The advantages of traveling with an organized group are plentiful, especially for travelers who have limited time and enjoy the security of knowing in advance how each day will look. Tour operators take the headache out of planning a trip and can help transcend any cultural and linguistic barriers. A guide can also interpret the culture and history of Chile and the natural surroundings of your destination. Most tours include guides, ground transportation, accommodations, meals, and gear. Independent travelers tend to view organized tours as antithetical to the joy of discovery and too prescriptive, but leaving the details to someone else does free up substantial time to concentrate on something else.
The best tours limit group size to 10 to 15 people, which allows for personal attention and a bit of breathing room -- this is appreciated after a week on the road together. Of course, most tour operators can book a custom trip for a family or small group, but the cost will be far higher than a regularly scheduled tour. Ask about difficulty levels when you're choosing a tour. Most tours are focused on "soft" adventure, with light excursions that are suitable even for couch tubers; be truthful with yourself when considering more difficult journeys. A multi-day adventure that includes trekking through virgin jungle might look great on paper, but are you physically up to it? Tour operators are responsible for their clients' well-being and safety, but that doesn't let you off the hook in terms of your own personal responsibility. Inquire about your guide's experience, safety record, and insurance policy. Remember, no adventure trip is 100% risk-free.
Ecotourism -- You can find eco-friendly travel tips, statistics, and touring companies and associations -- listed by destination under "Travel Choice" -- at the TIES website, www.ecotourism.org. Ecotravel.com is part online magazine and part eco-directory, which lets you search for touring companies in several categories (water-based, land-based, spiritually oriented, and so on). Also check out Conservation International (www.conservation.org).
North America-Based Tour Operators
These agencies and operators specialize in well-organized, 7- to 15-day tours that allow travelers to pack a lot of action into a short period of time. (Tip: There's really no point in booking a tour that takes you to an all-inclusive lodge with its own guides and transportation, unless you just want someone to solve any glitches from start to finish.) A few of the operators include luxury accommodations and gourmet dining as part of the travel itinerary, and are therefore very expensive. Remember, the tours shown below do not include international or internal airfare. Solo travelers in most cases will be charged the dreaded single supplement that can run an additional $500 to $1,500 (£333-£1,000).
- Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/550-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com), an award-winning tour operator that caters to the luxury market (world-class hotels and gourmet dining), offers mostly set trips that combine Argentina or Brazil with Chile, and many tailored trips for families and independent groups. Their Wonders of Chile, Brazil, and Argentina tour takes travelers from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Bariloche, Buenos Aires, Iguazú Falls, and Río de Janeiro for $11,365 (£7,577) per person; their Chile Signature Series includes wine tasting, Patagonia, and the Atacama Desert for $8,825 (£5,648) per person.
- Backroads Active Vacations (tel. 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1444; www.backroads.com) concentrates on active travel, leaning toward easy-going adventures, paired with stays at luxury hotels and inns. Backroads has two trips in Chile: a walking/biking tour through the lake districts of Chile and Argentina, with stops in Puerto Varas, Bariloche, and Villa la Angostura (with an afternoon of rafting); and hiking in Torres del Paine and Perito Moreno national parks. The 9-day biking trip costs $4,898 (£3,265) per person ($1,400/£933 extra for single supplement).
- Bike Hike Adventures (tel. 888/805-0061; www.bikehike.com) is a Toronto-based company specializing in multisport adventures for travelers who are at least in moderate shape. Their 7-day "A Pure Natural High" takes place around Puerto Varas and Ensenada, rafting the Petrohue, climbing to the peak of Volcán Osorno, horseback riding, and an 8-mile hike through Alerce Andino Park, with stays in moderate hotels and 1 night in a mountain refuge ($1,899/£1,266 per person). Bike Hike also has a 7-day, mountain refuge-based "Best of Patagonia" hiking trip, including Chile and Argentina ($1,999/£1,333).
- Country Walkers (tel. 800/464-9255; www.countrywalkers.com) focuses on easy to moderate, 5- to 12-mile day hikes through the highlights of the Lake District and Patagonia, including Vicente Pérez and Alerce Andino national parks, the emerald isles of Chiloé, and Torres del Paine, with overnights in high-end hotels. The 11-day trip costs $5,998 (£3,999) per person, with a single person supplement of $875/£583, and operates as early as October.
- Gap Adventures (tel. 800/708-7761; www.gapadventures.com) is a Canadian company that provides young adventurous travelers with journeys that steer clear of "traditional tourism," offering trips tailored to all lower budgets. Gap's "Roam" trips are a good bet for independent travelers who want to hit the road at leisure, stay in local homes, and tour with local operators, but are unsure how to go about planning their trip. The 13-day "Southern Sejorne," from Santiago to Buenos Aires, includes rafting in Pucón; paragliding, hiking, and skiing in Bariloche; and tango dancing in Buenos Aires. Accommodations are simple (no meals included), and there are two night bus rides, for $600 (£400).
- Mountain-Travel Sobek (tel. 888/MTSOBEK [687-6235] or 510/594-6000; www.mtsobek.com) are the pioneers of organized adventure travel; their trips involve a lot of physical activity and combine camping with hotel stays, with an average of 12 nights. Sample trips include the 10-night "Trekking the Paine Circuit," which costs, per person, $4,695 (£3,130) for five to eight guests, and $4,390 (£2,926) for 9 to 12 guests. Sobek is a pricey outfitter, but the guides carry gear and set up camp for guests, and Sobek is known for its knowledgeable and competent guides.
- Wilderness Travel (tel. 800/368-2794 or 510/558-2488; www.wildernesstravel.com) offers the most complete tour of the Lake District, visiting little-known national parks such as Conguilillo and Puyuehue. In addition to hiking in Patagonia, they have a hiking trip in the remote Futaleufú region with lodging in wooden cabins and tree houses, as well as a pricey cruise to Easter Island. The cost for the Lake District hiking tour is $3,995 (£2,663) per person for 4 guests, and $4,395 (£2,930) per person for 2 or 3 guests. Accommodations upgrades are possible for an additional charge.
U.K.-based Tour Operator
Journey Latin America (tel. 020/8747-3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) is the U.K.'s largest tour operator that specializes in Latin American travel with a plethora of tailor-made and group tours. You'll really need to browse their website for ideas, which can be "Classic Tours" or "Original Adventures," focusing on active travel with stays in moderately priced lodging and public transportation often included. The 14-day "Pure Patagonia" tour costs $3,827 (£2,551). Other trips include luxury hotels and dining.
Chile-Based Tour Operators
Remember that international tour operators without their own local offices often subcontract local tour operators or book stays in all-inclusive hotels. Operators based in Chile typically offer a wider variety of tours here -- after all, they operate within their own country. The following operators run a multitude of trips throughout the country.
- Altué Expediciones (tel. 2/232-1103; www.altue.com) is the oldest and most respected tour outfitter in Chile. Their specialties are rafting (rivers Futaleufú, Maipo, and what's left of the Bío-Bío) and horseback riding (Central Andes, La Campana National Park, Patagonia), as well as their terrific kayaking operation/lodge based in Chiloé (with trips around Chiloé and Parque Pumalín). They have exceptionally friendly guides, a solid operation, and very reasonable prices. They can put together any kind of cultural tour or custom tour, including wine tasting, fly-fishing, and archeological tours.
- Azimut Expediciones (tel. 2/235-1519; www.azimut.cl), a French and Chilean-run operation, is a top choice for adventure travel and traditional tours with an "avant-garde" itinerary -- that is, travel that takes you to off-the-beaten-path locations and overland tours. Like Latitud 90, this is a good choice for day tours and longer, more challenging expeditions in the Atacama Desert.
- Latitud 90 (tel. 2/599-4664; www.latitud90.com) is the most complete tour operator in Chile, offering soft and hard adventure trips and more traditional excursions such as wine tasting and cultural visits to areas outside of Santiago. It's a good outfit for mountaineering, and they also specialize in tailor-made trips, and incentive and group tours.
Other General-Interest Tour Agencies & Package Deals
- Chile Discover (tel. 866/369-8046; www.chilediscover.com) puts together "Self-Guided" tours, whereby they book the car rental, hotels, and any other reservations; provide you with a map; and send you on your way on an independent tour. Research the hotels that they suggest as part of their itinerary -- they may not be the best available.
- Discover Latinamerica (tel. 888/887-8869; www.discoverchile.com) is owned by Chile's largest and most respected tour operator, Turismo Cocha, which often secures cheaper prices for hotels and other packages. Discover Chile is another excellent resource, offering complete trip planning and set packages, custom tours, and lower-cost deals on flights.
- Ladatco Tours (tel. 800/327-6162; www.ladatco.com) organizes preprogrammed and custom tours in all regions of Chile, including theme-oriented tours such as wine tasting, fly-fishing, glaciers, and more. Ladatco has operated as a Central and South America tour operator for 30 years. The epic, 25-day "Ultimate Chile" tour includes luxury accommodations and costs $14,995 (£9,596) per person based on double occupancy.
- PanAmerican Travel (tel. 801/364-4359; www.panamtours.com) is an outstanding company staffed by Latin Americans with firsthand knowledge of Chile. The company specializes in reasonably priced custom trips with unique itineraries, not set trips or standardized packaged vacations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.