“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Chile, South America. 14 days, April to May 2011: Just outside of the tourist season (which is early in the year) and just in time to see fall colours as summer turns to autumn. The weather was cooler overall but we were lucky enough to have sunshine and blue skies for most of the trip, with a few hours of very very light liquid sunshine.
Below, you’ll find brief information on travel, accommodation, necessities, and key sightseeing stops in each of the following areas:
- Punta Arenas
- San Pedro de Atacama
- Santiago airport
- Torres del Paine
- Vina del Mar
1) Punta Arenas, southern Chile
We arrived in the afternoon and left the next afternoon, so spent one day total in Punta Arenas. The airport is about a 20 minute drive outside the city so we took a taxi (CP $8.000 one way). It was very windy in the city.
Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Cabo de Hornos in the heart of downtown, which has a sister hotel in Puerto Natales. The hotel is very clean and modern, with 8 floors. Most buildings in Punta Arenas are less than 3 floors so staying on the 8th floor of the hotel meant that we had a great view out towards the Strait of Magellan. The front desk staff were very helpful after a slight error in our booking (1 room for 1 when we needed 1 room for 4) but we were accommodated after a quick phone call to a manager; likely it helped that it was outside the tourist season. There is wifi in the rooms; the front desk will give you an access code when you check in.
Necessities: There are a few ‘main’ streets in downtown Punta Arenas that have shops and restaurants, such as 21 de mayo, Lautaro Navarro, and Jose Nogueira. The post office (Correos) is on 21 de mayo near the cross streets Av Cristobal Colon and Jose Menendez. There are several tourist shops scattered throughout downtown.
Sightseeing: Places of interest include the memorial statue of Ferdinand Magellan located in the Plaza de Armas, the coast along the Strait of Magellan, the Mercado (some restaurants on the 2nd floor and a small fish market on the 1st floor), and Cerro de la Cruz (near the intersection of Monsenor Jose Fagnano and Almirante Manuel Senoret). When you reach Cerro de la Cruz, you’ll get a nice view of most of the city as you look out past the harbour. 1 day was enough for us but we also didn’t have the chance to travel outside of the downtown core.
2) San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile
We arrived late morning and spent 2 full days in San Pedro de Atacama before leaving early the following morning, for a total of 3.5 days. Our days were jam-packed with activities and we saw most of the major tourist attractions; if you like to have some downtown just to hang out in the town and such, I would suggest at least 3 full days or more. You fly into the nearest airport in Calama (CJC), which is about a 1-1.5 hour drive from San Pedro de Atacama. At the airport, there are several stands where you can buy bus tickets (one way or return) from Calama airport to San Pedro de Atacama (CP$10.000 one way, CP$18.000 return). The main street of San Pedro – at least for tourists – is Caracoles.
Accommodation: We stayed in a 3 bed room at Hostal Candelaria, based on reviews on hostelworld.com and tripadvisor.com. It is a 10 minute walk from the main street, Caracoles, making it a very quiet place to stay! The room was clean, the sheets were clean, and the beds were comfortable after a long day traipsing around the dessert. There is a kitchen with a fridge and running water, a private courtyard with tables and chairs and some hammocks, 2 bathrooms that are shared amongst all of the guests (toilet/sink/shower stall), and a locked front door. The owners, Mario and Mariam, are very friendly and Mario speaks English. They are more than willing to help you get acquainted in town and provide you with great recommendations. There is wifi in some parts of the courtyard but not likely in your rooms; ask the owners for the wifi access code when you arrive.
Necessities: San Pedro offers a range of price points for meals, starting with empanadas at CP$600 to meals of CP$10.000 plus. There were 2 restaurants that we absolutely loved and that offered reasonably priced food: El Charrua (street Tocopilla 442) and Algarrobal Antal Restaurant (street Toconao).
Choosing excursion companies: There are tons of companies offering excursions in San Pedro and a lot of them have storefronts on Caracoles. It is easy enough to book excursions once you arrive in the town. As with any tourism-oriented area, be careful who you book with. We were recommended to go with either Desert Adventures or Cactus, both registered agencies. It sounded as though Cactus was Desert Adventures in style, but with the price differential, we decided to go with Desert Adventures for all of our excursions. Because we travelled as a group of 4 and were paying in cash, we bargained down the price a bit.
Considerations: San Pedro is one of the driest places on this planet so prepare to have dry skin and hydrate hydrate hydrafte! You might not notice that you’re dehydrated because it’s so dry. We bought big jugs of water; they’re marked up in the stores compared to buying them in the city but not by too much. It’s also very dusty, particularly when a vehicle drives by you and leaves you in a cloud of red dust. Lastly, the town is at an elevation of about 2000m and some of the sightseeing sites are upwards of 4000m+. To best enjoy your time in and around San Pedro, try to acclimatize to the altitude before attempting any arduous activities. Altitude sickness is not cool.
3) Santiago, capital city of Chile
Santiago is a 10-11.5 hour plane ride from Toronto, Canada (direct flight). See #4 on Santiago airport. We spent 2.5 days in Santiago. Enough to see the major major tourist attractions but definitely lots more to see and experience if you have additional time.
Accommodation: I stayed at a friend’s place so can’t comment on this.
Necessities: There are numerous large supermarket chains, including Santa Isabel, UniMarc, and Lider (or LiderExpress). There are also many corner stores and pharmacies. Your typical North American influences can be found scattered throughout Santiago, including McDonalds, Pizza Pizza, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and Yogen Fruz. Worthy of trying is Castano, which has delicious pastries.
Sightseeing: There is lots to see and do in this bustling city. Mercado Centrale houses a fish market and some seafood-oriented eateries; be sure to take a walk around because there are many nooks and alleyways to venture through. A 10 minute walk from the Mercado is Plaza de Armas, very lively with impromptu-looking arts&crafts stalls, a gorgeous Cathedral, several other historically-significant buildings, and some open patios to people-watch from. Cerro San Cristobal is the second highest peak in Santiago and features a large Virgin Mary at the top. The view is absolutely beautiful on a clear sunny day. You can ride a modern-day funicular (or ascensores) down the mountain and it’ll bring you to the zoo and the beautiful Bellavista neighbourhood, which is very colourful and has lots of cafes lining the street. Cerro Santa Lucia is a popular hill with tourists and showcases some beautiful architecture. The walk up and down is beautiful, as well as the view from the top. Bordering Cerro Santa Lucia is the Artesenal Santa Lucia, an arts&crafts market and a great place to get a feel for souvenirs. Another artesenal market is Los Dominicos. There are a few restaurants inside if you’re feeling hungry and more interestingly, some “pet” shops.
Getting around: All of the sightseeing spots are very easily accessible by Santiago’s fabulous metro system. You have to buy a Bip card (approx. CP$1.500) and then load it with money; just swipe it when you go through the turnstile and swipe it again as you exit. Prices vary depending on the time of day you travel, peak hours (rush hour) being more expensive than off-peak hours. It’ll cost around CP$400 to CP$600 per trip.
4) Santiago airport
Very clean, 3 floors (arrivals on 1st, departures on 3rd). When you arrive through international arrivals, you’ll collect your baggage and go through customs, which is fairly small.
Before you exit the secure area, you’ll see a counter where you can pay for a private taxi and some buses.
Taxis: Once you exit, there will be many taxi drivers holding up signs and trying to shuttle you towards their taxi; if you want to take the official taxis (black body with yellow top) which have a registration number and pay meter clearly displayed within the cab, I would recommend just paying upfront inside the secure area at the yellow counter (look for “taxioficial”). Otherwise, be prepared to negotiate a reasonable fare with any of the other taxi drivers waiting for you outside.
One bus option: I didn’t take a bus into downtown Santiago but the Centropuerto bus is a great option. When you leave the departure gate, go to door 5 and exit out to find a blue bus with “Centropuerto” written on the side. It’s CP$1.400 one way and you pay the bus driver directly. The driver can provide change: a happy surprise to most Canadians! There’s a little area to stow luggage on the bus as well. Be sure to tell the bus driver what stop you want to get off at; they’re very helpful! They run between the airport and Estacion Los Heroes (metro station, downtown Santiago).
There are information desks on the 3rd level with helpful staff, some of whom speak some English.
Sleeping at the airport? If you’re planning to sleep at the airport, try to be closer to the international departures side and not the domestic departures side. The latter has a seating area surrounded by 3 shops and an ATM; the ATMs get good use throughout the night and the shops don’t close (and occasionally turn up their music at odd hours of the night).
Internet access: The airport does not have free wifi. There is wifi access in the domestic departures area if you buy something from Starbucks (make sure to ask for the wifi access code) or if you have access to the lounge there. I’m not sure where you get wifi access in the international departures area.
5) Torres del Paine, southern Chile
Our trip to Torres del Paine was booked as a 3 day 2 night package trip through Sky Airlines. It’s cheapest to book the trip in Chile. The package included the flight between Santiago and Punta Arenas, airport transfers from the Punta Arenas airport to the bus terminal, bus fare between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, transfers between the bus terminal in Puerto Natales and our accommodation, a one-day tour including lunch within the Torres del Paine park, a tour guide, and breakfasts. The more time you have for Torres del Paine, the better. There is just that much to see. For trekking through the area, it’s recommended to have around 6-8 days to do some of the loops, and 15 days or so to do the larger loop. There are refugios (refuges) scattered throughout the park where you can sleep and eat (during the summer months).
The ride in: Getting to Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales involves about a 1 hour drive, give or take some time depending on the condition of the roads. It’s mostly packed gravel but when we travelled, the wet and windy conditions had created large and numerous gravel pits that made for quite the bumpy ride. If you get motion sickness, I’d recommend taking some Gravol beforehand as the roads can be a bit windy as well.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Cabanas del Paine on the periphery, but just outside, of the Torres del Paine park. We each had a part of a cabin to stay in, with a private bathroom. The place has a nice rustic but clean feel to it, adding to the whole experience of being in the great outdoors (in comfort). Breakfast was a nice spread of cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, toast, cereal, yogurt, juices, tea, and coffee. Dinner was a delicious set menu with options for starters, entrees, and desserts. The view from the Cabanas was gorgeous. There was wifi access within the cabins and you can get access within the main lodge, where the dining hall is; ask for the access code when you check in.
Necessities: Torres del Paine is very remote so don’t expect to buy much once you’re in the park. Take out everything that you brought in. Buy snacks before you leave the city.
Sightseeing: The scenery in Torres del Paine is absolutely amazing. Since we only had a day in the park, it was very helpful having a guide who was very familiar with the layout of the park and who took us to some great viewpoints and for some great 1-2 hour treks. The towers for which Torres del Paine is named are breathtaking from every view and the landscape with its winding rivers, many lakes and lagoons, glaciers, and waterfalls is just so beautiful. There are different animals within the park, including the guanaco (camel head on the body of a llama – very cute), condor, and eagle.
6) Vina del Mar, middle Chile
We travelled from Santiago airport to Vina del Mar. From the airport, you take the Centropuerto bus (see “one bus option” under Santiago airport) to Estacion Pajaritos, which is a metro station. Once you arrive, walk through the concourse of the metro station towards the sign “Connexion intermodal”. You’ll see rows of buses. Along the wall of the station are storefronts for the major bus companies; you can easily purchase a ticket to your destination of choice here. We bought round-trip bus fare to Vina del Mar through the Turbus company. This’ll drop you off at the Terminal de buses in downtown Vina del Mar. There is a tourist information desk within the bus terminal.
Accommodation: We stayed at Hostal Genross, which is run by Brian (Canadian) and Lia. The best way to get to this hostal is to walk out of the Terminal de buses towards Arlegui street. Once you’re on Arlegui, watch out for taxis that have a placard with the number 7 on top; flag one of these down and ask them to drop you off at La Gruta (the church). When you get dropped off, you’ll find yourself on Agua Santa street. Walk down the hill and you should see a Shell gas station; turn at the corner with the gas station onto Passaje Monterrey and the hostal will be on your right. The hostal is secure and is a beautiful building with incredibly high ceilings. Breakfast is included; we had a plate of mixed fruits and toast with coffee and tea each morning. The owners are very accommodating and helpful in planning out your day with you. There is no internet access.
Necessities: The major supermarkets, Santa Isabel and UniMarc, are located around Av. San Martin and 8 Norte. There is also a Lider in the mall around 14 and 15 Norte. There are many smaller markets scattered throughout. Av.Valparaiso is mostly a pedestrian-oriented shopping street that crosses Plaza Jose Francisco Vergara and the mercado (most lively on Wednesday and Saturday). There is a great bakery on Agua Santa just down the hill from the Shell Station. We tried 2 restaurants along the ocean: Tierra de Fuego and Enjoy del Mar. These are both along Av.Peru and have great ocean-side patios. Enjoy del Mar has a heated patio, which is great for watching the sunset and dining to the sound of waves breaking on the seawall. Once you’re seated, the service is great and the meals are priced as you’d expect for the location (not cheap but not too crazy expensive). Tierra del Fuego has good service and the food is decent, though I preferred the fare at Enjoy del Mar.
Sightseeing: The plazas, the mercado, Av.Valparaiso, the seawall along the ocean on Av.Marina and Av.Peru, the flower clock, and the funicular near Villanelo are worth visits. The Anfiteatro Quinta Vergara wasn’t open when we visited. Walking down 1 Norte, you’ll see all of the bridges that cross over the “river” that runs through Vina. There is also a casino. We felt like 1 day was definitely enough to walk around Vina del Mar.
Getting around: There is a good metro system that runs through both Vina del Mar and neighbouring Valparaiso. You’ll need to buy the metro card (approx CP$300) and load it with money before using; swipe when you go through the turnstiles and swipe when you exit. The fare will vary depending on the time of day and the number of zones you travel through. There are also many collectivo taxis, which are akin to taxi-sized buses. They run on set routes, pick up up to 4 passengers (though I saw 5 in one once), and you pay according to how far you ride it. They’re very convenient and a quick way to get around town. There are also public buses – which I never had the courage to get onto – and private taxis. Again, probably best to stick to the taxioficials (official taxis) unless you can negotiate with the driver in Spanish.
7) Valparaiso, middle Chile
We travelled to Valparaiso as a day trip from Vina del Mar. It was a 20 minute metro ride from Estacion Miramar in Vina to Estacion Puerto, the terminal station in Valparaiso.
Necessities: There is a LiderExpress, Santa Isabel, and UniMarc near Estacion Bellavista. Again, there are many smaller markets, including a fish and fruit/veggie market (can’t remember the exact neighbourhood), pharmacies, cafes, and restaurants scattered throughout so best to wander around leisurely and run into places by chance. You’ll be able to find set menus for lunch for between CP$1.900 and CP$5.000.
Sightseeing: We started at Estacion Puerto, which will bring you right to Plaza Sotomayor and the Comandancia de la Armada. Continuing on Av.Errazuriz, you’ll arrive at the Edificio Aduana, the historic customs building. The square in front of it is quite fun to stand on, watching the numerous buses and traffic go every which direction. Right beside Edificio Aduana is one of the oldest funiculars in the city, the Artilleria (CP$300). At the top, there are some souvenir stands and the Museo Naval. This is also the best place to watch the action of the port. Our philosophy was largely to take the funicular up and walk down the windy streets. The Iglesia de la Matriz, Plaza Victoria, Parque Italia, Plaza O’Higgins, Arco Britanico, and the many ascensores (funiculars) are easily visited in one day.