Chile is one of the most slender countries in the world – just 150 miles across at its widest point but don’t let its thin size fool you. From the snow-capped volcanoes of Patagonia and blistering heights of the Andes to world-class wineries and Maoi sculptures of Easter Island, there are a lot of wonderful things to see in Chile. It’s one of the most developed South American countries, its capital Santiago is a tech hub for the region. I only got to spend a little time in the country. After looking at a map I realized I needed to come back – there’s just so much to see and do here! Add to the fact the people are friendly, the food delicious (so much wine!), and the country budget friendly, and Chile is one of the best countries I’ve been to in recent year. Use this travel guide to plan your trip to a country in transition. It’s one of the most unique in the region.
Accommodation – Dorms in a youth hostel start at 6,000 CLP and private rooms come in at around 15,000 CLP. Budget hotels are also inexpensive with prices from 25,000 CLP. When you are in Santiago, be sure to stay at The Princesa Insolente. It’s my favorite hostel in the city.
Food – Food in the country isn’t too expensive, though prices go a lot higher the further south you get. Most places in the country offer a set menu for lunch with a starter, main, dessert and drink for about 5,000 CLP. A steak dinner with wine and an appetizer beginning at 17,000. Starbucks is around 2,000. Grocery shopping can save you a lot of money with a week’s worth of groceries costing around 30,000 CLP. As everything has to be shipped south, food prices in Patagonia are about 30% higher than elsewhere.
Transportation – Public transportation, especially in Santiago, is reliable and affordable. For travel between cities, expect to pay around 5,480 CLP for a 150-mile journey. If possible, buy your bus ticket in advance and save at least 340 CLP per ride. In the non-summer seasons the local buses (micros) become less frequent, especially in mainly tourist areas.
Activities – Entrance to National Parks and museums can vary from around 3,425-18,000 CLP (for Torres del Paine Park).
Money Saving Tips
Buy wine at the supermarkets – Surprisingly, buying wine from the vineyards can be slightly more expensive than in supermarkets. You can pick up nice a bottle of wine for just 2,000 CLP in most stores.
Take the bus – Bus service is inexpensive and efficient here. Night buses are quite comfortable and also a good way to save on a night’s accommodation. With such vast distances, you’ll have to take the bus at least once.
Buy food from La Vega Market – La Vega Market in Santiago sells everything you could possibly need and all sorts of really local, interesting ingredients from Chile and Peru. Shop here for your veggies, fruits, and to get a really authentic experience.
Eat at the local fish markets – The local fish market is usually the best place in any city for a seafood meal, though the restaurants look very cheap and thrown-together. Don’t be fooled. It will be the best fish you’ll eat in Chile!
Don’t haggle, just shop around – Haggling is not common and vendors stick to their guns even when called out for price discrimination. So if you’re quoted an inflated price for being a tourist, it’s best to just move around and find alternatives where the prices are already set and visible. Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting your time and energy.
Ride in a micro or colectivo – Buses are large inter-city transportation. “Micros” are intra-city, and “colectivos” are taxis that drive a specific route once they get 4 people in the car, and charge a very low rate. If you want go somewhere, chances are there’s a micro or colectivo that can get you close, just ask a local and they’ll know where to point you.
Top Things to See and Do in Chile
Santiago – Chile’s capital is a thriving city and home to a third of the country’s entire population. There are quite a few must-see attractions in the city, like the Parque Metropolitano, The Museum of Human Rights in Santiago (free), and the Festival del Barrio Brasil. Barrio Bellas Artes, Barrio Brazil, Barrio Yungay and the pedestrian streets of Agustinas and Huerfanos are all great places to spend time walking around. Most of the interesting places are easy to get to while on the metro’s Line 1 (red). From Manuel Montt station to the East are the richer, more expat-style areas. From Manuel Montt station to Universidad Católica station in the West are the funky, upper middle class neighborhoods like Lastarria, Barrio Italia, and Providencia, which are all lovely to walk through. Universidad Católica and to the West is Santiago Centro, the historic and lower-middle class area, which is “downtown Santiago”. This is a capital that should not be missed.
San Marcos Cathedral – The same architect who was responsible for the Eiffel Tower, Alexandre Gustav Eiffel, designed San Marcos Catherdral. The cathedral is found in Arica, Chile’s northernmost city, and was built to replace the original cathedral, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1888. This place is a beautiful and rare example of Gothic architecture in South America.
Get tipsy on a wine tour – Chile’s vineyards have been producing world-class wine for over 400 years. There are plenty of tours, which you can go on, as the vineyards stretch the entire length of the country. Most of the best wineries are located near to Santiago and are quite easily accessible, otherwise, ask your hostel for the best group tours in the area.
Be enchanted by Easter Island – Easter Island is the most isolated inhabited island on earth. The island lies 2,200 miles off the coast of western Chile and is famous for its Moai sculptures (the big faces dotted all over the island). However, there is so much more to the island, including thousands of archaeological sites, volcanic craters, pristine beaches, and excellent diving. I suggest staying for more than a day to really soak up the majesty of this little-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit colorful Valparaiso – In 2002, Valaparaiso was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city is a mesh of bohemian bars and Victorian architecture that lines the streets along the coastline of sheer cliffs. The laid-back atmosphere and beauty of the area have inspired generations of writers and poets, including the Nobel Peace-winning poet Pablo Neruda. Be sure to bring your camera because the whole city is painted in vibrant colors that will have you wanting to snap away.
Torres del Paine National Park – The 450,000 acres of this national park were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Torres del Paine lies between the Andes and Patagonian steppe and is made up of snow-clad mountains, glacier lakes, and some of the best hiking tours that Chile has to offer. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful and desolate regions on the planet. Foreigners pay 18,000 CLP entrance fee.
San Pedro de Atacama – Located in Chile’s Norte Chico northern region, San Pedro de Atacama is one of Chile’s hottest tourist towns. Literally. The town is found in the driest desert in the world (it reportedly hasn’t seen rain since 1870), but the rock formations here are stunning, and it’s the perfect place to stargaze.
Hike a volcano – Chile is home to the world’s tallest active volcano, Ojos del Salado, which lies in the Andes on the border with Argentina. Villarica and Osorno are also popular with visitors and both lie close to lakes. Most volcanoes have thermal spas at the base of them for you to relax in.
Valle de la Muerte – Also known as “Death Valley”, this is an awesome place to go on a hike, go horseback riding, or even sand boarding. There are guided moonlight walks as well.
Moon Valley National Park – This is an interesting area with stones and sand formations that have developed an extraordinary texture due to thousands of years of winds and flooding. The rock formations look a lot like the surface of the moon, giving rise to the park’s name.
El Tatio geysers – A very popular tourist spot, these geysers are beautiful. You have to get up around 4am in order to catch the tour, but it is worth it. Remember to take a swimsuit, as there are many thermal pools that you can dip into.
“Meteorite” Pit – This vertical pit is carved into the salty walled hillside of the northeast end of Cordillera de la Sal. The cave runs 10 miles deep and was originally said to be created by a meteorite impact. However, it was actually carved by an ancient river.
Museo de Bellas Artes – This museum is the second best in all of Chile – there is a wide display of ‘Fine Arts’, from sculptures, photography, and paintings to new media. The building is somewhat small, but the architecture is equally as impressive as the collection within. Admission is free.
Mingle among the wealthy in Viña del Mar – Considered a Chilean Miami, this city next to Valparaiso serves as a hot spot for casinos, upscale cafes, and seaside restaurants. Even if you don’t have money to burn, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon wandering down the beach promenade, taking in the sights and smells of the ocean. There’s plenty of people watching to be done here, and a variety of food to keep you satisfied while doing so.
Tour Pablo Neruda’s homes – One of the world’s most famous poets used to call Chile home, but yet he couldn’t seem to decide on just one residence. With homes in Valparaiso, Santiago, and Isla Negra, this Chilean icon stuffed a lifetime of knick-knacks, literature, and interesting maritime architectural pieces into his three pads. All of them are open to the public. Even if you’re not a huge fan of his work, his homes alone are an interesting glimpse into Chilean culture.
Get off the beaten path – Some lesser-known treasures are Frutillar (a beautiful lakeside community in southern Chile’s Los Lagos Region), Lonquimay (another gorgeous lakeside town in the Malleco Province of southern Chile’s Araucanía Region), and Coyhaique (a less pricey Northern Patagonia city that’s a hub for great nature adventures).