Chile is a unique country to visit, its glaciers, lakes, deserts, stunning coastline and of course, the Andes are all highly-desired for exploration. The country’s unusual shape can make it difficult to navigate, however. Measuring 4,270 km in length, exploring this terrain can be daunting for first-time travelers, especially since the attractions are so far apart.
However, after a few days, you’ll soon acclimatize, and to see the best that this country has to offer, consider staying for a couple of weeks if you can. So, without further ado, here are my must-see places and attractions in Chile.
This historic colonial seaport is located on the sides of 42 hills, making it unique. During the 19th century, Valparaiso played role in global trade from South America, giving it a purpose unlike the rest of the country, even to this day. In the maze of cobblestone streets and alleyways that connect the hillsides of Valparaiso, you’ll find plenty of independent cafes amid the colorful houses.
A plethora of street art lends the city a bohemian atmosphere, and its stunning location means that there’s never a bad view no matter where you are. Modern-day Valparaiso is an important educational hotspot, and in 2003, the city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in its historical quarter. Although many parts of Valparaiso have since been renovated, it’s those areas with a faded grandeur that add to the charm of this city by the bay.
Vina del Mar
The glamorous and exciting Vina del Mar, which translates to “vineyard of the sea,” neighbors Valparaiso but feels like a world away from that bohemian city. Home to some of the best shopping, dining and entertainment spots in Chile, it has also earned the nickname “Garden City.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Parque Quinta Vergara, landscaped gardens that surround some major Chilean landmarks, including the neo-gothic Palacio Vergara, the former home of Vina del Mar’s founder Jose Francisco Vergara.
For more exotic fauna and flora, take the 8-km bus ride southeast of the city center to visit Chile’s Jardin Botanico Nacional where over 3,000 species live across its 61 hectares. If you visit during early spring, you’ll find the city buzzing with energy thanks to the Festival Internacional de la Cancion (International Song Festival). As Chile’s biggest annual music festival, some of the world’s best artists perform alongside Latin American pop, rock and folk stars.
If you want to experience another world when you visit Chile, then the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama — located in the north of the country in the Atacama Desert — is the place to go. A classic example of Spanish colonialism, the town itself has maintained much of its charm with one-story homes, a gleaming white church and a tree-lined town square.
The surrounding areas are filled with plenty of things to keep even the most restless traveler occupied, from tours of the Valle de la Luna, hot springs and lagoons in the mountains and salt flats and caves. Like the Elqui Valley, which is a famous spot for stargazing, the Atacama Desert has some of the clearest night skies, allowing for intergalactic observations across the Milky Way!
The Lake District
Visiting Chile’s Lake District, which is located around 1,000 km south of the capital city of Santiago, will show you another side to this unique and magical country. Although it draws comparisons to Switzerland and Austria with its many lakes in the Andean foothills, contained within those mountains are six volcanoes.
This region is a must-see for adrenalin junkies and hikers as there’s much to do and explore here, from rafting and water sports in the summer to skiing in the winter months and of course, climbing tours of the volcanoes. There is a total of 12 lakes in the region, and the lush farmland and dense forests also form part of the region’s breathtaking national parks.
Non-stop flights from major U.S. cities, including Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and New York, run regularly to Chile in all seasons. For the rest of the world, airlines, including British Airways, Air France, Alitalia and Iberia fly to the main Chilean airports of Santiago, La Serena and Puerto Montt. Visit flight comparison websites like Skyscanner (worldwide) and Kayak (U.K.) to find the best deals.