Chile copiapo birdwatching lagoon c alvaro guide
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Chile carretera estancia el acampao c emma bye pura
Chile patagonia guanaco in torres del paine national park

Atacama & Patagonia Off the Beaten Track Vacation


When is the best time to go?

Some time between October and April is the time to catch both areas at their best. The Atacama is usually clear, dry and warm in this period. Patagonia is moving from late spring through summer and into early autumn so is always beautiful.

Between December and March there is the chance to see whales offshore in the north - at these times of year we will normally adjust the trip to include the opportunity to go whale watching on one of the days.

What will the weather be like?

Santiago and in the southern Atacama is should be warm and sunny. Rain is rare outside of July and August.

In Patagonia, the weather will be whatever it will be. On paper, the weather here will be better in January than in October or April. In practice, the best weather we've ever had was in early October and very late April so don't sweat the weather in Patagonia, bring the right clothing and embrace it.

For the bulk of your time, you are to the east of the Andes - the only place in Chile where this is possible, a country defined by being the land to the west of the Andes. Because the dominant weather comes in from the Pacific Ocean, being in what is effectively the shadow of the mountains means that Aysén, more than any other part of Patagonia, tends to have more stable weather.

Saying that, this trip encompasses a variety of different ecosystems, from temperate rainforest to dry steppe to ocean glaciers. You will likely experience everything from rain to snow, wind to hot sunshine during this trip.

When is peak season?

January into February is when South Americans (notably Chileans and Argentinians) are on their long summer vacations so is really the only time when there are people in either the Copiapó region or on the Carretera Austral in anything like significant numbers. Even then, these are regions with lots of space and very few people.

Saying that, if you were to visit the beach at Bahia Inglesa, hear Copiapo, on your free day (day five of the trip) in January then you would be treated to a mass of Chilean vacationmakers.

How much driving is there on this trip?

The first part of this trip, in the north, is private guided so you don't drive at all. The distances you will be driven are fairly short other than the day trip up into the Andes - this is a long day of driving but one with so many stops that it doesn't feel onerous.

Down on the Carretera Austral, you have your own vehicle. Nevertheless, this part of your experience is not dedicated to driving, it is about your spending time out and about in the great outdoors. The driving is simply a means to an end.

The total driving distance between the five different overnight stops on the Carretera Austral section of this trip is 880km.

You stay two or three nights in each of your destinations. Most distances are between 120-200km so you would generally expect to be driving for three to four hours every second or third day.

Our Travel Guide Notes make suggestions for stops along the way, places you can head off for short walks or stop to appreciate particularly fine views. It is rare that a day would be dedicated to driving, the norm would be that you set off in the morning and have the afternoon free.

What is the driving like?

The Carretera is paved only in certain sections, within each day of the itinerary above we set out how much of any given drive is paved versus unpaved.

The only paved road you will drive is the 60km south of Balmaceda airport as far as Villa Cerro Castillo. For most of your time, you will be driving on unpaved road but it is surfaced. That is to say that the surface of the road is loose gravel on a flattened/scraped bed of dirt. Along most of its length there is plenty of room for two way traffic - the road being approximately three car widths from side to side.

The near constant works to maintain the road mean two things: there are very few sections of washboard road (bad stuff) and there are lots of stop signs to go around works. All in all, Patagonia, the Carretera Austral particularly, is a place where to rush is to waste time. We suggest an average speed of just 40kmph, which gives you plenty of opportunity to stop and enjoy the views along the way.

When it is dry, the road can kick up a lot of dust. When it is wet, it kicks up mud and spray.

Traffic levels are so low that this is unlikely to be any sort of problem except at busier times of year (January) on the busier stretch (from Puerto Rio Tranquilo north to Cerro Castillo). It is worth bearing in mind that the population density down here is half that of Mongolia, out of season, it would not be surprising if you didn't pass another vehicle for 20 minutes at a time.

What is it like to navigate?

It is effectively impossible to get lost on the Carretera Austral, it is essentially one road going north-south. We provide you with the best available map, on which distances, road surfaces and petrol stations are all clearly marked.

In addition, we provide our own written instructions. We do not believe you need anything else.

What if something happens?

It is the culture of this remote area that you never pass a stopped vehicle without asking if things are OK and offering to help.

We ask you to do your driving earlier in the day so you don't have to worry about getting stranded in the dark.

The mobile phone coverage along the Carretera is surprisingly good because people in this region rely on mobile for their internet as well as calls. You can call us, or your next hosts, to help come up with a plan.

Finally, we only use reputable, well maintained vehicles in order to minimise the chances of any mechanical failures.

What is the rental car like?

We always include a 4x4 vehicle with high clearance. The four wheel drive is rarely necessary but it does make for a more sure-footed driving experience. High clearance is really the most important thing on the Carretera. Engines tend to be of a generous size, no whirring and whining along.

How far ahead should I book?

This somewhat depends on when you want to travel but relatively small hotels and lodges in popular destinations mean that 12 months is sensible, assuming you want to travel on specific dates. This is compounded by the fact that we space out our departures to avoid your overlapping, in any significant way, with other clients.

Out of season, we have managed to put trips together with a month's notice but it's not our first choice! It's always worth asking us about space as we know which places represent the 'pinch points' so we can quickly tell if the vacation is going to be deliverable.

Is this trip suitable for solo travellers? As a private trip, you are not joining a group. As such, this isn't the most obvious choice for a solo traveller. The fixed costs of the private guiding and vehicle rental are high. Saying that, if you were happy with the extra investment, the experience would work well for a solo traveller who enjoys being on their own.

Is it suitable for families or friends?

Absolutely, yes.

For two couples or a family unit, the trip is perfect as it is, sharing the guide up north, using one vehicle in Patagonia. The per person price naturally reduces.

How active is this trip?

As a tailor made vacation we can adjust things to suit you prior to your departure. There is also much of this trip where it is up to you to set the pace. There is plenty of opportunity to get out walking on this vacation but equally, if all you wanted to do is sit and stare at the landscapes, it would remain a great trip.

At various stages in the journey, you have private guides who adjust activities to suit.

In the north, the focus is really on exploration, culture and history more than activity. In Patagonia, there is much more of a focus on hiking. The walk in Patagonia Park can be set to suit you. If you are able to manage the 21km of the Lagunas Altas route then we would highly recommend that you do this. However, there are other shorter routes available which your guide can discuss with you once there. The same applies in Cerro Castillo National Park of course.

Will altitude be a problem?

Not in Patagonia, no, you are at or around sea level. The same is true in the north as you stay on the coastal plains near Copiapó. There is one day when you go up to the high Andes, upwards of 3,000m so you will likely feel the altitude then - as a day trip, we simply return to lower altitude if there is any problem.

How comfortable will I be?

This vacation is very comfortable throughout. You can see the hotels and lodges we use for this trip by asking for full details.

In the north of Chile you stay in a really very well appointed boutique hotel, the best of your trip. Equally, the hotels and lodges in Aysén (Patagonia) have reached a great moment whereby we have a wonderful selection of very high quality small hotels for you to stay in. These are not luxury properties but rather very clean and comfortable owner run places where the welcome is as warm as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

You should expect 3-4* standard, but given how remote all of these places are, that generally feels very comfortable indeed.

Will I meet the locals?

Absolutely but they probably won't speak English. But you will be seeing the Chile of Chileans, they will normally be surprised and delighted to find out that you've come from far away lands to visit their parts of the country.

When driving, you need to be careful because cows quite often wander into the road. Gauchos ride their horses along the road, usually with their dog behind.

Hitchhiking is common here, locals getting from one village to another will wait patiently for a bus to pass but if you stop, they’ll be delighted. They may offer you money, that’s normal etiquette – you don’t have to take it!

All in all, this is Patagonia. It is unvarnished but for those of us who like our travels to ignite the exploring spirit in us – there can be few better places in the world.

Can I make changes to this trip?

Absolutely. We can tailor your vacation in any number of ways, and will often have to play with the running order to find space for you, or to avoid your overlapping too much with other clients.

There is more Carretera to explore around the forests of Queulat, or there is more of Patagonia to explore to the south - along the Argentine side of the frontier or into Torres del Paine which sits beyond the icefields. The forests and volcanoes of the Lake District, the ancient history of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) or the comforts of the winelands are all easily added.

Fly to another country and the continent opens up - we can do wonderful things. Just drop us a line to start the conversation.

What is the payment process and is my money completely safe?

We take a 15% deposit to secure your vacation, with the remainder due eight weeks before your departure.

Your money is 100% protected through our ATOL licence if your trip includes a flight booked through us, or through our ABTOT bond if it does not. Either way, this protection provides a cast-iron financial guarantee and helps you book with complete peace of mind. Because the contract between us exists here in the UK, you get this protection regardless of where you live.

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