Chris and I (Deah) have spent the last four weeks exploring Chile, and believe me, it’s still not enough time. This country is quite big! From top to bottom, Chile is 2,700 miles long- not including the part of Antarctica that Chile claims. Since we started in Santiago and headed south, we still haven’t visited the northern part of Chile including the Atacama desert- we hope to access it from the Bolivian side later in the year. But we were able to see quite a lot of this beautiful country, including the Santiago/Central area, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chiloe Islands, and the southern area of Patagonia.
In the central Chile area, we spent time in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Concón. In both Santiago and Valparaiso we took a walking tour with GuruWalk to get a sense of the history and the politics of the area. That’s one of our favorite ways to orient ourselves in a new city or country. One of the suggestions our guide gave us in Santiago was to go to the park on San Cristobal hill, one of the major greenspaces in the city. We took a funicular to the top of the hill, and then a cable car across the tops of the hills, to get a wonderful view of the city. We also visited two museums, including the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (free, open daily Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 6 pm) and the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (8000 pesos, open same times- be aware that currently, only one level of this museum has exhibits, the rest is closed). Santiago is an easy city to get around in, with a comprehensive metro system. At our walking tour guide’s suggestions, we tried two specialties of the city: a “completo“, which is basically a hot dog slathered in several condiments (Chilenos REALLY love hot dogs) and a drink called a “terremoto” (earthquake), featuring pineapple juice, ice cream, and white wine. Interesting!
From Santiago, we took a three hour bus to the city of Valparaiso. Founded in 1536, Valparaiso has a history of conquistadores, pirates, earthquakes, fires, and, pre-Suez Canal, ships circumnavigating the continent in order to reach California for the gold rush. Most ships would stop in Valparaiso and pick up ice from the Andes mountains, fruits, and vegetables, and deliver them to the west coast of the American continent- a lucrative business. For that reason, Valparaiso itself is full of old manors and Victorian mansions built in the 19th century. Most have been turned into hotels and museums now, and make for a quirky bit of Europe in this South American city.
Near Valparaiso is the small surf town of Concón, featuring several surf competitions at their LaBoca beach. We took a local bus (500 pesos) up the seaside highway, getting off at LaBoca, and had a delicious seafood lunch. We watched the surfers and the fishermen, then found the Concón sand dunes, and trudged our way to the top of the vast sands that overlook the ocean. At the top you can rent sandboards and ride down, or just sit and enjoy the view. From there, it’s easy to hop on the bus heading south and return to Viña del Mar or Valparaiso.
Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
From the moment we started planning our South America adventure, we knew we wanted to visit Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, as it is also known. Due to Covid, it has been closed to tourism for over two years. However, as of August 2022, it is open again, and you can access it via a flight on Latam Airlines, or various cruise lines. For specifics on getting to Rapa Nui, please see this guide to getting there. We spent four days, three nights on the island, which was just enough time to see almost everything if you plan your activities carefully and have good weather. From the moai statues on platforms, complete with pukao, to the volcanic quarry where the moai were carved, it was a fascinating look at this sea-faring Polynesian culture. Currently (as of fall 2022), Rapa Nui requires visitors to have a guide with them to visit the 15 or so national park sites ($80 USD for a park pass to all sites), and actually we found the guide very helpful in learning about the history of the island, its people, and their customs. Although the trip out to the island was a bit of an investment, we were not disappointed and would absolutely recommend anyone visiting Chile to take the additional steps to see Easter Island.
From Central Chile (either Santiago or Valparaiso) there are several buses heading south, as far as Puerto Montt. We overnight bussed there and then took a ferry onto Chiloe Island, the largest island in South America. We spent a week exploring the archipelago , the food, and the local culture. The few towns on the islands are small, with lots of fishing boats, ferries between islands, and cociñieria (small family-owned restaurants in a common building, which serve tea and seafood soups to fishermen, tourists, and locals). The cuisine of this area is unique and you will definitely eat a lot of fish and shellfish while you are there! One local dish we particularly liked was the chupe de jaibo, which is a kind of crab casserole (usually about 9000 pesos, or about $9). On the island you can also find plenty of places that offer curanto, similar to a hangi in New Zealand- hot coals are placed in a hole in the ground, then a layer of mussels, pork, chicken, sausage, and potatoes, then covered with turf and leaves, and left to cook for several hours.
Another feature of the Chiloe Islands is the local mythology, a blend of legends, myths, and religious stories that are a result of the Spanish Catholics trying to “Christianize” the local Mapuche natives. Nearly every town offers up their own tales of witches, phantom ships, traucos, and mermaids. To combat these beliefs, the Spanish built churches in practically every corner of the islands- more than 150 small wooden churches. Several of these still exist and around 15 of them have been given a UNESCO heritage status.
If you want to learn more about either Valparaiso or Chiloe Islands, and you enjoy reading historical fiction, definitely pick up some books by Isabel Allende. Perhaps Chile’s most well-known author, and winner of Chile’s National Literature Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she includes so much of Chilean culture in her books, such as Daughter of Fortune, The House of Spirits, and Maya’s Notebook.
Finally, we found the bottom of Chile, a vast area called Patagonia. In certain times of the year, you can take busses or roads to Patagonia via a shared road with Argentina, but at other times of the year you can only get here on the Chilean side via boat (try Navimag ferry or Hurtigruten cruise line) or plane (Latam or Sky). In Patagonia, we visited the Torres del Paine National Park, home to glaciers, mountains, fjords, and wildlife. From one day hikes to five days trekking the “W”, horseback trails, or a boat, visitors can find just the right fit for visiting this beautiful park. Be advised that the weather in this park is very fickle, and can suddenly and un-seasonally turn from sunny to sleeting rain in just a few moments, so dress accordingly. We booked our visit using the Las Torres website, and were able to book a dorm room at a refugio with meals, but you can also camp with your own stuff, rent camping equipment, or stay in a hotel in the park. If you are only planning a one or two day stay you can probably do it without much advance planning- but if you are wanting to do the longer W or O Circuit, you really do need to book weeks or even months in advance, as it is a confusing system of three different entities that own different facilities inside the park along the circuit. I can say that if you enjoy hiking- and don’t mind paying fairly hefty sums for the experience- that it is a beautiful and unique experience. For us, the weather turned bad, so we took very few pictures, but from what I did see and from what I’ve seen online, it is stunning.
In addition to basing ourselves out of Puerto Natales before and after the Torres del Paine visit, we also went to Punta Arenas, which is essentially Chile’s most southern city. It is a small town and there is not a whole lot to do there, but many people fly into Punto Arenas on their way to the national park or to Ushuaia, the southern-most city in Argentina. In Punta Arenas you can visit a nearby penguin colony, take a boat or ferry to the town of Porvenir, which is actually on the island of Tierra del Fuego. For us, we spent a day taking a bus tour which went south, following the Strait of Magellan, to the very tiny Fort Bulnes– the first Patagonian settlement. The tour was in Spanish, but as we’ve been diligently practicing every day in our Duolingo app, we were able to get the gist of it.
And now, after countless lunches of fish, mussels, crab, and potatoes (more than 150 varieties in Chile), as well as trying out all the Chilean wines and Austral beers we could, it’s time to head to Argentina. We got a super hot, last minute deal on a cruise to Antarctica, so check back soon for details on how we managed that, what it’s like there, and what we get up to later all over Argentina. Subscribe below to get our updates straight to your inbox!
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