An Introduction to Chile
For first-time visitors, the key sights are the Atacama Desert and Torres del Paine, but both mean considerable flying time on a relatively short holiday. Except for Santiago to Punta Arenas (about 3 hours, a little more with a stopover) and Easter Island (5 hours) flights are less than 2 hours.
This is usually a summer itinerary—the arid but relatively cool Atacama can be ideal at any season, but most people prefer Patagonia in summer. At any time of year, though, unpredictable Patagonian weather can short-circuit even the best-planned itinerary.
Arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez and transfer to a Santiago hotel. In the afternoon, visit central sites such as the Barrio Cívico, Plaza de Armas, and poet Pablo Neruda’s La Chascona home.
Take an early flight to Calama and overland transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. After an afternoon’s sightseeing around town, including the exceptional Museo Arqueológico Padre Gustavo Le Paige, plan on an early evening departure for a red-rocks sunset at Valle de la Luna. After dinner, it’s off to bed for an early morning excursion to El Tatio.
Rising early—no later than 3:30 a.m.—is essential for a sunrise arrival at the steaming Geysers del Tatio. Return in early afternoon to San Pedro; after lunch and perhaps a nap, take a shorter excursion to the nesting flamingos at Laguna Chaxa, including a stop at the village of Toconao.
Plan a full-day excursion to the altiplano lakes of Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques, as well as scenic salt lakes with abundant wildlife.
Depart early for Calama and the return flight to Santiago, then an onward flight to Punta Arenas. If an early-afternoon arrival permits, take a boat excursion to the Magellanic penguin colony at Isla Magdalena with accommodations at Punta Arenas; otherwise, transfer overland to Puerto Natales.
If the previous night was spent in Punta Arenas, take an overland transfer to Puerto Natales, stopping over at the Otway penguin colony; after lunch in Natales, hike to the ridge of Cerro Dorotea. If the previous night was spent in Natales, schedule a full-day motor launch or catamaran excursion to Balmaceda Glacier.
Depart early for Torres del Paine, taking an afternoon hike to the Torres themselves. Stay at Hostería Las Torres or camp. An alternative is a hike to Refugio Los Cuernos, with overnight accommodations there at Las Torres or Los Cuernos.
Hike from Hostería Las Torres to Paine Grande Mountain Lodge for overnight accommodations.
Leave midmorning for Valparaíso, by rental car or public transportation, with a stop at one or more Casablanca valley wineries. Lunch in the hills of Valparaíso, before or after exploring their winding streets.
Return to Santiago, with evening departure from Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition