Narrowing down your must-see list in Chile is quite a challenge, but manage this Top 25 and you’ll have earned your stripes as a true Chilephile.
When it comes to landscapes, Chile has it all. Considering the country’s rather slim dimensions (just 217 miles at its widest point, and 40 at its narrowest) it might come as a surprise that this South American country boasts glaciers, mountains, altiplano deserts, tropical islands, and urban cityscapes.
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Stargaze in San Pedro de Atacama
There are impeccably clear skies all over Chile, but there are few night skies in the world that compare to those above the remote Atacama Desert. Home to ALMA, an international observatory with the most expensive ground-based telescope in the world (costing a cool US $1.4 billion), the magic of the Atacama skies is the combination of altitude, dry weather, and minimal light pollution to spectacular –effects, even with the naked eye. Stargaze anywhere in Chile and you’ll be mesmerized; stargaze in the Atacama with a very large telescope and your mind will be blown.
INSIDER TIPLuxury hotels tend to have their own telescopes on-site, but if you are desperate for a night viewing on a budget visit Space Obs which has a nightly stargazing session using several large telescopes.
Tour the Street Art of Valpo
Known as Valpo to locals, Valparaíso is the bad boy of Chile’s coastal cities. A rough and ready port settlement, there’s a verve to this city that is best explored through the myriad narrow lanes adorned in street art–occasionally political, sometimes social commentary, and often completely abstract. This is some of the best street art in Latin America.
It isn’t just the graffiti that makes Valpo colorful, but also the brightly painted houses. The maze of dilapidated mansions and bohemian barrios create a colorful haze over the city which can be enjoyed from the many viewpoints offered by rooftop bars and artful patios.
INSIDER TIPWear a good pair of walking shoes (Valparaíso is steep) and bring plenty of spare change so you can hop on one of the many funiculars which take you up or down the hills.
Visit the Old Town of Santiago
Santiago is a modern metropolis but make sure to also wander the backstreets of the old town, tucked away in the Bellas Artes and Bellavista neighborhoods either side of the river. This is the heart of the city, where Santiago’s bohemian intelligentsia chose to reside during the city’s literary heyday. Today, it is still home to some of the best museums and galleries in Santiago and arty hangouts. Live music, comedy shows, and theatres amass in the narrow streets of these traditional barrios, and an evening hopping between bars and restaurants here is one of the best spent in Santiago.
INSIDER TIPWhen the rest of the city all but sleeps on the weekend, the Lastarria neighborhood of Bellas Artes jumps into life with a popular outdoor market and book stands. This is also one of the best streets to buy decent coffee in Chile, so grab a cup and slowly meander through the picturesque streets finishing up with an energetic walk up Cerro Santa Lucia.
Winery Hop in the Central Valley
You’ll be spoilt for choice with the wine regions of Chile’s Central Valley–pick between vineyards in the steep Andes Mountains or looking over the breezy ocean, or stick with the warm, fertile valley floor inbetween. At the heart of Chile’s Central Valley is Colchagua where you can visit all three wine terroirs in one region: Andes, Coastal, and Entre Cordilleras (“between mountains”).
This diversity of terroir is what makes Chilean wine unique and wine country is the best place to taste it. Hop between traditional family wineries (Laura Hartwig, Bouchon) or modern showcase wineries, which are an architect’s dream (VIK, Lapostolle, Montes). You can even catch a horse-drawn carriage and rodeo show at some wineries (Casa Silva, Viu Manent).
INSIDER TIPDon’t drink and drive, Chile has a zero-tolerance policy and unlike some other Latin American countries, the police aren’t flexible.
Feast on Chilean Seafood
The bracing temperatures of the sea might not make it a swimmer’s paradise, but it does make it a fisherman’s. It is precisely because of the cold current that Chile’s coastline has an envious buffet of delicious seafood: oysters, scallops, clams, crab, abalone, shrimp–and that’s not even mentioning the fish.
You’ll find it all: raw, baked, grilled, and ceviche-ed, and you should set out to try it all. Typical street food on the seaside includes pots of fresh crab with a wedge of citrus; white fish ceviche with cilantro and lime; and freshly fried empanadas stuffed with clams and salty cheese. Hungry yet?
INSIDER TIPIf you can’t make it to the coast, pop into the Central Market in Santiago where the fish comes in fresh off the boat each morning.
Hike the W
The W is often the very reason to come to Chile. If you are an avid hiker, this route around the Torres del Paine mountains has to be on your bucket list. A multi-day trek around the stunning Paine massif, in just under a week (or longer if you like) you will hike past mountains, lakes, lagoons, waterfalls, glaciers, and forests spotting condors, guanacos, ñandús and maybe even mountain lions en route.
This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is one of the most remote destinations in the world, yet it attracts over 250,000 visitors per year because of its outstanding beauty and untouched wilderness. Get ready for jawache, as it will drop at every turn of the circuit.
INSIDER TIPBook ahead to reserve your spot at the refuges and campsites on the circuit. Walking the W is only recommended in summer months (October-April) and it gets particularly busy during the holidays in late December through late February.
Watch the Sunset over Santiago’s Cityscape
Santiago offers a spectacular cityscape–glimmering high rise buildings reflect the colorful sunset in front of snowy Andes mountains. A sunset in the city is almost always spectacular in both directions: look at the mountains, or look out onto the sun dropping off the horizon.
INSIDER TIPEnjoy the sunset from one of the many rooftop bars in the city, or hike up Cerro San Cristobal for a panoramic view over the city.
Search for Churches and Wizards in Chiloé
This 41-island archipelago is something quite special. The wild beaches and lush forests are splendid but it is the cultural landscape of Chiloé that fascinates most. Indigenous and colonialist philosophies and religions collide in this picturesque archipelago which was once home to over 150 wooden churches (just 70 remain today and are protected under UNESCO) and several wizards (a population which hasn’t declined according to local residents). Whether you believe in wizards or not, a trip to Chiloé will send shivers down your spine.
INSIDER TIPIf you catch wind of a Minga while you are in Chiloé, go to it! This is a century-old tradition where neighbors all gather to help a neighbor move house. Why is a moving party interesting, you ask? Because in Chiloé the neighbors literally pick up the house and move it. The wooden houses are loaded onto sticks and floated downstream on the water until they reach their new, desired destination. A feast of food and wine is then held at the new location–much like a housewarming elsewhere in the world.
Take a Selfie With the Moai of Rapa Nui
If ever there were an ultimate vacation selfie, this would be it: with the oversized stone heads of the Moai in Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island). Cast 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile, somewhere in the Polynesian Triangle, Easter Island is full of myths and legends of the ancient Rapa Nui population. What remains from the ancient tribes are 887 stone statues that resemble heads and torsos (and occasional thighs) sat upon stone platforms. Listen to the engaging stories of how these were built, transported, and angrily toppled by the native population, and enjoy the endless views of the Pacific Ocean.
Wake up With the Geysers in the Atacama
The El Tatio geyser field in the Atacama Desert is one of the world’s most spectacular. Best witnessed at sunrise (around 5 am), there are over 80 active geysers that spit out columns of steam in spectacular displays that sometimes reach over six meters in height. Once the sun has risen and you have had your fill of walking around the geyser field at sub-zero temperatures, warm up with a coffee or by soaking in the hot thermal water baths heated by the geysers.
INSIDER TIPLocated over 4,320 meters above sea level, this is a heady experience. Make sure to acclimatize for a few days in San Pedro de Atacama before attempting the journey.
Follow Pablo Neruda’s Footsteps
The many homes of Chile’s most renowned poet are a mecca for the literati. Follow the footsteps of the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, politician, and diplomat by visiting his three homes in three very different settings: La Chascona in the bohemian Barrio Bellavista of Santiago; La Sebastiana, with hilltop views of the colorful chaos of Valparaiso; and his large family home in Isla Negra, overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Each offers a different insight into Neruda’s life, and takes you to some of the most interesting cultural hubs of Chile.
Float Between the Gglaciers of Patagonia
Glaciers are a fast-disappearing wonder of the natural world. There are few destinations where you can witness the majesty of these ice cathedrals and gaze into their deep blue caverns. Chilean Patagonia is one of those places.
Between the regions of Aysén and Magallanes, there are dozens of glaciers that you can visit by hiking or biking, but a highlight of visiting Chile’s glaciers is getting up close and personal with them by visiting them on the water. You can float between the icebergs in a kayak, take a boat up to the walls of glaciers, and even walk over a glacier with cramp ons. A favorite way to finish your glacier experience in Chile is to have a whisky on the rocks–glacier rocks.
INSIDER TIPThe most convenient launching points for glacier visits are from Torres del Paine or Puerto Natales, however, discovering the glacier routes and hikes in Aysén are a rewarding, more solitary experience.
The lefthand break at Punta Lobos has become a surfing legend. With swells up to 25 feet high, this is not a place for beginners. This is the breeding ground of one of South America’s top surfers, Ramón Navarro, and it is a make-or-break wave. Just getting off the rocks into the water is a challenge enough, but managing to ride and catch this wave is exhilarating stuff that gains you some serious kudos in the water–hence why Pichilemu is a favorite pit stop on the big wave world tour.
INSIDER TIPChile’s coast is cold! Wear a wetsuit and a surf helmet for the inevitable wipeout. If big waves aren’t your thing, there are plenty of more accessible surf spots along the coast of Chile, including warmer waters in Iquique.
Take a Road Trip Down Ruta 5 (and Carraterra Austral)
Chile’s main highway, the Ruta 5, stretches from beyond the Atacama Desert down to the gateway to Patagonia and makes for an epic road trip. The highway passes through wine valleys, wild forests, and salt flats, however, the most spectacular landscapes can be enjoyed slightly off-piste as you take detours through the different landscapes on the east and west of the route.
Whether you are diving to the beaches and coastline on the west, or into the mountains and lakes region of the east, you’ll always end back up on Ruta 5, the artery of Chilean transport. The Ruta 5 finishes in Puerto Montt, but from there you can take the Carretera Austral through the wild landscapes of Patagonia–a most splendid way to finish the road trip of a lifetime.
INSIDER TIPAs with any major highway, there is the good, bad, and the downright hairy! Ruta 5 is a major trucking route, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to account for unexpected traffic.
Ski Down a Volcano
Chile is the land of volcanoes. There are over 2000 to explore, and several of them are covered in a cone of picture-perfect white snow. While there are plenty of great ski resorts on the many mountains in the Andes, Chile’s volcanos also offer exhilarating slopes for snowboarding and skiing. Particularly popular backcountry ski slopes are found on Villarrica, Quetrupillan, and Lonquimay volcanos. There couldn’t be more picture perfect with the bright white snow, blue skies, and smoldering volcano in the background.
INSIDER TIPThe ideal antidote to a day skiing on volcano slopes is an evening soaking in the hot thermal pools that usually surround it at the bottom.
Spot Penguins on an Aquatic Safari
With over one million resident penguins in Chilean waters, it isn’t hard to spot a few. In fact, Chile is home to several different breeds of penguins: king, Humboldt, gentoo, Magellanic, macaroni, and the southern rockhopper. Hot spots for penguins include Seno Otway, Magdalena Island, and Playa Mar Brava near Ancud.
Off the coast of the warmer waters of La Serena is another penguin colony, Isla Damas, where you can also spot dolphins and sea lions. However the coolest aquatic safaris are still found in Patagonia, where you might get lucky and spot a whale too.
INSIDER TIPIf you are set on “walking with penguins,” set off from Punta Arenas to visit Isla Magdalena.
Experience Fiestas Patrias
Ever heard of Fiestas Patrias? In Chile, this holiday is even bigger than Christmas and New Year’s. The national holiday is officially celebrated on September 18, but the party lasts for a week, and the hangover often much longer.
Expect big street parties, traditional rodeos, and cueca dancing, lots of empanadas, over-zealous flag-waving, and plenty of pisco sours. Perhaps the reason why Chileans go all out is because this festival falls on the first days of spring–reason to celebrate after a long, cold winter.
The Chilean curanto is as much a culinary dish as it is a ceremony. A traditional cooking method developed by the native Chono population, this is a hot pot of shellfish, meat, potatoes, and vegetables cooked underground in a deep hole with a fire at the bottom. Layers of nalca leaves are used to separate the ingredients as they effectively steam-cook for over an hour. The meal is meant to feed a village, and you can expect as much to turn up for a traditional curanto party.
INSIDER TIPWant to try making a curanto at home but don’t have a fire pit? The modern-day cheat is a hot pot on the stove.
Adventure Outdoors in the Lake District
Shimmering crystal-blue lakes, snowcapped volcanos, and lush green forest–the Lake District is stunning. While it offers a fabulous muse for aspiring artists, it also draws in thrill seekers and open-air adventurists for the plethora of outdoor activities on offer: kayaking, hiking, sailing, skiing, fly-fishing, mountain biking, zip lining, horse riding, skydiving, volcano climbing, and volcano caving. Or just sit back and enjoy the view.
INSIDER TIPThe adventure capital of the Lake District is Pucon where you’ll find plenty of tour operators. If you have a hired car and the know-how, venture further afield and off the beaten track into Aysen–you won’t regret it.
Drink a Pisco Sour in Pisco, Elqui
There’s an age-old rivalry between Chile and Peru about the origin of pisco–both claim to own it. Chile’s pisco heartland is in the town of Pisco, in Elqui, where the lion’s share of Chile’s clear grape brandy originates. Distilled from a blend of white grape varieties you will find a range of styles in Chile–earthier, more rustic versions from small artesian distillers to clean cut, triple-distilled modern styles often made by luxury spirits brands. Each will add a different profile to the ultimate pisco cocktail, the pisco sour: a blend of fresh lime juice, sugar syrup, egg white and Pisco. It’s the perfect sundowner on a hot summer evening.
INSIDER TIPCan’t make it up to Elqui? You can enjoy Chile’s top tipple at almost every bar in the country, but one of the best spots in Santiago is Chipe Libre, Chile’s first pisco bar.
See Alpacas and Flamingos in the Atacama Desert
It almost feels like a paradox to talk about how much wildlife there is in the desert, but you’d be surprised. The Atacama may be the driest desert in the world, but it happens to be home to several interesting species of wildlife: pink flamingos, vicunas, alpacas, guanacos, viscachas, and lizards. A trip into the altiplano of the Atacama Desert is never lonely!
Go Horseback Riding in the Andes
The Chileans don’t promote it as much as their neighbors in Argentina, but Chile has a massive cowboy culture. Known as the huaso, the Chilean cowboy is a master of rodeo and horseback riding in the mountains. Dip into Chile’s horsey heritage with a horseback ride in the Andes mountains, where you can cross river ways and canter up hillsides before finishing with a traditional Chilean asado (BBQ).
INSIDER TIPAlthough the idea of crossing Andes by horseback to Argentina sounds like an equestrian’s dream it is actually rather a hassle with all the paperwork involved taking horses across the border, or becomes rather expensive to organize two teams of horses–one at either end of the border. Just stick to one side of the Andes and enjoy a multi-day experience, it is just as good.
Eat at the Central Market
Chile hasn’t earned its Michelin stars yet which is rather befuddling considering the country boasts some of the most exquisitely fresh ingredients from the sea and land. You can find many of these ingredients (though not necessarily in a fine-dining setting) at the Central Market: a busy, buzzing food market where you can buy anything from juicy cherimoya fruit to freshly-picked sea urchin.
INSIDER TIPWant to visit the gritty backstage market? Visit La Vega market behind the Central Market. That’s where most of the wheeling and dealing goes down and you’ll find a bigger, busier food market.
Soak in Traditional Chilean Termas
Chileans love a good terma (thermal bath). Going to the termas is a truly family affair in Chile and there are hundreds located around the country. Pick between well-run large resorts found in Chillan and Puyuhuapi ornatural pools in Colina, Polloquere and Puyehue, or even the rather unusual Termas Geometricas in Panguipulli.
INSIDER TIPPlan to spend a couple hours at the Termas and bring a picnic for afterward. Most termas are in beautiful spots that beg to be enjoyed a little longer, but finding a good restaurant nearby isn’t always easy.
Get Lost on Robinson Crusoe Island
You might not actually want to get lost like Daniel Dafoe’s protagonist Crusoe, but you will certainly enjoy escaping to this tropical island on the Juan Fernandez archipelago. A playground of blue lagoons, palm-tree lined sandy beaches, coral reefs, and quaint thatched huts, the island is a nature lover’s paradise. It is renowned for its fantastic snorkeling as well as scuba diving, most especially down to the wreck of a World War I battleship.
INSIDER TIPThe island has excellent lobster and if you feel so inclined, you can go lobster fishing with the locals to get your own fresh catch of the day.