Chile is filled with numerous cultural spots well worth exploring — too numerous to name here. While the “best” or “most exciting” places vary according to personal interests, here are ten affordable destinations highly recommended by someone who has lived and traveled all over this amazing country (yours truly). In order from the farthest north to the southernmost spot, here are my recommendations for ten places to visit while you’re studying abroad in Chile.
1. Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
This UNESCO heritage site, located 30 miles from Iquique in the Atacama Desert, consists of two nitrate mining centers that used to thrive, but are now abandoned. Miners were not only Chileans, but also neighboring Bolivians and Peruvians. The hostile work environment in the remote desert created a unique communal Pampino culture. Both towns are now museums rich in history in what was once the largest deposit of saltpeter in the world.
2. San Pedro De Atacama
In the middle of the Atacama Desert, this oasis is one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations. There are various ways to learn about the Atacameño culture here. These include: breathtaking landscapes in the remote Altiplanic Lagoons; Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna), which got its name because it looks like the surface of the moon; geysers at Geiser del Taito, and the Pukara de Quitor Ruins. Visitors can walk through a salt cavern and try sandboarding.
3. La Serena
Home to the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Gabriela Mistral, the coastal town of La Serena is the second-oldest city in Chile. Tourists flock to the nearby Elqui Valley (Valle de Elqui) to learn more about Mistral, as well as the local culture and production of the regional liquor Pisco. Visitors can observe the stars from some of the world’s clearest skies in one of the many international observatories. They also enjoy visiting Isla Dama for its penguin and dolphin sightings.
Unlike any other port city in Chile, this one is exceptionally bohemian and picturesque. The historic quarter of the seaport city was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2003. It was once also home to the famous poet, diplomat, and politician Pablo Neruda, whose house is now an eccentric museum. Improvised colorful houses built on the dozens of steep hillsides in the city, along with the system of funicular elevators, make this striking improvised urban planning a photographer’s dream.
One of the poorest cities in the nation, the first worker’s union in Chile was established here. The Chiflón Mine (Mina Chiflón del Diablo) closed in the late 1970s, but can be visited by taking a tour with a former miner as the guide. His personal stories about the men and children who worked in these horrid conditions, as well as the lifestyles of the girls and women who also lived in the community, are unforgettable. The surrounding park and museum are also worth a visit.
Located in southern Chile and home to largest indigenous population in Chile, the Mapuche people play a large role in Chilean history. In the past they resisted Spanish conquistadors for 300 years, and in the present society they fight for the acknowledgement of their territories and their culture. Get to know the culture and their language, Mapudugun, by visiting a traditional Mapuche community and learning about their customs such as jewelry making, clothing, and cooking.
Known for its colonial Spanish past and more recent German influence, the city is located at the confluence of the Calle-Calle, Validivia, and Cau-Cau Rivers, approximately 10 miles east of the coast. It is also home to the Universidad Austral de Chile, the Kunstmann Brewery, and famous annual bierfest. Explore the city, then take a public bus to nearby Niebla and Corral to visit what is left of the 17th-century Spanish fortresses and enjoy the lush Valdivian temperate rainforest.
8. Puerto Varas
Set on the shores of Llanquihue Lake with perfect cone of Volcano Osorno in the background, this place is a hotspot for tourists. Spectacular views and a large German influence can be seen in the people, the food, and the culture. There is much to see and do in the surrounding areas of this quaint town. Students can explore the small towns, go hiking, and fishing, or visit Pablo Fierro’s museum for some local cultural history.
9. Isla de Chiloé
Often described by Chileans as a mystical and magical place, this enchanting island has a culture of its own. Located off the coast of southern Chile in the Los Lagos Region, it is home to quite the diversity of marine fauna, along with lush flora and rolling hills. This island also contains the famous wooden churches of Chiloé, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chilotes take pride in their traditions and teaching others about them.
From Coyhaique to Puerto Williams, this southernmost region of Chile is simply stunning — containing out-of-this-world landscape at the bottom of the continent with glaciers, fjords, lakes, valleys, and wildlife. Visit one of the many national parks; learn about the unique Patagonian culture, and find out what it is like to live in the remote countryside where there are more livestock than people.