The best things to do in Chile as a first-timer

updated 7/29/2021
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Chile, periodically shaken by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, is one of the most geographically diverse countries on earth. This land of ice and fire stretches north to south 4270km and only 64 km at its narrowest point. There are many can't-miss things to do in Chile.

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.

Discover many 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 (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural) — one of the oldest natural history museums in South America. Or the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art (Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino) — one of the best in Latin America.
  • Get a bite to eat 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, and above all marisquerias where abundant portions of Chile's remarkable seafood are served. These dishes are considered by many to be the best in the world.
  • Visit Santiago Metropolitan park (Parque Metropolitano). Take a dip in one of the pools or visit the botanical garden.

Valparaiso, colourful house in Chile © f11/Shutterstock

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 famous 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 to Calama. This town is nearby the must-see Chuquicamata copper mine, as well as the oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama. In the vicinity are ancient pre-Columbian ruins, thermal springs, salt flats, and dramatic geyser fields.
  • Take a day to see the Elqui Valley. Here is a great place to sample pisco (Chilean brandy). 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.

Atacama Desert, Chile © Vaclav Sebek/Shutterstock

Spend time in Arica

Arica was the first port for exporting the fabulous silver wealth of Bolivia’s Potosí mine. Under Peruvian rule until the 1880s, Arica is now the international link to Bolivia and 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.

The Lake District & Chiloe

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, the Lake District’s flat, deserted roads, snaking around a profusion of crystalline lakes and waterfalls, is a paradise for cyclists.
  • Fog-shrouded Chiloé. This area's biggest draws are the tiny villages, each sporting a unique wooden church; and two wild national parks – Chiloé National Park and Tantauco National Park.

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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. A virgin protected area — 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.
  • Carretera Austral. The potholed dirt-and-gravel Carretera Austral is Chile’s biggest driving challenge. The road cuts through a spectacular mountainous landscape before terminating by the glacial waters of the vast Lake O’Higgins, passing the unique boardwalk village of Caleta Tortel along the way.

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. Outside of the town of Puerto Natales is 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 exerts as a constant fascination for travelers who want to visit the last stop before Antarctica.

Guanaco (Lama Guanicoe) admiring the Andes. Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile © David Thyberg/Shutterstock

Explore the city of Valparaíso

Valparaíso was Santiago’s thriving port for centuries. It is spread along some spectacularly steep hills, with stairways and streets winding up past splendid ageing buildings, many built by the British in the 19th century, when the port was virtually run from the City of London.

  • 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. Reached by a walk through a long, narrow, but well-lit tunnel, it rises vertically through the heart of the hill. One then emerges into daylight at the top of a tower that is connected to the hilltop by a suspended walkway.

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. Five statues stand one their ahu with their backs to the sea. See at sunset to see the moai silhouetted against the scarlet sky. Easily accessible by foot.
  • 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 items made by local and Polynesian artisans.

Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui, Easter Island, Chile © Shutterstock

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 abundant endemic 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 an old Spanish fort built in the 18th century to ward off pirates. This area also features a large stone with carvings on it — sailor's graffiti from 1866, showing a ship and large fish.
  • 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.

Go wine tasting

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. It's diverse geography makes for several distinct grape-growing areas.

  • Colchagua Valley — home of Chile's signature wine, Carmenere. This wine region is within reach of Santiago.
  • Try Elqui Valley, outside of the Atacama desert, is known for it's natural wines and regional pisco.
  • Maipo Valley is the best-known wine region of Chile. It is here that some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons in the world are produced.

Don't miss our guide to Chile's wine regions . Here you can find more information on the best wines and tasting rooms.

Getting around

Getting around Chile , from the far north down to the Lake District, is straightforward. There are two major bus companies: Tur Bus and Pullman, both of which run fleets of comfortable buses. You can choose between cama (bed), semi-cama (reclining seats) and regular seats. Fairly frequent minibuses ply the Carretera Austral, connecting the main town of Coyhaique with Chaiten and Futaleufú up north and as far south as Villa O’Higgins.

To reach Patagonia, you either have to take a bus via Argentina from either Pucón or Futaleufú, take the scenic four-day Navimag ferry cruise south through the fjords, or fly.

Travel in the Lake District, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego may also involve ferries. LAN and Sky Airline cover all major cities in Chile between them, flight-wise, though to reach Robinson Crusoe Island you’ll need to hop in a tiny six-seater Cessna from Santiago.

During the colder months, bus, plane and ferry services in the south are greatly reduced, whereas transport in the northern half of the country is generally unaffected. Inaccessible by public transport, the national parks of northern Chile are easiest done as part of an organised tour.

If you want to explore more of this small but exciting country, buy the Rough Guide to Chile. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. You can see the author's photographs of her trip in Chile here.

Travel advice for Chile

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updated 7/29/2021
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