9 Must-Sees That Make Chile The Best Place You've Never Been
By Nicholas Gill, Christie Pashby, and Kristina Schreck; Edited by Liza Bayless
Chile is a land of extremes. From the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert, to its southern tip of Patagonia, the country has a wide range of offerings. The landscapes aren’t the only allures, though; sprawling capital Santiago and smaller towns like edgy Valparaíso and beachside La Serena present opportunities to learn about colonial history, take on extreme sports, and hit the beach for a few days. Here are some of our don’t miss experiences for your next visit to this South American gem:
Stargazing in the Southern Hemisphere's Clearest Skies
Northern Chile’s dry skies are some of the clearest in the world, which is why so many international research teams have flocked to this region to erect multimillion-dollar observatories. There are plenty of stargazing opportunities for the amateur, too. The area around La Serena is home to several observatories that are open to visitors. A couple of hotels, including Elqui Domos in the Elqui Valley, and the Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa and Explora at San Pedro de Atacama, have on-site telescopes; or you can book a night tour with a degreed guide who can point out Southern Hemisphere constellations and other celestial wonders.
Skiing & Snowboarding the Andes
Visiting the Andes, the second-highest peaks outside the Himalayas, is an exhilarating experience, since they are one of the world’s best places to ski or snowboard—during the “summer,” or from June to October. Portillo has been around for more than 50 years, and its steep chutes offer formidable challenges for advanced skiers. Valle Nevado is the country’s most modern and largest resort, with the continent’s best heliskiing. Termas de Chillán is on a geothermal fault line and adds hot springs to its après-ski scene. A laid-back scene, few people on the slopes, and a convivial atmosphere are the hallmarks of any Chile ski trip.
Exploring Easter Island
Easter Island, or “Rapa Nui,” is famous for its ethereal moai sculptures that defy hyperbole, regardless of how many tourist brochure images of them you’ve seen. Traveling to the world’s most remote island—it’s located farther away from land than any other island—will make for an unforgettable odyssey. The entire island is a veritable living museum; it boasts two gorgeous beaches, phenomenal scuba diving in indigo blue waters, wild horses, and a rich Polynesian culture that has survived against all odds.
Wandering the Madcap Streets of Valparaíso
The ramshackle, colorful, and sinuous streets of Valparaíso offer a walking tour unlike any other. Antique Victorians and tin-walled buildings cling to steep hillsides, roads and walkways wind haphazardly around the slopes like a rabbit’s warren, and rickety funiculars lift visitors to the tops of hills. Beyond the fun of exploring this city, Valparaíso boasts gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels, too. Bohemian, chaotic, and enigmatic, Valparaíso embodies the soul of Pablo Neruda, whose old home La Sebastiana is now a museum.
Seeing a Sunset in the Atacama Desert
As the sun rises and falls upon this rarified, ethereal landscape of timeless volcanoes, serrated mountains, and striated mesas, some of nature’s most foreboding glories are reinvented again and again. Palette shifts from beige to golden brown and improbable pinks, blues, and greens, and silhouettes recast the imagination to thoughts of lost civilizations.
Glimpsing the Cuernos and Torres del Paine
It’s the iconic image of Patagonia and one of the most stunning horizons on the planet. But the weather makes it far from a sure thing; many make the arduous journey to the end of the world without ever actually seeing the majestic horns and towers that make up the Paine Massif. Those who are fortunate enough to be rewarded with even a quick glance through the stormy clouds will never, ever forget the sight.
Strolling through San Pedro de Atacama
Quaint, unhurried, and built of Adobe brick, San Pedro de Atacama has drawn travelers the world over who have come to explore the charm and New Age spirituality that wafts through the dusty roads of this town. Its location, in the driest desert in the world, makes for starry skies and breathtaking views of the weird and wonderful land formations that are just a stone’s throw away. A distinctive collection of adobe hotels, which embody so effortlessly the concept of rustic chic, completes the town’s lost pueblo ambience.
Experiencing Life in the Small Southern Towns
San Pedro isn’t the only small town worth visiting; Pucón (pictured above), Chile’s self-proclaimed adventure capital, offers so many outdoor activities that you could keep busy for a week. Further south, Frutillar and Puerto Varas were built by German immigrants who settled there in the early 1900s. If you’re lucky, you can still catch a few old-timers chatting in German over coffee and küchen (cake). Both of these neighboring towns feature a glorious view of Volcán Osorno and a lakefront address, a picture-perfect location that makes for an excellent boardwalk stroll. And Futaleufú, nestled in a green valley surrounded by an amphitheater of craggy, snow-encrusted peaks, is without a doubt, one of the prettiest villages in Chile.
Casting a Line for Jumbo Trout
Chile has literally thousands of spots for fly-fishing, from the Lake District all the way down to the sub-Antarctic wilderness of Tierra del Fuego. Above all, the many lodges along the remote Carretera Austral draw fishing aficionados from around the world to rivers and lakes full of trout, weighing in from a pound to the hefty 8- to 10-pounders around Villa O’Higgins at the end of the road. Remember that the farther south you go, the shorter the season gets.