Chile stretches from its northern border with Peru, through the arid, desolate Atacama Desert, down to the frozen tip of Patagonia encompassing mountains, lakes and a friendly, generous spirit along the way. The “New Zealand of South America” offers adventure sports, wonderful outdoor opportunities and the most majestic night sky you might ever see.
Chile travel resources
Chile runs in a thin sliver down the west coast of South America. Starting around half-way down the continent, it borders Peru in the north, then drops down by Bolivia and Argentina, mainly bordered by the Andes mountain range. Its proximity to the Pacific tectonic plate makes for some shaky times, with small earthquakes being a regular occurrence in most of the country.
There is an amazingly diverse set of ecosystems to be found in Chile, although travelling hours through the desert might make you think that’s not quite the case. However, the deserts and oases, forests, mountains, estuaries and coastland, plus the icy tundra and permafrost of Patagonia all add up!
Adventure sports are plentiful, with climbing, skiing and kayaking available plus amazing hiking, especially in the south. The “W” trail through Patagonia is one of the world’s most popular hikes. The wine regions surrounding Santiago are well worth visiting, with malbec, torrontes and cab sauv being amongst our favourite local drops.
City focus: Castro, Chiloe
Castro, the picturesque capital of Chiloe, is a great base for exploring this Chilean island. Steeped in its own myths and legends, the inhabitants of Chiloe have a different culture to that of the mainland, and the slow, relaxed pace of life is something special.
Severely damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 1960, Castro has rebuilt itself with tourism in mind. Markets sell handcrafts with a focus on carved souvenirs made from wooden shingles; a hallmark of the island’s architecture. Along the waterfront, you can shop in the markets or eat cuaranto, a local speciality, in some of the palafinos which have been turned into restaurants. Many of these palafinos, brightly coloured houses on stilts over the water, are in poor condition and are inhabited by the town’s poorer inhabitants. That, however, doesn’t dissuade holiday makers from clicking away.
Discover the legends of Chiloe
Getting to and from Chile
Most of these flights are controlled by LAN Chile, the national monopoly, so don’t expect cheap flights, although cheaper Sky Airline flies to a limited number of international destinations in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina as well as running national flights. Flights from North America are most likely to land in the capital Santiago, as are those from the Pacific — routes from Australia normally involve a stop-over in Auckland, New Zealand. European flights are likely to depart from London, England or from Spain.
If you are already in South America, crossing a border by bus is easy and safe. There are daily trips from many bordering cities in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. You will have to disembark from the bus to handle your paperwork and clear your baggage with customs. See how to catch a bus in Chile.
Many South Pacific and South American cruises include a stop or more in Chile.
Getting around Chile
The intercity coach services in Chile are amongst the best in South America. Although the cheapest fares are not the most salubrious forms of travel, the mid- and high-range coaches and seating can be downright luxurious. The lie-flat 180-degree camas can rival an airline’s business class for comfort and meal quality … Even including a nightcap of some dubious spirit!
Modern bus fleets all come with GPS monitoring systems to ensure they are not hijacked. Unfortunately they also come with DVD players blasting badly-ripped movies or tunes. Other forms of entertainment include “bingo”, in which one must fill the entire card, not just one line. Bring earplugs, and book a seat far away from the onboard bathroom.
The LAN monopoly ensures the average price is rather high, but do check prices with local travel agents and websites as there are special deals from time to time.
All flights are priced in US dollars, and the exchange rate if you only have Chilean pesos can be unflattering.
Car and camper rental
Travelling by campervan is not common in South America, but rental options exist. A 4×4 might be a better choice if travelling in Patagonia.
Motorway tolls are high, so budget as much — if not more — for tolls as you do for petrol if travelling from city to city. Some rental companies may supply vehicles pre-fitted with a TAG to pay the tolls, meaning you can drive through the appropriate lanes, although this only works in Santiago – if you travel further afield you’ll still need to pay cash. Check who foots the bill for the TAG before you leave the rental station.
You may be able to get a hire extention to travel with your car in Argentina, but ask well in advance (ten days or more). It’s unlikely that you will be able to hire a vehicle to travel from Chile to either Peru or Bolivia. Double-check all insurances and extra charges, as there are reports of extra charges all the time.
Cycling and hiking
Cycling is gaining traction as a form of urban transport, but don’t expect bike lanes or friendly drivers in the cities. While there are long areas of quiet road, trucks frequent the better maintained ones. Cycling trips are especially popular in and around the Lake District around Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt.
Patagonia is a hiking haven, with the Torres del Paine national park at the head of the list. The five-day W trek is a great short option, with the full circular route topping out at 100km over 8-10 days. While other great hikes are availble in Chile, we don’t know much about them. If you do, please tell us.
Top 10 things to do in Chile
- Star-gaze in the Atacama Desert. With one of the clearest night skies in the world, the Atacama desert is home to some of the world’s biggest telescopes. And a fun astronomy tour guided by a passionate Frenchman.
- Stand on the line of Capricorn near Antofogasta. There isn’t much to do in the mining town of Antofogasta, but if you decide to break your journey up here, make sure you snap a photo of yourself on the line of Capricorn.
- Explore the street art in Valparaiso. There’s lots of street art in Valpo, but there’s a concentration of it in El Museo a Cielo Abierto – The Open Skies Gallery.
- Relax by the lake in Pucon or Puerto Varas The central Lake District of Chile is a lovely place to relax, but with great offroad biking, climbing and watersports options on hand.
- Cruise to Chiloe and enjoy the shingles. The scenic island of Chiloe is worth a stop, with natural parkland available for hiking, and the rich, unique architectural history to enjoy.
- Surf along the coast. It seems every country on the coast claims to have the best surfing in South America. The only way to find out is to start exploring.
- Drink terremotos, rather than get caught in one. No-one wants to get caught in a large earthquake, but the bars of Santiago will pour you one: cheap wine, spirits and ice-cream … Who would have thought?
- Hike the “W” or more in Patagonia. Chile’s hiking circuit is well established and, although pricey compared with the rest of the country, worth every cent and every blister.
- Go beer tasting in Valdivia. Valdivia is home to a family of sea lions basking for food in the river, but also Chile’s premier craft brewery: Kunstmann. Follow a tasting platter with a few pints of your favourite drop.
- Tour the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art in Santiago. One of the best-curated museums of pre-Colombian art and artefacts in South America, make time to visit and discover cultures past and present through their artefacts.