Chile


Chile destinations

about Chile is nature on a colossal scale, but travel here is surprisingly easy if you don't rush it.

Meet a Land of Extremes

Preposterously thin and unreasonably long, Chile stretches from the belly of South America to its foot, reaching from the driest desert on earth to vast southern glacial fields. Diverse landscapes unfurl over a 4300km stretch: parched dunes, fertile valleys, volcanoes, ancient forests, massive glaciers and fjords. There's wonder in every detail and nature on a symphonic scale. For the traveler, it's mind-boggling to find this great wilderness so intact. The human quest for development could imperil these treasures sooner than we think. Yet for now, Chile guards some of the most pristine parts of our planet, and they shouldn't be missed.

La Buena Onda

In Chile, close borders foster backyard intimacy – bookended by the Andes and the Pacific, the country averages just 175km wide. No wonder you start greeting the same faces. Pause and it starts to feel like home. You've landed at the end of the continent, and one thing that stands out at this final frontier is hospitality. Buena onda (good vibes) means putting forth a welcoming attitude. Patagonians share round upon round of maté tea. The ritual of relating and relaxing is so integral to the fabric of local life, it’s hardly noticed. But they do say one thing: stay and let your guard down.

Slow Adventure

In Chile, adventure is what happens on the way to having an adventure. Pedal the chunky gravel of the Carretera Austral and end up sharing a ferry with SUVs and oxcarts, or take a wrong turn and find heaven in an anonymous orchard. Serendipity takes over. Plans may be made, but try being just as open to experience. Locals never rush, so maybe you shouldn’t either. 'Those who hurry waste their time,' is the Patagonian saying that would serve well as a traveler's mantra.

Wine Culture

Before wine became an export commodity for the luxury set, humble casks had their place on every Chilean table and grandparents tended backyard orchards. Now Chile has become a worldwide producer catering to ever more sophisticated palates. Rich reds, crisp whites and floral rosés – there is a varietal that speaks to every mood and occasion. But at home, it's different. Chileans embrace the concept of la buena mesa. This is not about fancy. Beyond a good meal, it’s great company, the leisure of overlapping conversations with uncorkings, and the gaze that's met at the clink of two glasses. ¡Salud!

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Surprising, cosmopolitan, energetic, sophisticated and worldly, Santiago is a city of syncopated cultural currents, madhouse parties, expansive museums and top-flight restaurants. No wonder 40% of Chileans call the leafy capital city home. It's a wonderful place for strolling, and each neighborhood has its unique flavor and tone. Head out for the day to take in the museums, grand architecture and pedestrian malls of the Centro, before an afternoon picnic in one of the gorgeous hillside parks that punctuate the city's landscape.

Nightlife takes off in the sidewalk eateries, cafes and beer halls of Barrios Brasil, Lastarria and Bellavista, while as you head east to well-heeled neighborhoods like Providencia and Las Condes, you'll find tony restaurants and world-class hotels.

With a growing economy, renovated arts scene and plenty of eccentricity to spare, Santiago is an old-guard city on the cusp of a modern-day renaissance.

Sights

The wedge-shaped Centro is the oldest part of Santiago, and the busiest. It is hemmed in by three fiendishly hard-to-cross borders: the Río Mapocho, the Autopista Central expressway (which has only occasional bridges over it) and the Alameda, where the central railing puts your vaulting skills to the test. Architecturally, the Centro is exuberant rather than elegant: haphazardly maintained 19th-century buildings sit alongside the odd glittering high-rise, and its crowded paseos (pedestrian precincts) are lined with inexpensive clothing stores, fast-food joints and cafes staffed with scantily clad waitresses. Government offices, the presidential palace and the banking district are also here, making it the center of civic life. You'll find some interesting museums, but it pays to head to other neighborhoods for your lunch and dinner.

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Sleeping

Santiago's unique neighborhoods provide the backdrop for your stay. For easy access to museums and restaurants, consider the Centro, budget-friendly Barrio Brasil or nightlife districts like classy Barrio Lastarria and raucous Bellavista. For fancier digs and sophisticated dining – but limited access to most major sights – head to leafy Providencia, trendy Barrio Italia or well-heeled Las Condes.

Eating

The best high-end restaurants are concentrated in Lastarria, Bellavista, Providencia and Vitacura – you can sample many of them for less by going for midweek set lunch menus. More classic Chilean cuisine includes cheap and cheerful seafood lunches at the central fish market, empanadas from takeout counters around the city and completos (hot dogs piled high with avocado) at downtown diners.

Drinking & Nightlife

Santiaguinos take Sunday off to be with family, but you can find a good party any other day. Bellavista is the main nightlife district, while the chic Lastarria, working-class Brasil and upscale Vitacura and Providencia neighborhoods are best for bars.

For clubbing, you'll need to stay up late. Most clubs don't start until midnight, staying open until 4am or 5am.

Entertainment

Whether you get your kicks on the dance floor or at the fútbol (soccer) stadium, whether you'd rather clap in time to strumming folk singers or at the end of three-hour operas, Santiago has plenty to keep you entertained.

Shopping

Shoppers may be initially put off by the Centro's uninspiring shopping streets, pedestrianized Ahumada and Huérfanos, not to mention Santiago's overall megamall addiction, but there are fantastic indie stores with made-in-Chile goods at places like Providencia's Galería Drugstore or Barrio Italia's Estacion Italia. For seriously cheap clothes, head to the Korean and Palestinian immigrant area of Patronato, west of Bellavista.

Travel with Children

Santiaguinos are family oriented and usually welcome travelers with children. Kids stay up late and often accompany their parents to parties or restaurants, where they order from the regular menu rather than a separate one for children. That said, most kiddy-oriented activities here are helpful distractions rather than standout sights. In a pinch, children also love creamy Chilean ice cream, which is available everywhere, and the clowns and acrobats that put on performances in the Plaza de Armas and Parque Forestal on weekends. Trips to the Cajón del Maipo or ski areas make great quick getaways.

Arriving in Destination

Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez (Santiago) Two cheap bus services connect the airport with the city center (40 minutes): Buses Centropuerto and Turbus Aeropuerto. Both leave from right outside the arrivals hall; buy tickets on board. A taxi ride to the Centro should cost around CH$18,000, though drivers may charge more. Go to the Transvip desk in the arrivals hall for shared shuttles (from CH$7000) to central neighborhoods.

Terminal de Buses Sur (Santiago) The city's main bus station is connected to the metro at the Universidad de Santiago station. From here, take trains east on Línea 1 to reach the Centro.

Estación Central (Santiago) Train station with connections to south-central Chile. Connect to the metro at the Estación Central station and head east on Línea 1 to reach the Centro.

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Syncopated, dilapidated, colorful and poetic, Valparaíso is a wonderful mess. Pablo Neruda, who drew much inspiration from this hard-working port town, said it best: 'Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.'

But Neruda wasn't the only artist to fall for Valparaíso's unexpected charms. Poets, painters and would-be philosophers have long been drawn to Chile's most unusual city. Along with the ever-shifting port population of sailors, dockworkers and prostitutes, they've endowed gritty and gloriously spontaneous Valparaíso with an edgy air of 'anything goes.' Add to this the spectacular faded beauty of its chaotic cerros (hills), some of the best street art in Latin America, a maze of steep, sinuous streets, alleys and escaleras (stairways) piled high with crumbling mansions, and it's clear why some visitors spend more time here than in Santiago.

Sights

Valparaíso's Murals

Wandering up and down the winding hills of Valparaíso, you'll see colorful public art everywhere, from dreamlike wall paintings of glamorous women to political graffiti-style murals splashed across garage doors. Top spots to view street art are Cerros Concepción, Alegre and Bellavista, including the unmissable Pasaje Galvez. Explore this area with Valpo Street Art Tours to gain a better appreciation for the art and artists.

Cerro Polanco was 'bombed' by graffiti artists from across Latin America at the First Latin American Graffiti-Mural Festival, with 80-plus murals going up in just a few days. The neighborhood is great for wandering by day, but avoid it at night as tourists regularly report pickpockets in the area.

As you cruise the streets, keep your eyes peeled for Chilean artist Inti. His large-scale mural, painted across the surface of several neighboring buildings and visible from Cerro Concepción, was unveiled in early 2012. The vibrant sideways image shows a mysterious, partially fragmented figure draped with exotic jewelry.

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Activities

Wandering through Valpo's streets admiring its murals and architecture is one of the city's best activities. Don't miss a trip or two on one of the six rattling ascensores (funiculars), built between 1883 and 1916, that crank you up into the hills and meandering back alleys (several more are currently being repaired). Beach lovers should head north to Viña and Zapallar.

Practical Tip: Hop on the Bus

Sure, you can take the creaky antique elevators or huff it uphill on foot – but there's another unforgettable way to experience some of Valparaíso's magic. The route of local bus O (labeled micro O or sometimes micro 612) carries a mix of weary locals and camera-toting tourists through the narrow alleyways and across several of the city's steep hillsides; you can board in front of Congreso Nacional, atop Cerro Alegre or at various other points throughout town.

Sleeping

You'll find the vast majority of accommodations on Cerros Concepción & Alegre. While these hills were once only home to hostels, there are now rooms to fit all budgets. In general, Valpo tends to offer good value for money, particularly if you visit midweek.

Eating

Valparaiso may be the birthplace of chorrillana (a mountain of French fries under a blanket of fried pork, onions and egg), but you'll find an increasing number of fine-dining establishments poking out over the hills. Seafood – including ceviche and machas a la parmesana (clams baked with parmesan) – is the regional specialty.

Drinking & Nightlife

Concerted efforts have been made to keep at least the major tourist zones safe in this notoriously unsafe port city – making Valpo's midnight lights shine brighter than ever. Most bars and all clubs lie in El Plan. They tend to attract a young alternative set.

Shopping

Most galleries and craft shops are concentrated on Cerros Concepción and Alegre. The street Lautaro Rosas is a great place to look for gifts.

Travel with Children

Chile is a top family destination where bringing children offers up some distinct advantages. Little ones are welcomed and treasured, and empathy for parents is usually keen. Even strangers will offer help, and hotels and services tend to accommodate. There are lots of active adventures and family-oriented resorts and lodgings.

Getting Around

Walking is the best way to get about central Valparaíso and explore its cerros – you can cheat on the way up by taking an ascensor or a taxi colectivo (CH$500). Colectivos to Cerros Concepción and Alegre line up at the bottom of Almirante Montt, while those to Cerros La Cárcel and Bellavista leave from Av Ecuador.

Countless local buses operated by TMV run along Condell and Av Pedro Montt, Av Brasil and Yungay, connecting one end of El Plan with the other. A few climb different cerros and continue to Viña or along the northern coast; destinations are displayed in the windshield. The city's most famous line is the 802, which uses the oldest working trolleybuses in the world. The curvy cars date back to 1947 and have been declared a national monument.

Metro Valparaíso operates commuter trains every six to 12 minutes from Valparaíso's Estación Puerto and Estación Bellavista to Viña del Mar (CH$450 to CH$500, depending on the hour of departure).

Taxis are much more expensive in Valparaíso than other Chilean cities.

If you're willing to brave the hills on a bike, you'll see a few outfitters around town renting bicycles (generally CH$6000 per half-day).

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A sprawling metropolis on the edge of the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas defies easy definition. It's a strange combination of the ruddy and the grand, with elaborate wool-boom mansions and port renovations alongside urban sprawl. Set at the bottom of the Americas, it is downright stingy with good weather – the sun shines through sidelong rain.

Magellanic hospitality still pervades local culture, undeterred and even nurtured by nature's inhospitality. Recent prosperity, fed by a petrochemical industry boom and growing population, has sanded down the city's former roughneck reputation. It would be nice if it were all about restoration, but duty-free shopping and mega-malls on the city outskirts are the order of the future.

Easy connections to Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine and Argentina and good travelers' services make Punta Arenas a convenient base. A growing volume of cruise-ship passengers and trekkers has effectively replaced yesteryear's explorers, sealers and sailors.

Orientation

Plaza Muñoz Gamero, also known as the Plaza de Armas, is the center of town. Street names change on either side of the plaza, but street addresses fronting the plaza bear the name Muñoz Gamero. Landmarks, restaurants and lodgings fan out from here. Both Av España and Av Bulnes are main thoroughfares to the north of the city (the latter accesses the large duty-free shopping area known as the Zona Franca).

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Sleeping

On the cruise-ship circuit, Punta Arenas has a plethora of hotels but few bargains. Foreigners are not required to pay the additional 18% IVA charge if paying with US cash or credit card. Low season (mid-April to mid-October), prices drop. Rates include breakfast.

Eating

Punta Arenas has a wide range of eating options, from budget to gourmet. Local seafood is an exquisite treat: go for centolla (king crab) between July and November or erizos (sea urchins) between November and July.

Travel with Children

Chile is a top family destination where bringing children offers up some distinct advantages. Little ones are welcomed and treasured, and empathy for parents is usually keen. Even strangers will offer help, and hotels and services tend to accommodate. There are lots of active adventures and family-oriented resorts and lodgings.

What to do in Punta Arenas

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Hanga Roa is the island's sole town. Upbeat it ain't, but with most sights almost on its doorstep and nearly all the island's hotels, restaurants, shops and services lying within its boundaries, it's the obvious place to anchor oneself. It features a picturesque fishing harbor, a couple of modest swimming holes and surf spots, and a few archaeological sites.

Activities

Diving & Snorkeling

Scuba diving is increasingly popular on Easter Island. The strong points are the gin-clear visibility (up to 50m), the lack of crowds, the dramatic seascape and the abundance of pristine coral formations. The weak point is marine life, which is noticeable only in its scarcity.

Easter Island is diveable year-round. Water temperatures vary from as low as 20°C in winter to 26°C in summer.

Most sites are scattered along the west coast. You don't need to be a strong diver – there are sites for all levels. A few favorites include Motu Nui and the very scenic La Catedral and La Pyramide.

Surfing

Easter Island is hit with powerful swells from all points of the compass throughout the year, offering irresistible lefts and rights – mostly lava-reef breaks, with waves up to 5m. The most popular spots are scattered along the west coast. For beginners, there are a couple of good waves off Caleta Hanga Roa.

A handful of seasonal (usually from December to March) outfits based on the seafront offer surfing courses and also rent surfboards.

Horseback Riding A network of trails leading to some of the most beautiful sites can be explored on horseback – a typical Rapa Nui experience.

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Sleeping

Unless otherwise stated, most places come equipped with private bathroom, and breakfast is included. Air-con is scarce but fans are provided in the hottest months. Airport transfers are included.

Eating

Budgeteers should stick to the sandwich and empanada shops, while those with more money to spare will go gaga over the well-prepared seafood dishes in Hanga Roa's quality waterfront restaurants. Self-caterers will find a couple of well-stocked supermarkets on Av Atamu Tekena.

Drinking & Nightlife

You'll find late-night bars and clubs on the fringe of town by the airport; however, most restaurants feature a bar section where you can try the local brew, Mahina, or down some tropical pisco sours. During your layover in Santiago stock up on Chilean wine as it can cost three times as high in Hanga Roa for lower-quality bottles.

Shopping

Hanga Roa has numerous souvenir shops, mostly on Av Atamu Tekena and Av Te Pito o Te Henua.

Travel with Children

Chile is a top family destination where bringing children offers up some distinct advantages. Little ones are welcomed and treasured, and empathy for parents is usually keen. Even strangers will offer help, and hotels and services tend to accommodate. There are lots of active adventures and family-oriented resorts and lodgings.

What to do in Hanga Roa

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Chile's second-oldest city and the thriving capital of Región IV, La Serena is doubly blessed with some beautiful architecture and a long golden shoreline, making it a kind of thinking-person's beach resort. The city absorbs hoards of Chilean holidaymakers in January and February, though it is fairly peaceful outside the summer rush. Sauntering through downtown La Serena reveals dignified stone churches, tree-shaded avenues and some pretty plazas. Some of the city's architecture is from the colonial era, but most is actually neocolonial – the product of Serena-born president Gabriel González Videla's 'Plan Serena' of the late 1940s.

La Serena also has numerous attractions in the surrounding countryside, with pretty villages and pisco vineyards aplenty, as well as international astronomical observatories that take advantage of the region's exceptional atmospheric conditions and clear skies.

Sights

Beaches

A swath of wide sandy beaches stretches from La Serena's nonfunctional lighthouse right to Coquimbo: there are so many that you could visit a different beach every day for a two-week vacation. Unfortunately, strong rip currents make some unsuitable for swimming – but good for surfing. Safe swimming beaches generally start south of Cuatro Esquinas.

Those between the west end of Av Francisco de Aguirre and Cuatro Esquinas (ie closer to town) are friskier and generally dangerous for bathers. Look for the signs 'Playa Apta' (meaning beach safe for swimming) and 'Playa No Apta' (meaning beach not safe for swimming). For quick beach access, take either bus Liserco or colectivos running between La Serena and Coquimbo, and get off at Peñuelas and Cuatro Esquinas, a block from the beach. During January and February direct buses (CH$500) head down Av Francisco de Aguirre to Playa El Faro. During the remainder of the year, you'll have to take a colectivo (CH$600) or do the 3km walk to the lighthouse from town.

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Activities

A bike path runs all the way to Coquimbo; Varous guesthouses in town rent bikes for around CH$8000 per day including Hostal El Punto and Hostal Tierra Diaguita.

Other popular activities include sailing, surfing and windsurfing (but keep an eye on swimmers within 200m of the beach or you'll run afoul of the Gobernación Marítima). Playa Totoralillo, south of Coquimbo, is rated highly for its surf breaks and windsurfing potential. Poisson rents surfboards for CH$5000 per hour.

Sleeping

La Serena gets booked up fast in January and February and some hotels won't accept one-night stays. Off-season, most midrange hotels offer discounts for longer stays.

Eating

La Serena has a wide range of dining options, with a mix of bustling budget-friendly eateries and a few more upscale dining rooms. There are several markets in town, including the well-known Mercado La Recova, with produce, crafts and several restaurants. Supermarkets are ubiquitous.

Drinking & Nightlife

The happening part of town is the area around the corner of Eduardo de la Barra and O'Higgins, where you'll find boho student crowds. Nightclubs sparkle along the seafront, past the lighthouse and all the way to Barrio Inglés in Coquimbo; they're especially hot during summer.

Getting Around

Private taxis to Aeropuerto La Florida, 5km east of downtown on Ruta 41, cost CH$6000; try Radio Taxi Florida.

Women traveling alone should be wary of taxi drivers in La Serena; sexual assaults have been reported. Only take company cabs.

For car hire, try Avis, Hertz or Econorent. They all have stands at the airport as well as downtown offices.

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Barefoot surfers, paragliding pros, casino snobs and frenzied merchants all cross paths in the rather disarming city of Iquique. Located in a golden crescent of coastline, this city is counted among Chile's premier beach resorts, with a glitzy casino, beachfront boardwalk and more activities (from paragliding to sand-boarding) than any sane person can take on in a week. The big draw here is the swaths of pitch-perfect beach, which offer some of the best surfing around. Refurbished Georgian-style architecture from the 19th-century mining boom is well preserved, and the Baquedano pedestrian strip sports charming wooden sidewalks. Iquique's main claim, however, is its duty-free status, with a chaotic duty-free shopping zone (zona franca).

The city, 1853km north of Santiago and 315km south of Arica, is squeezed between the ocean and the desolate brown coastal range rising abruptly some 600m behind it.

Sights

Beaches

Iquique's main beaches are south of downtown, of which Playa Cavancha, at the corner of Avs Arturo Prat and Amunátegui, is the most popular. It's pleasant for swimming and body-boarding but sometimes gets crowded. There are also some decent surf breaks along its rocky northern parts, and a playground for children. In summer, the kiosk run by the municipal tourist office dishes out useful info.

Further south, crashing waves and rip currents at scenic Playa Brava make it dangerous for swimming, but there's plenty of space to sunbathe. Toward the hills, look for the massive dunes of Cerro Dragón, which looks like a set for a science-fiction movie.

Taxis colectivos run to Playa Brava from downtown – look for the destination on the sign atop the cab. There are scores of sandy beaches further south, but you'll need to rent a car or bike, or take a taxi.

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Activities

Surfing

An army of wetsuited warriors is always to be found dripping its way along Iquique's coastal road. Surfing and body-boarding are best in winter, when swells come from the north, but they're possible year-round. Tiny Playa Bellavista is a good spot for learners. There's less competition for early-morning breaks at Playa Cavancha. Playa Huaiquique, on the southern outskirts of town, is also an exhilarating choice but the sea is warmer further north near Arica. One of Chile's biggest surf championship events takes place in Iquique, Héroes de Mayo.

Sleeping

You'll find a handful of hostels, some simple midrange guesthouses, though not much in the upper category. Taxi drivers earn commission from some residenciales and hotels; be firm in your decision or consider walking.

Eating

Iquique excels in the dining department. You'll find outstanding seafood, satisfying sandwich and beer joints, and creative menus of Chilean, Peruvian and European fare. There's also one lovely Greek-run restaurant, well worth the trip out of the center.

Note that many restaurants close on Sundays.

Drinking & Nightlife

Iquique has a fun-filled nightlife, with a few boho resto-bars in the center and clubs and pubs lining the seafront south of town.

Travel with Children

Chile is a top family destination where bringing children offers up some distinct advantages. Little ones are welcomed and treasured, and empathy for parents is usually keen. Even strangers will offer help, and hotels and services tend to accommodate. There are lots of active adventures and family-oriented resorts and lodgings.

What to do in Iquique

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