I get a lot of requests from friends about travel to Chile (for leisure/vacation, usually with family including kids), so i figured it was time to put my thoughts into a blog entry that I can repurpose, so here you go.
First some context: I lived in Chile from the age of 6-11 in the lovely Pinochet military dictatorship era (late 70s-early 80s, several years in Zapallar on the coast, and the others in Santiago the capital), the again after college for a year in 1994 (in Santiago, working as a film editor for commercial television), and most recently in 2010 for a year while i was planning my new business and my family and I divided time between the “small-north” region near La Serena, and yet more time in the smoggy confines of the capital. In addition to these stints homesteading, i’ve also backpacked and otherwise visited the country another half-dozen times… so from a toursim and/or expat perspective, i feel like i have the place dialed in and can make some strong recommendations.
So, with a focus on tourism (not expat relocation, which will be another blog post if I have enough people asking me about living in chile, schools, immigration process, taxes, banking, etc.), here’s my top 3 guidelines:
- Skip Santiago. My friends in Santiago will be upset with me for saying this, but i’m sorry–the truth is that Santiago has *absolutely* nothing going on from a tourism perspective. You’ll be flying in and out of Santiago for your international flights, but otherwise SKIP IT. The city is not distinct enough in any way that would warrant precious days that you could spend in the much more interesting other parts of the country. Someone will tell you “oh, it is worth at least x days”, where x is exactly x days too many. Seriously–SKIP IT.
- Plan 2-3 “segments” connected by flights. The country is MASSIVELY long and the north/south orientation means that the areas to visit are hugely distinct from a natural flor and fauna perspective, so avoid your intention to “rent a car and drive” as the north-south drive would eat up 4 days of your trip! There are 5 distinct areas of tourism attraction (see below)–pick 2-3 and spend quality time in these with regional driving in each, but don’t try to connect the dots by land. If you buy your domestic segments along with your international ticket, on LAN (soon to be renamed LATAM) airlines (the Chilean carrier) the cost of the segments is very reasonable.
- Focus your goals around “natural wonders” as opposed to “culture and civic/city life”–Chile kicks ass as a low population density, magical geography that is accessible, safe, and fun. It underperforms tragically vrs. its peer group of Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil in terms of local food, indigenous culture, indigenous architecture, food, music, and “exoticism” for a typical well traveled american or european visitor. And Argentina is a much better exemplar of “europe in southern hemisphere”. My friends from Asia will find it fascinating, as it is very “european” and that will seem fresh and interesting. But it will absolutely disappoint any “westerner” looking for something exciting “south of the border”… for that, go to Peru (my favorite country in South America, with the best food, home to the Inca civilization and its myriad of incredible ruins/art/etc., magical music, and incredibly colonial area cities, not to mention glorious mountains, coastline, and the birthplace of the Amazon. Not to mention Brazil, which is marvelous for entirely different reasons.
Ok. So now let me characterize the “regions” to choose from, i’ll outline them from North to South:
- The Atacama desert and Altiplano (high altitude plain). This area can refer to a massive 1k+ mile region north of La Serena reaching to Peru border, but from a tourism development perspective, it really means flying into the city of Calama and then planting yourself in the area around San Pedro de Atacama as a home base and exploring the high plain. Volcanoes dot the landscape, you are at 8-14k feet above sea-level the entire time, the star-gazing in the evenings are best in the world (no precipitation, low light contamination from urban areas, no smog, etc.). I visited this area on the Bolivian side of the border on a $10 a day budget in 1993, today San Pedro is bustling (i’m told, have never been) and hotels can run up to $1k per night for a room at a luxury resort that includes meals and tours, but a wide gamut of options are available. buuteeq’s first customer in the town is considered among the best in the country, lovely luxury resort Tierra Atacama. The city of Calama also has tours of the Chuquicamata mine, the largest open pit on the planet, worth checking out on day in/out of Calama, but otherwise spend the time up in San Pedro. This is what any guidebook would tell you to do, so to qualify this and make it a bit more local–let me add that ANY of the cities in the northern part of Chile will give you a feel for this desert vibe–super low population density (there are hours upon hours of driving where you won’t see anyone!). I lived in the Pisco Elqui region near La Serena, much less developed for international premium tourists, and plenty exciting and interesting including the added benefit of having some wineries and distilleries for Pisco (a brandy, national drink). If you want to fly in/out of La Serena and do a few days in La Serena (beach town, lovely coast) there is a hub of neat activities including a marine sanctuary where you can see all kinds of awesome penguins, sea-lions, dolphins, etc. about 90 minutes north of La Serena, observatories for sky-gazing, and the cool-as-shit little down of Pisco Elqui as a home base with funky/hippy vibe. We lived here for 4 months at this little hotel, El Elquimista. La Serena can be reached in 5-6 hours by great 4 lane highway, so this is also a doable road trip from Santiago, if going all the way to the true North is too much, but I don’t think anyone would argue that La Serena is a full replacement for the San Pedro de Atacama gig.
- The Central Coast area around Santiago. This is where you go in a rental car from the capital. Roads are totally safe, well signaled in Spanish (easy to follow along with a GPS phone or ipad), and distances reasonable (eg: 2-3 hours max between points). Just south of Santiago are various wineries that offer tours and some homesteading (eg: have cabins or other guest quarters). The city of Valparaiso is a UNESCO world-heritage city for good reason, reminiscent of San Francisco but way dingier/run down yet totally captivating (in a raw way). One night in town at this affordable and family friendly designer hotel (owner is a accomplished painter and mixed media artist) which is in the best neighborhood for exploring by foot, is all that is needed to get the vibe and traverse the hills on foot. Lots of great restaurants. Anthony Bourdain loved this place and wrote up several restaurants and bars on his TV show (google it!). Vina del Mar is 15 minutes north of Valparaiso and is a altogether ritzier and cleaner/safer place, overrun with tourists in January and February but still fun, and a joy in December before the 25th when the locals from Santiago and the Argentines start showing up in droves. Good beach hotel options and beaches. Note that the water is FRICKING cold in chile, don’t expect Mexcian riviera type beach experience–the sand is lovely, but the waters are freeze-your-balls cold and thus it is much more about eating a fresh seafood meal on the beach and sun-bathing than “swimming”. The town I grew up in is 60 minutes north of Vina, called Zapallar. I highly recommend renting a house or staying at one of the (few) hotels in the area near Zapallar and doing 2-3 nights of walking the beaches and coastlines and visiting the neighboring town of Cachagua and Papudo, maybe even hit La Ligua for the local market (daily) to buy some fresh produce, and the fisherman’s market in Maitencillo. I have a bunch of family and friends in Chile, so if you do make this particular trip, talk to me and I’ll see about helping find you a local friend to show you around, host you for a meal, and maybe provide a tip on a rental for your stay in town. Zapallar has a lovely small boutique hotel which does NOT have ocean views but otherwise is a great base and good value. My recommendation in general for this region is to get a house in Zapallar for 3-5 nights, and make Zapallar the base from which to travel to Valparaiso, Vina, La Ligua, etc. as day trips in your rental car. Zapallar is 2hrs from the capital, you can arrive at airport and drive STRAIGHT to zapallar for your first day in the country. You’ll thank me for it! The walking paths along the coast, beaches, and understated tourism sector (few hotels, mostly locals) will give you a great “local” experience for this region of the country. I also have relatives that rent their houses depending on the season…
- The Pre-Patagonia area around Puerto Montt (the small south). This is some combination of Pucon on lake Villarica and volcanoe region surrounding, the adorable city of Frutillar, the coastal city of Valdivia, Puerto Montt, and the island of Chiloe. These are all reachable via car by using Pueto Montt or Valdivia as central arrival/departure ports. Lots of great german influenced towns, lakes abound, cute fishing villages… great to walk and drive around. If you aren’t into driving aimlessly around the region there are organized tours, but it is a very accessible region and well touristed in the December-Feb corridor (when the weather is great), not so much fun any other time of year (rains perpetually, like Seattle where I live now). This is relatively populated part of “patagonia”, not to be confused with the insanely not-populated true “south” which starts after Puerto Montt and extends through fjords and icebergs and wild forests all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and the southern tip of the continent.
- Patagonia region(s). There are two hubs here that are too far away to be linked. One is the area from Puerto Montt to the town of Chile Chico, which has a road that connects the region (only passable in summer) called the Carretera Austral. Renting a good 4×4 and driving parts of this itinerary is probably akin to northern British Colombia or parts of Alaska. Lots of undeveloped forest, great lake fly-fishing and hiking, but not robust tourism infrastructure except for in pockets, mostly along the coast. Likely best to look for a tour of this region than to wing it. Town of Coyhaique is surprisingly bustling, flying in-0ut of hear and arranging tours might be good option (when I did it i was on $10 a day budget in 1994, so likely has changed quite a bit except for the remaining amazing natural wonders which can’t have been spoiled quite yet). Much much farther south, only accessible by road if you drive into Argentina and then come back into Chile down at the tip, is the popular and “must see” area around the national park called Torres del Paine. This is the classic photo of towering awesome mountains near a glacier emptying into a virgin lake, etc. I’ve never been. Everyone that goes raves about it. Basically a “bucket list” kind of destination. I think the itinerary is to fly in to the region for 4-5 days including time in the national park. If money is no object, stay at this place in the park itself, luxury beyond compare. And fly in and out of Natales, this place is supposedly fantastico for accommodations.
- And then there is Easter Island, which might as well NOT be Chile because it is basically a Polynesian island WAY the frick out in the pacific. Never been, can’t say one way or the other, but it is one of the top 3 draws to Chile for tourism so I would look like a fool for not at least mentioning it here. Other than big stone statues staring out into the pacific, i’m not sure why anyone would go all the way out here. If you want to visit islands in the pacific, there are better ones… i would skip as it is FAR to fly for small payoff, and you’ll get more for your “chile” vacation from the main north-south attractions i’ve covered above.
Ok, i’ve probably been too simplistic in this summary, but that’s my quick top 3 don’ts, and my top 4 (skip Easter Island) regions for “dos”.
Overall, as of June of 2013 when I’m first writing this, Chile is very accessible by rental car (by segment) so I recommend that strongly–don’t be beholden to public transport or a car and driver. Roads are very safe. Don’t leave valuables in-sight at tourist parking lots, just like anywhere in the world. There is very little violent crime outside of the capital, expect pick-pockets to be the worst thing you’ll find in the country. Not a lot of scams/hustling going on either, really a lovely place to visit and extremely friendly for kids. Focus on the NATURAL wonders, food will be fine but nothing amazing, wine is good and cheap, and the people will be friendly and not speak english (so brush up on your basics in spanish).
I’ll add more comments to this post as I get a sense of the follow on questions from the folks that have asked me to write this up (you know who you are if you are reading this).
I’ll someday write up the equivalent for Peru and Brazil, which I would favor for more ambitious/exciting tourism… but Chile is a great, safe, lovely place to visit with family and I hope you enjoy your trip!
32 replies on “Recommendations for Travel in Chile”
This is the site I was looking for! I’ve been trolling the internet looking for information while planning my parents visit in December (which suddenly is next month). My husband, 3 year-old son and I moved here in July from New York and have been to Valparaíso, La Serena/Punto Choros and Algorrobo so we feel ill-equipped to be tour guides but are doing our best. I am trying to limit the amount of time we spend in Santiago (I agree, nothing to see here folks…) and was thinking of a short trip (four/five days or so) to fold in Valparaíso, Zapallar, Cachagua. I thought Zapallar would be a good home base for this sort of trip. They will only be in town for two weeks so I don’t want to spend 14 hours in the car to go way south but am looking for an “experience.” Do you have suggestions of places to stay? Should we aim for Zapallar specifically or do Cachagua or Maitencillo work just as well? Should we venture further north? Maybe we could do four/five days in Zapallar and then somewhere else? They will be here Dec 20 to Jan 3 so Christmas/New Year crowds are something we have to take into account as well. Any and all help would be much appreciated.
Nadia per the article, there are several recommendations on places to stay including Casa Zapallar (www.casazapallar.come); i would recommend staying in Zapallar or Valparaiso where there are lots of accommodations of all price types. if a whole week in zapallar is too much for you, then La Serena, a mere 3.5 hrs north on well paved 4 lane toll road, gets you up to another environment with lots of things to see and do! I hope you have a lovely trip!
Great article. We are an English couple with 2 young children currently living in Argentina. We are going to Chile next week, staying a few days in Olmue, then we would like to do some camping along the coast. Originally we thought we’d head South from Olmue, maybe down towards Pichilemu, but our plans are pretty fluid. Would really appreciate any advice you can give us. Ideally we’d like to stay away from the crowds. Thanks in advance!
Thank you for this post. My husband and I are planning a trip to Chile in November and I found this to be extremely helpful. I appreciate the tip to skip Santiago.
It’s a great article to ease me into the vastness of Chile for the first time. I am reading this when I was thrown in Santiago.
Thanks for this interesting blog; we’ll skip SdC as well and focus on northern Chile and the west part of Argentine. Going there in July next, do you feel it’s necessary to rent a 4WD or will a regular car do?
4WD can be very fun if you are on the more remote roads; truth is it is not *necessary* as the roads are not wet (there is hardly ever any rain). Coincidentally there is a horrible flood right now in Antofagasta, but that is a 1x in 100 years kind of problem. You’ll love the remoteness of driving around on dirt roads either way!
Hi Forest. I take your point about the roads not being wet in northern Chile, but from what I understand, it’s very different in the south? We’re looking at a trip along the lines of http://www.realworldholidays.co.uk/chile/carretera-austral.aspx – do you think that 4WD is a good idea on a route like that? We’d probably looking at April or May which I think falls outside your December-March ‘sweet spot’?
Are you SEO baiting me, or really interested in my opinion? I’ve approved your comment so if SEO bait I don’t mind…
And, yes, in southern chile once you hit the Carretera Austral, a 4wd car would be worth the extra cost. But only if you go south of Puerto Montt on the actual Carretera Austral towards Coyaique and Puerto Aisen… In Chiloe it is NOT necessary, as it is also NOT necessary north of Puerto Montt.
Hey Forest great post! I actually read it all… Maybe you could give some exposure to this non-profit Travel Agency that help local communities in Chile…. http://www.trivaler.com please check it out and let me know.
Hi, Thanks this is great ! I will be visiting Chile in March by myself (mid 30’s) and am going to stay in Santiago for a few nights as I want to go to Lollapoloza but then was thinking of renting a car and doing Zapallar and the region for 5 nights. I want to see beaches and a few vineyards. Question – do you think 5 nights is to much by myself? Also, do you suggest staying in one place and doing day trips or booking a couple of different places? I’m not sure if its hot enough to swim…lastly, not sure if I should book in advance or not? I prefer to but there is an advantage to go with the flow.
I’d book a few places and move along… For example stay in Valparaiso, in Zapallar, etc. Have a great trip!
Great artcile and amazing tips!
Thank you for all the information shared here and congratulations on your blog!
Hi, trying to plan a trip tp Chile from March 21 to March 31. Is it too cold during this time to enjoy the coastal towns? Thanks for any information you can provide!
Not at all! Weather still lovely, summer/early fall temperatures and no crowds! Great time to visit!!
This is the BEST blog / article I’ve read on Chile travel! Exactly the info I’ve been looking for – heading there in Nov for 10 days with my husband and two boys (7 & 9) and I’ve booked three days in the mountains, three days in the desert and I’ve been trying to find the best coast town that doesn’t involve too much driving from Santiago, that we can visit for a few nights. Zapallar sounds perfect and would love any additional tips, recommendations or resources you could point me to – especially if you have recommendations for someone that would be willing to host us for a meal and/or has a local rental that’s available on our dates (three nights: Nov 30 – Dec 2, check out Dec 3). Thanks for the great summary!!
This is the BEST blog / article I have seen on Chile travel! I’m heading there in November with my husband and two boys (7 & 9) and have booked 3 nights in the mountains, 3 nights in the desert and was looking for the best coastal town to visit for our last three nights that wasn’t too far of a drive from Santiago. Zapaller looks perfect! Would love any additional tips or resources you could direct me to. Would also love if you would connect us with a local family that would be willing to host us for a meal and/or someone that might have a local rental available for our dates (Nov 30-Dec 2, checkout Dec 3). Thanks so much for all the great info!!
glad it was helpful. my companion site http://www.zapallar.net is where i have all my best/latest information about Zapallar. Unfortunately as I don’t live in chile, i don’t have any tips for you on local families to connect with etc. Aribnb has some good property rentals. The Casa Zapallar hotel is very cute and centrally located (albeit, no ocean views). I hope you have a great visit!
This article is getting a lot of mileage! Congratulations. I am planning a trip in February. We are doing some exploring in Patagonia, but then we are trying to plan a couple weeks around Santiago when my mother visits. Is there public transportation from Santiago to Zapallar or Valparaiso
Yes there are frequent buses to Valparaiso, safe and comfortable, less than 1.5 hrs from station to station. Once in Valparaiso you can take taxi or Uber easily to get around, no need for a car. To Zapallar, yes, take a bus to La Ligua, the regional town center… and from there another bus to Zapallar, or a taxi. 90 minutes Santiago-LaLigua, then 25 minutes to Zapallar. In Zapallar however there are no buses or taxis!! So you will be on foot which is workable but not ideal. A rental car affords you more mobility. But yes, you can absolutely do it all in public transportation—just leave more time and go slower with your urgency expectations!
And if you do plan to go to Zapallar from Santiago, i know there is at least an Avis rental car in Santiago in the Providencia area.
Yes, several rental car agencies in Santiago will actually deliver a car to your hotel directly. Ask your hotel if they can help arrange… cheaper than the big brands (avis hertz etc) and perfectly reliable and dependable
Excellent and honest review. Some comments exactly what I was thinking. You gave me permission to skip Santiago if I go to Chile and go right to Valpo, which, judging from the pictures, reminds me nothing so much as SF. Zapallor looks like a great place to chill. I am not an adventure traveler, so the south really doesn’t interest me. Thanks.
Yes Valparaiso similar terrain to SFO but totally utterly different vibe. Hope you go and enjoy!!!
Hello Forest! I’m planning on going to Chile the second week of April and thanks to your blog I am now thinking about going to zapallar. Im wondering what car rental company to go with. Any recommendations?
The covid protocols are a bit wacky–i almost went in december ’21 but canceled at last minute because i was concerned about getting covid in chile and being stuck in a hotel for 15 days. I had looked at car rental at the airport and had decided to go with this company, never used them before but they had good customer support and on arrival were going to meet me and shuttle me to their office/lot 5 minutes away. good vehicle options. gamarent.cl is the website, Gama the name. Good luck!
Thank you! I’ll look for it, also, if you don’t mind, I’m looking for a place to stay in zapallar, and one of the places is called Cachagua. Is it practically the same place or is it different? Thanks again
Cachagua is the neighboring town to Zapallar about 4 min car drive south; it has a long wide open beach which is lovely and you can rent horses for on-beach rides. the town is cute and in very easy access to all the same neighboring towns i mentioned. Only difference is that it is not as “wake up and walk around town and see a little bit of town-life” friendly… but if you found a place to stay that’s great, go for it, and just do a little driving about as needed to get to Zapallar town for your exploring there. There’s a little gem of a beach called “Las Cujas” that you walk down into in Cachagua… like a 2 minute walk-down from the parking lot. It is “micro-tiny” small but cute, take a look!
Forest, thanks for all your help! It’s has been so important in my planning. I will be traveling in April and was wondering if it is still a good idea to go to the beach? I have never traveled to Chile so I honestly have no idea of what to expect! I don’t know how the weather will be like. I was not able to book the place I wanted through Airbnb because the owner will be out of town. So my choices are now to either stay in Zapallar (5 min drive to the beach), Papudo (condo near beach), or a place in front of the beach in Maintencillo. I thought I’d ask you before I make the reservation since you know those places. Also, I was considering visiting Cajón del Maipo, but…I will be traveling with my husband, soon to be 4yr old and my 9 month old and don’t know if it’s possible to just go and visit to take some pictures or if there are some restrictions and you have to take certain roads or if it’s too hard to get there. Thank you so much for your time and recommendations! The car rental is going to save me about $150 compared to other sites!!!
Zapallar is the most purely charming/special town, by far, so if you can stay in Zapallar and then visit others from there, i would recommend. That said, the others are plenty cute! With young children in latin america you will be warmly welcomed, very family/children friendly countries and people will welcome you everywhere and be accommodating. In April you won’t be likely to be sitting on the beach taking sun, but you will still enjoy good weather for walks, taking pictures, seaside dinning, etc. and you won’t be fighting the crowds of jan-feb when the beaches are jammed and prices are much much higher. April will be sleepy! Good time to go. Cajon del Maipo is nice but may be a bit of a production for minimal payoff with 2 young kids… the hiking and getting up into the hills can require a 4×4 vehicle on dirt roads. I hope you have a wonderful trip! I just got over covid–vaxed and boosted, still got omi. Stay safe!
in 2018 we took a tour called the citroen tour i’m trying to find info now for our upcoming cruise b.a to lax in march 2023