Essential guide to Chile

Extending down South America’s western flank, the long, thin country of Chile has an array of attractions, including big-city allure, mountains, deserts, beaches and outdoor ventures aplenty. Chile’s capital, Santiago, is the gateway to the nation, and really worth exploring for its attractive museums, world-class restaurants and scintillating nightlife. Following that, it’s a fairly easy quest to Valparaíso, a rejuvenated dock city with a bohemian vibe, or south to the Colchagua Valley, Chile’s top wine-growing region.

Further afield, you can spend a couple of days in the Elqui Valley, using its sleepy villages, astronomical tours and pisco distilleries, then continue north to San Pedro de Atacama, best reached by air travel to near by Calama airport terminal. You can simply spend a week here but still not see everything with the region’s alpine lakes, canyons, geysers and hot springs.

If time allows, you can take a road trip up the north coast, going from La Serena up to Iquique and stopping at angling villages, untouched beaches and colonial towns on the way. At Chile’s other end is Patagonia, which really is a paradise for adventurers. Stunning landscapes and considerable wildlife are two big attracts, which you are able to see by the bucket load in places like Torres del Paine, one of the fantastic natural wonders of the world. In no particular order, they are the seven best things to do in Chile.
#1 Step Back in its history in Santiago’s Historic Center

Nighttime in the Plaza de Armas and travel in Chile.
Home to 40 percent of the nation’s society, Chile’s cosmopolitan capital has grand architecture, a buzzing dinner and drinking landscape, and leafy neighborhoods ripe for exploration. It’s also home to excellent museums, like the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, using its exquisite collection of indigenous textiles and pottery. You are able to explore days gone by in the city’s traditional center, which houses the grand 16th century Plaza de Armas, the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana and the Museo Histórico Nacional, which has a chilling exhibition on the 1973 military coup. The region of Bellavista is another must-see, with a fantastic house-museum of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, and the hilltop perch of Cerro San Cristóbal offering panoramic views on the vast metropolis.

#2 Trek through Patagonian wilderness in Torres del Paine

Guanaco in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
One of South America’s most dramatic national parks, the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has a landscape of churning rivers, lush forests, glaciers and the soaring granite peaks of Torres del Paine. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is also home to abundant wildlife, from big herds of guanaco grazing on the available steppe to flocks of fast-footed rhea (a member of family of the ostrich) and the elusive puma. The ultimate way to experience it all is to have a multi-day trek. The basic W Circuit is a 44 mile (71 km) trip offering impressive views and big trip, including trails that traverse clinging bridges.

#3 Go wine tasting in the Colchagua Valley

A mountain-backed vineyard in the Colchagua Valley.
Chile’s fertile farmlands south of Santiago produce a few of the country’s finest wines. Vineyards have flourished here because the Spanish first planted vines back the 16th century. Journeys into wine country give you a chance to test award-winning wines from family-owned wineries that night out back years. The mountainous backdrop and picturesque villages enhance the elegance and are best appreciated at one of many lovely wines lodges scattered around the spot. If you’re around in early March don’t miss the Fiesta de la Vendimia (harvest celebration) presented in Santa Cruz.

#4 Explore the art-filled lanes of Valparaíso

Colorful murals blanket the streets of Valparaíso.
Within the last 2 decades, the once rough-and-tumble dock city of Valparaíso has transformed itself into one of Chile’s most fascinating cities. Cobblestone lanes zigzag their way up and down hilly neighborhoods, lined with colorfully painted 19th-century residences. Over twelve old-fashioned ascensores (funiculars) trundle up the hillsides, saving your feet from the steep climb.

General public art is everywhere, with artists from across Latin America creating large, richly saturated murals all over town. A good place to start the art-filled wander is the Parque Cultural de Valparaíso, a ex – prison with vibrant paintings in the old exercise garden, and the Museo a Cielo Abierto – an open-air gallery of works across the pavements of Cerro Bellavista.

#5 Go to the otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama Desert

Flamingos feeding in the Laguna Chaxa outside of San Pedro de Atacama.
The world’s driest desert hides many secrets, including sputtering geysers, azure lakes and red-rock valleys that appear to be they’ve sprouted straight out of Martian soil. Gateway for some of the very most impressive surroundings is the altiplano community and travelers Mecca of San Pedro de Atacama. From here, you may take day vacations out to see flocks of outdoors flamingos, soak in hot springs or watch the sunset above the colorful rock and roll formations of the Valle de la Luna. It’s also a good place for excitement, with some excellent spots for horseback riding, pile biking and even sand-boarding.

#6 Relax in the Elqui Valley

Taking a bike ride on the country highway of the Elqui Valley.
Famed for its serene villages, eco-friendly inns and star-filled night skies, the scenic Elqui Valley six hours north of Santiago makes a fantastic getaway. You could explore landscapes that inspired Chile’s first Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, and visit historic pisco distilleries that have been going strong because the 1800s. You can dine well in low-key restaurants that offer local products, including food prepared in solar ovens just beyond Vicuña. There’s also numerous observatories in the region, with astronomical trips offering stunning vantage factors of the nighttime sky.

#7 Have a highway trip over the north coast

Birds congregate over a rock and roll at Reserve Nacional Pingüino de Humboldt.
Chile’s long, magnificent northern coastline makes a memorable backdrop for a street trip. You’ll find sleepy sportfishing villages, lively surf towns and wild national parks where the desert runs to the border of the ocean. North of La Serena, you can location penguins, sea lions and dolphins on the rocky islands of the Reserve Nacional Pingüino de Humboldt. A couple of hours north of there, Bahía Inglesa is a picturesque seaside community with great seafood restaurants overlooking a pleasant beach. Other features include the vacant desert park of Skillet de Azúcar and the exciting coastal city of Iquique with colonial structures and mesmerizing browse beaches.