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Our Top Five Places To Visit In Chile

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We have spent nearly four months traveling through Chile from north to south, east to west, and south to north again.

Due to the country’s unique shape, Chile can actually be quite an overwhelming country to conquer. Not the width, with the average east to west span only 177km (110 miles); it is the length of Chile, extending 4,270km (2,653 mi) that makes travel here so daunting. Expect lots of loooong bus rides, since the best places to visit are hundreds of miles north or south of each other. The Atacama Desert, for example, is a 24 hour bus ride from Santiago, for most the next logical stop southward while traveling through Chile and over 4,700km (2,920miles) from Puerto Natales, the jumping-off point for Torres Del Paine National Park. Despite its geographical challenges, Chile is an incredible place to travel with glaciers, deserts, lakes, the Andes mountains and thousands of miles of coastline.

ChileWe’ll cover logistics and keeping to a budget in Chile in a future post, but for now we wanted to share our top five favorite places to travel through in Chile.

5. Elqui Valley

An serendipitous discovery on our recent trip from Santiago to Iquique, the narrow Elqui Valley stretches all the way from the adorable beach town of La Serena (about 7 hours north of Santiago) to the Argentine border – roughly 140km. There is a dramatic contrast between the rough mountain sides and the lush green valley in between, where grapes for pisco and wine are cultivated, as well as Chilean papayas, avocados, oranges and other fruit. Little towns with sleepy town squares dot the valley and you can stop at a pisco distilleries that invite to stop for a tasting. The valley is also known for its crystal clear night skies, perfect for excellent star gazing conditions. Elqui Valley ChileVisit the valley on an organized tour from La Serena or take the public bus which stops in the main towns: Vicuña is the birthplace of Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral; Monte Grande is where you can visit Gabriela Mistral’s childhood home; Pisco Elqui makes a great base for two or three days of hikes into the mountains, bike rides or horseback riding. If you have more time, spend a couple of days – there are some great hotels in the valley (mainly in Pisco Elqui) and that way you get to see that amazing clear night sky!Elqui Valley Hotels

4. Lake District

The Lake District is about 1,000km (620miles) south of Santiago and is often compared to Switzerland and Austria, thanks to its many lakes in an Alpine setting. However, the surrounding volcanoes (there are six of them) and touches of Chilean culture definitely gave the area its very own charm, despite traces of German settlers found everywhere – especially in the widespread kuchen custom! The region is a mecca for hikers and active travelers. You can do anything here from here climbing volcanoes to rafting or other water sports, skiing in the winter months and mountain biking in the summer. There are twelve lakes that give the region its name, and you can spend weeks exploring the Lake District’s National Parks without getting bored. We only visited Pucon and Puerto Varas because the weather was not great when we visited the area, but Temuco, Villarica and Osorno would also have been worth a visit.

Chile Lake DistrictIf you visit the Lake District, you should consider visiting the island of Chiloe from here, which is only a couple of hours away that offers a rare look at a more indigenous side of Chilean culture.

3. Valparaiso

Chile’s historic seaport city sprawls up the sides of 42 hilltops, making it the most unique city we visited in all of Chile. One of the most important players in world trade in the 19th century, there is a bohemian vibe and crumbling grandeur in Valparaiso. You can take several ascensores, steep hillside funiculars, up and down the hills and get lost wandering around the maze of cobble-stone streets and alleys that all magically connect the hills. As if the houses themselves aren’t colorful enough, there is street art everywhere, little cafes dot the hills, and we loved the view over the sparkling lights across the bay from our lovely B&B, the Casa Kreyenberg. The graffiti and the buildings that are in need of restoration (much of Valparaiso has been renovated since the city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003) give parts of Valparaiso a gritty feel, but that is part of what defines the colorful city by the bay.Valparaiso Chile

2. Torres Del Paine

Uninterested in the famous 4-5 day W Trek, we almost gave Torres del Paine a miss, but we ended up spending much longer in town than we originally thought. By in town, we mean Puerto Natales, the city and jumping off point for the Torres del Paine National Park. The city itself is a pleasant place with great food and modern facilities – albeit almost entirely geared toward trekkers. The National Park offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Patagonia: glaciers, mountain lakes, waterfalls and the Cerro Paine mountain range which is a paradise for trekkers. Guanacos roam freely through the steppe and might actually the only other sign of life you’ll encounter for hours on a hike. Even though we didn’t hike any of the trails with the best views, you can drive around the park and see the main landmarks in a day or two (there are several lodging options in the park, from basic refugios to high-end glamping).

Torres Del Paine National Park

1. San Pedro De Atacama

Our absolute favorite place in Chile is San Pedro De Atacama, a tiny town in northern Chile, surrounded by the driest desert in the world – the Atacama Desert. The town itself has maintained its Spanish-colonial charm with a bright white church on the tree-filled town square and one-story adobe homes that now house little hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores. San Pedro De Atacama ChileWe were amazed that this little town in the middle of the desert turned out to have some of the best food options in all of Chile and the surrounding area can keep you busy for days: tours to the Valle de la Luna, El Tatio Geyser, mountain lagoons and hot springs, salt flats and salt caves – no matter which direction you choose, the landscape is spectacular. Similar to the Elqui Valley, the Atacama has some of the clearest night skies in the world and you can take a stargazing tour to observe the milky way from the southern hemisphere.san pedro de atacama hotels

What about Santiago?

We spent over two months in Chile’s capital and have grown to love Santiago… slowly. We have to admit that it was a slow burn and it took us a couple of weeks to truly love Santiago, which is way more time than most travelers have. But since you’re likely to spend at least a couple of days here, these are the things you shouldn’t miss in Santiago, and if you have more time, make sure to go beyond Central Santiago.

Santiago ChileHave you been to Chile? What are your favorite places? Please share them in the comments below!

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43 Comments

  1. They grow papayas in Chile? Who knew?! I’m surprised San Pedro is your number one pick, but then we didn’t get there to have an idea what it’s like, but then we only really saw the Lake District from this list. Next time, right?!
    Sam recently posted..Travel Diary: 2013, Week #48

    1. Actually, San Pedro didn’t only make the #1 on our list of favorite places in Chile, but was in our Top 5 places in our third year of travel 🙂 We loved it when we were there the first time in April and when we returned last month for a second time it hadn’t lost any of its magic 😀 We’ll write more about San Pedro and the Atacama Desert soon, and will also write more about the Elqui Valley, including some pictures of the papayas (they’re tiny, and sour, not sweet at all! Papaya Sour is actually a specialty in this region of Chile) I hope you’ll make it to northern Chile one day, it is a truly stunning region!

      1. Ich denke, dass der nördliche Teil von Chile, hat seine eigene besondere Schönheit meine Top 4
        1 Valle de Elqui
        2 San Pedro de Atacama
        3 Desierto florido N.P LLanos de challle (winter)
        4 N.P PAN DE AZÚCAR – CHAÑARAL

        obs// aber ich denke, das Essen ist lecker abolutamente!
        und wenn es eine scharfe Chili.nicht für den nächsten Europa Restaurants beide Arten, die mehr lokalen Alternativen essen

    1. Thanks, Claire! I hope you’ll make it to Chile soon – it is such a diverse country. Patagonia in the south is nothing like the Atacama Desert in the north and no city is like the other. When we looked back at all the places we visited and tried to pick our five favorites, we realized just how much we enjoyed traveling the country and how many gorgeous places we’ve seen in Chile!

    1. I know – I guess it would be, but we never made it out there 🙁 I hope we’ll get to go there next time we’re down in Chile – it’s such a shame that we didn’t visit Easter Island!!

    1. Thanks 🙂 I think bankruptcy might actually happen in Chile 😉 It’s definitely not a cheap place to travel – we’ll publish our travel expenses for Chile later this week 😀

  2. Great top 5. Chili is not a very popular destination among Canadian travellers. The Caribbean and Cuba in particular are very common destination. Discovering Chili from your post is awesome.

  3. I have to admit, I loved Santiago after one afternoon. I could see myself living there very happily. It might just have been the perfect weather I had and the good mood I was in though! Even sharing a room with a very creepy old guy who told me he could ‘touch me as I slept’ didn’t put a dampner on things (it probably should have, right?!!). Valparaiso was fantastic. I think I have to go back to Chile again soon!
    Arianwen recently posted..Behind the Scenes at WILD LIFE Sydney

  4. I LOVED Valparaiso!! We really enjoyed the free walking tour (tip the guy at the end) and the fish market. The fish market is between Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. Not only did they have some of the most beautiful fish there, but they had HUNDREDS of sea lions!! It was a blast watching the fish mongers dump the fish waste over the pier and seeing the sea lions come up and eat it. We also enjoyed Pablo Neruda’s house. For a complete experience, make sure you take a bus and a funicular!

    1. We took the free walking tour there, too! The sea lions were awesome! And absolutely agree with you, Dawn – no visit to Valpo is complete without riding a funicular and taking a bus 🙂

  5. One of our newspaper wrote yours coment about our food. and if you think our food is suck, Why I dont see any comment eating fine restaurant. You try the cheap food that you can buy on the street for 1 or 2 dollars. what is you expectation….??? high quality for this price.,. What about the german hot dog with english mustard or the tipical Donnut not so far to our sopaipillas, the diferent, eat a donnut without all this extra sugar, sirup and chocolate chip, sprinkles..dosen´t have any taste. So next to posted in a worlwide blog ” Why chilean food is suck” think twice what you post……. !!! For your next trip to Chile your food budget I hope can be more higher

    1. The point about the budget is pointless – you can eat excellent, delicious food around the world for much less than you have to pay in Chile for the same quality. It’s not about high budget it’s about value for money. In Chile you have to pay 7,000CLP for a good meal everyone is saying, when in cities like New York, Berlin, Paris, even Los Angeles you can eat excellent quality food for less. Despite the fact that we didn’t like the food – we loved your country.

      1. Love the comments about my country, Chile. Please visit Wikipedia, Etymology to see where the name comes from, “Where the land ends”, or “The deepst point of the earth”… just to mention some, as it has never meant chile as food. If you want hot food (picante) you’ll find it in Mexico! LOL I’ve been a world traveller. Just love to travel. Now I live in USA. My american in – law family just visited Chile, and must say they had so much fun, we even went to Torres del Paine all together. It’s funny though how each person has a different taste with food. They LOVED THE FOOD IN CHILE! They ate chilean empanadas, personally speaking and with all respect, they are the best of all latinamerica. We ate the best sea food! Congrio is a very tasty fish, boneless, I recommend it 100%. Oysters, Machas a la Parmesana (Parmesan), Locos, Sea Food Soup, mentioning some of them. Me as a chilean, like the Humitas only with sugar and a good tomato salad on it’s side, this is a very good tip! They are the best! And even better than the Humitas, is the Pastel de Choclo, made with tasty ground meat, onions and corn, just delicious! But you know what? As in every country, you need to know where to buy food and be told how to eat it. I say this because the first time I ate Sushi, I just loved it! It was so good, but it happened to be I ate in one of the best Sushi places in town. I’ve tried horrible Sushis, who hasn’t, right? And I can say, if the first time I tried Sushi, was in a bad place, probably I would never had tried it again…. And for all the people who are readying this, there are plenty of excellent restaurants all over the country, with gourmet food. You can eat all you can imagine of sea food. In the south of Chile, you can even try exotic meat as: Guanaco, a type of Llama, Jabali (ohhh… delicious!), Ostrich, etc.. Not to mention the WINE!!! Cheers!!! Saludos!!!

        1. Hi Paula, thanks for stopping by 🙂 We do know the origin of the word Chile, it was actually a joke that we connected chile and chili, but nobody seemed to have gotten it. Anyway, I am so glad that your in-laws enjoyed Chile and Chilean food! Our impression was that if people eat meat or seafood, the food options are very varied and awesome. If you don’t eat fish, seafood or meat, you won’t find lots of great food. However, not everything we ate in Chile sucked, and we did point that out 🙂

      2. The variety of food is so wide in every country, and likes and dislikes about food is always uncertain. if we like or not certain food of a certain country doesn’t mean the food suck. it is about your taste, what you like or not. I been in Italy, Hawaii, las vegas, ,Miami, Mexico, and in every place there is something I don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that the food suck, it just means I personally don’t like that specific food. I think somebody is just giving a very personal opinion, which is just that. Not a universal opinion. and when American and European travelers go thru all the latin amarican countries is because they are planning to see the most part of the country spending more money on traveling not in expensive food. they save in food.

        1. Hi Luis! You’re right, we should’ve made it more clear that what we wrote was our very own opinion, ie. ‘Why WE THINK Chilean food sucks’ 😀 You just can’t like the food everywhere, it’s impossible -the same goes for places we visit… we can’t love everywhere. But I have to say that even though we didn’t have a lot of amazing food in Chile, we loved the country!

  6. We’ve randomly chosen Chile as a place to visit. We fly to Santiago in 6 weeks. We have no clue where to head but will rent a car and start exploring..probably roll the dice to see if we head north or south. Great blog. Glad you are out there.

    1. Hi Robert, great to hear that you’re visiting Chile!! Tough choice to make – heading north or south 😉 But no matter which way you go, I am sure you’ll love it! Enjoy Chile 🙂

    1. Well these five places of course 😉 But if I had to narrow it down to ten days, I’d definitely include Chilean Patagonia in the South and the Atacama Desert in the north. There might be cheap flights with LAN or Sky Airlines. January is a great time to visit, btw!

  7. Thanks for listing down top 5! I think south of Chile is just beautiful .. although Atacama up north posts quite a challenge to the rankings. Great to see Valparaiso (Valpo) on your list. I live in Vina del Mar .. that’s like 20 mins from Valpo. 🙂
    Tanusree: Great to know that a fellow Indian will be in Chile in January. I would go with Dany’s advice on 10days. And it’s going to be summers here .. so you are going to enjoy. 🙂

  8. Hi, a couple quick questions for you about San Pedro De Atacama. Where did you stay and are there any tour companies that you would recommend?

    1. Hi Kate, check out this post for some accommodation options (Hostal Florida was basic but okay) and this post for some information on the tours in the area. As for tour companies, they’re all more or less the same – I recommend ‘shopping around’ when you arrive.. compare prices & packages. If you plan to do the Salt Flats starting in San Pedro, I’d ask other travelers who just took the tour (coming from Uyuni) and read the latest TripAdvisor reviews for each company (it usually depends on their current drivers how great or awful the tour is).

  9. We’re looking to travel for a week in July.
    We are currently living in Viña, but haven’t been travelling yet due to school and work schedules.
    We were looking at Atacama but were told that July is not a good time to visit. I’m dying to go to Pucon..have heard so many wonderful things about it, but again, have been told the best time to visit is summer.
    We’re thinking Iqueque beaches vs day trips to Portillo and Rancagua…
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks

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