Squeezed between the majestic Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Chile is a South American country that stands out because of the plethora of attractions for outdoor life and nature lovers. When it comes to landscapes, Chile has it all: mountains, glaciers, lakes, altiplanos, deserts, urban cityscapes, and even tropical islands!
Chile is a country that asks to be explored and enjoyed in-depth. From north to south or from south to north, there’s plenty to see and do! It’s an ideal destination for a road trip, which allows you to make as many stops as you want and wherever you want to make them. If you are enticed by the idea of driving through this interesting country, renting a car is an excellent idea. The most famous car rental companies have offices in Chile, and it’s always possible for American drivers to insure their vehicle in advance and avoid being ripped off by the rental agency’s insurance fees. There are many options available in the market, but if you are looking for thorough coverage without going off your budget, Bonzah is definitely one you should consider.
Start Your Trip in Santiago
Santiago, Chile’s capital city, will probably be your arrival point to Chile and the first destination you’ll get to know. It’s a cosmopolitan metropolis and one of the major cultural and economic hubs in South America. It also stands out because of its beautiful streets, distinctive neighborhoods, and delicious food.
Geographically located at the heart of Chile, Santiago is hemmed in by the Andes to the East and the coastal cordillera to the west, and the Pacific Ocean is only a 2-hour drive away. There are also some great skiing opportunities only an hour away! With dramatic vistas at every turn, here are some of the most interesting attractions you can’t miss.
Cerro San Cristóbal stands nearly 3000 feet above the Metropolitan Park, a large swath of green space in the neighborhood of Bellavista. From up there, you can afford spectacular panoramic views of the city. To reach the summit, you can hop on the funicular located on the north end of Pio Nono Street, or you can wear hiking shoes and make the roughly one hour climb uphill from Plaza Caupolicán. Once up there, there are different attractions you can enjoy: an amphitheater, a flourishing Japanese garden, a zoo, and even two pools!
Cerro Santa Lucía is a hilltop park on the eastern edge of downtown Santiago, and it also draws visitors with its stunning views. To reach the summit on foot, you’ll need to follow a long narrow path punctuated by high stone steps that start from the park’s main entrance near the Santa Lucia metro stop. The hike can be arduous, but it’s definitely worth it, and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views.
The Plaza de Armas in Santiago is the crowning jewel of the city. It’s Santiago’s main square, and it dates back to 1541 when Spanish colonialism was making its way through Latin America. It’s surrounded by the historic homes of Chile’s original elite, and the beautiful Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral can be found on one of its corners.
The Plaza de Armas is a popular spot amongst locals who enjoy street performers, artists, playing chess, or simply relaxing. Amongst the many sights, you can admire the Museo Histórico Nacional _ which is home to fascinating exhibits related to the country’s history from the pre-Conquest period to the XX century _ and the former Governor’s House.
Flanking the western edge of the Plaza de Armas lies the Metropolitan Cathedral. A neoclassical building with a history that stretches back to the early 1540s when the Spanish conqueror and city founder Pedro de Valdivia requested a place of worship to be built at the edge of Santiago’s colonial square. The towering cathedral that stands today was built in 1750. The cathedral’s interior is stunning, with intricate stained-glass windows and an elaborate altar ornamented with marble and deep blue lapis lazuli.
One of the most remarkable museums in Santiago is the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. Its permanent collection includes pottery, sculptures, and textiles from Mesoamerica, the Amazon, the Caribbean, and Central and Southern Andes. Highlights include pieces from the Aztec and Inca empires and Chinchorro mummies.
For literary enthusiasts, no trip to Santiago would be complete without visiting La Chascona, the former residence of the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Named after Neruda’s third wife, the house is now turned into a museum that is home to a rare collection of his personal possessions, including a portrait of Neruda’s third wife painted by Diego Rivera. Take the audio guide tour included in the cost of admission as it provides a rich background of Neruda’s life and great historical context. Located in the picturesque neighborhood of Bellavista, it will be a highlight of your trip!
Head Northwest to Valparaiso
Lovingly nicknamed “the Jewel of the Pacific,” Valparaiso is much loved for its brightly colored houses, bohemian culture, and beautiful seaside views. An eclectic mix of homes clings to the sides of dozens of steep hillsides that overlook the Pacific Ocean. The city of Valparaiso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its picturesque urban design, unique architecture, and its unusual funicular system, which is one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures.
It ranks amongst the most popular cities for tourists who look forward to wandering its hilly streets, soaking up the bohemian atmosphere, and taking in the sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.
Valparaíso is Chile’s main harbor and one of the trendiest towns in the country. It’s only a 2-hour bus ride from Santiago, and you can easily explore it in a day trip. This Bohemian haven consists of colorful houses and never-ending graffiti. It’s also a great place for seafood lovers as it’s one of the best destinations to try to eat fresh fish and seafood in general.
“Museo Lord Cochrane,” which focuses on the maritime heritage of the city and the country, and “Museo Naval y Marítimo, with its interesting exhibit about the War of the Pacific between Chile, Perú, and Bolivia, are two unmissable highlights in town. Take our time to explore the city’s buzzing art scene, including the impeccably restored landmark Palacio Baburizza and the Museo de Bellas Artes, showcasing European and Chilean artists.
South of Valparaíso, a visit to Isla Negra, home to another residence of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: La Sebastiana, is also a must-do. With its tall pine trees and crashing waves, it’s a lovely highlight you won’t want to miss, especially if you’d like to follow the steps of Neruda in his home country. La Sebastiana has some of the best views of the city. It is shaped like the hull of a ship. Inside it’s a treasure trove of eccentric trinkets and decor reflecting Neruda’s love for the sea.
No visit to Valparaíso would be complete without riding any of its funiculars. They will take you up to the summits of any of the 42 hills in the city. Ascensor Concepción and Ascensor El Peral both invite you to long promenades with beautiful views of multi-colored houses on the horizon. Ascensor Reina Victoria takes you to the hilltop restaurants of Paseo Dimalow and nearby passageways lines in colorful street art.
Fall in Love With the Atacama Desert
Continue your trip northwards to the fascinating Atacama Desert. Set at about 2400 m, it is the driest place on earth and receives less than a millimeter of rain a year as it is located between two mountain ranges: the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. Undoubtedly, it is one of the main reasons people decide to travel to Chile. With stunning scenery and plenty of walking to be done, no trip to Chile would be complete without exploring this region.
Unless you’re traveling overland, the best way to reach it is by taking a flight to Calama Airport. From there, you should head to San Pedro de Atacama, the main town in the area, and from there, you can effortlessly tick off the top places to visit. Many excellent guided tours offer plenty of information and allow you to explore the different attractions safely.
Located high above sea level in the Atacama Desert, the Altiplanic lagoons are part of The Flamingoes National Reserve. They are home to a variety of species, some unique to Chile. And with the volcanoes and mountains looming in the background, the lakes take on an almost ethereal quality.
Animal lovers will be surprised to learn that the Atacama Desert is home to an interesting variety of wildlife: get ready to spot pink flamingos, alpacas, vicuñas, guanacos, lizards, and vizcachas.
El Tatio Geysers are one of the main attractions in the Atacama Desert. It’s one of the most popular spectacles in the area, and it is unique in many ways. Although El Taito Geysers may not be the most powerful or the biggest globally, it stands out with its 500 steaming surface manifestations. If you’re staying in San Pedro de Atacama, a guided tour is the best way to explore them. The geysers are most active in the morning so get ready to wake up really early as most tours pick tourists up at 5 am and then ascend from 2500m to 4320m above sea level, where the geysers are located. Needless to say, the incredible views and the desert landscape are definitely worth a visit.
Walking through the vents of steam on the desertic landscape will automatically take your mind to another planet. The vents of steam manifest in different ways: mud pools, perpetual spouters, fumaroles, bubbling springs, hot pools, geysers, boiling springs, mud pools, and hot springs, amongst many others.
The Valle de la Luna is another unmissable highlight in the Atacama Desert. This vast expanse of stone and sand formations resembles the moon’s surface, so much so that NASA tested the Mars rover prototype here! It’s situated in the range of the Salt Mountains, west of San Pedro de Atacama. The area is protected as a Sanctuary of Nature as the dunes, hills of salt, valleys, rock, and sand are unique, and their magnificent geological forms are otherworldly.
San Pedro de Atacama is a small tourist town located in the heart of the Atacama Desert. It’s a popular destination because of its quaint adobe houses and fascinating landscape, from desert and volcanoes to lagoons and salt flats. Given its privileged location and the clear Chilean skies, it’s one of the best places in the world for stargazing. All you have to do is step aside any night and look up, but if you want to make the experience a bit further, you can join a stargazing tour to discover the different constellations, galaxies, and planets you might see. If you happen to be in San Pedro on the new moon, you’ll be able to admire stunning views of the Milky Way.
San Pedro is also home to Chile’s best observatory, the world’s highest northernmost Chilean observatory, and the Observatory of San Pedro de Atacama.
Drive Southwards to the Chilean Patagonia
The Ruta 5 is Chile’s main highway and, together with the Carretera Austral, make for an epic road trip. The Ruta 5 stretches from beyond the Atacama Desert southwards to the gateway to Patagonia and takes you through wine valleys, forests, and salt flats until it finishes in Puerto Montt. Right here, you can continue your road trip and explore the
Chilean Patagonia and its wild landscapes.
The southern region of Aysén is absolutely magical. This wonderful stretch of the Carretera Austral is lined with snow-capped peaks, glacial lakes, and lenga forests, and it runs 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. With its hairpin turns and narrow passages, make sure you drive safely and allow plenty of time for pulling over and admiring the splendid views.
Driving the Carretera Austral is an experience of a lifetime. It’s an unspoiled region that nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts will love to explore. Needless to say, the scenery is otherworldly:
- Turquoise lakes.
- Dramatic fjords.
- Fairy-tale forests.
- Hidden waterfalls that are waiting to be discovered.
- Crystal-clear rivers.
- The most diverse wildlife.
As you travel southwards, you can see foxes, deer, guanacos, and skunks. Lucky travelers will be able to see the elusive puma and many birds, including the Andean condor.
A good plan to complement this road trip is to stop off in the many national parks located along the route: Quelat, Cerro Castillo, or Patagonia Park.
Enjoy Outdoor Adventures in the Lake District
The Chilean Lake District is absolutely stunning and an unmissable highlight for adventure and outdoor lovers traveling to Chile. Pristine turquoise lakes, snow-capped volcanoes, and lush green forests make the Chilean Lake District one of the most beautiful destinations in the country. This region draws nature lovers and thrill-seekers with the plethora of outdoor activities you can do here: hiking, sailing, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, fly-fishing, zip-lining, horse riding, skydiving, volcano climbing, or simply sitting back and enjoying the view.
The Lake District is located in the Gateway to Patagonia, and it offers wonderful views whichever way you turn your head. The port town of Puerto Montt is the perfect base to explore this wonderful area and enjoy magnificent views of the Osorno volcano as it reflects off the waters of Lake Llanquihue. Other unmissable sights include Todos Los Santos Lake and the Petrohue Falls. The area is home to 12 major lakes and a few dozen smaller ones. There are also several waterfalls, rivers, and hot springs. There are also six volcanoes in the area.
Don’t Miss Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park is one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations. Its ancient blocks of ice, glacial sceneries, and immense rock formations attract local and foreign travelers drawn to its beautiful mesmerizing nature. Located in the Chilean Patagonia, near the town of Puerto Natales, it’s one of the must-dos in Chile.
Torres del Paine National Park is an ideal place for trekking. Two of the most popular treks are the “O” and the “W” ones, named after the shape of the route taken through the park. You’ll hike past ancient glaciers, jagged peaks, and freezing glacial lakes. The park’s centerpiece is the Torres del Paine, spectacular granite peaks shaped by the forces of the glacial ice. They are surrounded by deep blue lakes, meandering trails, emerald forests, and roaring rivers. If you dare to tackle the famous “W” trek, you’ll enjoy a multi-day hiking route that will take you through the park’s central massif, and you’ll visit highlights such as the colossal Grey Glacier the French Valley, and the Torres del Paine.
The Park is also home to wonderful wildlife, including guanacos, elusive pumas, condors, and huemul.
Featured Image by falco from Pixabay