Planning Your Trip
When to Go
The fact that the Southern Hemisphere’s seasons are opposite those of the Northern Hemisphere, where most overseas visitors live, adds to Chile’s appeal. Still, it remains a year-round destination, where urban exploration, winter skiing, and desert trekking are all possible.
Santiago’s urban appeal defies the seasons, but business travelers should avoid January and February, when many Santiaguinos abandon the capital for their summer vacations. The relatively mild winter sees some stretches of warm, brilliant weather.
Because Chile extends from the tropics of the Atacama to sub-Antarctic Tierra del Fuego, seasonality can vary not only according to latitude, but also with altitude. Beach resorts like Viña del Mar and La Serena can be uncomfortably crowded in the summer months of January and February but ideal when the coastal fog recedes in March and April.
In the northernmost Andean highlands, summer is the rainy season. Though that may mean only an afternoon thundershower, occasional downpours can cause flash floods and cut off roads, reducing access to areas of interest; at the highest altitudes, it can even mean snowstorms. Winter’s warm, dry days, by contrast, can be ideal for exploring the backcountry, though nights get cold at higher elevations.
The heartland’s wineries are open most of the year, but the fall harvest season (March and April) is perfect for tours and tasting. Summer is the time for mountaineering throughout most of the country, while winter is ski season at Portillo and other resorts.
The Sur Chico’s lake district is a traditional summer destination, but from October to April it’s also a magnet for fly-fishing enthusiasts. In Patagonia, the season is lengthening, especially among foreign visitors who come to view South Atlantic wildlife such as penguins and natural attractions like the pinnacles of Torres del Paine.
As an extension of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego is still primarily a summer destination, though it also has a ski season.
What to Take
What sort of luggage you bring depends on what sort of trip you’re planning, its length, and where you’re planning to go. For shoestring travelers planning months in Chile and neighboring countries, for instance, a spacious lightweight backpack is the best choice; a small daypack for local excursions is also a good idea.
Even for nonbackpackers, light luggage is advisable, and a small daypack for excursions is convenient.
Small but sturdy lightweight locks are advisable for all sorts of luggage, if only to discourage temptation.
Because of Chile’s altitudinal and latitudinal variation, from sea level to over 4,000 meters and from the desert tropics to the sub-Antarctic, clothing could vary from light cottons to heavy woolens. Much depends on the season and the activity. A good rule of thumb is to bring appropriately seasonal clothing for comparable Northern Hemisphere latitudes and altitudes.
Certain items are de rigueur. Both hikers and city walkers should have a wide-brimmed hat for protection from the sun; Patagonia’s thinning ozone layer makes sunburn a serious hazard. In the Sur Chico, an umbrella is useful at any season, but Patagonian squalls can shred your paraguas in an instant—heavier rain gear is desirable.
Good-quality camping gear, for sale or rental, is more easily available than it once was, especially in Santiago and outdoorsy towns such as Pucón and Puerto Natales. Bring a lightweight tent with a rain fly for shedding the showers and, at the highest altitudes, keeping out the cold. A three-season sleeping bag is sufficient for most weather—unless you’re camping or bivouacking on the Patagonian ice sheets or the altiplano’s massive volcanoes.
For those hiking through either the highlands or the lowland forests, lightweight rain gear is also a good idea, along with fabric hiking boots that dry out quickly.
Since fresh water is in short supply in some places sturdy plastic water bottles, a water filter, and even iodine drops or tablets are indispensable. Carry insect repellent, not just for mosquitoes but also for the Sur Chico’s large biting tábanos (horseflies).
Odds and Ends
Public toilets often lack toilet paper, so travelers should always carry a roll. Many budget hotels have thin walls and squeaky floors, so earplugs are a good idea.
Leg pouches and money belts are good options for securing cash, travelers checks, and important documents. Compact binoculars are a good idea for birders and others who enjoy wildlife and the landscape.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition