Chile is one of the most geographically diverse countries on earth. This land of ice and fire is 4270km long and only 64 km at its narrowest point. The south is defined by beautiful fjords, forests and mountains. Meanwhile, the north is known for its beaches, stargazing observatories and deserts. To help structure your trip, here is our first-timer's guide for the best things to do in Chile.
This article is inspired by our Rough Guide to Chile — your essential guide for travelling in Chile.
1. Discover the best things to do in Santiago
For many, Santiago serves as a great place to start their trip to Chile. Located roughly in the centre of the country, this capital city has many interesting and noteworthy sites.
- Take in the city from above. Sky Costanera is the tallest building in Chile and offers spectacular views of Santiago. Or, take a gondola ride to the top of a hill via the Teleferico Santiago.
- Visit a museum. Within Santiago are several museums worth visiting. For example, the Chilean National Museum of History — is one of the oldest natural history museums in South America. Or the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art — one of the best in Latin America.
- Walk through Santiago Metropolitan park. Take a dip in one of the pools or visit the botanical garden.
- Try Chilean food at Mercado Central. If you're feeling hungry and like seafood, you can do no better than to visit the city's central market. It is full of budget-friendly eating places, considered by many to be the best in the world.
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2. Explore Northern Chile and the Atacama Desert
As one travels north of Santiago, towards the top of Chile, the landscape becomes progressively drier. Here there are many beautiful sites to see.
- Discover the hauntingly beautiful Atacama desert. One of the most visited attractions in Chile, and one of the driest deserts in the world.
- The other-worldly Valle de la Luna. Discover the landscape of coloured gypsum, clay, and salt, without a hint of organic life to be found. Under a full moon, the beams reflecting off the salt crystals of the region make it a truly spectacular sight.
- Take a trip up to the Cerro Mamalluca observatory and gaze at the stars through the powerful telescopes – one of the most unforgettable things to do in Chile.
3. Spend time in Arica — "the city of the eternal spring"
Arica was the first port for exporting the fabulous silver wealth of Bolivia’s Potosí mine. Today it is known for its year-round beautiful weather and beaches. Arica is a commune and a port city. It is Chile's northernmost city, being located only 18 km south of the border with Peru.
- The Lauca National Park – all green meadows, snow-tipped volcanoes and peacefully grazing alpacas and vicuñas.
- Cathedral of San Marcos. A small church in the town centre was built by the French architect Gustave Eiffel, better known for his Paris tower.
- The ancient Chinchorro mummies. Arica’s biggest attraction – some of the world's oldest mummified remains – are found in the Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa.
- Warm water beaches make Arica a popular summer tourist hotspot. Ready to hit the beach? Don't miss our guide to the best beaches in Chile.
4. Discover the great outdoors in the Lake District
The Chilean Lake District is a beautiful area where one can find snow-capped mountains reflected in looking-glass lakes. Taking in the mountain air of this wonderland is one of the best things to do in Chile.
- Pucón – the Lake District’s activity centre for hiking, biking, rafting, and horseback riding. Come here for the challenge of the all-day volcano climb.
- The Río Petrohué attracts rafters and kayakers. In addition, this area is a paradise for cyclists. Deserted roads snake past crystalline lakes and waterfalls.
- Relax in natural hot springs. There are plenty of termas in the Lake District for one to take a dip in. What better way to take in the astonishing views?
- Elementos EcoLodge. Beautifully designed and located directly next to the river, this wooden lodge is perfect for your stay in Pucón. Book your stay at Elementos EcoLodge.
Where to stay
5. Or stay at the fog-shrouded Chiloé
This area's biggest draws are the tiny villages, and its two wild national parks – Chiloé National Park and Tantauco National Park.
- Iglesia San Francisco de Castro — one of Chiloé's sixteen wooden churches and a UNESCO world heritage site. This beautiful structure made of iron and wood is not to be missed.
- Festival Costumbrista — a huge celebration and feast celebrating Chilote life. This festival happens every February and is one of the best things to do in Chile.
- Tierra Chiloé — an award-winning hotel overlooking a gorgeous bay. This hotel blends into its surroundings and is constructed from a mix of native woods and concrete. Don't miss the hotel's restaurant or on-site spa. Find accommodation in Tierra Chiloé.
Where to stay:
6. Drive through the lush forests of Northern Patagonia
Northern Patagonia is a lush, untamed mass of forest, rivers, fjords and mountains, bisected by the infamous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway).
- The hiking trails of Pumalín Park. Pumalin Park is an impressive nature sanctuary. The southern half is good for hiking, whereas the north is only reachable by private boat.
- Visit Chaitén, a town half-destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 2008. Nearby Futaleufú is South America’s most challenging white-water rafting destination.
- Drive the Carretera Austral. This infamous road cuts through a spectacular mountainous landscape before ending with the glacial waters of Lake O’Higgins. Visit the unique boardwalk village of Caleta Tortel along the way.
- Hotel Oelckers. This handsome wood and stone lodge is full of character. Complete with an onsite restaurant and surrounded by mountains, this hotel is perfect for a stay in Northern Patagonia. Find accommodations at Hotel Oelckers.
Where to stay:
Ready to travel to the global south? Here's why we think Chile is the coolest country in South America.
7. See the mountains of Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Southern Patagonia – a land of vaqueros, mountains and huge swathes of scrubland, dotted with roaming guanacos and ñandú (ostriches).
- Visit Historic Punta Arenas. With just over 127,000 inhabitants, is the southernmost city of its size in the world. While here, do not miss the local king crab.
- For nature lovers — Torres del Paine National Park, one of Chile's most popular natural wonders. Hikers and climbers will not forget their time spent on the distinctive bell-shaped mountains, rock towers, glacial lakes and backcountry trails.
- Tierra del Feugo. The land at the southernmost tip of South America is the bleakest, stormiest part of the continent. Yet, it continues to be a constant fascination for travellers who want to visit the last stop before Antarctica.
8. Go wine tasting — one of the best things to do in Chile
Chile's wine-making history dates back to when Spanish conquistadors grew the first grapes in the 16th century. Today, Chile produces some of the top wines in the global wine industry. Its diverse geography makes for several distinct grape-growing areas.
- For wine buffs, look no further than Colchagua Valley. This wine region is home to Chile's signature wine, Carmenere, and is within reach of Santiago. The weather here is similar to California's Napa Valley and is a great place to sample red wines in particular.
- Or visit one of Chile's many wine regions. Casablanca valley, for instance, is a popular place for wine enthusiasts. For more places to sample Chilean wine, don't miss our guide to Chile's wine regions. Here you can find more information on the best wines and tasting rooms.
- Tumuñan Lodge. A beautiful wooden lodge surrounded by forest and the perfect place to stay when on a wine tasting tour in Colchagua Valley. Book accommodations at Tumuñan Lodge.
Where to stay
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9. Explore the port city of Valparaíso
Valparaíso a port city is spread along some spectacularly steep hills, with stairways and streets. Winding up past splendid ageing buildings, you'll find visiting Valparaíso is one of the best things to do in Chile.
- Take a walk along the Museo a Cielo Abierto. Here you will find a collection of murals painted on the sides of houses some of them by leading Chilean artists.
- Have a drink at the old Bar Cinzano. There are a lot of wonderful places to eat and drink in Valparaíso. This traditional spot is frequented by locals where tango and Chilean music are played live.
- Ascensor Polanco. This ingenious ascensor is a feat of engineering and a National Monument. Walk through long, winding tunnels and emerge at the top of a tower. The hilltop is connected via a suspended walkway and is not to be missed.
10. See the ancient monuments of Easter Island
The country’s most far-flung territory — Easter Island, far out in the Pacific Ocean, home to a now extinct civilisation and the world-famous moai (stone statues).
- Ahuh Tahai — one of the most photographed archaeological sites and a popular tourist hotspot. Five statues stand one their ahu with their backs to the sea. See at sunset to see the moai silhouetted against the scarlet sky.
- Or visit one of the many ancient moai. There are an estimated 1,000 moai to be found on Easter Island, each with their distinctive foreheads and pointed chins.
- Hanga Roa Crafts Market where you can buy a variety of fine arts made by local and Polynesian artisans.
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11. Hike through the Juan Fernández archipelago
Famed as the temporary home of the real-life Robinson Crusoe, the inaccessibility of these Pacific Islands makes them natural biospheres. Taking a tour of the endemic diverse wildlife is one of the best things to do in Chile.
- Isla Robinson Crusoe — the archipelago's largest and only permanently inhabited island. San Juan Bautista — the closest thing to an 'urban centre' on the island — is a quaint lobster town set beneath amazing forest-covered cliffs.
- Fuerte Santa Bárbara is an old Spanish fort built in the 18th century to ward off pirates. For many, this is a popular hiking destination.
- Sendero Salsipuedes — a series of short and steep hikes through pine and eucalyptus forests. Take these trails to enjoy the flora and fauna unique to the area.
- Bus: there are two major bus companies — Tur Bus and Pullman. Both have comfortable seating. This is a good straightforward way to travel from the far north to the south.
Getting around Chile
- Ferry: for a more scenic way of travelling the country, try taking a ferry cruise. This is a particularly popular way of reaching Patagonia.
- Fly: LAN and Sky Airline cover all major cities in Chile. For the smaller islands, you'll need to book a flight with smaller Cessna planes.
- Organized tour: travelling in South Chile becomes more difficult during the colder months. The national parks are best travelled at this time with guided tours.
Truly, the list of things to do in Chile could go on for much longer. This country has a lot to offer for any traveller. If you're ready to start planning your trip, check out the Rough Guide to Chile and Easter Island. This guide is the best for learning about the best time to go, the best places to visit and the best things to do in Chile.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Chile without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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