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).
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).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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…
- 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!