Stretching along the western shores of South America’s Southern Cone, Chile offers a bedazzling variety of windswept coastlines, sparse desertscapes, magnificent glaciers, beautiful (and oftentimes colorful) architecture and great museums. From the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the rugged Tierra del Fuego in the Antarctic south, here are some of the best places to visit in Chile.
One of the driest places on earth, the sprawling Atacama Desert is a desert plateau that spans around 600 miles of land between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific. Here, you’ll find dunes, geysers, lagoons and salt flats, many of which are easily accessible from the little tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. Popular attractions include the Valle de la Luna, which, as the name suggests, boasts desert moonscapes complete with ethereal rock formations. If you’re looking for deep relaxation, the Baños de Puritama hot springs are worth a soak, with a number of pools interconnected with walkways. For something more unusual, stop by Laguna Baltinache for a float; the waters here have a high salt content, similar to the Dead Sea, and are consequentially so buoyant that it’s difficult to sink even if you try. Finally, don’t miss a chance to head up to ALMA, the world’s largest observatory, to learn about astronomy from some of the world’s leading experts.
This archipelago has long been a popular getaway for Chileans, largely due to its laid-back charm and beautiful architecture, particularly on the main island. The island is also known for its unique traditions. You’ll find all sorts of beautiful, multicolored houses — many on stilts — that can be moved from spot to spot with the help of the community, in a tradition called “minga.” Chiloé is also noteworthy for its collection of 16 wooden churches built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century; collectively, they were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for their interesting blend of Spanish and indigenous architecture.
Although Easter Island is a good five- to six-hour flight from Santiago, this mystical island (also known by its Polynesian name, Rapa Nui) has been part of Chile since 1888 (though its residents didn’t gain Chilean citizenship until the 1960s). It’s best known for the presence of hundreds upon hundreds of moai (gargantuan carved faces and figures), though it’s also a great place to get outdoors, with ample opportunities for hiking, boating, and lazing on sandy beaches. Those interested in local culture shouldn’t miss the ceremonial village of Orongo, with its myriad petroglyphs. Or better yet, visit during the annual Tapati Festival, a local sports and culture event that boasts all sorts of performances and competitions.
Most visitors to Chile fly into the capital city of Santiago, and it’s worth spending some time here before jaunting off elsewhere, particularly if you’re a fan of art and architecture. If you want to learn about the area’s pre-European history, the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art is a good place to start, as it houses thousands of years worth of art and artifacts from across the continent. In the same neighborhood, on the sprawling city square of Plaza de Armas, sits the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, the seat of the archdiocese. It features a mix of Baroque and neoclassical exteriors plus beautiful stained-glass windows. Don’t leave town without stopping by Pablo Neruda’s old house, La Chascona, which now serves as a museum dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning wordsmith.
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
Situated at the southern tip of Chile, the remote region of Tierra del Fuego is characterized by expansive forests, snowcapped mountains, and rugged islands. It’s also the gateway to Antarctica, though flights and ships headed to the continent depart from Punta Arenas, Chile’s largest city in the region. Other highlights include Magdalena Island, home to a large population of penguins and other sea birds, and the charming little town of Porvenir. Nature lovers won’t want to miss Karukinka Park, home to a wide variety of indigenous creatures, from guanacos to condors.
TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
Arguably Chile’s most scenic area, Torres del Paine is a national park that’s equally celebrated for its wildlife and gorgeous landscapes. It’s very much a destination for outdoorsy types, with many of the park’s highlights connected by the W Trail, which can be trekked in its entirety in around a week. Whether or not you opt for a backpacking trip, don’t miss the chance to see (and maybe even kayak on) Grey Lake, a silver stretch of water flanked by massive glacial ice fields. Amateur paleontologists will likely enjoy the Cueva del Milodón Natural Monument, where 19th-century explorers discovered remains of a mylodon, a ground sloth that went extinct thousands of years ago.
A short drive or bus ride northwest of Santiago, Valparaiso is a charming coastal city known for its beautiful architecture and abundance of colorful murals. The main city center sits at sea level, though the most charming parts of town are situated on a series of hills that are most easily accessible by funiculars. Walk the city streets, take in the street art and fabulous views (particularly around Cerro Alegre), and visit all sorts of museums and cultural centers. Make sure to stop by La Sebastiana, one of the former homes of Chile’s beloved poet, Pablo Neruda. It now serves as a museum.
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