Best of Chile
- 4 Weeks
Then turn up the dial with desert heat. Fly or bus to the highland village of San Pedro de Atacama. Absorb altiplano ambience visiting the moonlike Valle de la Luna, the steaming and strange El Tatio Geysers and the stark Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. Wind up days of hiking, horseback riding or volcano climbing with mellow evening bonfires and star-stocked skies. Or skip the desert to hop a plane to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and puzzle over its archaeological treasures for five days.
Head south to delve into temperate rainforest in Pucón, where rafting, hiking and hot springs fill up your Lakes District dance card. From Puerto Montt, detour to folklore capital Chiloé, or cruise on a four-day ferry ride through glacier-laced fjords to Puerto Natales. By now you are probably in top shape for Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Take three days to a week at this world-famous hiking destination.
La Capital & Wine Country
- 2 Weeks
Explore Chile's vibrant wine scene with urban vinotecas and vineyards in the shadow of the Andes.
In Santiago, stroll around the historic center, break for a seafood lunch in the clamoring Mercado Central and tour La Chascona, Pablo Neruda's home. Sip champagne at Bocanáriz or catch experimental dance at the Centro Gabriela Mistral.
Big-bodied reds are crafted in Santiago's outskirts; in the Maipo valley, visit the wineries at Viña Santa Rita and Viña Cousiño Macul. Sample the whites of Casablanca Valley, where aspiring pickers can join Viña Casas del Bosque's March harvest. Tren Sabores del Valle offers train service from Santiago to Santa Cruz with wine tastings.
On to funky Valparaíso to roam steep hills and ride antique elevators. Admire open-air graffiti, step into Neruda's La Sebastiana getaway and feast on freshly caught fish. Then hit nearby resort cities Viña del Mar, Zapallar or Maitencillo for a quick beach getaway.
Finish in Chile’s best-known wine region, Colchagua Valley. Overnight in Santa Cruz with a morning visit to the Museo de Colchagua before a carriage ride at Viu Manent, or a world-class prix-fixe lunch at Lapostolle. Surf in relaxed Pichilemu or visit the lesser-known wineries of Maule Valley.
- 4 Weeks
If you wish to travel only back roads, if you desire getting dirty, almost lost and awe-inspired, look no further than this four-week plan. Following the Carretera Austral, this route crisscrosses its little-known offshoots and gives you plenty of time on the hoof. Summer, with better connections and warm weather, is the best time to go.
From Puerto Montt, ferry to Parque Nacional Pumalín and explore ancient forests and climb to the steaming crater of Volcán Chaitén. Ramble the Carretera Austral to Futaleufú, for stunning rural vistas and heart-pumping white water. Check out the hot-springs options near Puyuhuapi or camp under the hanging glacier at Parque Nacional Queulat.
Coyhaique is the next major hub. After making connections to Chile Chico on the enormous Lago General Carrera, hop the border to Los Antiguos and travel Argentina's classic Ruta 40 to El Chaltén for hiking around the gnarled tooth of Cerro Fitz Roy. Take two days to visit El Calafate, spending one under the spell of the magnificent glacier Perito Moreno in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. While you're there, feast on giant steaks and bottles of peppery Malbec.
From El Calafate it's an easy bus connection to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine via Puerto Natales. Hike the 'W' route or go for the full weeklong circuit. By now you're in prime hiking shape – enjoy passing others on the trail. Return to Natales for post-trek pampering, namely hand-crafted beer, hot tubs and thin-crust pizza. With time, return to Puerto Montt via the Navimag ferry.
With an extra week, an alternative route would be to skip Chile Chico and follow the Carretera Austral to its southern terminus. Spend a few days hiking in Parque Nacional Patagonia, a new world-class park, refuge to scores of guanaco, puma and condors. Reach Villa O'Higgins and the end of the road to fish, hike and ferry to the O'Higgins glacier on the southern ice field. From here, a rugged boating and hiking combination can get you across the border to El Chaltén.
- 1 Week
How about a few days sleeping under star-crazy skies and following condor shadows along desert mountaintops? You'll need a 4WD and plenty of food, water and extra gas.
Start with a surfboard in Iquique to sample the swells of Playa Cavancha and Playa Huaiquique, then jump off a cliff on a tandem paragliding jaunt. With the adrenaline rush in place, slow things down with a contemplative wander around nitrate ghost towns Santa Laura and Humberstone, where you can poke around the creepy abandoned buildings of these once-flourishing spots and explore their crumbling grandeur.
Head north, with an optional stop in the isolated coastal town of Pisagua, once a bustling nitrate-era port, then a penal colony and today a nearly abandoned and strangely lyrical place where algae gatherers work alongside the ruins of busted mansions; don't miss the windswept old cemetery sloping forlorn on a nearby hill.
Cheer up in sunny Arica, where plenty of surf awaits below the dramatic headland of El Morro and remarkably preserved Chinchorro mummies lie in situ at the small museum just below the hill. From the coast, head inland via Hwy 11, passing geoglyphs, colonial chapels and misty mountain hamlets, to the pretty Andean village of Putre. Take a day or two here to catch your breath, literally, as Putre sits at a dizzying altitude of 3530m.
Once you've adjusted to the height, head to nearby Parque Nacional Lauca, where you can take in the perfect cone of Volcán Parinacota, wander through the tiny Aymara village with the same name and walk around the lovely Lago Chungará, all paired with awesome wildlife sightings in this Unesco Biosphere Reserve.
Further south, the remote Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas shelters thousands of these flighty creatures and few interlopers to spook them, so go easy. Heading south on tough terrain past dazzling landscapes and through the isolated salt flat of Monumento Natural Salar de Surire with its three flamingo species (best seen between December and April), your reward for an adventurous ride is reaching the ultra-removed Parque Nacional Volcán Isluga, before looping back to Iquique.