Relatively unknown to American travelers, Chile is a tall, skinny treasure chest of experiences clinging to South America’s West Coast.
There’s eco-travel in Patagonia and vast deserts in Atacama, adventures in the Andes, mystical mysteries in Easter Island, laid-back coastal towns along the country’s 2,600-mile oceanfront, vibrant cities like Santiago and Valparaiso, and food and wine so good your taste buds will beg you to go back.
LATAM Airlines offers year-round service from 4 major U.S. gateways (Miami, New York, Washington, D.C., and the only non-stop from LAX). Most flights are overnight without much of a time zone change from the States, so you’ll wake up in Santiago with very little jet lag. The airline also has the largest flight network within Chile. Bottom line: It’s a much easier trip than you’d think.
But less than 200,000 Americans visit every year. Here’s why Chile is one of the coolest countries you haven’t visited yet.
1. The name on your fleece should also be on your bucket list.
Americans may be surprised to learn that the international outdoors brand Patagonia derives its namesake from this pristine region in Chile. You can fly LATAM daily from Santiago into Puntas Arenas and now, the recently announced LATAM flight into Puerto Natales during peak season (December – February) can shorten your trip to 3 hours. Chile recently earned a World Travel Award for best adventure tourism destination — and a lot of that adrenaline-pumping action can be found in Patagonia.
Torres del Paine National Park was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve for good reason; it is a nature lover’s paradise. You’ll find numerous lakes, fjords and rivers to kayak or photograph amongst the glaciers and snow-capped mountains in the Aysén region. If you’re a fan of Niagara Falls, make your way to the thundering Salto Grande waterfall for an impressive sight (and sound).
Wherever you go in Patagonia, you’ll be filling your Instagram and Facebook feeds with stunning images.
There is wildlife unique to the region — whether it’s pumas or herds of guanaco (think mini-llamas). Take a daily tour from Puntas Arenas to Isla Magdelana to wobble along 150,000 Magellan penguins.
2. You’ll have a hot dog with EVERYTHING on it.
Chilean cuisine is as varied as the different landscapes found in the country. You’ll find South American favorites here such as empanadas and the tamale-like humitas, as well as caldillo de congrio, a hearty soup made from the conger eel. Have a taste of stew made with Chilean abalone known as locos. This seafood was probably caught that very morning, so expect fresh seafood — you’re never farther than 217 miles from the ocean.
For a quick bite, try a completo, a hot dog complete with mashed avocado, tomato and mayonnaise. (Chileans put avocado on almost everything.) Wash that completo down with a terremoto (earthquake). Not an actual earthquake, rather the sweet and strong Chilean drink made from pineapple ice cream, grenadine, Fernet and Chilean white wine.
You had us at pineapple ice cream.
3. Red, white and amazing.
Chileans love their wine and why shouldn’t they? Chile is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wine. (Sorry Argentina, Chile produces 10 times more wine than their neighbor.) Have a glass with dinner or get even more immersive by visiting, touring and tasting in one of the wine-making regions, all nearby Santiago, like Río Maipo, where grapes are harvested annually in March.
Although many wineries were founded by French wine companies, the location of these vineyards between the high peaks of the Andes mountain and cooling breezes of the Pacific Ocean are what make Chilean wine special. You’ll want to taste reds such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere, with Syrah recently gaining in popularity. For fans of white wines, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are your best, fruity bets.
4. This capital barely sleeps and that’s a good thing.
Your LATAM flight into Chile will land in Santiago, and it’s a good idea to plan a few days in this capital city to take in the cultural events, vibrant nightlife, expansive museums and top-notch cuisine. With the seasons reversed from the States, our winter is the best time to visit.
Head down to Barrio Bellavista, considered the best neighborhood for traditional Chilean cuisine. One of the top restaurants in South America, Borago, by chef Rodolfo Guzman, is in Santiago and features fresh farm-to-table local ingredients. While you’re there, check out the street art.
Once your belly is full, see the best view of the city at Cerro Santa Lucia in Barrio Lastarria, formed by the remnants of a now-dormant volcano.
No Santiago visit is complete without drinking one, or many, of their ubiquitous pisco sours. This is Chile’s national drink and your well-deserved reward before heading out for a night on the town. Dress to impress and remember that Chileans don’t have dinner before 9 p.m. and don’t start dancing until after midnight. It’s easy to lose track of time as bars and clubs stay open until 5 a.m.
That completo sure sounds good right about now.
5. Chile has the coast with the most.
At more than twice the length of the U.S. West Coast, Chile has plenty of opportunities for a beach day or surfing. A three-hour drive from Santiago, the waves of Pichilemu draw surfers from across the world. If your board skills are not up to par, grab a seat on the cliffs of nearby Punta de Lobos cliff for an incredible view of the giant waves and the surfers brave enough to conquer them.
Viña del Mar is a resort town less than two hours from Santiago and close to Valparaiso, loved by tourists and locals for its 13 beautiful white beaches and mountainous backdrop. Even Chile’s ex-president has a home here. The town is neatly lined by palms, parks and mansions and has long been considered Chile’s tourist capital. Make sure to eat at Restaurante La Gatita for the freshest fish in town.
Iquique is another surfing destination — farther north on the coast near the Atacama Desert. You could be sand-surfing in the morning and hitting the waves in the afternoon.
6. No bunnies, just tremendous statues.
You’ve seen the pictures, but that’s nothing like seeing the moai up close on Easter Island. These monolithic statues are on a lot of travel bucket lists and rightfully so — it’s just not easy to get to. Mataveri International Airport is one of the most remote airports in the world and the distance between it and Santiago is the same as the distance between Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. LATAM flies the five-hour route daily from Santiago.
“El Gigante,” located near the Rano Raraku Quarry, would have stood 72 feet tall and was never finished by its Polynesian creators because it was impossible to lift upright. Perhaps you can solve the mystery of how the Polynesians moved these guys, just know it weighs about the same as two full-size airplanes.
After making the journey to this remote island, you’ll want to spend a few days here. Beyond sunrise or sunset selfies with statues, visitors to Easter Island can scuba dive, bike along the coast or go for hikes to find more moais. Don’t miss the hour-long hike to the Rano Kau volcano summit for this view.
7. Take your hotel game to the next level.
When visiting Chile you’ll find familiar hotel brands like Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton and Sheraton -– but if you want a different kind of stay, make your way south to Panguipulli. The Montaña Magica Lodge can be found in the jungle of Chile’s Huilo Biological Reserve and can only be entered by crossing a rope bridge. The sound of rushing water outside your window could be rain, but most likely, it’s the sound of the permanent waterfall cascading down from the hotel’s rooftop.
Right next to the Montaña Magica Lodge is the Hotel Nothofagus. This hotel’s structure and core is made almost entirely from wood. Inspired by an ancient tree, it takes the term “treehouse” to a different level. If you ever make it out of your room, South America’s longest zip line, rafting on the Fuy River and the Liquiñe and Coñaripe hot springs are all nearby.
When you’re in Patagonia, give glamping a try at Patagonia Camp on the shores of Lake Toro. The 18 decked-out yurts include central heating, views of Paine Massif and the lake, and a clear dome in the roof to sleep under the stars.
8. Get lost in a cave or two.
What if we told you there are caves in the active Villarrica Volcano and then said that you could venture hundreds of feet deep in them? The hardened remains of the lava flow are dry now so don’t get nervous. This snow-covered volcano also sports an active lava lake within its crater. Climbing expeditions to the top can help you live out your Joe Versus The Volcano fantasy.
The Marble Caves of Chile Chico can be found in the glacial General Carrera Lake in Patagonia. These caves were formed by 6,000 years of waves carving the calcium carbonate to create smooth, colorful cave walls that look surreal against the blue waters. It can only be accessed by boat or kayak, but the 30-minute ride is worth it to see these formations that are out of a Dali painting.
9. Giants in the sky and on land.
Although it’s been compared to the surface of planet Mars, a visit to the Atacama Desert won’t cost nearly as much. LATAM offers daily flights from Santiago to Calama and then a short minibus ride to the picturesque town of San Pedro de Atacama. This is the driest desert on earth — and the journey here will be rewarded with stunning views.
Speaking of Mars, with 300 days of clear skies and its high altitude, amateur and professional stargazers flock to this region of northern Chile. The ALMA observatory hosts the world’s largest telescope. The VLT is closed to the public, but most hotels in the area have onsite telescopes for your celestial fix (or you can just go outside and look up).
While not as well-known as the Nazca Lines in Peru, the geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert are enormous. This is where you’ll see the single largest geoglyph in the world, the Atacama Giant, which was a tall desert god used for predicting the weather. And in the case of Atacama, the Giant probably kept forecasting sunny and dry weather.
10. A whole city in living color.
If you like color — lots and lots of color — the coastal town of Valparaiso offers a walking tour unlike any other. You’ll pass Spanish colonial buildings alongside skyscrapers where street art and murals dominate and add even more color to the surroundings. You’ll see why this port town served as the home and inspiration for Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, the world-famous poet.
The city’s 100-year funicular railways are urban elevators that help residents traverse some of the city’s 42 cerros (steep hills). Although only a few remaining funiculars still work, it’s worth the ride for panoramic views of the city.
11. Chileans like to have fun.
We’re talking large, festival-size fun.
The Viña del Mar International Song Festival (Feb. 20-25, 2017) is a nationally broadcast music festival that is built around pop- and folk-singing competitions since 1960, but the festival’s real draw is the performances by famous international musicians like Sting, Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana to name a few.
Santiago a Mil is the largest festival in Chile. It takes place in January in Santiago and different national and international companies apply to be part of the festival that includes parades and performances. In 2007, the French company Royal De luxe brought a two-story marionette girl to Santiago’s main street. Definitely not a festival you want to miss if you like to see the extraordinary.
You can also go to Lollapalooza. This music festival set up shop outside the U.S. for the first time in 2011. Metallica, The Weeknd, Duran Duran and others are headlining the 2017 lineup in April.
12. Go skiing in the summer, then après-ski at the beach.
From mid-June through mid-October, Chile’s ski season will make you forget about summer back home. The Valle Nevado resort is just 90 minutes from Santiago. Featuring one of the most advanced lift systems in South America, skiers and snowboarders flock to this resort for its high elevation and great snow conditions.
The Portillo Ski Resort is a bit smaller than the Valle Nevado, La Parva and El Colorado resorts, but also close to Santiago. It appeals more to expert skiers (such as the U.S. Olympic ski team) who can ride the va-et-vient (slingshot) lifts to access to back bowls and off the beaten track snowfields.
Because Chile is so narrow east to west, you can ski in the morning and be on the beach for an evening sunset and a pisco sour.