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Chile, the long, gangly country that brushes the southern Pacific coast of South America, has officially been discovered. Now competing with other countries like Argentina and Brazil for tourism dominance over the continent, adventurers from all over the world are flocking to Chile, and it’s easy to see why. Because of its long geographical reach, the country has one of the most incredibly diverse natural landscapes in the world. From arid deserts in the north, to the mystical peaks of Patagonia down south, and lakes, volcanoes, coastline, forests, and everything else in between, the country is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts and those who appreciate the beauty in wild things.
With all this attention focused on the natural elements of Chile, the urban landscapes can often be overlooked. That said, the cities in Chile are just as worthwhile visiting. With people famous for practicing the slow-paced and cheerful buena onda (good vibes) and metropolises that intertwine with the outdoors, Chilean cities are welcoming to all types of travelers. Below, we spend some time in our favorite ten cities in Chile.
Beachside Art and Quirkiness in Valparaíso
Originally a bastion for grit and hard-work down at the city’s ever-busy docks, Valparaíso has harnessed this maritime tradition and simultaneously grown with the creative influence of the many artists attracted to the city. One of those, acclaimed poet Pablo Neruda, summed up the seaside town: “Valparaíso what an absurdity you are, what a crazy insane port. Your mounded head disheveled, you never finish combing your hair. Life has always surprised you.” Always colorful, sometimes dilapidated, never boring, Valparaíso should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Santiago The Booming Capital
To the common traveler, perhaps the only recognizable city in Chile is the capital and largest city, Santiago. In fact, many people in Santiago seem to have not realized that their city has grown to into the fourth largest city in all of South America. With this explosion has come the introduction of fine dining, towering five star hotels, and plenty of culture from museums to beer halls. Because this emergence is still new to Chileans, Santiago still has friendly locals, green parks with stunning views, and neighborhoods that feel small, despite the city containing about one half of the country’s population.
San Pedro de Atacama: A Desert Oasis
Northern Chile’s biggest draw is the Atacama Desert. Due to being the most visited town within the desert, San Pedro has become a popular tourist destination. With that has come the arrival of tour companies at every street corner. Prices may be higher than what they used to be but the tourist economy makes it easy for travelers to experience some of the most otherworldly sights on the planet. Guides are ready to shepherd visitors to nearby locations like Chile’s largest salt flat, volcanoes, and geysers.
Pucón: An Adventure Traveler’s Dream
Having earned the reputation for being the adventure capital of Chile, and perhaps all of South America, Pucón, although it has the appearance of a secret oasis, is one of the top destinations in the country. Situated on the shores of the pleasant Lago Villarrica, and under the shadows of the Villarrica volcano, Pucón’s location makes it ideal for whitewater rafting, snowboarding, mountaineering, and other activities guaranteed to get adrenaline going. Expect to hear just about every language imaginable here, as it’s a haven for expats, evident by the many hostel and vegetarian options in town.
Chile’s Island Living in Castro
Descending south, right where Chile’s coastline appears to start dissolving is a large island called Chiloé, and Castro is the biggest city on the island. Its many waterfront buildings, known as palafitos, give Castro an easily recognizable façade being extremely colorful and built on stilts above the water. The Chilote culture is known in Chile for being unique and is truly on display in Castro. An important piece of this culture is the local cuisine, which is offered up to the visitors via the growing restaurant business.
Beach Resorts of Viña del Mar
Valparaíso’s neighbor to the north, and only an hour and a half from Santiago, Viña del Mar began as a suburb but has since expanded into its own entity, a thriving beachside resort town. Simply called Viña by the local population, it’s a great place to relax. For a different speed, visitors can turn away from the water and explore the town’s gardens, historic buildings, and museums. Specific places to go in Viña include Wulff Castle, a seaside fortress with mini-golf architectural vibes, Nacional Viña del Mar Botanical Gardens, and the museum and amphitheater at Quinta Vergara.
Rapa Nui: Worth the Trip
Get your traveling shoes on for this one. Why? Because Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, is just about 2,300 miles away from mainland Chile. While the culture, people, and scenery on Rapa Nui may not feel Chilean, the island still very much belongs to the South American country. Possessing an oddly magical vibe because of its remoteness, this mystery is continued through the island’s most famous talking points — the stone head statues built by the Moai people. While hanging out on one of the many beaches and pondering the origins and purposes of these heads is perfectly acceptable, others can choose to go horseback riding, biking, or snorkeling.
Lakes, Volcanoes, and Adventure in Puerto Varas
If the tour packages, tourists, and the organic-juice-cleanse vibes of Pucón aren’t for you, head to Puerto Varas. Built on a lake, within the views of not one but two volcanoes (and plenty of adventure activities), Puerto Varas really does have everything Pucón does. Although without the same scale of popularity, Puerto Varas keeps its charming feel with European-styled architecture and quaint cafes.
Punta Arenas: At the End of the Earth
Once a town reserved for explorers and scoundrels, Punta Arenas has been opened up to people from all over the world and is experiencing a sharp economic incline. About as far south as anyone can go and settle amongst the Straight of Magellan, Punta Arenas makes a name for itself as a great jumping-off point for adventure due to its warm, mate-sipping people. With access to the stunning sights in Patagonia, Torre del Paine, and the new hiking route through Patagonia that connects 17 national parks, the city is still made for explorers — modern day ones that is. For wildlife encounters, travelers don’t need to venture as far as Patagonia as many penguin colonies call the area surrounding Punta Arenas ‘home’.
Pichilemu: Surfs Up
A new addition to the Chilean travel vernacular, Pichilemu, on the central coast, is quickly making a name for itself as a leading surf spot. When the conditions are prime, surfers take advantage of how perfect the point breaks are, with some people saying the rides here are the longest found in South America. For beginner groms, there are a number of surf schools to get standing in no time. Meanwhile, those who just want to hang out on the beach, rather than brave the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, will be pleased with the accommodation options, mostly laid-back, reasonably affordable surf hostels and lodges on the beach.