Open road

Three memorable driving routes in Chile

From far north to south, Chile is full of beautiful landscapes and charming locations that are perfect for exploring behind the wheel.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011 Category: Tourism
The road from Iquique in Northern Chile. (Photo: magnusvk/Flickr) The road from Iquique in Northern Chile. (Photo: magnusvk/Flickr)

With a reliable road network and plenty of stunning scenery, Chile is a great destination for rewarding road trips. So strap yourself in and get ready to hit the road.

Here, This is Chile outlines three of our favorite motoring journeys.

Northern desert and altiplano: From the northern city of Arica, head south along the Panamericana Highway through the dry, desert landscape until you reach Route A35 which takes you east to the Codpa Valley. Here it's well worth stopping to take in the massive indigenous rock carvings of Ofragia before passing through the villages of Timar, Tignamar and Saxamar. From there, make your way to the main road heading west (Route 11) and begin the winding climb to the highland pre-Hispanic town of Putre. Situated 11,483 ft (3,500m) above sea level, it has fantastic views of the Tarapacá Volcano.

From Putre, continue along Route 11 past the tundra and altiplanic grass until you reach the Lauca National Park which boasts majestic views of the Parinacota, Pomerape and Guallatire volcanoes. The main road through the park takes you past lava fields, Lake Chungará and the town of Parinacota with its rustic colonial church. If you have time, stop to follow well-marked walking trails around the lakes or to the volcanic hot springs. Native wildlife in the park includes vicuñas, alpacas and over 140 bird species, making it a birdwatcher's dream as well. And once you're done exploring, just follow Route 11 back down to Arica.

Elqui Valley: Starting out from the coastal city of La Serena, head west past the airport on Route 41 into the Elqui Valley, following the signs to Vicuña. After driving past the lush green papaya plantations and vineyards, schedule a pit stop at the beautiful Puclaro Dam, nestled in the cactus studded hills not far from Vicuña. Set against the backdrop of snow capped mountains, the man-made lake offers a stunning view and a great chance to stretch your legs. Back in the car, continue winding your way through the valley past Vicuña, where you can stop for a tour at the Capel pisco distillery.

When you reach the town of Rivadavia, look out for the turn-off for Pisco Elqui. Here the valley becomes quite narrow and the road snakes along between the tall, dry peaks rising upwards on both sides of the road. There are plenty of opportunities to stop and take in the view along the way and  you can stock up on refreshments and local history in Monte Grande, the home town of Nobel Prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral, before arriving in Pisco Elqui, just 15 minutes down the road. It's best to do this drive in winter when there is a decent snowcap covering on the mountains - just make sure you bring a jacket. .

Carretera Austral: The northernmost stretch on Chile's world famous southern highway from Puerto Montt to the town of Chaitén takes you through a magical world of breathtaking fjords and virgin forests. A drive for nature lovers, this route includes some of southern Chile's most beautiful emerald landscapes and an interesting collection of German-style homes along the Chamiza River, which reflect the region's immigrant past.

The first major highlight along the Carretera Austral is the Alerce Andino National Park with its impressive collection of native larch, coihüe, lenga, mañío, tineo, canelo and tepa trees, some of which date back over three thousand years. It's a good idea to head into the park on foot to explore the Sargazos Lagoon tucked away beneath the towering Andes peaks.

From there, continue along the highway to Parque Pumalin, a private nature reserve established by North American environmentalist Douglas Tompkins in 1991. You can enter the reserve through the Hornopiren Park and from there, make your way by car ferry to Caleta Gonzalo where you will find cabins and walking trails. Back on the highway, enjoy the vistas of temperate rainforest as you make your way on to Chaitén.

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