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The best road trips in Chile: From Patagonia to the Atacama Desert – Lonely Planet

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Diverse landscapes are Chile‘s best assets: rolling vineyards, dazzling lakes, deep fjords, and sprawling salt flats. To truly do them justice, we recommend a set of wheels.

Along the coast and through the Central Valley, roads are generally in tip-top shape. Yet there are no guarantees should you find yourself on the Altiplano in the north, or down south in Patagonia. Consider it part of the adventure. 

dramatic landscapes along a dirt road in Patagonia, Chile
Expect major landscape drama as you drive south to Patagonia ©Michael Branscum/Lonely Planet

The Carretera Austral

Best road trip for scenic Patagonian landscapes
Start: Puerto Montt; end: Villa O’Higgins; distance: 1,200km (745 miles); duration: allow 2 weeks

Chile’s Ruta 7 (better known as the Carretera Austral) carves a 1200km (745-mile) path through some of the most remote and untouched landscapes in South America. The first stretch of the “highway” opened in 1988, and the final bit completed in 2003 – though much of its southern half remains, to this day, unpaved. In fact, there are several sections of the route so impenetrable that you’ll need to hop aboard a car ferry just to continue forward.

The route begins in the bustling port city of Puerto Montt, from which you’ll wind your way south through the temperate rainforests of national parks like Pumalín and Queulat. Coyhaique is the biggest city in the region and the best place to stock up on supplies before continuing south to the marble caves of Puerto Río Tranquilo and the wildlife-filled steppes of Parque Nacional Patagonia. The roadless village of Caleta Tortel, a few hours south, is a fairytale of wobbly wooden boardwalks and tiny stilt homes perched over a milky-green fjord. The road ends in the frontier village of Villa O’Higgins, to the east, where expedition ships depart for visits to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.

The Budileufü Heritage Route

Best road trip for Indigenous culture 
Start/end
: Puerto Saavedra; distance: 100km (62 miles); duration: allow 2–3 days 

Lago Budi is a saltwater lagoon in south-central Chile that was formed after the devastating Valdivia earthquake and tsunami of 1960 (the most powerful tremor in recorded history). This road trip circumnavigates the coastal lagoon from Puerto Saavedra to Puerto Dominguez and back, allowing for visitors to gain a deeper understanding along the way of the Mapuche culture, Chile’s largest Indigenous group. You can sleep in traditional thatch-roofed ruka homes, purchase artisan handcrafts like pilwa bags and dine on Mapuche cuisine, much of which is spiced with the smoky merkén chili pepper.

Stars seen at night in the sky over Vicuna, Chile
After a long day of driving, stargazing awaits in the Elqui Valley ©DC_Colombia/Getty Images

The Route of the Stars

Best road trip for families
Start: La Serena; end: Pisco Elqui; distance: 110km (68 miles); duration: allow 3–5 days

Begin your trip by admiring the magnificent stars over Elqui Valley, with a night in the historic coastal city of La Serena. Then, it’s time to head east along la ruta de las estrellas (the route of the stars) into the arid Andean foothills at the southern edge of the Atacama Desert. Sleep in the astronomy hub of Vicuña for the second night to check out its tourist-friendly observatories, as well as nearby solar-powered restaurants and breweries. Turn south off the main highway (Ruta 41) on day 3 to learn about the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gabriela Mistral, in her hometown of Montegrande. Follow the grape-filled horizon from there to the quaint Andean village of Pisco Elqui to finish your trip with more stargazing, pisco tasting, and treks in the nearby Cochiguaz and Alcoguaz river valleys.

The Central Coast

Best road trip for sea, sand, and surf
Start
: Matanzas; end: Zapallar; distance: 235km (145 miles); duration: allow 3–5 days

Two of Chile’s ritziest beach towns are the bookends of this coast-hugging journey, which begins in the hipster hub of Matanzas, about three hours west of Santiago. Heading north, don’t miss Isla Negra (a quirky artist colony), Quintay (an old whaling hub), and El Canelillo (the prettiest swimming beach around) on your way to the twin cities of Valparaiso (great for art and culture) and Viña del Mar (ideal for beaches and gardens). Continuing north, the small hamlet of Ritoque is the most low-key beach town on the otherwise frenetic stretch between Concòn and Cachagua, which is full of weekend homes for middle-class Santiaguinos. Zapallar is the verdant green cove at the end of the route and a great place to hobnob with Chile’s rich and famous.

The Route of the Missions 

Best road trip for history buffs
Start
: Arica; end: Putre; distance: 230km (143 miles); duration: allow 3–5 days

Start your history-filled journey in Chile’s far north by familiarizing yourself with the oldest mummies in the world at the Museo Arqueológico San Miguel de Azapa near Arica. Then, skip the strait-shot highway to Putre and instead follow the rambling Ruta de las Misiones (Route of the Missions). This heritage route links dozens of Indigenous Aymara hamlets in the Andean foothills, many of which have newly restored adobe churches with grass roofs and shops selling hand-woven alpaca clothes. End at the biggest Aymara town of all, Putre, and use it as a base for explorations into the volcano-studded altiplano of Parque Nacional Lauca

the Valle Colchagua's vineyards in spring
The vineyards of Valle Colchagua ©Fotografías Jorge León Cabello/Getty Images

The Pan-American Wine Trail

Best road trip for wine lovers 
Start
: Santiago; end: Santa Cruz; distance: 180km (112 miles); duration: allow 1–3 days

This ruta del vino uses the Pan-American Highway as a fast way to tackle three of Chile’s most important wine regions: the Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua Valleys. The Maipo Valley lies just south of the capital; such major vineyards as Viña Santa Rita showcase why it’s a power player for wallet-friendly cabernet sauvignons. Cachapoal has more boutique wineries, which range from the biodynamic Tipaume to the extravagant Viña Vik. Turn off the Pan-American highway at San Fernando (home to the stunning Viña Casa Silva estate) and explore the myriad vineyards that line the road all the way to Santa Cruz, the heart of the Colchagua Valley (which specializes in Chile’s signature grape: carménère). Note that it’s best to have a designated driver for this one as Chile has a zero-tolerance policy for blood-alcohol content.

The Lakes & Volcanoes Traverse

Best road trip for adventure
Start
: Pucón; end: Puerto Varas; distance: 525km (325 miles); duration: allow 5-7 days

Linking lakes and volcanoes between the resort towns of Pucón and Puerto Varas is a bit like a game of connect-the-dots. You can choose your own adventure as you leave the araucaria-filled parklands of Lago Villarrica in the rearview mirror and head south to Coñaripe, home of the stunning Termas Geometrias hot springs complex. Reserva Biológica Huilo Huilo, near the ceramics hub of Panguipulli to the south, has raging waterfalls, dueling volcanoes, and woodsy hotels such as Montaña Magica, which is blanketed in pea-green vegetation.

Continuing south, Lago Ranco is home to several tony resort villages, including Futrono, as well as the lush, lagoon-filled wilds of Parque Futangue. Lago Llanquihue, three lakes away, is the biggest freshwater body of them all and home to your final stop, Puerto Varas, a world-class adventure hub and gateway to Patagonia.

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