Stretching along the west coast of the South American continent, Chile is just 64 kilometres wide at its narrowest point and only 350 kilometres across at its widest. The country is all about north and south. And this remarkable 4,300-kilometre length means that Chile is home to some of the most diverse landscapes and topography in the world. From the temperate rainforests of Valdivia to the driest place on Earth in the Atacama Desert and the colossal glaciers and mountains of Patagonia, Chile has it all. The country is well worth a visit. And for those planning a trip, we’ve put together a guide to the 10 must-see highlights of Chile.
#1 Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine National Park is located in the south of Chile and is picture postcard Patagonia. Jagged black mountain peaks rise up across the landscape, thundering glacial blue rivers wind through valleys, and a variety of biodiversity calls the area home. Species include the famous Andean condor and the amazing rhea bird, which is the size of an African ostrich! Torres del Paine translates to Towers of Blue, and another feature of the park are the spectacular granite towers which jut out from the landscape. The main activity in Torres del Paine is hiking. There is kilometre after kilometre of marked trails and well-maintained campsites that allow visitors to take in the very best of what is arguably the main highlight of Chile.
No trip to Chile would be complete without spending at least a couple of days in the country’s charismatic capital. Spectacularly located with the Andes to the west and a smaller mountain range to the east, it is easy to feel like you’re exploring the fabled lands of Middle Earth or Westeros on a clear day. Santiago itself is a great mix of the old and new. The glistening skyscrapers of Las Condas financial district blend into the older part of the city such as Barrio Brasil. And modern, vibrant street art helps the city to throw off the shadow of the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet, which finally fell in 1990. The ski resort of Valle Nevado is just 90 minutes outside the city, and visitors will also want to take in landmarks including the presidential palace at La Moneda and the main square, Plaza de Armas.
#3 San Pedro de Atacama
The Atacama Desert is the driest recorded place in the world and one of Chile’s main highlights. On average, the desert receives around 1 – 3 millimetres of rain per year. But there are a handful of weather stations that have never recorded a single drop of rainfall. Located on a high plateau in the Andes, the landscape is almost lunar-like. It is characterized by dusty salt flats, hot springs, and geysers. San Pedro de Atacama is the gateway to the desert. The town sprung up around an oasis over many centuries and originally belonged to Bolivia until it was seized by Chile in the 1879 – 1884 War of the Pacific. It’s a charming town, the perfect base for exploring the Atacama.
#4 Lake Villarrica
The Chilean Lake District is a region of southern Chile that is home to numerous large glacial lakes. It isn’t as wild as the even more southern region of Patagonia, but it is a land of spectacular scenery. The highlight of the Lake District is probably Villarrica, a shimmering lake surrounded by a perfectly conical volcano of the same name. Villarrica volcano is one of the most active in the world, and smoke can often be seen billowing from its summit. Lake Villarrica is popular with water sports enthusiasts, and it is possible to enjoy all manner of sailing, rafting, and fishing activities, as well as trekking, biking, and horse riding in the surrounding area. On the eastern shore of the lake lies the city of Pucón, a popular tourist city and ski resort.
#5 Easter Island
Not the easiest place to get to, Easter Island is a remote Chilean territory in the South Pacific. Known as Rapa Nui to its native Polynesian inhabitants, Easter Island is a treeless volcanic desert. Its native flora was largely wiped out by early human settlers, alongside the giant seabird colonies which once lived here. However, the island is best known for the 887 Moai statues which decorate the area. They were created by the Rapa Nui people sometime between 1250 and 1500 CE. But the how and the why remain a mystery. The giant, hollow-eyed statues are now by far the main tourist attraction for those prepared to make the trip. Ahu Tongariki is probably the best place to see the statues, with 15 of them grouped together near the coast.
#6 Punta Arenas
The biggest city in southern Chile, travellers are sure to spend a few days in Punta Arenas on their way to explore Patagonia. Whilst the city itself is a pleasant and scenic place to explore, the main drawcards are the numerous large penguin colonies which live within a short distance of the city. Nearby Magdalena Island is home to the country’s largest colony. More than 120,000 Magellanic penguins breed here between September and March. Ferries head out to the island daily and the penguins are curious rather than scared of people, allowing you to get relatively close. It is important to remain a safe distance from the birds, especially when breeding, to avoid disturbing them.
Back up in the very north of Chile, coastal Iquique is a former saltpetre mining town. Today it is a prosperous freeport and also a seaside retreat for Chileans and foreign travellers alike. The city benefits from a warm desert climate and little rainfall; it is not unusual for Iquique to see a totally dry year. Visitors will want to stroll down the vibrant boardwalk and enjoy a spot of sunbathing at Iquique’s most popular beach, Playa Cavancha. Travellers can also visit the replica of the Corbeta Esmerelda ship, which the Peruvians sank in 1879. And thrill-seekers can enjoy sandboarding with a visit to the sand dunes of Cerro Dragon.
Located in the Los Lagos region of southern Chile, Chiloe is the second-largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego, which is shared between Chile and Argentina. Chiloe has developed a separate culture from the rest of the country thanks to its isolation. And this uniqueness is also what makes it one of the highlights of Chile. The main example of this is in the survival of many of its 16th century Spanish wooden churches, 16 of which are now protected by UNESCO. These are painted in vibrant colours (allegedly to provide a reference for fishermen at sea) and are a great example of the mixing of Chilean and European customs and beliefs which are present across the island.
The main towns on the island are Ancud and Castro. And the second of these is home to a selection of colourful stilted houses known as palafitos. Parque Nacional Chiloe is also a must-visit for nature lovers, with lush rainforest, white beaches, and stunning panoramic views.
Once known as ‘Little San Francisco’, Valparaiso experienced its golden age in the mid-19th century. It was a popular settlement for European migrants and sprung up very quickly. This proliferation ended abruptly in 1914. This is because the opening of the Panama Canal meant that the city’s port-based economy began to crumble. Wealthy families left the city, which fell into a long decline. However, the 21st century has been kinder, with a thriving tourism industry helping to rejuvenate the city. The historic quarter is characterized by cobbled streets and colourful buildings. In addition, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and there are nine funicular railways to help visitors navigate the steep slopes of the city, which is spread over several hills. Valparaiso is also known as Chile’s cultural hub, with numerous annual festivals, a booming street art scene and four large universities attracting much-needed youth to the city.
Up near the Peruvian border, Arica is another of Chile’s cities characterized by a distinct lack of rainfall. It’s known as the ‘city that never rains’ and also as the ‘city of the eternal spring’ in reference to its terrific weather. Arica also holds the accolade of being the country’s most northern city. The beaches here are popular with Bolivians. But there are plenty of them to share, with more than 20 kilometres of beaches renowned for surfing. Visitors simply must climb the Morro de Arica natural hill for panoramic views over the city. And there are plenty of amazing restaurants to experience in this city where the cultures of Chile and Peru fuse like nowhere else.
Chile’s geography means it is perhaps the most diverse country in the world. It is also one of the most naturally spectacular. There are barren deserts in the north, beautiful lakes in the middle, and also the rugged and jaw-dropping terrain of Patagonia in the south. Outdoors is the way to explore Chile. But there is plenty to see in the country’s cities too. Santiago, Punto Arenas, and Iquique, in particular, are worth a visit. Do you agree with our 10 highlights of Chile, or have we missed somewhere? Let us know in the comments.