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The longest nation on the planet, Chile stretches for some 2,650 miles, bordered by both imposing mountain ranges and the lapping waters of the Pacific Ocean. As a result, Chile’s diverse landscapes form some of the world’s most spectacular scenery — and the South American country has become a bucket list destination for travelers of all types.
Chile’s varied topography and cultures make it possible to have a number of extraordinary — and extraordinarily distinct — adventures, all in the same nation. Pick your favorite, or string them together for the trip of a lifetime.
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert
Travelers flock to the high-altitude Atacama Desert — the world’s driest desert — for a number of reasons. Every few years, the arid landscape, which stretches for more than 40,000 square miles, erupts in a riot of wildflower blooms. But more reliably, the desert’s clear, cloudless skies and lack of light pollution make it one of the most famous destinations on Earth for stargazing. Astronomy enthusiasts should base themselves in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, and register for a free weekend morning tour of the ALMA Observatory.
Best for: Astrotourists
Exploring the Lake District
Known as Zona Sur to Chileans, this region’s forested landscape is spotted with volcanoes and pristine lakes. Home to the indigenous Mapuche people, travelers interested in exploring the Lake District should book a regional flight to Puerto Montt (roughly two hours from Santiago). During your trip, carve out time to visit the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve, where you can go rafting on Class III and IV rapids; take a boat ride or swim in Lake Pirehueico; and bathe in hot springs. Adventures in the Lake District can also be combined with a visit to picturesque Chiloé Island, famous for its colorful, stilted houses, wooden churches, fantastic seafood and excellent kayaking.
Best for: Water sports enthusiasts
Hiking in Southern Patagonia
Puerto Natales is the gateway for hardcore backpackers searching for sensational trekking in Torres del Paine National Park. Perhaps best known for the Cuernos del Paine, a trio of emblematic granite spires that frame an emerald lake, this park is also the natural habitat for an array of Chilean wildlife, including condors, llama-like guanaco and the stealthy puma. Travelers following the most popular W trek can either begin or finish the trip at the Grey Lake, which harbors the eponymous glacier and massive ice flows. Though Torres del Paine is the most iconic section of Chilean Patagonia, intrepid travelers can also look for exceptional backpacking in the less-traveled parks of Northern Patagonia, like Cerro Castillo in the Aysén Region.
Best for: Serious backpackers
Eating, Drinking and Sightseeing in Santiago
Latin America’s most organized capital, Santiago de Chile, is home to colonial churches, lush green spaces and Costanera Center, the continent’s highest skyscraper. It’s also cultivated a surprising street art scene in the bohemian neighborhood of Bellavista. Santiago is a flavorful city — get a taste by booking a table at Boragó, which has been hailed as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Helmed by foraging chef Rodolfo Guzmán, the restaurant’s incredible tasting menu only features ingredients found within a 60-mile radius of the restaurant. Be sure to order (and Instagram) Guzmán’s dramatic dry-ice dessert. And because it’s located just 90 miles from one of the country’s finest wine regions, the Colchagua Valley, day trips to sample Chile’s distinct cabernet sauvignons, syrahs and carménères are totally feasible.
Best for: Oenophiles, gourmands and art aficionados
Though these adventures are four of the most popular — and beautiful — ways to experience Chile, they’re hardly the only ones. Thanks to Santiago’s proximity to the Andes Mountains, for example, skiers can easily head out to Valle Nevado for a day on the slopes — and be back in time for dinner. (The ski season begins in earnest in July, during the southern hemisphere’s winter.)
And for a seriously far-flung adventure, travelers can catch a five-and-a-half hour flight to Easter Island, one of the world’s most remote destinations. Famous for its ancient, imposing Moai statues — almost 900 carved monoliths — the mystery-shrouded Chilean territory is a dream trip for visitors interested in the fascinating Rapa Nui culture, and the island’s excellent snorkeling and diving sites.
Whether you’re interested in backpacking to see glaciers at the end of the world, or stargazing in a high-altitude desert, most Americans will reach Chile by first flying into Santiago’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL).
SCL is serviced by nonstop flights on American Airlines from Dallas (DFW) and Miami (MIA), with award redemptions starting at 30,000 miles one-way in economy and 57,500 in business. Delta Air Lines flies nonstop from Atlanta (ATL) — it no longer publishes award charts but the lowest award rates are 35,000 miles one-way in economy and from 80,000 miles in business.
United, meanwhile, flies nonstop from Houston (IAH), with award rates starting at 30,000 miles one-way in economy and 60,000 miles in business. For LATAM flights from New York (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), Orlando (MCO), Miami and Dallas, you can use Oneworld partners American AAdvantage or British Airways Avios, or Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which also partners independently with LATAM.
From SCL, you can catch a domestic flight — though not necessarily a fast or inexpensive one — with LATAM or the regional airlines JetSmart and Sky Airlines.
The flight can take nearly 11 hours from the East and West coasts, but there’s no time difference between New York City and Santiago — meaning you won’t waste any time on the ground recovering from jet lag.
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