From the parched Atacama Desert to temperate rainforest and the glacier-studded south, Chile's dazzling geography is seemingly made for active vacations. The possibilities are only limited by the time at hand. Plan carefully for seasonal changes and equipment needs, seek expert advice and this world is your oyster.
Hiking & Trekking
The sublime Torres del Paine is one of the continent's most beloved hiking destinations, graced by glaciers, gemstone lakes and the world-famous granite spires. The park has good public access, refugios (huts) and campsites that allow for multiday treks. To combat overcrowding, new regulations require reservations for all camping and lodgings on the 'W' and Paine Circuit hikes. For awe-inspiring isolation, Tierra del Fuego's Dientes de Navarino hiking circuit is also stunning but harder to access.
The Lakes District abounds with trails and tantalizing terrain. Within the northern corner of Patagonia, Parque Pumalín also has great day hikes; a highlight is hiking to the crater overlook of steaming Volcan Chaitén.
Santiago's worthwhile city escapes include nearby Monumento Natural El Morado or Parque Nacional La Campana. Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay, in Chile's middle, has a great backcountry circuit. In the north, desert oasis San Pedro de Atacama has a number of intriguing hikes, as does Parque Nacional Lauca. Fly to the Pacific to hike Parque Nacional Juan Fernández or Easter Island.
Opportunities are not limited to the national parks: check out the Sendero de Chile and opportunities for rural community tourism in the south. Horse-packing is offered in many rural areas. Private reserves, such as Chiloé's Parque Tantauco and El Mirador de Chepú, as well as new Parque Nacional Patagonia near Cochrane and others, are preserving top-notch destinations.
Some regional Conaf offices have reasonable trail maps; the SIG Patagon, Trekking in Chile and JLM maps also have trail indicators on the more specific tourist-oriented maps.
The comprehensive Trekking in Chile App (www.fundaciontrekkingchile.cl/programasturismoemocional/trekkingchile-app) works offline.
- Exercise caution with campfires on the windy Patagonian steppe.
- Cook on a camp stove (not an open fire) and dispose of butane cartridges responsibly.
- Carry out all rubbish.
- Where there is no toilet, bury human waste. Dig a small hole 15cm deep and at least 100m from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. Pack out toilet paper.
- Wash with biodegradable soap at least 50m away from any watercourses.
- Do not feed the wildlife.
- Trails can pass through private property. Ask permission before entering and leave all livestock gates as you found them.
Mountaineering & Climbing
Prime mountaineering and ice-climbing territory, Chile has hundreds of peaks to choose from, including 50 active volcanoes. They range from the picture-perfect cone of dormant Parinacota in the northern altiplano to the challenging trek up Ojos del Salado.
A charm bracelet of lower volcanic cones rises through La Araucanía and the Lakes District and Torres del Paine. Popular climbs here include Volcán Osorno, which has summit ice caves. Ice climbers can look into the Loma Larga and Plomo massifs, just a few hours from Santiago.
Climbers intending to scale border peaks such as the Pallachatas or Ojos del Salado must have permission from Chile's Dirección de Fronteras y Límites. Climbers can request permission prior to arriving in Chile via a request form on the agency's website.
For more information, contact the Federación de Andinismo.
For detailed stats, route descriptions and inspirational photos, visit www.escalando.cl.
Skiing & Snowboarding
Powder junkies rejoice. World-class resorts in the Chilean Andes offer myriad possibilities for skiing, snowboarding and even heli-skiing. Don't expect too many bargains; resorts are priced to match their quality. 'First descents' of Chilean Patagonia's numerous mountains is a growing (but limited) trend.
Most resorts are within an hour's drive of Santiago, including a wide variety of runs at family-oriented La Parva, all-levels El Colorado and Valle Nevado, with a lot of terrain and renowned heli-skiing. Legendary Portillo, the site of several downhill speed records and the summer training base for many of the northern hemisphere's top skiers, is northeast of Santiago near the Argentine border crossing to Mendoza.
Termas de Chillán, just east of Chillán, is a more laid-back spot with several beginners' slopes, while Parque Nacional Villarrica, near the resort town of Pucón, has the added thrill of skiing on a smoking volcano (the resort may still be temporarily closed due to an eruption in 2015). On Volcán Lonquimay, Corralco has great novice and expert terrain, as well as excellent backcountry access. Volcanoes Osorno and Antillanca, east of Osorno, have open terrain with incredible views and a family atmosphere. These southern resorts are often close to hot springs, a godsend after a hard day of descents. Coyhaique has its own small resort, while Punta Arenas offers an ocean view, if little challenge.
Ski season runs from June to October, though snowfall in the south is less consistent. Santiago has some rental shops; otherwise resorts rent full packages.
A good website to gather general information is www.andesweb.com, with photo essays, reviews and trail maps.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
From a leisurely ride around the lakes to bombing down still-smoking volcanoes, Chile's two-wheel options keep growing. A favorite mountain-biking destination in the north is San Pedro de Atacama. Fabulous trips in the Lakes District access pristine areas with limited public transportation. The new bike lane around Lago Llanquihue is very popular, as is the Ojos de Caburgua loop near Pucón. The long, challenging, but extremely rewarding Carretera Austral has become an iconic route for international cyclists.
More and more people are taking on the ultimate challenge to cycle Chile's entire length. Most large towns have bike-repair shops and sell basic parts, but packing a comprehensive repair kit is essential.
Saddling up and following in the path of Chile's huasos (cowboys) is a fun and easy way to experience the wilderness. Chilean horses are compact and sturdy, with amazing skill for fording rivers and climbing Andean steps. Now more than ever, multiday horseback-riding trips explore cool circuits, sometimes crossing the Andes to Argentina, on terrain that would be inaccessible otherwise. Except in the far north, opportunities can be found just about everywhere.
With strong initiatives for community-based rural tourism in the south, guided horseback riding and trekking with packhorses is a great way to discover remote areas. Rural guides charge affordable rates, provide family lodging in their own homes and offer invaluable cultural insight. Check out offerings in the Río Cochamó and Puelo Valleys, Palena and Coyhaique.
Adventure outfitters offer multilingual guides and a more elaborate range of services. Most places offer first-time riders preliminary lessons before taking to the trails. Favorites for single- or multiday horse treks are: Pucón, Puelo Valley, Elqui Valley, Hurtado, San Pedro de Atacama and around Torres del Paine. The island of Chiloé is also popular.
Rafting & Kayaking
The wealth of scenic rivers, lakes, fjords and inlets in southern Chile make it a dream destination. Chile's rivers, raging through narrow canyons from the Andes, are world class. Northern Patagonia's Río Futaleufú offers memorable Class IV and V runs. Less technical runs include those outside Pucón and the beautiful Petrohué, near Puerto Varas, as well as Aisén's Río Simpson and Río Baker. Near Santiago, the Cajón del Maipo offers a gentle but enjoyable run. For detailed kayaking information, see www.riversofchile.com.
Agencies in Santiago, Pucón, Puerto Varas and elsewhere offer trips for different levels. Since there is no certifying body for guides, check to see if the company has specialized river-safety and first-aid training and verify that equipment is high quality. Wet suits may be necessary.
The southern fjords are a sea-kayaker's paradise. Popular trips go around Parque Pumalín and the sheltered bays of Chiloé. Lake kayaking and stand-up paddling (SUP) is catching on throughout the Lakes District.
Surfing & Kitesurfing
With breaks lining the long Pacific Coast, Chile nurtures some serious surf culture, most active in middle and northern Chile. With big breaks and long left-handers, surf capital Pichilemu hosts the national surfing championship. Pilgrims crowd the perfect left break at Pichilemu's Punta de Lobos, but beginners can also have a go nearby at La Puntilla. Iquique has a shallow reef break; bring booties for sea urchins. The coastal Ruta 1 is lined with waves.
Only at Arica is the water comfortably warm, so wet suits are imperative. The biggest breaks are seen in July. Rough surf and rip currents also make some areas inadvisable, and it's best not to surf alone. You can buy or hire boards and track down lessons in any surfing hot spot.
Chile also has opportunities for kitesurfing, although equipment and lessons are harder to come by: try Pichilemu and Puclaro (near Vicuña). Spanish-speakers can find more information on www.kitesurf.cl.
But Wait, There's More…
- Canyoning Navigate stream canyons by jumping into clear pools and rappelling alongside gushing waterfalls. Hot spots are near Puerto Varas and Pucón.
- Canopy Go with well-recommended tour operators. Minimum gear requirements include a secure harness with two straps that attach to the cable (one is a safety strap), a hard hat and gloves.
- Paragliding and land-sailing With its steep coastal escarpment, rising air currents and soft, extensive dunes, Iquique ranks among the continent's top spots for paragliding, desert land-sailing and kite-buggying.
- Fly-fishing Reel in monster trout (brown and rainbow) and Atlantic salmon (a nonnative species) in the Lakes District and Patagonia. The season generally runs from November to May.
- Sand-boarding Be prepared to get sand in places you never imagined possible. Try it in San Pedro de Atacama or Iquique.
- Diving Exciting dive sites can be found on the Archipiélago Juan Fernández and around Easter Island. On the mainland, check out the coast of Norte Chico.
- Swimming Chile's almost endless coastline has sandy beaches, but the Humboldt Current makes waters cold, except in the far north around Arica.