For the connoisseur of mountains and ocean, it surely can’t get much better than Chile. Traveling the length of this country is an exercise in packing skill, as you will need every article of clothing to deal with the ever changing climate. Chile is modern and safe, with excellent bus travel options and accommodations, but it is likely the most expensive destination in all of South America. Bus travel will cost between $3-5 USD per hour and lodging will cost $12-16 pp in dorms ($18-22 pp in private). Chilean cuisine is generally good, with excellent seafood available (especially on Chiloé Island – try curanta). -March 2014
When you visit Chilean Patagonia, chances are you will start in Punta Arenas, the tax-free southern port city located on the Straight of Magellen. A few hours north by bus, and you’ll arrive at the jumping off point for the popular Torres del Paine National Park, Puerto Natales. While most everyone is only passing through, Puerto Natales is a relaxing and nice place to unwind after long days on the trail.
Torres del Paine National Park is a must-see, but depending on the season you will have to deal with crowds. We hiked the complete circuit in 9-days, with no less than 30 tents each night on the less-crowded backside. Views are stunning and weather is highly variable.
Further north from Patagonia, where the land regains it’s foothold, lies the Chilean Lakes District. The island of Chiloé, with it’s principal town of Castro, and beautiful islands and peninsulas, is a amazing place to spend a few days and explore. The largest town on the mainland is Puerto Montt, but you’ll likely prefer the more scenic Puerto Varas, located on the southern bank of Lago Llanquihue. Other towns along the west side of the lake (Frutillar and Puerto Octay) offer spectacular views of Volcan Osorno. A little further east lies Petrohue, located on Todos los Santos Lake, one of the most scenic in the country.
Pucon (the adventure sports capital of Chile) is situated at the foot of the Andes, with excellent views of Volcan Villarica, and wonderful hiking through Monkey Puzzle forests. Be sure to check out the hot springs at Los Pozones – some of the best we’ve encountered in South America.
SANTIAGO & VALPARAISO
Santiago is a bustling, modern metropolis. We started our trip here and I don’t feel we ever really got a handle on the place. Transportation is great, with a modern metro, and getting to and from the airport is simple. The Bohemian neighborhood of Bellavista is popular with travelers, but I believe there are better locations in the city.
Valparaíso, once one of the most important port cities in South America, is an experience not to be missed. The beautiful, funky, historical neighborhoods of Cerro Alegre and Concepcion offer hours of entertainment just walking around. Of the many funiculars spread across the city, only 5 of them are still working, due to low demand. Riding these will save your legs and offer up unique views of the city. A modern metro links Valparaiso with it’s more upscale neighbor Viña del Mar. This is where you’ll find the first beaches, or head further up the coast to newer suburbs Concón and Quintero.
For the Pablo Neruda fan, or just someone interested in architecture and art, the three Pablo Neruda houses in this area are a must-see. His first, La Chascona, is located in the Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago. A second, La Sebastiana, overlooks Valparaíso, and his third is a little south, in Isla Negra.
LA SERENA & THE ELQUI VALLEY
La Serena is in the first major metropolitan area north of Valparaiso. It lies at the foot of the Elqui Valley, and there are some nice beaches along the road to Coquimbo. You will most likely be staying here for a day or two, taking trips up the valley to Vicuña, or the more picturesque Pisco Elqui. The Elqui Valley is a major Pisco producing region. The largest distillery (a cooperation) CAPEL, can be found in Vicuña.
ATACAMA DESERT & THE FAR NORTH
San Pedro de Atacama, a desert tourist town that occasionally runs out of cash, is a major jumping off point for jeep tours into Bolivia. There are several good attractions nearby as well (e.g. Valle de la Luna), so planning to stay a few days would be worth it. Further north lie the historically Peruvian towns of Iquique and Arica. Iquique boasts a pleasant, urban feel and a nice waterfront. Check out the nearby ghost town of Humberstone.
Arica is located near the Chile-Peru boarder, and might be worth a night or two stop if planning on heading up to Putre and Lauca National Park. Beware the elevation if you attempt this trip, as you will likely go from Arica (sea level) to Putre (3,300 meters) in less than one day. It’s possible to continue on from Putre to Bolivia.
OTHER PLACES IN CHILE
Due to rapidly deteriorating weather, the Wongenbergs had to leave Patagonia and the Lakes District before seeing a lot of great places. For the adventurous, get off the beaten path by taking a ferry from Chiloé to Chaiten and continue south to Futeleufú (great rafting) and Coyhaique (great fishing). Near Lago Llanquehue, head for the Cochamo Valley (climbing), which is often compared to Yosemite. It’s possible to hike from here to Argentina, ending up south of Bariloche. In the northern Lakes District, experience more German culture in Valdivia and Villarica.
South of Santiago are small surfing communities; we heard good things about Pichilemu. The beautiful bay at Bahía Inglesa and the fishing village of Caldera are both worth a visit if you are near Copiapó.