Chile’s stunning Patagonia region is overtouristed, pricey and hard to reach

Spanning about 131,000 square miles, Chilean Patagonia is an impossibly photogenic destination — a landscape of wide barren spaces, towering mountains, glaciers, lakes and golden-hued grasslands called pampas.

Although Chilean Patagonia has several national parks, the 700-square-mile Torres del Paine is the heart of the region, attracting adventurous travelers interested in outdoor pursuits. Hiking is a mainstay activity — there are at least three dozen options of treks, ranging from short walks to full day strenuous excursions — but other possibilities include horseback riding, biking and even scuba diving and snorkeling.

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Patagonia, which also includes parts of Argentina, has long been a popular vacation choice for travelers from around the world and can be somewhat overtouristed. “The hotels are often full, especially during high season from November to March, and the prices reflect the demand,” said Jenny Mikkelson, a Chile specialist at Travel Beyond, a tour operator in Wayzata, Minn.

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 A four-night stay at a high-end hotel can run about $5,000 per person; a stay in a mid-tier property or in a yurt is around half that cost.

And getting here is quite the trek: After an international flight to reach Chile, many travelers fly from Santiago to the city of Punta Arenas, a four-hour trip. The drive from the airport to the Torres del Paine area takes another four or five hours.

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Location: Torres del Paine is about 1,900 miles south of Santiago, Chile.

The beautiful Lake District is less-known, less expensive and easier to get to

Situated at the base of the Andes and at the northern tip of Patagonia, Chile’s Lake District easily rivals Patagonia in natural beauty — it’s a tapestry of lush green ancient forests, sparkling lakes, majestic mountains, volcanoes and rolling farmlands.  

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The district’s main attraction is its two national parks. The roughly 156,000-acre Villarrica is home to three volcanoes, including its active 9,340-foot-tall namesake. Though only 30,000 acres, Huerquehue is equally spectacular with its waterfalls, bamboo and fern tree forests, streams and mountains.

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As with Patagonia, the destination is an active enthusiast’s dream. The trekking options are endless, and the hikers’ views from the trails get more photo-worthy the higher they climb; gentler routes await in the foothills and around Villarrica Lake. With a surface area of 105 square miles, the lake is especially popular in the summer when the waters are warm and swimming is a big draw. Travelers also come here for the mountain biking, fishing, kayaking, white water rafting and cross-country and downhill skiing.

Another plus: The Lake District is relatively unknown to international travelers. “It’s, by far, one of the most scenic and appealing places in South America for vacationers who like to spend their days out and about in nature,” Mikkelson says. “And, you’re surrounded by locals, which makes it that much more special.”

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And a visit here costs less than to Patagonia. A four-night stay at the most high-end property in the area, AndBeyond Vira Vira, costs about $2,500 a person. A four night stay at Hotel Antumalal, a four-star property, meanwhile, costs about $600 a person.

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Finally, it’s a bit more accessible. Travelers typically fly into Temuco from Santiago, which takes around an hour, then make the sub-three-hour drive to the district’s main town, Pucon, which has a bustling vibe with its seafood restaurants, bars and homegrown boutiques.

Location: Pucon is about 490 miles south of Santiago, Chile.

Vora is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Instagram: @shivanivora78.

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