Day 1: Join tour Santiago de Chile; afternoon city tour
Joining the tour in Santiago today, our intention this afternoon is to take an orientation tour of the city by bus and metro. One of the most scenic cities in South America, Santiago lies in the shadow of the Andes and the old part of the city, around the Alameda, contains a number of fine buildings, statues and gardens, including the impressive Presidential Palace and the monastery of San Francisco. The city is filled with museums to its colonial and pre-Columbian past and in the Bellavista district we can find the unusual house of the famous Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda.
Day 2: Free day in Santiago, optional Valparaiso trip
Today has been left free to explore some more of the city, to wander its streets and parks, and perhaps visit the vineyards that lie on the outskirts of the city. The Maipo Valley is considered by many to be the best wine-growing region in the country. Certainly the oldest, it is renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon and a tour of the vineyards, lying in the shadow of the magnificent Andes, is the perfect combination of sensory delights. Alternatively there is the option of a trip to the nearby city of Valparaiso, Chile's culture
capital. Once a colonial port linking trade with neighbouring Peru, the city suffered numerous raids at the hands of pirates, including Sir Francis Drake. Reaching the height of its prosperity during the 19th century it finally fell into decline with the onset of the steam age and the opening of the Panama Canal. Much of its colonial past has been destroyed by a number of powerful earthquakes over the years, but the city still retains some of the grandeur of its past. Today it is a major port and the surrounding hills, a natural amphitheatre covered in colourful houses and mansions, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 3: Fly to Calama, drive to San Pedro de Atacama; walk in Valle de la Luna
Flying to Calama this morning we transfer by private bus to the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, set high among the spectacular volcanoes of Los Andes Cordillera and our gateway to the dramatic landscapes of the Atacama Desert. Arriving later this morning there will be time to relax, or perhaps take an optional visit to the impressive archaeological museum containing the collection of artefacts assembled by Padre Gustave Paige, a Belgian missionary who spent some 25 years here during the later years of the last century. This afternoon we will take a walk among the dunes of the nearby Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), a nature reserve to the west of the town, where the surreal landscape has been formed by the erosion of the salt mountains. We intend to watch the setting sun cast its golden glow across the spectacular landscape, before returning by bus back to San Pedro.
Day 4: In San Pedro, walk in the Atacama Desert
San Pedro was once the centre of the Atacama culture, before the arrival of the Spanish, and its dusty streets and evocative setting still exude an air of times long past. Over the next two days we have the chance to explore in more depth this remarkable town and its fascinating cultural and natural diversity. Our first day sees us travelling out to Puritama to spend the day walking amongst the desert landscapes of the remarkable Atacama, one of the most barren and dramatic natural features in the entire country. We will walk through a terrain peppered with hot springs, with views back across to San Pedro and the vast expanse of the Salar de Atacama.
Day 5: Free day; optional El Tatio Hot Springs or salt flats visit
Our second day in San Pedro has been left free, affording the chance to do some exploring on your own. You may like to take an early morning trip out to the El Tatio Hot Springs, a geothermal field of spouting geysers and steaming fumaroles surrounded by a vista of volcanic mountains. Watching these active geysers erupting in the light of the rising sun is an impressive sight, and it will leave your afternoon free to visit the extensive salt flats of the Salar de Atacama, at 300,000 hectares the third largest area of salt flats on the planet. Rich in minerals the lake is home to flocks of pink flamingos during the winter months and the air is so dry that the views across the Salar have to be seen to be believed.
Day 6: Fly to Puerto Montt and transfer to Puerto Varas; walk at Llanquihue Lake
Today we fly to Puerto Montt, the most important port in the south of Chile and, in a very real sense, the spot where the developed or settled population of Chile comes to a full stop. This is the gateway to the wild and rugged regions to the south and from here we drive to Puerto Varas and our hotel, based beside the shores of Lake Llanquihue. With some free time to explore we'll take a stroll on the lake shore, the second largest in Chile and one of the shimmering jewels of Chile's Lake District. Set against the backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes, this is the third largest expanse of natural water on the South American continent and presents us with a quite breathtaking setting.
Day 7: Walk around the Osorno Volcano
Our first full day here sees us hiking around the area dominated by the classic volcanic cone of Osorno (2680m), an almost picture-perfect representation of a snowy volcanic peak. Our walk takes us through the lush landscapes of the Valdivian rainforest, the slopes of the mountain sprinkled with Andean birch, providing a haven for chingue (Patagonian skunk), culpeo (Patagonian fox), weasels and puma, whilst the bird populations boast hummingbirds, woodpeckers and kestrel.
Day 8: Free day; optional visit to Chiloe Island
Our second day has been left free for optional activities, perhaps try your hand at mountain biking, rafting, or maybe do some more trekking around the area. There is also the chance to take a full day excursion to Chiloe Island, the second largest in South America (after Tierra del Fuego) and a captivating place of verdant beauty and legend, whose people are among the friendliest anywhere in South America. The island's rich colonial heritage has seen its capital, Castro, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its vibrant mix of Catholic beliefs and native mythology, Jesuit churches and traditional stilted houses make it an absolute treasure to explore.
Day 9: Fly to Punta Arenas, drive to Puerto Natales
Before flying to Punta Arenas this afternoon, we spend a final morning in Puerto Varas. Depending on the flight schedules we have the option to visit the German style town of Frutillar, which was the location of the first German colonies in Chile over 150 years ago. This German heritage can still be found in the street names and the tea salons found in the town's cafes. In the afternoon we fly to Punta Arenas and take a public bus to our hotel in Puerto Natales. This is the gateway to the Torres del Paine national park, and from small beginnings as a tiny fishing port it has now blossomed to a hub of adventure, with an atmosphere of excitement as travellers pass through on their way to the mountains. From the edge of the town there are striking views out to the fjords, and looking back inland we see the mountains rising imposingly over us. We will arrive in the evening to Puerto Natales.
Day 10: Drive to Torres del Paine National Park via Milodon Cave
Leaving Puerto Natales this morning we travel via the Milodon Cave to Torres del Paine National Park, arguably one of the world's most beautiful national parks, described by Alberto de Agostini as 'one of the most spectacular sights that the human imagination can conceive'. We spend the full day in the park and drive around the circuit with plenty of stops to take in the wild and rugged scenery - this tour isn't a private trip, so we may be joined by other travellers. Torres del Paine is situated amidst a region of ice-capped peaks, silent blue glacial lakes and wild hill country. It is not unusual to see large numbers of guanacos here, as well as black-necked swans, upland geese, pink flamingos and the odd grey fox snooping around the human food areas looking for an easy meal. We may even be fortunate enough to spot condors. One of the highlights of our time here will be the views of the Torres, imposing pinnacles of sharp granite that are surrounded by glacial lakes and craggy ranges, formed millions of years ago. Reaching over 2600 metres these towers are just part of an impressive range, the highest of which is the Cerro Paine Grande, presenting us with one of the most breathtaking mountain vistas on the planet. This is a place to keep an eye out for condors, rheas and guanacos. The itinerary here is kept flexible so we can make the best choices depending on weather conditions as some walks and stops may not be possible due to high winds.
Day 11: Optional walks in Torres del Paine National Park
Today we have the day free to explore this wilderness on one of many optional hikes. The most famous of the park's day hikes is up to the base of the Torres, with incredible views over the jagged granite peaks of the mountains. There are also a series of easier walks within the parks, including the Mirador Cuernos, which passes the waters of the 'Salto Grande' (Big Waterfall), or a walk to the magnificent icebergs of the glacier-fed Lago Grey. The scenery is magnificent throughout, and whichever walk you choose there is always the possibility for strong winds in this wild landscape.
Day 12: Return to Puerto Natales
Driving away from the park, we arrive back in Puerto Natales early this afternoon, and have the rest of the day free to relax or perhaps eat out at one of the town's many fish restaurants.
Day 13: Return to Punta Arenas, fly to Santiago
This morning we transfer to Punta Arenas, from where we fly back this afternoon to Santiago. On arrival we will transfer to our hotel.
Day 14: Fly to Easter Island
This morning you will transfer to the airport for the flight out to Easter Island, arriving early afternoon. On arrival we transfer to the hotel, after which the rest of the day is free to relax and contemplate the days ahead.
Day 15: Discover Anakena on the northern coast
Isolated amidst the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island has long held a sense of mystery and fascination for outsiders. Lying some 3790km to the west of Chile the island's nearest neighbour is actually Pitcairn Island (a mere 2075km away) and its giant stone monoliths have been the subject of conjecture and speculation for centuries. Also known as Rapa Nui and the Isla de Pascua, it was discovered by the Dutch on Easter Sunday 1722 (hence its European name), but the original inhabitants of this remote and dramatic island called it Te Pito O Te Henua (the navel of the world). Today it remains one of the most remarkable archaeological sites on the planet, a factor that has seen it entered onto the UNESCO World Heritage listings. The island is renowned for the magnificent stone heads, or Moai, that dot its rugged coastline, magnificent and mysterious monoliths that once numbered some 800 in all and now lie as silent and broken sentinels, looking out across the deep waters of the Pacific.
Over the next two days you will explore something more of this most majestic and unique setting. On the first day an excursion has been arranged to Anakena on the northern coast, and we explore the majestic ceremonial platform of Tongariki with its gigantic Moais, as well as the impressive volcanic crater at Rano Raraku, where the largest unfinished Moai can be found at a shocking 21 metres, and the peaceful Te Pito Kura. Anakena beach itself is the site of the village of the island's first monarch, Hotu Matua and the setting for an almost perfectly restored Moai, affording you an opportunity to get some idea of the sheer majesty and wonder that these incredible statues must have evoked.
Day 16: Visit the Orongo stone village and ceremonial centre
Our second day sees us visiting the village of Orongo on the southernmost tip of the island, one of the island's most culturally important sites and the setting for the annual competitions that played such a vital factor in the ancient birdman cult. Each year chosen warriors from each of the tribes would dive into the waters and swim to the nearby island of Motu Nui in search of the first of the eggs laid by the manutara (sooty tern). The successful swimmer would win the right for his clan to control the distribution rights of the island's resources for the coming year, making it not only a culturally important event, but also one that had far reaching implications for the entire population. The remains of a number of ruined buildings and petroglyphs are dotted about the site, offering a fascinating insight into the cult and its influences. After visiting the quarries at Rano Raraku yesterday, where most of the Moai were carved out of the porous tuff found within the now barren crater, we discover how far the giant figures were transported to their final site of erection. The method of transportation on wooden rollers resulted in the eventual deforestation of the island and ultimately led to the barren landscapes that we see before us today.
Day 17: Fly back to Santiago
After a free morning you will transfer back to the airport for the return flight to Santiago and a final night in Chile.
Day 18: Tour ends in Santiago
The tour ends in Santiago this morning after breakfast.
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