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Top Chile

Regional Summaries


Almost directly in the middle of Chile, Santiago is a modern city with a European feel, and the place where most visitors begin their trip. It's not a particularly attractive city, however. Frequent earthquakes have gradually claimed most of the colonial buildings here. It also lacks the 24-hour party reputation of other Latin American capitals, so a couple of days should be sufficient to see all the main attractions before heading into the countryside. Despite its flaws, Santiago's European feel and the proliferation of modern conveniences, such as high-quality hotels and restaurants, make the city a good base for exploring the nearby regions. Day or overnight trips to the wine country to the south, the beaches to the west, and the Andean ski resorts to the east can easily be arranged in the capital. See “Around Santiago" for more information about these day trips.

Must-see sights in Santiago:

  • The Plaza de Armas is Santiago’s official center, and is always buzzing with life; schoolchildren, families, workmen on their lunch break, and tourists all come here to soak up the atmosphere and watch the world go by.
  • The Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombina shouldn’t be missed. Chile’s most impressive museum, it features 3,000 pieces of Precolombian art from over 1,000 Latin American cultures, all laid out in a manageable and interesting display.
  • On a clear day, the high Cerro San Cristobal provides fine views over both the city and the Andes. Head up to the summit on the funicular railway and enjoy a picnic in the park at the top. But as clear days are rare in Santiago, try to catch a sunset from the top of the cerro, when the thick layer of haze burns a deep orange.
  • Barrio Bellavista is Santiago’s Latin Quarter. It gets particularly lively on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights when Chileans and foreigners pour into the restaurants, bars, cafes and ‘salsatecas’ that line the narrow streets.


Middle Chile

Middle Chile is the country's most densely populated region, with the forbidding desert in the north and the harsh Patagonian terrain in the south, forcing most of the population to the just-right center. This is the location of the capital, Santiago, as well as the spirited, grungy Valparaíso and the beach resort Viña del Mar. Chile's world-famous wines, now rivaling those of France—and at a fraction of the price—are produced here in the Central Valley. Although deserts and mountains and glaciers beckon, don't be too quick to rush away from this area; there is plenty to see and do.

A couple spots not to miss:

  • Take a tour of the historic port city Valparaíso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Visit Mercado Central in Santiago for a fresh seafood plate, then ride one of the almost vertical ascensores (funicular railways) to the top of one of the cerros surrounding the city—Cerro San Cristobol or Cerro Santa Lucia.
  • Join the locals on the beach at Viña del Mar to ring in the New Year with a spectacular fireworks display.
  • Take a day trip to Sewell, the city of stairs. Sewell was founded in 1905 as a mining city but abandoned in the 1970s because of pollution. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Visit one of the ski centers to ski or snowboard the legendary Andes mountains.
  • Go camping in Reserva Nacional Río Los Cipreses, close to Rancagua.
  • Enjoy a day out with a real Chilean cowboy at the Puro Caballo Ranch ( about one hour from Santiago. Tour a few of the vineyards in the Central Valley to taste their world-renowned wines.


Norte Chico

The Norte Chico stretches from the Santiago region up to about 500 kilometers north, and is characterized by long, parched hills, punctuated occasionally by lush valleys that have sprung up around rivers that flow down from the Andes toward the ocean. This is where Chile’s national drink ‘Pisco’ comes from, but the region has prospered mainly due to the huge reserves of gold and silver that were discovered by the Incas and are still being mined today. The coast is a definite highlight, and the beaches here are considered among the best in Chile, although few have been developed for tourism like those closer to Santiago. However, their sandy bays and turquoise waters make a relaxing getaway for those who want to chill out and do nothing for a few days. Perhaps the main attraction of this region, though, is La Serena, Chile’s second oldest city and arguably its most attractive, with its colonial architecture and seaside setting. It makes a great base for exploring some of the nearby beaches, as well as the inland scenery. Parque Nacional Nevado Tres Cruces is another great spot to visit, with its vibrant green lakes, misty volcanoes, and abundant wildlife. It’s easy to get to and from the city of Copiapó, but is surprisingly seldom visited by tourists – which makes it all the more pleasant for those who do visit.


Norte Grande

As you move north, the sun-baked hills and gentle valleys of the Norte Chico gradually give way to the more desolate plains of the Atacama desert, marking the beginning of the Norte Grande. On the eastern edge of the country, the desert climbs up into the Altiplano highlands, where salt flats and lakes spread out far into the distance, eventually spilling over into Bolivia and Argentina. As a whole, the area takes up nearly a quarter of the country’s landmass, yet houses less than 5% of its inhabitants, a testimony to the aridity of the land. Apart from the lake district, the Norte Grande is the most visited area of Chile. Most people opt for a tour, as the vast and inhospitable landscape makes independent travel difficult. In the Atacama desert, you can take a trip out to the nitrate ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura, which can be easily accessed from the coastal town of Iquique. Another of the desert’s highlights are the immense geoglyphs carved into the sides of the gaping ravines by long-departed indigenous tribes. The vast, steaming El Tatio Geysers just south of San Pedro de Atacama are also worth a visit. Up in the highlands of the northern Altiplano, head to one of the national parks on the border of Bolivia, such as Parque Nacional Lacuna and Parque Nacional Volcán Isluga, and admire their mineral baths and shimmering blue lakes, among miles of empty salt flats.


The Carretera Austral and Northern Patagonia

Considering its proximity to the Lake District, the Carretera Austral and the Chilean part of Southern Patagonia receive surprisingly few visitors—as a lot of people simply skip over the area on their way down to Tierra del Fuego. The climate starts to get harsher around here, with strong winds, freezing cold nights and barren terrain—a landscape immortalised by novelist Bruce Chatwin in his book In Patagonia. One of the most visited spots on the Carreterra Austral is Villa O’Higgins, a tiny hamlet in the south that owes its popularity partly to the fact that it marks the end of the Carretera, the narrow dirt road from which this region takes its name. The 1,240-kilometer (770-mile) road is a famous challenge for bicyclists and, in recent years, has become increasingly popular with motorists who want a more independent, pioneering Patagonian experience. The drive down the final 100 kilometers of the road boasts some amazing scenery, as does the town itself, set on the edge of Lago O’Higgins.



Just off the coast off the Carretera Austral, Chiloé consists of nearly 100 islands, of which only 30 or so are inhabited. Modern development is slowly starting to filter through to the islands from the mainland, but the way of life is still very traditional—people still live in stilt-raised houses on the shore, and seemingly every corner hosts an historic wooden church or chapels. The main island is Chiloé, which is the entry point for most tourists (by boat from Pargua on the mainland). At 200 by 75 kilometers, it is the second largest island in South America, after Tierra del Fuego. Parque Nacional de Chiloé, on the west coast, is the reason for most people’s visit here. It is very accessible to visitors, with numerous hiking trails that meander through the dense coastal rainforest and rolling sand dunes. Castro, the island’s capital, makes a good base for exploring the park as it is close by and tours can be arranged in the town. Others base themselves at Ancud, a lively little fishing town in the north, which is always bustling with activity and certainly worth a visit, even if you don’t stay the night there. All of the inhabited islands are visitable by boat, although some are harder to get to than others. Isla Quinchao and Isla Lemuy are just off the mainland, and accessible by bus. A day-long visit is plenty, but many people choose to stay a few more just to relax and enjoy the slow pace of life.


The Lake District

The Lake District is Chile’s most visited area, and it’s easy to see why. The region, filled with placid lakes, white-water rivers, forests and cloud-shrouded volcanoes, contains several national parks and reserves, including the Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales, the largest in the country. It is an easy area to visit, with good roads and transportion. Despite the fact that thousands of tourists pour into the region each year, hiking trails are plentiful, and you could easily walk for days without seeing another person. Kayaking, rafting and climbing are also becoming increasingly popular as the tourist infrastructure improves, and there are many good bases to choose from. One of the most popular is Pucón, a one-horse tourist town on the shores of Lago Villarrica. It’s a laid-back kind of place, with plenty of opportunities for meeting up with other travelers and taking part in sporting activities.


Pacific Islands

Chile’s offshore assets are as alluring as the mainland. Each year, thousands of tourists board the five-hour flight to Easter Island, now one of the most popular travel destinations for overseas visitors. Abandoned in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the mainland, it is famous for its Moai sculptures and ancient cultural celebrations. The Juan Fernández Islands were used as the basis for Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe’s classic novel of island survival. Tourism has never really taken off here, despite the fact that it is much closer to the mainland than Easter Island. However, the islands are beautiful and well worth the effort—if your thirst is for the road less-traveled, they don't get much less-traveled than this.


Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

Icy channels and fjords rend the land, fraying it into thousands of islands. Ragged, glacier-frosted mountains scrape the sky. To the east, the earth relaxes into pampas and steppes. Guanaco and ñanadú wade through stiff, golden grasses, and rose flamingos feed in icy lagoons. Wind-sheared trees permanently stoop to one side. A long gash across the southern tip of the continent connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Here, penguins and other seabirds nest on islets. Further towards the “End of the World” looms Tierra del Fuego, Isla Navarino and finally the frozen continent of Antarctica. Welcome to Chile's Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. This region of Chile is a land of fairy tales of castle-like, granite spire mountains, glistening ice fields and virgin forests. This is where, in the days of the explorers, sailors battled their way around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) through Drake's Passage and the Estrecho de Magallanes (Straits of Magellan). The winds across the Patagonia plains, whistling around the farthest reaches of the Andes, are notorious for challenging bicyclists and hikers on their quests. It is a land of 150,000 people, two million sheep, and half a million penguins. No road connects Chile's Northern Patagonia with its Southern part. Some day, perhaps, the Carretera Austral will find a way here. But in the mean time, the only way to arrive by land is to enter Argentina and exit again into Chile. Also, the famous Navimag Canales Patagónicos ferry plows through the icy channels along the Pacific coast, from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. So, get ready to join the ranks of the indigenous peoples, explorers and colonizers and strike your claim in this wild land. Reaching the end of the world is not an experience soon forgotten.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Chile: Safety in Puerto Natales, Safety, Departure Tax, Crossing into Bolivia, Safety, Augusto Pinochet, Before You Go, Safety, Culture: Intro and Safety in Pichilemu.

By Kyle Adams
Kyle just graduated Syracuse University with degrees in magazine journalism and anthropology. After his summer with V!VA, he'll be starting Peace...
07 Jul 2009

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