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Chile Travel Guide: What to Do in Chile

Chile, long and lovely, is home to some of the most extreme landscapes in the Southern Hemisphere, mainly due to the sheer length of the place: some 2,610 miles top to bottom. That means desert, mountains, glaciers, beaches and vineyards — all usually within a few hours’ drive of each other! While three attractions lure in the majority of tourists — the Atacama Desert in the north, the wine country in the middle and the snow-capped Andes of Patagonia in the south — there is a whole lot more to see in this Latin beanpole of a country.

Besides the obvious (wine tasting, skiing, trekking), Chile offers isolated beaches, gorgeous hot springs, wildly distinct architecture, German- and Italian-founded towns, and indigenous culture connected by the best infrastructure in South America.

Click through our slideshow to explore 10 of Chile’s best off-the-beaten-track experiences. You’ll get off the ski slopes, away from the most crowded vineyards and out of Atacama’s Valle de la Luna and into some of the country’s less ruffled feathers. Don’t forget to bring a bottle of Carmenere!

Shred Powder on a Dog Sledding Tour

One of Chile’s most unique experiences awaits just outside Villarrica in the Lake District, where German musher Konrad Jacob raises Siberian and Alaskan huskies — maybe the cutest things you’ve ever seen in your life. You can meet them year-round on a dog sledding trip with his adventure company, Aurora Austral Patagonia Husky.

Obviously, visiting in the winter is ideal, when snow-capped day trips in the shadow of Villarrica Volcano are offered, as well as an epic seven-day Andean crossing for serious Iditarod wannabes. In summer, you can ride in an adapted wheeled sled (which the dogs use for off-season training), and day trips are followed by a typical Chilean barbecue. Whatever the season, the dogs will not only provide a thrill you won’t soon forget, but warm your heart as well.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Villarrica, Chile by Alicia
“Our few days in Villarrica did not do the area justice. We could have been there two weeks and still not seen or done everything there is to do. The lake was gorgeous and cool for hot summer days, fishing, hiking, thermal baths, horseback riding, etc.” Read more!

Chase Down the Churches of Chiloe

Seen one old cathedral, seen them all, right? Guess again. The extraordinary wooden churches of Chiloe Island (16 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites) will topple your preconceptions with their unorthodox constructions, wacky colors, nontraditional symbolism and intricate interior woodwork. Most of the churches are readily accessible, others far more remote, but the journey to each of them is part of the fun.

Some of our favorites (Tenaun, Castro, Chemchi) shake up the status quo with blue, yellow and purple facades — an abrupt and beautiful clash of color with the deep-green countryside of the island — and each one offers its own unique architecture and interiors.

Chiloetnico, based in the island capital of Castro, offers several eco-sensitive church excursions, including by bike, but it’s fun to drive around to many of them as well.

Meet Chile’s Renegade Winemakers

Chile produces some of the New World’s best (and most affordable!) wine, so it’s not surprising that tasting is on most folks’ itineraries. But while the majority of oenophiles head toward some of the country’s most well-known wine regions — the Maipo, Colchagua and Casablanca Valleys — you should head a few more hours south to the up-and-coming Maule Valley, about 224 miles below Santiago, where a group of renegade winemakers is producing extraordinary wine while bucking traditions around every turn.

What’s great about tasting here (besides the lack of lines) is that a lot of these independent-minded boutique winemakers run the show every step of the way, from hand-harvesting the grapes right down to pouring the wines for you (and, in our case, even running down to the cellar and labeling a few purchased bottles themselves). No tasting rooms, no wine clubs, no winery-branded backscratchers — just fabulous face-to-face experiences with the winemakers themselves. Santiago Adventures runs excellent custom tours to the area.

Ogle Penguins in Southern Patagonia

There are quite a few places to spot adorable little penguins in Chile, but few that reel in as many as 60,000 Magellanic couples during the warmer months each year. To see them visit Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos, located on Isla Magdalena in the Strait of Magellan (accessible by a five-hour ferry tour from Punta Arenas several days a week between December and March).

It’s a two-hour trip in each direction, leaving you about an hour on the island itself to observe these little critters. Transbordadora Austral Broom runs the trips.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Christmas & New Year’s Cruise South America Style by Amelia Hesson
“We went to Magdalena island first and disembarked to Natural Monument Los Pinguinos where thousands of Magellanic penguins made their summer home. There were only 50 of us and plenty of room to roam. The penguins were incredible; while there was a roped-off path for us to follow up to the lighthouse and bathroom, the penguins were free to cross the path and interact with us. … I cannot stress how awesome this experience was.” Read more!

Weave with Mapuche Women

The small town of Curarrehue, 25 miles west of the Argentine border near Pucon, is home to an 80 percent indigenous Mapuche population, one of the highest in south-central Chile. It’s an excellent spot for all sorts of etnoturismo opportunities, from dining in the region’s best Mapuche restaurant (Cocina Mapuche Mapu Lyagl) to all sorts of deeper cultural experiences.

One of our favorites is spending a day with Mapuche women, scouring local fields for the plants and fruits used to mix the dyes that create the stunning colors of traditional oveja (wool) wall hangings. While learning the weaving techniques, you’ll relax inside a traditional ruka (an indigenous thatched dwelling made from wood and straw) while listening to stories and drinking mate (tea).

German-run Elementos ( works with several Mapuche in the area, arranging this and other cultural experiences, including cooking lessons with Mapuche chefs and visits to Mapuche medicine men.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Villarrica, Chile by Alicia
“We also visited the Mapuche Cultural Center with authentic replicas of traditional homes of the time of the Spanish conquest. A large handicraft mall next to the cultural center had a variety of handicrafts, mostly in wood, of course. We purchased quite a few souvenirs and gift items to take home.” Read more!

Kayak Through Misty Fjords

One of Chile’s best private parks is Parque Pumalin, owned by American conservationist (and cofounder of the North Face) Doug Tompkins. It protects a 715,000-acre patch of pristine Patagonian landscape near Hornopiren. Multi-day sea kayaking expeditions are a major attraction in the park, which is full of steep green fjords, waterfalls, sea lion colonies, natural hot springs and gorgeous snow-capped scenery.

Ko’Kayak (a nice mix of recreation and paddling), ALSUR Expediciones (a little less paddling) and Yak Expediciones (more adventurous/advanced) are all based to the north in Puerto Varas, which is also home to the official park office. Think four to five hours of paddling per day through impossibly dramatic landscapes, followed by nightly hot spring soaks with pisco sours in hand. ¡Salud!

Take a Cooking and Wine Course

Chilean cuisine isn’t as heralded around the world as that of Peru; nor is it as carnivorous as Argentina’s or as diverse as Brazil’s. But there is a lot of tasty stuff around these parts nonetheless — and plenty of wine to wash it all down. And there’s nobody more pleasant to introduce you to the intimate relationship between the two than good-time chef Pilar Rodriguez, who runs her namesake Food & Wine Studio in Chile’s Colchagua wine valley.

Neither a full-blown cooking course nor a wine course, Rodriguez’s offering concentrates on the marriage between the two. Her ceviche alone is worth the 2.5-hour trip south from Santiago, but it doesn’t get much better for foodies (and winos!) than a day with Pilar surrounded by the gorgeous vineyards of the Colchagua.

Channel Your Inner Robinson Crusoe

Way out there, more than 400 miles off the coast of central Chile, the volcanic Archipelago Juan Fernandez remains a new frontier. The archipelago, a national park, was made famous as the spot where castaway Scotsman Alexander Selkirk toiled away for years in Daniel Dafoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.”

The sleepy fishing village of San Juan Baptista is the only town, located on Robinson Crusoe Island. From here you can set out for the island’s main attractions: world-class scuba diving and excursions to observe the Juan Fernandez fur seal, the only native mammal in the vicinity. The island was hit hard by a tsunami as a result of the 2010 Chile earthquake, so much of it is being rebuilt. Diving, trekking, kayaking and fishing trips can be arranged in San Juan Baptista.

Follow the Pablo Neruda Trail

Fans of Chile’s most beloved poet, Pablo Neruda, can retrace his steps from one home to the next. Start with his Santiago property, La Chascona, a hideaway he had built in Barrio Bellavista to snuggle with his mistress, Matilde Urrutia (who later became his third wife). In Valparaiso, 75 miles northwest of the capital, there’s the five-story La Sebastiana, where Neruda enjoyed stunning ocean views complemented by the city’s colorful houses dotting the hillside. The poet’s largest home was a seaside getaway in Isla Negra, 53 miles south of Valpo, which houses the majority of his treasured possessions.

Today all three homes function as living museums. For fans of the poet’s romantic prose, it’s total Neruda immersion. Check out for more info.

Discover Chile’s Most Remote Beach

Large sections of Chile’s west coast remain isolated and difficult to access, and are all the more jaw-dropping because of it. Take Caleta Condor, for example; this sequestered bay near Bahia Mansa on the Osorno coast is the stuff of mythical traveler dreams. It’s hidden, off the beaten track and an incredible pain to access — but those that do make the trip, either by two-hour open-ocean boat ride (or two-day trek) from Bahia Mansa or a nine-hour 4WD/trekking/boat combo from Rio Negro, will find one of the most astonishing spots in all of Chile.

The area is part of protected indigenous lands known as Territorio Mapa Lahual; some 10 families live here (only four of which will house you for the night) without electricity, cell phone coverage or any other connection with the outside world besides VHF radio! But the landscape is unparalleled, with the Rio Cholcuaco slowly winding though moss-strewn patches of paradise teeming with wild horses and seabirds to an idyllic stretch of sand. Mawidan can get you there.

Best Time to Go to Chile

With its vast north-to-south expanse, Chile has no single climate. Still, October and November are springtime, and tend to be the most pleasant time of year in many parts of the country. High season in the Lake District is November through March, the Southern Hemisphere’s spring and summer. Winter here can be cold and overcast, but the skiing is great in the mountains. In Patagonia, the weather is cool year-round and best September through April. Some places, such as national parks, may be closed in the winter. It is sunny and warm year-round in the Atacama Desert to the north. Easter Island enjoys tropical warmth all year.

Chile on a Budget

You’ll be unlikely to find a bargain from mid-December through February or in the middle of July. The exception is Santiago, as locals leave the city in the summer, making for better hotel rates. Rural hospedajes rent out rooms for cheap. City residenciales, or boardinghouses, offer a room, shared bath and communal kitchen. (Beware: Many lack central heating.) More comfortable accommodations range from remote hiking lodges to sleek urban hotels. Restaurant meals are pricey, as is fresh food in the market, but beer and wine are bargain-priced. Public transportation is also a deal, including buses and the subway in Santiago.

–written by Kevin Raub

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