Chile is a perfect multi-climate adventure travel destination. Located on the Pacific Ocean in South America, this very long, very thin country has incredibly varied terrain from the Atacama Desert in the north, to the wine country in the center, and the iconic Patagonia region in the south, with the massive Andes Mountains lining the eastern edge.
Last month I spent eight days with my family in Chile – three days in the Atacama Desert, and five days in Central Chile skiing in the Andes and visiting the capital of Santiago. Patagonia is worth a two week trip all to itself (next time!).
Late August is late winter / early spring in Chile. I’d recommend going a bit earlier to catch some better snow, but Santiago was significantly more pleasant than it would have been in the dead of winter.
What to bring:
We needed versatile, multi-climate clothes to venture in a desert (hot during the day, cold at night), skiing, and a city with a very mild climate. Aside from ski gear, we focused on multiple, lighter weight layers that washed easily.
The Atacama Desert – A Stargazer’s Paradise
The Atacama Desert is one of the highest deserts in the world. At the feet of the Andes, it ranges from 7,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. San Pedro de Atacama is the largest town in the area. The Atacama is known for incredible star gazing due to its clear skies, dry air, and minimal light pollution.
Where to Stay: Tierra de Atacama in San Pedro de Atacama. Ranked by National Geographic as one of the most unique hotels in the world, it was built using local materials. The furniture and accessories are all handmade, giving it an authentic local feel. For a bit lower cost, there are several other hotels and hostels in San Pedro.
Cool Stuff to Do:
Salar de Atacama – these incredible salts flats are sandwiched between the Andes Mountains on one side and the Cordillera de Domeyko on the other. The salt flat is the third largest in the world and sits at an average of 7,500 feet above sea level. The eastern edge is lined by active volcanoes.
If you’ve never seen a salt flat, it’s hard to explain just how much salt there is. As you can tell in the photo, there is a thick thick crust of salt on the ground, almost like a rocky sand beach.
And did I mention that the Andean flamingo is native to the area?
El Tatio Geysers – These are the highest geysers in the world at over 14,000 feet in elevation. Tucked right near the Chilean-Bolivian border, they aren’t quite of the scale of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, but they’re plenty exciting in their own right. But beware of the temperature: if you head up early in the morning, it is usually well below freezing.
Valle de la Muerte – Also known as the Mars Valley, it’s known for its moonlike landscape, incredible rock formations and massive clay mounds (mountains is more accurate) that rise out of the desert. We did an afternoon mountain bike that took us from about 7,000 feet to 11,000 feet. I’ll admit that we did have to walk some. But the views from the top were incredible.
Star gazing – It’s one of the most renowned star gazing destinations in the world, and we didn’t do it! Blame it on the local wine I guess.
How do you get there: Calama is a two hour flight from the capital of Chile, Santiago (most major airlines have direct flights from the US to Santiago). San Pedro de Atacama is about a 90-minute drive from the Calama airport.
What to Wear: The desert is very warm during the day and very cold at night. I’d recommend multiple layers as opposed to just a heavy down coat. MerinoLux™ tops were a favorite because they’re naturally odor resistant, and we often ran out of time to change before dinner.
Valle Nevado Ski Resort
Where to Stay: The resort offers 3 hotels at varying price points. However, they all sit right now to each other and funnel into the same ski lifts and social scene. Other than skiing, the resort offered nightly wine tastings and had a great, heated outdoor pool. The après-ski scene on the deck wasn’t too shabby either.
Cool Stuff to Do: Heli skiing! Valle Nevado Heli Skiing is run by incredibly experienced backcountry and heli ski guides, including X-Games Gold Medalist Reggie Crist (see his ski films here) and Mike Barney of Colorado.
Skiing untracked runs in some of the most awe-inspiring terrain in the world was an unforgettable experience. Heli skiing usually makes people think SUPREME INTENSITY, but actually you can ski a wide range of terrains. And great guides (again, I can’t speak highly enough of Reggie and Mike) can make it a very safe experience.
Valle Nevado is the largest ski resort in Chile. Though it does not have the expansive off-piste offerings of Las Lenas in nearby Argentina, there is a wide variety of lift- and pommel-accessible terrain.
How do you get there: Valle Nevado is a 2-hour drive from downtown Santiago.
What to Wear: Ski gear! But aside from that, the resort is informal but still has a neat, pulled together vibe. My dad wore a pair of the Brushed Back Twill Pants, and he wore them 2 of the 3 nights. He’s an incredible athlete – at 63, he heli skis and is a Class IV+ whitewater kayaker. I lived in the MerinoLux™ Tee and ¼ Zip every day. I suffer from the “cold on the lift” and “hot on the slopes” syndrome, so the moisture wicking combined with a little Merino warmth was crucial.
Santiago – Business Capital of South American
Where to Stay: The W Hotel Santiago was fantastic. As a city of 5 million people and a major business center of South America, Santiago features a huge variety of lodging options.
Cool Stuff to Do: Santiago is about the food. We went to two fantastic restaurants for dinner. Aquì Esta El Coco served phenomenal fish and had one of the coolest wine cellars I’ve ever seen. It’s located below the front steps, which have a glass portal so you can take a look down there.
Happening focused on steak, for which Chile is almost as renowned as Argentina. We had a group of 12 and ordered a bunch of small plates to share; we ended up sharing entrees as well. Fantastic meal.
Santiago’s sightseeing isn’t great. Santa Lucia Hill in the center of the city offers a beautiful view. The hill, which was conquered by Santiago’s founder Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, is the site of Fort Hidalgo, which dates to the early 1800’s and has been recently restored. In general, the city lacks the public art or architecture projects that you might find in Buenos Aires or in European capitals. Many of the historical buildings have been destroyed by major earthquakes (most recently in 1985), and the socialist and fascist governments that dominated the latter half of the 20th century did not invest heavily in art.
For Next Time: The day trips just outside of Santiago – wine country and the beach – are renowned. Mainly locals told us they loved living in Santiago not necessarily because there was a lot to do in the city, but because there was a lot to do nearby.
What to Wear: While Santiago is a business center (you’ll see a lot of suits out at corporate dinners), it’s not as formal as New York or London. There’s no need for a blazer on men or a dress on women, but you wouldn’t feel out of place. A fun sweater is the perfect layer.
Chile is about adventure travel. The Atacama Desert featured some of the most unique terrain I’ve ever scene. Skiing in the Andes is mind-blowing due to the immense scale of the mountains. And next time, I’m definitely going on a hike through Patagonia.