Chile offers every experience a traveller can dream of. There’s expansive deserts, sprawling beaches, lively cities booming with culture, and small towns untouched by the modern world…
Despite that, I came to Chile to hike mountains. Many do. But although this country is so often viewed as an extension of Chilean Patagonia, I found so much more. There’s culture and architecture, rich history and delicious cuisine, surfing and star gazing. So much so that I left with a totally new appreciation of life. The starry nights of the Atacama desert, the magical hot springs and volcanoes, and the colourful homes of Valparaiso do that to you.
The above and more are all packed into the ecologically-diverse terrain of the thinnest country in the world. And wow, what a range of wanderlust-worthy experiences there are.
Here are some of my favourite spots, many of which Intrepid Travel visits on its new 8-day trip to Chile:
Santiago – a taste of modern and historic Chile
When I travel I usually spend only a day or two in major urban hubs, but I became enthralled by Santiago, the capital. Bustling local markets, diverse neighborhoods, delicious food and an opportunity to learn about Chile’s history kept me a few days longer.
Bellavista is a neighbourhood that mixes traditional colonial European architecture with bohemian vibes. Totally different from day to night, visit in the late afternoon to check out winding roads filled with colourful colonial buildings and amazing street art. Then enjoy dinner at Azul Profundo or Como Agua para Chocolate. Trust me.
It is easy to lose track of time here – Barrio Bellavista at night is filled with music, dancing and a palpable appreciation of life.
If the weather permits, don’t forget to ride the funicular to Cerro San Cristóbal. The sweeping vistas from this hill are pure magic. And for a dose of culture, head to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Though not suitable for the ultra-sensitive, it provides an important insight into decades of dictatorship in the country. (Entrance is free and you can purchase an English audio guide.)
During the day Mercado de la Vega, a local market, offers a glimpse into traditional Chilean culinary food (and is home to some amazing spices). Asado (BBQ meat), Cazuela (beef and potato stew) and Empanadas (sweet and savory pastries) are all delicious, affordable and best enjoyed with a well-priced bottle of red from the grocery store.
Foodie tips for Santiago from Yasmina Becker, Intrepid’s Chile Expert and Ground Manager:
Head to Mercado Central de Santiago for delicious and fresh seafood at reasonable prices. And check out the historic, centrally-located neighbourhood of Lastarria, too. Here you should eat at trendy Bocanáriz or authentic Chilean restaurant, Quitral. Finish off with ice cream at my favourite shop, Heladería Emporio La Rosa.
Valparaiso – a city painted bright with history and culture.
The artistic hub of Chile, Valparaiso (known as Valpo) is on the Pacific Ocean and booms with life. Take a few days to walk the colourful buildings, galleries and cafes. (The coffee shops here serve great coffee, unlike the Nescafe served almost everywhere else!)
This city is lined with public art. This includes protest art from youth calling themselves the “Ramona Parra Brigades”, and was painted during the 60s and 70s in defense of workers, farmers, miners and indigenous groups. If the walls could talk, I would listen to these walls.
Also worth a visit is Museo a Cielo Abierto, a world-renowned open air museum with 20 murals painted on houses.
Foodie tips for Valparaiso from Yasmina Becker, Intrepid’s Chile Expert and Ground Manager:
I recommend Café Turri for the exquisite small plates. Though it’s a little pricey, the city views are amazing. Café Del Pintor is a cheaper restaurant that’s also delicious.
You’ll also want to taste the classic Chilean dish, chorrillana (sliced beef with fries, scrambled or fried eggs, and fried onions). The best place in the city for this is J Cruz.
Valparaiso is very close to Santiago but a stop at La Emiliana Winery is a delicious way to spend an afternoon between cities. Who doesn’t want to sip organic wine surrounded by a serene landscape? It’s a perfect experience to relax after the hustle of Santiago, and you can visit it on Intrepid’s new 8-day ‘Best of Chile’ trip!
Isla Grande de Chiloe – a unique South American experience
The Chiloé area is filled with surprises – penguins in the winter, excellent and uncrowded surf, beautiful beaches and a culture distinct to the island.
Walking though the city, surrounding towns, beach and forest you will get to grips with the mythology of ghost ships, forest gnomes and wizardry. You can see both Humboldt and Megellanic penguins from November to March, and in the Chilean summer you can find secluded beaches to explore and empty waves to surf.
I visited this area in the winter and though the water was chilly, surfing with penguins is an experience I will never forget.
San Pedro de Atacama – a magical desert where the night shines
The driest place on earth, and surely one of the most beautiful, the Atacama desert left me in awe. So much so that visiting there became my favourite experience in Chile. Not knowing much about astronomy prior to visiting, one glimpse of the sky in Atacama inspired me to learn so much more.
To break up nights of star gazing, head to Pukará of Quitor. A historical indigenous stone structure near San Pedro de Atacama, it reveals indigenous life dating back to the 12th century.
Another breathtaking experience in San Pedro de Atacama was Lascar – a volcano that is part of an arc that spans the countries of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Even better, you can hike it in just one day. It’s not an easy hike, but the view is well worth it. Sore muscles? Visiting the hot springs at El Tatio geyser field (the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere) is a perfect opportunity to soothe them. (And it’s visitable on Intrepid’s first ever Chile-only adventure!)
Chile really is a place where wanderlust comes alive. From urban hubs of colorful culture to sprawling deserts filled with wonder, this country is hard to leave.
Often referred to as a “the country of poets” travelling Chile is like living an ode to appreciating life.
Tempted to pay this beautiful country a visit? Check out our new 8-day adventure through the country’s highlights.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, iStock/tjalex, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, iStock/SergiiRuchynskyi, Emilia Vineyards Facebook page, Intrepid Travel, Sammie Kwong. Social hero image c/o iStock/IHervas.)