Chile defies many visitors’ expectations of an Andean country. It is developed, relatively affluent and non-corrupt. Travel to Chile and you’ll discover one of the safest and most relaxing countries in South America. Its buses are comfortable and run on time; its people polite and respectful. Above all, though, visitors travel to Chile for its beautiful landscapes. The population is concentrated to the major cities, which leaves vast tracts of scarcely touched wilderness to explore.
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A country of geographical extremes, Chile’s diversity is reflected both in its people and its cuisine, which encompasses the tropical fruit of the arid north as well as king crab from the southern fjords. Above all, visitors head to Chile for its remote and dizzyingly beautiful landscapes. Our travel guide to Chile will provide you with everything you need to make the most of it.
Chile travel facts
- Motto: ‘Por la razón o la fuerza’ meaning, ‘By right or by might’.
- Population: 17.2 million people live in Chile, consisting of a fairly homogenous mestizo population with a few indigenous groups ranging from Mapuche in the Lake District, Yámana and Kawéskar (around 2,800) in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
- Economy: One of the most developed countries in Latin America, Chile has the steadiest growth in the region and the lowest level of corruption in Latin America.
- Law: Chile only legalised divorce in 2004.
- Politics: Although notorious for the Pinochet’s infamous military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, Chile otherwise has a long history of parliamentary democracy.
Where to go in Chile
Travel to Chile’s capital Santiago and you’ll find monuments, museums and restaurants. Whilst on the popular Central Coast, the port of Valparaíso provides a contrasting bohemian vibe. Chile’s largest beach resort Viña del Mar couldn’t be more different, with high-rises, casino and seafront restaurants.
Continue north and you’ll find a succession of idyllic beaches spread out along the dazzling fringe of the Norte Chico, which comprises semi-arid landscapes and hardy vegetation.
South of Santiago, the lush Central Valley, with its swathes of orchards and vineyards, invites you to find Chile’s best vintages, including Carmenère, the country’s signature grape. Further south, the much-visited Lake District is a postcard-perfect landscape spanning conical volcanoes to dense araucaria forests.
Just off the southern edge of the Lake District, the Chiloé archipelago is famous for its rickety houses on stilts, distinctive wooden churches and rich local mythology.
Back on the mainland, between the Carretera Austral and Campo de Hielo Sur (Southern Ice-Field), lies Patagonia, a land of bleak windswept plains bordered by the magnificent granite spires of the Torres del Paine massif, a magnet for hikers and climbers.
Across the Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego sits shivering at the bottom of the world, a remote place of harsh, desolate beauty, while Chile’s southernmost town, Puerto Williams, is the gateway to one of the continent’s toughest treks, the Dientes de Navarino.
No Chile travel guide would be complete without mentioning the country’s two Pacific possessions: Easter Island – one of the most remote places on earth – and the little-visited Isla Robinson Crusoe, part of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, with its dramatic volcanic peaks and a wealth of endemic wildlife.
Best time to go to Chile
Given the variety of its climate and geography, you can travel to Chile at any time of year. The best time to visit Chile depends on what area of the country most interests you.
Santiago, northern Chile and the Atacama Desert are year-round destinations. Temperatures here tend to be hottest between January and March.
If you have your heart set on skiing around Santiago or further south, the best time is from July through to September. The season for adventure sports in the Lake District and Northern Patagonia tends to be November through to March.
The best time to visit South Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is in warmer months of November to March. From June to September many places close and the area is difficult to navigate due to the snow.
How to get to Chile
The most straightforward way to travel to Chile is via Santiago’s modern international airport, though some travel to Chile by land from neighbouring countries, and a handful arrive by sea.
Airfares depend on the season. You’ll generally pay the most if you travel to Chile in the December-February and June-August periods, the southern and northern hemisphere’s summer holiday months, respectively. Fares drop slightly during the ‘shoulder’ months – March and November – and you’ll normally get the best prices during the low seasons: April, May, September and October.
For those travelling to Chile’s Easter Island, your flight from Santiago is likely to be cheaper if bought in conjunction with a LATAM Airlines international flight.
How to get around Chile
Getting around Chile is easy, comfortable and relatively good value. When you are there, you will most likely choose to travel by bus (or micros) due to the comfort and cost. Chile’s long-distance buses offer an excellent service thanks to the enormous amount of legroom, frequent departures and flexible itineraries.
Internal flights in Chile are useful for covering long distances in a hurry, though fares can be quite high. The country has a good road network, so hiring a car and driving is a quick and stress-free way of getting around.
Colectivos, shared taxis operating along a set route with fixed fares, are normally only slightly more expensive than local buses. These are good options when travelling in a couple or small group. Most colectivos look like regular taxis and have their route or final destination marked on a roof-board.
Taxis are normally black with a yellow roof. Foreigners are often overcharged, so check the meter has been turned on before you start a journey and get an estimate for the fare, if possible in Spanish. Fares should be shown on the windscreen.
Best places to visit in Chile
- Atacama desert
Visit erupting geysers, crinkly salt plains and emerald lakes in the morning, and deep, mystical valleys by sunset in the driest desert on earth.
- Elqui Valley
Take advantage of some of the clearest skies in Chile and look at the universe through some of the world's most powerful telescopes.
Chile's rapidly evolving capital city boasts a vibrant eating out and nightlife scene, several fascinating museums, numerous cultural pursuits and a selection of excellent places to stay.
Valparaíso has a tangle of colourful houses, cobbled streets and bohemian hang-outs spread across a series of undulating hills overlooking the Pacific.
- Isla Negra
Pablo Neruda's house has been turned into a beguiling museum with an evocative collection of the Nobel Prize-winning poet's kitsch and often bizarre trinkets and knick-knacks.
Visit the numerous traditional bodegas around San Fernando and Santa Cruz, and sample some of Chile's finest vintages.
- Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Hike the trails of Chile's most popular – and most spectacular – national park or climb the granite towers that give the park its name.
- Easter Island
Gazing down into the giant crater of the extinct Rano Kau volcano and visiting the magical moai at Ahu Tongariki and Rano Raraku are once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
- Isla Robinson Crusoe
Isla Robinson Crusoe has the end-of-the-world castaway feel that inspired Daniel Defoe's famous book.
Sample one of Chile's most memorable dishes, admire the palafitos (traditional houses on stilts) or hike through temperate rainforest on Chile's mist and legend shrouded island.
- Patagonian islands
Lose yourself in this veritable maze of fjords and tiny islets by taking to the water in a sea kayak, or take a boat trip in search of the elusive blue whale.
- Tierra del Fuego
Explore the deserted roads running through steppe and dotted with guanacos and rheas, or fish in the pristine lakes and rivers of Chile's remotest region.
- Isla Navarino
Chile's southernmost inhabited territory (barring Antarctica), where the warmth of the locals contrasts with the harshness of the landscape.
- Cape Horn
Fly over some of the world's most treacherous waters or brave a sailing trip to Chile's southernmost group of islands – the biggest nautical graveyard in the Americas.
- Parque Nacional La Campana
Follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin by hiking up to the 1880m summit of Cerro La Campana, where you'll be rewarded by some of the best views in the country.
Itineraries for Chile
As part of our Chile travel guide we’ve drawn up some fantastic itineraries for travelling through Chile, taking you from the icy fjords and snow-tipped mountains of the south to the fertile wine-growing valleys in the centre and parched desert and highland lagoons of the north. In short, places to visit Chile abound.
Travel visa requirements for Chile
Most foreign visitors who travel to Chile do not need a visa. Visitors of all nationalities are issued with a ninety-day tourist entry card (Tarjeta de Turismo) on arrival, which can be extended once for an additional ninety days.
If you lose your tourist card, ask for a duplicate immediately, either from the Fronteras department of the Policía Internacional, General Borgoño 1052, Santiago or from the Extranjero’s department of the Intendencia in any provincial capital. There’s no charge.
As with all countries, make sure you check on the country’s government website about your visa requirements, before you travel.
Food and drink in Chile
Travel to Chile and you’ll find a vast array of quality raw produce, though many restaurants lack imagination, offering similar limited menus. That’s not to say, however, that you can’t eat well here, and the fish and seafood, in particular, are superb.
On the whole, eating out in Chile tends to be good value. In local restaurants you can expect to pay around CH$4,000–7,000 for a main course. The best trick is to do as the Chileans do and make lunch your main meal of the day; many restaurants offer a fixed-price menú del día, always much better value than the à la carte options.
Festivals in Chile
Most of Chile’s festivals are held to mark religious occasions or to honour saints or the Virgin Mary. What’s fascinating about them is the strong influence of pre-Spanish, pre-Christian rites, particularly in the Aymara communities of the far north and the Mapuche of the south. Added to this is the influence of colourful folk traditions rooted in the Spanish expeditions of exploration and conquest, colonization and evangelism, slavery and revolution.
In the altiplano of the far north, Aymara herdsmen celebrate Catholic holy days and the feasts of ancient cults along with ritual dancing and the offering of sacrificial llamas.
In central Chile, you’ll witness the influence of colonial traditions. In the days of the conquest, an important ingredient of any fiesta was the verbal sparring between itinerant bards called payadores, who would compose and then try to resolve each other’s impromptu rhyming riddles. The custom is kept alive at many fiestas in the Central Valley, where young poets spontaneously improvise lolismos and locuciones, forms of jocular verse that are quite unintelligible to an outsider. These rural fiestas always culminate in an energetic display of cueca dancing, washed down with plenty of wine and chicha – reminiscent of the entertainment organized by indulgent hacienda-owners for their peons.
In the south, the solemn Mapuche festivals are closely linked to mythology, magic and faith healing, agricultural rituals, and supplications to gods and spirits. Group dances (purrún) are performed with gentle movements; participants either move round in a circle or advance and retreat in lines. Most ceremonies are accompanied by mounted horn players whose four-metre-long bamboo instruments, trutrucas, require enormous lung power to produce a note. Other types of traditional wind instruments include a small pipe (lolkiñ), flute (pinkulwe), cow’s horn (kullkull) and whistle (pifilka). Of all Mapuche musical instruments, the most important is the sacred drum (kultrún), which is only used by faith healers (machis).
A list of festivals in Chile
- January 20: San Sebastián
Spaniards brought the first wooden image of San Sebastián to Chile in the seventeenth century. After a Mapuche raid on Chillán, the image was buried in a nearby field, and no one was able to raise it. The saint’s feast day has become an important Mapuche festival, especially in Lonquimay, where it’s celebrated with horse racing, feasting and drinking.
- February 1–3: La Candelaria
Celebrated throughout Chile since 1780, when a group of miners and muleteers discovered a stone image of the Virgin and Child while sheltering from an inexplicable thunderstorm in the Atacama. Typical festivities include religious processions and traditional dances.
- End of February: Festival Internacional de la Canción
This glitzy and wildly popular five-day festival is held in Viña del Mar’s open-air amphitheatre, featuring performers from all over Latin America and broadcast to most Spanish-speaking countries.
- Easter: Semana Santa (Holy Week)
Among the nationwide Easter celebrations, look out for Santiago’s solemn procession of penitents dressed in black habits, carrying crosses through the streets, and La Ligua’s parade of mounted huasos followed by a giant penguin.
- First Sunday after Easter: Fiesta del Cuasimodo
In many parts of central Chile, huasos parade through the streets on their horses, often accompanied by a priest sitting on a float covered in white lilies.
- May 3: Santa Cruz de Mayo
Throughout the altiplano, villages celebrate the cult of the Holy Cross, inspired in the seventeenth century by the Spaniards’ obsession with crosses, which they carried everywhere, erected on hillsides and even carved in the air with their fingers. The festivities have strong pre-Christian elements, often including the sacrifice of a llama.
- May 13: Procesión del Cristo de Mayo
A huge parade through the streets of Santiago bearing the Cristo de Mayo – a sixteenth-century carving of Christ whose crown of thorns slipped to its neck during an earthquake, and which is said to have shed tears of blood when attempts were made to put the crown back in place.
- June 13: Noche de San Juan Bautista
An important feast night, celebrated by families up and down the country with a giant stew, known as the Estofado de San Juan. In Chiloé, an integral part of the feast are roasted potato balls called tropones, which burn the fingers and make people “dance the tropón” as they jig up and down, juggling them from hand to hand.
- June 29: Fiesta de San Pedro
Along the length of Chile’s coast, fishermen decorate their boats and take the image of their patron saint out to sea – often at night with candles and flares burning – to pray for good weather and large catches.
- July 12–18: Virgen de la Tirana
The largest religious festival in Chile, held in La Tirana in the Far North, and attended by over 80,000 pilgrims and hundreds of costumed dancers (see Santuario de la Tirana).
- July 16: Virgen del Carmen
Military parades throughout Chile honour the patron saint of the armed forces; the largest are in Maipú, on the southern outskirts of Santiago, where San Martín and Bernardo O’Higgins defeated Spanish Royalists in 1818.
- August 21–31: Jesús Nazareno de Caguach
Thousands of Chilotes flock to the archipelago’s tiny island of Caguach to worship at a two-metre-high figure of Christ, donated by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century.
- September 18: Fiestas Patrias
Chile’s Independence Day is celebrated throughout the country with street parties, music and dancing.
- First Sunday of October: Virgen de las Peñas
Each year, numerous dance groups and more than 10,000 pilgrims from Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina make their way along a tortuous cliff path to visit a rock carving of the Virgin in the Azapa valley, near Arica. There are many smaller festivals in other parts of Chile, too.
- November 1: Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day)
Traditionally, this is the day when Chileans tend their family graves. In the north, where Aymara customs have become entwined with Christian ones, crosses are often removed from graves and left on the former bed of the deceased overnight. Candles are kept burning in the room, and a feast is served for family members, past and present.
- November 2: Día de los Muertos
A second vigil to the dead is held in cemeteries, with offerings of food and wine sprinkled on the graves. In some far north villages, there’s a tradition of reading a liturgy, always in Latin.
- December 8: La Purísima
Celebrated in many parts of Chile, the festival of the Immaculate Conception is at its liveliest in San Pedro de Atacama, where it’s accompanied by traditional Aymara music and dancing.
- December 23–27: Fiesta Grande de la Virgen de Andacollo
More than 100,000 pilgrims from all over the north come to Andacollo, in Norte Chico, to worship its Virgin and watch the famous masked dancers (see Andacollo and around).
Chilean Spectator sports
The Chileans are not a particularly exuberant people, but passions are roused by several national enthusiasms – chiefly football and rodeo, which at their best are performed with electrifying skill and theatricality.
El fútbol reigns supreme as Chile’s favourite sport. Introduced by British immigrants in the early 1800s, football in Chile can trace its history back to the playing fields of the Mackay School, one of the first English schools in Valparaíso, and its heritage is reflected in the names of the first clubs: Santiago Wanderers, Everton, Badminton, Morning Star and Green Cross.
Matches featuring any of these teams are guaranteed a good turn-out and a great atmosphere. There’s rarely any trouble, with whole families coming along to enjoy the fun.
Football hardly has a season in Chile. In addition to the league games played between March and December, there are numerous other competitions of which the Copa de Libertadores is the most important. So you’ll generally be able to catch the action whatever time of year you visit.
There are two very different types of horse racing in Chile: conventional track racing, known as hípica, and the much rougher and wilder carreras a la chilena. Hípica is a sport for rich Santiaguinos, who don their tweeds and posh frocks to go and watch it at the capital’s Club Hípico and Hipódromo Chile, which have races throughout the year. The most important of these are the St Leger at the Hipódromo Chile on December 14, and the Ensayo at the Club Hípico on the first Sunday in November.
Carreras a la chilena are held anywhere in the country where two horses can be found to race against each other. Apart from the organized events that take place at village fiestas, these races are normally a result of one huaso betting another that his horse is faster. Held in any suitable field, well away from the prying eyes of the carabineros, the two-horse race can attract large crowds (who bet heavily on the outcome).
Rodeos evolved from the early colonial days when the cattle on the large estancias had to be rounded up and branded or slaughtered by huasos. The feats of horsemanship required to do so soon took on a competitive element, which eventually found an expression in the form of rodeos. Even though ranching has long declined in Chile, organized rodeos remain wildly popular, with many free competitions taking place in local stadiums (known as medialunas) throughout the season, which runs from September to April. Taking in a rodeo not only allows you to watch the most dazzling equestrian skills inside the arena, but also to see the huasos decked out in all their traditional gear: ponchos, silver spurs and all. Added to this, the atmosphere is invariably loads of fun, with lots of whooping families and excited kids, and plenty of food and drink afterwards.
The Chilean huaso
“Of the many cowboys of the Americas, none remains as shrouded in mystery and contradiction as Chile’s huaso,” says Richard Slatta in Cowboys of the Americas. Certainly the huaso holds a special place in Chile’s perception of its national identity. But the definition of the huaso is somewhat confused and subject to differing interpretations. The one you’re most likely to come across is that of the “gentleman rider”, the middle-class horseman who, while not a part of the landed elite, is a good few social rungs up from the landless labourer. This is the huaso you’ll see in cueca performances and at rodeos.
These gentlemen riders are part of a romanticized image of the Chilean countryside and a far cry from the much larger and perhaps more authentic group who carried out the real horse-work on the land. More akin to the Argentine gaucho and the Mexican vaquero, this other type of huaso was a landless, badly paid and poorly dressed ranch-hand who worked on the large haciendas during the cattle round-up season. Despite the harsh reality of his lifestyle, the lower-class huaso is also the victim of myth-making, frequently depicted as a paragon of virtue and happiness.
All types of huasos, whatever their social status, were renowned for outstanding horsemanship, marvelled at for their practice of training their horses to stop dead in their tracks at a single command (la sentada). A skill mastered in the southern Central Valley was that of the bolas – three stones or metal balls attached to long leather straps, which were hurled at animals and wrapped around their legs, bringing them to the ground. Huasos also developed a host of equestrian contests including the juego de cañas (jousting with canes), the tiro al gallo (a mounted tug-of-war) and topeadura (a side-by-side pushing contest). Today these displays have a formal outlet in the regular rodeos in the Central Valley. As for the working huaso, you’ll still come across him in the back roads of rural central Chile.
The national dance of Chile
Huasos are the chief performers of cueca, Chile’s national dance – a curious cross between English morris dancing and smouldering Sevillanas. Its history can, in fact, be traced to the African slave dances, which were also the basis of the Brazilian samba and Peruvian zamacueca, and were introduced to Chile by a battalion of black soldiers in 1824. During the War of Independence, Chileans adopted their own forms of these dances known as la Chilena, la Marinera and el Minero, which eventually became a national victory dance known simply as the cueca. Although there are regional variations, the basic elements remain unchanged, consisting of couples strutting around each other in a courtship ritual, spurs jingling and handkerchiefs waving over their heads. The men are decked out in their finest huaso gear, while the women wear wide skirts and shawls. In the background, guitar-strumming musicians sing romantic ballads full of patriotic sentiments. If you are going to a fiesta and want to take part in a cueca, remember to take along a clean white handkerchief.
Activities in Chile
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.
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). To get authorisation to climb, 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. 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.
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.
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.
National parks and reserves
Some 18% of Chile’s mainland territory is protected by the state under the extensive Sistema Nacional de Areas Silvestres Protegidas (National Protected Wildlife Areas System), which is made up of 30 national parks, 38 national reserves and 11 natural monuments. These inevitably include the country’s most outstanding scenic attractions, so the main aim is always to protect and manage native fauna and flora. Given Chile’s great biodiversity, park objectives are as varied as protecting flamingo populations and monitoring glaciers.
National parks (parques nacionales) are generally large areas of unspoilt wilderness, usually featuring fragile endemic ecosystems. They include the most touristy and beautiful of the protected areas, and often offer walking trails and sometimes camping areas too. National reserves (reservas nacionales) are areas of ecological importance that have suffered some degree of natural degradation; there are fewer regulations to protect these areas, and “sustainable” commercial exploitation (such as mineral extraction) is allowed to take place. Natural monuments (monumentos naturales) tend to be important or endangered geological formations, or small areas of biological, anthropological or archeological significance.
In addition to these three main categories, there are a few nature sanctuaries (sanctuarios de la naturaleza) and protected areas (areas de protección), usually earmarked for their scientific or scenic interest.
Before heading out of the capital, head to Conaf’s head office in Santiago, where you can pick up brochures, books and basic maps. No permit is needed to visit any of Chile’s national parks; you simply turn up and pay your entrance fee (usually CH$1000–4000), though some parks are free.
Alternatively, Conaf’s Annual Pass (CH$10,000) allows unlimited access to all of Chile’s national parks and reserves – except Torres del Paine and Easter Island – for a year; it can be purchased from Conaf offices.
Ease of access differs wildly from one park to the next. Some parks have paved highways running through them, while others are served by dirt tracks that are only passable for a few months of the year. Getting to them often involves renting a vehicle or going on an organized trip, as around two-thirds of Chile’s national parks can’t be reached by public transport.
A few parks now have camping areas. These are often rustic sites with basic facilities, run by Conaf, which charge around CH$5000–10,000 per tent. In other parks, particularly in the south, Conaf gives licences to concessionaires, who operate campsites and cabañas, which tend to be very expensive. Some of the more remote national parks, especially in the north, have small refugios attached to the ranger stations – these are usually rustic, stone-built huts (from CH$5000 per person) containing around eight to ten bunk beds, hot showers and gas stoves. Some of them are in stunning locations, overlooking the Salar de Surire, for example, or with views across Lago Chungará to Volcán Parinacota. Sadly, however, they are increasingly unreliable.
Shopping in Chile
While Chile’s handicrafts (artesanía) are nowhere near as diverse or colourful as in Peru or Bolivia, you can still find a range of beautiful souvenirs, which are usually sold in ferias artesanales (craft markets) on or near the central squares of the main towns. As for day-to-day essentials, you’ll be able to locate just about everything you need, from sun block to contact lens solution, in the main towns across the country.
Artesanía and other souvenirs
The finest and arguably most beautiful goods you can buy in Chile are the items – mainly jewellery – made of lapis lazuli, the deep-blue semi-precious stone found only in Chile and Afghanistan. The best place to buy these is in Bellavista, Santiago: note that the deeper the colour of the stone, the better its quality. Though certainly less expensive than lapis exports sold abroad, they’re still pricey.
Most artesanía is considerably less expensive. In the Norte Grande, the most common articles are alpaca sweaters, gloves and scarves, which you’ll find in altiplano villages like Parinacota, or in Arica and Iquique. The quality is usually fairly low, but they’re inexpensive and very attractive all the same. In the Norte Chico, you can pick up some beautiful leather goods, particularly in the crafts markets of La Serena. You might also be tempted to buy a bottle of pisco there, so that you can recreate that pisco sour experience back home – though you’re probably better off getting it at a supermarket in Santiago before you leave, to save yourself carting it about. The Central Valley, as the agricultural heartland of Chile, is famous for its huaso gear, and you’ll find brightly coloured ponchos and stiff straw hats in the numerous working huaso shops. The highlight in the Lake District is the traditional Mapuche silver jewellery, while the far south is a good place to buy chunky, colourful knitwear.
A range of these goods can also be bought in the major crafts markets in Santiago, notably Los Dominicos market. Also worth checking out are Santiago’s little flea markets.
Hard haggling is neither commonly practised nor expected in Chile, though a bit of bargaining is in order at many markets. It’s also worth trying to bargain down the price of hotel rooms, especially outside the peak months of January and February.
Top image © Erlantz P.R/Shutterstock