Top 7 Places to See When Visiting in Chile

Having traveled a bit through Chile (though, admittedly, I missed some places I hear are worth exploring like Valdivia), I thought I’d share what I would recommend as a good itinerary for those with time (but not boundless time either).   I will either expand on some of the items below in other entries or they have been covered already in entries I already made (true for the Atacama and Patagonia bits).

Valley of the Moon, Valle de la Luna, Chile, Atacama, desert, desierto, mountain, color, purple, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The Valle de la Luna is one of the key sights in the Atacama Desert

Chile offers a wide range of landscapes due to the fact that it runs a long way in the latitude dimension, therefore, the climates along the country vary significantly.  The presence of the Andes clearly has a major effect in the climate as well as provides a great backdrop to many of the places you should see (heck, sometimes it is not just the backdrop but part of what you will explore).

Cueva Milodón, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile, travel, nature, outdoors, view, amazing, vista, mountains, clouds, snow, greem

View near the Cueva del Milodón near Torres del Paine

A trip to Chile typically starts of in Santiago, its capital, though one can enter the country from any of the neighboring countries in places like the Atacama, Pucon, the lake district, or Patagonia.

Valley of the Moon, Atacama, desert, Chile, desierto, San Pedro, landscape, nature

In the Atacama Desert, near the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon)

Here are my top 7 places to have in your itinerary to explore wonderful Chile (most of the items below have a hyperlink to posts I wrote about each place with plenty of photos!):

  1. Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego including Torres del Paine, fjords, glaciers, etc. (8-10 days).  Only reasonable way is to fly down from Santiago, about 4 hours.  The flight may be direct or may make a stop in Puerto Montt which means you could also spend a few days in the area around Puerto Montt!  I went and booked a series of tours at a local agency in Puerto Arenas once I arrived there – great way to do it as they explained what things there were to see and then they connected the dots for me in terms of transport and tickets.  As a solo traveler with only 4-5 days, it was a great way to maximize the visit.  The second time, 5 years later, I focused on hiking the ‘W’ circuit of the Torres del Paine, a 5-day endeavor with Puerto Natales being the starting point.
  2. San Pedro de Atacama and nearby sites in the Atacama desert (4-6 days).  If you go from Santiago, it is about a 2-hr flight to Calama and then catch a bus ride at the airport (about 1 hr or so to reach San Pedro).  The Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world which is mind-blowing as it is so close to the Pacific Ocean.  From seeing the salt lakes, the altiplano, the Valley of the Moon, and the geysers to watching the multiple types of flamingos fly by to enjoy what feels like (but really is not) a true frontier town, San Pedro and the vicinity is a spectacular place in this planet.  I only spent a 3-day holiday weekend there while working in Santiago and, while we saw the key sights, I was left wanting more time to chill and explore more.
  3. Puerto Montt, the Lake District, and Chiloé (4-7 days).  About a two hour flight from Santiago.  Endless amount of sights to see:  the town of Frutillar, crossing the Andes into Argentina by crossing the lakes, the charming island of Chiloé, etc.  Notice the German colonists’ influence in the area.  Driving around best but there are other ways to see it.
  4. Pucón and the Villarica area (3-6 days).  A long drive from Santiago (about 8 hours), it showcases nature at its best.  We went white water rafting down the Trancura and stayed at a lakeside hotel that felt like ‘peace’ personified.
  5. Valparaíso (2 days) A little less than an hour and a half’s drive from Santiago, it is charming and colorful.  Explore the various funiculars (“ascensores”) available so people do not have to climb MASSIVE staircases to reach the areas atop the hills of the city.  But do be careful:  some of the areas of town you get to with them are higher crime areas (we were warned by a local as we went up one of the funiculars!).  Some of the funiculars are more storied (some dated from the 1880s!) or peculiar than others so worth researching a little.  Add on next-door Viña del Mar and its beaches to the visit but they don’t rank up there in my book in terms of beaches.
  6. Santiago (2-4 days) A city is a city is a city – but I find it worth exploring.  It is not Paris but I love this city for its relative ‘calmness,’ its livability (I spent most of a year there with work), and its proximity to the amazing Andes.  Good food, and lovely and diverse neighborhoods make it worth the visit.  In the right season, ski resorts are really close (Valle Nevado being one of them) and the beach just an hour and a half away.  Wineries nearby too…  Do I need to say more?
  7. Mendoza (2-3 days minimum) OK, this is Argentina but it is almost in Chile (and seems more Chilean than Argentine in temperament…) and easier to get to from Santiago than from anywhere else!  It is a very short flight (less than an hour) from Santiago.  If you buy the ticket in Chile it is WAY cheaper than if you buy it abroad…

Puerto Natales, Chile, Patagonia, Canon EOS Rebel

A typical house in Puerto Natales, the closest town to Torres del Paine

A typical house in Puerto Natales, the closest town to Torres del Paine

Readers, please feel free to add or provide other perspectives.  I, by no means, saw EVERYTHING Chile has to offer!


Pin this to your travel board!top places see chile, exploring chile, what to see chile, suggested itinerary chile, best places to see chile

Photo of the Week – A Cross in the Desert

As I visited the desert of Atacama in Chile‘s north, it was neat to visit small towns and villages in the area.  On the way back from the Geysers del Tatio, we stopped at a village called Machuca.  Atop some of the houses were small crosses.  Weather-worn crosses that reflected the faith of the locals. Chile, Atacama, desert, village, Machuca, cross, blue sky

Photos of the Week – Sights of Chile

I loved Chile from a 3-month stint there 20 yrs ago before I went back in Dec 2009.  I have written about what I saw, did and felt in other entries in my blog so I won’t repeat myself, but I continue to long to go back even after spending all of 2010 in Chile…  Why?  Well, take a look below and read my other entries about Chile (http://ilivetotravel.me/tag/chile/)

Lagunas Altiplánicas in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile

Near the Lagunas Altiplánicas

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Tourists REALLY enjoying the Torres del Paine scenery

Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas

North of Puerto Natales in Chile's Patagonia

North of Puerto Natales in Chile’s Patagonia

Near the Salar de Atacama in Chile

Near the Salar de Atacama in the Atacama desert

Fonicular and stairs in Valparaiso, Chile

The hills of Valparaiso! Steps and foniculars!

Skiing in Valle Nevado outside of Santiago, Chile

Skiing in Valle Nevado right outside Santiago

Great summary of the juxtaposition of old and new in Santiago: the Cathedral and a building across the street

Great summary of the juxtaposition of old and new in Santiago: the Cathedral and a building across the street

Scenery from the Cueva del Milodón in the Chilean Patagonia

Scenery from the Cueva del Milodón in the Chilean Patagonia

Saving the best for last... What I really miss is seeing this just about every day I was in Santiago...

Saving the best for last… What I really miss is seeing this just about every day I was in Santiago…

Best of Chile Itinerary Recommendations

Having traveled a but through Chile (though, admittedly, I missed some places I hear are worth exploring, like Valdivia), I thought I’d share what I would consider a good itinerary for those with time (but not boundless time either).   I will either expand on some of the items below in other entries or they have been covered already in entries I already made (true for the Atacama and Patagonia bits).

Valley of the Moon, Valle de la Luna, Chile, Atacama, desert, desierto, mountain, color, purple, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The Valle de la Luna is one of the key sights in the Atacama Desert

The best of Chile – start of an itinerary

Chile offers a wide range of landscapes due to the fact that it runs a long way in the latitude dimension, therefore, the climates along the country vary significantly.  The presence of the Andes clearly has a major effect in the climate as well as provides a great backdrop to many of the places you should see (heck, sometimes it is not just the backdrop but part of what you will explore).

Cueva Milodon, Patagonia, Chile

View from la Cueva del Milodón in Patagonia

A trip to Chile typically starts of in Santiago, its capital, though one can enter the country from any of the neighboring countries in places like the Atacama, Pucon, the lake district, or Patagonia.

Atacama, desert, Chile, vista, view, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

In the Atacama Desert, near the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon)

A good itinerary would cover these seven places:

–  San Pedro de Atacama and nearby sites (4-7 days)

–  Pucón and the Villarica area (3-4 days)

–  Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego including Torres del Paine, fjords, glaciers, etc. (5-10 days)

–  Santiago (a city is a city is a city but I find it worth exploring) (2-4 days)

–  Valparaíso (add on Viña and its beaches but they don’t rank up there in my book) (2 days tops, 1 day is doable)

–  Puerto Montt, the Lake District (perhaps even doing the crossing of the lakes), and Chiloé (4-8 days)

–  Mendoza (OK, this is Argentina but it is almost on Chile and easier to get to from Santiago than from anywhere else!) (2-3 days)

Puerto Natales, Chile, Patagonia, Canon EOS Rebel

A typical house in Puerto Natales, the closest town to Torres del Paine

Readers, please feel free to add or provide other perspectives.  I, by no means, saw EVERYTHING Chile has to offer!

“Unsuccessful” Visit to the Geysers del Tatio

One of the tours I wanted to make based on all the recommendations I got was to see the Geysers del Tatio, very close to the Bolivian border.

The day before the tour, as I was visiting the Lagunas Altiplanicas, our tour guide kept telling us how some people have gotten killed and a few more badly burned when they fall into one of the geysers.  I couldn’t quite comprehend at first and then became slightly horrified as he kept describing scenes he had witnessed of people who fell in.  The gory details of what happens after someone falls was not settling well with my stomach and I think my arms and legs were hurting just from thinking about burns.

So, with that talk as an introduction to the geysers, I prepared myself the night before for a wakeup all of 345AM to be picked up so that we could trek over to the geysers and catch them in their early morning glory, when they “blow”.  The pictures of the scene and others’ recommendations made me sign up for this torture of little sleep.  I did not realize the road there was going to be its own version of hell, not because of scary curves and cliffs but because it was very very rocky.  Now, I have been on dirt roads for hours in places like the Andes and Tanzania but this was way worse than anything I had experienced.  Perhaps it was my body not feeling well with the lack of sleep but I could swear I could feel my brain bumping against the inside of my skull!!!

We finally got there and it was absolutely freezing (something I was expecting).  The altitude also could be felt but didn’t really negatively impact me.  What did impact me was that the geysers, for some reason, did not blow that morning.  Sure, they spit out a little but nothing like what was expected.  Weeks later I heard from someone else that this time of the year isn’t propitious for visiting them – but the tour agencies in San Pedro de Atacama would never tell you that in advance…  I did get to snap some neat pictures that captured the colors the various minerals bring to the soil and water pools and the coffee the bus driver served us was heaven-sent on such a cold morning.

Geysers del Tatio in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Geysers del Tatio in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Geysers del Tatio in the Atacama Desert, Chile

The way back was not as bad as the way up because we went another way.  Thank God!  We visited a small village where the highlight, for me, was the church on the hill.

Having gone through no sleep, the bumpiest road on earth, and no “geyser show”, sure, I did regret taking the tour (something rare for me).  I am not sure I would gamble it again should I return to the Atacama.  I would say the landscape was pretty impressive, short of spectacular but to see it, one does not need to wake up that early!

El Valle de la Luna and the Laguna Cejar in the Atacama

As was recommended to me, I booked tours with a local agency from San Pedro de Atacama.  I certainly love driving myself around but this was a trip I am glad I didn’t do that in.  Perhaps on a future trip I would drive but the area is not consistently well labeled and some of the places to go are quite remote.  Our first day took us to the Valle de la Luna and the Laguna Cejar.

Valle de la Luna

A short drive from San Pedro, it was an ideal place to watch the sun set.  The mountains in the distance, anchored by Volcan Licancabur, changed colors as the sun set.  We also had a small amount of clouds which “wore” spectacular colors as the sun set.  We hiked up to a sort-of ridge and sat there until the sun went down.  It was a bit cold but we had coats and hunkered down against some rocks.  There was also a large sand dune next to the ridge and it provided me some good photo opps!  It was indeed a majestic sunset…

View of Volcan Licancabur

Sand. Footsteps.

Laguna Cejar

This laguna is a spot to enjoy the salty water by jumping in.  Of course, it was cold when we were there but apparently, it was tolerable.  I didn’t go prepared to jump in so I observed as others dipped in and floated in the salty water.  Of course, photo opps kept me entertained…

The sun and clouds above

Observing tourists observe the ever-present Volcan Licancabur

Of the two places, I could have missed the Laguna Cejar and not have missed tons but that could be because I didn’t jump in.  However, the Valle de la Luna is a must for sure!  I did not get to see the Valle de la Muerte or the Valle del Arco Iris but now I would look forward to visiting them should I ever return…

Why I Chose to Visit the World’s Driest Desert – the Atacama

Visiting a desert?  Isn’t it all just like dry and sandy?  Why?  I had been to the Sahara desert but mainly in the vicinity of the Nile River in Egypt.  And while it is likely not representative of the rest of the Sahara (opinions, readers?), I thought how different can they all be from each other?

Since I had the opportunity to spend a holiday weekend away from Santiago late in June, I decided to explore the Atacama.  There are 3 main areas of Chile that I want to see.  One I saw partially in 1991, the other 2 I had not seen.  The lake district down south near Puerto Montt I visited in 1991 but not fully.  In fact, I probably only “sampled” a fraction of the area.  But it is winter now and not the best time to go (I was set to go in March but the earthquake happened and killed the trip…).  The other area I am wanting to go to is Tierra del Fuego and las Torres del Paine.  But, again, it is winter…  So the third area on my top 3 was the Atacama and this seemed a great time to go.

Flying to Calama in the north requires flying over almost half of Chile’s length, abt 2 hrs (photo: http://www.finetravel.co.nz)

I heard it would be cold since some of the places to visit are in altitude (over 12,000 ft above sea level) but, at least, down in San Pedro de Atacama, things would not be so bad.  In another entry I cover the details of my “getting there”.

I didn’t have a strong notion what it was I was going to see prior to doing some research but it sounded different.  I was up for different.  I figured that seeing the desert at different times of day would offer great colors and images.  I also knew there were “salares” (salt lakes of sorts) that could offer great photo opps for a creative type with a brand new camera based on the pictures hanging on the wall of my hotel in Santiago.

Research, including talking to other visitors in Chile who had been there and locals as well as Internet research, showed me there was indeed quite a good bit to see and do.  My mind was more made up than it had been.  Among the key recommendations were:

–  Valle de la Luna

–  Valle de la Muerte

–  Valle del Arco Iris

–  Geysers del Tatio

–  Salar de Atacama

–  Lagunas Altiplanicas

–  Laguna Cejar

–  Night sky watching

So, the trip was born…

Other entries cover some of these (links above) and some learnings acquired along the way…

Any other suggestions for places to see in the Atacama?

Exploring the Atacama Desert – Getting to San Pedro de Atacama

Last weekend, I got to travel on the Chilean holiday to San Pedro de Atacama to explore the desert around it and its sights.  The flight from Santiago, bought in Chile, was under $250 and I could have gotten it cheaper had I bought it earlier.  Two co-workers were planning to travel with me but one “se rajó” so only two of us ended up going.

To get to San Pedro, we flew to Calama, a mining town, I believe sort of halfway between San Pedro and the coast (where Antofagasta is).  The airport is one of those small nice airports we all dream of flying in and out of but that we don’t want to live close to as it would offer few direct flights…  A $9 bus ride each way based on round trip purchase and one hour plus bus ride and we were in front of our hotel.

Hotels in San Pedro can be quite pricey, relatively speaking and especially on a holiday weekend.  However, I found Casa Don Tomás which at $106/night was quite reasonably priced.  The rooms were basic (no TV) but were clean and adequate with good sized bathroom.  Having no TV was actually quite nice as we had a few early, early mornings so not having TV prevented me being temped to watch it when I went to bed…  The hotel included breakfast but, also, they would make you a take-away breakfast for mornings when one woke up too early to go off and explore.  They also served dinner but I did not try it.  I did try their happy hour drinks and those were a good deal at 2 for 1…  From the hotel, we walked about 5 mins on a residential street to reach Caracoles, the main street in San Pedro.

We were advised to not rent a car and just shop around the various local touring agencies to arrange our trips to the main sights in the area.  This was really good advice for a number of reasons including the routes are not all properly signed and it would have been easy to get lost.  Also, not all the roads are in good conditions so someone more experienced in those roads was going to have an easier time of going around.  I did enjoy getting to meet other travelers along the way so that was another plus of going on these tours which ranged from 10 to 20 people in size.  We used the NOMADE agency whose owner, Mauricio, was very attentive to detail and on time.

San Pedro as a town has few of its own attractions but it is a perfect base  for a large number of places to go see and experience.  While Calama is a larger town with probably more options in terms of accommodation, San Pedro likely has more charm, more of a tourist crowd (in the good sense of that term), and is closer to the places to go see which shaves off a good deal of time.

Main Street San Pedro de Atacama, Chile - gateway to the desert

Main Street San Pedro (with restaurants, shops, tour agents)

There are some really good restaurants intown so just walk up and down the street and check them out.  One even has an inner courtyard with a bonfire going on at night!

More about San Pedro de Atacama:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pedro_de_Atacama

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