Inland from Chile’s second oldest city of La Serena stark mountains enclose the Elqui valley, unfolding into the Andes. The slopes are barren and bone dry but the valley floor is carpeted in the emerald green vines of pisco grapes (to make Chile’s classic brandy). This fertile oasis just south of the Atacama desert is not only the place for pisco tasting – major brands such as Mistral offer distillery tours here – but also a hub for stargazing with a half-dozen observatories and an increasing number of hotels. Most facilities are in and around the adobe village of Pisco Elqui where inky skies abound.
Getting there Pisco Elqui is 100km east of La Serena. Buses leave every half hour during the day from the Terminal De Buses in La Serena (£3.50) and pass by the airport en route to Elqui Valley.
Cajón del Maipo, the Andes
The mountains that tower above Santiago are among the highest of the Andes (Tupungato, 50 miles east of the city, rises to 6,500 metres) and you can travel into them by driving up the Camino al Volcán, alongside the Maipo river up to Cajón del Maipo. Santiaguinos flock to this Andean playground each weekend seeking high adventure, yet most foreigners simply zip in and out on half-day rafting tours from the capital. Stick around for a while and you can camp by the river, hike to San Francisco glacier, cycle to the geothermal baths of Baños Morales, or even ski down the side of a mountain (June-August) at the affordable resort: Lagunillas (lift tickets from £18).
Getting there Metrobus 72 runs from the Bellavista la Florida metro station in Santiago up to San José de Maipo (year-round) or Baños Morales (Jan-March) for £9.50. Private buses depart from Baquedano metro station on weekends.
Central valley’s parks, waterfalls and pools
Getting there Siete Tazas is 160 miles south of Santiago by car, mostly along the paved Pan-American Highway (until the final 45km). It’s also possible to take the bus from Universidad de Santiaga to Molina (three hours, £3) and from there a bus to Radal Siete Tazas. It’s £5 to enter the park, but an overnight stay at Valle de las Catas in a tent (£8) or cabin (£53) means the entrance fee is included.
Cobquecura and Buchupureo coastline
Getting there Buses Nilahue runs daily trips from Santiago’s Terminal Sur to Cobquecura (£12). Departure is at 3.50pm and the journey lasts seven hours. Regular buses link Cobquecura with Buchupureo 13km away.
Lago Budi, La Araucanía
In a forgotten corner of Chile’s La Araucanía region lies Lago Budi, a saltwater lagoon formed after the devastating Valdivia earthquake and tsunami of 1960 (the most powerful tremor ever recorded). Its shores are populated by Chile’s largest surviving indigenous group, the Mapuche, and several families have recently transformed this serene spot into a unique “ethno-tourism” destination where visitors can sleep in traditional ruka homes, work hand-in-hand with local craftspeople and eat hearty Mapuche foods such as milcao (grated potato patties) and harina tostada (toasted wheat flour).
Getting there Two hours west of the regional capital of Temuco (by bus or car), you can either visit Lago Budi on your own or choose one of seven circuit tours offered by the community (available in English or Spanish).
Conguillío national park
With a vast forest of ancient araucaria (monkey puzzle) trees, Conguillío national park is one of the last places on earth that looks as it did when dinosaurs roamed the planet. That’s why the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs put many of its computer-generated creations against the backdrop of Conguillío’s “living fossils”, which date to the mesozoic age. These umbrella-like evergreens jut out from the Andean foothills in all directions, creating a surreal terrain befitting of a long-lost era. The park’s true showstopper, however, is the 3,000-metre Llaima volcano, a conical peak whose last major eruption in 2009 left behind a stark, lava-scarred landscape.
Getting there Drive to the southern entrance of Conguillío, 110km from Temuco, to approach via the service town of Melipeuco on roads that don’t require 4WD. Alternatively, Nar Bus (£2.50) leaves Temuco daily at 6.45am for Melipeuco, where the tourism office can arrange a taxi onward into the park.
Getting there Pucón is 100km away from the regional capital of Temuco by car or bus (£2; departures at 8am). Termas Geométricas (entry £16) is two hours further by car or tour (arranged in Pucón) to the southern entrance of Villarrica national park.
Caleta Cóndor beach
Chile boasts a staggering 4,270km of coastline, yet has precious few beaches worthy of a transatlantic journey. Caleta Cóndor is an exception. This bone-white beach is hidden in an indigenous reserve of the Huilliche community who, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, have been developing tourism infrastructure along a spectacular stretch of Pacific coastline. Tourism is still nascent here and homestays are the only real alternative to camping. Each February the area plays host to one of the world’s most remote arts festivals, Festival Nomade, which draws free-thinkers from near and far.
Getting there Regular minibuses connect the regional city of Osorno with Bahía Mansa (£2), where you can book an early morning boat to Caleta Condor (£215 a boat, split among the passengers). If that’s too dear, swap the two-hour boat ride for a two-day hike.
Chilean Lake District
Getting there Book a cabin or lodge with Chile Turismo Rural and hosts will pick you up from the pier at Petrohue, two hours away from the tourist town of Puerto Varas by public bus (£3).
Getting there Park headquarters are in Quellón, which receives regular buses from Chiloé’s main city of Castro (£2.50). Transport into and out of Tantauco can prove tricky on your own (and may involve a ferry, depending on your destination). Chiloe Natural runs a number of multi-day backpacking trips through the park with English-speaking guides.
• Starting today (3 January, 2017), British Airways is flying direct to Santiago from Heathrow four times a week, from £680 return
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