Elemental Chile inspires wonder at every turn, from the vast icy reaches of Patagonia to the jaw dropping star fields of the Atacama.
A narrow ribbon of a country unfurling a staggering 4300km along South America’s western coast, Chile is a land of vivid extremes. From arid desert to subtropical rainforest, high-altitude salt plains to vast glacial fields and fjords, the power of nature is tangible here. The warmer north encompasses the Atacama Desert and the llama herders of the Andean highlands, the centre features broad pampas and wineries, while the south is scattered with cool forests, volcanoes and lakes. Route Seven winds its way through rural Patagonia, taking in jagged Andean peaks, rolling pastures, and the spectacular southern fjordland.
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Top things to do in Chile
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this strip of South America. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts at the foot of this page, but in the meantime here are our top three things to do in Chile.
Hike Torres del Paine
Pull on your hiking boots and take in a dizzying diversity of landscapes in the Torres del Paine National Park. Creaking glaciers, fang-like granite peaks, endless grasslands and azure lakes combine to create a tapestry of some of the most pristine and uninterrupted wilderness on the planet. Here condors soar and guanacos graze the plains. There are well-marked trails for hikers and plenty of comfortable beds and fortifying feasts to welcome you at day’s end.
Go stargazing in the Atacama Desert
Otherworldly Atacama stretches across the high plains of the Andes and reaches up to 4,000 meters above sea level. Bizarre landscapes come as standard here, where salt flats extend to the horizon and volcanic geysers steam and gurgle. Copper orange rock formations inspire Martian dreams and the whole place feels closer to the cosmos than you’ve ever been before. Every night the uninterrupted night skies put on a spectacular show – beware of cricked necks!
Discover urban Chile
Chile’s capital, Santiago, is a great base from which to explore the fertile Andean winelands to the east. To the west, on the Pacific coast, you’ll find Chile’s second city... If ever a town were to embody the magical-realism of Isabel Allende’s writing, it would be the evocative Valparaiso. The narrow, hill-hugging streets of this UNESCO-protected port city are packed full of character. Brightly-painted cable cars shuttle up and down, and strings of galleries, restaurants and bars beguile visitors with a their quirky charm.
Lesser-known things to do in Chile
While there are many well-known things to do in Chile, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Chilean adventure.
Farms and forests, fjords and ferries
Chile’s mostly unsealed Route 7 highway is known as the Carretera Austral. Accompany its diverse and rolling route through rural Patagonia, one minute surrounded by ferny forests and foggy peaks, the next by lush meadows and stunning fjord lands. Hop on a ferry to appreciate this scenic region and its highlights and inlets from the water.
The Lake District, Chilean style
Chile’s Lake District is a huge contrast to Southern Patagonia with an impressive mix of people and cultures. There are those descended from the region’s German settlers, local Mapuche communities and traditional fishermen to meet, against an ever-changing scenic backdrop. Rivers teem with fish, ancient rainforests steam and volcanic peaks loom. Day hikes or point-to-point treks are an ideal way to experience the area and its real show-stealers: the lakes themselves.
A wander through the winelands
Chile is one of the New World’s top wine regions. Casablanca, Valparaiso, Colchagua, Central Valley and Maipo vineyards produce some of the country’s top drops. The grapes on terraced vines are freshened by the Pacific breezes to produce polished Sauvignons and Chardonnays, and sun-drenched Cabernet Sauvignons. Tastings and winery tours abound.
Paddle the Maipo
Chile’s placid lakes and glassy lagoons lend themselves to kayaking, and both short and longer expedition-styled trips are popular. Specialist river leaders can introduce a different river for every day of the year, so prolific and varied is Chile’s paddling menu. Colourful wildlife sightings are likely to enrich wild and more remote routes; get your confidence on the calmer Maipo first.
When is the best time to go to Chile?
December to March is the best time to explore most of Chile, as even the southernmost points will feel the tempering effects of the summer sun, and the weather makes travel less problematic. The northern desert is better visited in the shoulder seasons (September to November or March to May), and although Santiago is a year round destination, the bucolic Central Valley and wineries are best outside of winter.
Interesting facts about Chile
Chile is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
- At over 4,600km long, Chile is the world’s longest country.
- The Andes take up most of Chile’s land mass, leaving under 5% for arable farming.
- Easter Island, in the southeastern Pacific, belongs to Chile although it’s 3,700km away.
- There are over 2,000 volcanoes in Chile, of which 500 are potentially active. It’s the world’s second most active collection of volcanoes, beaten only by Indonesia.
- The oldest mummy in the world was found in Chile’s Camarones Valley.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Chile. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Fiestas and fireworks…
On Chilean Cultural Heritage Day in May, arts and heritage houses throw their doors open to welcome visitors free of charge. For the country’s largest fireworks display, check in to Valparaiso for New Year. Easter Island’s Fiesta de la Tapati showcases the island’s unique music, dance, art and food, and wine lovers flock to Vendimia harvest festivals across picturesque winelands from Maipo to Malleco.
Marvel at the Marble Caves…
The multi-hued Marble Cathedral complex is one of the world’s most captivating cave systems. Head to glacial Lake General Carrera – shared with Argentina where it’s known as Lake Buenos Aires – to take a boat over to these beguiling caverns and marble monoliths. The tunnels and pillars were created by the lake’s wave actions over the millennia and are painted by nature’s palette with every conceivable shade of blue, from pale powder and bright glacial hues to striking cyan and cobalt.
Authentic local tastes…
Seafood features heavily in Chilean cuisine and street stalls and cafes across the country burst with colourful options. Caldillo de congrio is Chile’s signature stew made with red conger eel and if you follow up with centolla, expect delicious king crab. Salmon a la mantequilla is a buttery, citric classic and those piles of small, tapas-like pastries that locals eat with a spicy pepper dip are sopaipillas. Pair with local wines to give your taste-buds a treat.
What to read before you go to Chile?
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Chile, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'The House of the Spirits' by Isabel Allende
Allende’s critically acclaimed debut novel was rejected multiple times before becoming a best-seller and Chilean Novel of the Year on publication in 1982. What began as a letter to the author’s dying grandfather transformed into a fiction sprinkled with magical realism and a sweeping family saga that traces Chile’s post-colonial political and social upheavals.
'Selected Poems' by Pablo Neruda
A distinctive collection from Neruda’s unique pen. These celebrated verses distil the poet’s individual and intense style, inspired by and rooted in the people and landscapes of Chile. Love, sex, the sea, heartbreak, fire, politics and melancholy drip from each page.
'The Voyage of The Beagle' by Charles Darwin
Though this book’s name has seen many iterations, this is the title now given to Darwin’s original Journal and Remarks, a work which brought him much attention upon publication. The period in question covers Darwin's participation in The Beagle’s second survey expedition to South America and outlines his experiences, finds and fascinating hypotheses as the ship’s on-board naturalist.
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