Where to see Chile's top natural attractions
1. Moonscapes in the Atacama Desert
Northern Chile’s spectacular Atacama Desert harbors extraordinary otherworldly landscapes at more than 2,500 meters above sea level. The town of San Pedro de Atacama sits on a high Andean plateau surrounded by terrain encompassing expansive salt flats, hot springs, and intensely blue lagoons that support an abundance of bird life.
At the nearby Los Flamencos Natural Reserve, you can view tranquil lagoons dotted with countless pink flamingoes, while Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is a natural marvel of extraordinary rock formations where you can climb vast sand dunes to watch the sunset as kaleidoscopic colors wash over the landscape against a backdrop of distant mountain peaks.
While Atacama is considered to be the driest desert in the world, rain does occasionally fall during the winter months (June–Aug), causing this usually arid landscape to bloom with pretty pink perennials, creating an unexpected flowering desert carpet that only a lucky few get to see every few years.
Be aware when traveling around Chile that earthquakes can occur, because of the country’s Andean location and geological structure. Earthquake Track details new earthquakes around the world as they occur.
Incredible landscape in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Photo: tjalex/Shutterstock
2. Torres del Paine
A Unesco biosphere reserve since 1978, Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park is dominated by the three monumental granite peaks of the Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) that rise above it. Encompassing some of the most awe-inspiring examples of Mother Nature’s beauty in Chile, if not all of South America, the park’s towering mountains are complemented by turquoise lakes, expansive grasslands and vast ice fields. Four- to ten-day hiking circuits through valleys and forests take in peaks, plains and icy rivers, with challenging ascents rewarded by breathtaking views over the park's many lakes.
For those with less time, shorter hikes to see the windswept shores of Lago Grey, or boat trips to get close up to the vast, sky-blue, icy mass of Glacier Grey, can be just as remarkable. Lodging options are available within the park itself or in the small town of Puerto Natales, around a two-hour drive away.
Cuernos del Paine peaks in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Photo: kavram/Shutterstock
3. Enigmatic Easter Island
While many visitors to Rapa Nui, also known as Isla de Pascua (Easter Island), often make a beeline to the Ahu Tongariki group of huge moai statues to witness for themselves the mysteries of this most remote spot in the South Pacific Ocean, the island is a breathtaking natural attraction in itself.
Almost half of this Unesco World Heritage Site’s land mass, located a five-and-a-half hour flight away from Santiago, is protected as Rapa Nui National Park. Three extinct volcanoes comprise the majority of the island including Rano Kao, which contains a stunning freshwater lake within its crater. There are many volcanic caves and lava tubes to explore, as well as the Rano Raraku crater. For hundreds of years the crater was the quarry from which the Rapa Nui people took the stone that was used to carve out their sacred monolithic statues, some of which still lie half-buried in the ground today.
4. The Chiloé Archipelago
The picturesque 17th-century wooden churches of Chiloé – 16 of which are Unesco World Heritage Sites – and colorful houses supported on stilts above the water, known as palafitos, tell the human architectural story of Chiloé Island. But lovers of the great outdoors will also be enchanted by the area’s natural architecture. The archipelago’s location in Los Lagos (The Lakes) region of Chile comprises a wealth of spectacular natural beauty, from pristine fjords and sea channels, to lush rainforests within Chiloé and Tantauco National Parks. Both reserves can be explored on hiking trails leading to beaches where you can spot wildlife including sea lions, penguins and marine otters at play in the freezing waters.
Traditional stilt houses, known as palafitos, in Castro, Chiloé Island, Chile. Photo: Jose L. Stephens/Shutterstock
5. Valle Nevado
A 90-minute drive from the capital Santiago, Valle Nevado is Chile’s top resort for winter skiing and snowboarding thanks to its high-quality powder snow – and what greater thrill than conquering one of the world’s highest mountain ranges, the Andes? Located in the shadows of the majestic 6,000-meter-high Nevado del Plomo mountain and stretching out across its foothills, the resort’s ski season runs from late June until late September. Beginners can take classes at Valle Nevado Ski and Snowboard School, while accomplished skiers and adrenaline junkies can opt for a heli-skiing trip, landing on alpine reaches to tackle pristine slopes with vertical drops of up to 2,000 meters on any given run.
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Updated 16 December, 2019