holiday in Chile?
long thin slice of South American terrain runs offers a huge range of outstanding
experiences from the northern Atacama desert and its curiosities,
thro' the colourful centre (Valparaiso) to mad activities in the
Lake District (south), then on to magnificent fjords, glaciers and
world beating mountain hikes (far south); throw in volcanoes, crystal
clear night skies, Andean mountains and culture in the east and
the magnificent, mysterious Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the distant
west and you've got a superb destination.
Prices are not too bad, crime is restrained and domestic transport
systems are efficient.
- the excessively tall, skinny shape of the country makes monstrous
bus journeys or expensive flights necessary if you want to get a
good look at the place.
- local culture is hardly colourful.
- local cuisine is nothing to shout about unless hot dogs and pies
are your thing.
October, November (spring) and March, April (autumn). Which of these
seasons suits you depends on your destinations and activities.
Worst: January, February (midsummer, extremely hot in the north/centre and
crowded, expensive everywhere), also June, July, August (rain in
the centre or extreme cold in the south; busy and expensive up north).
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: considering how far
this country is from most English speakers, a couple of weeks. Recommended: 3/4 weeks to put in serious viaje time, with plenty of
Main attractions, north to south:
***Lauca National Park (far north, 160km/100mls from Arica)
for gorgeous altiplano scenery (beware, altitude over 4,000m), herds
of wild vicuña and lots of birdlife - tho' similar to views
en route from El Tatio geysers to San Pedro.
***San Pedro de Atacama (north). This
little adobe town in the middle of the Atacama desert is the perfect
base for some bizarre and beautiful sightseeing from El Tatio geysers to the Altiplano, the Valley of the Moon and some bizarre swimming pools.
**The Limari Valley/around Ovalle (a
little north). Petroglyphs and archeology in Encanto Valley, thermal
pools in Socos and more.
***Valaparaiso (centre), just an hour
and a half from dull and dusty Santiago, this port sports some stunning
UNESCO World Heritage buildings and a relaxed atmosphere.
*Santiago (centre), not quite as smoggy
as you may have heard; has a large pedestrian centre but is unexciting.
Great skiing a couple of hours away, Aug-Sept.
***The Lake District, (south, between
Temuco and Puerto Montt) ***Pucon is a brilliant adventure sports
centre surrounded by forests, volcanoes, mountains, hot springs
and of course, lakes.
**Puerto Varas is another excellent activity centre and also offers ferries across
**Chiloé island group, a quiet
and quirky collection of fishing communities living in ancient wooden
***the three day fjord ferry trip from Puerto
Montt south to Puerto Natales (far south) is a stunner and
since it takes the fjord route it's not too bumpy.
***Torres del Paine National Park (far
south) offers incredible hikes through staggering, twisted mountain
***Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui). Awesome!
More South Pacific than Chile and thousands of miles off the coast,
it's small, reasonably undeveloped and loaded with magnificent statues (moai) in natural locations, a totally disastrous and educational history and one good beach too!
Things to Do:
For most activity information and bookings try regional centres:
north - San Pedro de Atacama.
centre - Santiago.
south (Lake District) - Pucon and Puerto Varas.
Hiking: Chile offers spectacular
walks long and short, hot and cold, from the north's Atacama desert
through the streets of Valparaiso and the peaks of the Lake District
down south to the best hikes of all among the icy towers of Torres
del Paine. Generally signposting is pathetic, though not in the
Mountain Biking: Lots of possibilities
for cycling, particularly on the dirt roads of the Atacama
desert, the Lake District or the Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt
to Cochrane in the south.
Horse riding: Long and lovely rides
in the Andes mountains can be organized from Santiago, but 4-hoof
transport is also popular further south around the Lake District, Chiloé
and the Hurtado Valley.
And Easter Island is superb for equine exploration!
Skiing/snow boarding: in the south
there are plenty of good slopes though facilities can be a little
primitive. Pucon, Antillanca and Termas de Chillan are the biggest
resorts. Just a few kms east of Santiago is loads of great white
Wildlife Parks: Wild things are not comparable in numbers and diversity to some other South American countries such as Brazil, Peru and of course Ecuador's Galapagos, but nevertherless...Four-legged critters
are mainly of the cute camelid family e.g. alpaca, guanaco or llama,
visible throughout the country in the wild higher-altitude regions,
along with limited foxes, puma and deer.
Birds include flamingoes (esp. up north around Atacama) that are
notoriously difficult to approach, condors (esp. in Torres del Paine)
and varied feathered species in Lauca National Park.
Marine life is rich, with colonies of seals, sea-lions and penguins
all down the coast.
Rafting: South of Santiago there are
some excellent river rides due to water rushing off the Andes; Bio
Bio (Central Valley) and Futaleufu (Carretera Austral) are particularly
exciting and attractive. Good quality boats, guides and kit can
be found from agencies in Santiago, Pucon and Puerto Varas.
Kayaking: in the south around Chiloé
and through the fjords of the Gulf of Ancud are prime routes. Agencies
can be found in Santiago and Puerto Varas.
Swimming: There are some fair beaches
around, Viña del Mar for example, but the water is pretty
cold and the environments not attractive.
Diving: not much to shout about the
north is better than south and Easter Island best of all.
Surfing: most good surf breaks in the
north tho' Pichilemu, a few hours south of Valparaiso is famous
Fly fishing: a great destination for
fishers of trout and salmon, with the Lake District as prime lure.
You will require expensive air tickets or loads of time and
an immensely durable bus-ready ass, so, if the former, buy
your Lan Chile Air Pass when you buy your inbound ticket from outside South America. (i.e. there are no Air Passes
if you buy from Argentina etc!)
Beware Lan Chile airline offices in Argentina and Peru. Staff
are ignorant, inefficient and make costly mistakes, so avoid
if you can, or double-check everything.
Chile is far safer than any other South American country,
but still take the usual no-bling precautions and don't trek
around the shanty towns of outer Santiago or some of Valparaiso's
42 hills with your diamond rolex glinting in the sunshine.
Low-end dining in Chile - apart from the ubiquitous ham and tasteless
cheese sandwiches - is reasonably cheap and healthy but dull, with
offerings such as fried chicken, empanadas (pies of very varying quality with meat and onion, cheese or seafood fillings), chacareros (big buns loaded with sliced steak, beans, chilies
and more - the Bug's choice for quality survival food), completos (hot dogs loaded with extras, including possibly tomatoes, sauerkraut,
mayonnaise, avocado and chili sauce) and finally palta reina (avocado halves piled with minced chicken and assorted veggies).
The biggest culinary disappointment is the overpriced and undersophisticated
seafood on offer. Santiago's famous Mercado Central - which is more
restaurant than market - is a high-pressure bore, but the coast
has a better attitude to costing and more creative approach to cooking
fruit of the sea.
Otherwise savoury stews are popular and fruit selection wide, so
vegetarians can survive easily, with a little use of Castellano (Spanish).
And by the way, Peruvian turistas may think the Pisco Sour
is a Peruvian cocktail, but Chileanos would disagree.
Chile's wine is a long-standing success story, with most of it coming
from the southern Central Valley and the best from the Maipo Valley.
Unfortunately cheapskates in some restaurants (e.g. La Casona in
San Pedro de Atacama) assume foreign visitors have
no taste buds and may serve unexportable dregs. Don't hesitate to
send a bottle back if it tastes like sherry or worse! The management
deserves a good spanking serving liquid trash in a country with
a fine history of vinery.
Jan 20, Fiesta de la Piedra Santa, Lumaco (Lake District). Traditional
clothing, candlelit singing, dancing and live sacrifices on the
1st Sunday in Feb, Fiesta de la Candelaria, Copiapo.
Feb, Festival de la Cancion, Viña del Mar. Awful international
end of March, National Rodeo Championship, Rancagua, Central Valley.
10-16 July (last night is best), La Tirana, near Iquique, north.
A large and very colourful religious/folk festival with thousands
of visitors from Peru and Bolivia. Massed musical rivalry, dancing,
masks and mayhem.
14-20 Sept, La Pampilla, Independence Day celebrations nationwide,
but especially wild in Coquimbo, near La Serena, centre/north Chile,
with hundreds of thousands of visitors, bands from all over, dancing
till dawn etc.
8 Dec, Dia de la Virgen, Quinchao, near Chiloe. A religious festival.
23-27 Dec, Fiesta Grande, Andacollo, ritual dancing and a pilgrim's
This is not a cheap destination compared to the rest of South
America but fairly sophisticated and with ATMs generally available
(tho' San Pedro's one ATM keeps blowing a fuse).
Best to keep a cash stash in reserve for out of the way places
- ideally US dollars or traveller's cheques are OK too - and
use ATMs when you can.
250v, round 2 pin plugs.
You will need very warm clothing for areas like the altiplano
(high Andean plains) and Torres del Paine, but also cool clothing
for the Atacama desert or summer in central areas.
English speaking country citizens are OK for a 90 day tourist card
on arrival (tho' there have been question marks against Kiwis),
otherwise it gets complicated - some nationalities require
visas, some get tourist cards for 30 days only, most Latin
Americans need only their IDs.
Chile is a 'quake zone; the biggest recent shake, accompanied
by tidal waves and erupting volcanoes caused a lot of fatalities
and damage in the Lake District in 1960.
The far north of the country is due for a big one in the next
The safest place in a quake is under a door lintel i.e. doorway,
or way outside, but not in a street where a wall may fall
on you, dramatically spoiling your holiday.
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