Visitors can choose to explore the Atacama region by hot-air balloon. // © 2017 Mark Chesnut/LatinFlyer.com
Feature image (above): The unique landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert looks otherworldly. // © 2017 Getty Images
With its diverse geography and climates, Chile is a nation that begs to be explored in multidestination itineraries. From the southern region's frigid glaciers and the central zone's wineries and sophisticated cities, to Easter Island and the arid Atacama Desert, this South American hot spot is attracting an increasingly wide variety of travelers, according to tourism officials.
“In terms of arrivals, Chile has grown 32 percent in the past five years, compared to the general region, which has only grown 3 percent,” said Juan Lopez, North American market manager for Turismo Chile, the private-sector organization that promotes international tourism. “Even in 2016, which was a complicated time because of the Zika virus, Chile’s tourism grew 12 percent.”
Increased promotion and greater awareness of the nation’s offerings has helped spur this growth, according to Lopez.
“Chile has been promoting its diversity of destinations, including the Atacama, the world’s driest desert; the wine valleys of the central region; Easter Island; Patagonia; and Antarctica,” he said. “In addition, Chile has been positioning itself in specific segments, including adventure travel, food and wine travel and luxury travel.”
Lopez said another trend in recent years has been for more tour operators to develop stand-alone Chile programs.
“Compared to other countries, Chile today is one of the most-evolved destinations,” said Harmonie Soyez, general manager of Viva Latina Tours, a Santiago-based tour company. “In a very short time frame, it’s grown in terms of infrastructure and diversity. While it’s true that we are perhaps one of the more expensive destinations in the region, the level of service exceeds other nations. We have hotels that range from luxury to small-scale to receive every kind of traveler.”
This year, Sernatur, the government’s national tourism organization, increased its involvement in directly promoting tourism from international markets. The strategy is built around the country’s National Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development, according to Marcela Cabezas Keller, the organization’s national director.
“The plan seeks to boost sustainable development in the tourism sector through actions prioritized into five components: diversification of experiences; destination development; strengthening of quality and human capital; internal tourism incentives; and domestic and international promotion,” she said.
One Nation, Multiple Destinations
Chile’s diverse geography makes multistop itineraries attractive for visitors and for those who sell the destination, according to Rushik Mehta, cofounder of Coddiwomple Journeys, a Boston-based tour company.
“Instead of just focusing on the standard highlights of Santiago, Valparaiso and its surrounding wine region or Chilean Patagonia, we have put the focus on highlighting the Atacama, Easter Island and Colchagua Valley wine region,” he said. “We have started to offer enhancements to our guests when designing their itinerary, such as visiting a local home for a traditional meal, taking a cooking class or, if there’s a larger group with interest in art and history, private access to a museum with an expert to guide them through it.”
Mehta said Chile’s excellent infrastructure and connectivity makes all of this easier, too.
“We encourage travelers to combine various regions,” he said. “Chile has great roads and airports that connect to all the main attractions. You can find multiple daily flights from Santiago to Patagonia, the Lake District, Easter Island and the Atacama. You can easily drive to Colchagua and many of the wineries within an hour or two of Santiago.”
Here are a few of the unique experiences that await in some of Chile’s most popular — and most easily combined — destinations.
Located in Chile’s central zone, the capital city of Santiago is the first stop for nearly all international visitors, thanks to its ever-expanding international airport.
“Santiago is the point of entry and a very safe and modern city,” Lopez said. “It’s the perfect landing point for Americans who are visiting South America for the first time.”
Among Santiago’s noteworthy hotels is The Singular, a member of Leading Hotels of the World that opened in 2014 in the trendy Lastarria neighborhood.
“Many of our clients come to Santiago on their way to other destinations,” said Daniela Orellana, sales manager for Singular Hotels. “Some visitors also choose to combine Chile with Argentina, since popular places like Mendoza, Argentina, are only a 30-minute flight over the Andes Mountains.”
That said, Santiago is a city that’s certainly worthy of more than just a quick stopover.
“There are so many things happening in the city that have elevated the overall offering as of late,” Orellana said. “The boom of young chefs has brought some of the best restaurants in the world. Art and design in neighborhoods such as Lastarria and Bellavista have attracted a whole new cross-section of visitors. Combine that with the explosion of growth in business centers such as Vitacura, and it all adds up to a thriving landscape.”
Indeed, visitors will find plenty to occupy their time in Santiago. In addition to long-popular attractions including the National Museum of Fine Arts, the hilltop Cerro San Cristobal observation area and the historic Santa Lucia park, where the city was founded, the Mirador Interactive Museum is set to debut a new attraction by the end of this year: “Espacio Universo” (“Universe Space”), which is billed as Latin America’s largest interactive site dedicated to astronomy.
An array of new lodging options has also arrived in Santiago in recent years, providing unique alternatives to the many international brands that are present. Among the city’s newest one-of-a-kind hotels are the 38-room Luciano K, a stylish property set in a beautifully restored 1928 apartment building; the 70-room Cumbres Lastarria, which is in the heart of the trending Lastarria district; and the 42-room Hotel Magnolia, which is set in a revamped 1929 mansion. Still to come is the 221-room Hampton by Hilton Santiago Las Condes, which will be the brand’s largest property in South America when it opens in 2021.
Chilean wine has long enjoyed prominent billing on menus around the world. And although the Colchagua Valley is not Chile’s only wine region, it’s an easily accessible destination from Santiago (less than a two-hour drive), with multiple vineyards that offer their own accommodations and activities.
“Colchagua is a premier wine zone,” said Sernatur’s Keller. “It’s renowned for the quality of its wines, which makes it a unique destination for those who want to learn about it.”
Popular wineries here include Viu Manent, which offers tours, tastings and rides on a horse-drawn carriage, and Lapostolle, which is home to Clos Apalta Residence, the only Relais & Chateaux hotel in the region.
Also ideal for upscale travelers is Casa Silva. Located inside the original family house of a decades-old vineyard, the hotel reopened after renovations in 2016, with seven elegantly furnished guestrooms. Visitors here can tour the winery, sample local varietals and attend action-packed polo and huaso (Chilean cowboy) events.
Additional accommodation options include Hotel Terra Vina, an attractive 18-room hotel surrounded on three sides by vineyards; Hacienda Los Lingues, which is set on a 16th-century hacienda replete with antiques; and the Hotel Santa Cruz, which is the perfect choice for travelers who prefer to be in a town setting, within walking distance to restaurants, shopping and a local museum.
For additional information, agents can consult Ruta del Vino, the official tour operator of the Association of Vineyards of Colchagua, which provides information about transportation, tours and train excursions.
Chile’s Atacama is the driest desert on the planet. The terrain is so extreme that NASA has run tests there, and the crystal-clear skies make it ideal for stargazing. It’s no wonder that the Atacama has popped up on so many bucket lists in recent years.
A quick flight from Santiago to the city of Calama lands visitors at the gateway to the Atacama Desert, where they can choose from activities that include hiking, climbing, swimming, biking and hot-air ballooning. Must-see sites include the Tatio geysers, one of the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world; the Chaxa Lagoon, where hundreds of resident flamingos make their home; and Moon Valley, a region with dramatic topography in the Salt Mountain range.
Most hotels offer their own programs of activities and tours — but don’t be surprised if Wi-Fi access and television service is scant, even at the priciest properties. Top accommodations are far from inexpensive, but include most or all meals, as well as excursions and activities. Explora Atacama, which reopened in December 2016 following extensive renovations, has four pools, a sauna and Jacuzzi, a spa and an all-inclusive format that includes drinks, meals, excursions and programs led by a well-trained staff.
For one of the most upscale experiences, visitors should consider Awasi Atacama, which is the destination’s only member of Relais & Chateaux. For highly personalized service, the 10-room property assigns one dedicated guide to each room. Also noteworthy are Cumbres Hotel & Spa, which has spacious guestrooms and an extensive activity program, and the 32-room Tierra Atacama, which serves up trendy and contemporary style with lovely mountain views, a spa and a large menu of tours and excursions.
The desert’s dramatic beauty is a perfect setting for various kinds of travelers, according to Ana Belen Fernandez, marketing manager for Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, another of the region’s upscale properties.
“The popularity of this otherworldly place comes from its perfect location, natural attractions and ancient historical background,” she said. “We have an excursion manual with more than 33 different activities for the most demanding visitors, divided into five categories: contemplative, adventure, expeditions, cultural and astronomic activities.
Our itineraries can be physically demanding, very mellow, intellectually engaging or just simply make you feel like a part of the desert.”
In other words, there’s a variety of choices — visitors to Chile will be accustomed to that concept.
HOW TO SELL MORE CHILE
With its varied geography, activities and attractions, Chile appeals to an array of travelers, according to Daniela Orellana, sales manager at Singular Hotels. But, for the most part, she said that visitors from the U.S. tend to be “well-traveled and educated” as well as “corporate clients who come to Chile as an emerging country for foreign investment.”
Rushik Mehta, cofounder of the Boston-based tour operator Coddiwomple Journeys, identified several key demographics as showing the most potential for growth in Chile-bound travel.
“We cater to all age groups, but we see more honeymooners, retirees, special-interest groups and, increasingly, family travel,” he said. “We are especially popular with parents of teenagers who are eager to explore the world with their children and expose them to unique experiences.”
Ana Belen Fernandez, marketing manager at Alto Atacama Desert & Lodge, agreed about some of those demographics.
“Our top group is romantic couples, and second, big families,” she said. “Nevertheless, we get a good portion of special-interest tours booked through boutique travel agencies. We’ve found that the current understanding of what defines old age, middle years and youth is shifting significantly, and age for us is becoming less of a determining factor when booking a hotel.”
This year, the nongovernmental Turismo Chile and the government organization Sernatur have separated their activities, but still focus on the same common goal: to grow tourism, according to Juan Lopez, North American market manager for Turismo Chile, which is a nonprofit association made up of almost 200 Chilean companies.
“These internal changes don’t affect the nation’s promotional efforts,” he said. “On the contrary, they reinforce them. Given its years of experience, Turismo Chile most likely will continue as the point of contact for many of our North American partners.”
Harmonie Soyez, general manager of the tour company Viva Latina Tours, said agents should visit Chile if they want to be able to sell it more.
“Suppliers in Chile are more and more open to receive them and offer special rates,” she said. “You can read brochures and newsletters, but experiencing what each hotel and operator offers can’t compare to what you’ll find online.”