Chile is a land of immense natural beauty. Stretching over 4,000 kilometres from the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the fjords and glaciers of Patagonia in the south, flanked the entire way by the Pacific Ocean and Andes mountains, few countries can boast such a diversity of landscapes. This two-week Chile itinerary focuses on the stretch between San Pedro de Atacama, a desert town close to the Bolivia border, and Santiago, the country’s boisterous capital. We’ve also included some ideas for exploring further south, from the lakes to Patagonia.
For organised experiences in the country, check out our guide to small group tours in Chile.
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In this article:
Chile travel: the basics
Who is this Chile itinerary for?
This Chile itinerary is for all-round travellers who love to combine scenery-hunting with local cultural experiences. It features a mixture of city exploration and outdoor activity, and includes recommendations on where to stay and places to eat.
The itinerary is based on our own travels as a couple in Chile. We’ve spent time in all the places highlighted in this article. For information about us, read more here.
Our route begins in San Pedro de Atacama, the most popular entry point to Chile for backpackers arriving from Bolivia. Our exit point is Santiago, the capital city, located in the country’s central region. This route works well for anyone who is looking to fit some of the highlights of Chile into a longer trip through South America, which is what we did.
The itinerary has plenty of flexibility and is geared towards people who prefer not to rush from one destination to the next. For the faster traveller, it would be possible to squeeze this route into ten days, or even less. We like to take our time!
For anyone who is looking to explore further south than Santiago, I’ve included some additional ideas at the end of the article.
What is the budget for this Chile itinerary?
We travel on a mid-range budget, which is reflected in the composition of this itinerary. If you’re looking to get the most out of your time in Chile without spending a fortune, then you’re in the right place.
We travelled for 23 days in Chile ourselves in total. During this time, we spent approximately GBP £2,000 / USD $2,500 between two of us. Note this was pre-pandemic, and prices will now be a little higher with inflation. You can read a full breakdown of our Chile spending here.
Based on our experiences, for this 14-day route I would recommend a budget of around GBP £1,600 / USD $2,000 for two people. This covers domestic transport (but not flights in/out), accommodation, food and drink, and activities. If you want to take some of the additional tours we suggest, then you may need to allow a little more.
When is the best time to visit Chile?
Chile is a country of vast distances and geographic extremes, and so there is no definitive answer to the best time to visit. It depends greatly on the places in your itinerary.
Summer in Chile is between December and February, while winter falls between June and August. The further south you travel in the country, the more extreme the seasonal conditions become. Patagonia, in the far south, is not conducive for travel in winter, with most attractions closed (read our guide here on the best times to visit the region).
In the country’s central region, where cities like Santiago and Valparaíso are located, the seasonal weather is less pronounced. Summer is a very busy time, so if you prefer to avoid the crowds then spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) are good options.
The Atacama Desert, where our itinerary begins, is great to visit all year round. The temperature stays very similar throughout the calendar.
Transport in Chile
Chile has a very well developed road network. For backpackers on a limited budget, buses are a great way to get around. There are many bus companies that offer comfortable, safe and reliable services. Busbud is a very useful online platform for finding services and booking tickets.
Travelling by bus between destinations does involved some long distances, however. As an example, the journey between San Pedro de Atacama to La Serena in this itinerary takes around 17 hours.
Flying provides a quicker, albeit much more expensive, option. If you have limited time or plan to travel to the extreme ends of the country, than you may want to consider it. Skyscanner is a great tool for finding the cheapest flights available. If you book in advance, you can get flights between Santiago and La Serena for as little as USD $25.
For more information, this article by Rough Guides has some excellent detail on how to get around Chile.
Travel insurance for Chile
While it’s not likely you will come to any harm in Chile, we highly recommend investing in some travel insurance. Having that peace of mind enables you to relax and enjoy the trip knowing you are covered if anything does happen to go wrong.
We recommend using World Nomads for travel insurance. Their packages are perfect for backpackers, and they offer tailored options for adventure activities too. The team are great to deal with, which you’ll be glad for if the need to contact them arises.
What to know before you go
Chile is very welcoming to international travellers and is generally very safe and easy to get around. It’s also a unique and intriguing country with many nuances about it – see these really cool facts about Chile and you’ll see what I mean!
Like any country, Chile it has its quirks – and so there are a few useful things to know before you travel:
- Chile’s currency is the Chilean peso. Find the latest exchange rates at xe.com.
- Most ATMs in Chile charge a withdrawal fee. During our visit pre-pandemic there were a small number of banks in major cities that gave no-fee withdrawals; however, our latest information is that this is no longer the case. Withdraw the maximum possible amount at ATMs (as long as you will spend it all during your trip) to minimise the impact of these charges.
- The Global Peace Index ranks Chile as the safest country in South America. As a traveller, however, it’s still important to be aware of petty crime that exists. This article by WikiTravel compiles the most common tourist scams in Chile.
- Tap water is safe to drink in most of Chile. The northern region of the country is an exception, which includes San Pedro de Atacama. When travelling here it’s best to buy bottled water.
- Chile is located along a major plate boundary, and so earthquakes are frequent throughout the country. Here’s some advice by Trip Savvy on what to do if you find yourself in an earthquake.
- Chile has strict border control for agricultural products. When entering the country, make sure you are not carrying and fresh produce such as fruit or vegetables.
- Spanish is the national language in Chile, and is spoken by over 99% of inhabitants. However, Chilean Spanish is known for being very difficult for non-natives to understand. It is spoken fast and with varying regional dialects.
Slang words for your Chilean Spanish vocabulary
Chilean Spanish has its own unique set of vocabulary. Here are a few words and phrases that you may find useful during your trip:
- Huevón/wéon: term of insult (stupid person), but can also be used as an affectionate term for a friend
- Bacán: awesome/great
- Luca: a thousand pesos
- Taco: traffic
- Chela: beer
- Pucho: cigarette
- Carrete: party
- Caña: hangover
For more resources, check out this helpful guide to common Spanish phrases by On My Canvas, created after the author Priyanka Gupta learned the language while travelling in Chile.
Chile itinerary: two weeks
This itinerary begins in San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Many travellers arrive here at the end of tours to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the world’s largest salt flat.
Our route travels via the Elqui Valley to the capital Santiago, and finally to the artistic port city Valparaíso before returning to Santiago.
Two-week Chile itinerary: the route in brief
Here is the route at-a-glance. Read on below for more details on how you can spend your time in each location:
- Day 1: San Pedro de Atacama | arrive and relax
- Day 2: San Pedro de Atacama | cycling exploration and stargazing tour
- Day 3: San Pedro de Atacama | Meteorite Museum and Valle de la Luna
- Day 4: San Pedro de Atacama | preparation for overnight journey
- Day 5: Elqui Valley | unwind with a pisco tasting experience
- Day 6: Elqui Valley | day hike and stargazing tour
- Day 7: Elqui Valley | travel to Santiago
- Day 8: Santiago | walking tour and Cerro San Cristóbal
- Day 9: Santiago | museum day
- Day 10: Santiago | city exploration or Maipo Valley wine tour
- Day 11: Valparaíso | walking tour
- Day 12: Valparaíso | offbeat tour and street art discovery
- Day 13: Valparaíso | day trip to Viña del Mar
- Day 14: return to Santiago
Stop 1: San Pedro de Atacama
The Atacama Desert is the world’s driest desert. The region is famous for its incredible night skies, and is ranked among the world’s premium locations for stargazing.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is situated in one of the most scenic spots of the desert region. Volcanoes line the nearby horizon, and not far away you will find salt flats, geysers and riddles of ancient rocks.
We loved the town’s relaxed vibe. It’s a great place to stop for a few days and explore at a slow pace. Below are our ideas for a three-night stay at the beginning of this itinerary. For more, read our article on things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
Day 1: arrive and unwind
If you are arriving in San Pedro de Atacama at the end of a multi-day tour of Salar de Uyuni from Bolivia, you’ll probably want to slow down for a while. Once you’re settled into your accommodation, take a stroll around the small town and get to know it.
Plaza de San Pedro de Atacama, a central park and gardens, is a useful navigation point for exploring. One block south of the plaza, the main road Calle Caracoles is lined with shops, restaurants and tour agencies.
Day 2: bicycle exploration and stargazing tour
One of the best and cheapest ways to explore the landscape around San Pedro de Atacama is to hire a bicycle. This option gave us an active and enjoyable day out on a budget. Bike hire in the town is around 7,000–8,000 Chilean pesos (8–9 US dollars).
There are several bicycle hire services around the town centre. We found a good one on Calle Toconao, a few metres down from its junction with Calle Caracoles. Remember to bring a pack-up of food and plenty of water.
A good place to head to first is Pukara de Quitor, an interesting archaeological site about three kilometres’ ride from the town centre. It’s located on a small hill that doubles up as a fantastic vantage point for seeing the surrounding desert. There is a small site entry fee of around 3,000 Chilean pesos / USD $3.
Next, make for Valle de la Muerte, a nearby valley of jagged rocks and gigantic sand dunes. After paying the entry fee (around 5,000 Chilean pesos / USD $6), follow the steady uphill track until you reach a bike rack. From here you can walk up to a stunning valley viewpoint. For adventure junkies, this is also a very popular spot to try sandboarding.
It would be a travesty to visit San Pedro de Atacama without taking advantage of the amazing stargazing opportunities. Take time to browse the tour companies on Calle Caracoles for a good deal, and also check if your accommodation offers any. Alternatively, to make sure you get a space, you can book an astronomical tour in advance on GetYourGuide with free cancellation.
Make sure you check the moon phases before you visit – the stargazing tours don’t run during full moon. Moon Giant is a very useful tool for this.
Day 3: Meteorite Museum and Valle de la Luna
Allow yourself a morning lie-in after getting in late from your stargazing tour. After lunch, pay a visit to San Pedro de Atacama’s one-of-a-kind Meteorite Museum.
For an entry fee of around 4,000 Chilean pesos / USD $4.50, you can see and touch specimens of rock from outer space, some of which are billions of years old. The staff are a team of friendly astro-enthusiasts who will be happy to show you around and add some insights. In the museum shop, afterwards, you can buy meteorite gemstones.
Later in the day, take the chance to experience the sunset at Valle de la Luna. While it’s possible to reach by bicycle, we decided to take an organised tour. Tours to the valley include exploration of ancient caves and famous local rock formations. The highlight, though, is undoubtedly the reddened view across the desert as dusk falls.
Day 4: take it easy and set off for the Elqui Valley
The journey from San Pedro de Atacama to our next destination, the mountain village of Pisco Elqui, is a long one. First, you need to take a bus to the city of Calama, which takes around 90 minutes.
From Calama, take the overnight bus to La Serena. This journey is approximately 15 hours. While services run several times a day, it’s a good option to leave Calama at around 6pm and arrive at La Serena around 9am the next day. From there, you can take a local bus to Pisco Elqui. Services leave every hour and take around 2.5 hours.
Before the journey, you will have a few spare hours to enjoy San Pedro and prepare for the overnight bus. Check out our guide to taking overnight buses like a pro.
To the north-east of the San Pedro de Atacama town centre, on the cross-section of Avenida del Inca and Las Parinas, there’s an excellent local market where you can grab some lunch and stock up for the journey. You’ll also find many small shops and bakeries around the town that sell delicious empanadas.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama
We stayed at Backpackers San Pedro, an awesome little hostel on the outskirts of town. We loved this place so much we extended our stay by two nights. It has an outdoor bar, where the staff get a campfire going every night, creating a brilliant social atmosphere. The facilities in general were excellent too, with two large and fully equipped kitchens, hot showers, and an on-site laundry service. You can book a stay at Backpackers San Pedro here.
Our favourite place to eat in San Pedro de Atacama
For the most part, we made our own food in San Pedro de Atacama, shopping at the local markets and utilising the excellent kitchen facilities at our hostel. But we did treat ourselves to a meal one night at Pizza El Charrua. Not local cuisine of course, but we got a great pizza for a very reasonable price.
Stop 2: Elqui Valley
The Elqui Valley in Chile’s Coquimbo region is another world-class spot for stargazing. In 2015, it was the first place on the planet to be designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. The region has plenty to offer in the daytime too, with luscious valley pathways to explore, and a legendary tradition for wine and pisco production.
The village of Pisco Elqui at the heart of the valley is the ideal base for exploring it. Read more in our article about Pisco Elqui and the Elqui Valley.
Day 5: get settled in Pisco Elqui and go pisco tasting
After the long overnight journey from San Pedro de Atacama, via Calama and La Serena, you should have several hours of the day left to relax and recharge.
We usually find that it helps to do something active after an overnighter like this. The village is very pleasant to walk around. At its centre you will find Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a church with green gardens and benches. There is a small handicraft fair and some other shops and restaurants on the main road that passes through.
Pisco Elqui was renamed in 1936 to reinforce Chile’s ownership rights to the national drink, pisco. In the village you can take a pisco tasting and discovery tour at Destileria Pisco Mistral. This might just be the perfect activity to welcome you to the valley.
Day 6: day hike and stargazing tour
With a full day at your disposal, hiking self-guided from Pisco Elqui is a cheap and fulfilling way to explore the valley. A fabulous viewpoint is reachable within a few kilometres to the west of the village, with the trail beginning at the end of Calle Baquedano.
If you are willing to part with some cash, there are other options for filling a free day in the Elqui Valley. Tour companies such as Turismo Migrantes offer horseback riding, guided mountain trekking in the Elqui Valley, observatory tours and other activities.
We took a stargazing tour at night with Turismo Migrantes, which was a bargain. Our knowledgeable guide took us to an elevated spot near the village, and set up a campfire and a powerful telescope. We sipped pisco sour cocktails and marvelled at the blanket of stars in the sky as he gave insights into the celestial bodies and constellations.
Day 7: travel to Santiago
The journey from Pisco Elqui to the capital city Santiago takes a full day. After taking the local bus back down to La Serena, the bus onwards to Santiago takes six to seven hours. Several services cover this route every day; you can find the best value La Serena to Santiago bus services on Busbud.
Where to stay in Pisco Elqui
The ultimate way to experience the night skies of the Elqui Valley to the maximum is to go camping. The village has gained a reputation for its social, community atmosphere, and its campsites are an example of this. The two best options in Pisco Elqui are Camping Refugio Del Angel, a tranquil spot by the river, and Camping Rancho Rodriguez, more renowned for campfires and outdoor drinking.
We opted to stay in a hostel, and had a great experience at Hostal Doña Ema. It’s run by a man called Luis and his family, who are very welcoming and always happy to provide useful local information. You can book Hostal Doña Ema here.
Our favourite place to eat in Pisco Elqui
Similarly to San Pedro de Atacama, we mostly made our own food in Pisco Elqui using the hostel kitchen facilities. One night, however, we did find a great local spot called Rustika Restobar. While the food wasn’t anything special, the atmosphere would bring us back to this place again and again. In a large outdoor section campfires burned late into the night as a local band played rock n’ roll tunes.
Stop 3: Santiago
Santiago is one of the great cities of South America. Built in a valley basin at the foot of the Andes mountains, the city is a cauldron of activity. Its metropolitan area is home to 40% of Chile’s population.
Santiago is Chile’s commercial and political nucleus. In the 1970s and 1980s it was centre stage to the events of General Pinochet’s military dictatorship, a period that remains strongly divisive in the country. But the days of violence are gone, and replaced with a spirit of openness.
On the streets of Santiago you will find some of South America’s best museums, architecture, local markets and nightlife. For more inspiration, read our article on the best things to do in Santiago, Chile.
Day 8: take a walking tour and climb Cerro San Cristóbal
The phenomenon of free city walking tours has spread from Europe around the world. Chile, and in particular Santiago, has some of the best you will find anywhere.
We took the Santiago highlights tour with Tours 4 Tips, which covered the central city landmarks and gave us a background to the recent historical events. The guides are mostly local students who have grown up in the aftermath of the military dictatorship.
Santiago is outstandingly picturesque from above. The best spot to admire the view is at the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, a hill to the north of the city centre.
The 14-metre-high Virgin Mary Statue looks over the city from the summit, from where you can see the city skyline against a backdrop of mountains and valleys. It takes about an hour to walk up the hill from the city centre, with an elevation gain of 300 metres.
Day 9: explore the museums at Quinta Normal Park
Many of Santiago’s excellent museums are clustered together in a large park some three kilometres west of the main city square. Quinta Normal Park is located in the district of the same, and is easily reachable on the metro system.
The park itself is beautifully cultivated, filled with waterways, fountains and lush greenery. The museums in its grounds include the National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Technology, and the Railway Museum.
In our opinion, Santiago’s very best museum is to be found just outside the park. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights tells the story of the 1973 military coup and subsequent events, charting the path to the return of democracy. It’s a stirring story that is told through several floors of exhibits, media, artefacts and artwork.
Day 10: free day to explore the city / wine tour
For many people, one day is not enough to work through Santiago’s museums. Even if you explored Quinta Normal Park thoroughly in a day, there are many more museums around the city centre. These include the National Museum of History, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and the Museum of Fine Arts.
For a slice of history and a viewpoint that’s easier to reach than Cerro San Cristóbal, head to Cerro Santa Lucia in the city centre. This hill-park is free to enter and features the historic castle of Castillo Hidalgo.
If you’re suffering museum fatigue, another option is to take a tour out to the nearby Maipo Valley, one of the foremost wine regions of Chile. This article by Earth Trekkers explains how you can reach the Maipo Valley and visit wineries independently. If you’d rather cut out the logistics and hassle, you could instead book a Maipo Valley day trip from Santiago.
Where to stay in Santiago
We stayed at Ají Hostel in the Providencia district of Santiago, near the city centre. The facilities provided all we needed for our stay, and the location was ideal for exploring the city. A highlight here was free dinner served every night!
Our favourite place to eat in Santiago
Santiago is home to the legendary Chilean eatery that is Fuente Alemana. Try one of the meaty sandwiches at lunchtime with locals huddled on seating around a sizzling kitchen area. Read more about Fuente Alemana in my article about our own experience here.
Stop 4: Valparaíso
It’s no exaggeration to say that Valparaíso is one of the world’s most colourful cities. Once a thriving Pacific port, in recent years it has reimagined itself as a hotbed of street art and creativity scattered across 43 separate hill neighbourhoods.
The street art scene in Valparaíso grew underground during the military dictatorship, when political expression was suppressed. Today, in stark contrast, the city is the only place in Chile where street art is legal. Read more in our articles on Valparaíso street art. and things to do in Valparaíso, Chile.
Days 11–12: walking tours and street art discovery
Valparaíso is easily accessible from Santiago via a bus journey of less than two hours, with several services running every day.
The Tours 4 Tips team run two tours in Valparaíso. The ‘highlights’ tour covers the city’s most famous landmarks, while the ‘offbeat’ tour takes a deeper look into politics, history and local art. Arriving midday from Santiago sets up the timing perfectly to take both tours: the highlights tour at 3pm, and then the offbeat tour at 10am the next day.
After taking the tours, you will have a clear sense of direction around the city to explore it on your own terms. Dazzling street art murals lurk around every corner. Take a camera around for an afternoon and see what you can find.
For a slightly different local flavour, check out Caleta Portales, a fish market on the seafront. From 7am each day you can compete with the crowds to buy the best fresh catches, or come back at lunch and try one of the restaurants.
Day 13: day trip to Viña del Mar
From Valparaíso you can take a bus nine kilometres up the coast to Viña del Mar, also known as ‘the Garden City’. It’s a far more polished city than Valparaíso, albeit most would say with less character. Still, it makes for a good day trip to visit its parks, beaches and grandiose buildings.
If you’re still up for another walking tour, the guys at Tours 4 Tips run Viña del Mar highlights at 3pm every day.
Day 14: return to Santiago
On the final day, head back to Santiago on the bus from Valparaíso. Take the opportunity to check out any of the sights or attractions you might’ve missed a few days earlier.
Tip: if you happen to be in Santiago on a Sunday, many kilometres of the city streets are closed to make way for cyclists. See Contact Chile for bicycle hire options in Santiago.
Where to stay in Valparaíso
Read our full guide to where to stay in Valparaíso for a range of different budget options.
We stayed at Casa Volante Hostal, superbly located close to the main square, Plaza Sotomayor. It was also an easy walk to the popular hills of Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre. The hostel itself was excellent, with a good kitchen and social space, spacious dorm rooms, strong wifi, good showers, and helpful, attentive staff.
Our favourite place to eat in Valparaíso
Cerro Alegre has a vast choice of restaurants to enjoy local cuisine with a scenic hill view. Our favourite was Almacén Nacional. Try the ceviche (made with fresh local fish) and a bottle of Chilean red.
More ideas for your Chile itinerary
This itinerary only covers a fraction of Chile. It would be impossible to witness all of the country’s beauty in just two weeks. If you have time to venture further south to the Chilean Lake District and beyond to Patagonia, you will witness the country’s most impressive natural spectacles. The following are a few examples.
Pucón is located at the heart of Chile’s Lake District. The town is distinguished by the iconic Villarrica Volcano that towers above it. This is a hotspot for outdoor activity, in particular watersports on Lake Villarrica, hiking in the surrounding terrains, and skiing and snowboarding in winter. You can even take a day hike to the top of the volcano.
Carretera Austral is one of the world’s greatest road trips. The road begins at Puerto Montt and journeys south into Patagonia, ending at Villa O’Higgins. The 1,600-kilometre route weaves through stunning landscapes of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers and much more besides.
Torres Del Paine
The W Trek in Torres Del Paine National Park is a world-famous multi-day hiking trail. We took on the route as hiking novices; check out our guide to see how you can do the same. The park is perhaps Chile’s most pictured location, featuring the famous towers of Las Torres and the gigantic Grey Glacier.
The Chilean fjords
Yet further south, Chilean Patagonia is a maze of fjords that are home to the country’s most untouched wilderness. Taking a cruise through this region doesn’t come cheap, but for many it would be the trip of a lifetime. From the southern port city of Punta Arenas, fjord cruises explore the hidden bays, capes and waterways at the end of the world.
If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, see our complete Patagonia itinerary and travel guide for detailed information.
Have you been to Chile and have a story to share? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.
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