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Self-drive Chile: Lake district and Torres del Paine

14 days from £3,270pp

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Self-drive Chile: Lake district and Torres del Paine:
Trip Dossier

This holiday grants you the opportunity to self-drive through the exquisite lake district in the heart of the Chilean Andes then fly south to explore (again in your own car) the glacier scoured mountains of Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Patagonia.

Begin your holiday in cosmopolitan Santiago situated at the foot of the snow-draped Andes. It's a lively and dynamic city full of history and innovation.

Your self-drive adventure begins when you fly to the Lake District and collect your car. Here, meadows and pasture are dotted with pine forest-fringed, sapphire lakes overlooked by imperious, snowy volcanic cones. The roads here lead you to isolated settlements and soothing hot springs. Drive from north to south, leaving the pleasant resort of Pucón and visiting the river port Valdivia before reaching Puerto Varas in the shadow of Chile's most dominant volcano, Osorno.

Fly south from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas in deepest Patagonia to pick up another car to explore the primeval landscapes of glaciers, scoured valleys and needle-sharp mountain peaks, jacketed in ancient ice. This is real wilderness country but the roads are generally good quality and you can relax to enjoy the magnificent scenery.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Santiago. Transfer to hotel in the capital. Afternoon tour of the historic centre.

Day 2

Fly to Temuco in the Lake District; collect car; drive to Pucón.

Day 3

Explore the Pucón area by car.

Day 4

Drive south to Valdivia.

Day 5

At leisure to explore the Valdivia region.

Day 6

Drive to Petrohué with views of the gigantic volcano Osorno.

Day 7

Drive to Puerto Varas, the southern lake district's principal town.

Day 8

Drive to Puerto Montt, drop off car; fly to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia.

Day 9

Drive from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park.

Days 10

Explore the area around Las Torres.

Days 11-12

Drive to Lago Grey. Explore the area around the lake, glacier and River Grey.

Day 13

Drop off car at airport and fly to Santiago.

Day 14

Return to the airport for international flight home.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Santiago. Transfer to hotel in the capital. Afternoon tour of the historic centre.
 
Santiago Chile

Transfer from Santiago airport to your hotel in the up-and-coming Bellas Artes quarter, within walking distance of the Plaza de Armas and the bohemian neighbourhood of Lastarria. The Chilean capital is set in a broad valley between the snow-capped ranges of the Andes and a smaller coastal range with a distinctly Mediterranean feel. It’s a huge metropolis: a mix of the old and the contemporary, with districts of tree-lined avenues and affluent tranquillity and others full of commercial bustle.

Your guided tour showcases the city's multi-faceted character, contrasting the bustling historic centre, leafy residential neighbourhoods and swish, ultra-modern El Golf, the high-rise business district. In the University district you will see the elegant 19th century mansions of the old aristocracy and, around the Plaza de Armas (Main Square), a number of historic municipal and cultural buildings. Nearby is the presidential palace, which was attacked in the 1973 coup. Continue to the Italian-influenced neighbourhood Bellavista with its cobbled streets, cafés and gift shops. From there, visit San Cristóbal Hill - which has a cable car, swimming pool and other family friendly amenities - for a panorama of the city and the snow-capped Andean mountains beyond.

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Santiago Chile

Day 2

Fly to Temuco in the Lake District; collect car; drive to Pucón.
 
Villarica volcano

Transfer to the airport and fly to Temuco in the Lake District, a divinely picturesque region often compared with Switzerland. Collect your 4WD vehicle at the airport and drive to Pucón on the shores of Lake Villarrica.  The pleasant little resort, with its sandy volcanic beaches, is a major Lake District destination for Chilean holidaymakers during their high summer.

The town is crammed with small shops, bars and restaurants. Towering above Pucón is one of the region's most dominant landmarks - Villarrica Volcano (2,840m).  The resort's surroundings, besides being extremely photogenic, are an adventure playground offering white-water rafting on the Trancura River, volcano climbing and hiking trails. The region is famous for its many hot springs.

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Villarica volcano

Day 3

Explore the Pucón area by car.
 
driving around pucon

The winding country roads of the Lake District offer a scenic surprise around every corner - a sapphire lake, snow-crispened volcanic cone, whispering forest. Stop off at little villages, pause to ogle tumbling waterfalls, picnic beside crystal streams, bathe in thermal pools. The region is criss-crossed with a network of scenic routes linking the lakes.The Bavarian influence of German immigrants is quite evident in the region, with alpine-style architecture and tea shops serving küchen.

The way you travel is largely up to you, such is the flexibility of self-drive. However, for your peace of mind all your hotels are pre-booked and we will suggest routes to help you get the most out of this magnificent region.

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driving around pucon

Day 4

Drive south to Valdivia.
 
lake district chile

It’s a drive of about 2 hours 15 minutes southwest to the coast and the pleasant river port Valdivia, or a little longer if you travel along the infinitely more picturesque country roads south of Lake Villarrica, turning off the main road to loop around Lake Calafquen to visit the quirky little towns of Licanray, Coñaripe and Panguipulli, each dwarfed by the scale of the lake and mountain scenery in which they nestle.  

On a clear day this journey showcases some of the finest scenery of the Chilean lake district, with glorious views of the lakes and volcanoes. You’ll be constantly tempted to pull over for numerous photo stops or just to enjoy the views and breathe in the crisp fresh air.  

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lake district chile

Day 5

At leisure to explore the Valdivia region.
 
valdivia

Valdivia is an attractive river port brimming with students which in itself is well worth a look around, with architecture reflecting its Spanish and German heritage. Further afield there is a string of colonial forts guarding the peaceful estuaries, lakes and native forests. You can explore by boat: trips depart from the Muelle Fluvial,  where there is also a pleasant riverside walk. If you’d like to explore by car you can drive to isolated villages at the mouth of the river Valdivia such as Niebla, 18km, which has seafood restaurants, and a little further on Los Molinos, a seaside resort.

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valdivia

Day 6

Drive to Petrohué with views of the gigantic volcano Osorno.
 
Lake Llanquihue

Today's drive takes you very close to the base of Osorno volcano, which dominates the skyline. If you travel direct this is a three-hour drive heading due south - a journey of around 200km. The route includes a 28km stretch along the shores of sapphire-blue Lago Llanquihue, following a road running between the towering, conical giant of snow-stifled volcano Osorno which dominates the southern lake district and the waters of this huge lake, around which are studded many of the region’s most important towns  (Puerto Varas, Frutillar and Puerto Octay) summer resorts and water sports.

However, again it's worth taking the day to do it, allowing for a stop for lunch at Puerto Octay, and meandering slowly along the lakeshore towards Ensenada. If the sun's out and the sky is blue there will be superb views across the lake towards Calbuco volcano on the other side. Reaching Ensenada, you branch off towards Petrohué where you’ll be spending the night.

Petrohué, on the western shores of Lake Todos Los Santos, consists of little more than a post office a few boats and a couple of hotels but it is a good place from which to stretch your legs for a countryside walk, such as the two-hour trail up to the lookout point on the top of Cerro Picada, with expansive views.

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Lake Llanquihue

Day 7

Drive to Puerto Varas, the southern lake district's principal town.
 
puerto varas

It's only 55km from Petrohué to Puerto Varas. Don't miss visiting the picturesque Petrohué waterfalls along the way, with their backdrop of the Osorno volcano. Puerto Varas is set amid lush, green, rolling countryside on the shores of Lago Llanquihue. The town was colonised by Germans at the turn of the 20th century and its architecture and sedate style reflects this, but it is now a fast-growing tourist resort where the main attraction is an alpine green lake framed by tree-clad hills and, beyond, Osorno.

If you're lucky enough to be in Puerto Varas on a clear and still evening, the sunsets over Osorno's snowy mantle can be magical, best appreciated from the lakeshore promenade which offers fabulous lake views.

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puerto varas

Day 8

Drive to Puerto Montt, drop off car; fly to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia.
 
Puerto Natales

It's just a 20km drive to Puerto Montt airport, where you'll drop off your car and fly to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia (2 hours).  The substantial city is an atmospheric and often blustery Patagonian outpost. Its centre is lined with elegant mansions (built on the wealth of sheep farming and mining during the late 19th century) and buildings with colourful corrugated iron roofs. It also has some interesting museums and several penguin colonies nearby (Oct-Mar).

Collect your car at the airport and drive for 3-4 hours to Puerto Natales.(You could pop in to look at Punta Arenas although it is a half-hour drive in the other direction). The roads in the far south are lonelier and less crowded than in the Lake District. This road you will follow is paved, but cuts through a relentless wind-buffeted wilderness of hardy grassland, populated by a surprisingly large wildlife population: you may spot guanacos, ñandu (ostriches), hares and foxes, in addition to many hardy species of bird.

Situated on the eastern shore of Last Hope Sound, the remote town of Puerto Natales looks out over icy sea and snow-capped peaks. The grids of one-storey wooden houses and small shops still have a frontier-town feel. It's a convenient stopover for visitors en route to Torres del Paine National Park.

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Puerto Natales

Day 9

Drive from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park.
 
Torres del Paine Chile

It’s an increasingly scenic drive to Torres del Paine National Park (150km – 3 hours). The park is dominated by a granite massif of smooth rock towers and icy pinnacles. Milky blue and gem-sharp emerald lakes, sinuous rivers, glaciers and wind-scoured steppes have created a remarkable and unique environment.

Declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, the area is a natural habitat of over 150 species of birds (flamingos, condors, eagles and ostriches) and 25 species of mammal (including guanacos, armadillos, silver foxes and pumas).

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Torres del Paine Chile

Days 10

Explore the area around Las Torres.
 
Torres del Paine

Spend a full day in the shadow of the soaring, vertical granite slabs known as the “Towers of Paine”, exploring the lakes and valleys, glaciers and steppes.

The staff and guides at your accommodation, Hotel Las Torres, can organise optional activities within the park on foot or on horseback, payable locally. If you are in good shape the key attraction here is the all-day hike to the base of the Paine towers but there are shorter options too.

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Torres del Paine

Days 11-12

Drive to Lago Grey. Explore the area around the lake, glacier and River Grey.
 
Lago Grey
Drive to Lago Grey. Your hotel has fabulous views across the lake. Here you can survey the steep walls of the Grey Glacier, from which blue-tinged icebergs the size of motor launches break off and drift around in the icy waters. You have two days to explore the national park’s attractions in this vicinity.
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Lago Grey

Day 13

Drop off car at airport and fly to Santiago.
 
Road Punta Arenas - Puerto Natales
Transfer back to Punta Arenas airport (350km - 5 hours), drop off your car and fly to Santiago (4 hours). Overnight at an airport hotel.
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Road Punta Arenas - Puerto Natales

Day 14

Return to the airport for international flight home.
 
Santiago

Enjoyed your driving? For a completely different experience in a contrasting environment, you may well be tempted to add on a few days to your holiday and take our extension to drive around the vineyards close to the capital - the scenery is lyrically bucolic, and you can visit the wineries where your passengers can sample some of the country's best regarded wines.  

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Santiago

Essential information

Insurance and documents

Travel insurance is essential.
Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.

Your vehicle hire includes limited CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance with an excess payable of between US$300 and US$1,200 in the event of loss or damage. Limits and certain exclusions do apply. Please contact us for further details.  

Transport

3 flights (longest 4hrs); self-drive car routes.

Accommodation

Here in towns we use a mix of hotels and rural lodges or different grades, choosing accommodation we think is comfortable and well located for exploration of the area. They all have well-equipped rooms, private bathrooms and heating. 

Meals

Breakfast daily.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 25 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included excursions

• City tour of Santiago.

Summary of nights

14 days, 13 nights: Santiago 1, Pucon 2, Valdivia 2, Petrohue 1, Puerto Varas 1, Puerto Natales 1, Las Torres area 2; Lago Grey area 2, Santiago 1. 

Included in the journey price

• Services of our team of experts in our London office.
• Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
• All land and air transport within Latin America.
• Vehicle hire with limited insurance for lake district and southern Patagonia sections.
• Accommodation as specified.
• Meals as specified.
• Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

• International flights to Latin America
• Airport taxes where not included on your tickets
• Insurance
• Tips and gratuities
• Meals other than specified
• Optional excursions
• Fuel and entrance fees whilst self-driving

Currency

The unit of currency in Chile is the peso.

Daily spend

It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$50 per person per day should cover the cost of meals not included in the holiday itinerary, drinks and the odd souvenir. Eat at the best restaurants and you will pay considerably more.  

A budget of approx US$250 should be sufficient to cover fuel costs for the self drive sections.

How to take it

Cash machines are available in all major cities and towns, and so taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in most shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. 

We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency. Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can take sterling, but the exchange rate is not always competitive or even available, restricting the number of places where you can change money.

Tipping

Tips are expected and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. 

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

This predominantly self-driving holiday is for independent-minded clients seeking the freedom to explore without the support of local guides and drivers but with the security of pre-booked accommodation. You should be confident to navigate along roads outside the UK, driving on the right. Some Spanish as well as mechanical knowledge, for example the ability to change a tyre is highly recommended.  Routes travelled in Patagonia include some stretches on gravel roads for which 4-wheel drive may be necessary. We advise you to let us know if you have a strong preference for automatic or manual transmission as vehicles supplied can vary. GPS equipment is not normally available but you will receive basic written directions and we will send you our Rules of the Road document with helpful tips specific to driving in Chile. 

Climate

In the Santiago area expect a Mediterranean type climate though it can snow in winter (June-August). In October, November, March and April  temperatures range between 15°C  and 25°C and there’s a good deal of sunshine. January and February are hot, around 30°C or higher. 

The lake district has a weather pattern not dissimilar to that of the UK, though summers tend to be hotter and sunnier and winters wetter.

The weather in Patagonia is notoriously unpredictable throughout the year. During the southern hemisphere summer (October to March), be prepared for everything from a blizzard to a heat wave. Strong winds and rain are possible at any time but especially in spring and autumn, and it can get cold with snow in winter, but seldom much below freezing. 

Clothing and special equipment

For day-to-day wear you should go prepared to encounter all seasons. Both clothing for both hot and cold conditions including sun hat a light fleece jacket and a Gore-Tex (or similar) outer shell. Trousers, skirt or shorts made from light, quick-drying synthetic materials work well. If you plan to eat in smart restaurants, although clothing is not formal (no need for jacket and tie), something quite smart would be appropriate. Strong, comfortable footwear is essential and you should bring umbrella, insect repellent, sun block and sun glasses. You might take swimwear for the odd dip in a natural pool.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following: typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. You should consult your GP for specific requirements.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Visas

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - If flying to the US or via the US you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online.
This costs $14 per person. This must be applied for by you personally.
Passports must also be digital e-passports with an embedded chip. Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.
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