Desert sand, winter snow
Winter in Chile: our top travel picks
While the Northern hemisphere heats up, Chile heads into its June-August winter season. Below is our list of the best vacation ideas for Chilean winter travel.
Thursday, May 05, 2011
Category: Top destinations
San Pedro de Atacama is the most popular destination in the desert, a picturesque adobe town surrounded by geysers, salt flats and lunar valleys.
Chile’s star attractions in the south may be less welcoming in winter weather, but as the off season begins a whole host of destinations open up for the imaginative visitor – some of them in unexpected places.
1. The Atacama
Second only to Torres del Paine in tourist appeal, the surreal landscapes of the driest desert on earth are the jewel of Chile’s far north. Blistering hot in the summer, the winter season brings mild daytime temperatures and cold desert nights.
San Pedro de Atacama is the most popular destination in the desert, a picturesque adobe town surrounded by geysers, salt flats and lunar valleys. Farther north, Parque Lauca near the Bolivian Border is home to Andean wildlife, volcanoes and crystalline lagoons. Lauca also experiences “Bolivian Winter” during high summer, with heavy fog and occasional snow, making winter an ideal time to visit the northernmost national park in Chile.
Comfortable long-haul buses make the 20 hour trip from Santiago to Calama (for San Pedro) and Arica (for Parque Lauca), but are best if you have time to break the journey with stops in cities like La Serena or Copiapó (near the stunning Parque Nevado Tres Cruzes, another great spot for Altiplano scenery). Alternatively, LAN Chile and Sky Airlines both offer reasonably priced flights from Santiago.
2. Easter Island
Because of its subtropical climate and isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island (also known as Isla Pascua or Rapa Nui) is mild year round. The months of July and August are the coldest all year, but average around 64º F (18º C), making this perfect weather for hiking and biking between the island’s archaeological sites. The winter months are also the driest, though rain can fall throughout the year here. For culture and history buffs now’s the time for Easter Island, though beach bums might prefer to wait for summer.
Due to its great distance from the Chilean mainland, Easter Island can only be reached by air, primarily leaving out of Santiago. Though flights can be quite costly, if you’re flexible with dates and check LAN and Sky airlines regularly, you might luck into a deal. Either way, a visit to the legendary Rapa Nui is worth the cost.
3. La Tirana
A town of well under 1,000 for most of the year, the Virgen del Carmen Festival in mid-July draws over 200,000 celebrants to pay homage to the patron saint of Chile, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The celebration demonstrates the most vibrant syncretic tradition of Andean Catholicism in the Baile Diablada, or “Devil’s Dance,” which has its origins in the Andean Pachamama, or mother earth, cult. Men in colorful, spiral-horned demon masks confront the forces of good led by the Archangel Michael, dancing to the pounding accompaniment of brass and percussion. If you happen to be in Chile in July, this is one of the can’t-miss events of the Chilean calendar year.
It’s easy to get to La Tirana from Iquique or Arica, particularly during the festival week when local transit increases to accommodate the many national and international visitors. Patience is a virtue during any festivals of this scale, so remember to plan a lot extra time to deal with crowds. It’s also a good idea to bring camping equipment like most of the other pilgrims as accommodations in town are virtually non-existent. Buses are available from Santiago to Iquique or Arica as are reasonable internal flights.
Frankly, the city of Santiago isn’t at its most beautiful during the winter months – trees are bare, skies cloudy, the smog heavier, and the temperatures raw. But when rain falls over Santiago, snow falls over the Andes, bringing the world-class ski resorts on Santiago’s doorstep to life.
Under two hours from downtown Santiago, some of the largest ski centers in the southern hemisphere are also the easiest to reach. A stunning introduction to Chile’s majestic mountain ranges, resorts like El Colorado, La Parva and Valle Nevado offer trails for all levels of skiers, and though swarmed with weekending Santiaguinos, are rarely crowded midweek, even at high season.
Several ski agencies offer door-to-door day trip services, picking you up early morning at your hotel, transporting you to a rental center to get any equipment you might need, and returning you in the evening from the resort. Ski Ahorro, Skitotal, and Skivan are among the companies offering this type of service.
5. Lake Villarrica
In the lush, rainy south, Lake Villarrica is best known for Pucón, the center of Chilean adventure tourism, and one of the key stops on the backpacker trail that runs from San Pedro in the north to Torres del Paine in the south. While the lake, and its towns and volcano, can be intolerably crowded in the summer months, the winter weather keeps them away from May through September. Little do they know that, with the crowds thinned out and some wonderful cool weather attractions, Pucón and Villarrica may just be at their best in the winter. Hit the slopes on the Volcano’s snow-capped cone at Ski Pucón, or enjoy peace and quiet under a steady drizzle in sizzling hot springs. This is the Chilean lake district as few visitors get to see it: peaceful, calm, and cozy.
The easiest way to arrive in Villarrica or Pucón is by overnight bus. Major bus companies make the trip daily in about 10 hours. The ski resort is only 20 minutes from the town of Pucón. Several options exist for hot springs, including Termas Huife, Menetúe and San Luis.