Chile vs Argentina… where to go
Are you struggling to decide whether to go to Chile or Argentina?
With the towering Andes acting as a natural border between the two countries, the other side is skirted by the ocean, giving each country a vast coastline. They both span from arid, ochre deserts in the north to the crystal-like glaciers of southern Patagonia. Not to mention the fertile land that owes to the production of some of the world’s finest wines.
For those dying to visit South America, this can pose something of a dilemma – after all, with so much in common, which one should you choose?
The good news is that the choice becomes easier when you look through a lens. We are going to share some of the countries' common elements with you – and how, despite their similarities, there are still differences that can help steer your travel choices.
One of the most convincing reasons to visit either Chile or Argentina is the opportunities each offers for viewing spectacular scenery. The imposing Andes, lakes and coastlines mean the two have a lot in common when it comes to landscapes – especially as they have similar climates. However, there are some natural wonders that are unique to each place.
The Atacama desert, Chile
The sweeping landscapes of the Atacama desert are a spectacle you can only see in Chile. Renowned as the driest desert in the world, it is hot during the day, cold at night and offers some of the best stargazing in the world. Thanks to the high altitude and pollution-free air, it is also home to the world’s most powerful observatory ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Arrray) that can spot some of the most distant, ancient galaxies that have ever been seen. Astronomy enthusiasts can visit ALMA to learn about the site and installations and can observe the galaxies through telescopes from SPACE (San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Observatory), learning about the constellations from your guide.
From the jagged Moon Valley where you might mistake yourself for being on mars and the spurting El Tatio geysers – the third largest geyser field in the world – to the salt flats and beautiful lakes where pink flamingos live, the landscapes are truly breathtaking.
Flamingoes in the Atacama desert
Iguazú Falls – Argentina
Situated on the border between Argentina and Brazil is one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls – the Iguazú Falls. Approximately 80 metres high and 2,700 metres wide, this awe-inspiring natural wonder lies at the heart of the Unesco-listed Iguazú Falls National Park, which is also home to a wealth of flora and fauna, including tapirs, ocelots and jaguars.
Find out more about Iguazu Falls here.
Iguazú Falls, Argentina
At the southernmost tip of South America is Patagonia, stretching across both Chile and Argentina. Patagonia is home to stunning glacial lakes that offer as many shades as Farrow & Ball’s colour chart; towering mountains and rugged landscapes where guanacos and huemul deer graze; and pumas which hide among the undergrowth, only venturing out at night.
In Argentina you can see the sprawling glaciers of the Los Glaciares National Park, the dizzying heights of Mount Fitz Roy near the town of El Chaltén; while Chile is home to the iconic fingers of Cerro Torre and the electric blue Pehoé Lake.
Perito Moreno Glacier – Argentina
Sitting at the base of the Andes is the Los Glaciares National Park where you'll find the colossal Perito Merino Glacier. This spectacular natural wonder is one of the nation's top tourist attractions, and is a truly incredible sight. See the glacier from different angles of the walkway and be prepared for the crashing noise when a large chunk of it breaks off. We recommend visiting in the spring or autumn when there are less visitors, but the scenery is no less spectacular.
Perito Moreno glacier
Torres del Paine National Park – Chile
The lakes and mountains of Torres del Paine National Park are utterly arresting and its remote location only serves to add to its majestic ambience. There are a host of excellent hiking trails to follow, although anyone who wants to explore the scenery with a little less exertion will find boat rides available too.
Guanacos in the Torres del Paine National Park
Both Chile and Argentina offer some marvellous opportunities for wildlife-spotting.
Argentina’s Peninsula Valdes provides habitats for an array of amazing creatures. Between June and December, migrating southern right whales are often spotted; while the months of September, March and April are better for orcas. Here, you can also catch glimpses of elephant seals and sea lions. The world’s largest colony of penguins reside at the Punta Tombo Reserve, which is a truly magical sight for wildlife lovers.
King penguins, Tierra del Fuego
In southern Chile, Magdalena Island near Punta Arenas is home to 60,000 Magellanic penguins. The only King penguin colony outside Antarctica can be found in Bahia Inútil in the Strait of Magellan, where you can also spot Humpback whales.
As you would expect, there are some amazing cities to be discovered in both Chile and Argentina – but their capitals are actually very different. So, if exploring urban cultural attractions is high on your to do list, looking closely at what each has to offer is a good idea.
Buenos Aires is definitely the livelier of the capitals. There is a tangible energy that's impossible not to get caught up in. It is the birthplace of the tango, which can be viewed on the streets of La Boca and San Telmo, or book yourself an evening at the milonga – an event where tango is danced. After a seductive performance, taste the succulent steaks that are paired perfectly with a bottle of Malbec. Peruse the independent shops of Palermo and find out more about the Argentine’s beloved Evita Perón, whose opulent grave can be found in the Recoleta Cemetery.
From Buenos Aires you can take a 50-minute ferry to the quaint Urguyuan town of Colonia del Sacramento or float along the waterways of Tigre, just under an hour’s train from the capital.
Wondering how to spend 48 hours in Buenos Aires?
The colourful house of La Boca, Buenos Aires
Santiago is a much more laid-back destination – characteristic of Chile and its people. With its cafe culture and charming city parks, it is a great place to unwind, although certain areas are very built-up and can be quite loud. Watch the changing of the guards outside La Moneda Palace and inspect the exhibitions at the La Moneda cultural centre and the Gabriella Mistral cultural centre, before seeing the famed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda’s house in Bellavista.
From Santiago you can take a two hour bus to the bohemian coastal town of Valparaiso that is known for its colourful murals of street art as well as another of Pablo Neruda’s houses. Alternatively, you can easily access Chile’s premiere wine valleys of Maipo, Casablanca and Colchagua.
Plaza de Armas, Santiago
Many travellers cite trying local food as one of their favourite things to do on holiday – and it's a passion we understand and share. Argentina and Chile have much in common when it comes to cuisine, each with a distinctly Spanish influence that dates back to colonial times as well as abundant seafood. While each country produces outstanding wines, cooks fabulous steaks and makes delicious empanadas – similar to Cornish pasties – they are not gastronomically identical.
In Argentina, you'll notice there is much more of an Italian fare, whereas in Chile you'll come across German influences rather than Italian. Between 1857 and 1940, Italians arrived in Argentina in great numbers, while Germans arrived in the south of Chile from 1846 to 1914, following the Revolutions of 1848 in Germany.
Tasting utterly out of this world, Argentine steaks may just have the edge over Chilean steaks – though you won't be disappointed by what you taste in either country. In terms of drinks, wine is equally fantastic, whichever destination you choose. One thing you will come across in Argentina and southern Chile is the prevalence of mate – a kind of green tea that many Argentinians carry around with them in flasks. When in Chile, you must try pisco – a brandy made by distilling fermented grape juice – which has been a source of argument between the Peruvians and Chileans for years as to who invented it.
Michelin-star chefs Francis Mallman and Rodolfo Guzmán have put both Argentina and Chile on the map as countries turning to haute-cuisine. Mallman has two restaurants in Argentina, 1884 in Mendoza and Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, as well as Fuegos de Apalta in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Guzman’s restaurant Boragó showcases Patagonian ancestral recipes, using indigenous plants and creating completely new dishes.
The best of Chile and Argentina
If you're still unsure which nation best suits you, here are the three things we think each country is best for:
Top three destinations in Chile
• Patagonia – for Torres del Paine National Park
• Atacama – for the desert, salt flats and stargazing
• Valparaiso – for an artistic city break and Chilean culture
Top three destinations in Argentina
• Buenos Aires – for Tango, steak and culture
• Patagonia – for Los Glaciares National Park
• Iguazú Falls – for the powerful falls
It is also worth considering an itinerary that allows you to explore both countries – something that can also help you gain a deeper understanding of their similarities and differences. Alternatively, combining one of the two with another South American destination might tempt you more. Argentina, for example, is a particularly good partner for a trip to Brazil.