Diverse landscapes are Chile's biggest asset. Traveling around this long, narrow country, you'll be greeted by an ever-shifting panorama of rolling vineyards, dazzling lakes, towering volcanoes, deep fjords, high grasslands and sprawling salt flats. To do this terrain justice, you really need a set of wheels.
Road trips in Chile range from the comfortable to the epic. Along the coast and in the Central Valley, roads are generally paved and in tip-top shape, but if you plan to tackle the wild terrain of the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert in the north, or the rugged countryside of Patagonia in the south, you'll need to be ready for long drives on dirt roads with limited infrastructure along the way.
Whether you're drawn to Chile by big or small adventures, here are the best road trips across this long and lovely sweep of South America.
The Carretera Austral
Best road trip for scenic Patagonian landscapes
Puerto Montt–Villa O’Higgins; 1200km (745 miles); allow 2 weeks
Chile’s Ruta 7 (better known as the Carretera Austral) charts a 1200km (745-mile) course through some of the most remote and untouched landscapes in South America. The first stretch of the highway opened in 1988, but the final section was only completed in 2003, and even today, much of its southern half remains unpaved. In fact, several sections of the route are so impenetrable that you’ll need to hop aboard a car ferry just to keep moving forward.
The Carretera Austral route begins in the bustling port city of Puerto Montt, winding its way south through temperate rainforests and national parks such as Pumalín and Queulat. Coyhaique is the biggest city in the region and the best place to stock up on supplies before continuing south to the marble caves of Puerto Río Tranquilo and the wildlife-filled steppes of Parque Nacional Patagonia.
The fascinating village of Caleta Tortel, a few hours south, is a fairytale of wobbly wooden boardwalks and tiny stilt homes perched over a milky-green fjord. The Carretera Austral ends in the frontier village of Villa O’Higgins to the east, the starting point for boat expeditions and hiking and horseback tours to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.
Planning tip: Keen travelers can skirt around the edge of the icefield from Villa O'Higgins to reach Argentina's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and El Chaltén. The trip takes from one to three days, traveling by bus, boat and on foot or horseback, but the crossing is only possible between November 1 and April 30.
The Budileufü Heritage Route
Best road trip for Indigenous culture
Puerto Saavedra–Puerto Saavedra; 100km (62 miles); allow 2–3 days
Lago Budi is a saltwater lagoon in south-central Chile that was formed after the devastating Valdivia earthquake and tsunami of 1960 (the most powerful tremor in recorded history), but the main lure for travelers is visiting the nearby villages, which are vibrant hubs for Indigenous culture.
This scenic road trip circumnavigates the coastal lagoon from Puerto Saavedra to Puerto Dominguez and back, allowing visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the culture of the Mapuche people, Chile’s largest Indigenous group. You can sleep in traditional thatch-roofed ruka homes, purchase artisan handcrafts like pilwa bags and dine on Mapuche cuisine, much of which is spiced with the smoky merkén chili pepper.
The Route of the Stars
Best road trip for stargazers
La Serena–Pisco Elqui; 110km (68 miles); allow 3–5 days
It's the star-spangled skies overhead that are the standout feature of this drive through the lovely Elqui Valley, Begin your trip by admiring the magnificent starscape from the historic coastal city of La Serena, then head east along la Ruta de las Estrellas (the route of the stars) into the arid Andean foothills at the southern edge of the Atacama Desert.
Sleep in the stargazing hub of Vicuña for the second night to check out tourist-friendly observatories, solar-powered restaurants and breweries, then turn south off the main highway (Ruta 41) the following day to learn more about Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in her hometown of Montegrande. Follow the grape-filled horizon from here to the quaint Andean village of Pisco Elqui to finish your trip with more stargazing, pisco tasting and treks in the nearby Cochiguaz and Alcoguaz river valleys.
Planning tip: The skies over the Atacama Desert are clear most of the time, but the best time for stargazing is the summer, when the weather is warmest and observatories are open to visitors.
The Central Coast
Best road trip for sea, sand, and surf
Matanzas–Zapallar; 235km (145 miles); allow 3–5 days
Two of Chile’s ritziest beach towns are the bookends for this coast-hugging journey, which begins in the hipster hub of Matanzas, about three hours west of Santiago. Heading north, don’t miss the quirky artists' colony of Isla Negra, the former whaling hub of Quintay and the pretty beach at El Canelillo on your way to the twin cities of Valparaiso (great for art and culture) and Viña del Mar (good for beaches and gardens).
Continuing north, the small hamlet of Ritoque is the most low-key beach town on the otherwise frenetic coastal stretch between Concòn and Cachagua, which is lined with weekend homes for middle-class Santiaguinos. Zapallar is the verdant green cove at the end of the route and a great place to hobnob with Chile’s rich and famous by the beach.
Planning tip: Valparaiso is known for its steep streets and stairways; save energy while you explore by taking advantage of the city's many ascensores – urban funiculars that connect the various levels of the city.
The Route of the Missions
Best road trip for history buffs
Arica–Putre; 230km (143 miles); allow 3–5 days
For a history-filled journey through Chile’s far north, start by familiarizing yourself with the oldest mummies in the world at the Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa near Arica. Then skip the strait-shot highway to Putre and instead follow the rambling Ruta de las Misiones (Route of the Missions) for a dive into the story of Spanish settlement in Chile.
This heritage route links dozens of Indigenous Aymara hamlets in the Andean foothills, many of which have restored colonial-era churches with grass roofs and adobe walls, and shops selling clothes hand-woven from alpaca wool. End at the biggest Aymara town of all, Putre, and use it as a base for explorations into the volcano-studded altiplano of Parque Nacional Lauca.
The Pan-American Wine Trail
Best road trip for wine lovers
Santiago–Santa Cruz; 180km (112 miles); allow 1–3 days
This popular ruta del vino (wine route) uses the Pan-American Highway as a fast way to tackle three of Chile’s most important wine regions – the Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua Valleys. Note that it’s best to have a designated driver for this trip as Chile has a zero-tolerance policy for drink driving.
The Maipo Valley lies just south of the capital, and famed vineyards such as Viña Santa Rita showcase why this region as a power player for wallet-friendly cabernet sauvignons. Cachapoal has more boutique wineries, which range from the biodynamic Tipaume to the extravagant Viña Vik.
Turn off the Pan-American highway at San Fernando – home to the stunning Viña Casa Silva estate – and explore the myriad vineyards that line the road all the way to Santa Cruz, the heart of the Colchagua Valley (which specializes in Chile’s signature carménère grape).
Planning tip: Try to visit Chile's wine regions during the harvest season, from April to May, when lively festivals fill the streets of wine-growing towns.
The Lakes & Volcanoes Traverse
Best road trip for adventure
Pucón–Puerto Varas; 525km (325 miles); allow 5-7 days
This route linking lakes and volcanoes between the resort towns of Pucón and Puerto Varas is a bit like a game of connect-the-dots. You can choose your own adventure as you leave the araucaria-filled parklands of Lago Villarrica behind in the rearview mirror and head south to Coñaripe, home of the stunning Termas Geometrias hot springs complex.
Moving on, Reserva Biológica Huilo Huilo, near the ceramics hub of Panguipulli to the south, has raging waterfalls, dueling volcanoes, and woodsy hotels such as Montaña Magica, which is blanketed in pea-green vegetation.
Continuing south, Lago Ranco is home to several swish resort villages, including Futrono, as well as the lush, lagoon-filled wilds of Parque Futangue. Lago Llanquihue, three lakes away, is the biggest freshwater body of them all and home to your final stop, Puerto Varas, a gateway to world-class adventures in Patagonia.