Once it’s safe to travel again, we know that you’ll want to get back out there traveling and exploring as soon as possible to make up for time lost; we want to do the same thing too! But the travel landscape is bound to be a bit different after the pandemic, making it more important than ever to plan ahead in order to protect your health, safety, and money.
Here’s how planning a trip a year or so in advance will benefit you:
Booking farther in advance will give you more options for activities and accommodations. Furthermore, many 2020 travel bookings that had to be canceled because of COVID-19 were pushed into 2021, meaning that there might not be as much availability as you’d expect during certain seasons and at popular destinations. Plan and book well in advance to guarantee finding the best hotels, excursions, and transport available.
In the wake of COVID-19, the travel industry has implemented extremely flexible booking, postponement, and cancellation policies to help protect clients and operators like tour companies, hotels, and airlines. We at EcoChile have also outfitted our tours with the most flexible, accommodating policies possible, working with leading travel insurance companies, so that if something comes up and you need to cancel or change anything, we’ve got your back.
Like many in the travel industry, we’ll be offering special promos and early-bird specials to entice future travelers. So take advantage of those deals while they’re available: you’ll be saving money yourself and helping support an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic. And when you book late, there will likely not be special rates, so book well in advance!
Not only are all these logistic reasons important, but it can also be fun to have something to look forward to. Instead of rushing to plan and organize a trip a few months in advance, you’ll be able to relax and look forward to your perfectly organized trip!
Visiting Easter Island is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences; a tiny speck of land located far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a trip here is a chance to go back in time and immerse yourself in a wholly unique way of life. Known as Rapa Nui in the local indigenous language, the island has become internationally famous for its Moai: immense, human-esque rock statues that are dotted around the island. The mysteries surrounding their creation and how they were moved from place to place beguiled historians and archaeologists for years, and their size and stature mean that they have to be seen to be believed. With hiking and cycling trails, idyllic weather, sweeping oceanic vistas, endless fresh seafood, and a warm and welcoming local population who are eager to share their culture, it’s one of those destinations that has to go on your bucket list.
But even though all of Easter Island is worth exploring, there’s only so much time per trip and you want to make sure you hit all the highlights, the best that Rapa Nui has to offer. From the tips of volcanoes to pristine beaches to sacred sites, these are the 6 unmissable spots to visit on Easter Island!
An extinct volcanic crater attached to Ma′unga Terevaka, the largest of Easter Island’s three dormant volcanoes, Rano Raraku is one of the most historically and archaeologically important sites on the entire island for one big reason: it was a Moai factory.
On the slopes of Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui islanders found a massive quarry of tuff (a type of rock made from volcanic ash). Comparatively soft and easier to carve than most other rocks, tuff was ideal for crafting Moai, so 95% of the island’s famous statues came from the Rano Raraku quarry.
Used by islanders as a source of tuff for over 500 years until the early eighteenth century, at the quarry you can see for yourself the design evolution of the Moai statues. Various incomplete Moai dot the site, as well as the surrounding hillsides. Some of the most striking differences between these Moai and the ones at sites like Ahu Tongariki include their lack of pukao tophats or the fact that several are buried up to their shoulders instead of showing the whole body. In fact, it’s actually these hillside Moai statues that are some of the most famous examples of Moai on the island: since they are buried up to the neck, it is from them that the world got the term “Easter Island Heads”, as this was before excavation revealed their subterranean bodies. With 400 Moai in and around the quarry (including one attached to the quarry wall that’s 71 feet long and weighing an estimated 200 tonnes), the discovery of Rano Raraku was key to helping the world understand how the design and creation of the Moai were carried out over time.
There are various paths running around the site that take visitors past the quarry and the “Easter Island Heads” on the hillside. You can also climb up to the rim of the crater, which now holds a freshwater lake; it’s worth the climb for the panoramic view of the island and ocean.
A short walk from Rano Raraku, you’ll find one of the most instantly recognizable sites of the island: the row of 15 Moai statues standing side by side with the ocean in the backdrop.
Placed on top of an ahu (a large stone platform), Ahu Tongariki is the largest ahu on Easter Island. In the past, it was the capital of Hotu Iti, an area spanning the eastern portion of the island that was governed by a clan of the same name. During the island civil wars in the late 1770s and early 1800s, the Moai were toppled off the platform (many others around the island met a similar fate). Then in 1960, an earthquake off the coast of Chile (a 9.5, the strongest ever recorded) caused a tsunami that swept the ahu and its Moai inland. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the ahu was restored to its original place and grandeur, following a five-year retrieval and renovation project.
A wonder to behold any day of the year, Ahu Tongariki is especially amazing to see during the Summer Solstice, when all the Moai face the setting sun head-on. The site is also popular for watching the sunrise over the ocean with the ahu in the foreground.
Rano Kau & Orongo
On the southwestern headland of Easter Island can be found one of the island’s most striking geographic features: the enormous crater of the Rano Kau volcano.
Rising 1,063 feet up from sea level, Rano Kau is an extinct volcanic crater (like all the other volcanoes on Easter Island), making its immense, circular crater a must-visit for views of the island, ocean, and the freshwater lake in the base of the crater. A single trail leads to the rim (a tiring but relatively easy hike), where you can take in the crater’s conical walls, the lake and surrounding vegetation, and the ocean beyond. The crater – which is more than a mile across – is especially interesting because, thanks to the tall walls that shelter the base from winds, the crater has formed its own micro-climate; vines and figs grow especially well here. From the far end of the crater, you can also see where the outer walls of the volcano plunge down as steep sea cliffs into the Pacific Ocean.
Here, you’ll also find Orongo, a stone village that used to be an important ceremonial center. Made up of 53 circular stone houses, which were built low to the ground and without windows, Orongo was the site of one of the most spectacular and dangerous feats in Rapa Nui culture. Every year, a competition was held to bring back the first “manu tara” (sooty tern) egg of the season. The terns nested on a small island just off the coast called Motu Nui; to reach the island, contestants had to climb down the sheer volcanic sea cliffs, swim to the island, grab an egg, and then repeat the journey back up the volcano. Incredibly dangerous, many participants were killed during the race, either by falling from the cliffs, being eaten by sharks, or drowning. The man who finally emerged as the victor was dubbed the “Tangata manu” (Birdman).
Now a World Heritage Site inside Rapa Nui National Park, you can visit Orongo and see for yourself just how treacherous the race was.
Ana Te Pahu & Ahu Akivi
Easter Island was created more than 750,000 years ago by volcanic explosions. During its formation, flowing lava created subterranean channels all over the island, which hardened into rock and formed cavities in the earth. Ana Te Pahu (meaning “the cave of the drum”) is the largest of these volcanic caves.
Located near the base of Ma′unga Terevaka, in the past, the cave was likely used as a place of shelter, since the cave entrance is easy to access. A nearby chamber of the cave holds a water reservoir and archeologists have found evidence of ancient cooking stoves. The entrance to the cave was also surrounded by banana trees, earning Ana Te Pahu its second name “the cave of bananas”.
Visitors can explore the cave on their own, as there are rudimentary paths, but it’s recommended that they bring sturdy walking shoes and a flashlight.
Near the cave, you’ll also find one of the island’s Ahus, Ahu Akivi. Although not as well-known as Ahu Tongariki, it’s one of Rapa Nui’s most sacred sites. Erected sometime in the 16th century, the seven Moai on the ahu were believed to be the reincarnations of important leaders or kings on Easter Island, and so were built and placed facing the Pacific Ocean (instead of inland, like other ahus) as auspicious symbols of protection and luck for the clans of each Moai leader. The site was also used for astronomical observations, serving as points for precision measurement by lining up with the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes (the only Ahu on the island to do so).
Visitors to Easter Island primarily go to discover the island’s unique history and culture. But don’t forget that Easter Island is still a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with lovely weather, tranquil ocean views, and sandy beaches that are perfect for days of rest and relaxation. Anakena is the island’s main beach: a protected cove of white coral beaches, turquoise water, and waving palm trees. Idyllic and isolated, it’s the perfect spot to spend a day enjoying the sun and surf after days of cultural immersion. The water stays warm enough for swimming all year round, and there are nearby restaurants, picnic areas, and facilities for day trippers from Hanga Roa (the main town on the island).
But Anakena is more than a pretty beach: it’s actually the cradle of Rapa Nui’s culture and civilization. The first king of the island, Ariki Hotu Matu’a, landed here with his tribe and established the first colony on Easter Island, and later, the beach and surrounding lands were the home of the royal Miru tribe and an important cultural center. All this is known from the many archaeological artifacts found around the beach and nearby hills, as well as two ahu.
Ahu Te Pito Kura & Paro Moai
Ahu Te Pito Kura forms part of a historic complex of buildings, strategically and symbolically located at the center of the site. The ahu has only one Moai, Paro, which was pulled down and destroyed at some point in the past (it’s believed it happened in the mid-1800s). But Paro is more important because it was the largest Moai ever made and transported on Easter Island.
Made in the Rano Raraku quarry more than 8 kilometers away, moving this behemoth statue – which weighs more than 80 tons and is 32 feet long – must have been an incredibly difficult and strenuous feat. Today, Paro lies face down where he first fell, with his pukao hat a short distance in front of him.
But the site holds other treasures, like the Magentic Stone. Legend says that this large and spherical stone was brought to Easter Island by its first king Hotu Matu’a and that it possesses special energy called “mana”, which acts as a sort of magnet. This can be explained by the presence of large quantities of iron content in the stone, causing it to heat up quickly and affect nearby compasses. In the past visitors were able to place their hands on it to try and feel the energy within, but after some inappropriate behavior, it’s no longer allowed. The stone is what gives the site its name: “The Navel of the World”.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is still far from over, many countries around the world have tackled it successfully enough to start reopening their borders and attractions to visitors, with health and safety measures set in place. Many people are eager to get out and explore the world once again but want to do so safely, making visiting off-the-beaten-track, remote, and lesser-known locations where there will be fewer crowds a top priority for travelers.
Luckily, Chile is absolutely full of such destinations. Our skinny country has far more to offer besides just Patagonia and the Atacama Desert, so if you’re looking to travel to Chile once it’s safe to do so, we invite you to discover one of its hidden gems. From remote valleys to secret hideaways, many of Chile’s finest natural treasures are overlooked by visitors, which is their loss but your gain. Here are eight of our favorite off-the-beaten-track destinations around Chile that you can visit once travel restrictions are lifted.
Located in the far north of Chile near the city of Arica, Codpa Valley is an ancient oasis hidden amongst the rocky desert hills of the northern Atacama. Despite its arid environment, the valley is extremely fertile and lush, full of fruit trees, desert trees, and other greenery that are fed by a pristine river. The valley gets its name from the small village of Codpa, which was founded by Spanish colonizers and is home to a famous church that was built in the late 1600s and is one of the oldest churches in the country.
Today, the valley is best known for its agricultural output (producing fruits like guava and mango), its importance in the early days of Chile’s colonization, its indigenous history and culture, and the production of pintatani wine, a sweet red wine that is still made in the same way the Spanish settlers once did. Codpa is rarely on tourists’ radar but for those willing to take a chance, you’ll discover a timeless culture and way of life that has endured for generations, preserved by the heat and desert sands. There are hotels and accommodations throughout the valley, and visitors can spend their days visiting historic villages, learning about the agricultural products of the region, immersing themselves in the history and making of pintatani wine, and discovering native culture at pre-Hispanic sites like the Ofriaga petroglyphs.
Salar de Maricunga
While most visitors to the Atacama Desert stick to the main landmarks and attractions near the town of San Pedro de Atacama, this high-altitude desert has many more beautiful, remote places worth exploring. One of these is the Salar de Maricunga, a vast salt flat located in Nevado Tres Cruces National Park. Stretching 8,300 hectares, the stark-white salt flats dazzle the eyes, and the surrounding landscapes are also dotted with lakes and lagoons in vibrant shades of blue. On the horizon, you can see Ojos del Salado, Chile’s highest peak and the highest active volcano in the world, as well as the other mountains of the Nevado Tres Cruces volcanic massif. The park is also an excellent place to see migratory flamingos during the summer months. Far from the tourist crowds of San Pedro, here you can enjoy Chile’s altiplano away from the noise of humanity, with no sounds but the high-altitude winds and the occasional squawk of a flamingo.
Llanos de Challe National Park
You may think the Atacama is stark and lifeless, largely devoid of plants and animals. It’s why the landscapes are so often compared to Mars or the Moon. But not so. Head from the interior of the desert to the Pacific Coast and it’s a whole other world, as you’ll discover at Llanos de Challe National Park.
Here, the coastal hills receive frequent moisture coming in off the Pacific in the form of dense cloudbanks and fogs; locally, they’re called Camanchacas. These mists allow plant life to flourish, giving this national park its own unique ecosystem and incredible biodiversity full of endemic and rare plant life including flowers and cacti. If you’re lucky and visit when the El Niño–Southern Oscillation takes place, you can even witness the famous flowering desert phenomenon, where the blank desert fields spring to life with vibrant flowers and plants. It’s also one of the best places outside Patagonia to see guanacos thanks to a large native population.
Although it’s not one of Chile’s Greatest Hits attractions like the Atacama or Patagonia, the name “Elqui Valley” may ring a bell to you; that’s because, in 2019, a total solar eclipse passed over this area and for a few brief minutes the eyes of the world were on Elqui. But this network of mystical valleys in Chile’s Norte Chico, a region between the arid Atacama and the lush central valleys near Santiago, deserves more than a passing glance. First off, it’s the birthplace of Chilean pisco: a grape-based brandy that is the country’s national drink. The valley floors are crisscrossed with patchwork vineyards, and many pisco distilleries open their doors for tastings and tours so you can learn all about this unique spirit. Immerse yourself in Chilean culture by discovering the life of one of Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poets, Gabriela Mistral, who was born here, and outdoor lovers will also enjoy going on hikes or horseback rides throughout the hills or biking down the winding roads.
The altitude and clear-skies also make for incredible stargazing, arguably even better than in the Atacama. The hilltops here are dotted with professional and public observatories, with tours and stargazing sessions that will absolutely blow your mind. This closeness to the skies is believed to have imbued the region with a special cosmic energy; with extraordinarily high electromagnetic readings, people here feel like they have a direct connection to the universe, making it a hotbed of alternative beliefs and hippie communes. So if you need to have your chakras realigned want to reconnect with the universe, this is the place to do it.
Altos de Lircay
From dense forests and snowcapped peaks to fields of hexagonal stones believed to be UFO landing sites (yes, really), the Altos de Lircay National Reserve is truly an out-of-this-world destination. Located in the Maule region, this reserve is often bypassed by visitors heading to the more famous Radal Siete Tazas National Park nearby.
The park has many hiking trails, either for day trips or longer, multi-day treks, and its isolated nature makes it perfect for backcountry camping and hiking. The trails pass through the park’s abundant woodlands, with many ending at mountaintop viewpoints that offer spectacular vistas. One of the most popular trails leads to an area called El Enladrillado, a tabletop plateau of flat, hexagonally-shaped stones. The bizarre nature of the landscape has led some to believe UFOs land here, making it a popular spot for “believers” to visit. But even if you don’t believe in extraterrestrial life, the amazing views and otherworldly rocks are worth the hike. In addition to hiking and camping, there are also horseback riding trails as well.
Conguillio National Park
This dramatic national park, located in the Araucania region of central Chile, is often overlooked by travelers because it’s not in the more popular adjacent Lakes District or down in Patagonia. But that’s their loss, because it’s easily one of Chile’s finest hidden gems, not only because there are fewer crowds so you can better connect with nature, but because the scenery is unreal. Dominated by the mighty (and still active) Llaima Volcano, this landscape is prehistoric: full of stark black lava flows, Technicolor lakes, and ancient forests. The main distinguishing feature of the park are the forests of Araucaria trees; towering giants that can live for thousands of years and are characterized by their bare trunks and curving crown of spiny branches. There is one Araucaria located in the park, the Mother Araucaria, that is over 1,800 years old! There are several small towns with cabins and hotels on the parks’ outskirts, but many choose to stay in the park, camping or in cabins, for more direct access to the park’s many hiking trails and outdoor recreational activities like kayaking on Lake Conguillio. You can also see amazing local wildlife like woodpeckers, condors, and foxes.
Carelmapu and Humedal de Maullín
This massive ecosystem of wetlands, swamps, tidal bays, rivers, estuaries, marshes, and flats covers 1,350 hectares in southern Chile, serving as protected lands for the incredible variety of birds that reside in or migrate through the area. At least 28 species of birds use these abundant wetlands as a resting place along their migratory path, and studies have found nearly a hundred different kinds of birds use the area overall. This makes this a fantastic place for birdwatching and to learn more about Chile’s fascinating flora and fauna. Throughout the protected reserve, there are designated areas for kayaking and boating, as well as hiking paths, cycling trails, and viewpoints from which to take in the views and wildlife.
To best experience the Maullín wetlands, stay in one of the nearby towns like Carelmapu. This charming village sits on the edge of a peninsula that juts out into the ocean, surrounded by dramatic scenery like seaside cliffs and lush fields and forests. Truly, the vibrantly-green landscapes look like something from coastal Ireland or England, and Carelmapu even means “green place” in Mapudungun, the language of the native Mapuche tribe. The town dates from early colonial days when it was a fort, so there are some interesting historic buildings to visit that showcase local architecture, like the Church of Carelmapu that is built in the same style as the famous Chiloe Island churches.
Patagonia National Park
This 752,503-acre national park is one of the newest additions to Chile’s many protected lands, having been part of the major land donation gifted to the Chilean government for conservation by Doug and Kris Tompkins. But Patagonia National Park, which is located in the southerly Aysen region, was one of the Tompkins’ pet projects for rewilding and rehabilitation, removing farm infrastructure to entice native species like guanacos and pumas back. Today, the park is thriving, full of wildlife and spectacular scenery like rolling grasslands, dramatic rivers, turquoise lakes, endemic forests, craggy mountains, and more. As the park is still relatively new, visitor numbers are still low, so you can be among the first in the world to fully appreciate its beauty and tranquility, as well as contribute to its legacy of preserving Chile’s natural places for the future. There are many different hiking trails throughout the different sectors of the park to enjoy, as well as other attractions like visiting the confluence of the Chacabuco and Baker River or going for scenic drives. The park is also home to the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, a spectacular wilderness lodge in the style of the historic hotels of US national parks, as well as campsites.
Did you know this is the only king penguin colony in South America?
Thanks to the initiative of scientists, landowners, biologists, vets and archaeologists, the Pingüino Rey Private Park seeks to raise awareness among visitors of the value of the bird life on the island and prevent the endangerment and extinction of this species. This place has the right conditions for nesting, resting and feeding – which you may be able to observe, depending on the season. Here, you’ll learn about this amazing animal, which is considered to be the second largest of the world’s 18 species of penguin, measuring up to 95cm tall!
The large island of Tierra del Fuego is separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan, surrounded to the south by the Beagle Channel, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean on the Argentinian side and to the west by the Chilean territory of the Pacific Ocean. This area is noted for its large number of fjords, its Cordillera de Darwin mountain range, its inhospitable climate and important bird life, especially the “King Penguin” colony that visit the private park.
PUNTA ARENAS & SURROUNDINGS
You will have excellent service at the Yegua Loca hotel located in the city of Punta Arenas. Depending what time you arrive, you’ll have time to explore, get to know the surrounding area, and prepare for your adventure on the following day.
PUNTA ARENAS – TIERRA DEL FUEGO / KING PENGUIN PARK
After breakfast, a van will pick you up between 7:00-7:30 am to begin your trip to the Pingüino Rey Private Park. You will take a ferry across the Strait of Magellan towards the chilote bay located on Tierra del Fuego, where the first activity will consist of a city tour around Porvenir before continuing on towards the Park. There, you will have time to observe, take pictures, and learn about this amazing colony that now contains over one hundred penguins distributed over grassland areas, coastal bays and the Park’s gentle hills.
Once you have finished exploring the Park, you’ll head to the Cerro Sombrero, another part of the island, where you can explore the town and enjoy its facilities. Later, you’ll head back to Punta Arenas.
PUNTA ARENAS – SANTIAGO AIRPORT
When your stay in Punta Arenas reaches its end, a van will pick you up from the hotel at an agreed time according to the time of your flight and take you to Punta Arenas airport where you will catch your return flight to Santiago.
Without a doubt, Easter Island is a bucket-list destination: seeing those giant Moai statues with your own eyes, hiking up volcanoes, learning traditional dances, dining on island cuisine, and lounging on coral sand beaches while listening to the waves. Even though Easter Island is only 63 square miles, there’s a ton of things to do packed into such a small space. Here are the Off the beaten track activities on Easter Island!
Hanga Roa – Before the Europeans came to Easter Island, the Rapa Nui islanders lived spread out all over the island. But now, everything is centralized in the main town of Hanga Roa. Located on the island’s western coast, here is where you’ll be based during your visit: the airport is just outside of town, all the hotels and accommodations are here, tours depart from here, and most of the best restaurants and stores are located here as well. Hanga Roa is also the only place on the island you can get WiFi.
Meaning “wide bay” in the native language, it’s a charming town of just over 3,000 that’s easy to navigate on your own and a great place to experience how historic and modern Rapa Nui have come together to coexist (check out the graveyard to see how Christian and Rapa Nui beliefs and iconography blended; looking out over the ocean, the graveyard is a fascinating blend of crosses and Moai).
In addition to exploring the rest of the island, it’s a good idea to set aside a day or two just to get to know Hanga Roa, as there’s plenty to do and see. By the oceanfront, you can walk along Pea Beach, a scenic strip of white beach where you can soak up the sunshine, look at native flora, and even catch a few waves in the sheltered harbor.
Further along the coast, you’ll also find the stately Ahu Tahai and Ahu Ko Te Riku, two beautifully preserved examples of classic ahus (a large stone platform with Moai arranged in a row along the top) and Moai (you’ve likely seen pictures of Ko Te Riku, with its singular Moai staring with its wide, white-painted eyes). You can also visit the fishing port, enjoy some of the island’s best food at spots like La Kaleta, Te Moai Sunset, and Haka Honu, and be wowed by traditional Rapa Nui dances and music at Kari Kari,
Sebastian Englert Museum – Even though you can see evidence of Easter Island’s ancient civilization all over the island, most of the remnants of the island’s past are now protected inside museums and archives, and one of the best collections of Easter Island artifacts in the world is housed right on the island at the Sebastian Englert Museum in Hanga Roa.
The only museum on the island, it’s named after Sebastian Englert, a German priest who came to Easter Island in 1935 and then dedicated the rest of his life to understanding, documenting and preserving Easter Island’s culture. The museum represents his life’s work: a collection of more than 15,000 artifacts including tablets of Rongo Rongo writing, a rare example of a female Moai, a reconstructed Moai eye, stone tools, and more. Information about the collection and overall Rapa Nui history and culture is available in English, French, German, and Japanese. For a more in-depth look into the island’s history and customs, this is a must-visit.
Ana Kakenga – Known as “the cave of two windows”, this ocean-front cave is famous for its rock-framed views of the Pacific Ocean, but the cave itself – a volcanic tube that was once used as a shelter by different Easter Island tribes – actually is rumored to have a tragic past. It’s said that the cave was the final refuge for a pair of young lovers who, fearing retribution for their forbidden love by their respective tribes, hid there as a last resort.
But it’s easy to see why they would choose this cave as their final place to be together: after climbing down through the opening in the ground that leads into the subterranean cave, you can see the ocean through two rock “windows”, each located down a different passage. With the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks and the picturesque ocean view, it’s quite romantic and makes for a great snapshot.
While open to the public, it’s recommended that you visit Ana Kakenga with a guide, because the entrance (a small hole in the ground) can be difficult to find on one’s own as there’s no signage. A narrow opening that requires a tight squeeze to get through, it’s easier with a guide to direct you and also help you navigate the cave.
Ahu Vinapu – Most of the Moai and Ahu around the island are male in appearance, but Ahu Vinapu is home to one of the few examples of female Moai. Made of red scoria rock, which is the same type of stone used to make the pukao “top hats” seen on male Moai around the island, the female Moai resembles a column and most details have been erased by time, but archaeologists still believe it is feminine in nature. The most notable female Moai, now housed in the museum, was found near this site.
The ahu, which is part of a large ceremonial complex consisting of several ahus with downed Moai, is also important because of how the ahu was constructed. Large pieces of stone were carved and fitted together in a manner similar to how the Incans of Peru constructed their incredibly complex stone cities in places like Machu Picchu and Cuzco. Archaeologists believe these similarly “fitted stones” suggest that there was communication between the Rapa Nui people and the Incans, or, as another theory goes, that the ahu was built by the Incan emperor Tupac Yupanqui when he went on an exploratory trip of the Pacific Ocean around 1480. Several other theories exist, but as no solid evidence has yet come to light, how Ahu Vinapu was built remains one of the unsolved mysteries of Easter Island’s past.
Ahu Vinapu is just a short drive from Hanga Roa, and you can easily navigate and walk the site on your own. It’s a good idea to go with a local guide, though, to provide more background information.
Puna Pau – While visiting sites like Ahu Tongariki, you’ll likely notice that some of the Moai are wearing hats: rounded squares of red stone with a smaller cylindrical piece on the top. These stone hats are called “pukaos” and the stone to make them came from a special place: the quarry at Puna Pau.
Located inside a small crater near Hanga Roa, Puna Pau was a rich resource of scoria, a low-density, reddish rock. Whereas most of the Moai figures were carved from tuff (a darker but also relatively soft type of volcanic rock) taken from the Rona Raraku quarry further up the island, scoria was only used to make the pukaos, Tukuturis (a different kind of sculpture from the Moai), and petroglyphs. Nowadays, the site itself is lovely, with rolling green hills dotted by burgundy-red boulders; a pathway through the hills taken you to the quarry itself.
Ahu Huri A Urenga – Ancient civilizations seemed to have quite a knack for knowing the stars (perhaps even better than we do with all our modern technology), and the Rapa Nui were no exception. At the entrance of Ahu Huri A Urenga, a water well and small indentations made in the stones would collect rainwater to reflect back the stars for observation and study. It is believed that this site was vital for the Rapa Nui calendar, as solar observations taken at the site helped mark the start of seasons and even regulations (like fishing). The ahu platform and the Moai on it (which is one of the few examples of Moai with hands) also directly face the sunrise on the winter solstice. The site was also used for funerals, as there’s a crematorium located at the back of the complex.
Trekking or cycling at Terevaka – Terevaka is the largest of Easter Island’s three volcanoes, and the summit offers wonderful views of the island and ocean. As such, it’s a popular place to go for a hike or for cycling. Despite being the biggest, it’s a fairly easy hike for everyone: the surrounding landscape of undulating hills with ocean views is pretty flat, and the gently-rising slopes aren’t too strenuous.
The summit can be a bit windy, but the views are worth it. Rent a bike in Hanga Roa for the day to go cycling on the trails, or just lace up your hiking shoes and start walking!
Ovahe Beach – Most people don’t go to Easter Island for adventure; aside from some light hiking, cycling, and scuba diving, the majority of visitors are here to experience the culture. But even with such a lightweight schedule, a relaxing day at the beach is always a good idea! While Anakena, the most popular beach on the island, is absolutely lovely, if you’re looking for solitude and to see a lesser-known part of the island, head to Ovahe Beach.
Like Anakena, Ovahe beach was also the site of an islander settlement but now it’s primarily known for its rugged beauty. The small, pink sand beach is surrounded by rocky sea cliffs, making it a perfect place for sunbathing. The warm turquoise waters are a popular spot for snorkeling, as the offshore coral reefs and rocky outcrops are frequented by native sea creatures like sea turtles and fish. However, the currents are stronger here than at Anakena and as the beach is isolated, there’s no lifeguard on duty so caution when swimming is urged. Ovahe is also one of the last refuges for native coastal flora on Easter Island, so you can see local flowers and plants.
Full of rivers, high mountain passes, lakes, and forests, the mountain valleys of Cajon del Maipo are some of Chile’s best kept secrets. Located a mere hour from the capital city of Santiago, these beautiful gorges are a popular place for rafting, hiking, mountaineering, or just appreciating the mountain views. But even though Cajon del Maipo is primarily famous as a destination for outdoor sports, there are plenty of other ways to get to know the region, like visiting the towns and trying local flavors. Here are six reasons why you should escape to Cajon del Maipo for a day!
1. Get away from the city – Santiago is the most cosmopolitan city in Chile, full of museums, parks, nightlife spots, and arts and cultural centers, but even with all that it can still be a good idea to leave the city behind once in a while and go out into nature. Cajon del Maipo is only an hour away from the city, making a great option for a day trip or a weekend getaway!
2. See the El Yeso reservoir – Located deep within the mountainous gorge of Cajon de Maipo, the El Yeso reservoir – formed by the damming of the Yeso River – is truly a sight to behold. Snowy mountains rise out of a tranquil, turquoise expanse of water, making it the perfect site for a photo opp. It’s also a popular place for fishing, or packing a picnic and taking scenic hikes along the side of the reservoir.
3. Visit quaint mountain villages – Cajon del Maipo is home to many charming mountain towns full of culture, local cuisine, and beautiful views. San Jose, the capital of the municipality, is a popular place to spend the afternoon, where you can admire the adobe buildings, try some of the specialty empanadas, and even visit nearby high-altitude vineyards or local microbreweries. The nearby town of San Alfonso is also a popular stop, especially because of its chocolate store, a fantastically designed building that looks like it’s come straight from The Shire.
4. Learn more about the local flora and fauna – The isolated valleys of Cajon del Maipo are home to an astonishing array of unique plants and wildlife, which you can see and learn about during hikes, especially in the El Morado National Monument. Here you can see animals like foxes and vizcachas, and it’s an especially great place to see birds like the Andean condor and eagles.
5. Relax in high mountain hot springs – After a long hike in the mountains, soaking in the amazing views and fresh air, the only way to finish the day is by soaking in some hot water. A trip to Cajon del Maipo isn’t complete without a visit to the Colina hot springs, a series of mineral, thermal hot springs staggered along the side of the Colina Valley. Here you can lounge for hours in different springs that are reputed to having healing abilities, and during certain seasons you can even visit in the evening so you can see the stars over the mountains.
6. See a glacier – Bet you didn’t know that you could see a glacier just a short drive and a hike from Santiago! The El Morado Glacier can be found in El Morado National Mountain and is reached via a scenic hike deep into the heart of the valley. You can either hike on your own or go horseback riding, allowing you to take in the spectacular views and flora and fauna before reaching the glacier, which descends out of the mountain pass and ends in a lake studded with tiny icebergs broken off of the glacier. It’s amazing that you can find such beautiful forces of nature right here in Santiago’s backyard!
With its museums, parks, restaurants, and shopping, Santiago has plenty to keep visitors occupied during their stay. But everyone likes to get out of the city once in a while, and Santiago’s prime location close to the Andes mountains, Chilean wine country, and the ocean, makes it easy to escape for a day. Whether your pleasure is hiking, spending a day at the beach, going wine-tasting, or exploring abandoned mining towns (a niche interest, to be sure, but a worthwhile one!), these six easy day trips from Santiago are great ways to get to know the landscapes, culture, gastronomy, and history of central Chile.
1. Valparaiso and Vina del Mar – The Pacific Ocean is a convenient hour and a half from the capital, so if you’re looking for fresh seafood, beautiful harbor views, and a chance to mix beach fun with learning about Chile’s history, check out these two seaside towns. In Vina, one of central Chile’s most famous resort towns, it’s all about the party: spend the day sunning at the beach, visiting the famous Flower Clock, exploring museums like Castillo Wulff and the Fonck Museum, or trying your luck at the casino. Then, grab a colectivo (local taxi) to go ten minutes away to Valparaiso, the jewel of the Pacific and Vina’s gritty, bohemian counterpart. Here, historic funicular elevators carry you up the hills to see the city’s famous houses, which are painted vibrant colors and splashed with some of South America’s best street art. A great city for meandering, explore Cerro Alegre and Concepcion for the best examples of classic Valpo architecture and street art, as well as cafes and shops, and then head to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s quirky home on Cerro Florida. Then finish the day with a meal at one of the city’s many excellent seafood restaurants; the paila marina (seafood stew), chupe de jaiba (crab pie), or the fresh catch of the day (fish or otherwise) are always great picks.
2. Chilean wine country – If you’re a wine lover, lucky you: Santiago is just a quick drive from several of Chile’s finest wine valleys, namely Casablanca and Colchagua. Here, surrounded by undulating mountains and valley floors covered in row upon row of bounteous grapevines, some of the country’s finest wines are grown and made, such as Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Spend a leisurely day visiting local wineries like Clos de Apalta in Colchagua or Bodegas RE in Casablanca, where you’ll learn about the history of winemaking in Chile, as well as each vineyard’s unique wine-making processes, explained on behind-the-scenes tours led by expert vintners. Each tour is then followed by tastings of some of the vineyard’s most exemplary vinos. Salud!
3. Skiing in the Andes – With epic pistes and stunning views across the rooftop of South America, some of the world’s best downhill skiing is found right outside Santiago in the Andes Mountains at Valle Nevado and Portillo ski resorts. Although both resorts have great onsite accommodations and amenities like restaurants and ski in/ski out service, their proximity to Santiago (Portillo is located about 2 hours away, Valle Nevado roughly 90 minutes) makes it super easy for you to stay in the city but spend your days hitting the slopes. Both resorts annually get around 24 inches of snow and have a combined total of 79 runs (groomed and off-piste), as well as lifts, a variety of slopes suited to everyone from beginners to advanced, rental stores, and sites for heli-skiing, snowboarding, and freestyle.
4. Cajon de Maipo – Where can you go hiking, rafting, fly-fishing, rock climbing, horseback riding, or just enjoy pure nature within an hour’s drive of Santiago? The answer is Cajon de Maipo. This mountainous valley to the southeast of the city is a paradise of peaks, rivers, lakes, forests, volcanoes, and glaciers, making it the ultimate outdoor adventure playground. Popular activities include treks to the El Morado and San Franciso glaciers, visiting the El Yeso reservoir, relaxing at the Plomo or Morales natural hot springs, rafting on the Maipo river, hiking to the Yeso waterfall, and exploring small towns like Pirque, where some of Chile’s best Cabernet Sauvignon is grown and produced. The area is also famous for its homemade goods, like chocolates, pastries, and empanadas, and is a great place for souvenir shopping thanks to its fine artisan shops.
5.La Campana National Park – For an easy day trek near Santiago that isn’t in the Cordillera, La Campana is the best option for its epic views and wealth of flora and fauna, like the Chilean Wine Palm, an endangered species of palm tree that used to grown all over the country but now only exists in small pockets. Famous for being the site of Cerro La Campana (Bell Mountain) which was scaled by Charles Darwin in 1834, this national park and UNESCO Biosphere is flush with local wildlife including foxes, pumas, birds, chingues (skunks), and butterflies. The hike up features beautiful views of the countryside, plus a chance to visit a nearly hundred-foot tall waterfall and a plaque dedicated to Darwin’s hike. If you want to make it to the summit at more than 6,000 feet above sea level, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, and on clear days, you can see as far as the Pacific Ocean in one direction and Aconcagua Mountain in Argentina in the other.
6. Sewell Mining Town – Known as the City of Stairs, this UNESCO World Heritage Site offers a fascinating glimpse into Chile’s long-standing tradition of copper mining. Founded in 1905 by the Braden Copper Company which owned and operated the El Teniente Copper Mine (the largest in the world), this city, which at its peak housed 15,000 mine workers and their families, was built into the steep slopes of the Andes at more than 7,000 feet above sea level. This made it inaccessible by vehicles, and so the brightly painted buildings of the town, terraced up and down the rugged slope, are all connected via stairways. Closed in the 1970s, it was saved from demolition by the Chilean government and then UNESCO, and now can only be visited on private tours. Located about two and a half hours from Santiago, it’s a bit more of a hike than most other day trips, but is well worth it for the fascinating glimpse it offers into historic Chilean mining towns.
If you love trekking and want to visit Patagonia someday, chances are that high on your list of to-do hikes is the W Trek in Torres del Paine. But in recent years, as more and more people come to Chile and Patagonia for its world-class trails and trekking opportunities, the W trek has become overcrowded and far too busy during the high season months of December through February. For people traveling to Patagonia looking to escape into nature and get away from the crowds, that experience of being secluded and alone in the wilderness can be ruined. Luckily, there are plenty of other trails all over Patagonia, ranging from the northern area in the Lakes District to the far reaches of Tierra del Fuego, that can satisfy your appetite for adventure.
1.Dientes de Navarino – The Dientes Circuit, located on far-flung Navarino Island in Tierra del Fuego and so-named for the jagged, tooth-like appearance of the island’s mountain chain, is about as different from the W as you can get. With virtually no trail infrastructure save for markers, hikers need to bring all their own camping and hiking equipment, making it the perfect multi-day trek for true outdoor aficionados. Lasting four days and covering 53 kilometers of rugged, isolated backcountry, the trail passes through valleys, Magellanic subpolar forests, peat bogs, lakes and rivers, and finally peaks at the Virginia Step with otherworldly views of the Beagle Channel and the mountains and fjords of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. For hikers who enjoy escaping into pure, untrammelled nature and tackling treks that few people have done before, the Dientes Trek is a welcome challenge.
Where: Navarino Island, Chilean Tierra del Fuego
How long: Roughly 53 kilometers (roughly 4 days)
When to go: November through March
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Why make the trip: Beautiful vistas of fjords and mountains, untouched nature, isolated and unknown to most Patagonia visitors
2.Cerro Castillo – Fans of the Dientes Trek and undeveloped hiking trails will love this lesser-known but spectacular four-day trek in the Aysen region. Cerro Castillo, named for the battlement-like pinnacles of the rock formation that marks the highest peak in the Central Andean range (2,320 meters) this newly-appointed national park has all the attractions of Torres del Paine — towering peaks, sprawling glaciers, and beautiful views over lakes and mountainous passes — but without the crowds. The trail can be accessed from different trailheads, allowing for day hikes, but the standard multi-day hiking route is roughly 62 kilometers (38.5 miles) long, with the highlight of the trail being the view of the mountain over the brilliant turquoise waters of Laguna Cerro Castillo. Isolated and with very basic infrastructure at the campsites and along the trail, the hike is definitely recommended for expert hikers who are comfortable spending many days alone in remote territory. But the views, peaceful atmosphere, and chance to see elusive wildlife like huemul deer and pumas make this hike well worth the effort.
Where: Aysen Region, Chile
How long: 62 kilometers (roughly 4 days)
When to go: November through February for summer (high season)
Difficulty Level: Intermediate to advanced
Why make the trip: Beautiful views of jagged mountains and lakes, great opportunities for wildlife viewing, uncrowded.
3.Darwin’s Trail – This trail, which spans both land and sea, retraces the route of famed naturalist Charles Darwin through the Fuegian Archipelago when he first sailed here in 1832 aboard the Beagle on its second voyage and came into contact with the Yaghan tribe. Enamored of the region’s wealth of biodiversity — which you can observe for yourself thanks to the abundance of marine wildlife, seabirds, and the miniature forests of mosses and lichens — the observations Darwin made on his voyage through Tierra del Fuego helped shape his ideas on evolution, making this route a great destination for hikers with an interest in botany, biology, and history. The path, which passes through various waterways like the Beagle and Murray channels, also includes short and relatively easy hikes to inland lookouts from which Darwin could observe the landscapes, such as the trail leading to a lookout over the historic and beautiful Wulaia Bay, landing site of the Beagle and of bloody conflicts between the Europeans and the native Yaghan.
Where: Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and Navarino Island
How long: 2-3 days
When to go: November through March
Difficulty Level: Easy to intermediate
Why make the trip: Remote islands, marine wildlife, stunning flora
4.Cochamo Valley – When most people think of hiking in Chile’s beautiful Lakes District, they think of Huilo Huilo. But this valley, located roughly two hours from Puerto Montt, is home of the region’s most thrilling and beautiful trails. Cochamo Valley, known as the ‘Yosemite of Chile’, is only accessible via a 4-to-6 hour hike that leads you into the heart of this granite-domed paradise, filled with old-growth forests, pristine rivers, and grassy pampas. The valley’s shape doesn’t lend itself to circuitous trails; rather, people hike into the valley, stay at a number of campsites and go on day hikes to different areas and lookouts, like the Arcoiris trail, a five hour to summit push that rewards those who tackle it with astonishing views. Due to the remote location of the valley, the trails and campsites are very rudimentary, making it a great destination for people who love roughing it outdoors and taking on more challenging trails. The sheer granite cliffs, which can rise up to 1,000 meters high, have also turned the valley into an international destination for rock climbers.
Where: Los Lagos Region, Chile
How long: 4-6 hours (10 kilometers) to La Junta campground in the valley
When to go: November to mid-April
Difficulty Level: Intermediate to advanced
Why make the trip: Remote, pristine trails, great rock climbing, secluded wilderness, granite dome mountains.
Everyone knows that Chile is one of the best destinations in the world for downhill skiing, home to first-rate resorts like Portillo or Valle Nevado, but there’s much more to winter in Chile than just hitting the slopes. Summer in the southern hemisphere, which falls during the months of June, July, and August, offers the perfect escape for the heat of summer in the northern hemisphere, as well as the chance to see Chile’s captivating landscapes in all their wintry glory. From trekking in Patagonia, to stargazing in Chile’s northern deserts, to enjoying uniquely Chilean winter drinks and food, winter is fast becoming the new best time to visit Chile.
1.Epic winter sports – Chile’s many diverse regions make the country perfectly suited to a huge range of winter sports, making it the perfect winter getaway from the summer heat in the northern hemisphere. If downhill skiing isn’t your forte, the Lakes District is prime territory for excellent cross-country skiing, as well as the chance to ski down volcanoes, and snowboarding and extreme sports like heli-skiing are also very popular. If you’d prefer not to shred the slopes, winter trekking is on the rise, like the W trek in Torres del Paine, or day treks in the area like Cerro Dorotea, or live your Iditarod dreams and go dog sledding with a team of huskies through Chile’s southern forests.
2.Beautiful snowy landscapes – Torres del Paine. The Atacama Desert. The Andes. The Lakes District. All these beautiful landscapes are one of the main reasons people want to visit Chile. Now imagine them in the wintertime. The granite peaks and pampas of Patagonia, covered in snow and ice under a cold winter sun. The Lakes District – land of luscious forests and towering volcanoes – becomes the ultimate winter wonderland. The dramatic backdrop of the Andes behind Santiago, capped with a layer of snow. If you go crazy for a fresh snowfall, winter in Chile is the best time to go.
3.The coziest winter food and drink – To get through those long, cold winter nights, Chileans have created some of the tastiest, most filling winter fare in South America. For lunch or dinner, tuck into a warm bowl of cazuela, Chile’s version of chicken noodle soup, chicken-and-dumplings-like pantrucas, or porotos con riendas, a hearty stew of beans, spaghetti, squash, and sausage. Then, for apres-ski drinks, try a cup of navegado, Chilean mulled wine, accompanied by a plate of sopaipillas pasadas, which are disks of fried Andean squash that have been soaked in a sugary sauce called chancaca.
4.The best time to go stargazing – Winter is when the skies in the southern hemisphere are at their clearest, making prime stargazing spots like San Pedro de Atacama and the Valle de Elqui even more spectacular. You can visit world-class observatories like ALMA (unfortunately not at night, though, as it’s a working observatory) where you can learn more about the important scientific discoveries that have been made at Chilean observatories. Then, bundle up at night for stargazing tours with local expert astronomers, where you can use a range of telescopes to see nighttime marvels like nebulas and planets and learn all about the constellations and southern skies.
5.Low season crowds – Aside from the top ski resorts outside Santiago, winter is low season for tourism in Chile, which is good news for you! There will be even fewer crowds at the top destinations like San Pedro or Torres del Paine (which is now open for winter trekking, either with the full W or day treks), there is more availability at the top restaurants and hotels all over the country, and, best of all, you get to take advantage of great low season rates!
Visiting the driest desert on Earth – San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro lies in the north of Chile, acting as a gateway to the driest desert in the world, the infamous Atacama. In San Pedro and its surrounding there are a lot of activities related with adventures, gastronomy, amazing landscapes and local culture, you simply must go if you’re ever in Chile.
Using San Pedro as a base, you can easily explore the otherworldly valleys, high-altitude lagoons, and ancient hillside ruins. You can also gawp at the night sky – possibly the clearest in the world – by taking an astronomy tour, or simply walking a little away from the light of the town. A starry night here is something you will never forget.
Ideally, you will need 4 days to make the most of your time here. The town is small and easily walkable. There are tour agencies and empanada shops (the best kind). More time will allow you some relaxation and wiggle room, less means you will need to select your activities wisely. Without further ado, here are the best things to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama.
Where to Visit
1. Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, is a spectacular valley located just 13km from San Pedro.
The information desk at the entrance provides maps of the valley, taking you all the way to Las Tres Marias, three unusual rocky formations that jut out of the desert floor.
The first stop, around 3km from the entrance, is the salt caverns. They’re a winding and narrow cave system, containing unearthly geological structures. You can walk the snaking trail in around 20 minutes and either carry on along the main road, or take a right as you exit the caves and explore a less visited part of the valley.
There are more surreal cliffs and caves, but the further you head in this direction, the less people you will encounter, and the more it begins to feel like you are truly isolated in the desert. The midday sun beats down on your face and neck, no matter which way you look.
The main view that everybody comes to see in the Valley of the Moon is the sunset, particularly from the top of the giant sand dune. The path is sandy but well worn; it shouldn’t pose a problem to anybody. The view from the top makes you understand the logic behind the valley’s name. It was also here where NASA tested the prototype for the Mars rover, due to its strikingly similar terrain.
Watching the sun drop behind the ridge is beautiful on its own, but it doesn’t compete with the red-gold afterglow that engulfs the desert. At the top of the dune, you can walk along the ridge in either direction. The right allows you a view of the sun setting behind the sand dune, and if you turn around, you have the full chain of the Andes mountains, complete with several large volcanoes in the distance. The left has a view of the craggy hills and the interminable desert. The path goes on further, too, meaning there is more space to find your own spot, away from the crowds. This is the busiest time on the sand dune, but the view is remarkable all-day long. A sunset here is one you will remember for the rest of your life.
How to get there Getting to Valle de la Luna can be done in a several ways, depending on your preferences. The best option is to take a tour, which will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and transport you to the entrance, visiting each of the locations with a knowledgeable guide, before dropping you back off at your accommodation. They usually start at 2 or 3 pm so that you can catch the sunset, but an earlier one is possible.
Cycling is easy as well. In your free time you can rent a bike in town and start your trip. The ride from the centre of town to the entrance takes about 25 minutes. However, upon entry into the actual valley, the road becomes rickety and there are steep sections, too. A helmet and visibility jacket are essential for you to take the bike into the valley. I made the mistake of cycling there without either, and was told upon arrival that they would not let me take the bike inside without them.
2. Valle de la Muerte / Valle de la Marte
The Valley of the dead, also known as the Valley of Mars, is closer to San Pedro than the Valley of the Moon. Its surreal landscapes are just as astonishing, but they have the bonus of being less crowded than their bigger and more popular neighbour. That’s not to say that nobody visits the Valley of the Dead, but it doesn’t get as many as the Valley of the Moon.
The entrance is on the right-hand side of the road to Calama, approx 2km from the centre of town.
This valley is the perfect place to sandboard. The Valley of the Moon also has a huge sand dune but you are not allowed to sandboard on it. As well as climbing the dune to ride back down, it is also worth going up for the view alone. The desert rolls out before your eyes, stretching all the way to the jagged Andes mountains, cowboys ride through the rugged valleys, kicking up dust in their wake, and bizarre outcrops defy logic at every turn.
I made the mistake of climbing the dune in a straight line, from the base to the highest point. Don’t make the same mistake as me. I had to use both my hands and my feet, as the surface was almost vertical. My feet sunk into the sand a good 30cm with each step, making the whole ordeal unnecessarily demanding. I had half the desert in my shoes by the time I made it to the top. Luckily, I had enough water to make sure I didn’t pass out from the midday heat. Despite taking the most difficult route (there is a well-trodden track for sandboarders, which takes you up diagonally), it was well worth the effort.
You can also continue on the path further into the valley, which winds its way up to the opposite side of the sand dune, giving you a view of what lies beyond the towering ridge. It looks like an extreme Motocross track, built for giants. I still struggle to get my head around how these valleys were formed.
How to get there
You can travel here using the same methods stated for the Valley of the Moon.
A way to get to the Valley of the Dead is with a tour departing from your hotel. Your van will stick to the main road towards Calama. The sandy hill, directly in front of you as you leave the town, is the entrance. It should not take longer than a few minutes to get there. If you have enough time it is possible to reach very good viewpoints. Take plenty of water and some snacks.
There are tours combined with the Valley of the Moon, if you prefer to visit both at once.
Finally, you can cycle. It’s easy to get here, despite a little up-hill section. Cycling in the actual valley can be quite difficult however, as the sand can be thick. I walked to the top with my bike, then rode down (without peddling), but my wheels jammed in the sand and I flew over my handle bars, almost rolling off the steep road and into the Valley of the Dead below. It would have been a fitting place to die, but it was not to be. You can also cycle from here to Pukara de Quitor in a relatively fast time, as there is a path directly from entrance to entrance.
3. Pukara de Quitor
This fascinating hill-side ruin was once a mighty fortress, perched in a great defensive location, destroying the element of surprise for invaders. You can find it 3km north-west of San Pedro. Like most of the attractions here, there is an entrance fee of a few thousand Pesos. If you have a bike, there is a place to lock it at the entrance.
You can choose between climbing the ridge that runs along the 700-year-old ruins, or the hills in the distance. The hills contain several view points and shelters to rest, as well as a few interesting structures at the top. From the peak, you can look down on the Valley of the Dead to see it from a different perspective. You can also gaze into the valley that leads to Catarpe – an interesting and adventurous bike ride away.
The view from the top of the hills is worth seeing. You see everything from an inferior angle, and whilst you can get a lot closer to the ruins, you can’t go inside them. Having said that, the path is short and is probably worth the 15 minutes it will take to walk.
Near to the entrance of Pukara de Quitor, is another path. Instead of taking the ramp up to the bike storage and ticket office, go the opposite way, sticking to the wall of the rock, and follow the path up to a cave and some amazing archaeological carvings. The cave is pitch black at certain points, so make sure you have a torch handy. Be careful with your head, too, especially for tall people like me. You’ll be bending a lot. On the other side of the cave is a small open area, where you can witness the unusual rock formations up close, and add your own cairn to the masses already there, before heading back the way you came. It might be a good idea to take something to cover your nose and mouth, as you will inhale a lot of dust. Outside, you can marvel at the two giant heads, that have been carved from the cliff face.
How to get there
All the above options apply for here. You can take a tour, walk or cycle.
Arguably the best activity to do here, based on the area’s pristine skies, is look upwards. Within the next year, over 70% of the world’s astronomical observatories will be based here. From this desert, you can see the Large Magellanic Cloud with the naked eye, a foreign galaxy that orbits the Milky Way, over 150,000 light years away. You can also see the Small Magellanic Cloud, fainter and even further away. It’s the farthest visible object in the southern hemisphere, without the aid of telescopes. You can also stare into the heart of our own galaxy. Do you know that strip of cloud-like substance you see in films and the best astrophotography? You can see it with your own eyes.
It takes a brilliant camera to be able to pick any of it up, but luckily for us, almost all astronomy tours will take a group photo on their own cameras. You can ask for one on your own, too.
I went on a tour and couldn’t recommend it enough. They took me on a 2-hour tour, pointing out all the visible constellations of the zodiac and explaining the reasons behind them. They also showed us a short documentary and allowed us to feast on little sausages and snacks.
It obviously helps if you have an experienced guide who can point to Saturn as soon as you ask him and tells you everything about all the stars you see.
I visited in August, the tail-end of their winter, and Saturn was the easiest to see. Early at night, it is possible to spot Mars and Jupiter, too. At different times throughout the year, it’s possible to see all the first six planets with the naked eye.
5. High Plain Lagoons and the Atacama Salt Flats
The high-altitude lakes are definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. You have the opportunity to watch pink Flamingos in Chaxa National Reserve, walk on a frozen lake at Red Stone, and see Vicuñas (a relative of llamas and alpacas) in their natural habitat – the hills above 3,000m.
It’s best to start early for these places, as they’re a bit further away than the majority of the attractions. I drifted in and out of sleep on the ride there, catching dreamlike glimpses of snowy peaks, sprawling desert and grazing vicuñas, half-listening to the guide talk about how vicuñas are still hunted for their fur, despite it being illegal.
I woke up when the smooth road swiftly changed to a jolting sandy track. I bounced up and down, bashing flailing limbs off parts of the jeep that I didn’t even know existed. Then I was hit by the cold. Mornings at high altitude aren’t pleasant for the half-dressed. Luckily, I was prepared.
How to get there The best way to go to these places is by taking a tour. It’s worth it. We visited all the aforementioned places, as well as Toconao, a traditional village. The main square has large cacti that grow 1cm per year. These cacti were over 2 metres tall, meaning they were planted in the early 1800s! You can explore the handcraft shops and go souvenir hunting, check out the old church, or taste local homemade ice cream. They have Rica Rica flavour, which is a mint-like herb that grows in the shrubby area of the desert. The driver makes a short stop here, too, for you to harvest your own supply.
Other things to do in the area include:
Tatio Geysers – Expect an early start if you visit these. They’re most active around 4.30 am.
Hot Springs / Aguas Calientes – There are lots of hot springs near San Pedro de Atacama. I visited hot springs in Peru and Bolivia – there is nothing quite like bathing in hotter-than-bath water in the middle of the freezing cold Andes. (As Termas Puritama and Tatio Geysers.)
Hot Air Balloon over the Atacama – Ballooning over the Atacama Desert is a breathtaking and unique experience. You will start the tour right before sunrise to see all the colors and rocks of the desert in the morning light. Every tour is different because you don’t know where the wind will take you but you can be sure that you will have an impressive view over the stunning landscape of the Atacama Desert. This is definitely a memory you will never forget!
The Flowering Desert – A lot further south from San Pedro, but still in the Atacama, near to La Serena, there is a natural phenomenon taking place in the desert, causing flowers to blossom everywhere. It only happens once per year and this year is supposed to be the largest ever.
How to Budget Generally, San Pedro is slightly more expensive than other towns of similar size in Chile. The customers are predominantly tourists, which means the prices are inflated. It’s possible to find all type of vegetables, meat, fish and local food. There are many options of restaurants, accommodation and activities for your stay in San Pedro de Atacama.
When to Go The Atacama is dry, with clear skies all year round. You can count the number of clouds you see in your time here on one hand – most likely, you won’t need any hands. On the astronomy tour, the guide said that only 30 nights of the year are cloudy, and even then, they’re not terribly intrusive.
Chilean summer runs from December to February, and their winter, from June to August. However, the climate here doesn’t change that much. Due to the altitude (2,408 metres above sea level), San Pedro experiences cold nights all year round, with the lowest being in July and August, at -1° C, and the highest, around 5-6° C, in January. In the day, the winters can reach 20° C, and the summer, 25° C. The altitude makes the days seem hotter though, because the sun’s rays have less of an atmosphere to cut through before reaching you. Combine this with the unusual clarity of the sky, and basically, you will frazzle.
If you want to avoid the crowds, then the best time to visit is just before winter (northern summer holidays), but after southern summer. April – June is classed as low season here. There will be less people, but never expect it to be empty. San Pedro is a tourist hot spot.
What to Bring
Altitude Sickness Tablets – Depending on your attitude toward altitude, you may wish to bring some medicine. Some people simply don’t agree with being at higher elevations. While 2,408 metres isn’t ridiculously high, some of the activities can go well over 4,000m. You can also buy local remedies for altitude sickness all over town. Coca leaves are helpful for long uphill hikes. Just don’t swallow them.
Vaseline or Lip Balm – This one is fairly self-explanatory. You’re in the driest desert in the world. Without it, your lips will crack, bleed and split. I speak from experience.
Sun Lotion – The altitude makes you burn a lot faster than if you were at sea level.
Map App – While there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned paper map, it won’t help you if you don’t know where you are in the first place. MAPS.ME is a good choice as it allows you to download the maps for offline use (like most apps), but it also shows walking trails and footpaths that are mostly invisible on Google Maps, for instance.
Water and Snacks – Again, it’s self-explanatory. You need lots of water in the driest desert on Earth. If you’re stranded, don’t count on rain to save you. Certain areas here receive less than half an inch per year. Some native people have never seen rain in their entire life, particularly closer to Antofagasta. A little snack is helpful, too, as there aren’t any shops outside of the towns.
Camera – This is an unforgettable place, but it doesn’t hurt to keep photos.
This National Park of 150.612 hectares, located in the very south of Chile, in Tierra del Fuego, was only opened in December 2013. In the east, it borders the Argentine Tierra del Fuego National Park; together, the two parks are called Parque para la Paz (“Park for Peace“).
Yendegaia’s breathtaking landscape includes trees like Antarctic beeches, coigüe, canelo and the Chilean firetree notro, extensive grassland, a rugged coast, fast-flowing rivers, sublime mountains, lakes, glaciers, and also thickets and herbs able to resist the windy climate conditions, heavy rainfalls and low temperatures. From June to September, temperatures can get as low as 11 degrees below zero, but in summer they reach up to 24°C.
Besides the 128 vascular plant species, 49 bird species and other animals – some of them in danger of extinction, e.g. the Andean fox, the Southern river otter and the ruddy-headed goose – have to cope with that climate. Other animals living there are leopard seals, elephant seals and kelp gulls.
The aim of the National Park is to conserve biodiversity and to boost tourism in the areas of adventure, outdoor, special interests and ecotourism. As it was only founded in 2013, there aren’t any official trails yet, but you can explore the area via numerous non-official trails starting from any point of the Y-85 road, from Fagnago Lake, or by boat from Puerto Williams. Also, a road from Vicunya to Yendegaia is being built and will probably be finished by 2021.
To get to this 48 km² island belonging to the Bío-Bío Region, you have to take a boat or a helicopter in Tirúa, which is 34 km away and the closest city on land.
The center of the island has been declared a nature reserve by the CONAF thanks to the forests housing the Chilean myrtle, Lenga beeches and the Chilean ulmo Olivillo, partly on a small mountain chain reaching up to 390 meters in height. On the “Sendero Camino Nuevo“, a walking trail of 1.5 hours, you can also spot some animals, such as chucao birds, pink-footed shearwaters and the rodent Pacific degu, which is endemic to Isla Mocha and critically endangered. Another animal of interest, although dead since almost two centuries ago, is Mocha Dick, the whale that inspired Herman Melville for his famous novel Moby Dick and which contributed to the more than 100 ship wrecks around Isla Mocha.
On its long sandy beaches, fishers share the coast with windsurfers, sailors and other people simply enjoying an easy walk along the Pacific Ocean.
At 15-30°C, it is more relaxing going there in the summer, as in winter temperatures fluctuate between only 10 and 15°C and there can always be a lot of rain. There aren’t any ATMs either on the island nor in Tirúa, so it is important to bring enough cash. Also, there is only one hotel on the whole island. However, the people there are happy to let tourists stay with them, or you can take your chances and camp somewhere in the wilderness.
3) SALTO DEL INDIO, CURACAUTÍN
In the Araucania Region, 14 km from Curacautín city and at an altitude of 719m, the stunning, 20m high waterfall Salto del Indio awaits you.
Even though the waterfall’s visibility is limited by forests, you can get still amazing views of it from the many viewpoints around. There are also tracks leading down to the very base of the waterfall, which is the intersection of the rivers Indio and Cautín, the first of these being the one that ends there and becomes the Salto del Indio. According to an ancient legend, the waterfall was created when the Indian boy Cayú jumped off into Cautín river because he could not be together with his love Millaray, Princess of Araucania.
The waterfall is part of the 12 hectare Senderos del Indio Park that offers restaurants, huts, a hostel, handicrafts, viewpoints and a mini farm in a fascinating landscape shaped by volcanic sediments from Lonquimay volcano.
4) LOS MOLLES
The small coastal town Los Molles in the Valparaíso Region, only 8km away from the Coquimbo Region, provides the perfect place for a relaxing holiday.
Although the town is more than prepared for tourists, – for example, there are 678 houses, but only 636 inhabitants – it is a calm area with sea view restaurants, white sand beaches, fantastic sunsets, camping possibilities and adventure tourism offers like diving or cove exploring.
Besides tourism, agricultural food, craftmanship, fishing and aquafarming plays a great role in the inhabitants’ lives.
130 of more than 300 plant species in Los Molles are endemic and many of them can be found in the Bioparque Puquén, for example the endangered Pouteria splendens and various cactus, the Alstromeria and water clovers. Also colocolo cats, marine otters and seals live there. Highlights include the paleontological deposits with crustace and and insect fossils, as well as a complex with subterranean caves and a so-called “cold geyser“.
5) CHAÑARAL DE ACEITUNO
Chañaral de Aceituno does not describe a town, but a cove in the municipality of Freirina, Atacama Region, two hours away from Vallenar.
The reason so many people come here is whales. During the summer, up to six different types of whales can be seen from this very spot.
Opposite the cove, you will find Isla Chañaral, part of the CONAF Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve and home to many Humboldt Penguins. At certain times of year, you can also spot different groups of common bottlenose dolphins from here.
6)VENTISQUERO COLGANTE QUEULAT
The name Ventisquero Colgante Queulat describes a “hanging snowdrift” with waterfalls of up to 293m in height, located inside the Queulat National Park in the Aysén del General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo Region in the south of Chile.
The Park borders the Cisner river to the south and the Lago Rosselot National Reserve to the west. Its area of 1541km² (595 mi²) covers glacier-capped mountains, virgin evergreen forests, lakes, lagoons, two small icefields and even a part of the Puyuhuapi Volcanic Group.
The Valdivian temperate rainforests’ trees include tepú, quila, chilco, nalca, coigüe de Magallanes and lenga. Alongside mammals like the pudú and kodkod, birds such as the chucao tapaculo, the Chilean pigeon, the Magellanic woodpecker, the thorn-tailed rayadito, the yellow-billed pintail and many more live in this area.
7)ISLA MADRE DE DIOS
Just a one-day boat trip from Puerto Natales away, you will find the Madre de Dios Island, located in the Magallanes Region, not too far away from the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. It is part of the Madre de Dios archipelago consisting of five islands, only one of them inhabited.
On the steep coasts of the 1043km² island, which is partly composed of limestone and was only declared a nature reserve in 2008, there are numerous natural caves created by the erosive combination of wind and tides. Some of them have been used by the Kaweskar people, who lived there from 6000 years ago until the 21th century, for different purposes like burial places or temporary camping. In 2006, the Cueva del Pacífico cave was discovered, and in it rock art and cave paintings. Another interesting one is the “Cave of the Whales“, where 2600-3500 year-old whale skeletons were found.
The landscape of the island was created at the same time as Chile’s coastal mountain range and the Andes, therefore it is of igneous rock origin and contains several mountains and native forests with trees like canelo and lenga.
Due to the rainy and cold climate – the average temperature is 9°C – the island can become dangerous, and so far has remained nearly unexplored.
8) CERRO LAS PEINETAS
It was only in 2002 that this over 2000 meter high mountain of the Villarrica National Park in the Araucania Region was climbed for the first time. Since then, not many routes have been detected, but there is a six-hour trekking route and a ten-hour climbing route. However, these activities are only recommended for experienced and physically fit climbers.
The landscape around this mountain of volcanic origin presents the green, rugged valley of Trancura river, which is of glacier origin, where you can find trees like the raulí, the coigüe, the lenga and the araucaria.
To get there, you can either start at Tromen Lake, or at several points on the road to the Argentine border crossing point Mamuil Malal.
9)ALTOS DEL LIRCAY NATIONAL RESERVE
If you are in Santiago and wondering where to go, the 12.163 hectare (46.96 mi²) Altos del Lircay National Reserve is not too far away; only about 270km south in the Maule Region, close to the Andes, and the volcanoes Descabezado Grande and Cerro Azul.
Around the three main rivers in the reserve, Lircay, Blanquillo and Claro – the latter ending with a spectacular waterfall – grow the threatened two species Hualo, seven of the ten species of the Nothofagus trees occurring in Chile and also the ciprés de la Cordillera. One of the reserve’s purposes is to protect rare and threatened animals such as Tricahue parrots, Sapito Hermoso, the reptile Matuasto del Maule, the lizard of Cristián, pudús, pumas, and meadowlarks.
The climate there is characterized by warm periods with some extended dry ones, but there can also be snow on the east side during winter and part of spring. The average temperature is at 14.7°C.
When going there, you will have to announce your visit to the Guardaparques Office at the entrance of the reserve and pay a small fee ($5000 CLP for foreign adults). If you want to stay overnight, it important keep in mind that pets, hunting, fishing and camping at the Enladrillado viewpoint or at lagoons of high altitude are prohibited. You have three options for the campsite: Antahuara (point 1), Los Carpinteros (point 6), Valle el Venado (point 10).
As well as horseback riding, there are several trekking routes ranging from 20 minute over 10 hour to 4 day walks.
10)SALAR DE MARICUNGA
As part of the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park in the Atacama Region, about 160 km northeast of Copiapó and at an altitude of 3750 meters, the Maricunga Salt Flat extends over an area of 80 km².
This salt flat once used to be a lake, but with time the water evaporated and, as it is located between two mountain ranges (Claudio Gay and Domeyko) and does not have any access to the sea, the salt remained in the basin.
77 animal species, 65 fauna species and many flamingoes live in the Salar’s desert climate with an average high of 18.4°C and an average low of 4.5°C. As it can be difficult to get there in winter, the Park is only opened from October until April.
Other places of interest inside the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park are the Santa Rosa Lagoon, also in the north, and the Negro Francisco Lagoon in the south of the Park, which is less high than the north.
In this area close to the Argentine border, there is also Chile’s highest mountain peak, which belongs to the Nevado Ojos del Salado volcano, the highest active volcano in the world. Other volcanoes in the salt flat’s surroundings are the Incahuasi, the San Francisco, the Tres Cruces, and many more.
At 8.25 in the morning we started our tour to Cajon del Maipo. Everybody was aboard and Felipe, our guide, suggested we get some rest during the drive from the city. He spoke in Spanish first (3 of the passengers were from Argentina, 4 from Brazil, 1 from China, 1 from USA, and me, from England), then repeated in English.
It took around one hour to get to the small café at the entrance to the canyon, where we stopped for morning beverages. We had a small slice of cake each. The group talked amongst themselves, learning about where everybody was from and where they were going.
I was still sleepy-eyed when we entered the café, but during the drive afterwards, the scenery crystallised. We were driving into a verdant valley, mountainous walls rising either side of the road, snowy peaks growing in size, the closer we got. This was Cajon del Maipo. This is what I’d seen in all the photographs beforehand.
The guide spoke excellent English. He was friendly and eager to answer any questions, not just about the tour, but Chile in general. We drove through the small village of San Jose de Maipo, established in 1792. To officially become a village, it had to build a little church, a hospital, and a town hall. It was originally home to the miners of the region, who mined silver and gold. Nowadays, they sell handmade goods, made from the precious minerals.
The guide continued to talk as we passed through the village and the surrounding canyons. The river Maipo that runs through this valley, winding its way through the jagged terrain, is of great importance to Santiago. It provides electricity for the capital, but also acts as a gateway to nature, with lots of choices when it comes to adventure sports. You can kayak and raft on the river, and many Santiago dwellers come here on weekends to get out of the smog of the city. The crisp mountain air refreshes your body and clears your mind.
We continued further into the canyon. We drove past a small train track, with a few stationary trains. Felipe explained they used to take Copper out from the mines, to Santiago. In 1985, they removed most of the track. Also Pinochet, Chile’s old dictator, used to live here. We drove past his old house, but I was taking in so much information, so quickly, that I didn’t actually see it. It’s somewhere in the valley. I’m pretty sure it’s there.
Before I could contemplate what Pinochet had done, we whizzed through another small village, learning about the Almond trees of the area – Cajon del Maipo’s biggest export.
Finally, after almost 2 hours driving, we were able to stretch our legs and take a few pictures. It was possible to see the glacier atop the summit of the mountain – a giant slab of ice, perched precariously on the edge.
The place appeared to be full of large bomb shelters. They looked like something plucked straight from a war film, but Felipe told us that they were occupied between 1953 and 1964 by the builders of the nearby dam. They have curved roofs to deflect wind and allow snow to fall off. However, they don’t have windows, and the builders had to live in freezing cold temperatures for the entirety of the project.
After 20 minutes strolling around here, we drove onto the dam, a short hop down the road, where we left the bus again to explore the beautiful 4 winds corner. It’s not hard to see how it got its name. Before you know which way to turn, you’re blown in several directions, dust stinging your eyes and trapping itself behind your eyelids. Mini tornados swoop over the water in the distance.
A crowd of fellow tourists huddle on the corner, struggling to stand up straight while taking selfies, asking me to take photos of them.
When I was free from my role as an unpaid photographer, I took some photos of my own. The reservoir was just stunning. The snow-tipped mountains enhanced the appearance of the man-made lake.
After a short drive back the way we came, we pulled over to the side of the road, and Felipe told us he’d arranged a picnic. A table was arranged on a little hill, with a trickling waterfall in the rocks behind it. There were olives, little bits of carrot, and bread. The dip for the bread was a mixture of soy sauce, sesame seeds and philadelphia. It was a bizarre mix – one I’d seen another Chilean eat, earlier that week. It wasn’t three things I’d have chosen to put together personally, but it was surprisingly good. Maybe this is eaten everywhere and I’ve just never heard of it, or maybe it’s a modern delicacy of Chile. Either way, it’s definitely worth a try.
There were a few bottles of wine to share between the group, too but I’m not much of a wine drinker.
Chile’s glorious terrain is rich with colour, lakes and waterfalls and the best way to see them up-close is to cycle through its lands. It may seem like an arduous feat, but there are many ways you can cycle through Chile, enjoy the landscape, wineries and beaches all at the same time.
What’s great about travelling by bike is the freedom. You can simply stop anywhere you want and take photos, and you can rest-assured that your travelling is not impacting negatively on Chile’s unimaginably beautiful landscape.
Here are the top five bicycle tours you should take to see Chile at its finest:
Lakes And Volcanos District
Take to Chile’s southern region by bike and see the volcanic rocks and glistening lakes from the most natural mode of transport of them all – a bicycle. It might seem like an impossible feat to cycle across the glacial landscape of the south, but in fact the terrain of ripe farmland and dense forest is the perfect ground for a cycling adventure. Get close-up to the spectacular Andes mountains, as well as some of the region’s most mesmerizing national parks. You can also cycle close to the Lanin Volcanoes, through the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve and the newly-paved roads that run around the stunning Lake Ranco – taking the old German settlers route. The climate is also perfect for cycling, at around 65 degrees most of the year.}
Bicycle the border
Take to the border between Chile and Argentina by bike and see some of the region’s most stunning sights along the way, including glaciers, national parks and ancient forests. The Andes mark the stretch between the two countries, and this tour takes you along some of the original indigenous trails that were created by some of the first people on the continent. This tour is uniquely local, with stops at local villages, as well as untouched forests and as far across to the Pacific coastline trails in the Region de los Rios.
Chile’s wine country
Take this cycling wine tour from Santiago to the beautiful village of Zuniga and enjoy cycling through the vineyards of this quaint little town. The cycle takes you through many other beautiful Chilean towns along this wine celebration, with traditional windmills and the most famous wine region in Chile, the Colchagua Valley. The tour also stops in the wine capital of Chile, Santa Cruz, which is located in the Valle de Apalta. Try some of the most historic wines of Chile here, as well as some of the newest selections of eco wines. The tour travels as far as the stunning shores of the Pacific Coast, where the rugged, beautiful and isolated beaches provide some much-need respite from cycling, before returning via shuttle back to Santiago.
Patagonia bike tour
Start your tour in the stunning lake lands of Bariloche with stunning views of the Andes and the lake. Enjoy a magical boat ride and journey through the Arrayanes National Park, home to South America’s unique myrtle sand, before cycling from Lake Espejo to Cardenal Samore Pass. When you finish the ride there will be a divine thermal baths waiting for you to unwind and rest your aching muscles. Take in Lake Llanquihue by bike, with views of the Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes. The tour will also head through stunning farmlands, including spectacular waterfalls, such as Saltos de Petrohue, and Puertos Varas – a small lake town where you will complete your cycling journey.
Santiago and its surrounds
Leaving from Santiago head into Casablanca Valley, known for its delicious wines and untouched eucalyptus groves. Cycle next through the Andes-lined trails of San Antonio Valley, where wine tasting and horse riding are popular pursuits. A stop at the colourful city of Valpariso is also part of this itinerary, before heading over to the coastline at the beach town of Matanzas. Head back into another beautiful wine region, this time the Apalta Valley, where you finish the tour at the premium winemaking destination of Chile before heading back to Santiago.
Chile is an extremely unique land mass. It’s length is stretches down as far as Antarctica with spectacular fjords, great lakes, impressive mountains and glorious glaciers. While the north extends to the Atacama desert, one of the driest desert locations in the world. The two ends could not be more different.
These unusual extremities makes Chile a place of spectacular beauty. So much so that much of this thin strip of land is now protected as National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so the rich biodiversity of the land is able to survive. It also means that visitors can enjoy these famous landscapes knowing they will be protected and managed.
To really discover Chile’s truly diverse terrains, be sure to visit these top five beautiful national parks in Chile.
Rapa Nui National Park
More commonly known as Easter Island, Rapa Nui is the local name for the island that sits out in Chile’s Pacific coastline. The island is known for its ancient Moai statues, which were built by islanders of Polynesian origin who settled on the island in around 300 AD. Between the 10th and the 16th centuries, the islanders competed in building and erecting enormous statues and shrines and today there are around 900 statues still remaining. This unique cultural landscape is not only a prized national park but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its fascinating cultural significance.
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine is probably one of the best-known National Parks in Chile, as well as one of the largest in size, the park is also the third most visited national park in Chile, with over 250,000 visitors every year. It’s southerly location contributes to its impressive array of ice fields, fjords and glaciers that make up its landscape. The natural beauty on offer in the park is astonishing, with waterfalls, lakes and lagoons adding to serene blueness of this part of Chile. The region is best known for its Cordillera Paine Mountain Range, which is made up of rose-coloured granite and reaches 3,000 metres high. You can access the park from Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas, and combine your visit the stunning nearby Bernardo O’Higgins National Park.
Juan Fernandez Archipelago
The magnificent volcanic islands that make up the Juan Fernandez Archipelago are home to some of the most unique species in the world. The islands have unusual and rare creatures that are not normally found in conditions such as this, including woodpeckers, firecrowns and marsupials. Many of the creatures living on the islands are at serious risk of extinction, and as such the park has been a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977. The islands’ landscape are just as extraordinary with deep ravines and volcanic peaks topped with snow – ideal for exploring.
Located between Santiago de Chile and Valparaiso, La Campana is one of the country’s smallest national parks, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sights. Easily accessible from one of the two nearby cities, the national park is home to Cerro la Campana, a 6,000-foot-high mountain that Charles Darwin climbed on one of his visits to the continent. From the top of the mountain you can enjoy spectacular views of the Andes and Olume Valley – a view that is well-worth the climb.
Chiloé is Chile’s most northerly archipelago, and is home to some of the region’s most noteworthy architecture. This island national park is filled with a number of wooden churches, many of which are protected under UNESCO World Heritage. The park is also dominated by the many Valdivian forests, known for the pudu (small deer) and Darwin’s fox. From the coast here you can also spot colonies of sea lions, flamingos and pgymy blue whales. Its wet weather and distinct forests give this park a very different feeling from all of the other national parks in South America – a distinctive landscape has been the setting for many myths, legends and stories of witchcraft over the centuries.
Experience the unique terrain of the Atacama desert like the ancient people of the Atacama did on the Ancestral Caravan tour. Trek the desert using traditional Andean llamas alongside local communities and indigenous people sharing their customs and culture along the way. The tour is a great way to learn more about the traditional cultures of the desert and connect with local people.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
See the desert from another angle on a magical hot air balloon ride above the Atacama. Eastern Safari’s “Balloons Over Atacama” offers daily flights over the Atacama Desert and close to San Pedro de Atacama, with views of the endless salt flats, impressive volcanoes and ancient rock formations. Every ride can hold up to 16 passengers, and a premium option is also available, which includes a toast of sparkling wine at the end and a photo of the flight.
Half Day Fishing Tour of Easter Island
Explore Easter Island and learn more about the native tradition of fishing and cooking on this half day tour of the island. With the help of a native Easter Islander fisherman, you will learn the core techniques behind fishing on the island and then fish in its waters yourself. The catch of the day is then prepared and cooked over the island’s natural hot volcanic rocks to create the traditional dish “Tuni Ahi”, which is served on banana leaves.
Horseback riding in Easter Island
Travelling the island on horseback is one of the best ways to see the hidden natural beauty of the region and reduce your carbon footprint. A typical Rapa Nui experience takes you to some of the more remote areas of the island that can only be reached by taking this traditional mode of transport. What’s more, you don’t have to be an experienced rider to make the journey and travel into the past, it’s a peaceful and engaging experience that takes all-levels of riders through regions such as Rano Raraku, Orongo and Mount Terevaka.
Santiago and Central Chile
Penguin Watching Cachagua Tour
Leave the hustle and bustle of Santiago and head to the beautiful beaches and islands off the villages of Cachagua and Zapallar. Known for their delicious seafood and stunning shoreline, the villages offer access to the remote and protected Humboldt Island, also known as Penguin’s Island. Enjoy the magical Chilean countryside on route to the coast, made up of Avocado farms and vineyards, and a boat ride to greet the colony of penguins located on Humboldt Island. There will also be time to swim and sunbathe at hidden bays and sample local seafood.
Snow Hike tour from Santiago
Put on your snow shoes and trek through the heart of the Andes, on this expertly-led hiking experience like now other. Led by an expert mountaineer guide the trek leaves from Santiago to the valley of Cajon del Maipo. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains ranges and snow-topped peaks as you climb, and when you finally reach Aguas Penimavida. Knowledgable local guides will enhance the experience with stories of the mountain ranges and volcanoes before heading back down to the town of San Jose del Maipo, and a delicious Chilean empanada. Chilean Lake District
Alerce Andino National Park
The Southern Chilean Lake District is one of the country’s most dramatic landscapes, and this tour takes you to one of the region’s most prized natural emblems, the ancient Alerce tree. The tree was made a national monument in 1976 and is a massive 45 meters high and 4 meters wide. Located in the Alerce Andino National Park, this tour takes you through ancients forests and offers views of the Calbuco volcano and the Andean-Patagonia mountain range. Take on three beautiful trails, including a wet waterfall hike and plenty of time to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Located in the Los Lagos region of Chile, the Chiloe Island tour departs from Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. Take the ferry across the Pacific to the island, which is the fifth largest island in South America. Visit the island’s oldest village, Chacao, and its distinctive UNESCO World Heritage Listed native timber churches and architecture, dating back to 1567. The tour also includes a visit to Castro, the capital and third oldest city in all of Chile. Visitors will have a chance to shop in the towns and city and sample food at a typical Chiloe Island restaurant.
Whale watching from Punta Arenas
Journey through the first ever Marine National Park in Chile, Francisco Coloane, and spot some of the most majestic creatures in the world, humpback whales. Get up-close to the marvellous creatures surrounded by impressive untouched landscape, including hanging glaciers on the Darwin mountain range, as you journey by boat through the park and regions around it. There will also be a chance to spot some of the other inhabitants of the park, including Magellan penguins, sea lions, austral dolphins, albatross and sea elephants.
Ice Hike at Glacier Grey
There is nothing quite as impressive as walking on a glacier. With Big Foot Patagonia you can ice hike on Glacier Grey, and be on the only tourists there! With the assistance of an experienced guide, you will be supplied with the relevant equipment to climb and take the 2.5 hour trek through cracks, rivers, lagoons and tunnels of the pristine Grey Glacier. Visitors with knee problems should consult guides before booking.
Canter along winding trails along rocky slopes, across sparkling streams and past jade-green lakes surrounded by craggy mountain peaks . A horseback ride through Chile will reveal stunning remote scenery that you couldn’t see any other way.
Horseback riding is one of the best ways to see the rugged and beautiful countryside of Chile. You’re following in the hoofprints of the Chilean Huaso (cowboy) tradition, experiencing nature with all of your senses.
There are so many gorgeous places to ride horses in Chile, but here are a few of the most stunning opportunities to saddle up and hit the trail.
Torres Del Paine National Park
Mother Nature sometimes likes to show off what she is capable of and Torres Del Paine is a great example of this. The Torres del Paine, the mountains that give the park it’s name, are three distinctive peaks of granite piercing the sky. Enormous glaciers, towering rocky peaks, glittering lakes and thundering rivers fill every visitor with awe.
The terrain is perfect for long galloping rides and you can either stay in an estancia (a ranch house) or camp on a multi-day ride. You will be able to ride up to the glaciers, explore the foothills and skirt along the wetlands against the spectacular backdrop of the Paine Massif.
The wild and barren landscapes of Patagonia, with their snow capped mountains and enormous skies, are the perfect place for a horseback riding adventure. UNESCO has named this area as a World Biosphere Reserve and it is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
The wind can blow hard and the weather conditions can be extreme, so listen to the advice of your local guide for a safe and enjoyable ride. The horseback journeys in Patagonia will generally take the low trails through the valleys in order to avoid the heavy winds.
Cross Between Chile and Argentina on Horseback
For a truly epic horseback journey, you can cross the Andes on a trail that San Martin and his “Army of the Andes” used in 1817 as they freed the people of Chile from the European monarchs. You’ll journey through the steep mountain pass, flanked by the towering stone peaks of Mercedario and Aconcagua.
During the journey you will have lots of time to stop in local villages along the way and explore. You’ll have the option of ending up in Mendoza, Argentina where you can relax and sample one of the world-renowned wines that are produced here – you’ve earned it.
The Atacama Desert
The Atacama is a huge expanse of stony terrain dotted with salt lakes and felsic lava flowing towards the Andes. It is situated between two mountain chains that create a rain shadow on either side, making it the driest non-polar desert in the world. There are some weather stations here that have never received rain and sometimes the region goes for years without a drop.
Exploring this ancient, arid desert on horseback is like no other travel experience in the world. As you ride past the rusty ravines, vast white salt flats and coloured lakes, you will feel like you are on the surface of another planet.
The small town of San Pedro de Atacama is the ideal base for beginning your journey. Be sure to head to the Valle de la Luna, which has a moon-like landscape and looks surreal and hypnotic when illuminated by the golden glow of the setting sun. Most horseback riding tours will begin in San Pedro and travel along the Vilama River to the Valley of Arenoso, the Devil’s Throat and Coca Stone.
To create your perfect horseback riding adventure in Chile, check out our Design your Tour feature so that you can put together a custom tour.
Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, is one of the world’s most spectacular regions. Flanked by glorious mountains, lakes and glaciers, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a hot spot for backpackers and adventure travellers alike.
But when it comes to finding the most unique places to stay it can be tricky, that’s why we’ve put together a list of our favourite places to stay in Patagonia. From glamping in eco lodges inside the national park to enjoying warm log fires, spas and breathtaking views of the park. Patagonia’s accommodation has it all.
The award-winning EcoCamp is uniquely located in the stunning Paine massif in the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park. Stay in a sustainable lodge and enjoy community dining amid the natural surroundings of the mountains and glaciers of Patagonia. Spend your days trekking through the natural beauty of the region and finish your days in the warmth and comfort of your lodge, equipped with polar fleece blankets and a private bathroom. The camp offers four different types of lodges, with one large enough to accommodate a family of four.
The Singular is a hotel chain that has made its mark on Patagonia with the Puerto Bories Hotel. This five-star luxury hotel was refurbished from its original life as an old storage plant in the 20th century (by company Frigorifico Bories). The hotel is committed to protecting the environment and are always finding innovative ways to reduce their carbon fingerprint and water efficiency, including building the hotel with sustainable materials. This unique building is located just outside Puerto Natales and celebrates its heritage and history with so many original features still intact. Make use of world-class spa and stay in one of the 57 rooms and suites onsite. The hotel also offers a number of excursions to the Torres del Paine National Park, and has been voted one of the best hotels in Chile by the Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice Awards.
The stunning Awasi Patagonia hotel is made up of 14 exclusive villas nestled amid the foliage of a private reserve, overlooking the region’s jewel: the Torres del Paine National Park. Every villa comes complete with a specialist private tour guide and vehicle to explore the park and allow you to get off the beaten track. Modelled old Patagonian outposts and shelters, every villa offers exclusive views of the forest and the Patagonian Steppe as well as unrivalled privacy, a warming hot tub and an open fire. Dine at the on-site restaurant, the Relais & Chateaux, and enjoy fresh, made-to-order dishes cooked by chef Federico Ziegler and picked from the natural landscape. Villa rentals start from $950 USD per day, per person.
Situated close to the breathtaking Lake Sarmiento, Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa is a relaxing retreat for visitors looking to escape city life. Immersed in the hillsides of Patagonia, the hotel offers incredible vistas of the Torres del Paine National Park. The wood clad walls and Chilean furnishings and craftsmanship are a cosy space to spend a cold evening in the park after a day of hiking. When your legs are tired you can make use of the hotel’s exceptional Uma Spa, with its adventure spa philosophy that includes indoor and outdoor pools, a jacuzzi, steam bath, sauna and spa treatments, all of which come with extraordinary views of the national park.
Get up-close to the wondrous Torres del Paine National Park, one of the finest natural sights in the world, when you stay at Altiplanico Hotel Puero Natales. Popular amongst backpackers, eco-lovers and adventurous sports-people, the hotel has all of the mod-cons and luxuries you can expect from a luxury hotel, including free internet, a bar and a restaurant with a varied daily menu, massages and laundry service. The hotel’s ethos is all about being at one with nature, and instead of imposing on nature the architecture actually merges in with its surroundings. The interior and exterior design reiterate a respect for the environment and the native culture that inspired the design.
The temperate rain forest is one of the gems of our country, even though you can also find them in some border areas of Argentina, their larger extensions are here, in the south of Chile, from Valdivia to Chiloé. It is wonderful to be in the middle of one of these forests, despite their darkness, in them you feel how life sprouts from below, everything emerges seeking for the sunrays that appear like extraterrestrial spotlights that cross the branches and leaves to the floor. A bed of rotten leaves, new ones, sprouts, lichens, mosses, renews, seedlings, shrubs, flowers and an endless list of native fauna thrives thick while being escorted above by evergreens, creating a perfect and unique jungle climate where we will feel astonished by the mere life anxious to come out on stage.
Also called the “Valdivian jungle”, this forest appears in a temperate rainy climate, unique, given the fact that it hosts more than two thousand endemic species, which means that you will only be able to see them there, in no other place in the world.
Not only you will be able to see the green color in all of its memories, you will also feel it, breathe it and keep it forever within yourself. Somewhere there, where certain emotions are recollected and kept, those that once you feel them allow you to come back to them mentally, whenever you want, when you feel the need for.
If you feel emptiness in any area of your life, you should visit this place, its density, diversity and beauty will fill this gap for sure, and the smell of its fertile and fruitful floors will make you walk happily between ferns and water courses. You will feel protected as you walk, the same way that the tallest treetops protect these lands that are real cradles of life, hope oasis for the world we live in.
Some of the species that you will be able to see are: Chilean myrtle (Luma apiculata), Chilean hazel, (Gevuina avellana), Coihue (Nothofagus dombeyi), Hardy fuchsia (Fucsia magellanica), Maqui (Aristotelia chilensis), Ulmo (Eucryphia cordifolia), Tineo (Weinmannia trichosperma), Olivillo (Aextoxicon punctatum), Colihue (Chusquea culeou), Bellflower (Lapageria rosea), Chilean mitre flower (Mitraria coccinea), Ferns (Lophosoria quadripinnata), Luma (Amomyrtus luma), Chilean guava (Ugni molinae), Chilean firetree (Embothrium coccineum), Quila (Chusquea quila), among many others, as fungus, mosses, lichens, creepers, birds, frogs, insects and mammals.
Today’s dynamic result of the interaction of the geographical elements that have made up the Chilean territory throughout history is a highly rich patrimony. It has a variety of ecosystems, microclimates and diverse scenery – some of it unique worldwide.
These characteristics of Chile are not news to the global scientific community, which has shown interested in them for decades through the development of important scientific and technological projects. This has enabled us to keep expanding our ability to perceive and interpret Chile as a true natural laboratory.
To astronomers, the skies over the Atacama Desert are unrivalled. International institutions have funded various astronomical installations and by 2018, 68% of the world’s capacity for observing the universe will be found here. Observatories you can visit in the Atacama Desert include Paranal and Alma.
What is more, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are frequent events in Chile. In fact, more than 40% of all the planet’s registered seismic energy has been released in Chile, with these phenomena constantly present. This presents a perpetual opportunity for scientific tourism and research. Additionally, we are located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, meaning that this is one of the most volcanically active countries on Earth.
In this respect, one of the most interesting areas to visit is Kutralcura Geopark, situated in the Araucanía region in the south of Chile. Here, you can explore the volcanoes of Chile via its 15 georoutes.
These examples are but a small sample of local projects and places with unique features of Chile related to their intrinsic scientific value. If you are interested in learning more about these types of initiatives, I recommend consulting the book “Tecnociencia” by Andrea Obaid, editorial compass Chile, where 30 routes for scientific tourism in Chile are detailed in Spanish and English.
The legacy felt over the 4,270 kilometres taken up by Chile comprises the expressions of the country’s nature and culture, demonstrating the evidence of its land’s evolution and that of its inhabitants. It is like traveling in time; being able to discover, understand and value that which often seems so little and insignificant.
We should take advantage of the opportunities these places offer us, so we can relate to our heritage in a more profound way, broadening and complementing our knowledge.
The city of Valdivia is one of the oldest cities in Chile (founded in 1552) and it is sometimes known as “the pearl of the south”. But what makes of Valdivia a unique place like a “pearl”? Is the charm of Valdivia something that we could put in word? Probably not, but if you go to these places, you can figure out why they call it like that.
Valdivia is a river city, so, to understand the magic of the place, you should visit its rivers. You can walk along the river bank by “Costanera Arturo Prat” and see there are a lot of gardens and benches just to contemplate it… because it is not just a river! it is the place where the city takes its life (for example, where people practice rowing and the sea lions take a nap).
Teja Island and botanical garden:
One of the most amazing things in Valdivia is its connection with a little island called “Isla Teja”. This place (formerly belonged to a single person) is the home of one of the most important universities in Chile (Universidad Austral), some museums and a beautiful botanical garden with around 950 different plant species. You can spend an entire day exploring the gardens!
One of the characteristic attributes of the city of Valdivia is its river market, which is in the river bank near the “Pedro de Valdivia Bridge” that connects Valdivia with Teja Island. In this market (opened early in the morning) you could buy different types of foods, like vegetables, cheese, fish or seafood in general. Also, you can find typical crafts. However, is the smoked fish, especially smoked salmon, the main attraction for the tourist.
Valdivian Fort System:
Valdivia, as I said, is an old city. Long time ago, it was a strategical place for Spanish colonization as you can see for its fortresses located in Cruces River, Corral Bay and Valdivia itself. If you want to explore this side of the history of the city, you will have a lot of fun because there are at least 10 different locations related to Spanish fortifications.
And finally, food and drink:
(This is not a specific place, but it is directly related with the charm of Valdivia!) This city is a rich gastronomical place with some roots in German cuisine and Spanish cuisine, but most important, it has a strong influence from the river and the sea (you can eat different types of fish, but Salmon it is one of the best options here). Also, you can delight your taste drinking different types of craft beers. All you must do is to come and enjoy the charm of Valdivia!
“200km northeast of Punta Arenas, and on the border with Argentina, is the little-known Pali Aike National Park. Landscapes that blend an arid magellanic steppe, fields of volcanic rock, archaeological sites of ancient aboriginal peoples, and richly diverse fauna – pumas, rheas, and flamingos, to name but a few. These make Pali Aike a great tourist and cultural destination. ”
It is below the towering Torres del Paine National Park, full of the vast majority of visitors to the Magallanes Region. Our destination is still undiscovered by the masses, its traces of the past still intact. In this remote corner of the planet, you can see how prehistorical Patagonian geological, natural and archaeological history come together in harmony.
The puma is king in this territory. The caves formed by the park’s rocks and craters are home to the predator. Guanacos, like llamas, abound throughout the magellanic steppe and are the puma’s favorite food. In the park, we can find diverse panoramas – such as the beautiful Santa Ana Laguna, and the paths inviting you to observe a huge flamingo colony.
Aborigenes and Volcanos
Their namesake is the aborigines who inhabited the area thousands of years ago. The Aonikeks, also known as Tehuelches, were nomads who moved through Patagonia between the Santa Cruz River (Argentina) and the Strait of Magellan (Chile). They hunted guanacos, rheas and other animals that suited their dietary needs, and were constantly visiting the area that makes up the park today. They were drawn there by the great volcanic field of the region, reminiscent of a lunar landscape and completely different from the rest of the Patagonian landscape. Its odd geographical characteristics led the Aonikeks to believe that there were evil spirits there – so they called it Pali Aike (desolate place).
Here, it is also possible to see the caves used by the Aonikeks as shelter. Excavations on the archaelogical sites of Pali Aike Cave and Fell Cave have proven the existence of early humans in Patagonia. The discoveries – stoves, ‘fishtail’ stones and remains of extinct animals such as the milodon and the native American horse – and studies on them have enabled archaeologists to estimate that humans inhabited this area more than 8000 years.
There are several paths in the park that lead to each of the sights and are not too challenging. In just one day, you can experience a hike over a millennia-old volcanic field, go inside the crater left by an extinct volcano, sit in a cave, close your eyes and imagine the prehistoric people who inhabited these lands. You can also visit a small lagoon, home to hundreds of flamingos, or feel the adrenaline rush of knowing there could be a puma hiding somewhere nearby. With a bit of luck, it can all be rounded off with a picture-perfect sunset; a largely undiscovered gem of Patagonia.
A little more than a month ago, I went to Coyhaique. I didn’t know it before – I live more than 1,000km away from the capital of vast Chilean Patagonia, an area named “place where there is water” by the Tehuelches, where the Simpson and Coyhaique rivers converge. I flew from Puerto Montt to Balmaceda; the flight went quickly thanks to being able to view our thin strip of a country from the air, the great mountain range that is the central axis from which countless fjords, rivers, lakes and pampas fan out, watched over by the indefatigable Pacific Ocean.
Coyhaique is surrounded by tableaux, hills and drop-offs that enable you to gaze upon the place from within, in the middle of landscapes formed and molded by the perennial winds. Here, our sight is awoken and all our senses are united.
Our brain bestows us with this optical ability so that we can resume and project everything we feel into a large visual field, which immediately and naturally takes away our narrowness of vision – this is why I believe that any path one takes from Coyhaique is beautiful.
The hills rise from the Andes like titans sprinkled with snow, the ocean devours the cliff-sides, the sheer force of the water that flows over the hills, weathering the earth home to the Andean deer, the birds and the hares, camouflaged among coihue, lenga and ñirre trees that follow the sunlight over the surrounding streak of mountain that wraps around this area, just like our senses do through our sight.
We sat among tranquil lagoons and felt the lone southern wind shake the flowers of a lupin field. We saw its seeds cast over villages, next to the rivers that flow through the area, and we contemplated the vastness of General Carrera Lake, sitting on a solitary jetty in Puerto Ibáñez.
It is then that you come to understand that there is much more, that it goes beyond what you can see; and if you explore further, you can see from atop naturally formed lookout points that this is, quite literally, “the beginning of the end of the world.”
6 places we recommend to visit:
Coyhaique, Puerto Aysén, Acantilada Bay, Castillo Hill, Lake Tamango, Puerto Ibáñez.
Where is a good place to stay? :Vista Patagonia Lodge, where view is once again king – where you can open the bedroom window, see the Mackay Hill and be left speechless, honored to be so close.
A lodge decorated in clean, modern lines, tended to by the owners, you can feel at peace there. It’s an exclusive-feeling place surrounded by silence, with quality, warmth and a privileged view.