The ultimate guide to backpacking Chile
When backpacking Chile, there’s a trusty tale I guarantee you’ll hear time and again from locals. They say that when God created the world, he (or probably she, let’s be honest) had a little of everything left over – mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, deserts, the whole shebang. So, she mixed it all together and created Chile. This country’s natural credentials are seriously impressive – 4,300km of coastline, the driest desert in the world, 90 active volcanoes, including Ojos del Salado – the highest (6,893m) active volcano on the planet, and 36 national parks that will have you rubbing your eyes wondering whether you are in fact, in heaven. The Andes mountains run the entire length of the country and account for 80% of its land. The rest is made up of cities that will steal your heart, and that have inspired some of the greatest creative minds of all time.
If you like a decent tipple, Chile is also known for its superb wine and there are a number of wine valleys to explore, both to sample their wares and marvel at the surrounding countryside. While the sights and sounds of Chile’s mainland could keep you busy for a good few years, don’t forget that the country also includes the Pacific Islands of Easter Island, Juan Fernández, Desventuradas and Salas y Gómez in its repertoire. So, if you’re looking to get your party on, fill your boots with some of the best food in South America, hike through the wilds of Patagonia and get a good old peek at what’s going on up in the night sky, Chile ticks all boxes, plus it’s an easy country to pop into on your South America tour, either from Argentina, Bolivia or Peru. Read on for the ultimate guide to backpacking Chile.
Jump straight to:
- The best time to visit Chile
- Chile visa
- Getting around Chile
- Hostels in Chile
- Chile itinerary
- Chile budget
- Best places to visit in Chile
- Chile food
- Chile culture
- Is Chile safe?
- Chile travel advice
Best time to visit Chile
It’s tricky to pinpoint the best time to visit for weather in Chile, given the fact the country is so enormous it contains a whopping ten different sub-climates ranging from desert to Mediterranean. One handy pointer is that as it’s based in the southern hemisphere, Chile’s seasons are reversed from Europe’s. Spring lasts from September until November, summer from December to February, autumn from March to May and winter from June to August. Your best bet is to establish the right time to visit based on where you will be spending the majority of your time, and which activities you plan to enjoy while you are there.
Santiago weather is pretty good all year round, but the best time to visit is during spring and autumn when you’re guaranteed sunny days, less tourists and, most importantly, cheaper flights. If you plan on skiing in the resorts close to the city, you will need to visit during winter.
While you’re pretty much guaranteed dry weather in the Atacama – given the fact it’s 50x drier than California’s Death Valley and some parts of its landscape have never once been touched by rain – summer is considered the best time to visit. At this time of year you’ll enjoy pleasant day time temperatures of between 5-25 degrees, and warmer nights, which is handy given night time in the desert is especially beautiful, particularly if you’re there to look at the stars. However, summer is also when the majority of tourists pour in, making accommodation and guided tours much more expensive and harder to book. For better prices and less of a queue around the telescope, visit during spring or autumn, when temperatures are still a thoroughly reasonable 2-22 degrees. Winter isn’t strictly off limits, you’ll just need very warm clothing to deal with the freezing night time temperatures.
Peak season in Patagonia lasts from November until March, when temperatures are perfect for exploring the wonderlands of Torres del Paine, Laguna San Rafael and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks. If you’re in it for the flora, spring time brings with it colourful blooms, and May offers the vibrant reds and oranges of autumn. If you are planning an autumn visit, make sure it’s the start of the season, rather the end, otherwise things can get a touch chilly and accessing hiking trails can become more difficult. Once again, spring and autumn are great options in Patagonia if you’d prefer a few less backpackers ruining the photo ops on your hikes. Avoid late autumn and winter if you can, as some areas of Chilean Patagonia become completely inaccessible and most of the best attractions are closed for business due to temperatures of as low as -15 degrees. No matter what time you schedule in your visit to this spectacular corner of the world, be sure to pack layers and a sturdy wind-breaker. Patagonia is known for its icy winds, particularly in Torres del Paine, where wind speeds can reach up to 100mph and have been known to knock hikers off their feet. These powerful winds, caused by warm air from the equator meeting cold air travelling north from Antarctica, also mean the weather can turn in an instant. Pack layers and a sturdy waterproof because one minute the sun can be shining, the next torrential rain can be thundering towards across the horizon.
Summer is high season over on Easter Island, which means pricier flights and accommodation. The good news is that the island stays relatively temperate throughout the year so really you can visit at any time. March is widely considered the optimum time of year in Easter Island, when you can expect pleasant temperatures and a distinct lack of crowds.
In terms of Chile visa requirements, if you are a British passport holder visiting the country for less than 90 days, there is no need for a visa. The visa waiver Chile offers applies to a number of nations, so do check whether yours falls into the lucky category. Should you fall in love with the country and want to extend your stay, you must contact the Chilean Immigration Department in Santiago.
When you rock up at the border, immigration will issue you with a Tourist Card (Tarjeta de Turismo). Remember to keep this safe, because you will need to present it at the border when you move on to the next country on your itinerary. Also, remember that your passport must be valid beyond the duration of your stay, so be sure to renew your passport if you’re cutting it fine. While border crossings are usually efficient, if there are a lot of people in the queue ahead of you, it can take a couple of hours.
Getting around Chile
Buses in Chile
Bus travel in Chile is by far the best way of getting around the country on a budget. However, due to Chile’s size, you need to gear up for some seriously long stints onboard. Many journeys between popular destinations are upwards of 18 hours. If this sounds like your idea of hell, and you are rich in time, there are plenty of wonderful places to stop along the way that allow you to see parts of the country that not everyone visits. Luckily, Chile’s buses are relatively swanky, known for being on time, and usually you’re offered drinks and snacks while you ride. I’ve even heard rumours of wine and bingo on some routes!
Given most journeys fall within the ‘epic’ category, many backpackers opt to travel at night so the bus doubles up as an evening’s accommodation. Fortunately, most buses prioritise comfort, or at least offering a few options so you can choose a class of travel that suits your needs. Depending on your budget, you can opt for semi-cama – a seat that reclines, or salon cama – which is a wider seat that reclines further and can sometimes actually even be a completely flat bed. As well as curtains on the windows, some seats have curtains between you and your seat mate, which is fantastic if you need privacy to get some shut eye. A number of the bus companies will serve food if you travel overnight, or offer the option to order a meal in advance. Save yourself money by bringing your own dinner.
In Chile, you will often be travelling at high altitudes, which means temperatures can really dip. Also, it’s not uncommon for air-con on buses to be a little over-zealous. Some buses do offer blankets, but just in case, remember to always pack warm clothes, woolly socks and even a sleeping bag liner if you have it. Additionally, although Chilean roads are well-paved, they can be rather twisty and turny, given they are navigating mountain passes! If you’re prone to travel sickness, stock up on some tablets and keep them handy. Although the buses do tend to make the odd pit stop en route, it’s always a good idea to pack snacks and water.
Which bus company should I choose?
There are a number of bus companies operating in Chile and prices do vary wildly between them. For this reason, always give yourself a bit of time to shop around to secure a competitive price. If you are rocking up at the bus station intent on catching a bus that evening, give yourself plenty of time to visit the different kiosks to compare and contrast prices. This is one area where a little Spanish will come in very handy.
Widely considered the best bus companies in the biz are Turbus, Pullman and Cruz del Sur. On some Turbus buses, you’ll get a selection of movies, sockets to charge your electronics and sometimes even Wi-Fi. You can also save money on Turbus tickets by booking online. Other reputable companies include Nilahue, JAC and Jet Sur. Recorrido and BusBud are handy price comparison websites that allow you to check which bus company is charging what, as well as departure and arrival times. As a general rule, it’s nice to arrive into a new destination during daylight hours. That way you can easily get your bearings and find your way to your accommodation. However, this isn’t always possible. If you know that you will be arriving in the dead of night, book your accommodation in advance so that they are expecting you, and have the address of the hostel handy so you can hop in a cab. It’s also a sensible idea to book a hostel that’s close to the bus station, so that if you’re forced to walk (which is rare) you won’t have far to go.
While it’s not always necessary to book your buses in advance, we recommend that you do so on longer journeys, when securing the specific class of seat you want is more important. The journey from Santiago to Mendoza in Argentina, is one such journey. This particular route through the Andes is spectacularly beautiful, so it’s definitely one to book for daytime. A lot of people will have the same plan, so booking in advance secures your spot. If you can get that coveted front seat on the top deck, you’ll be entertained for the whole journey!
Luggage limits for buses tend to be 30kg, which should be just fine for your backpack. When you hand over your bag, you’ll be given a tag that you must present at the end of the journey to claim your luggage. Keep it somewhere safe! Also, don’t put any valuables in the hold – keep them in your day pack, and keep your day pack in sight at all times when on the bus.
While most towns and cities have just one main bus terminal, some like to make things more confusing, and have multiple. For example, Santiago has four bus terminals, each one serving a different compass direction. Also, some bus companies have their own personal terminals. Always double check which terminal your bus leaves from when you buy your ticket. When you arrive in the terminal and are looking for your bus, your ticket will normally have a number on it – this is the ‘gate’ your bus is leaving from. If in doubt, wave your ticket at an employee and they will be able to point you in the right direction.
Always shop around, but as a general rule you should be looking around these figures for the following popular routes. Remember that the cost of tickets will fluctuate depending on the time of year you are visiting.
Arica to San Pedro de Atacama (8.5 – 10.5 hours) – approx. £15-20.
Arica to Iquique (4-5 hours) – £5-10.
Arica to Santiago (22-30 hours) – £30-40.
Santiago to Valparaiso (1.5 hours) – £3-5. If you are making a round-trip, buying a return ticket will save you cash.
Santiago to Puerto Varas (Lake District, 12 hours) – From £14 .
Santiago to Temuco (7.5 hours) – From £9.
Puerto Varas to Pucón (3.5 hours) – From £3.
Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas (3 hours) – From £9.
Planes in Chile
Air travel in Chile isn’t cheap, but it also isn’t mega bucks. This means, if you’re short on time, and you factor planet tickets into your budget in advance, you won’t blow the bank. LATAM and Sky Airlines are Chile’s major airlines. It’s possible to get return flights from Santiago to the Atacama Desert (Calama is the nearest airport) for around £130 return. A one-way flight from Santiago to Puerto Natales (for Torres del Paine) in autumn will cost around £50. It’s also worth checking out Jet Smart, a relatively new airline, which is essentially Chile’s version of Easyjet, complete with additional fees for onboard food and drink and whacking baggage in the hold. Their flights can be at weird and wonderful hours, but the bargain price tags make them more than worth it.
Hostels in Chile
Hostels in Chile are top notch, so whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple, or as part of a crew, you’ll have no bother finding somewhere decent to lay your weary head as you travel on through.
Up in popular surf spots Arica and Iquique there are some seriously cool beachside hostels, offering up surf lessons, board hire, yoga, walking tours and healthy food. In Arica, check out Willka Kuti Backpackers for a homely vibe, or Arica Surf House to be close to the best breaks. In Iquique, check in at Backpackers Hostel Iquique, right by the beach, which has great outdoor areas, a bar, balconies overlooking the waves and superb coffee. Feel Iquique is another sociable spot.
In San Pedro de Atacama, check out Aji Verde, a hostel built in the traditional South American adobe-style that you’ll come to know and love. You can opt to sleep in their tents/yurts should you fancy being closer to nature. Both Rural Florida and Backpackers San Pedro are a hammock-lovers dream and they both enjoy nightly bonfires. Chill Out Hostel is another cool spot, offering a friendly crowd, fully-equipped kitchen and easy booking of all the area’s tours, as well as transfers into Bolivia.
Aji Verde Hostel
The capital obviously has some real corkers, but the best hostels in Santiago for backpackers include Eco-Hostel Tambo Verde, which is right in the heart of the action in Bellavista, has plenty of outdoor hang space and is channelling seriously bohemian vibes. Hostel Forestral is a welcoming place, ideal if you’re looking to meet fellow travellers. Aji Hostel serves up free breakfast and dinner and offers Spanish lessons and BBQs on Friday nights. For palatial vibes without the price tag, check out Happy House Hostel, which is just around the corner from La Moneda Palace and has its own swimming pool, outdoor terrace and ping pong tables. Rado Boutique Hostel is close to all the bars of Bellavista, and its rooftop has some of the best panoramic views in the city. Plus, it’s close to a number of Santiago’s barrios you’ll want to spend some time exploring, particularly Cerro san Cristobal and La Chascona. La Casa Roja and La Chimba are party hostels, close to the action, and La Chimba is rumoured to sell the cheapest beer in the city. Sold!
There’s also something to suit all tastes when it comes to hostels in Valparaiso. Planeta Lindo may be up a steep hill, but its rooftop offers such fab views you’ll soon forget the calf workout. It’s also in an ideal location for perusing the city’s best street art. Hostel Voyage is perfect for you party animals, and has something going on every night of the week, whether that’s family dinners, jam sessions, movie nights or full on rave ups. For something more serene, check out Nomada Eco Hostel or Casa Verde Limon, which is decorated by local artists and offers art classes.
In Pucón, check out Chili Kiwi Lakefront, voted the number one hostel in Latin America in 2017 and 2018. As well as lakeside views, you can sleep in treehouses, or cute little hobbit huts that look like something straight out of Middle Earth. The hostel also organises traditional Mapuche dinners, horse riding, volcano climbing and all the other mischief you can get up to on the shores of Lake Villarica. Okori is another great shout and is one of the most beautiful hostels in the country – all glass and natural wood to emphasise its woodland surroundings. Hostel French Andes is decked out like a ski chalet, boasts some of the best views of Villarica Volcano, has its own climbing wall, and you can sleep in a cool Japanese-style capsule bed.
Down in Patagonia, check out MaPatagonia Outdoor Hostel in Puerto Varas, which is housed in a colonial mansion and boasts open fires for lounging in front of after a long day of hiking around Llanquihue or Todos Los Santos lakes, or in Vicente Perez Rosales National Park. It also has a spacious front garden perfect for barbeques and lounging in the sunshine. MamaHostels is a cosy place on the banks of Lake Llanquihue – the second largest lake in all of South America – so, hole up here if you’re in the market for some serious watersports. In Puerto Natales, Factoria is a stylish option offering great views. The Singing Lamb is a welcoming spot, which has been voted the best hostel in town for the past five years. It’s also got its eco-friendly hat on, which is a real bonus. In Punta Arenas, swing by Hostal al Fin de Mundo, which is located in the centre of town.
To fuel your wanderlust even further, check out our full list of hostels in Chile!
Again, how you plan your itinerary will depend entirely on which hotspots you intend to hit up. Here are some suggested itineraries to whet your appetite:
Chile itinerary 1 week:
Day 1: Santiago
Day 2: Valparaiso (day trip from Santiago)
Day 3: The Andes (day trip from Santiago) – Maipo Canyon, El Morado National Park, or a wine tour
Day 4: Fly to Calama to access San Pedro de Atacama, and enjoy an afternoon and night tour
Atacama tours before flying back to Santiago
Day 7: Santiago
Chile itinerary 10 days (Northern Chile)
If you only have 10 days or two weeks, and you want to see as much of the country as possible, try and squeeze in at least a couple of flights. If you book in advance, prices shouldn’t be too steep, and you have a better chance of securing flight times that allow you to maximise your itinerary.
Days 1-3: Wine valleys near Santiago
Days 4-6: Fly to Arica, to explore Lauca National Park
Days 7-9: Atacama Desert
Day 10: Santiago and all its highlights
Atacama Desert @diegojimenez
Chile itinerary 10 days (Southern Chile)
Days 1-3: Santiago and Valparaiso, via Casablanca (wine) Valley
Days 4-6: Santiago to Puerto Montt (Lake District), staying in Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquihue
Days 7-9: Fly to Punta Arenas and head north into Torres del Paine National Park
Day 10: Back to Santiago
Chile itinerary 2 weeks
Day 1: Santiago sightseeing
Day 2: Maipo Valley vineyard tour and Maipo Canyon. You can also enjoy wine tours in Casablanca Valley, San Antonio Valley, Aconcagua Valley and Cachapoal Valley – depending on which one you fancy
Days 3-4: Valparaiso
Days 4-6: Pucón. Fly from Santiago to Temuco for Pucón
Days 7-9: Chiloé
Days 10-13: Puerto Natales: Fly from Temuco to Puerto Natales for the Torres del Paine National Park.
Day 14: Santiago.
Chile itinerary 1 month:
Days 1-3: Iquique – have a few days of beach time and learn to surf
Days 4-7: San Pedro de Atacama
Day 8: La Serena – Explore the Elqui Valley, home of Pisco!
Days 9-11: Valparaiso
Days 12-13: Santiago and Andes, including Maipo Valley, or hit the slopes in Portillo if visiting during winter.
Days 14-16: Easter Island
Day 17: Pucón.
Day 18: Puerto Varas.
Days 19-21: Chiloé
Days 24-27: Puerto Montt – Hop on a four-day ferry ride through glacier-laced fjords to Puerto Natales.
Days 28-30: Puerto Natales for Torres del Paine National Park.
Chile costs can work out slightly higher than other countries in South America. It can come as quite the shock to be greeted with European prices, especially if you’re travelling in from Peru or Bolivia. As a general rule, the north is cheaper than the south. Chile’s money is Chilean pesos, and we recommend budgeting around £40-55 per day. For a standard hostel bed in a shared dorm, expect to pay somewhere in the region of 12,000 pesos (£14). If money is tight, save cash by eating street food (hello empanadas!) or menus del dia, travelling by bus and by couch surfing, which is pretty popular in the country and is a nice way to mingle with local people. Just make sure you choose hosts who come with lots of good recommendations.
Tipping in Chile is expected, particularly because wages tend to be quite low, so most people rely on tips to top them up. In restaurants, 10% is the usual, although if this is included in the bill, you should tip your server 5% directly. If you’re stocking up on supplies in a grocery store and a youngster helps you bag up your goods, bung them a tip of around 300-500 (35p-60p) pesos, as they don’t tend to get a wage. When on a tour, a good ballpark for tipping your guide is around 5,000-15,000 pesos (£6-£17) per person per day. How to tip taxi drivers in Chile is a bit unclear. Typically, just round up your fare and tell the driver to keep the change.
Best places to visit in Chile
Arica is Chile’s most northern beach town, and a handy stop over if you’re hot footing it to Peru or Bolivia. Swing by San Marcos Cathedral, Gustav Eiffel’s second most famous project, or go visit the oldest mummies (the creepy kind) in the world at the Chinchorro Mummy Museum. Arica is a great place to relax for a few days on one of the most popular beaches in Chile, or get that adrenaline pumping with some surfing, scuba diving, wind surfing or paragliding. If too much time lying down makes you antsy, there’s plenty of adventure to be found in and around Arica – hiking, jeep racing, mountain biking, or even a spot of bird watching if you packed your binoculars especially. You could climb Morro de Arica, or how about a day (or more) of adventure in Lauca National Park, a breathtaking spot deep in the Andes at an altitude of between 9,850-20,000ft? The park is home to snow-dusted volcanoes and beautiful lakes, including Lago Chungaro – one of the highest in the world. Volcan Parinacota, which is thankfully dormant, dominates the horizon, and the surrounding countryside is home to llamas, alpacas, cougars, flamingos, Andean condors – Chile’s enormous national bird, and viscunas – chubby Chilean bunnies. Lauca National Park is the perfect spot if you like to get your hike on.
Around five hours to the south is Iquique, another beachside paradise. The centre of town around Baquedano is a little like a multi-coloured Wild West. Its colourful buildings house souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants, tour companies and the odd saloon. It’s a lovely place for a wander, when you fancy stretching your legs. The most popular activities to enjoy in Iquique, bar working on your tan, are paragliding over the ocean, sandboarding and surfing.
The pièce de résistance of Northern Chile is without a doubt the Atacama Desert – the driest desert on Earth. So dry that scientists have used its barren landscape to test out Mars rovers! The Atacama covers a 1,000km strip of land over a whopping 363,000sqkm between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Most travellers choose to base themselves in San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis town (dip in the hot springs anyone?) which is the perfect hopping off spot for the desert’s most popular attractions, or a great place to join a tour that takes in all the best sites. If you’re visiting the Atacama in peak season, which is summer, book your accommodation and tour of the Atacama well in advance to avoid any bother. The Valle de Luna is straight out of Star Wars, and its rock formations are best viewed at sunrise or sunset. Enjoy El Tatio geysers, Cactus Valley, the salt caves, and colourful lakes and lagoons dotted with flocks of dancing flamingos, particularly Tebinquiche Lagoon, which is found in Salar de Atacama, Chile’s very own version of the Bolivian Salt Flats. In fact, if you’re planning to head into Bolivia, it’s an easy leap from the Atacama into the Salar de Uyuni (the Salt Flats). Sand-boarding is one of the most popular activities in the Atacama – just remember your sunscreen and plenty of water. Also, the Atacama is one of the very best places for star-gazing in the world, so don’t miss out on that treat. The nearest airport to San Pedro de Atacama is Calama.
San Pedro de Atacama @takeyourchancetravel
After all the quiet of the desert, you might be craving a little city living. If so, check out La Serena – the second oldest city in Chile. It has beautiful beaches, the fantastic Recova market and gorgeous sun-drenched plazas where you can sample the wines grown in the surrounding countryside. Also, the Elqui Valley and Pisco Elqui, the birthplace of Pisco, are within easy reach. If you want to learn about this drink (and sample a fair bit) a day or two here will be a real treat. You can take tours of the distillery and enjoy plenty of free samples of the product. The area around Pisco Elqui is home to some fantastic trekking and all kinds of other outdoor activities. There are also a couple of international astronomical observatories that you can visit within two hours’ drive from La Serena, and you can swing by Isla Damas to say ‘what’s up’ to all the penguins that call the sandy beaches home.
Chile’s Central Region
Oh, Valparaiso – if there’s a cooler, more beautiful city in the world, I’m yet to find it. This colourful port with its UNESCO-listed centre is one of the most essential cities to visit in Chile. Known as the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’, Valparaiso is surrounded by 45 mountain peaks, and its steep, narrow streets are full of colourful houses, sensational restaurants, an abundance of galleries, and some seriously cool street art. No wonder Valparaiso is a mecca for artists, writers and poets hoping to be hit with some of the same inspiration that struck Nobel Prize-winning poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, who both enjoyed stints here. Fun fact – Chile is known as the ‘country of poets.’ Maybe this will be the place that sparks your inner muse too?
While in Valparaiso, you must climb the stairs or take the El Peral funicular up to Cerro Alegre – the coolest neighbourhood in the city. Check out the bars and restaurants, mingle with artists, musicians and street performers, and wander the streets checking out the area’s beautiful 19th century homes. Barrio del Puerto is a gorgeous part of town, home to some of the city’s oldest churches and best handicraft stores. For the best seafood, head to Caleta Portales, a fishing village within the city where you’re always guaranteed the freshest catch. Visit La Sebastiana, the former home of Pablo Neruda, which has since been transformed into a museum. Soak up the artistic atmosphere at Palacio Baburizza, home to an incredible collection of both Chilean and European art. If you’re not inspired to pick up a sketch pad, a pen, or a guitar while you’re in town, then you must be too focused on the excellent nightlife…of which there is PLENTY! Do yourself a favour and schedule a little time here. Mark my words, Valparaiso is a place you won’t want to leave in a hurry.
Just 120km away from Valparaiso is the nation’s capital city – Santiago. Located between the Andes and the Pacific, the city is a wonderful combination of cosmopolitan living and European influence, all with a touch of nature waving at you from its surrounds. Like any big city, Santiago has an eclectic array of neighbourhoods to explore, each offering up slightly different vibes. There’s the thought-provoking museums and vast pedestrianised malls of Centro, the beer halls, cafés, and alfresco dining of Lastarria, and in the Bellavista District you’ll find galleries, cafes, boutiques and Instagram-worthy graffiti and street art everywhere you look. Plus, loads of banging bars and clubs to party your nights away in.
Definitely pay a visit to Viña del Mar – a coastal city just down the road from Valparaiso. Viña is known for its beautiful gardens and golden beaches. The most-loved garden is Parque Quinta Vergara, and Reñaca Beach is the premier spot for surfing and tanning. If you’re craving a fancy evening out, this spot has you covered, you’ll just need to scrub up from your usual backpacker garb and prepare to spend a little more cash. Ovo, a banging nightclub in the casino, is a guaranteed raucous night out.
The best places to visit in Santiago include Plaza de Armas, for a nice bit of people watching and La Moneda Palace, home of the Chilean President, which is pretty darn swanky. If you book in advance, you can hop on a free tour. For some fresh air in the city, head to Cerro Santa Lucia, a beautifully-manicured park in the centre of the city that offers spectacular views. Another gorgeous vantage point is Metropolitan Park, which is home to a zoo, botanical gardens and cable cars that whip you to the top of San Cristobal Hill. To admire ancient Chilean artefacts, spend a couple of hours at Santiago’s Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, or to check out another of Pablo Neruda’s hang outs, visit La Chascona. If you’re looking for an authentic Chilean market experience, visit Mercado Vega Chica for some classic Chilean grub.
La Moneda Palace @gweegin
Great day trips from Santiago are easy to come by. Maipo Canyon is located just 15 or so miles from the city and shouldn’t be missed. This incredible gorge, on the banks of the Rio Maipo, is where Santiago locals come to get their nature fix. The canyon provides an impossibly picturesque backdrop for hiking, rafting, skiing and cycling, and there are plenty of natural hot springs to soak your weary body in afterwards. Wine lovers are spoilt for choice in this neck of the woods – there are a number of wine regions all within an easy drive of the city. There’s Maipo, Casablanca, Colchagua, San Antonio, Aconcagua and Cachapoal Valley all calling your wine-loving name. Another easy day trip you might like to enjoy from Santiago is a visit to the world’s largest swimming pool! This record-breaker covers an area of 20 acres and at some points it’s as much as 115 feet deep. The pool is located by the beach at Algarrobo, just over an hour away. Additionally, you might want to check out La Campana National Park. One of Chile’s smaller national parks, La Campana’s biggest highlight is Cerro la Campana – a 6,000ft mountain that Charles Darwin used to climb when he visited. He was on to something – the views of the Andes and the Olume Valley from the top are unforgettable.
If you’re in Santiago in winter, there are a couple of ski resorts within easy reach of the city. Portillo is South America’s oldest ski resort, home to well-groomed terrain and plenty of off-piste runs. Or you could head to Valle Nevado, around 90 minutes out of town, to find some of the best skiing in the Andes. The ski season falls between June and August.
To soak up Chilean beach vibes and feast on seafood every day, head to Matanzas – a great spot for salty, sun-kissed fun. The beaches here are divine, perfect for relaxing after time spent in Chile’s National Parks. If you want to keep that blood pumping, there are a great selection of watersports options. Head down to Pichilemu to check out some of Chile’s best beaches and surf spots, in particular Infiernillo and Punta de Lobos. The cliff-lined coastline is dotted with rocky coves that draw in whopping waves of up to 10 metres and hardcore surfers from around the world. If surfing isn’t your thang, you can try your hand at kite-surfing, windsurfing or sailing. Buchupureo is another great place, offering sweeping beaches backed with nature, and further to the south is Concepción, the best spot for exploring Chile’s music scene – expect to be wowed with budding musicians on every street corner.
Chilean Lake District
It’s down south, when you enter the Lake District Chile is famous for, when the extreme beauty gauge of this country gets cranked up a notch. The Lake District stretches 550km from Temuco in the north to Puerto Montt in the south, and is characterised by national parks, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes towering over cute German-style towns and crystal-clear lakes. While it may be the epitome of tranquillity, don’t be surprised to hear screaming. After all, this is also the adventure capital of the country.
Pucón is likely to be your first stop in the region. Located on the banks of Lake Villarica and beside Villarica, Huerquehe and Puyehue National Parks, Pucón is the ultimate destination for lovers of outdoor activities. While the town is small, there is plenty to keep you occupied, with the highlight being climbing Volcán Villarica, which stands at 2,847m and is the most active volcano in the world. Those that climb to the top get to witness the bubbling and spitting of a real-life lava lake found nestled in the volcano’s crater. The best time of year for this is February and March when the volcano is most active. Or, if you’re here in winter, you can ski its slopes, with all its lava-formed halfpipes and eaves. Other activities you can enjoy in Pucón include white-water rafting, horse riding, canyoning, or a huge range of hikes for folk of varying abilities, plus there are thermal baths to relax in when your body’s in need of something more restorative.
Frutillar is Chile’s most German town, so prepare to be wowed by its architecture. The town is ideally-located on Llanquihue Lake, which is known for its black sand beaches. If you like cycling, this is the lake to peddle around. While in town, you should check out the Calbuco and Osorno Volcanoes, and for the best German cuisine in the country, head to Philippi Street. Travelling the Ruta Interlagos from Pucón to Puerto Varas is an unforgettable experience. The dirt road connects many of the region’s protected areas and lakes and offers incredible vistas.
Puerto Varas is a popular spot, also on the banks of Lake Llanquihue, which is known as the ‘City of Roses and Volcanoes’. In every town square, you’ll see their signature flower, and Calbuco, Cerro Tronador, Puntiagudo and Osorno Volcanoes all dot the horizon. This cute town is a great base for exploring some of the most exquisite natural wonders in the area. Visit Perez Rosales National Park, best known for the Petrohué Falls – waterfalls that gush through passages carved by lava, and Lake Todos los Santos. If you’re in town for some skiing, head to the Osorno Volcano Ski Centre, where you can hit the slopes of the volcano, or if it’s a warmer time of year, you can climb the volcano, go horseback riding, enjoy a spot of rafting, or an afternoon of fishing. Or, of course, you can hike to your heart’s content. From Puerto Varas, it’s only a short hop across into the Argentine Lake District, to Bariloche and San Martín de los Andes. If you are planning to pop across the border, it makes the most sense to do so from the Lake District. It takes a few hours by road, or you can hop on a one or two day boat ride to soak up the beauty of the region.
Puerto Montt is the capital of the Chilean Lake District, and this is where the fjords and islands of Patagonia begin. It’s a relatively large city, known for its views of the Pacific Ocean and its banging seafood. This is the best place from which to access Isla Grande de Chiloé – a magical island, where the culture revolves around mythology, folklore and witchcraft. Spend some time on the secluded beaches of Chiloé National Park, where you can explore on foot, by horse, or by hopping in a kayak and paddling your way around the archipelago. Hop across to the Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil to see the penguins, or shop for unique gifts at the craft markets of Castro, Achao, Dalcachue or Ancud. Chiloé is also famous for having an impressive array of potatoes, so be sure to sample different varieties of everyone’s favourite carb while in town. The island’s residents are very friendly and are always on hand with a ghost story or two, so prepare yourself for some magical storytelling.
From Puerto Montt, hop on a ferry that over the course of four days takes you on a journey through the fjords and national parks of the region. Between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (the jump off spot for Patagonia’s most famous attraction – Torres del Paine National Park), there are a number of incredible national parks to experience. These include, Corcovado, Isla Magdalena, Laguna San Rafael and Bernardo O’Higgins National Parks. If you don’t fancy the ferry, you should stop over in Coyhaique, and enjoy the surrounding area. Highlights include the Queulat National Park – birthplace of the evergreen forest, Rio Ñirehuao – where you can try your hand at fly fishing, and the Simpson River National Reserve. Visit Campos de Hielo Norte – the world’s largest ice field, and of course, General Carerra Lake – the largest lake in Chile. Around these parts, you can also go rock climbing, or enjoy some seriously rugged terrain on Cerro Castillo – a mountain with plenty of jagged peaks, hanging glaciers and the most turquoise glacier lake you will ever see. Laguna San Rafael is the largest national park in the region. Here you will find all of Northern Patagonia’s Ice Fields, which means it is where most of the region’s lakes and rivers originate. The park is home to 19 glaciers, the most impressive of which is San Rafael, hence the name of the park. The park is also home to Mount San Valentin – the highest peak in the Southern Andes.
For an adventure you won’t forget, take on the Carretera Austral, a 1,240km stretch of (mostly unpaved) road, by car or bike, which takes between five to ten days to complete. The track takes you through some of Patagonia’s most ridiculously beautiful scenery and boasts possibly the freshest air in the world. Depending on which direction you’re travelling, you will either start in the north at Puerto Montt, or in the South at Villa O’Higgins. Highlights of the journey include the Marble Caves, the Enchanted Forest and the San Rafael and Queulat Hanging Glaciers.
If you’re Torres del Paine bound – as almost everyone in the region is – you will need to pass through Puerto Natales. This is a cool city that warrants a little exploration of its own. Definitely go and check out the archaeological artefacts at Museo Histórico. There are also a bunch of art galleries located along the waterfront, and you can enjoy tours out to local ranches to see how the people who call this corner of the world home survive in such terrain. The Milodon Caves are located inside Torres del Paine National Park but are an easy day trip, as they’re only 25km north of Puerto Natales. The cave is vast – as are most things down in Patagonia. It’s 200m deep, 800m wide and 30m high. At the cave you can learn all about the Mylodon sloth – a giant sloth that once roamed these parts, said to be the size of a bear.
If you plan on getting your hike on in Torres del Paine, it’s worth warming up those hiking muscles with some practice treks in and around Puerto Natales. Trek 800m up to the top of Dorotea Hill for mesmerising views of the city, Admiral Montt Gulf and the Ultima Esperanza fjord, which you can also kayak around or cruise around aboard a catamaran. Dorotea Hill is part of Sierra Dorotea, and if you’re galloping your way around Patagonia, you won’t want to miss getting on the saddle here. Tours of the area are led by baquedanos – Chilean gauchos – all of whom have worked and ridden here for their whole lives. You can enjoy day hacks, or multiple day trips – whatever you fancy. Kayaking fans can take to the water with half-day or multiple day trips that leave daily from the pier in the city. There are areas of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park that you can only reach by kayak, plus you get the chance to get up close to the Serrano and Balmaceda Glaciers and camp in isolated sites that most can’t reach on foot.
The time has come for Torres del Paine – Chile’s number one attraction, and arguably the most beautiful place on Earth. Remember to factor park entrance fees into your budget, and make sure you have cash. Unsurprisingly – there aren’t too many cash machines in this neck of the woods! In high season, the entrance fee is around £32, and in low season you’re looking at £13. The W Trek is the most famous of all the hikes within the park. You can either join a tour or hike the trail in your own time. Obviously, a tour will be far more expensive – but you have the added bonus of someone putting up and taking your tent down for you and cooking your dinner! Typically, the W Trek is a four or five day adventure through all of the park’s iconic landmarks, including Grey Lake, Los Cuernos, Valle de Frances and, of course, the towering peaks of the Torres themselves. While you don’t necessarily need to be Captain Hiker to take on the 50-mile trek, it pays to have some level of fitness because the terrain can be challenging, particularly when climbing the Torres and climbing up the Valle de Frances. If four or five days doesn’t cut it, you should check out the O Trek, which is a 74-mile track that will take between six and eight days. For either of these treks, it’s worth booking your camping or refugio spots in advance so you know where you’re sleeping each night. Wild camping and open fires are forbidden within the park, and if you don’t reach the trails early enough in the day to complete that section, you can be refused entry. It’s worth noting that the O Trek is closed from April 1st to September 30th.
If the idea of heading out into the wilderness for so many days makes you break out in hives, fear not – you can enjoy the wonders of the park and still return to an actual bed and a slap-up dinner at the end of the day. A favourite one-day hike is to the Base of the Torres, which is typically around a six-hour hike. Cuernos Lookout and Salto Grande (a waterfall) is another popular day trip that also swings by Nordernskjöld Lake, another great spot for horse riding. Ferrier Lookout is a challenging but short hike. Over 1.5km, you ascend 700m! This hike takes around three hours. It’s possible to combine hiking and horseback riding on a lot of tours, but the most popular to do so is probably the one to Cerro Paine. You ride to the base of the Torres and then hike to the top at 1,500m. While the hike will definitely get you huffing and puffing, the views from the summit will instantly ease your pain. Lago Grey and Grey Glacier can be reached via a boat tour, or if you don’t want to walk you can join a 10-hour bus tour that takes in all the sights in the park.
Punta Arenas is the last real point of civilisation in Chilean Patagonia, but there is plenty to keep you occupied for a couple of days. While in town, make sure you pop over to Los Pingüinos Natural Monument – one of the world’s largest penguin colonies, home to an incredible 120,000 Magellanic penguins. The island is located just over 20 miles offshore from Punta Arenas, and the best time of year to visit is September to October, when the little heroes migrate back here to get their freak on. They tend to stick around until the end of March. This is one of the only places in the world where you can mingle with the penguins, plus you should keep your eyes out for sea lions and a whole range of birds.
Explore the coastline of Punta Arenas with a walk along the Costanera del Estrecho and head up to Mirador Cerro de la Cruz for the best views in town, an ideal spot for sunset. Should you not yet have had your fill of national parks, visit Alberto Agostini National Park, which marks the end of The Andes. The park is the third largest in the country and much of it is only accessible by boat. Be sure to visit the Marinelli Glacier and Glacier Alley.
You’ve made it all this way, so you might as well hop across to Tierra del Fuego – an archipelago located off the southernmost tip of South America, across the Strait of Magellan, which is divided between Chile and Argentina. The archipelago is made up of a series of islands; Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn and the Diego Ramírez Islands. Check out Ushuaia, which although located in Argentina, shouldn’t be missed. Visit Tierra del Fuego National Park, go skiing at Cerro Castor Ski Resort, take a ride on the train at the end of the world and get your photo taken at the iconic sign, which states you have reached the end of the Pan-American Highway. Unsurprisingly, it gets pretty jammed with tourists vying for the same photo, so the earlier you arrive in the day, the better.
Easter Island is the most isolated inhabited island on the planet, and is located over 3,000km off Chile’s east coast. While it’s certainly not cheap to visit – a return flight costs around 700,000 pesos (£800) – you will be rewarded with a once in a lifetime experience amid sensational natural beauty. On Easter Island, towering volcanoes loom over thick forest and unspoilt beaches, while the Pacific Ocean crashes around in the background. The island’s biggest attraction is the famous Moai statues, which are best visited at sunrise or sunset. Once they are ticked off, enjoy days on the island’s incredible beaches, delve into the history and traditions of the Rapa Nui people, or enjoy some of the best scuba diving and snorkelling in the world. The visibility here is remarkable!
Should you happen to have a spare £5,700-7,400 knocking around in your bank account, you can hop on a cruise to Antarctica from Punta Arenas. Journey to the world’s southernmost continent, across the Straits of Magella for an experience you will never forget…and plenty of encounters with penguins!
What food do they eat in Chile? Tasty stuff, that’s what! And again, given the size of the country, Chilean cuisine varies widely depending on the lie of the land, and what raw ingredients are easily accessible. Here are some of the highlights:
South America in general is a meat lovers’ paradise. If you love a steak sandwich, then you’ll be able to find one any time, day or night, on any street corner. Churrasco and chacarero are large steak sandwiches topped with tomatoes, avocados, green beans and peppers, and plenty of pebre – hot chili sauce that you’ll find on almost all restaurant tables around the country. These vary in spice, so be cautious if you don’t want your head blown off! A standard meal for meat eaters is lomo or bife a lo pobre, which is a pork or beef steak served with chips, a fried egg and a pile of fried onions. Chorillana is similar, only it’s strips of beef steak and either scrambled or fried eggs. This dish is meant to be shared, so don’t be alarmed by its size!
America may be known for its hotdogs, but it’s Chile that really does them right. If you’ve got a thing for a sausage in a bap, get your mitts on a completo – a hot dog Chilean style. First off, they are cheap and enormous. Secondly, they come smothered in tasty toppings that will keep you full up until dinner. In Chile, they eat their hotdogs with mayonnaise, which is a bit unusual but go with it.
Of course, empanadas are a staple snack food, but unlike their Argentinian counterparts, Chilean empanadas are square and massive. The most traditional is with the pino filling – minced meat, onions, raisins, black olives and hard-boiled eggs, but you can also get plenty of veggie and fishy varieties. Chileans also bloody love a stew. Pastel de choclo is a popular corn and beef casserole, and cazuelas are soupy stews, packed full of beef or seafood and loads of veggies.
Given how much coastline Chile has, you can expect to find a healthy amount of fish and seafood on most menus – in particular, ceviche, which in Chile is usually a tasty blend of squid, octopus, flaked fish and mussels. It’s cheap, fresh and so delicious I still dream about it. Chilean razor clams are seriously good. Usually they come covered in parmesan too – double win! If you make it down to Patagonia, fill your boots with centolla, king crab (for as little as five dollars) served with fresh lemon or lime and mayo, or chupe de centolla, king crab stew, which is made with an impossibly cheesy sauce.
Porotos Granados is a national food of Chile, traditionally eaten during summer. Made from beans, corn, pumpkin and plenty of garlic and tomato, this ticks every veggie box. Quinoa is a staple of most Chilean menus, particularly in the north. Humitas is simple but delicious mashed corn, wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. Street food-wise, you’ll want to try sopaipillas – tasty pumpkin fritters, topped with lashings of pebre hot sauce.
For those with a sweet tooth, try tres leches cake, which is made from whole milk, evaporated milk and condensed milk and comes smothered in toffee sauce. Brazo de reina is basically Chile’s take on the Swiss roll, the main difference being that the filling is caramelized condensed milk. Leche asada is crème caramel with a Chilean twist. While they may be considered Argentinian, alfajores are everywhere in Chile. Forget chocolate hobnobs, forget digestives – this is queen of the biscuits; gooey caramel sandwiched between shortcake cookies and either dipped in chocolate or dusted with icing sugar. A wonderful added bonus of Chile is that much of its population has German roots. This means kuchen (superb cakes, pastries and tarts) are always within easy reach.
Head to any Chilean market and you’ll see mote de huesillo, a sugary drink made from boiled peaches, which is basically a dessert in liquid form. Obviously, Chilean wine is a sensation, given they are one of the leading wine suppliers in the world. Anything from the Maipo Valley – considered the ‘Bordeaux of South America’ – or the Maule Valley – where some of the very first (and best) grapes were first planted by Spanish Conquistadores when they arrived in the 16th century. As well as the usual suspects, Chile has a few unique ways of serving wine which you should absolutely sample as you travel through the country. Borgoña is a cold red wine served with strawberries, chicha is a sweet wine fermented from grapes or apples and melon con vino is melon with the top cut off, filled up with white wine. Ponche a la romana is champagne mixedwith pineapple ice cream, which is traditionally enjoyed on New Year’s Eve. Also, you should probably sample a terremoto (earthquake – so named because it’s likely to make your legs shake), which is wine served with pineapple ice cream in a litre glass. If you can hack more, the follow up drink is a half-litre version, known as an aftershock. You’ll also find pisco sours on most drinks’ menus, given it is the birthplace of pisco.
The Chile language of choice is Spanish. Although if you have a little experience of the language, you might clock it sounds a bit different as the Chilean accent is quite distinctive. German is also widely spoken in the south, due to the volume of immigrants who moved here between 1846 and 1914. While it certainly pays to know some Spanish, English is relatively prevalent due to the fact that kids start learning it from the age of nine.
Chile people are very welcoming, so don’t be surprised if you get a big hug or sloppy kiss on the cheek when you’re first introduced. Chileans also like to get up in your personal space. Don’t be alarmed if people stand closer to you than normal, this is just the Chilean way. If invited into someone’s home, it’s polite to greet the head of the household or the oldest person first. Religion plays a key role in social and political life, given most of the population are Roman Catholic. Abortion is still illegal and divorce was only made legal in the country in 2004! While homosexuality is legal and people are becoming more forward-thinking, same sex couples might still attract a few looks in smaller towns and cities. When it comes to etiquette, remember to never click your fingers or beckon someone over with your index finger, as both are considered the height of rudeness.
Is Chile safe?
How safe is Chile? Pretty darn safe. In fact, it’s one of the safest places in South America and safer than some parts of North America, while Santiago is considered the safest large city in Latin America. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should wander around with your backpack open or leave expensive electronics lying around. It’s important to be sensible and keep your personal safety in mind at all times.
Petty theft does occur in Chile, particularly in busy cities, around tourist attractions, on beaches and in bus terminals, so keep your wits about you, never put bags containing your valuables down or leave them unmanned while you go and frolic in the ocean. Also, be mindful when you’re out drinking to not leave valuables lying on tables. It’s also worth leaving the family jewels at home. Flaunting wealth or expensive items makes you a more likely target. Always keep your valuables on you when you’re riding in buses, rather than putting them in the hold. While muggings are rare, they still take place. Protect yourself by sticking to main roads, not talking on your mobile phone, and not carrying huge amounts of cash or your passport on nights out. If you do get mugged, don’t take any chances, just hand it over. Money belts are always a sensible idea, and we recommend separating credit cards.
At your accommodation, always lock your door and windows and make use of the lockers in your room. It’s a good idea to bring a sturdy lock with you to Chile. Should you be road tripping, keep the vehicle locked, park it in well-lit areas and don’t leave desirable items or cash lying around in plain sight. If you use your common sense, you shouldn’t have any problems in Chile.
As you would in the UK, only ever use registered taxis. When you get off a long bus journey, exhausted and desperate to get to your accommodation, it might seem fine to follow the chap who appears so eager to help you with your bag. Don’t. Only ever get in vehicles with drivers who are at the official ranks at bus stations and airports. When you’re coming home from a night out, either book a taxi in advance, or stick with your friends so you have someone else to ride with. Never walk home alone at night. Remember that drugs are illegal, so consumption or possession can get you in trouble and occasionally even result in time behind bars.
It’s worth noting that Chile experiences more than its fair share of earthquakes. In fact, the country experiences an earthquake almost every day, but thankfully most of them are so small they barely register. However, there have also been some seriously big ones, so be prepared – stay in places that are well constructed, and if an earthquake should occur, shelter under furniture or in a doorway. Chile also has a number of active volcanoes, although they are closely monitored so are unlikely to erupt without fair warning. If you plan on spending time on Chile’s best beaches, be aware that rip currents can be a problem. Most beaches will have signs clearly stating whether swimming is safe. If you see the word, ‘peligroso’ – you know it’s dangerous. As a general rule, if other swimmers aren’t in the water, double check whether it is safe to take a dip. If you are visiting Santiago in winter, be aware than smog can become a problem. While it won’t affect most, if you have respiratory problems, avoid the city at this time of year.
Before you go hugging street puppies, of which there are many in some areas, be aware that scabies is a problem in Chile’s dog population – and it’s highly contagious. Like anywhere, mozzies are a real pain, as are horseflies, particularly in the south of the country during summertime…and the buggers really bite. Always cover yourself with light-coloured clothing and keep strong insect repellent at the ready.
Chile Travel Advice
The World Health Organisation and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following Chile vaccinations: You’ve got the old favourites including, typhoid, MMR, polio, tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis A and B, all of which you are likely to have had if you’ve travelled before. They also recommend chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia, flu, and rabies. However, rabies is only really present in bats in Chile, so unless you’re planning on working with the animal, or hanging out in caves, your chances of being bitten by a rabid bat are relatively slim. If you fancy going caving while in Chile, it might be sensible to have the vaccination just so you don’t have a panic attack underground if a bat zooms by your head.
We hope this guide helps you out with everything you need to explore Chile like a backpacking pro! Still got some questions, or want to share your own tips with our travel community? Let us know in the comments below! Pssst, dont forget to check out all of our hostels in Chile!
About the author:
Amy Baker is the author of Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America, and founder of The Riff Raff, a writers’ community that supports aspiring writers and champions debut authors. You can follow Amy on Twitter here.