By the time I arrived in Chile, I had been travelling around South America for several months. I had been learning some Spanish along the way and was starting to feel like conversations weren’t as much of a struggle.
Then I got off the bus in Santiago and wondered if the trip over the Andes had wiped my memory of everything I had learned.
Trying to speak to Chileans, I didn’t understand anything they said. And, while they seemed to understand me, that’s no good if I don’t know what they’re saying in reply.
As it turns out, people in Chile speak Spanish very differently – quickly and by abbreviating and combining many words. The language here is like nowhere else in South America.
And the reason I am telling you this? Well, because it captures the country as a whole. There is nowhere else in the world like Chile!
It is a land of extremes, from the super dry desert in the north, to the epic mountains and glaciers in the south.
The cities are full of vibrant culture, with incredible food and wine.
And even in the centre of the country, where the isolation and nature is not quite as extreme, are some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll ever see, packed with adventure.
Unless you’ve got a lot of time, it’ll be hard to experience all the best things to do in Chile – after all, it’s more than 4000 kilometres long from north to south!
Which is why you may prefer to just focus on a particular region in Chile and make the most of what’s on offer there.
Patagonia, for example, has some amazing treks that can be the centrepiece of your trip. Or, you could base yourself in Santiago and do side excursions to other cultural and natural attractions.
To help you plan your trip and decide where to go, here are my top tips for what to do in Chile.
At the high altitudes of northern Chile lies the Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth.
This vast landscape is full of the most surreal sights you can find in South America – rugged canyons of Valle de la Luna, roaring El Tatio geysers, bubble gum-coloured volcanoes and salty lakes. Beyond that, layers of history are hidden in the petroglyphs scattered around Rainbow Valley.
The Mars-like landscapes continue to west Chile, where the towns Arica and Iquique really stand out. Great places to explore Chile’s culture, but Pisac – home to Chile’s national drink, is the real gem of cultural travel.
Lauca National Park
In the far north of Chile, alongside Bolivia’s border is Lauca National Park. This arid expanse is the natural habitat of vicuñas – wild South American camels that live 4000 metres above the sea.
The snow-capped Parinacota Volcano dominates the landscape, rising to a mind-blowing 6380 metres. Its image is reflected in the mirror-like Cotacotani Lake, and the nearby Iglesia de Parinacota is a reminder of the Spanish conquest.
To the west, where the desert meets the sea, you will find Arica. Its streets are a great insight into local life, but Arica’s remarkable museums will take you on a journey through its rich history.
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
A bit further south, the mining town that turned into a ghost town is another dive into Chile’s history.
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works is a relic of the nitrate industry that boosted the Chilean economy starting in the 1870s through to the late 1950s, when it plummeted, severely impacting the Pampinos (people living in the plains of South America).
This megalopolis in the middle of the Atacama Desert solely built from Oregon pine wood and metal is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List and has recently been renovated into an Interpretation Centre that recreates the scenes from when the fabric was at its height.
San Pedro de Atacama
The heart of Atacama and your base for northern Chile, San Pedro is a charming town where buildings are made out of clay that shimmer in the desert haze, giving it that surreal vibe.
Embraced by numerous volcanoes, some among the world’s most active, it offers jaw-dropping views that seem out of this world.
The plain horizon is interrupted by the moon-like Valle de la Luna. A valley of bizarre rock formations, dunes and canyons that turns bright orange during the golden hours.
The nearby El Tatio geysers roar high up at 4320 metres and are especially spectacular when shimmering in the sunrise haze.
At the end of the arid expanse, the desert and the ocean come together and craft some spectacular, long beaches. Arica is the favourite holiday destination among Chileans.
Playa El Faro is the main beach in La Serena, and it is marked by a lighthouse standing tall at the end of Avenue del Mar.
Just down south is Playa Blanca, where blue waters are backdropped by a huge sand dune, creating a beautiful natural contrast.
But the biggest highlight is Isla Damas – where you can find sea birds, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, and even penguins.
Step beyond Chile’s natural beauty to explore its culture, delightful food and traditional drinks – or dive deep into the history of Chile’s major cities.
Follow in Charles Darwin’s footsteps and explore Santiago de Chile or stroll along the artsy and hip seaside Valparaiso.
The arid climate of Chile is the idyllic location for wineries, and the exquisite wine culture of Chile is best tasted in Colchagua, a region south of the Capital.
Further down south, the climate gets brisker and fresher. Swap desert valleys for the icey valleys of Cajón del Maipo for majestic landscapes of drastic, snow-capped peaks and days of adventure.
Santiago de Chile
In the heart of the longest country in the world lies Santiago de Chile – its capital city. Although it has always been a metropolis, it became the capital when Chile gained independence in 1810.
Shortly after that, Charles Darwin landed his ship in the far south of Chile and began his travels throughout the country. Follow his footsteps to Santa Lucia hill, rising tall in Santiago’s downtown and offering mesmerising views of the nearby mountains that the capital city is nestled in.
There are lots of things to do in Santiago. Plaza de Armas, sitting in the Historic Centre, is a great starting point for further exploration of Santiago’s hip street scene.
Turning west, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, soars Valparaiso – the seaport city of Chile. This colonial town is loaded with intriguing history and fascinating culture and it’s easy to spend several days seeing the sights of Valparaíso.
Due to its location, the city has seen pirate raids, storms, earthquakes, and as of recently, serious anti-government protests.
The street art is a highlight, telling stories of past events and the cracks in the colourful buildings ground the past like scars.
Built over countless hills, Valparaíso is known for steep funiculars that offer views of colourful and buzzing, hip neighbourhoods. And inside those, hole-in-the-street bars selling craft beers and Chileans’ favourite – a plate of chorrillana.
Cajón del Maipo
Some of the best things to do in Chile are its natural wonders, and some of them are easily accessible from the main cities.
Deep in the magnificent Andes lies Cajón del Maipo. This region is Chile’s best-kept secret, and all adventurous travellers need to add it to their list.
Home to the spectacular El Morado glacial cirque that encompasses San Francisco Glacier which you can ice-climb on a thrilling full-day expedition.
Just around the corner, you’ll find Valle de Colina Hot Springs. The experience of soaking in the hot water and overlooking the icy glaciers and mountains is unforgettable.
Sewell Mining Town
Nearby, nestled between the harsh peaks of the Andes, lies an abandoned mining town.
It was built to house the workers of what was supposed to be the largest underground copper mine. The project eventually plummeted as the terrain was too steep for vehicles to get around. Afterwards, over 11,000 people moved out and left Sewell Mining Town.
Public spaces such as main squares and a church remain standing among colourful houses that were left behind.
Today, you can walk around the deserted streets and visit the Museum of Copper Mining to learn about the copper industry and Sewell itself.
Moving south to Colchagua – the wine region of Chile, where over 50,000 acres of the province are vineyards. Some of the world’s best full-bodied red wines are produced here – cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah.
One of the most popular activities is to, of course, taste the wine. The best way to do so is by joining a tour led by a knowledgeable local guide, that will take you to the best vineyards for a chance to sample their wines whilst overlooking the Colchagua Valley wrapped in never-ending grapevines.
For more adventurous ways to spend your day, rent a bike or go horse-riding.
Chile might not strike you as a surfing destination, but Pichilemu begs to differ. This area remains relatively under-the-radar, even though Pichilemu is the ‘surf capital of the world’!
It’s home to Playa Punta de Lobos, which is famous not just for its stunning surroundings, but also for its left-hand waves that rise up to 9 metres tall. It’s here where you can observe pelicans hovering above the waves, that crush into the towering cliffs at the shores.
Playa Infiernillo is a small, black-sand beach that you’re more than likely to have all to yourself. The town itself is full of surf hostels and bars that offer fun nightlife.
Southern Lake District
Inching toward the southern tip of Chile, passing through Concepción all the way to the remote island of Chiloé, lies the Southern Lake District. And everywhere in between… snowy volcanoes rising out among glacier lakes and crisp forests. This is the adventure region of Chile.
Unveiling jaw-dropping scenery with the iconic, perfectly coned Villarrica Volcano at the foreground and at its foothills, two of the twelve major lakes that Southern Lake District harbours.
To the west, Termas Geometricas are natural hot springs complemented by a roaring waterfall. And to the south, the Cochamo Valley is made up of rough, granite mountains with the azure Cochamó River rushing through the plains.
In the heart of the Chilean Lake District lies Pucón, and it is the perfect base if you are planning on adding some adventurous experiences to your Chile bucket list.
Home to the Villarrica Volcano that can be summited on a full-day unforgettable expedition. For easier hikes, stroll around Lake Villarrica and take in the perfect views of the isolated wilderness.
To the east, is Huerquehue National Park, in which glassy lakes and towering mountains and trails lined with fragrant trees that are hundreds of years old.
One of the other great things to do in Pucón is visit the natural hot springs, which are dotted around the town with views of magnificent mountains – perfect after a day of hiking!
Puerto Varas is a blend of captivating natural beauty and fascinating history.
German colonisation of southern Chile began in the 19th century at the time of the 1848 revolutions in Germany. Today, cities like Puerto Varas carry German architecture and the cafés sell kuchen (cake, in German).
Kuschel House and the Sacred Heart Church located in the downtown reflect the influence of German culture.
In the backdrop, Osorno and Calbuco Volcanoes stand tall enough for their peaks to be dipped by the clouds and snow. Down below at the slopes of Osorno Volcano is the Petrohue River, which flows through Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park – Chile’s oldest national park.
To the east, buried in the Andes Mountain range lies the Cochamo Valley. Made up of rugged, granite mountains, thick forest and ice-cold river, this valley is full of opportunities for adventurous activities.
Rafting down the wild Petrohué River that snakes around the breathtaking vistas will be an unforgettable experience. Or for a more chill experience, go kayaking around the fjords and try to spot sea lions!
Paso Leon is 120 years-old trail connecting Argentina with the Chilean seaside. In the past, it was used by Argentinian farmers to transport cattle. Today, you can walk in their footsteps on a journey that will take you through local villages.
Moving southward and away from the mainland to the captivating Chiloé Archipelago, where wooden churches and colourful stilt houses dominate the landscape.
In the north, Ancud is a fishing town where you can spot penguins waddling off the small islets in the cold waters of Ancud Gulf.
The archipelago houses over 160 churches and 16 of them are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wooden and painted in vibrant colours, they represent the strong European influence on southern Chile.
Santa Maria de Loreto Church is Chiloé’s oldest church. Standing since 1740 and held together by wooden pegs, it is entirely constructed of wood. The other churches are scattered around the archipelago.
The southernmost tip of Chile encompasses the world-famous Patagonia region. A vast realm of dramatic landscapes: drastic peaks, rugged glaciers, and marble caves, Chilean Patagonia is undoubtedly, one of the best things to do in Chile.
Starting off with the Hanging Glacier, which transforms into a roaring waterfall and then a rushing river in Queulat National Park, we then go down to Torres del Paine, home to the iconic Three Towers and the remarkable ‘W Trek’.
And finally, there’s Punta Arenas – the town at the end of the world and a gateway to Antarctica.
Queulat National Park
Just off the final stretch of the Pan-American Highway, you will find Queulat National Park and in it, the Hanging Glacier. Nestled high in the granite mountains it plummets waterfalls into the valley down below, where it meets the lush green rainforest.
The rainforest stretches to the south, where you can walk the ‘Enchanted Forest’ trail or hike to the hidden ‘Salto del Padre Garcia’ waterfalls.
Apart from the magnificent glaciers and rugged fjords, the vast, icy realm is interrupted by glacial rivers. Sea kayaking on these rivers will take you to some of the most remote corners of the national park.
Northern Patagonian Icefield
The remnants of the Patagonian Ice Sheet formed during the Ice Age that transformed southern Chile into an expansive ice field over 20,000 years ago. Today, the Northern Patagonian Icefield is a realm of expansive glaciers spreading over rugged terrain and spilling into the high altitudes of the Andes.
One of the most remote glaciers is the Exploradores Glacier which sits nestled by some of the region’s highest mountains. 18km of rugged ice and rock, that you can ice-climb for the ultimate Patagonian experience.
To the west, San Rafael Glacier dips into a lagoon. Only accessible by a boat that passes through chunks of ice.
Torres del Paine National Park
To the south, lies Torres del Paine National Park. Home to the iconic Three Towers – the horn-like peaks that tower over the surrounding glassy lakes, vast grasslands, and more drastic peaks.
Torres del Paine offers the best trekking in the world. You can explore the park and soak in the captivating views on the world-famous ‘W Trek’ or ‘O Circuit’ treks, that will take you through the park’s highlights.
Other adventures include getting close to the icebergs of Glacier Grey on a kayak, venturing into grasslands in search of a puma or ice climbing the Perito Moreno glacier.
Moving further south near Chile’s bounds, you will find Puerto Natales. Located at the foothills of Torres del Paine, most travellers only pass through and don’t bother exploring this small town more thoroughly.
If you want to learn more about the indigenous populations and the 19th-century European colonisation, head to Museo Histórico, followed by a stroll down La Costanera – a boardwalk with incredible views.
Just off Puerto Natales are the Milodón Caves that hold some of the earliest human evidence and replica of the giant Milodon sloth, that used to roam around the lands of Patagonia over 10,000 years back.
Reaching the southernmost tip of Chile, ‘the town at the end of the world’ is Punta Arenas. Rising off the legendary Strait of Magellan – a natural sea channel that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Punta Arenas witnessed many European explorers and adventurers passing through the Strait of Magellan, back hundreds of years ago. Nao Victoria Museum houses replicas of those ships and goes deeper into the ‘Magellan route’ that’s now used to circumnavigate the world.
You can also sail down this legendary strait to Los Pingüinos National Monument – a series of islands that all together house over 60,000 Megallenic penguins.
Over 3500km west of Chile lies the spectacular Rapa Nui Island, also known as Easter Island. Famous for the moai statues – mysterious volcanic stone figures with oversized heads, that rise out of the desolate plains.
The northern tip of this tiny island encompasses Rapa Nui National Park. Home to Ahu Tongariki – the most famous row of the statues.
And at the southern end lies Rano Kau – an extinct volcano transformed into a crater lake. It is the main water source for the villagers of today, as well as the Rapa Nui populations that lived here thousands of years ago.