The world’s longest and thinest country, boasting one of the most diverse climates on the planet, Chile is an explosion of nature featuring a landscape that mixes icebergs, deserts and geysers all the way to the frosty Antarctic.

The long coastline, extending for thousands of kilometers, is dotted with coastal cities. Santiago, right in the middle of the country, is a cosmopolitan capital that enjoys fine wine and continues to boom as one of South America’s most dynamic cities.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: Full-bodied Chilean red wine, hill-side escalators, the relative lack of corruption, tax-free shopping in Iquique and seeing every season at once in one country.

What’s Not: Surprising continued support for former dictator Augusto Pinochet, increased cocaine trafficking, overdosing on mayonnaise and unintelligible Spanish.

When to Go

The climate in Chile is so diverse that you can be burning in the north and freezing in the south in the space of a couple of days. The north is characterized by high temperatures, a lack of rain and unchanging seasons. Moving down the country, rainfall increases, as does snowfall, and the seasons become more pronounced. The warmest part of the year in the south is from November to February, when the days can last for what seem like months. Of course, it all changes around from May to August.

Getting There & Away

Santiago is a lengthy flight from Europe, from where many operators change in Rio de Janeiro or North America. The strange shape of the country means that flights are available to destinations across Chile, which in turn connect to cities throughout Latin America. The downside is that a trip to say, Punta Arenas to Arica requires numerous connections meaning a day of departure lounge coffee and ear-popping takeoffs and landings. Buses are a slower, cheaper option and are usually reliable. The train system is limited, only operating in and around a few cities including the capital.

Health & Safety

Altitude sickness is as much a threat here as it is anywhere else with high peaks. To avoid problems, don’t climb or descend too quickly. Crime is not a huge problem in Chile, but petty theft is prevalent in certain areas, particularly in Santiago, although is not as bad as in some other Latin American countries. Health standards here are also better than in the rest of the region.

Food & Hospitality

Those that like avocados and mayonnaise are in for a treat—Chileans like nothing better than pairing both with meat, particularly chicken, as well as with tomato in a sandwich to make the Italian flag, or un Italiano. Don’t worry; the cuisine does get more sophisticated. Seafood is unsurprisingly abundant given the long expanse of coastline and beef is also popular and cooked in a variety of delicious ways.

All the big hotel chains are present in Santiago. Refugios, or lodges, are the preferred accommodation option out in the Chilean wilderness, but many can get booked up in more popular national parks so think ahead to avoid a potentially chilly night in the open air.

Itineraries

Given the country’s shape, travel can take time but is always worth it as there is nearly always a surprise of nature around the next corner.

  • Three days in Santiago enjoying the wine and taking in the mountain views from the relative safety of the bustling streets.
  • Two days in Valparaiso surfing the escalators that run the ridges of this coastal UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Two days in San Pedro de Atacama, a colonial village on the brink of bubbling geysers and volcanoes.
  • Two days in Punta Arenas, the gateway to Chile’s stunning fjords in the south.
  • Two days in Parque Nacional Lauca, a landscape of llamas and one of the world’s highest lakes, Lago Chungará.

Extra time

  • Two days in Arica, a beach resort with great weather year-round and the last town on the way to Peru.
  • Two days at the beach resort of Iquique, where you can shop tax-free in the ‘Zofri’ zone.
  • Two days in Rancagua, a town of colonial architecture. Nearby is a former mining area and thermal baths.

Highlights

Santiago: a capital of fine wine and towering skyscrapers against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains.

Valparaiso: the whole town is a tourist attraction and a lazy man’s paradise given the abundant escalators that zig-zag this colorful seaside destination.

Punta Arenas: as popular with globetrotters as it is with penguins, this town at the end of the Earth is the gateway to the South Pole and the surrounding fjords.

San Pedro de Atacama: geyser fields and a flamingo breeding ground are some of the colorful attractions in and around this popular village.

Parque Nacional Lauca: dormant volcanoes straddle one of the world’s highest lakes in this national park that is abundant in wildlife.

Arica: a seaside resort without rain that attracts surfers and bathers to its many beaches along the very top of Chile’s Pacific coastline.

Rancagua: a curious and colorful town that characterizes quiet provincial life. The nearby mines are now a protected tourist site.

Activities

Wine tasting: an excuse to drink great wine doesn’t come up too often in this part of the world, with Chile being the exception.

Bathing: dip in the sea anywhere along Chile’s long Pacific coastline or in some of the world’s highest lakes.

Skiing: in the High Cordillera Mountains; get here before everyone else discovers just how good the slopes are.

Shopping: lots of malls in Santiago and tax-free shopping in Iquique pose potential danger to any visitor’s credit card.

Trekking: glorious walks and trails extend throughout the country from the desert in the north to the grasslands in the south and the Andes in between.

Festivals & Events

Predominantly Catholic Chile bases its colorful festivals around important dates in the religious calendar.

February: International Song Festival sees people from all over the region descend on Viña del Mar for a week of fiesta.

March: Chilean Wine Festival in Santiago sees plenty of the white and red stuff over three days.

April: the Sunday following Easter sees colorfully dressed knights escort the priest around town who in turn presents the Eucharist to the poor and needy.

May: International Labor Day is as popular here as elsewhere in the region, marked with parades and a country-wide holiday and party.

September: Independence Day falls in the Chilean spring when the country really goes crazy, enjoying good food, music and dance among other festivities.