Chilling out in Chile

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.

Arrived in Chile! This is country #135 for Deah, and #163 for Chris. Can’t wait to explore this place (after a nap!)

Central Chile

The Museum of Memory

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!

San Cristobal Parque cable car

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.

Valparaiso is full of street art; I really loved these three paintings that showed the evolution of the city through the centuries

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.

Las Dunas de Concón

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.

Chiloe Island(s)

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.

Extremely fresh and extremely delicious Chilean seafood; main dishes run between 5000 pesos for a local eatery, up to 20,000 pesos for more touristy places

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.

Inside the wooden church at Castro, Chiloe

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.

Palafitos– houses on stilts- edge the water on Chiloe island

Patagonia

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.

Chris at the base of Las Torres

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.

Fort Bulnes, overlooking the Straits of Magellan, at Point Famine. The 1584 settlement was soon moved to where Punta Arenas is now.
Deah at Punta Arenas: can’t get much more south than this… or can you?

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!

Questions about Chile? Comments? Drop them here!

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Reopens for Tourism: how to get there

Moai on Rapa Nui, Easter Island, Chile

After being closed for two years due to the pandemic, the island of Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island or Isla de Pascua) has reopened as of Aug 4, 2022. Chris and I visited the weekend of October 7, just a couple of days after a fire swept through the national park, damaging several of the moai. Fortuitously, when we visited, an investigation team was on the scene, and all national park sites were once again open to the public.

Two moai, located near the volcanic stone quarry that all moai were carved from. Nearly half of the island’s 887 moai still wait at the Rano Raraku quarry, never having been transported to the island’s villages in ancient times.

Getting to Rapa Nui can be tricky, but not impossible. Only one airline, Latam Airlines, currently flies here. Pre-pandemic, there were daily flights from Santiago, Chile, as well as weekly flights connecting Rapa Nui to Tahiti. The best (cheapest) way to get a ticket on Latam Airlines is to access it via their “Chilean” website (as in, use a VPN, or when it asks you if you’d like to redirect to the US Latam site, click “no”). You will have to navigate through the site in Spanish, but it’s pretty straightforward. For now, you can only purchase a ticket originating in Santiago Chile. If you go through the other Latam portals, the fare will be increased by quite a bit.

Traveling via Latam Airlines may be tricky, but not as tricky as sailing from Micronesia. Polynesian oral tradition says that these 7 explorers reached Rapa Nui, and in a dream, Chief Hotu Matu’a saw that they had arrived successfully. They are the only 7 moai to face the sea, anticipating the chief’s arrival from Hiva

The second step is to secure your accommodations. Per the Latam website, you must book with a Sernatur designated accommodation, or have a letter of invite from an island resident. However, this is not too much of a worry, as basically all hotels and cabañas on the island are registered with Sernatur. With a population of only 7000, everyone here knows everyone else, and tourism is the main income generator, so everyone is following the official rules.

Ancient Rapa Nuians lived in these thatched houses shaped like upside-down boats. Now, most of the island’s population of 7,000 live in Hanga Roa, the only city on the island.

To visit Chile, you will need to enter your vaccine information to the government website Mevacuno. Be sure to do this a few days before you go, as it takes 24-72 hours to go through the approval process. Your hotel will likely send you this link as well, as will Latam Airlines. As of October 1, you do not need a PCR test to enter Chile.

Iorana! It means “welcome”; very similar to Kia Ora in New Zealand and Ia Orana in Tahiti

However! You do need a PCR test to enter Rapa Nui. You must take a test 24 hours prior to your flight from Santiago to the island. You can do this at the airport (go to the Domestic terminal), or at other locations around town. This test costs about $22 (cash or card, USD or pesos is fine) at the airport, and we received our results in about six hours. There is also a testing site at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport.

It’s only a 20 minute walk from the island’s airport to Ahu Tahai, a beautiful sunset point. You do not need the national park pass here.

Once you get the result from the testing facility (this will be sent to you in an email), you will need to upload this to the FUI, a form that allows you to enter Rapa Nui. And now the paperwork is done! Head to the airport, find the Latam Airlines ticket counters, and present your printouts or screenshots of your hotel reservation, your Mevacuno, your PCR test results, and your FUI. They will double and triple check you so it’s easiest to have it all at your fingertips when you present your passport to get your boarding pass. Despite having all this, they still asked to see our physical vaccine cards- so bring those as well.

Only about 45 of the moai were ever completely finished: carved out of volcanic rock, transported to a village, inserting eyes and a pukao (top knot), and raised into a vertical position. The rest of the moai either remain at the quarry, or were broken in transit.

This sounds like a lot, but just take it one step at a time. Your hotel will likely send you reminders along the way. As you plan your trip, consider how long you want to stay and what you want to see there. Be aware that in order to see the sites, you MUST purchase a national park pass, which costs $80USD (you can purchase online or at the info point in town, and you can use cash, credit, USD or Chilean pesos). The park pass is good for up to ten days. You will need to show this at each of the dozen or so national park sites across the island. I guess you could stand at the edge of the road and look in from afar, but did you really fly all the way here to not see them close up?

The next step to getting here is to climb down this crater, cut enough reeds to make a float, swim out to a nearby island Motu Nui, and wait for the first bird’s egg of spring. First one with an egg wins! Just kidding, you don’t have to do that- but for 200 years, warriors would compete each spring for dominance of political and social power, in a Birdman Competition on the island.

Do the moai have bodies buried beneath the earth? Only one moai was ever carved with a body and feet, in a kneeling position. The rest of the moai have heads and torsos, and were meant to rest upon raised funerary platforms (ahu)- not planted in the ground. There are some moai that fell over the ages, and have been partially buried by erosion.

Do you need to rent a car? Do you need a guide? As of October 2022, you must have a registered guide to visit the national park sites (this is a fairly new requirement, so older blogs might say differently). So you can either rent a car and hire a guide for the day, find a group tour, or hire a guide who has a car. In our case, our hotel hooked us up with Tararainor Tour, owned and operated by local guide Jorge Tepano, and we had a wonderful time with him. We did a full day tour and two half day tours with Jorge, and learned so much about the island, it’s people, and their history. He really knows his stuff and I highly recommend him.

Jorge shows us where two moai began to be carved from the volcanic motherstone- but were never completed.

I know a lot of travelers chafe at “having” to employ a guide, but think of it this way. This island has been closed to tourism for two years. The hotels, the restaurants, the guides, everyone has suffered, with very little help from the Chilean government or UNESCO. The least we can do is employ a guide to share their knowledge with us, and ensure their family can remain on their ancestral island. In addition, people without guide supervision continuously do dumb stuff at tourist sites around the world, disrespecting and even damaging priceless historical artifacts.

Rapa Nui is a beautiful island, and believe me- you will appreciate it so much more with a local guide

Would I recommend wading through the paperwork, uploading the information, paying for price of the tickets, etc., just to see some thousand-year-old statues? I absolutely would.

Questions about Rapa Nui? Drop them below and let me know!