Chile: The City, the Beach, and the Desert in 10 Days

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 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 65 km (40 miles) outside Santiago.

Days 4–6: Valparaíso and the Central Coast

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, 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.

Here's a solution: Why not do them both? Only 10 km (6 miles) separate the two cities, and it's easy to travel between them, whether by taxi or the metro system that connects them. Besides, they offer their own distinct charms.

Spend the first day in Valparaíso, where you can ride the funiculars up the city's many hills, wander through streets lined with brightly painted houses, and feast on some of the country's freshest seafood near the port. Don't miss a visit to La Sebastiana, one of Pablo Neruda's houses. From the poet's bedroom window is one of the best panoramic views of Valparaíso that you'll encounter.

The following day, make your way to Viña del Mar and prepare to soak in the rays. Some of the best and most glamorous beaches in the country can be found here. When you've had enough sun, you can stroll through the numerous shopping galleries in downtown Viña.

Round out your visit the following day with a trip to the charming coastal town of Isla Negra, 90 km (56 miles) south of Valparaíso. The unmistakable highlight is another of Pablo Neruda's houses, easily the best of his three residences. It's chockfull of artifacts and curios from his many travels and overlooks a rough part of the Pacific Ocean. Head back to Santiago at night in preparation for the next leg of the journey.

Days 7–10: San Pedro de Atacama

You certainly could drive the nearly 1,500 km (900 miles) 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. 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. Your best bet is to find a reputable tour agency in San Pedro—and there are many—and make at least two day trips: one to the Geysers del Tatio, which requires a pick-up around 4 in the morning; and one to the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, where you can watch flamingos fly over jagged salt flats and cobalt lakes.

Just remember that you'll be in a high-altitude zone, so it's best to take it easy during your first day here, wandering through the charming town and popping into the numerous gift shops. Don't miss the stunning sunsets over the nearby Valle de la Luna.


It's quite easy, and even preferable, to explore Santiago, Viña del Mar, and Valparaíso using public transportation, and a car is not needed in San Pedro de Atacama if you use tour agencies. Once in San Pedro de Atacama, you can hook up with various tour agencies to visit sights not accessible by bus. There are frequent flights from Santiago to Calama and back.

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