Into the wild: Getting off Chile’s backpacker trail

Want to escape the crowds? Here’s a list of alternative destinations in all the country’s major regions and landscapes, perfect for independent travelers.

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There are many spectacular “alternative destinations” in Chile that, while well known to Chileans, simply fall outside most of the traditional visitor itineraries.

Many do remain more difficult to access, even with Chile’s solid infrastructure—which is probably why they remain largely unvisited. But the chance to experience some of the world’s most beautiful scenery without following the crowds on the backpacker trail makes these undiscovered gems well worth the effort.

Running from north to south, the following itinerary takes you through most of Chile’s major regions and landscapes, giving a taste of the many lesser-known cities, towns and countryside that Chile has to offer. But this is just a starting point: the best way to find the real Chile is to ask. Deeply proud of their land and their heritage, Chileans almost always have a story to tell.

Putre: As the gateway to popular Parque Nacional Lauca, Putre is a slightly quieter northern sister to San Pedro de Atacama. While it’s not quite as far off the beaten track as some of our other suggestions, it makes a peaceful and less touristy base for exploring the Chilean altiplano.

Isluga Volcano National Park: At a lower altitude than Lauca, Parque Volcán Isluga also centers on a major volcano and contains a smattering of beautiful villages, home to the indigenous Aymara people. It’s less accessible than Lauca but can be reached by organized tour from popular cities Arica or Iquique. The closest town to the park entrance is Colchane.

La Tirana: Best known for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen in July, La Tirana is home to Chile’s most important religious devotional site, the Santuario de La Tirana. Visiting outside of July will find the town quiet, and other religious holidays attract pilgrims without the crowds of onlookers. The closest town is the mining town of Pozo Almonte, not far from Iquique.

Beaches in Pan de Azúcar National Park: This National Park along the Pacific coast is popular with Chileans and foreigners alike, but entering with a car and driving its long, sandy coast reveals secluded coves and empty beaches perfect for camping. Be aware that in the height of summer the sun can be strong and shade scarce.

Nevado Tres Cruces Park: Like its neighbors farther north, this park offers spectacular altiplano scenery, with some of the highest Andean mountains along the border with Argentina rising elegantly over brilliant blue lagoons. The road from Copiapó, the nearest city, passes between some of the region’s prosperous mines. No public transit comes this way, and the buses carrying miners from town to the mines won’t get you very far. Organizing a trip in Copiapó is probably your best bet.

Huasco Valley: Less dramatic than the Elqui Valley to the south, the quieter Huasco Valley offers similar attractions, from scrubby hills and mountains to rugged hiking trails, colonial and pre-Columbian ruins and even pisco, made at the town of Alto del Carmen. A new network of trails through the region aim at increasing tourism. For the moment the crowds haven’t caught up with the infrastructure, so this may just be the perfect opportunity. The city of Vallenar is the best jumping off point.

Coquimbo: The Valparaíso to La Serena’s Viña del Mar, Coquimbo is a bit grittier than its elegant sister up the coast, but its hilly cityscape of low-slung houses surmounted by a giant concrete cross have an authentically Chilean charm, and the bars of the Barrio Inglés are less glitzy than those lining La Serena’s beachfront. Coquimbo’s La Pampilla—an open field adjacent to the city center—also hosts the largest independence day party in Chile for a week in mid-September.

Santiago and Valparaíso: Whether you’re on or off the beaten track, all roads in Chile still lead to Santiago, and though the city is loaded with popular tourist spots, for each of these this rapidly-growing metropolis also houses an undiscovered gem. Looking for an old-fashioned bar to try a terremoto (a Chilean national drink)? Skip classic La Piojera and head to Wonder Bar just down the road. Looking for a meal in a traditional market? Never mind the Mercado Central, just cross the river to La Vega.

In Valparaíso, travelers flock to the sights around Cerros Concepción and Bellavista, but for an authentic taste of Chile’s cultural heart, just go for a wander along the alleys and stairways that line the hills. It doesn’t matter much where you end up. With views at every turn and picturesque houses tumbling down to the sea, hardy wanderers—particularly those with strong legs—will be amply rewarded.

Juan Fernandez Archipelago: Known as Robinson Crusoe Island, the main island of the archipelago is where Alexander Selkirk was famously stranded for four years and four months. Today, islanders on this rugged speck of land define their identities by a wild, pirate heritage, living from the fish and lobster drawn from the bountiful sea. Since the the tsunami that swept away the island’s infrastructure in February 2010, tourism has virtually ceased, but recent efforts by the Chilean government should revive the industry soon.

Isla Mocha: This miniscule island sits just off the coast from the town of Tirúa, about four hours south of Chile’s second largest city, Concepción. Pastoral and virtually without visitors, Isla Mocha can only be reached by charter plane from Concepción or by ferry from Tirúa. This is a perfect place for camping in the open, long, deserted (though cold) beaches and hikes through untouched hillside forests.

Temuco to Conguillío: Beginning in the dynamic food market in Temuco (not to be confused with the more tourist-targeted crafts market nearby), the road east to Conguillío National Park takes visitors through quiet towns, past Llaima Volcano, and by virtually unvisited lakes.

Cunco is the nearest town to a pair of particularly stunning lakes hidden in the green hills. Lago Colico, just south of Cunco, is virtually undeveloped, with one small marina on its northern shore. Just to the east, Lago Caburga is a posh holiday destination for some of Chile’s most important figures, including President Piñera and former President Bachelet. There is no public transit to either lake, but friendly locals will often stop for hitchhikers.

Chiloé: The main island of the Chiloé archipelago attracts its share of tourists, but from the port of Achao, fishermen run small ships out to tiny, forgotten islands like Isla Meulín, where farmers still live without electricity or running water, and turn out barrels of chicha manzana. This is the ideal place to step back in time.

Coyhaique and the Carretera Austral: The region of Aysén in northern Patagonia may be the most remote and least visited in the entire country. At its heart lies the regional capital of Coyhaique, easily reached by internal flights. But for those looking to explore the region more fully, the legendary Carretera Austral runs its full length. Alternatively, ferries sail from Puerto Montt and Chiloé to the region’s coastal ports at Chaitén and Puerto Chacabuco. From there, buses and cars ply roads to some of the region’s more major towns and sights, including General Carrera Lake, the largest in Chile.

Puerto Williams and the Dientes de Navarino: The southernmost town on earth is also the gateway to one of Patagonia’s best trekking routes. In the summer months the sun shines until almost 11pm on the craggy, sawtooth peaks of the Dientes de Navarino, or Teeth of Navarino. Here the mountains form stone amphitheaters around terraced, crystalline lakes connected through verdant hillsides by silver streams and waterfalls.

Without shelter or structures of any kind, this route takes hikers through truly untouched wilderness. To finish the five-day trek intact, don’t forget to bring tents, warm clothes and plenty of food. The best way to arrive in Puerto Williams is by water, sailing down the Beagle Channel between the rugged, glacier-capped peaks of the Darwin Range. This is truly the end of the earth.