10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Chile
Boasting one of the planet's most diverse landscapes, Chile has in recent years become an increasingly popular travel destination, particularly among nature lovers and adventure seekers. Here in this long, narrow nation on the west coast of South America, travelers will find an array of stunning scenery, from the tall peaks of the Andes and endless beaches to lush temperate forests, ancient volcanoes, and dramatic coastline such as that found at Cape Horn. Chile is also blessed with an abundance of superb national parks and conservation areas, many of them popular destinations for those into trekking and hiking, as well as travelers who enjoy climbing, river rafting, mountain biking, and horseback riding. But Chile is not without its cultural attractions, too, with cities such as the capital of Santiago offering many fine museums and art galleries, and stunning Easter Island with its famous stone figures.
1 Torres Del Paine National Park
One of Chile's most spectacular natural areas and popular travel destinations is the Torres del Paine National Park. More than 100 kilometers north of the city of Puerto Natales in southern Patagonia, this stunning area encompasses mountains, glaciers, and countless lakes and rivers. The most important region of the park is the Cordillera del Paine, an area that marks the transition from the Patagonia steppe to the subpolar forests of the north. Perhaps the most notable of its many wonderful features are the three 2,850-meter-tall granite peaks of the Paine Massif, which dominate this already breathtaking scenery. Hiking is one of the park's most popular activities, with numerous well-marked trails, many offering overnight shelters (refugios) with the basics needed for longer treks that circle the mountains. Hot Tip: If you're planning on anything more than a day's hiking, professional guides are recommended and, in some areas, mandatory.
Address: Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region
2 Valle de la Luna and the Atacama Desert
Valle de la Luna, which means Moon Valley, lies 13 kilometers west of San Pedro de Atacama at the north end of the country near its border with Bolivia. This rugged, inhospitable looking landscape in the heart of the Atacama Desert attracts many visitors for its eerie resemblance to the surface of the moon, an effect caused by the erosion of its sand and stone features by wind and water over countless millennia. Despite its remoteness, this surprisingly beautiful landscape has sustained life for centuries, both human as well as that of numerous species of flora and fauna. Among its most interesting features are its dry lake beds (this is, after all, one of the driest places on the planet), which are white, due to deposited salt, and prone to producing fascinating natural saline outcrops. Other notable features of the Atacama Desert are the region's many caverns, some containing evidence of pictographs created by early man and where some of the world's oldest mummies, preserved by the area's aridity, were found (the most famous of these, the Chinchorro mummies, are now on display at the archaeological museum in San Miguel de Azapa).
3 Easter Island
First visited by Europeans in 1722, the magnificent yet remote Easter Island - so named by a Dutch Explorer who first set eyes on it on Easter Sunday - has been inhabited for thousands of years by Polynesians. Despite being more than 3,500 kilometers away from mainland Chile, this fascinating island with its remarkable stone sculptures remains the country's most recognizable attraction. All told, 887 of these statues, known as Moai, created by the island's early Rapa Nui population, have been identified, most of them now protected by Rapa Nui National Park (the island itself has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The most impressive collection is at Ahu Tongariki where 15 of them have been re-erected on the island's largest Moai platform, or "ahu." Also of interest are the many "hare paenga" ruins near ahu sites consisting of stones that once formed the foundation of boat-shaped houses. Other highlights include the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum in Hanga Roa, the island's main community, notable for its exhibits relating to the history of the Polynesian islanders and their traditions. Hot Tip: Visiting Easter Island is best done as part of a Chilean vacation, with regular flights available from Santiago or Tahiti (flight times are approximately five hours, so expect to stay at least a couple of days).
4 Santiago: Chile's Cultural Capital
Santiago is not only the financial and business capital of Chile, it also serves as the country's cultural and entertainment center and is home to its best museums and galleries, along with excellent shopping, dining, and hotel options. Centrally located and the country's main transportation hub, Santiago is where most visitors begin their Chilean travels before heading to the Andes or other areas of outstanding natural beauty. The smartest travelers, though, will allow time to get to know Santiago. Founded in 1541 and relatively crowd-free, the city features highlights such as the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, a state-of-the-art cultural center occupying part of the impressive Palacio de la Moneda, and the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts, established in the 1880s with a focus on Chilean artists and boasting a large permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, and photos. Other must-sees are the excellent Museum of pre-Columbian Art, featuring collections relating to the country's native people, and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights commemorating those who suffered under the Pinochet regime. A highlight of any visit to Santiago is taking the aerial tramway to San Cristóbal Hill for its stunning views over this most hospitable of cities.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Santiago
5 Chile's Lake District
Stretching for more than 330 kilometers from Temuco to Puerto Montt and resembling the alpine regions of Europe, Chile's Lake District is well worth exploring. Like its alpine cousin, this beautiful region of Andean foothills boasts rich farmland at the base of its many snowcapped volcanoes, ringed by thick forests and the kind of deep lakes that water sports enthusiasts drool over. And the connection to Europe doesn't end there. After the forced resettlement of the region's indigenous people, the Mapuche, farmers from Switzerland, Austria, and Germany arrived, bringing with them aspects of their own culture that can still be seen in the architecture of towns like Osorno and Valdivia, as well as in the region's customs and festivals. For adventure seekers, the area offers endless hiking and biking potential, along with other fun activities such as volcano climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, and, come winter, skiing.
Chile's third largest city, Valparaíso, is nestled between the sea and the coastal mountain range about 112 kilometers northwest of Santiago and makes for an excellent day trip. As popular for its many old cobbled streets and unique architecture as it is for its lovely harbor and beaches, the city offers a great deal to see and do. Many tourist attractions focus on the country's rich maritime heritage, including Lord Cochrane's Museum, in a lovely colonial home built in 1842, and the superb Naval and Maritime Museum with its displays dealing with the War of the Pacific of 1879 between Chile and allied Peru and Bolivia, with particular emphasis on the contributions of Chile's war heroes. A related attraction is the Ironclad Huáscar in the Port of Talcahuano some 600 kilometers south of Santiago. Talcahuano's beautiful harbor - home to Chile's navy - is the base for this immaculately restored historic vessel built in 1865 in Britain and one of the only surviving such battleships of her kind.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Valparaíso
7 Lauca National Park
In the far north of Chile, just 140 kilometers east of the city of Arica, Lauca National Park covers an area of 1,300 square kilometers and consists largely of high plains and mountain ranges, many of the latter consisting of large volcanoes. Highlights include its many pristine mountain lakes, most notably Cotacotani and Chungara, which reflect the scenery around them to stunning effect. The park also features a number of important archaeological sites, as well as evidence of the early European settlers who left their mark in the region's many fine old colonial churches and buildings. It's also especially popular for birdwatchers and is home to more than 140 species including Andean geese, crested ducks, Chilean flamingos, and the massive Andean condor. Another beautiful area popular with nature lovers is Conguillío National Park, also in the Araucanía Region of the Andes.
Address: Putre, Arica y Parinacota
8 Pumalín Park
Although only established as a nature sanctuary in 2005, Pumalín Park has become one of Chile's most important and popular conservation areas. Covering a vast area of some 715,000 acres stretching from the Andes to the Pacific, the area boasts some of the country's most pristine coastline and forests and is notable for being almost entirely untouched by human development. In addition to protecting the area's rich flora and fauna, including the Alerce, the world's oldest tree species, the park - owned and operated by the US-based Conservation Land Trust - is easily accessible to visitors and provides one of the country's best wilderness experiences. Thanks to its extensive network of trails, campgrounds, and visitor facilities, Pumalín Park is a delight to explore, whether for a short nature hike or as part of a longer ecotourism adventure including a stay at cabin-style accommodations overlooking one of the world's most beautiful, unspoiled backdrops.
Address: Klenner 299, Puerto Varas, X Región
9 Los Pingüinos Natural Monument
In addition to its national parks, more of Chile's important conservation efforts can be seen in its many natural monuments. One of the most popular is Los Pingüinos Natural Monument, just 35 kilometers northeast of the city of Punta Arenas at the southern tip of the island and incorporating the beautiful Magdalena and Marta Islands. As its name suggests (pingüinos is Spanish for penguins), the monument is home to one of Chile's largest penguin colonies, consisting of some 60,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins. Accessible only by guided boat tours, the islands are also home to large colonies of seals and sea lions. Another of Chile's important natural monuments is El Morado, an easy drive from Santiago and site of the San Francisco Glacier and the 4,674-meter-tall Cerro El Morado mountain.
10 The Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
Near the northern port city of Iquique in the remote Pampa Desert and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, this fascinating ghost town was once home to a bustling community. For more than 60 years from about 1880, thousands of Chilean, Bolivian, and Peruvian workers toiled in this hostile environment in some 200 saltpeter mines, in the process forming a distinct culture and way of life that has been preserved here. Although derelict since 1960, the site offers a fascinating glimpse into the tough conditions faced by these "pampinos," with many of the site's larger structures still standing and able to be explored. Professional guides are recommended given the area's remoteness and harsh climate.