Christopher Michel, Flickr
Chile: What to See and DoChile may be South America's skinniest country, stretching more than 2,600 miles down the western coast and averaging only 109 miles wide, it also may be the continent's most geographically diverse. From vast deserts and salt marshes, to snow-capped volcanoes and craggy glaciers, Chile packs an unforgettable punch with its seemingly endless natural wonders. Whether you're looking for urban nightlife in Santiago's bohemian Bellavista neighborhood, a civilized tasting of spicy shiraz wines or an outdoor adventure trekking alongside sparkling lakes in the shadow of a volcano, a vacation in Chile will exceed your expectations.
Cities to Visit
Circled by snow-covered Andes mountains, Santiago boasts one of South America's most dramatic city settings, and though the town itself appears gritty and crowded at times, intrepid travelers will uncover a wealth of charms.
Santiago's arts scene is thriving, and visitors can explore a plethora of museums, such as La Chascona, dedicated to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which explores indigenous Chilean culture.
Stop by the Plaza des Armas, the city's main square, to relax and people watch for a taste of the real Santiago. For another burst of arts, visit the hip Barrio Brazil area, home to numerous museums and galleries. As night falls, hightail it to the Bellavista and Providencia neighborhoods, where much of Santiago's nightlife and restaurants thrive.
The coastal city of Valparaiso may be Chile's most popular for tourists to visit; its hilly setting all but guarantees visitors epic views and photo opportunities from most vantage points. Built to accommodate the hilly terrain, Valparaiso's stacked houses are an architectural anomaly, and one of the most interesting things to do here is merely wander the streets and admire the buildings.
Of course, Valparaiso has a number of interesting museums to visit, including the Pablo Neruda Museum; the poet once lived in Valpo, as locals often refer to the city. Still, the greatest art in Valpo doesn't always lie within the confines of a museum. Rather, it's right on the streets: Valpo is home to an absurdly talented number of graffiti artists, and a discerning eye will catch some extraordinary work on building exteriors and streets.
The nightlife here is also legendary; artsy cafes, tango bars, dance clubs and pubs abound, like La Colombina or La Playa, and tend to close only when the last patron leaves -- usually sometime around sunrise.
Chile's hottest beach scene can be found on the stretch of white sands lying at the edge of La Serena, the country's second oldest city, established around 1544. Today, visitors can enjoy the town's Colonial Revival architecture, while meandering around the town's many churches, like the Cathedral, and while in the main square, La Plaza des Armas. Still, La Serena's main draw is the Avenida del Mar, or the Avenue of the Sea, where tourists flock to visit the 12 beach areas, such as El Faro, La Barca and El Pescador.
What to See and Do
You've seen the mysterious, seemingly stoic moai statues that circle Easter Island's circumference depicted on television and in magazines, but to see them in person will leave you completely awed. The actual island, also known as Rapa Nui, lies isolated in the Pacific Ocean, off Chile's coast. That it's a volcanic island explains why the 300 or so statues were carved from volcanic rock, though it does not answer the question of why they were carved or how they were transported from inland to the island's coast. Archaeologists remain puzzled by their purpose; they just know they were created between the 10th and 16th centuries.
Still, the statues are but one part of Easter Island's allure. Additional sites of interest include a museum, rock carvings and the volcanic crater. Active travelers will be pleased to learn it's also possible to scuba dive, snorkel, horseback ride and surf while on Easter Island. Flights serve the island from Santiago; be sure to confirm your ticket a day or 2 before flying, as the flights tend to be overbooked.
Thought to be the world's driest desert -- some parts of it haven't seen rain in a whopping 400 years -- Chile's Atacama Desert haunts travelers with its sprawling landscape of salt marshes and lake oases ringed by volcanoes, and dotted by the abandoned houses of Chile's indigenous people. Stargazers will be in heaven here; Atacama's dry, remote conditions and 8,000- to 14,000-foot elevations allow for pristine constellation spotting in the night sky.
Not surprisingly, a handful of observatories are based here, and it's possible to visit, tour and skywatch at places like the European Southern Observatory. Base yourself in the town of San Pedro de Atacama and seek out one of the many tours offered from here into the desert. Plan to see sights like the Salar de Atacama, a dry lakebed, the Atacama Salt Flat, geysers, abandoned mining towns, ancient desert paintings of animals, and living animals like llamas, flamingos and goats.
Parque Nacional Lauca
More than 340,000 acres of parkland wait to be explored in Parque Nacional Lauca, a behemoth area lined by snow-capped volcanoes and dotted with lakes, making it one of Chile's more stunning attractions.
With an altitude that ranges from nearly 10,000 feet to more than 20,000 feet at certain points, the park's elevation means that travelers should take it easy before embarking on any arduous activities to be sure they're acclimated to the thin air. Once you're ready to set out, make headway to Lago Chungaro, a scenic lake, and Parinacota Volcano, a dormant volcano towering above the lake. Also worth exploring are the park's volcanic calderas and lava fields.
Get your outdoor adventure spirit on in Chile's lake district, a gorgeous region in the country's south which has been likened to Switzerland for its lush, green landscape, snow-capped mountains and famed sparkling, blue lakes. Many visitors base themselves in the town of Pucon, located in the midst of a pitch-perfect blue lake and a snow-covered volcano.
Pucon is home to numerous outdoor outfitters promoting all kinds of adventure sports: Kayaking, trekking, mountain biking, rafting and horseback riding are among your options. Be sure to make your way to nearby Parque Nacional Villarrica, a 150,000-acre national park home to 3 volcanoes and scenic hiking trails.
Patagonia in Chile
The Patagonia region of South America comprises parts of both Chile and Argentina, consisting of the lower third of Chile. To fully experience Chilean Patagonia, head to the southernmost provinces of Magallanes, Última Esperanza and Tierra del Fuego where you'll encounter the storied region in its most isolated glory -- and quite nearly have reached the "end of the world."
Plan to visit the rocky spires known as Torres del Paine, a number of tiny villages, weather-worn gauchos, penguin-inhabited islands and the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the region's most popular destination.
The Rapel Valley of Chile is home to the country's finest grapes and winemakers. Head to the Colchagua Valley region about 80 miles from Santiago, to sip on the carménère, malbec and syrah wines.
Try to visit some of the famed wineries for tastings and tours, including Lapostolle, Casa Silva, Montes and Montgras wineries. Stop by the nearby city of Santa Cruz to pop into a tourism office to get information and maps of the wineries, as well as to join a formal tour of the region.
Ski in Portillo
Skiers and snowboarders who visit Chile during the country's ski season -- mid-June to mid-October -- should head to Portillo, the country's most popular ski resort with 23 trails and a peak elevation of nearly 11,000 feet. Portillo offers lodging for all budgets, as well as a ski school for novices and equipment rentals, making it convenient for backpackers.
When hunger strikes after a few runs, head to Tio Bob's, a slopeside restaurant offering stellar views of the Andes -- be careful not to get sucked into the wine list before heading back to the trails. After a day on the slopes, head back to the lodge to relax in one of the outdoor hot tubs, or play a game of ping-pong or billiards.
What to EatConsidering the coastline runs for more than 2,600 miles down the length of Chile, it's no surprise that the country dishes up a good deal of seafood, including oysters, clams, king crab and sea bass. Still, be sure to eat at a parrillada, or grill restaurant, offering various meats cooked over hot coals.
Sample some of Chile's exotic fruits like pepino dulce (a kind of sweet pepper), tuna (not the fish, but rather a cactus fruit) and chirimoya, which has a soft, sweet flesh.
Don't miss out on Chile's delicious wines, which have become internationally recognized, in particular wines from the carmenère grape. Also, you'd be remiss to leave Chile without sipping on a pisco sour, a concoction of pisco liquor, sugar, bitters, lemon and an egg white.