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Central Chile and Atacama – wild flowers, wildlife, wine and astronomy

We are heading back up along the north coast and to the Atacama desert, in search of wild flowers, while also visiting some of the astronomical observatories and fine wineries that Chile is famous for.

From Santiago, we will travel through the Mediterranean regions of Central Chile, enjoying some of the country’s finest wineries along the way, to the spectacular coastline, where we will explore the unique ‘lomas’ vegetation, rich in bulbs, cacti and other endemic plants.

The Atacama Desert has some of the most unusual and attractive landscapes on the planet, full of salt pans, geysers and ‘lunar landscapes’. It is by far the driest place on Earth, a sparsely populated plateau, extending from the coast of the Pacific to the high altiplano. Although the average width of the Atacama is less than 100 miles, it extends more than 600 miles south from the Peruvian border. To the east this barren landscape changes abruptly as it rises through the foothills of the Andes and becomes the impressive altiplano, with its alluvial salt basins (salars), snow-capped volcanoes and a surprising variety of wildlife, including three species of flamingo.

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The dry, pollution-free atmosphere and high altitude makes this the perfect location for some of the world’s most important astronomical observatories, and we will visit of two of these cutting-edge scientific facilities. As well as the endemic plants, we will find a variety of birds and butterflies, reptiles and mammals along the way, from penguins and hummingbirds to herds of Vicuna and the characterful Vizcacha.

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Wildlife Travel Chile 2019

Please note that holidays change, although sometimes only slightly, from year to year and previous trip reports may not reflect the planned itinerary, or other holiday details, for the current trip. Please ask us if you would like to know of any significant differences.

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Return flights from the UK. Local transport as specified, including domestic flight. Fifteen nights’ accommodation (two nights on overnight flights), full board.

Not included

Refreshments. Entrance fees for optional sightseeing. Gratuities. Travel insurance.

Group size

To be confirmed

Chile has been one of our favourite destinations since we first visited in 2004.

Day 1 An evening flight takes us to Santiago via Paris – arriving Day 2

Day 2 We visit a nearby wetland for our first introduction to the birdlife of Chile. After lunch, we will visit the famous Viña Concha y Toro, in the Maipo Valley.

Day 3 We drive through the Central Valley to Olmue, in the coastal ranges via the wetlands of the El Paral Nature Reserve, home to Coypu and birds such as Many-coloured Rush Tyrant, Stripe-backed Bittern and Black-headed Duck.

Day 4 Today we explore La Campana National Park set in a beautiful valley, once visited by Darwin, where we will visit one of the last remaining groves of the magnificent Chilean Palm Jubaea chilensis and an area full of tall cacti and other spectacular plants such as Puya (bromeliads). Later in the afternoon, we will visit a winery in the Casablanca Valley.

Day 5 Today we head further north to Los Molles. Here we should see a marvellous selection of plants including many endemics such as orchids, bulbs and striking Alstroemeria species, as well as the endangered Puya venusta. Nearby we visit the coast near Cachagua, where we will look for Humboldt Penguins at their breeding colony, the spectacular Inca Terns and the endearing Marine Otter.

Day 6 This morning we visit the Bosque Fray Jorge National Park, which protects the northernmost area of Valdivian temperate rainforest, a post-glacial relict that survives here, watered by the coastal fogs which hang on the mountain slopes. In the afternoon we will venture into the Limari Valley to visit one of the area’s wineries.

Day 7 A travel day: today we continue northwards, covering more than 300km on our way to Huasco. We will stop on the way to visit markets at Coquimbo and La Serena.

Day 8-9  We spend two days around the Llanos de Challe National Park and nearby Quebrada El Leon. The Park protects an amazing diversity of plantlife, particularly cacti and other succulents. If the winter rains were enough to trigger the blooming, this park becomes one of the hotspots to see the myriad of plants belonging to the ’lomas’ vegetation, a community only found along the coastal deserts of Peru and northern Chile. Birds could include Andean Condor and we will keep our eyes open for various lizards.

Day 10 Continuing northwards, we visit Pan de Azucar National Park, another fog oasis located immediately by the deep blue waters of the Pacific. This protected area is characterized by its iconic desert landscapes, with more than 200 flowering plant species, including a large number of cactus species: impressive aggregations of Copiapoa cinerascens and the striking Copiapoa columna-alba are present in the park, while Chilla Fox and Guanaco, the wild ancestor of the llama, are often seen on the rocky hillsides.

Day 11 A little way north of Taltal, we will spend today exploring another area of ‘lomas’ vegetation at Paposo. Large stands of the columnar cactus Eulychina iquiquensis and the bromeliad Deuterocohnia chrysantha, along with various species of Eriosyce, Copiapoa, Alstroemeria and Schizanthus will all provide plenty to entertain the plant enthusiasts.

Day 12 Today we visit the European Southern Observatory at Paranal. Since 1962, the observatories have taken advantage of the high altitude and clear skies of the Atacama desert to provide state-of-the-art research facilities to astronomers and astrophysicists.

Day 13 A second day of astronomical exploration, today we visit the Atacama Large Millimeter Array of radio telescopes. We will never be far from Chile’s wonderful wildlife, and will no doubt make a stop or two on the way, to enjoy the high altitude plants and animals.

Day 14  We will spend today in the Los Flamencos National Reserve, visiting Salar de Atacama and Chaxa Lake, where the water originates in geyser fields and from melting snow and ice in the highlands. Salts are concentrated and precipitate, and the water becomes pink, blue or white, through colonization by saline tolerant bacteria and diatoms. During the afternoon we visit the impressive Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques which hold one of the few breeding populations of the scarce Horned Coot. Three species of flamingo may be found in the area, along with several high altitude bird species, and we might see herds of Vicuñas or the large Culpeo Fox around the lakes.

Day 15 We explore the impressive El Tatio Geysers, one of the highest geyser fields in the world and a bizarre landscape filled with columns of steam, covered by cones of crystallized silica and other salts, and containing ponds of boiling pastel-coloured mud.

Day 16 We must bid farewell to the Atacama, driving to Calama in time for our flights back to Santiago for one last night at an airport hotel, before our morning flights the next day (Day 17) arriving back in the UK Day 18.

Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders. 

Accommodation will be at good lodges and hotels all with en-suite accommodation.

Meals provided during the stay will be a mixture of local and International dishes. Requests for special diets can be accommodated.

We will ensure that our travelling is as comfortable as possible, using small coach/mini-bus.

We will take local flights between Calama and Santiago with Latam.

The group flights are with Air France from London Heathrow:


Chile is three hours behind the UK

It is possible to fly from other regional airports, including Bristol, Norwich and Manchester: ask us about options.

You must have a valid passport for this trip (valid for the proposed duration of your stay). Temporary tourist visas are issued on arrival in Chile for holders of UK/EU passports (if you are visiting Chile for less than 90 days). For holders of other passports please check with the relevant embassy.

A range of weather is expected. In Santiago and the central parts of Chile, up along the coast to the north it is likely to be sunny and warm: it will be cooler at night, and we may find fog and damp conditions around the northern ‘lomas’. In the Atacama it will no doubt be dry(!), mostly warm during the day, but it can get cold at higher altitude, especially early in the morning and in the evenings.

No strenuous walking is involved but you need to have a reasonable level of general fitness. Most of the walks are not long (perhaps a couple of hours), but we will sometimes walk on rough ground or up hill.

We will be visiting high altitudes during our time in the Atacama. Taltal is at an altitude of 2000m, Calama is at 2,200m, and San Pedro is at c2,500m. We will be heading higher during our excursions: to 2,600m at Paranal, 2,900 at ALMA and then up to 4,100m at El Tatio and Los Flamencos. The gradual increase in altitude, from Taltal to Calama and then San Pedro will help us to acclimatise and the excursions from San Pedro are optional. If you have any reason to believe that you will be adversely affected at these altitudes you must consult your doctor prior to booking.

General inoculations for travel are recommended. We do not visit malaria/yellow fever areas.