Chile is a country of extremes. It measures 4300 kilometers from Peru to the Strait of Magellan and averages 177 kilometers from east to west. The country is entirely closed off from its neighbors by the Andes Mountains. The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world and Nevada Ojos del Salado is the world’s highest volcano.
When it comes to open, wide, and overwhelming landscapes, here are 5 of my favorite slow-travel destinations.
#1 – The Carretera Austral in Southern Chile – Take a Road Trip & Hike
The southernmost part of Chile is the least developed and the most extraordinary as regards landscapes, which comprise rain forests, fjords, glaciers and grasslands. Patagonia is a region for the adventurous travelers, for those who seek the off-the-beaten track.
There are two ways to travel the 1200 kilometers long, partly unpaved stretch between Villa O’Higgins and Puerto Montt, which was previously called the Carretera General Augusto Pinochet.
- Intrepid travelers may find their way down (or up) by combining public transport with hitchhiking. Note that public transportation is limited in this part of the world, or sometimes possibly absent – many travelers go hitchhiking here.
- Another option is to rent a car and travel independently. Driving your own or a rented vehicle gives you all the freedom to go as slow as you want, stopping for gorgeous camping and hiking, or visiting a festival. Renting a car in Chile is no problem. You can do so in e.g. Puerto Montt or Coyhaique in Chile, as well as in El Calafate, Argentina.
Rough camping is possible all along the sides of the road and lakes. Small guesthouses can be found in villages and towns such as Puerto Río Tranquilo, Coyaique, Puerto Aisén, Chaitén, but also in Pumalin Park (recommended for the park’s immense Alerce trees).
Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Lonely Planet) is one of the guidebooks that shares various day hikes and multiple day treks in the region.
In January and February numerous festivals are held along the entire Carretera Austral worth checking out.
#2 – The Lake District in Central Chile – Enjoy the Natural Scenery
The Lake District stretches out over Chile and Argentina. In Chile, you could divide the Lake District into two regions, depending on the type of traveler you are – you may have the preference for either the north or the south (but I’d recommend checking out the entire region; there’s beauty everywhere).
The northern part is dominated by the tourist scene of Pucón and Villarrica, which comes with a constellation of hotels, restaurants, nightlife ventures and tour agencies. There is a reason for all this infrastructure: the region is gorgeous.
Typical tours in the Lake District are kayaking, climbing regional volcanoes, and hiking in national parks such as Parque Nacional Huerquehue and Parque Nacional Villarrica. Most of these activities can be done independently as well.
Don’t miss: I was particularly enchanted by Parque Nacional Conguillío, which lies a bit north of the lakes. The landscape dominated by ancient – and recent – lava streams is otherworldly(see photo below).
The southern area of the Lake District is less visited. A good way to explore this part is to rent a car (for example in Pucón or Villarica), stay at Bed & Breakfast homes found in villages, and enjoy the scenery of the lakes.
An extra: A lovely trip is the ferry crossing of Lago Panguipulli from the town of Panguipulli to the Argentinean border.
#3 – The Elquí Valley – Study the Universe in Observatories
This is not so much about a particular landscape, but the wide, open and empty space in which our planet earth moves around. Chile is one of the countries that is little troubled by light pollution. This makes it an attractive place for observatories – some of the world’s largest and renowned observatories are here. Many are for scientific purposes only, but several have guided tours as well. Some observatories have been set up solely for tourist purposes.
I visited the Observatory of Cerro Mamalluca, near Vicuña in the Elquí Valley (central Chile). Here, two-hour guided tours were given for small groups and there were English-speaking guides available. The tour includes a view of the universe through a portable telescope outside and, even more impressive, a 12-inch telescope inside a dome. Apart from the ‘Sea of Tranquillity’ on the moon (where the Americans planted their flag) and the Southern Cross, you may get lucky and see Venus and Jupiter as well.
Other observatories in the area are:
- Pangue Observatory, south of Vicuña.
- Curz de Sur Observatory, south of La Serena, in the Coquimbo Region.
- Collowara Observatory, near the town of Andacollo (near La Serena).
#4 – The Atacama Desert – Explore the Ghost Towns of the Saltpeter Industry
The best-known travel destination in the Atacama region is San Pedro de Atacama. This is a colonial village is worth a stay in itself, as well as serves as a good base to explore the surrounding, moon-like landscapes and the salt lakes with flamingos.
Especially in the region of Iquique, are dozens of abandoned nitrate mining towns. They are remnants of the booming times when saltpeter was extracted here in the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly worth a visit are the ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura (on the entrance road to Iquique).
In Iquique you can rent a car, or arrange an organized tour to lesser-known tourist attractions in the region, among which:
- Pampa de Tamarugal desert plateau with, oddly enough, forest. The trees are threatened with extinction. Along the main road from Iquique southbound is a visitors’ center of CONAF on your left hand, where rangers are happy to tell you all about this natural phenomenon.
- The geoglyphs of Pintados are spread out over an array of hills, 4 kilometers long. The hill sides are fully covered in an astonishing display of geoglyphs. There are abstract figures but also images of llamas, alpacas and lizards. Note that there is no place to stay for the night here so plan it as a day trip from Iquique.
#5 – The Altiplano – Travel on High Altitude, home to Alpacas, Llamas & Hot Geysers
The Andes Mountains divides Chile from Argentina and Bolivia, and frankly, across the entire Andes Mountains are beautiful areas to hike, camp, and border crossings that take you to some spectacular viewpoints.
Having said that, the northernmost part, bordering Chile, particularly appealed to me. At times over 4,000-meters high – the Altiplano – it may time to get used to the rarified air and traveling here isn’t easy. The region is so remote that it’s best visited by car, particularly the northernmost section that is characterized by impressive volcanos and remnants of old mining settlements.
Particularly of note:
- The hot geysers of Puchuldiza, which are smaller but quieter than the more popular Tatio Geysers – one of our favorite hot springs in South America.
- Salar de Surire is a salt flat with a large, open-air hot spring and thanks to the Reserva de las Vicuñas, you will see vicuñas (family of llama) as well as flamingos.
- Visit the Market Tripartito on Sunday morning. It is situated just across the border in Peru where Bolivia, Peru and Chile meet.
Practical Information on Visiting Chile – How to Get there & Around
The above-mentioned travel destinations can be reached either by plane or by bus. Some of them, such as la Serena in the Elquí Valley (to visit the observatories) and Iquique have international airports as well.
Travel in Chile – By Bus
Distances between the above mentioned tourist attractions are huge. Taking a plane saves a lot of time but the environmental friendlier version is taking the bus. Buses in Chile are comfortable, and include sleeper buses for long distances (with the exception of the Carretera Austral). To visit different sites within one particular region you could opt to take the local bus between towns, while arranging a tour to visit the remote sights (such as Tatio Geysers).
Travel in Chile – By Private Car
It is easy to rent a car in Chile. The country’s arteries are of good quality, most of the unpaved stretches doable, and Chileans generally are drivers that obey traffic rules. It is possible to drive a rented car into Argentina (but not Bolivia), but this is not a matter of course. Make sure to discuss this with the rental agency and see that the stipulation is part of the contract.
If you want to learn more about traveling in Chile (or the rest of the world) in your own vehicle, check out my other website, landcruisingadventure.com, which is dedicated to overlanding (= independent, long-term travel with private vehicle).
Travel in Chile – Organized Tours
If you don’t have a car, or want to rent one, and prefer going with a guide, Chile offers many opportunities. Many of the towns with tourist infrastructures have travel agencies who can organize a tour for you.