Many of these companies are based in Pucón, in the Lake District, with a good sprinkling of other outfitters spread throughout the south. There are fewer opportunities for outdoor activities in the harsh deserts of the north, where altiplano jeep trips and mountain biking are the main options. If you plan to do take part in adventurous activities, be sure to check that you’re covered by your travel insurance, or take out specialist insurance where necessary.
Rafting and kayaking
Chile’s many frothy rivers and streams afford incomparable rafting opportunities. Indeed, the country’s top destinations, the mighty Río Bío Bío and the Río Futaleufú, entice visitors from around the globe. Rafting trips generally range in length from one to eight days and, in the case of the Bío Bío, sometimes include the option of climbing 3160m Volcán Callaquén. In addition to these challenging rivers, gentler alternatives exist on the Río Maipo close to Santiago, the Río Trancura near Pucón, and the Río Petrohue near Puerto Varas. The Maipo makes a good day-trip from Santiago, while excursions on the latter two are just half-day affairs and can usually be arranged on the spot, without advance reservations. In general, all rafting trips are extremely well organized, but you should always take great care in choosing your outfitter – this activity can be very dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced guide.
For the most part, Chile is a very empty country with vast tracts of wilderness offering potential for fantastic hiking. Chileans, moreover, are often reluctant to stray far from their parked cars when they visit the countryside, so you’ll find that most trails without vehicle access are blissfully quiet. However, the absence of a national enthusiasm for hiking also means that, compared with places of similar scenic beauty like California, British Columbia and New Zealand, Chile isn’t particularly geared up to the hiking scene, with relatively few long-distance trails (given the total area) and a shortage of decent trekking maps. That said, what is on offer is superb, and ranks among the country’s most rewarding attractions.
The massive Andean cordillera offers a wide range of climbing possibilities. In the far north of Chile, you can trek up several volcanoes over 6000m, including Volcán Parinacota (6330m), Volcán Llullaillaco (6739m) and Volcán Ojos del Salado (6950m). Although ropes and crampons aren’t always needed, these ascents are suitable only for experienced climbers, and need a fair amount of independent planning, with only a few companies offering guided excursions.
Chile has an international, and well-deserved, reputation as one of the finest fly-fishing destinations in the world. Its pristine waters teem with rainbow, brown and brook trout, and silver and Atlantic salmon. These fish are not native, but were introduced for sport in the late nineteenth century; since then, the wild population has flourished and multiplied, and is also supplemented by generous numbers of escapees from local fish farms. The fishing season varies slightly from region to region, but in general runs from November to May.
Chile offers the finest and most challenging skiing in South America. Many of the country’s top slopes and resorts lie within very easy reach of Santiago, including El Colorado, La Parva, Valle Nevado and world-renowned Portillo. A bit further south, but no less impressive, stands the popular Termas de Chillán.
For most of Chile’s length, there are extremely good and little-used dirt roads perfect for cycling – although the numerous potholes mean it’s only worth attempting them on a mountain bike. For a serious trip, you should bring your own bike or buy one in Santiago – renting a bike of the quality required can be difficult to arrange. An alternative is to go on an organized biking excursion, where all equipment, including tents, will be provided. Note that during the summer, cycling in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is made almost impossible by incessant and ferociously strong winds.
Chile’s beaches are pulling in an increasing number of surfers, who come to ride the year-round breaks that pound the Pacific shore. By unanimous consent, the best breaks – mainly long left-handers – are concentrated around Pichilemu, near Rancagua, which is the site of the annual National Surfing Championships. Further north, the warmer seas around Iquique and Arica are also increasingly popular.