Atacama desert, Valley of the Moon, Chile Travel
Best weather: October, November (spring) and March, April (autumn). Which of these seasons suits you depends on your destinations and activities.
Worst: January, February (midsummer, extremely hot in the north/centre and crowded, expensive everywhere), also June, July, August (rain in the centre or extreme cold in the south; busy and expensive up north).
Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: considering how far this country is from most English speakers, a couple of weeks. Recommended: 3/4 weeks to put in serious viaje time, with plenty of flights.
Main attractions, north to south
Parinacota volcano in Lauca National Park, Chile. Photo by mtchm
***Lauca National Park (far north, 160km/100mls from Arica) for gorgeous altiplano scenery (beware, altitude over 4, 000m), herds of wild vicuña and lots of birdlife – tho’ similar to views en route from El Tatio geysers to San Pedro.
***San Pedro de Atacama (north). This little adobe town in the middle of the Atacama desert is the perfect base for some bizarre and beautiful sightseeing from El Tatio geysers to the Altiplano, the Valley of the Moon and some bizarre swimming pools.
**The Limari Valley/around Ovalle (a little north). Petroglyphs and archeology in Encanto Valley, thermal pools in Socos and more.
***Valaparaiso (centre), just an hour and a half from dull and dusty Santiago, this port sports some stunning UNESCO World Heritage buildings and a relaxed atmosphere.
*Santiago (centre), not quite as smoggy as you may have heard; has a large pedestrian centre but is unexciting. Great skiing a couple of hours away, Aug-Sept.
***The Lake District, (south, between Temuco and Puerto Montt) ***Pucon is a brilliant adventure sports centre surrounded by forests, volcanoes, mountains, hot springs and of course, lakes.
**Puerto Varas is another excellent activity centre and also offers ferries across to Argentina.
**Chiloé island group, a quiet and quirky collection of fishing communities living in ancient wooden villages.
***the three day fjord ferry trip from Puerto Montt south to Puerto Natales (far south) is a stunner and since it takes the fjord route it’s not too bumpy.
***Torres del Paine National Park (far south) offers incredible hikes through staggering, twisted mountain scenery.
***Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui). Awesome! More South Pacific than Chile and thousands of miles off the coast, it’s small, reasonably undeveloped and loaded with magnificent moai in natural locations, a totally disastrous and educational history and one good beach too!
Things to Do
Hiking into Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Photo Liam Quinn
Hiking: Chile offers spectacular walks long and short, hot and cold, from the north’s Atacama desert through the streets of Valparaiso and the peaks of the Lake District down south to the best hikes of all among the icy towers of Torres del Paine. Generally signposting is pathetic, though not in the last case.
Mountain Biking: Lots of possibilities for cycling, particularly on the dirt roads of the Atacama desert, the Lake District or the Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt to Cochrane in the south.
Horse riding: Long and lovely rides in the Andes mountains can be organized from Santiago, but 4-hoof transport is also popular further south around the Lake District, Chiloé and the Hurtado Valley. And Easter Island is superb for equine exploration!
Skiing/snow boarding: in the south there are plenty of good slopes though facilities can be a little primitive. Pucon, Antillanca and Termas de Chillan are the biggest resorts. Just a few kms east of Santiago is loads of great white stuff Aug-Sept.
Wildlife Parks: Wild things are not comparable in numbers and diversity to some other South American countries such as Brazil, Peru and of course Ecuador’s Galapagos, but nevertherless. . . Four-legged critters are mainly of the cute camelid family e. g. alpaca, guanaco or llama, visible throughout the country in the wild higher-altitude regions, along with limited foxes, puma and deer.
Birds include flamingoes (esp. up north around Atacama) that are notoriously difficult to approach, condors (esp. in Torres del Paine) and varied feathered species in Lauca National Park.
Marine life is rich, with colonies of seals, sea-lions and penguins all down the coast.
Rafting: South of Santiago there are some excellent river rides due to water rushing off the Andes; Bio Bio (Central Valley) and Futaleufu (Carretera Austral) are particularly exciting and attractive. Good quality boats, guides and kit can be found from agencies in Santiago, Pucon and Puerto Varas.
Kayaking: in the south around Chiloé and through the fjords of the Gulf of Ancud are prime routes. Agencies can be found in Santiago and Puerto Varas.
Swimming: There are some fair beaches around, Viña del Mar for example, but the water is pretty cold and the environments not attractive.
Diving: not much to shout about the north is better than south and Easter Island best of all.
Surfing: most good surf breaks in the north tho’ Pichilemu, a few hours south of Valparaiso is famous for it.
Fly fishing: a great destination for fishers of trout and salmon, with the Lake District as prime lure.
You will require expensive air tickets or loads of time and an immensely durable bus-ready ass, so, if the former, buy your Lan Chile Air Pass when you buy your inbound ticket from outside South America. (i. e. there are no Air Passes if you buy from Argentina etc! )
Beware Lan Chile airline offices in Argentina and Peru. Staff are ignorant, inefficient and make costly mistakes, so avoid if you can, or double-check everything.
Chile is far safer than any other South American country, but still take the usual no-bling precautions and don’t trek around the shanty towns of outer Santiago or some of Valparaiso’s 42 hills with your diamond rolex glinting in the sunshine.
Low-end dining in Chile – apart from the ubiquitous ham and tasteless cheese sandwiches – is reasonably cheap and healthy but dull, with offerings such as fried chicken, empanadas (pies of very varying quality with meat and onion, cheese or seafood fillings), chacareros (big buns loaded with sliced steak, beans, chilies and more – the Bug’s choice for quality survival food), completos (hot dogs loaded with extras, including possibly tomatoes, sauerkraut, mayonnaise, avocado and chili sauce) and finally palta reina (avocado halves piled with minced chicken and assorted veggies).
The biggest culinary disappointment is the overpriced and undersophisticated seafood on offer. Santiago’s famous Mercado Central – which is more restaurant than market – is a high-pressure bore, but the coast has a better attitude to costing and more creative approach to cooking fruit of the sea.
Otherwise savoury stews are popular and fruit selection wide, so vegetarians can survive easily, with a little use of Castellano (Spanish).
And by the way, Peruvian turistas may think the Pisco Sour is a Peruvian cocktail, but Chileanos would disagree.
Chile’s wine is a long-standing success story, with most of it coming from the southern Central Valley and the best from the Maipo Valley.
Unfortunately cheapskates in some restaurants (e. g. La Casona in San Pedro de Atacama) assume foreign visitors have no taste buds and may serve unexportable dregs. Don’t hesitate to send a bottle back if it tastes like sherry or worse! The management deserves a good spanking serving liquid trash in a country with a fine history of vinery.
Jan 20, Fiesta de la Piedra Santa, Lumaco (Lake District). Traditional clothing, candlelit singing, dancing and live sacrifices on the Holy Stone.
1st Sunday in Feb, Fiesta de la Candelaria, Copiapo.
Feb, Festival de la Cancion, Viña del Mar. Awful international music festival.
end of March, National Rodeo Championship, Rancagua, Central Valley.
10-16 July (last night is best), La Tirana, near Iquique, north. A large and very colourful religious/folk festival with thousands of visitors from Peru and Bolivia. Massed musical rivalry, dancing, masks and mayhem.
14-20 Sept, La Pampilla, Independence Day celebrations nationwide, but especially wild in Coquimbo, near La Serena, centre/north Chile, with hundreds of thousands of visitors, bands from all over, dancing till dawn etc.
8 Dec, Dia de la Virgen, Quinchao, near Chiloe. A religious festival.
23-27 Dec, Fiesta Grande, Andacollo, ritual dancing and a pilgrim’s trail.