driving in Chile

On a map, Chile looks like a freak of geography, a long and impossibly skinny country wedged between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. In between are lakes, a desert, and vineyards, creating some dramatic road trip opportunities.

The Pan-American Highway is one of the longest freeways in the world. Its most extensive stretch in Chile covers approximately 3363 kilometers and is completely paved. It’s a journey that you really mustn’t miss, where changes in weather and landscape can be enjoyed by simply gazing out of the car window. You don’t have to be some road rally enthusiast and drive down from Alaska, however. You can fly into the country and then rent a car in Chile.

If you did the whole stretch, you could include the Atacama Desert in the north, visit vineyards in the various valleys (including the wineries near Santiago), then head through Patagonia until you reach Tierra del Fuego at the end of the Southern Cone.

Here are five routes that the insiders of Chile Tourism says are the best to enjoy by car, at various time of the year:

travel in Chile by car1) From Calama to Visviri. The great highlands route.

This is a five-day journey that crosses most of the Chilean highlands, departing from Calama, following the route towards Ollagüe – in a northerly direction – in order to arrive to Visviri before returning to Putre and then moving quickly on to Arica, the final Chilean port before the border crossing with Peru.

Distance: 800 kilometers

Best time of year: from October to January


2) From Tal Tal to Paranal. Sea and Desert.

This is an excellent alternative to Route 5 (Pan-American Highway) that takes you to the city of Antofagasta. The road snakes its way along the stretch between Tal Tal and Paposo and then plunges deep within the Atacama Desert before finally arriving to the Paranal Observatory, one of the largest in the world.

Distance: 211 kilometers

Best time of year: from September to March


3) From Concepción to Valdivia: Travel Through History.

This spectacular coastal route passes by a series of villages, characteristic to the south of Chile, including Lota, Lebu, Cañete, Puerto Saavedra and Lake Budi, where you can visit villages in the Mapuche community and experience the beauty of Nahuelbuta’s mountainous landscape.

Distance: 435 kilometers

Best time of year: from September to June

driving Chile lake district

4) From Llanquihue to Puerto Octay: Harmonious landscapes.

This is a route full of superb natural landscapes. Lake Llanquihue is the second largest in Chile and from the village of the same name to Puerto Octay the green hills seem to disappear along the horizon, alongside panoramic views of the lake, against a backdrop of volcanoes. Along the route there are beautiful houses, cemeteries and churches, clearly influenced by German architectural design.

Distance: 50 kilometers

Best time of year: from September to May


Torres del Paine

Courtesy Chile Tourism, by Benjamin Dumas

5) From Porvenir to Lago Fagnano. The route to the end of world.

Tierra del Fuego is Chile’s largest archipeligo, covering 29,484 square kilometers. Its rich cultural heritage, together with the remote geographical nature of its location, has converted it into an exotic destination. In the central-south area of Tierra del Fuego, hidden between a labyrinth of valleys, mountains and lenga forests, is Lake Deseado – the best-kept secret of the region. It’s one of the last Chilean territories to remain wild and unspoilt. This route is the only one on this list that isn’t paved, which is why a 4×4 vehicle is recommended.

Distance: 350 kilometers, approximately

Best time of year: from October to September

This article was adapted from one by Chile Tourism and sponsored by Alamo Latin America. As usual, neither had any input on the content.