A Traveler’s Guide to Hiking in Chile
Chile is a place of extremes. From the deep red plains of the Atacama Desert in the north to the icy beauty of the glacial parks in the south, this is a country that will surprise you, delight you, and quite possibly inspire you. It’s also a country that deserves to be explored. If you want to experience the raw beauty of Chile, skip the tourist-packed beaches and the noisy cities and get back to basics with a map, a pair of boots, and our traveler’s guide to hiking in Chile.
Where to Go
Chile is vast. Unless you’re planning to give up 6 months of your life, you’re not going to be able to pack it all into one trip. Planning out your itinerary is crucial if you don’t want to miss the unmissable. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to start by picking whether you’d prefer to head south to the lakes, the rivers, and the glacial parks, or north to the singular beauty of the Atacama. Both have their advantages, but unless you’re a very experienced hiker, you’ll need to consider joining guided tours in the north. If you’re happy enough to hike with company, head to the Atacama. If you prefer to venture out solo, the south is likely to be your best option. If you’re on a very tight schedule, on the other hand, you might want to keep within striking distance of Santiago.
When to Go
There’s no right or wrong time to visit Chile, but most people will find October to March the best and warmest months to visit Patagonia in the south. If you’re heading to the Central Valleys or the Atacama Desert in the North, you’ll find the climate much of a muchness year-round.
What Not to Miss
Whether you go south, north, or central, you’re going to want to take in at least one national park during your trip. Here are a few of the truly unmissable ones (along with a few extra destinations that you really should consider). Most can be ventured alone, but if you want the benefit of an experienced hiker (or even just the opportunity to learn more about the places you’ll be traveling through), you shouldn’t have too many problems in finding a local guide.
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is a centuries-old town packed with charm. It’s also the launchpad for some of the most breathtaking hikes you’ll ever experience. Before you head off into the wilds, be sure to spend a bit of time in the town – the workshops of the Craft Village are fascinating, as is the gorgeous old church. Once you’re done soaking up the delights of the town, head out into nature to discover an amazing landscape filled with geysers, volcanos, salt flats, rock formations, and heart-shaped lagoons. There’s no shortage of trails, but the stunning views and wonderful nature of the Cornices Trail make it one of the most popular. Hike it, bike it, or even ride it on horseback – whichever way you choose to navigate it, just don’t miss it. You might also want to check out Lejía Lagoon – located around 90 kilometers away from the town and surrounded by volcanoes, this saltwater lake encapsulates everything there is to love about Chile. As the desert terrain can be challenging to inexperienced hikers, you might want to consider guided tours rather than solitary adventures – either way, be sure to pack a water bottle before you head off.
La Campana National Park
If you’ve ever fancied walking in Charles Darwin’s footsteps, a visit to La Campana National Park is a must. A designated World Biosphere Reserve, the park boasts no end of trails, not to mention one of the last Chilean Palm Tree forests in the world – take the Palm Tree route to discover it for yourself. While you’re there, do as Darwin did and take the 8-hour trail to the top of La Campana Hill. It might be a little challenging, but the view from the top makes it worth the effort.
Cerro Castillo National Reserve
Cerro Castillo National Reserve is a magnet for nature lovers. Located about an hour’s drive south from Coyhaique, it’s a place of stunning views, eerie silences, and superb hiking opportunities. According to theguardian.com, the 30-mile trek through the bewitching forest with its views over the crags of Cerro Castillo offers stiff competition to the equally stunning (albeit for more touristy) Torres del Paine. If you want to extend your trip by a few days, camping is permitted but you’ll either need to bring your own supplies or make the trip to the small village of Cerro Castillo at the end of the trek.
In 2008, the remote town of Chaitén was almost buried under volcanic ash. Today, it’s the starting point to your adventures through Pumalín Park. To get the most of the experience, book a tour with a local guide to learn more about the struggle to restore the town and to see the park through the eyes of someone born and raised within sight of it. As one of the most popular ecotourist attractions in south Chile, Pumalín is well geared to hikers and includes a restaurant, visitor center, cabañas, and a campground. It can be accessed either by car or by ferry from the village of Hornopirén.
Torres Del Paine
Torres Del Paine might be a little hard to access. It might be a little overrun with tourists during the peak season. But neither of those change the fact that this is one of the most divine national parks in the country. Set against a backdrop of granite towers and boasting more species of flora and fauna that you thought existed, it’s a place that will live on in your memory for years to come. According to chile.travel, the park boasts some of the finest trekking routes in the world – we’re not inclined to disagree. If you want to make the most of the trails without having to vie for elbow space with the crowds, take the advice of theblondeabroad.com and visit the park at the beginning of December or at the beginning of March— by then, most of the crowds will have dispersed but the weather will still be warm enough to enjoy.