Chile is a massive country. It is about as long as the United States is wide. So as you can imagine there is A LOT to see and do. I like to break down Chile into three different zones. You have the desert area in the north, a more mild geographic region in the center and a rugged outdoorsman’s dream in the south.
Best Time To Go: December through March is tourist season and can be crowded. September-November and March-June are ideal in my opinion. In fact, the extreme climate regions (Atacama Desert and Southern Patagonia) are actually a bit more mild during the off-season.
Daily Spending: On a strict budget you can get by spending only $25 USD per day. Click HERE for a more detailed budget guide.
What To Pack: Chile has 3 distinct climate zones; really hot, mild, and really cold. So depending on what regions you are visiting you will need to plan ahead. Patagonia can have sporadic snow, wind and rain so you will want to be prepared with items like a down jacket, gloves, beanie and hiking shoes. Basically, anything you might want for hiking in the snow. Whereas the northern desert region is blistering hot, so you will want sun-protectant clothing like lightweight long sleeve shirts and a brimmed hat.
Transportation: You have a few different options for traveling domestically through Chile. City buses for short day trips are cheap and will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. For longer distances, night buses are a great option because it eliminates accommodation cost for the night and only costs about $40 (for about 16 hours). Some good companies are Tur-Bus, Pullman, Cruz Del Sur and Jac. You can buy tickets at the terminal, just make sure you buy them ahead of time because they sell out. However, linking up bus routes can get expensive if you are traveling from the northern tip to the southern tip so I’d recommend catching a flight with Sky Airlines– not only will this be comparable in price but it will allow you a few extra days to explore, rather than sitting on a bus! Buses will most likely be your cheapest option for visiting neighboring countries, but be sure to check out airfare prices with local airlines.
- Wandering the Streets of Valparaiso– Located 2 hours west of Santiago, this city is nestled into the hills of a beautiful coastline. Colorfully painted buildings and houses dot the steep streets creating an artistic feel. You can visit the home of Pablo Neruda (famous poet), shop at the large outdoor market or window-shop the quirky shops.
- River Rafting– If you are going to splurge and spend money on a tour you better pick rafting! Chile is home to the famous Futaleufu river, which boasts some of the most beautiful 4 and 5 rapids in the world. You can choose from a multitude of trip options. A day trip will set you back about $80 and a multi-day trip will cost you a lot more.
- Hiking in Patagonia– Chile is probably most famous for the Patagonian National Park System in the Andes mountains. There are numerous places to backpack these gorgeous lands. My favorite is Torres Del Paine on the southern tip of the country.
- Atacama Desert– In Northern Chile you will find a remarkable desert landscape. Be sure to check out the Salt Flats and take a hike through Moon Valley.
My Favorite Places:
Southern Chilean Patagonia-
The Southern tip of Chile is home to some of the most most beautiful country I have ever seen. This gem is an absolute must see. It’s remote location and diverse geography is an ideal setting for numerous outdoor activities.
Things to do:
Hiking- There are numerous treks and parks, but I highly recommend Torres Del Paine National Park. You can either do a 5 day “W-Trek” or a 7 day “Circuit”. To get there, you will arrive via bus to a town called Puerto Natales. The town is quaint and provides you with anything you might need for your trek like rental gear and bulk trail mix. Without a doubt you should stay at Erratic Rock Hostel. It isn’t cheap at $20 per night, but you get free breakfast every morning, an info session everyday and access to their gear rental shop. Check out my post on Torres Del Paine!
Puerto Natales- As I just mentioned, you will have to stay in this town to hike Torres Del Paine. So you might as well enjoy it while you are there! I’d take a day to walk around the main square, but it’s small and you can see everything in a few hours. You will have a much better time venturing outside of the city limits. Here’s a few great options… You can hitchhike your way to the Milodon Cave/Museum, which is a neat look into the discovery of the ground sloth. If this sounds too touristy for you, catch a cab to Sendero Dorotea. For about $5 you can pay a women to hike on her land up to a beautiful viewpoint. When you return, she will serve you a delicious home cooked meal of fresh lamb, bread and cookies!
Rafting- The Futaleufu River resides in a remote part of Southern Chile. But the effort to get there is absolutely worth the trouble. If you have the time and money, a multi-day trip is an amazing experience with all sorts of activities. If this isn’t feasible for you, you can do a day trip. The “Bridge to Bridge” section will get your heart pumping with some huge rapids! Patagonia Elements is a great resource for planning your trip and their website will give you detailed instruction on how to get there.
Isla Chiloe- This island is quite the charmer. There is something for everybody; historic wooden churches, wildlife viewing, waterfalls, hiking and national parks. Chiloe is quite distinct from the rest of Chile and provides an excellent cultural experience. With its rich mythological beliefs and traditional architecture, you will no doubt have your world rocked!
Isla Magdalena- Who doesn’t love penguins? Hop on a ferry and spend an afternoon observing penguins and other sea life on this gorgeous island. The best time to go is Dec-Feb when the penguins are there in mass numbers! Find more information here.
This artsy little coastal town is a real charmer. With tasty seafood, colorful buildings and sweeping ocean views “Valpo” is sure to steal a little piece of your heart. I actually had a rather traumatizing experience in this city, but still found it to be absolutely magical. So that must be saying something, right?!
Things to do:
Get in touch with your inner poet- Visit one of Pablo Neruda’s homes to get an inside look at the life of one of the greatest 20th century poets. Also, be sure to stop by one of the numerous book stores to get a feel for the Chilean literature scene.
Eat your heart out- Valpo offers some delicious Chilean fare, so don’t you dare miss out! A visit to this tasty city isn’t complete without empanadas, fresh seafood, street food, and an earthquake (ice cream float with wine!). If you are in town on a Sunday, make sure to visit the “feria” market in Avenida Argentina for an authentic chilean street market experience.
Tour the city- Whether you do a walking tour or just walk around on your own, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to take in the beautiful architecture and graffiti. Pretty much every street you turn down will tell a story through the eyes of different latin artists.
Day trip to Viño del Mar– Just a short bus ride away, this neighboring city provides some lovely beach culture. The town itself doesn’t compare to Valparaiso in my opinion, but the beach is gorgeous and the board walk is full of neat stalls and tasty treats!
- The People– Chile is an incredibly patriotic country and it takes pride in what it has overcome. A country that once used to be governed by strict dictatorships and drug cartels is now the most stable country in South America. This attitude radiates through it’s citizens and can be seen in the way that they interact with tourists. They are more than happy to help you out and if your view of the country becomes skewed (you are robbed, assaulted etc..) you are pretty much guaranteed to be taken care of by someone. For example, a man once missed his entire lunch break just to ride the subway with me to ensure that I safely arrived at the correct destination. You can expect this kind of thing to happen to you multiple times. Click HERE to read about my experience with chilean hospitality!
- The Geography- Chile’s main selling point is it’s natural features and for good reason. Home to some of the most breathtaking views, Chile boasts a vast desert, rolling countryside hills and rugged mountain terrain. If the people don’t steal your heart, the scenery will. The most popular place to witness this beauty is Southern Patagonia. It is well worth the trek to get there. Everyday you will be astonished by the ever-changing views of glaciers, lakes, rivers and jagged mountains. Being so in touch with mother nature is sure to change your life- it truly is a paradise.
- It’s MASSIVE. Chile spans the majority of the western coast of South America, which is comparable to the width of the U.S.A. This means some seriously long travel times and a heap of overnight buses. It also means that unless you have months to visit, you want realistically be able to see everything on your wish list.
- It’s EXPENSIVE. In comparison to the rest of Latin America, Chile is home to some of the highest prices. Hostels cost more, buses cost more and food costs more.
- It’s WESTERNIZED. Great for their development but horrible for travelers seeking authentic cultural immersion. Much of the indigenous culture is lost and unless you seek it out you might not even believe it existed.
- It’s still DANGEROUS. While the country has greatly improved on its safety, I still heard almost everyone foreigner say that they had been robbed in one form or another. Crowded cities offer protection from real danger (other than pickpockets) but the poorer neighborhoods are home to some pretty desperate youngsters…
My Tips & Tricks Specific to Chile:
- Chile is one seriously LONG country, make sure you have enough time in your itinerary for all the domestic travel. If you are wanting to see most of Chile, I would recommend staying at least a month… Or plan on dishing out some extra money for airfare.
- Bring your favorite spices or hot sauces! Traditional Chilean food tends to be bland.
- Pack lots of layers! If you plan on visiting more than one region of Chile, be prepared for multiple types of weather.
- Forget what you learned in Spanish Class. Chilean spanish is quite different from what you learned in school. They speak incredibly quick and drop the endings to many of their words. I survived by politely asking them to speak slower and by amping up the speed of my own speaking. If you can’t roll your “R’s”, they want have any idea what you are saying. Feel free to carry a pen and paper to communicate.
- I highly recommend checking out my post on how to eat in Chile (coming soon), but here are the basics- Stay away from “completos”, the countries version of the hot dog. They are cheap but absolutely terrible. Empanadas can be found in all bakeries and are the ultimate to eat cheap while satisfying your taste buds. Plan on eating your biggest meal at lunch time. Most restaurants offer a “menu ejecutivo” from 1:30 – 3:00 p.m. that only costs $5-$8 USD and includes a set menu of 3 courses and a drink. Lastly, almost all places in Chile have tap water that is safe to consume, so don’t waste your money on bottled water!
- When in Santiago, use the underground subway system. But don’t be a sissy. The trains are packed tight during “rush hour” and if you stand there like a timid tourist you won’t make it through the doors. Also keep your hands on your valuables at all times.
- While Chile has done away with its reciprocity fee, surrounding countries have not. Many bus rides throughout Chile will cross the Argentinian border at some point and will require you to pay the Argentinian entry fee (around $100 USD). You can avoid this by doing your research in advance!
My Ratings for Chile:
Activities: 9 out of 10
Food: 4 out of 10
People: 8 out of 10
Cultural Experience: 6 out of 10