Everyone knows that Chile is one of the best destinations in the world for downhill skiing, home to first-rate resorts like Portillo or Valle Nevado, but there’s much more to winter in Chile than just hitting the slopes. Summer in the southern hemisphere, which falls during the months of June, July, and August, offers the perfect escape for the heat of summer in the northern hemisphere, as well as the chance to see Chile’s captivating landscapes in all their wintry glory. From trekking in Patagonia, to stargazing in Chile’s northern deserts, to enjoying uniquely Chilean winter drinks and food, winter is fast becoming the new best time to visit Chile.
1.Epic winter sports – Chile’s many diverse regions make the country perfectly suited to a huge range of winter sports, making it the perfect winter getaway from the summer heat in the northern hemisphere. If downhill skiing isn’t your forte, the Lakes District is prime territory for excellent cross-country skiing, as well as the chance to ski down volcanoes, and snowboarding and extreme sports like heli-skiing are also very popular. If you’d prefer not to shred the slopes, winter trekking is on the rise, like the W trek in Torres del Paine, or day treks in the area like Cerro Dorotea, or live your Iditarod dreams and go dog sledding with a team of huskies through Chile’s southern forests.
2.Beautiful snowy landscapes – Torres del Paine. The Atacama Desert. The Andes. The Lakes District. All these beautiful landscapes are one of the main reasons people want to visit Chile. Now imagine them in the wintertime. The granite peaks and pampas of Patagonia, covered in snow and ice under a cold winter sun. The Lakes District – land of luscious forests and towering volcanoes – becomes the ultimate winter wonderland. The dramatic backdrop of the Andes behind Santiago, capped with a layer of snow. If you go crazy for a fresh snowfall, winter in Chile is the best time to go.
3.The coziest winter food and drink – To get through those long, cold winter nights, Chileans have created some of the tastiest, most filling winter fare in South America. For lunch or dinner, tuck into a warm bowl of cazuela, Chile’s version of chicken noodle soup, chicken-and-dumplings-like pantrucas, or porotos con riendas, a hearty stew of beans, spaghetti, squash, and sausage. Then, for apres-ski drinks, try a cup of navegado, Chilean mulled wine, accompanied by a plate of sopaipillas pasadas, which are disks of fried Andean squash that have been soaked in a sugary sauce called chancaca.
4.The best time to go stargazing – Winter is when the skies in the southern hemisphere are at their clearest, making prime stargazing spots like San Pedro de Atacama and the Valle de Elqui even more spectacular. You can visit world-class observatories like ALMA (unfortunately not at night, though, as it’s a working observatory) where you can learn more about the important scientific discoveries that have been made at Chilean observatories. Then, bundle up at night for stargazing tours with local expert astronomers, where you can use a range of telescopes to see nighttime marvels like nebulas and planets and learn all about the constellations and southern skies.
5.Low season crowds – Aside from the top ski resorts outside Santiago, winter is low season for tourism in Chile, which is good news for you! There will be even fewer crowds at the top destinations like San Pedro or Torres del Paine (which is now open for winter trekking, either with the full W or day treks), there is more availability at the top restaurants and hotels all over the country, and, best of all, you get to take advantage of great low season rates!
Visiting the driest desert on Earth – San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro lies in the north of Chile, acting as a gateway to the driest desert in the world, the infamous Atacama. In San Pedro and its surrounding there are a lot of activities related with adventures, gastronomy, amazing landscapes and local culture, you simply must go if you’re ever in Chile.
Using San Pedro as a base, you can easily explore the otherworldly valleys, high-altitude lagoons, and ancient hillside ruins. You can also gawp at the night sky – possibly the clearest in the world – by taking an astronomy tour, or simply walking a little away from the light of the town. A starry night here is something you will never forget.
Ideally, you will need 4 days to make the most of your time here. The town is small and easily walkable. There are tour agencies and empanada shops (the best kind). More time will allow you some relaxation and wiggle room, less means you will need to select your activities wisely. Without further ado, here are the best things to see and do around San Pedro de Atacama.
Where to Visit
1. Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, is a spectacular valley located just 13km from San Pedro.
The information desk at the entrance provides maps of the valley, taking you all the way to Las Tres Marias, three unusual rocky formations that jut out of the desert floor.
The first stop, around 3km from the entrance, is the salt caverns. They’re a winding and narrow cave system, containing unearthly geological structures. You can walk the snaking trail in around 20 minutes and either carry on along the main road, or take a right as you exit the caves and explore a less visited part of the valley.
There are more surreal cliffs and caves, but the further you head in this direction, the less people you will encounter, and the more it begins to feel like you are truly isolated in the desert. The midday sun beats down on your face and neck, no matter which way you look.
The main view that everybody comes to see in the Valley of the Moon is the sunset, particularly from the top of the giant sand dune. The path is sandy but well worn; it shouldn’t pose a problem to anybody. The view from the top makes you understand the logic behind the valley’s name. It was also here where NASA tested the prototype for the Mars rover, due to its strikingly similar terrain.
Watching the sun drop behind the ridge is beautiful on its own, but it doesn’t compete with the red-gold afterglow that engulfs the desert. At the top of the dune, you can walk along the ridge in either direction. The right allows you a view of the sun setting behind the sand dune, and if you turn around, you have the full chain of the Andes mountains, complete with several large volcanoes in the distance. The left has a view of the craggy hills and the interminable desert. The path goes on further, too, meaning there is more space to find your own spot, away from the crowds. This is the busiest time on the sand dune, but the view is remarkable all-day long. A sunset here is one you will remember for the rest of your life.
How to get there Getting to Valle de la Luna can be done in a several ways, depending on your preferences. The best option is to take a tour, which will pick you up from your hotel or hostel and transport you to the entrance, visiting each of the locations with a knowledgeable guide, before dropping you back off at your accommodation. They usually start at 2 or 3 pm so that you can catch the sunset, but an earlier one is possible.
Cycling is easy as well. In your free time you can rent a bike in town and start your trip. The ride from the centre of town to the entrance takes about 25 minutes. However, upon entry into the actual valley, the road becomes rickety and there are steep sections, too. A helmet and visibility jacket are essential for you to take the bike into the valley. I made the mistake of cycling there without either, and was told upon arrival that they would not let me take the bike inside without them.
2. Valle de la Muerte / Valle de la Marte
The Valley of the dead, also known as the Valley of Mars, is closer to San Pedro than the Valley of the Moon. Its surreal landscapes are just as astonishing, but they have the bonus of being less crowded than their bigger and more popular neighbour. That’s not to say that nobody visits the Valley of the Dead, but it doesn’t get as many as the Valley of the Moon.
The entrance is on the right-hand side of the road to Calama, approx 2km from the centre of town.
This valley is the perfect place to sandboard. The Valley of the Moon also has a huge sand dune but you are not allowed to sandboard on it. As well as climbing the dune to ride back down, it is also worth going up for the view alone. The desert rolls out before your eyes, stretching all the way to the jagged Andes mountains, cowboys ride through the rugged valleys, kicking up dust in their wake, and bizarre outcrops defy logic at every turn.
I made the mistake of climbing the dune in a straight line, from the base to the highest point. Don’t make the same mistake as me. I had to use both my hands and my feet, as the surface was almost vertical. My feet sunk into the sand a good 30cm with each step, making the whole ordeal unnecessarily demanding. I had half the desert in my shoes by the time I made it to the top. Luckily, I had enough water to make sure I didn’t pass out from the midday heat. Despite taking the most difficult route (there is a well-trodden track for sandboarders, which takes you up diagonally), it was well worth the effort.
You can also continue on the path further into the valley, which winds its way up to the opposite side of the sand dune, giving you a view of what lies beyond the towering ridge. It looks like an extreme Motocross track, built for giants. I still struggle to get my head around how these valleys were formed.
How to get there
You can travel here using the same methods stated for the Valley of the Moon.
A way to get to the Valley of the Dead is with a tour departing from your hotel. Your van will stick to the main road towards Calama. The sandy hill, directly in front of you as you leave the town, is the entrance. It should not take longer than a few minutes to get there. If you have enough time it is possible to reach very good viewpoints. Take plenty of water and some snacks.
There are tours combined with the Valley of the Moon, if you prefer to visit both at once.
Finally, you can cycle. It’s easy to get here, despite a little up-hill section. Cycling in the actual valley can be quite difficult however, as the sand can be thick. I walked to the top with my bike, then rode down (without peddling), but my wheels jammed in the sand and I flew over my handle bars, almost rolling off the steep road and into the Valley of the Dead below. It would have been a fitting place to die, but it was not to be. You can also cycle from here to Pukara de Quitor in a relatively fast time, as there is a path directly from entrance to entrance.
3. Pukara de Quitor
This fascinating hill-side ruin was once a mighty fortress, perched in a great defensive location, destroying the element of surprise for invaders. You can find it 3km north-west of San Pedro. Like most of the attractions here, there is an entrance fee of a few thousand Pesos. If you have a bike, there is a place to lock it at the entrance.
You can choose between climbing the ridge that runs along the 700-year-old ruins, or the hills in the distance. The hills contain several view points and shelters to rest, as well as a few interesting structures at the top. From the peak, you can look down on the Valley of the Dead to see it from a different perspective. You can also gaze into the valley that leads to Catarpe – an interesting and adventurous bike ride away.
The view from the top of the hills is worth seeing. You see everything from an inferior angle, and whilst you can get a lot closer to the ruins, you can’t go inside them. Having said that, the path is short and is probably worth the 15 minutes it will take to walk.
Near to the entrance of Pukara de Quitor, is another path. Instead of taking the ramp up to the bike storage and ticket office, go the opposite way, sticking to the wall of the rock, and follow the path up to a cave and some amazing archaeological carvings. The cave is pitch black at certain points, so make sure you have a torch handy. Be careful with your head, too, especially for tall people like me. You’ll be bending a lot. On the other side of the cave is a small open area, where you can witness the unusual rock formations up close, and add your own cairn to the masses already there, before heading back the way you came. It might be a good idea to take something to cover your nose and mouth, as you will inhale a lot of dust. Outside, you can marvel at the two giant heads, that have been carved from the cliff face.
How to get there
All the above options apply for here. You can take a tour, walk or cycle.
Arguably the best activity to do here, based on the area’s pristine skies, is look upwards. Within the next year, over 70% of the world’s astronomical observatories will be based here. From this desert, you can see the Large Magellanic Cloud with the naked eye, a foreign galaxy that orbits the Milky Way, over 150,000 light years away. You can also see the Small Magellanic Cloud, fainter and even further away. It’s the farthest visible object in the southern hemisphere, without the aid of telescopes. You can also stare into the heart of our own galaxy. Do you know that strip of cloud-like substance you see in films and the best astrophotography? You can see it with your own eyes.
It takes a brilliant camera to be able to pick any of it up, but luckily for us, almost all astronomy tours will take a group photo on their own cameras. You can ask for one on your own, too.
I went on a tour and couldn’t recommend it enough. They took me on a 2-hour tour, pointing out all the visible constellations of the zodiac and explaining the reasons behind them. They also showed us a short documentary and allowed us to feast on little sausages and snacks.
It obviously helps if you have an experienced guide who can point to Saturn as soon as you ask him and tells you everything about all the stars you see.
I visited in August, the tail-end of their winter, and Saturn was the easiest to see. Early at night, it is possible to spot Mars and Jupiter, too. At different times throughout the year, it’s possible to see all the first six planets with the naked eye.
5. High Plain Lagoons and the Atacama Salt Flats
The high-altitude lakes are definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. You have the opportunity to watch pink Flamingos in Chaxa National Reserve, walk on a frozen lake at Red Stone, and see Vicuñas (a relative of llamas and alpacas) in their natural habitat – the hills above 3,000m.
It’s best to start early for these places, as they’re a bit further away than the majority of the attractions. I drifted in and out of sleep on the ride there, catching dreamlike glimpses of snowy peaks, sprawling desert and grazing vicuñas, half-listening to the guide talk about how vicuñas are still hunted for their fur, despite it being illegal.
I woke up when the smooth road swiftly changed to a jolting sandy track. I bounced up and down, bashing flailing limbs off parts of the jeep that I didn’t even know existed. Then I was hit by the cold. Mornings at high altitude aren’t pleasant for the half-dressed. Luckily, I was prepared.
How to get there The best way to go to these places is by taking a tour. It’s worth it. We visited all the aforementioned places, as well as Toconao, a traditional village. The main square has large cacti that grow 1cm per year. These cacti were over 2 metres tall, meaning they were planted in the early 1800s! You can explore the handcraft shops and go souvenir hunting, check out the old church, or taste local homemade ice cream. They have Rica Rica flavour, which is a mint-like herb that grows in the shrubby area of the desert. The driver makes a short stop here, too, for you to harvest your own supply.
Other things to do in the area include:
Tatio Geysers – Expect an early start if you visit these. They’re most active around 4.30 am.
Hot Springs / Aguas Calientes – There are lots of hot springs near San Pedro de Atacama. I visited hot springs in Peru and Bolivia – there is nothing quite like bathing in hotter-than-bath water in the middle of the freezing cold Andes. (As Termas Puritama and Tatio Geysers.)
Hot Air Balloon over the Atacama – Ballooning over the Atacama Desert is a breathtaking and unique experience. You will start the tour right before sunrise to see all the colors and rocks of the desert in the morning light. Every tour is different because you don’t know where the wind will take you but you can be sure that you will have an impressive view over the stunning landscape of the Atacama Desert. This is definitely a memory you will never forget!
The Flowering Desert – A lot further south from San Pedro, but still in the Atacama, near to La Serena, there is a natural phenomenon taking place in the desert, causing flowers to blossom everywhere. It only happens once per year and this year is supposed to be the largest ever.
How to Budget Generally, San Pedro is slightly more expensive than other towns of similar size in Chile. The customers are predominantly tourists, which means the prices are inflated. It’s possible to find all type of vegetables, meat, fish and local food. There are many options of restaurants, accommodation and activities for your stay in San Pedro de Atacama.
When to Go The Atacama is dry, with clear skies all year round. You can count the number of clouds you see in your time here on one hand – most likely, you won’t need any hands. On the astronomy tour, the guide said that only 30 nights of the year are cloudy, and even then, they’re not terribly intrusive.
Chilean summer runs from December to February, and their winter, from June to August. However, the climate here doesn’t change that much. Due to the altitude (2,408 metres above sea level), San Pedro experiences cold nights all year round, with the lowest being in July and August, at -1° C, and the highest, around 5-6° C, in January. In the day, the winters can reach 20° C, and the summer, 25° C. The altitude makes the days seem hotter though, because the sun’s rays have less of an atmosphere to cut through before reaching you. Combine this with the unusual clarity of the sky, and basically, you will frazzle.
If you want to avoid the crowds, then the best time to visit is just before winter (northern summer holidays), but after southern summer. April – June is classed as low season here. There will be less people, but never expect it to be empty. San Pedro is a tourist hot spot.
What to Bring
Altitude Sickness Tablets – Depending on your attitude toward altitude, you may wish to bring some medicine. Some people simply don’t agree with being at higher elevations. While 2,408 metres isn’t ridiculously high, some of the activities can go well over 4,000m. You can also buy local remedies for altitude sickness all over town. Coca leaves are helpful for long uphill hikes. Just don’t swallow them.
Vaseline or Lip Balm – This one is fairly self-explanatory. You’re in the driest desert in the world. Without it, your lips will crack, bleed and split. I speak from experience.
Sun Lotion – The altitude makes you burn a lot faster than if you were at sea level.
Map App – While there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned paper map, it won’t help you if you don’t know where you are in the first place. MAPS.ME is a good choice as it allows you to download the maps for offline use (like most apps), but it also shows walking trails and footpaths that are mostly invisible on Google Maps, for instance.
Water and Snacks – Again, it’s self-explanatory. You need lots of water in the driest desert on Earth. If you’re stranded, don’t count on rain to save you. Certain areas here receive less than half an inch per year. Some native people have never seen rain in their entire life, particularly closer to Antofagasta. A little snack is helpful, too, as there aren’t any shops outside of the towns.
Camera – This is an unforgettable place, but it doesn’t hurt to keep photos.
This National Park of 150.612 hectares, located in the very south of Chile, in Tierra del Fuego, was only opened in December 2013. In the east, it borders the Argentine Tierra del Fuego National Park; together, the two parks are called Parque para la Paz (“Park for Peace“).
Yendegaia’s breathtaking landscape includes trees like Antarctic beeches, coigüe, canelo and the Chilean firetree notro, extensive grassland, a rugged coast, fast-flowing rivers, sublime mountains, lakes, glaciers, and also thickets and herbs able to resist the windy climate conditions, heavy rainfalls and low temperatures. From June to September, temperatures can get as low as 11 degrees below zero, but in summer they reach up to 24°C.
Besides the 128 vascular plant species, 49 bird species and other animals – some of them in danger of extinction, e.g. the Andean fox, the Southern river otter and the ruddy-headed goose – have to cope with that climate. Other animals living there are leopard seals, elephant seals and kelp gulls.
The aim of the National Park is to conserve biodiversity and to boost tourism in the areas of adventure, outdoor, special interests and ecotourism. As it was only founded in 2013, there aren’t any official trails yet, but you can explore the area via numerous non-official trails starting from any point of the Y-85 road, from Fagnago Lake, or by boat from Puerto Williams. Also, a road from Vicunya to Yendegaia is being built and will probably be finished by 2020.
To get to this 48 km² island belonging to the Bío-Bío Region, you have to take a boat or a helicopter in Tirúa, which is 34 km away and the closest city on land.
The center of the island has been declared a nature reserve by the CONAF thanks to the forests housing the Chilean myrtle, lenga beeches and the Chilean ulmo Olivillo, partly on a small mountain chain reaching up to 390 meters in height. On the “Sendero Camino Nuevo“, a walking trail of 1.5 hours, you can also spot some animals, such as chucao birds, pink-footed shearwaters and the rodent Pacific degu, which is endemic to Isla Mocha and critically endangered. Another animal of interest, although dead since almost two centuries ago, is Mocha Dick, the whale that inspired Herman Melville for his famous novel Moby Dick and which contributed to the more than 100 ship wrecks around Isla Mocha.
On its long sandy beaches, fishers share the coast with windsurfers, sailors and other people simply enjoying an easy walk along the Pacific Ocean.
At 15-30°C, it is more relaxing going there in the summer, as in winter temperatures fluctuate between only 10 and 15°C and there can always be a lot of rain. There aren’t any ATMs either on the island nor in Tirúa, so it is important to bring enough cash. Also, there is only one hotel on the whole island. However, the people there are happy to let tourists stay with them, or you can take your chances and camp somewhere in the wilderness.
3) SALTO DEL INDIO, CURACAUTÍN
In the Araucania Region, 14 km from Curacautín city and at an altitude of 719m, the stunning, 20m high waterfall Salto del Indio awaits you.
Even though the waterfall’s visibility is limited by forests, you can get still amazing views of it from the many viewpoints around. There are also tracks leading down to the very base of the waterfall, which is the intersection of the rivers Indio and Cautín, the first of these being the one that ends there and becomes the Salto del Indio. According to an ancient legend, the waterfall was created when the Indian boy Cayú jumped off into Cautín river because he could not be together with his love Millaray, Princess of Araucania.
The waterfall is part of the 12 hectare Senderos del Indio Park that offers restaurants, huts, a hostel, handicrafts, viewpoints and a mini farm in a fascinating landscape shaped by volcanic sediments from Lonquimay volcano.
4) LOS MOLLES
The small coastal town Los Molles in the Valparaíso Region, only 8km away from the Coquimbo Region, provides the perfect place for a relaxing holiday.
Although the town is more than prepared for tourists, – for example, there are 678 houses, but only 636 inhabitants – it is a calm area with sea view restaurants, white sand beaches, fantastic sunsets, camping possibilities and adventure tourism offers like diving or cove exploring.
Besides tourism, agricultural food, craftmanship, fishing and aquafarming plays a great role in the inhabitants’ lives.
130 of more than 300 plant species in Los Molles are endemic and many of them can be found in the Bioparque Puquén, for example the endangered Pouteria splendens and various cactus, the Alstromeria and water clovers. Also colocolo cats, marine otters and seals live there. Highlights include the paleontological deposits with crustace and and insect fossils, as well as a complex with subterranean caves and a so-called “cold geyser“.
5) CHAÑARAL DE ACEITUNO
Chañaral de Aceituno does not describe a town, but a cove in the municipality of Freirina, Atacama Region, two hours away from Vallenar.
The reason so many people come here is whales. During the summer, up to six different types of whales can be seen from this very spot.
Opposite the cove, you will find Isla Chañaral, part of the CONAF Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve and home to many Humboldt Penguins. At certain times of year, you can also spot different groups of common bottlenose dolphins from here.
6)VENTISQUERO COLGANTE QUEULAT
The name Ventisquero Colgante Queulat describes a “hanging snowdrift” with waterfalls of up to 293m in height, located inside the Queulat National Park in the Aysén del General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo Region in the south of Chile.
The Park borders the Cisner river to the south and the Lago Rosselot National Reserve to the west. Its area of 1541km² (595 mi²) covers glacier-capped mountains, virgin evergreen forests, lakes, lagoons, two small icefields and even a part of the Puyuhuapi Volcanic Group.
The Valdivian temperate rainforests’ trees include tepú, quila, chilco, nalca, coigüe de Magallanes and lenga. Alongside mammals like the pudú and kodkod, birds such as the chucao tapaculo, the Chilean pigeon, the Magellanic woodpecker, the thorn-tailed rayadito, the yellow-billed pintail and many more live in this area.
7)ISLA MADRE DE DIOS
Just a one-day boat trip from Puerto Natales away, you will find the Madre de Dios Island, located in the Magallanes Region, not too far away from the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. It is part of the Madre de Dios archipelago consisting of five islands, only one of them inhabited.
On the steep coasts of the 1043km² island, which is partly composed of limestone and was only declared a nature reserve in 2008, there are numerous natural caves created by the erosive combination of wind and tides. Some of them have been used by the Kaweskar people, who lived there from 6000 years ago until the 21th century, for different purposes like burial places or temporary camping. In 2006, the Cueva del Pacífico cave was discovered, and in it rock art and cave paintings. Another interesting one is the “Cave of the Whales“, where 2600-3500 year-old whale skeletons were found.
The landscape of the island was created at the same time as Chile’s coastal mountain range and the Andes, therefore it is of igneous rock origin and contains several mountains and native forests with trees like canelo and lenga.
Due to the rainy and cold climate – the average temperature is 9°C – the island can become dangerous, and so far has remained nearly unexplored.
8) CERRO LAS PEINETAS
It was only in 2002 that this over 2000 meter high mountain of the Villarrica National Park in the Araucania Region was climbed for the first time. Since then, not many routes have been detected, but there is a six-hour trekking route and a ten-hour climbing route. However, these activities are only recommended for experienced and physically fit climbers.
The landscape around this mountain of volcanic origin presents the green, rugged valley of Trancura river, which is of glacier origin, where you can find trees like the raulí, the coigüe, the lenga and the araucaria.
To get there, you can either start at Tromen Lake, or at several points on the road to the Argentine border crossing point Mamuil Malal.
9)ALTOS DEL LIRCAY NATIONAL RESERVE
If you are in Santiago and wondering where to go, the 12.163 hectare (46.96 mi²) Altos del Lircay National Reserve is not too far away; only about 270km south in the Maule Region, close to the Andes, and the volcanoes Descabezado Grande and Cerro Azul.
Around the three main rivers in the reserve, Lircay, Blanquillo and Claro – the latter ending with a spectacular waterfall – grow the threatened two species Hualo, seven of the ten species of the Nothofagus trees occurring in Chile and also the ciprés de la Cordillera. One of the reserve’s purposes is to protect rare and threatened animals such as Tricahue parrots, Sapito Hermoso, the reptile Matuasto del Maule, the lizard of Cristián, pudús, pumas, and meadowlarks.
The climate there is characterized by warm periods with some extended dry ones, but there can also be snow on the east side during winter and part of spring. The average temperature is at 14.7°C.
When going there, you will have to announce your visit to the Guardaparques Office at the entrance of the reserve and pay a small fee ($5000 CLP for foreign adults). If you want to stay overnight, it important keep in mind that pets, hunting, fishing and camping at the Enladrillado viewpoint or at lagoons of high altitude are prohibited. You have three options for the campsite: Antahuara (point 1), Los Carpinteros (point 6), Valle el Venado (point 10).
As well as horseback riding, there are several trekking routes ranging from 20 minute over 10 hour to 4 day walks.
10)SALAR DE MARICUNGA
As part of the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park in the Atacama Region, about 160 km northeast of Copiapó and at an altitude of 3750 meters, the Maricunga Salt Flat extends over an area of 80 km².
This salt flat once used to be a lake, but with time the water evaporated and, as it is located between two mountain ranges (Claudio Gay and Domeyko) and does not have any access to the sea, the salt remained in the basin.
77 animal species, 65 fauna species and many flamingoes live in the Salar’s desert climate with an average high of 18.4°C and an average low of 4.5°C. As it can be difficult to get there in winter, the Park is only opened from October until April.
Other places of interest inside the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park are the Santa Rosa Lagoon, also in the north, and the Negro Francisco Lagoon in the south of the Park, which is less high than the north.
In this area close to the Argentine border, there is also Chile’s highest mountain peak, which belongs to the Nevado Ojos del Salado volcano, the highest active volcano in the world. Other volcanoes in the salt flat’s surroundings are the Incahuasi, the San Francisco, the Tres Cruces, and many more.
Chile is an extremely unique land mass. It’s length is stretches down as far as Antarctica with spectacular fjords, great lakes, impressive mountains and glorious glaciers. While the north extends to the Atacama desert, one of the driest desert locations in the world. The two ends could not be more different.
These unusual extremities makes Chile a place of spectacular beauty. So much so that much of this thin strip of land is now protected as National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so the rich biodiversity of the land is able to survive. It also means that visitors can enjoy these famous landscapes knowing they will be protected and managed.
To really discover Chile’s truly diverse terrains, be sure to visit these top five beautiful national parks in Chile.
Rapa Nui National Park
More commonly known as Easter Island, Rapa Nui is the local name for the island that sits out in Chile’s Pacific coastline. The island is known for its ancient Moai statues, which were built by islanders of Polynesian origin who settled on the island in around 300 AD. Between the 10th and the 16th centuries, the islanders competed in building and erecting enormous statues and shrines and today there are around 900 statues still remaining. This unique cultural landscape is not only a prized national park but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its fascinating cultural significance.
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine is probably one of the best-known National Parks in Chile, as well as one of the largest in size, the park is also the third most visited national park in Chile, with over 250,000 visitors every year. It’s southerly location contributes to its impressive array of ice fields, fjords and glaciers that make up its landscape. The natural beauty on offer in the park is astonishing, with waterfalls, lakes and lagoons adding to serene blueness of this part of Chile. The region is best known for its Cordillera Paine Mountain Range, which is made up of rose-coloured granite and reaches 3,000 metres high. You can access the park from Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas, and combine your visit the stunning nearby Bernardo O’Higgins National Park.
Juan Fernandez Archipelago
The magnificent volcanic islands that make up the Juan Fernandez Archipelago are home to some of the most unique species in the world. The islands have unusual and rare creatures that are not normally found in conditions such as this, including woodpeckers, firecrowns and marsupials. Many of the creatures living on the islands are at serious risk of extinction, and as such the park has been a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977. The islands’ landscape are just as extraordinary with deep ravines and volcanic peaks topped with snow – ideal for exploring.
Located between Santiago de Chile and Valparaiso, La Campana is one of the country’s smallest national parks, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sights. Easily accessible from one of the two nearby cities, the national park is home to Cerro la Campana, a 6,000-foot-high mountain that Charles Darwin climbed on one of his visits to the continent. From the top of the mountain you can enjoy spectacular views of the Andes and Olume Valley – a view that is well-worth the climb.
Chiloé is Chile’s most northerly archipelago, and is home to some of the region’s most noteworthy architecture. This island national park is filled with a number of wooden churches, many of which are protected under UNESCO World Heritage. The park is also dominated by the many Valdivian forests, known for the pudu (small deer) and Darwin’s fox. From the coast here you can also spot colonies of sea lions, flamingos and pgymy blue whales. Its wet weather and distinct forests give this park a very different feeling from all of the other national parks in South America – a distinctive landscape has been the setting for many myths, legends and stories of witchcraft over the centuries.
Experience the unique terrain of the Atacama desert like the ancient people of the Atacama did on the Ancestral Caravan tour. Trek the desert using traditional Andean llamas alongside local communities and indigenous people sharing their customs and culture along the way. The tour is a great way to learn more about the traditional cultures of the desert and connect with local people.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
See the desert from another angle on a magical hot air balloon ride above the Atacama. Eastern Safari’s “Balloons Over Atacama” offers daily flights over the Atacama Desert and close to San Pedro de Atacama, with views of the endless salt flats, impressive volcanoes and ancient rock formations. Every ride can hold up to 16 passengers, and a premium option is also available, which includes a toast of sparkling wine at the end and a photo of the flight.
Half Day Fishing Tour of Easter Island
Explore Easter Island and learn more about the native tradition of fishing and cooking on this half day tour of the island. With the help of a native Easter Islander fisherman, you will learn the core techniques behind fishing on the island and then fish in its waters yourself. The catch of the day is then prepared and cooked over the island’s natural hot volcanic rocks to create the traditional dish “Tuni Ahi”, which is served on banana leaves.
Horseback riding in Easter Island
Travelling the island on horseback is one of the best ways to see the hidden natural beauty of the region and reduce your carbon footprint. A typical Rapa Nui experience takes you to some of the more remote areas of the island that can only be reached by taking this traditional mode of transport. What’s more, you don’t have to be an experienced rider to make the journey and travel into the past, it’s a peaceful and engaging experience that takes all-levels of riders through regions such as Rano Raraku, Orongo and Mount Terevaka.
Santiago and Central Chile
Penguin Watching Cachagua Tour
Leave the hustle and bustle of Santiago and head to the beautiful beaches and islands off the villages of Cachagua and Zapallar. Known for their delicious seafood and stunning shoreline, the villages offer access to the remote and protected Humboldt Island, also known as Penguin’s Island. Enjoy the magical Chilean countryside on route to the coast, made up of Avocado farms and vineyards, and a boat ride to greet the colony of penguins located on Humboldt Island. There will also be time to swim and sunbathe at hidden bays and sample local seafood.
Snow Hike tour from Santiago
Put on your snow shoes and trek through the heart of the Andes, on this expertly-led hiking experience like now other. Led by an expert mountaineer guide the trek leaves from Santiago to the valley of Cajon del Maipo. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains ranges and snow-topped peaks as you climb, and when you finally reach Aguas Penimavida. Knowledgable local guides will enhance the experience with stories of the mountain ranges and volcanoes before heading back down to the town of San Jose del Maipo, and a delicious Chilean empanada. Chilean Lake District
Alerce Andino National Park
The Southern Chilean Lake District is one of the country’s most dramatic landscapes, and this tour takes you to one of the region’s most prized natural emblems, the ancient Alerce tree. The tree was made a national monument in 1976 and is a massive 45 meters high and 4 meters wide. Located in the Alerce Andino National Park, this tour takes you through ancients forests and offers views of the Calbuco volcano and the Andean-Patagonia mountain range. Take on three beautiful trails, including a wet waterfall hike and plenty of time to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Located in the Los Lagos region of Chile, the Chiloe Island tour departs from Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt. Take the ferry across the Pacific to the island, which is the fifth largest island in South America. Visit the island’s oldest village, Chacao, and its distinctive UNESCO World Heritage Listed native timber churches and architecture, dating back to 1567. The tour also includes a visit to Castro, the capital and third oldest city in all of Chile. Visitors will have a chance to shop in the towns and city and sample food at a typical Chiloe Island restaurant.
Whale watching from Punta Arenas
Journey through the first ever Marine National Park in Chile, Francisco Coloane, and spot some of the most majestic creatures in the world, humpback whales. Get up-close to the marvellous creatures surrounded by impressive untouched landscape, including hanging glaciers on the Darwin mountain range, as you journey by boat through the park and regions around it. There will also be a chance to spot some of the other inhabitants of the park, including Magellan penguins, sea lions, austral dolphins, albatross and sea elephants.
Ice Hike at Glacier Grey
There is nothing quite as impressive as walking on a glacier. With Big Foot Patagonia you can ice hike on Glacier Grey, and be on the only tourists there! With the assistance of an experienced guide, you will be supplied with the relevant equipment to climb and take the 2.5 hour trek through cracks, rivers, lagoons and tunnels of the pristine Grey Glacier. Visitors with knee problems should consult guides before booking.
Canter along winding trails along rocky slopes, across sparkling streams and past jade-green lakes surrounded by craggy mountain peaks . A horseback ride through Chile will reveal stunning remote scenery that you couldn’t see any other way.
Horseback riding is one of the best ways to see the rugged and beautiful countryside of Chile. You’re following in the hoofprints of the Chilean Huaso (cowboy) tradition, experiencing nature with all of your senses.
There are so many gorgeous places to ride horses in Chile, but here are a few of the most stunning opportunities to saddle up and hit the trail.
Torres Del Paine National Park
Mother Nature sometimes likes to show off what she is capable of and Torres Del Paine is a great example of this. The Torres del Paine, the mountains that give the park it’s name, are three distinctive peaks of granite piercing the sky. Enormous glaciers, towering rocky peaks, glittering lakes and thundering rivers fill every visitor with awe.
The terrain is perfect for long galloping rides and you can either stay in an estancia (a ranch house) or camp on a multi-day ride. You will be able to ride up to the glaciers, explore the foothills and skirt along the wetlands against the spectacular backdrop of the Paine Massif.
The wild and barren landscapes of Patagonia, with their snow capped mountains and enormous skies, are the perfect place for a horseback riding adventure. UNESCO has named this area as a World Biosphere Reserve and it is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
The wind can blow hard and the weather conditions can be extreme, so listen to the advice of your local guide for a safe and enjoyable ride. The horseback journeys in Patagonia will generally take the low trails through the valleys in order to avoid the heavy winds.
Cross Between Chile and Argentina on Horseback
For a truly epic horseback journey, you can cross the Andes on a trail that San Martin and his “Army of the Andes” used in 1817 as they freed the people of Chile from the European monarchs. You’ll journey through the steep mountain pass, flanked by the towering stone peaks of Mercedario and Aconcagua.
During the journey you will have lots of time to stop in local villages along the way and explore. You’ll have the option of ending up in Mendoza, Argentina where you can relax and sample one of the world-renowned wines that are produced here – you’ve earned it.
The Atacama Desert
The Atacama is a huge expanse of stony terrain dotted with salt lakes and felsic lava flowing towards the Andes. It is situated between two mountain chains that create a rain shadow on either side, making it the driest non-polar desert in the world. There are some weather stations here that have never received rain and sometimes the region goes for years without a drop.
Exploring this ancient, arid desert on horseback is like no other travel experience in the world. As you ride past the rusty ravines, vast white salt flats and coloured lakes, you will feel like you are on the surface of another planet.
The small town of San Pedro de Atacama is the ideal base for beginning your journey. Be sure to head to the Valle de la Luna, which has a moon-like landscape and looks surreal and hypnotic when illuminated by the golden glow of the setting sun. Most horseback riding tours will begin in San Pedro and travel along the Vilama River to the Valley of Arenoso, the Devil’s Throat and Coca Stone.
To create your perfect horseback riding adventure in Chile, check out our Design your Tour feature so that you can put together a custom tour.
Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, is one of the world’s most spectacular regions. Flanked by glorious mountains, lakes and glaciers, the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a hot spot for backpackers and adventure travellers alike.
But when it comes to finding the most unique places to stay it can be tricky, that’s why we’ve put together a list of our favourite places to stay in Patagonia. From glamping in eco lodges inside the national park to enjoying warm log fires, spas and breathtaking views of the park. Patagonia’s accommodation has it all.
The award-winning EcoCamp is uniquely located in the stunning Paine massif in the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park. Stay in a sustainable lodge and enjoy community dining amid the natural surroundings of the mountains and glaciers of Patagonia. Spend your days trekking through the natural beauty of the region and finish your days in the warmth and comfort of your lodge, equipped with polar fleece blankets and a private bathroom. The camp offers four different types of lodges, with one large enough to accommodate a family of four.
The Singular is a hotel chain that has made its mark on Patagonia with the Puerto Bories Hotel. This five-star luxury hotel was refurbished from its original life as an old storage plant in the 20th century (by company Frigorifico Bories). The hotel is committed to protecting the environment and are always finding innovative ways to reduce their carbon fingerprint and water efficiency, including building the hotel with sustainable materials. This unique building is located just outside Puerto Natales and celebrates its heritage and history with so many original features still intact. Make use of world-class spa and stay in one of the 57 rooms and suites onsite. The hotel also offers a number of excursions to the Torres del Paine National Park, and has been voted one of the best hotels in Chile by the Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice Awards.
The stunning Awasi Patagonia hotel is made up of 14 exclusive villas nestled amid the foliage of a private reserve, overlooking the region’s jewel: the Torres del Paine National Park. Every villa comes complete with a specialist private tour guide and vehicle to explore the park and allow you to get off the beaten track. Modelled old Patagonian outposts and shelters, every villa offers exclusive views of the forest and the Patagonian Steppe as well as unrivalled privacy, a warming hot tub and an open fire. Dine at the on-site restaurant, the Relais & Chateaux, and enjoy fresh, made-to-order dishes cooked by chef Federico Ziegler and picked from the natural landscape. Villa rentals start from $950 USD per day, per person.
Situated close to the breathtaking Lake Sarmiento, Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa is a relaxing retreat for visitors looking to escape city life. Immersed in the hillsides of Patagonia, the hotel offers incredible vistas of the Torres del Paine National Park. The wood clad walls and Chilean furnishings and craftsmanship are a cosy space to spend a cold evening in the park after a day of hiking. When your legs are tired you can make use of the hotel’s exceptional Uma Spa, with its adventure spa philosophy that includes indoor and outdoor pools, a jacuzzi, steam bath, sauna and spa treatments, all of which come with extraordinary views of the national park.
Get up-close to the wondrous Torres del Paine National Park, one of the finest natural sights in the world, when you stay at Altiplanico Hotel Puero Natales. Popular amongst backpackers, eco-lovers and adventurous sports-people, the hotel has all of the mod-cons and luxuries you can expect from a luxury hotel, including free internet, a bar and a restaurant with a varied daily menu, massages and laundry service. The hotel’s ethos is all about being at one with nature, and instead of imposing on nature the architecture actually merges in with its surroundings. The interior and exterior design reiterate a respect for the environment and the native culture that inspired the design.
The temperate rain forest is one of the gems of our country, even though you can also find them in some border areas of Argentina, their larger extensions are here, in the south of Chile, from Valdivia to Chiloé. It is wonderful to be in the middle of one of these forests, despite their darkness, in them you feel how life sprouts from below, everything emerges seeking for the sunrays that appear like extraterrestrial spotlights that cross the branches and leaves to the floor. A bed of rotten leaves, new ones, sprouts, lichens, mosses, renews, seedlings, shrubs, flowers and an endless list of native fauna thrives thick while being escorted above by evergreens, creating a perfect and unique jungle climate where we will feel astonished by the mere life anxious to come out on stage.
Also called the “Valdivian jungle”, this forest appears in a temperate rainy climate, unique, given the fact that it hosts more than two thousand endemic species, which means that you will only be able to see them there, in no other place in the world.
Not only you will be able to see the green color in all of its memories, you will also feel it, breathe it and keep it forever within yourself. Somewhere there, where certain emotions are recollected and kept, those that once you feel them allow you to come back to them mentally, whenever you want, when you feel the need for.
If you feel emptiness in any area of your life, you should visit this place, its density, diversity and beauty will fill this gap for sure, and the smell of its fertile and fruitful floors will make you walk happily between ferns and water courses. You will feel protected as you walk, the same way that the tallest treetops protect these lands that are real cradles of life, hope oasis for the world we live in.
Some of the species that you will be able to see are: Chilean myrtle (Luma apiculata), Chilean hazel, (Gevuina avellana), Coihue (Nothofagus dombeyi), Hardy fuchsia (Fucsia magellanica), Maqui (Aristotelia chilensis), Ulmo (Eucryphia cordifolia), Tineo (Weinmannia trichosperma), Olivillo (Aextoxicon punctatum), Colihue (Chusquea culeou), Bellflower (Lapageria rosea), Chilean mitre flower (Mitraria coccinea), Ferns (Lophosoria quadripinnata), Luma (Amomyrtus luma), Chilean guava (Ugni molinae), Chilean firetree (Embothrium coccineum), Quila (Chusquea quila), among many others, as fungus, mosses, lichens, creepers, birds, frogs, insects and mammals.
“200km northeast of Punta Arenas, and on the border with Argentina, is the little-known Pali Aike National Park. Landscapes that blend an arid magellanic steppe, fields of volcanic rock, archaeological sites of ancient aboriginal peoples, and richly diverse fauna – pumas, rheas, and flamingos, to name but a few. These make Pali Aike a great tourist and cultural destination. ”
It is below the towering Torres del Paine National Park, full of the vast majority of visitors to the Magallanes Region. Our destination is still undiscovered by the masses, its traces of the past still intact. In this remote corner of the planet, you can see how prehistorical Patagonian geological, natural and archaeological history come together in harmony.
The puma is king in this territory. The caves formed by the park’s rocks and craters are home to the predator. Guanacos, like llamas, abound throughout the magellanic steppe and are the puma’s favorite food. In the park, we can find diverse panoramas – such as the beautiful Santa Ana Laguna, and the paths inviting you to observe a huge flamingo colony.
Aborigenes and Volcanos
Their namesake is the aborigines who inhabited the area thousands of years ago. The Aonikeks, also known as Tehuelches, were nomads who moved through Patagonia between the Santa Cruz River (Argentina) and the Strait of Magellan (Chile). They hunted guanacos, rheas and other animals that suited their dietary needs, and were constantly visiting the area that makes up the park today. They were drawn there by the great volcanic field of the region, reminiscent of a lunar landscape and completely different from the rest of the Patagonian landscape. Its odd geographical characteristics led the Aonikeks to believe that there were evil spirits there – so they called it Pali Aike (desolate place).
Here, it is also possible to see the caves used by the Aonikeks as shelter. Excavations on the archaelogical sites of Pali Aike Cave and Fell Cave have proven the existence of early humans in Patagonia. The discoveries – stoves, ‘fishtail’ stones and remains of extinct animals such as the milodon and the native American horse – and studies on them have enabled archaeologists to estimate that humans inhabited this area more than 8000 years.
There are several paths in the park that lead to each of the sights and are not too challenging. In just one day, you can experience a hike over a millennia-old volcanic field, go inside the crater left by an extinct volcano, sit in a cave, close your eyes and imagine the prehistoric people who inhabited these lands. You can also visit a small lagoon, home to hundreds of flamingos, or feel the adrenaline rush of knowing there could be a puma hiding somewhere nearby. With a bit of luck, it can all be rounded off with a picture-perfect sunset; a largely undiscovered gem of Patagonia.