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Chile’s geography – almost 2700 miles long and at its narrowest just 40 miles wide – presents something of a challenge for would-be visitors. Most international flights land in the capital, Santiago, slap bang in the middle, meaning that a bit of backtracking is inevitable if you want to see the very different regions of the country to the north and south. That said, it is possible – here’s how to squeeze Chile’s many highlights into just two weeks.
Divide your sightseeing into chunks of three or four days
First-time visitors will want to visit the Atacama Desert and the Andes Mountains. The capital and its surroundings are also worthy of attention; the colourful city of Valparaiso is doable as a day trip. Patagonia has an enduring appeal and exotic Easter Island is a surprisingly easy, though distant, add on. The scale of the country means that to cram these sights into two weeks you’ll need to fly. Those with more time and a smaller budget will be interested to learn that the overnight buses are safe, reliable and affordable. They’re also surprisingly comfortable if you opt for a cama or semi-cama reclining seat.
Santiago and its environs
Minimum time required: 2 days
Thanks to a reliable metro and extensive bus network, it’s easy to tick off the major sights in the Chilean capital in a day. Take a look at the Presidential Palace housed in La Moneda, the 18th century cathedral and the museum housed in the Casa Colorada. Charming Barrio Bellavista is where you’ll find the funicular to ascend Cerro San Cristóbal; the views over the city from the top are breathtaking. The fish restaurants inside the iron Mercado Central are a must for lunch, but for dinner head to the upscale neighbourhoods of Providencia and Los Condes, nicknamed Sanhattan for their glass and steel high rises.
A day trip to the coast is easy to arrange. One of the most rewarding destinations is the Bohemian Valparaiso, famous for its street art. Its gaggle of brightly painted buildings clings to the cliffs; reach them via the historic funiculars to save your legs the effort. Don’t miss a visit to La Sebastiana, the former home of celebrated poet Pablo Neruda and now a museum.
The Atacama desert
Minimum time required: 3 days
Base yourself in the charming oasis of San Pedro de Atacama. Dusty streets lined with whitewashed adobe buildings house guesthouses and tour agencies in surprisingly large numbers. Because of the difficult terrain and potentially dangerous extreme altitude, most visitors opt to sightsee as part of a tour group. Though you can arrange this up front, it’s easy to visit a few in the afternoon of the day you arrive to see what’s on offer and choose an operator that you like the feel of.
Take a tour into the altiplano to visit the nearby Valle de la Luna or the stunning Los Flamencos National Reserve. Snow-capped volcanoes rise above tranquil lakes, the patchy grass grazed by herds of llamas and wild vicuña. Don’t miss Lagunas Miscanti and Chaxa, the latter populated by flocks of flamingos. The ethereal Salar Aguas Calientes has a Caribbean colour palette – though sadly not its tropical climate. It’s an early start to visit the El Tatio geyser field, but as steam rises from the ground, there are few places in the world as beautiful as this.
Minimum time required: 4 days
It’s a long drive to the Torres del Paine National Park from Puerto Natales, but one that’s worth the investment of time. It takes its name from the three granite towers that form the iconic backdrop to many of the park’s scenic overlooks. Though the challenging W circuit requires a minimum of five days to complete, there are plenty of day hikes that make a shorter trip possible while still seeing the park’s must-sees. On your way in, stop off to admire Lago Toro.
Hug the shoreline of turquoise Lago Pehoe and stretch your legs with a gentle hike to Salto Grande waterfall. Slightly longer is the walk to Mirador Cuernos and its view over Lago Nordenskjold. You’ll see the Cuernos del Paine, sedimentary rock formations that stand about 2600m high. To see a reflection of the Torres del Paine, pick a clear day and drive past flocks of guanacos up to Laguna Amarga, where you’ll see them in its waters. Round off your visit with a boat trip on Lago Grey to get a close up look at its mighty glacier.
Minimum time required: 4 days
It’s a five hour flight to Easter Island from Santiago de Chile. Although marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean it feels a world away, it’s officially part of Chile. Hire a car and loop the island to view its iconic moai, most of which were placed with their backs to the shore. The greatest concentration of stone heads line up at Tongariki, at their most magnificent at sunrise. The seven moai at Ahu Akivi are unusual in that they face the sea; those at Anakena are convenient for a picnic on the white sands. The five at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai, are best viewed as silhouettes in front of the setting sun.
Some moai never made it out of the quarry at Rano Raraku and lie, half carved, in the grass or attached to the stone cliff face. Near the main town of Hanga Roa you’ll find the richly vegetated crater of Rano Kau and the ceremonial village of Orongo, the island’s most intriguing traditional archaeological site.
With a little longer, you’ll have time to explore the Chilean Lake District. Base yourself in Pucon and try a spot of winter skiing on the slopes of Volcan Villarica enjoying super views of the lake of the same name as you swoosh your way down. The mist-shrouded island of Chiloe is known for its palafitos – stilt houses over the water – and its wooden churches. Further north, the Elqui Valley draws stargazers thanks to its clear skies and powerful telescopes. The diversity and beauty of Chile will astonish and impress in equal measure. No matter how long you come for, you’ll leave wanting more.
About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.