Chile offers an enormous range of outdoor activities, including volcano-climbing, skiing, surfing, white-water rafting, fly-fishing and horseriding. An increasing number of operators and outfitters have wised-up to the potential of organized adventure tourism, offering one- or multi-day guided excursions.
Many of these companies are based in Pucón, in the Lake District, with a good sprinkling of other outfitters spread throughout the south. There are fewer opportunities for outdoor activities in the harsh deserts of the north, where altiplano jeep trips and mountain biking are the main options. If you plan to do take part in adventurous activities, be sure to check that you’re covered by your travel insurance, or take out specialist insurance where necessary.
Rafting and kayaking
Chile’s many frothy rivers and streams afford incomparable rafting opportunities. Indeed, the country’s top destinations, the mighty Río Bío Bío and the Río Futaleufú, entice visitors from around the globe. Rafting trips generally range in length from one to eight days and, in the case of the Bío Bío, sometimes include the option of climbing 3160m Volcán Callaquén. In addition to these challenging rivers, gentler alternatives exist on the Río Maipo close to Santiago, the Río Trancura near Pucón, and the Río Petrohue near Puerto Varas. The Maipo makes a good day-trip from Santiago, while excursions on the latter two are just half-day affairs and can usually be arranged on the spot, without advance reservations. In general, all rafting trips are extremely well organized, but you should always take great care in choosing your outfitter – this activity can be very dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced guide.
Chile’s white-water rapids also offer excellent kayaking, though this is less developed as an organized activity – your best bet is probably to contact one of the US-based outfitters that have camps on the Bío Bío and Futaleufú. Sea kayaking is becoming increasingly popular, generally in the calm, flat waters of Chile’s southern fjords, though people have been known to kayak around Cape Horn. Note that the Chilean navy is very sensitive about any foreign vessels (even kayaks) cruising in their waters, and if you’re planning a trip through military waters, you’d be wise to inform the Chilean consulate or embassy in your country beforehand.
For the most part, Chile is a very empty country with vast tracts of wilderness offering potential for fantastic hiking. Chileans, moreover, are often reluctant to stray far from their parked cars when they visit the countryside, so you’ll find that most trails without vehicle access are blissfully quiet. However, the absence of a national enthusiasm for hiking also means that, compared with places of similar scenic beauty like California, British Columbia and New Zealand, Chile isn’t particularly geared up to the hiking scene, with relatively few long-distance trails (given the total area) and a shortage of decent trekking maps. That said, what is on offer is superb, and ranks among the country’s most rewarding attractions.
The north of Chile, with its harsh climate and landscape, isn’t really suitable for hiking, and most walkers head for the lush native forests of Chile’s south, peppered with waterfalls, lakes, hot springs and volcanoes. The best trails are nearly always inside national parks or reserves, where the guardaparques (rangers) are a good source of advice on finding and following the paths. They should always be informed if you plan to do an overnight hike (so that if you don’t come back, they’ll know where to search for you). The majority of trails are for half-day or day hikes, though some parks offer a few long-distance hikes, sometimes linking up with trails in adjoining parks. The level of path maintenance and signing varies greatly from one park to another, and many of the more remote trails are indistinct and difficult to follow.
Hardly any parks allow wild camping, while the few others that now allow it have a series of rustic camping areas that you’re required to stick to – check with the guardaparque. If you do camp (the best way to experience the Chilean wilderness) note that forest and bush fires are a very real hazard. Take great care when making a campfire (having checked beforehand that they’re allowed). Also, never chop or break down vegetation for fuel, as most of Chile’s native flora is endangered.
By far the most popular destination for hiking is Torres del Paine in the far south, which offers magnificent scenery but fairly crowded trails, especially in January and February. Many quieter, less well-known alternatives are scattered between Santiago and Tierra del Fuego, ranging from narrow paths in the towering, snow-streaked central Andes to hikes up to glaciers off the Carretera Austral.
If you go hiking, it’s essential to be well prepared – always carry plenty of water, wear a hat and sun block for protection against the sun and carry extra layers of warm clothing to guard against the sharp drop in temperature after sundown. Even on day hikes, take enough supplies to provide for the eventuality of getting lost, and always carry a map and compass (brújula), preferably one bought in the southern hemisphere or adjusted for southern latitudes. Also, make a conscious effort to help preserve Chile’s environment – where there’s no toilet, bury human waste at least 20cm under the ground and 30m from the nearest river or lake; take away or burn all your rubbish; and use specially designed eco-friendly detergents for use in lakes and streams.
The massive Andean cordillera offers a wide range of climbing possibilities. In the far north of Chile, you can trek up several volcanoes over 6000m, including Volcán Parinacota (6330m), Volcán Llullaillaco (6739m) and Volcán Ojos del Salado (6950m). Although ropes and crampons aren’t always needed, these ascents are suitable only for experienced climbers, and need a fair amount of independent planning, with only a few companies offering guided excursions.
In the central Andes, exciting climbs include Volcán Marmolejo (6100m) and Volcán Tupungato (6750m), while in the south, climbers head for Volcán Villarrica (2840m) and Volcán Osorno (2652m), both of which you can tackle even with little mountaineering experience.
Throughout Chile there’s a lot of tedious bureaucracy to get through before you can climb. To go up any mountain straddling an international border (which means most of the high Andean peaks), you need advance permission from the Dirección de Fronteras y Límites (DIFROL), Fourth Floor, Bandera 52, Santiago (2 671 4110, difrol.cl). To get this, write to, fax or email DIFROL with the planned dates and itinerary of the climb, listing full details (name, nationality, date of birth, occupation, passport number, address) of each member of the climbing team, and your dates of entry and exit from Chile. Authorization will then be sent to you on a piece of paper that you must present to Conaf before ascending (if the peak is not within a national park, you must take the authorization to the nearest carabineros station). If your plans change while you’re in Chile, you can usually amend the authorization or get a new one at the Gobernación of each provincial capital. You can also apply through a Chilean embassy in advance of your departure, or print and send a form from their website. There’s further information on climbing in Chile online at escalando.cl or trekkingchile.com.
Chile has an international, and well-deserved, reputation as one of the finest fly-fishing destinations in the world. Its pristine waters teem with rainbow, brown and brook trout, and silver and Atlantic salmon. These fish are not native, but were introduced for sport in the late nineteenth century; since then, the wild population has flourished and multiplied, and is also supplemented by generous numbers of escapees from local fish farms. The fishing season varies slightly from region to region, but in general runs from November to May.
Traditionally, the best sport-fishing was considered to be in the Lake District, but while this region still offers great possibilities, attention has shifted to the more remote, pristine waters of Aisén, where a number of classy fishing lodges have sprung up, catering mainly to wealthy North American clients. Fishing in the Lake District is frequently done from riverboats, while a typical day’s fishing in Aisén begins with a ride in a motor dinghy through fjords, channels and islets towards an isolated river. You’ll then wade upstream to shallower waters, usually equipped with a light six or seven weight rod, dry flies and brightly coloured streamers. Catches weigh in between 1kg and 3kg – but note that many outfitters operate only on a catch and release basis.
Chile offers the finest and most challenging skiing in South America. Many of the country’s top slopes and resorts lie within very easy reach of Santiago, including El Colorado, La Parva, Valle Nevado and world-renowned Portillo. A bit further south, but no less impressive, stands the popular Termas de Chillán.
Exploring Chile’s dramatic landscapes on horseback is a memorable experience. The best possibilities are around Santiago, and in the Central Valley, where riding has been a way of life for centuries. In addition to the spectacular scenery, you can also expect to see condors and other birds of prey. Trips are usually guided by local arrieros, who herd cattle up to high pastures in springtime and know the mountain paths intimately. You normally spend about five or six hours in the saddle each day; a lingering asado (barbecue), cooked over an open fire and accompanied by plenty of Chilean wine, will be part of the pleasure. At night, you sleep in tents transported by mules, and you’ll be treated to the most breathtaking display of stars.
The only disadvantage of riding treks in the central Andes is that, due to the terrain, you’re unlikely to get beyond a walk, and cantering is usually out of the question. If you want a faster pace, opt for the treks offered by some companies in Patagonia, where rolling grasslands provide plenty of opportunity for gallops – though the weather can often put a dampener on your trip.
For most of Chile’s length, there are extremely good and little-used dirt roads perfect for cycling – although the numerous potholes mean it’s only worth attempting them on a mountain bike. For a serious trip, you should bring your own bike or buy one in Santiago – renting a bike of the quality required can be difficult to arrange. An alternative is to go on an organized biking excursion, where all equipment, including tents, will be provided. Note that during the summer, cycling in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is made almost impossible by incessant and ferociously strong winds.
Chile’s beaches are pulling in an increasing number of surfers, who come to ride the year-round breaks that pound the Pacific shore. By unanimous consent, the best breaks – mainly long left-handers – are concentrated around Pichilemu, near Rancagua, which is the site of the annual National Surfing Championships. Further north, the warmer seas around Iquique and Arica are also increasingly popular.
Adventure tourism operators and outfitters
Below is a selection of operators and outfitters for various outdoor activities. The list is by no means comprehensive, and new companies are constantly springing up to add to it – you can get more details from the relevant regional Sernatur office.
Altue Active Travel General Salvo 159, Providencia, Santiago 2 235 1519, altue.com. Reliable, slick operation whose options include rafting the Río Maipo, Aconcagua and Ojos del Salado expeditions, and horse treks.
Azimut 360 General Salvo 159, Providencia, Santiago 2 235 1519, azimut360.com. Franco–Chilean outfit with a dynamic team of guides and a wide range of programmes, including mountain biking, Aconcagua expeditions and climbs up Chile’s highest volcanoes.
Cascada Expediciones Don Carlos 3219, Las Condes, Santiago 2 232 9878, cascada.travel. One of the pioneers of adventure tourism in Chile, with a particular emphasis on activities in the Andes close to Santiago, where it has a permanent base in the Cajón del Maipo. Programmes include rafting and kayaking the Río Maipo, horse treks in the high cordillera and hiking and mountain biking.
SportstourAv El Bosque Norte 500, 15th Floor, Santiago 2 549 5260, sportstour.cl. This well-run operation offers balloon rides and flights, among other tours.
See also Azimut 360 and Altue Active Travel in “All-rounders” above for details of tours up Volcán Osorno and Volcán Villarrica.
Mountain Service Paseo Las Palmas 2209, Providencia, Santiago 2 234 3439. An experienced, specialist company, dedicated to climbing Aconcagua, the major volcanoes and Torres del Paine.
Bahía Escocia Fly Fishing Lago Rupanco 64 197 4731, [email protected] Small, beautifully located lodge with fly-fishing excursions run by a US–Chilean couple.
Cumilahue Lodge PO Box 2, Llifen 2 196 1601, anglingtours.com. Very expensive packages at a luxury Lake District lodge run by Adrian Dufflocq, something of a legend on the Chilean fly-fishing scene.
Off Limits Adventures Av Bernado O’Higgins 560, Pucón 45 442681, offlimits.cl. Half-day and full-day excursions, plus fly-fishing lessons. One of the more affordable options.
See also Altue Active Travel and Cascada Expediciones in “All-rounders”.
Chile Nativo Casilla 42, Puerto Natales 2 717 5961, chilenativo.com. Dynamic young outfit specializing in five- to twelve-day horse-trekking tours of the region, visiting out-of-the-way locations in addition to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
Hacienda de los Andes Río Hurtado, near Ovalle 53 691822, haciendalosandes.com. Beautiful ranch in a fantastic location in the Hurtado valley, between La Serena and Ovalle, offering exciting mountain treks on some of the finest mounts in the country.
Pared Sur Juan Esteban Montero 5497, Las Condes, Santiago 2 207 3525, paredsur.cl. In addition to its extensive mountain-biking programme, Pared Sur offers a one-week horse trek through the virgin landscape of Aisén, off the Carretera Austral.
Rancho de Caballos Casilla 142, Pucón 09 8346 1764, rancho-de-caballos.com. Ranch offering a range of treks from three to nine days.
Ride World Wide Staddon Farm, North Tawton, Devon, UK 01837 82544, rideworldwide.com. UK-based company that hooks up with local riding outfitters around the world. In Chile, it offers a range of horseback treks in the central cordillera, the Lake District and Patagonia.
Al Sur Expediciones Aconcagua corner of Imperial, Puerto Varas 65 232300, alsurexpeditions.com. One of the foremost adventure tour companies in the Lake District, and the first one to introduce sea kayaking in the fjords south of Puerto Montt.
Bío Bío Expeditions PO Box 2028, Truckee, CA 96160, US 562 196 4258, bbxrafting.com. This rafting outfitter also rents out kayaks to experienced kayakers, who accompany the rafting party down the Bío Bío or Futaleufú.
¡ecole! Urrutia 592, Pucón 45 441675, ecole.cl. Ecologically focused tour company offering, among other activities, sea kayaking classes and day outings in the fjords south of Puerto Montt, and around Parque Pumalín, from its Puerto Montt branch.
Expediciones Chile Gabriela Mistral 296, Futaleufú 65 721386, exchile.com. River kayaking outfitter catering to all levels of experience, especially seasoned paddlers. Operated by former Olympic kayaker Chris Spelius.
Onas Patagonia Blanco Encalada 211, Puerto Natales 61 614300, onaspatagonia.com. Sea kayaking excursions in the bleak, remote waters of Patagonia.
See also Azimut 360 and Cascada Expediciones in “All-rounders”.
Pared Sur Juan Esteban Montero 5497, Las Condes, Santiago 2 207 3525, paredsur.cl. Pared Sur has been running mountain bike trips in Chile for longer than anyone else. It offers a wide range of programmes throughout the whole country.
Sportstour Av El Bosque Norte 500, 15th Floor, Santiago 2 549 5260, sportstour.cl. Among a wide-ranging national programme, including hot-air balloon rides and flights on cockpit biplanes and gliders, this travel agent offers fully-inclusive ski packages at the resorts near Santiago, and the Termas de Chillán ski centre.
Bío Bío Expeditions PO Box 2028, Truckee, CA 96160, US 562 196 4258, bbxrafting.com. Headed by Laurence Alvarez, the captain of the US World Championships rafting team, this experienced and friendly outfit offers ten-day packages on the Bío Bío and Futaleufú, plus one- to three-day excursions down the latter.
Trancura O’Higgins 211-C, Pucón 45 401189, trancura.com. Major southern operator with high standards and friendly guides, offering rafting excursions down the Río Trancura and the Bío Bío.