernmost city, with a temperate climate and a couple of creations by French architect Gustave Eiffel. The main attraction, however, is the nearby Museo Arqueológico de San Miguel de Azapa and its famed Chinchorro mummies, which date from 6,000 BC. Their Egyptian cousins are mere youngsters by comparison.
A morning flight on your last day gets you to Santiago in plenty of time to connect with an overnight flight back to North America or Europe.
Although it's quite easy, and even preferable, to explore Santiago, Viña del Mar, and Valparaíso using public transportation, a car makes it easier to visit the sights and towns in El Norte Grande. That said, it is possible to get around using buses, which connect most of the cities of El Norte Grande. Once in San Pedro de Atacama or Iquique, you can hook up with various tour agencies to visit sights not accessible by bus. There are frequent flights from Santiago to Calama and from Arica back to Santiago.
Santiago and Southern Chile
Days 1 and 2: Santiago
Arrive in Santiago early the morning of your first day. After a brief rest, set out to explore the city's museums, shops, and green spaces using the power of your own two feet and the capital's efficient metro.
Days 3-6: The Lake District
Head south 675 km (420 mi) from Santiago on a fast toll highway to Temuco, the gateway to Chile's Lake District, or even better, take one of the frequent hour-long flights. Temuco and environs are one of the best places in the region to observe the indigenous Mapuche culture. About an hour south, and just 15 minutes apart on the shores of Lago Villarrica, lie the twin resort towns of flashy, glitzy Pucón and quiet, pleasant Villarrica. Base yourself in the latter if you're in peso-saving mode. Drive south through the region from the graceful old city of Valdivia to Puerto Montt, stopping at the various resort towns. Frutillar, Puerto Octay, and Puerto Varas still bear testament to the Lake District's German-Austrian-Swiss immigrant history. Be sure to make time for one of the region's many hot springs.
Days 7-11: Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael
From Puerto Montt, take a five-day round-trip cruise through the maze of fjords down the coast to the unforgettable cobalt-blue glacier in Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael. If you're lucky, you'll see the huge glacier calving off pieces of ice that cause noisy, violent waves in the brilliant blue water. Transport runs from the utilitarian passenger-auto ferries offered by Navimag and Transmarchilay to the luxury cruises run by Skorpios.
Days 12-16: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
When you return from your cruise back to Puerto Montt, take a spectacular morning flight over the Andes to the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas. On the next day drive north to Puerto Natales, gateway to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. You'll need at least two days to wander through the wonders of the park. On your final day, head back to Punta Arenas, stopping en route at one of the penguin sanctuaries, and catch an afternoon flight to Santiago, in time to connect with a night flight home to North America or Europe.
A combination of flights, rental cars, and boat works best. From Santiago, drive south to Temuco and then through the various sights and towns of the Lake District. From Puerto Montt, take the boat cruise down to Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael—book far in advance for January or February—and on your return to Puerto Montt fly into the city of Punta Arenas. From there, drive north to Puerto Natales and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
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