Far from the most popular South American country, Chile offers something different with a diverse range of sights. But where are the best cities in Chile? The cold mountains of Patagonia in the south, the vast expanses of the Atacama Desert in the far north, the big cities and rural villages. It’s a country rich in history with stunning landscapes, abundant local wildlife, tons of outdoor activities and beautiful sunsets.
When to visit Chile
As with many countries, the best time to go to Chile is during the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. Having said that, the further south you go the colder the temperatures will be, so even from mid-autumn (April/May) there’s a good chance you’ll find snow in Patagonia.
Summertime in Chile is from December to February and while this time should see more travellers, you won’t find many extreme temperatures. Even in the far north of the Atacama Desert.
Transport in Chile
Due to the long, thin nature of the country, Chile can be a little awkward to get around at times. From city to city you might have to travel long distances over many hours. Buses are a cheap and relatively easy way to see the country, although flying is obviously quicker. However, prices can vary widely, ranging from £30-50 to £200.
Buses in Chile will usually include some food and the seats are wide and semi-recline, making it easier to sleep. The problem is the time it takes to travel between cities. Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama for example is a 24-hour journey, meaning you lose at least a day just travelling.
In the south, the problem revolves around navigating the Andes Mountains. Not an easy task. This means it’s usually easier to fly in or out of Patagonia. The simplest route is between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, although even this relatively short distance takes around two hours.
Way up in the north of the country is a beautiful and surprisingly colourful desert full of wildlife and scenery so different it looks like another planet sometimes. Highlights include watching the sunset at Valle de la Luna, the Red Rocks (Piedras Rojas), El Tatio Geysers and Laguna Cejar.
Atacama Desert is just the other side of the border with Bolivia and a popular starting point for the famous salt flats. However, Atacama also has it own in the form of Salar de Tara. Wide, open expanses around 4,000 to 5,000m above sea level with such a diverse range of colour and native animals.
The closest town to the desert is San Pedro de Atacama. A small place with enough in the way of accommodation, shops and restaurants to keep you satisfied when you’re not exploring the desert.
Chile’s capital and biggest city, Santiago has many things to do and a ton of history. The city has seen so much happen over the years, much of it around the Plaza de Armas and La Moneda (the presidential palace). To get the best views of Santiago climb up Cerro San Cristóbal, a 300m tall hill in the city, or head to the Sky Costanera observation deck a little out from the centre. Sky Costanera is the perfect place to go for sunset as night falls across the city and the surrounding mountains disappear into the darkness.
Famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda used to live in Santiago and you can visit his former home which has been turned into a museum of his life. You’ll find more culture in the way of street art throughout the city with some beautiful and interesting pieces.
Just a few hours from Santiago, Valparaíso is a colourful coastal city with many interesting streets to explore. The views and smell of the Pacific Ocean are worth the visit alone but what really sets it apart are the murals that decorate the city with bright colour everywhere you look. Rainbow steps, street art, buildings painted in every shade, it’s everywhere you look.
You’ll also find another of Pablo Neruda’s former homes here, while the area around the port has its own charm. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and gazing up from the port you can see how the houses are all packed together into the hillsides above.
Valparaíso can be visited as a day trip from the capital, but the longer you spend the better you can get to know it’s intimate streets. Just 15 minutes away is Viña del Mar, another coastal city known for its gardens and famous clock of flowers.
Chile’s adventure capital, if you’re into more extreme activities then Pucón is the place to visit. White-water rafting, hydrospeeding (using the same river but with nothing but a polystyrene board to float you down the rapids), kayaking and more.
The highlight of them all is a hike up to the top of the nearby Mount Villarrica. An active volcano looming over the town. The journey to the top and back takes almost a full day and is more than worth it for the views when you reach the summit. There’s more fun to be had on the way back down as you slide all the way to the bottom on a small plastic sledge.
If that sounds a little too much for you there’s several hot springs where you can lay back, relax and completely unwind.
An alternative to Pucón is Puero Varas further south. A city with similar activities but less people and a calmer feel to it.
Looking for somewhere off the beaten track? Then the Island of Chiloé in the south is the place to head. Located a 25-minute ferry ride from Puerto Montt, Chiloé is a fishing area where people live simply in a very rural setting. The architecture of the island is striking as are the other highlights.
You’ll discover colourful wooden churches, hike trails along the coast, and try tasty local dishes with seafood obviously very popular. If you’re lucky you might even spot local penguins or migrating whales, such as the enormous blue whale.
Torres del Paine
Right in the heart of Patagonia, one of the ultimate outdoor locations anywhere in the world, is Torres del Paine national park. You’ll find glaciers, mountains, forests, lakes and wildlife. The scenery is just unreal at times and you’ll find yourself being in almost constant awe. The highlight of it all is the iconic towers, best seen at either sunrise or sunset.
The best way to see everything is on a multiday hiking trip. Five days is the most popular but it’s possible to see the some of the highlights staying a single night or even on a daytrip. Accommodation options range from camping and carrying your own equipment to lodges and a hotel.
The nearby town of Puerto Natales is the best place to stay before and after your visit to Torres del Paine and where you can rent all the equipment you’ll need as well as stock up on food.
An island less than 25km long, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, five hours by plane from Santiago. There aren’t many more remote locations. Famous for its massive stone heads known as Moai, Easter Island is home to a mix of cultures. The locals speak Spanish as the rest of Chile but the culture of appearance of everything else is very much influenced by Polynesia.
There are several sites of interest relating to the Moai. The main ones being the ‘factory’ Rano Raraku where they created the famous monuments and Ahu Tongariki where 15 statues still stand, the largest existing site. Aside from this there is beautiful, wild coastline and Rano Kau, an extinct volcano in the south.