Chile. The land of poetry, Patagonia, Andes, Mapuches, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a vibrant past. República de Chile is a 4300km long country with friendly people and stunning nature, in which you can never be further than 356km from the Pacific ocean (175km on average). In the following piece, we’ll talk about the most popular places to visit in Chile, food, culture, history and some other basic information about this beautiful and diverse country.
Understanding the culture
Given its rather specific shape that is naturally determined by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, prior to air traffic Chile used to be a rather isolated country compared to its neighbours. Even the Spanish that’s spoken in the country has evolved in its own specific way, only to become one of the hardest Spanish dialects to understand, even for Spaniards sometimes. It’s not only because Chileans speak very fast, they also swallow their words halfway through. Furthermore, Chileans often use numerous chilenismos AKA words no other Spanish uses, cachai?
When it comes to people, of course, it’s impossible to generalise the whole nation. I’d just say that from my own observation, Chileans could maybe come across as a bit more reserved, especially when compared to their overly spontaneous and physically friendly neighbours from Argentina. Chileans are however very friendly, their friendliness is just not so – let’s call it – ‘loud’ as it often is in Argentina.
Identity-wise, Chile is a mix of indigenous (mostly Mapuche, some Fuegian and other nations), conquistadors and other immigrant cultures. The 19th and 20th centuries then brought mainly other Spaniards as well as many German, British, French, Italian and Croats. Recent immigration waves brought many Venezuelans and Peruvians to the country.
Some basic historical facts about Chile
If we skip the archaeological findings of human settlement at Monte Verde from about 16 500BC as well as the Chinchorro mummies (5000BC) and stick only to the major events in post-Columbian Chilean history, we’ll get to 1535, because it’s a year when the indigenous Araucanian people resisted the first Spanish invasion. Pedro de Valdivia however begun the Spanish conquest a few years later, founding Santiago de Chile in 1541.
The conflict between Mapuches and the Spanish however kept going for much longer in the event that became known as the Arauco War, when the indigenous Mapuches celebrated significant success against their advanced opponents from Spain, keeping hold of a large area in the south of the country, pretty much until the mid 18th century.
When it comes to other events in the 16th century Chile, to make the bad situation even worse, the country also witnessed various plundering attacks from other colonial forces, such as the English or Dutch who wanted to take control of then important trade-route ports of La Serena and Valparaíso, respectively Valdivia. Mother nature also did not stay behind, throwing in various earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, such as the 1570’s Concepción earthquake, 1575’s Earthquake in Valdivia or 1600’s Huaynaputina eruption.
The 17th century wasn’t much kinder to Chileans. There were more Dutch and English “expeditions” as well as more blood was drawn between Mapuches and Spanish right up to Chilean Independence in 1818, only a year after the local Independence leaders Jose de San Martin and Bernardo O’Higgins defeated the Spanish forces at the battles of Chacabuco and Maipu, which resulted in the declaration of independence.
Many other tragic events took place in this vibrant part of Chilean history. The purpose of the history section in the Travellers’ Guide is however only to shed light on a general picture of how things were, mentioning only major events that shaped the country’s way to become modern Chile as we know it. In case you were interested to read more about all the suffering from this period, the links provided above would lead you to more details. We’re however going to move on to Chilean Independence and beyond.
Independence and the consequent power struggles
Unfortunately, the country’s freedom of the Spanish Crown came together with further power struggle and conflicts. Only 11 years after gaining Independence (1818), a Civil War broke out between the country’s conservatives (Pelucones) who defeated the liberals (Pipiolos) over certain constitutional changes. Just over two decades later, President Manuel Montt however liberalised the constitution and reduced privileges of landowners and church.
Another significant event took place between 1879-84 when Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, which increased the country’s territory by a third. 1891 then brought yet another Civil War to an end, this time between Congress and presidential forces, which resulted in a reduction of the presidential powers. 1927 then marks the time when General Carlos Ibanez del Campo seized power and established a dictatorship in the country.
43 years later, in 1970, Chileans democratically elected the left-wing president Salvador Allende who introduced an extensive programme of radical social reforms and nationalisation. However, with the peaking Cold War, such policies were naturally against the interest of various powerful forces. This obvious opinion divide has resulted in the 1973’s coup in which Chilean Army General Augusto Pinochet, supported by Henry Kissinger‘s CIA established yet another brutal dictatorship in the country.
End of Pinochet and major events of modern day Chile in timeline
- 1988: Pinochet loses a referendum to remain in power
- 1990: Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin wins the presidential election. Pinochet steps down as head of state but remains commander-in-chief of Chilean forces
- 1998: Pinochet quits the army but he’s made a senator for life
- 1999: Pinochet is extradited to Spain after his 1998 arrest in the UK
- 2000: Chilean courts strip Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution
- 2002: Pinochet resigns from his post as a lifelong senator
- 2004: President Lagos signs a law giving Chileans the right to divorce, despite opposition from the Roman Catholic Church
- 2006: Pinochet dies
- 2007: President Bachelet introduces a bill that allows 14+ years old girls to be given the morning-after contraceptive pill without their parents’ consent
- February 2010: a devastating earthquake of 8,8 magnitude hits central Chile
- October 2010: Copiapó mining accident: TV audiences around the world watched 33 miners being saved after 69 days of being trapped deep underground
- 2012: Congress passes a law, which names sexual orientation-based discrimination an offence
- 2019: 47 000 pages of declassified US Intelligence documents about Operation Condor, a combined operation of eight US-backed military dictatorships in South America that “plotted the cross-border kidnap, torture, rape and murder of hundreds of their political opponents” was handed over to Argentina
- October 2019: Chileans took to the streets protesting the high cost of living that erupted into riots and violent clashes with the police
- May 2020: the Caribbean and Latin America is hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic
- October 2020: The Chilean Police force AKA Carabineros face 8,500 allegations of human rights abuses in the past year
- October 2020: A referendum that was called in response to street protests in 2019 sees 78% of people back a rewriting of the constitution to replace the one imposed by Pinochet
With no disrespect intended, I wouldn’t call Chile a culinary destination. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed my meals in the country, on the contrary, they were all quite tasty. It’s just that the general variety in quite a few Latin American countries is not – let’s say – very ingredient-diverse. There are certain culinary exceptions, such as in Peru, Mexico or Argentina but the rest is pretty much about beef, corn, beans, onion, chips, chicken, pork, more beans, corn and so on.
Depending on the regions, Chile is no indifferent to this phenomenon, although the dominant presence of the Pacific does help a lot, enriching the usual mix with the seafood a bit. Please note that this article focuses on the traditional cuisine in Chile, which is rather dominated by meat. In case you were a vegetarian, here‘s Catherine‘s vegetarian guide to Latin America on the Llama Travel site. If you are vegan, click here for The Veganary advice. When it comes to all rounder, here are some popular dishes I believe are worth trying:
- Completo. It’s a hotdog with literally everything. Even with crushed potato crisps sometimes. It’s everywhere and nearly unavoidable. By its enormous size, it’s only suitable to bite for the likes of Mick Jagger and Steven Tayler
- Empanada. Like every Latin American country, Chile also has a variety of empanadas. Imagine the sort of Cornish pasty with cooked fillings, made of a different kind of pastry. I loved them, especially if you fancy a snack only, although Chilean empanadas are huge if compared to Colombian or Argentinian ones. The classic filling is called pino, which is a mix of minced meat, onions, raisins, black olives and hard-boiled eggs
- Curanto is made of meat, shellfish, meat, milcao (potato pancake) and chapaleles (potato dumplings) and vegetables. Ingredients are covered with nalca leaves which are covered with wet sacks and grass chunks. The unique part of this dish is that the meal is usually prepared in a hole in the ground that’s covered with heated stones
- Chorillana is a typical dish for the Valparaíso region. We’re talking about sliced beef with chips (french fries) covered with either scrambled or fried eggs and fried onions
- Pastel de Choclo y Humitas is a yummy casserole made of steamed corn and beef with garlic, onion, minced meat, hard-boiled eggs and olives
- Porotos Granados is quite a nice beans stew with mashed corn, onions, pumpkin, garlic, tomatoes and basil
- Churrasco and Chacarero is an omnipresent steak sandwich with either avocado (palta) or with tomatoes or as completo with everything
- Sopaipillas are street snacks made of fried pumpkins, butter, and flour, all flattened into a small circle bread thingy
- Cazuela de Vacuno/Cazuela de Mariscos is a yummy beef, respectively seafood stew with garlic, onions, oregano and paprika. Pork, lamb or chicken versions are also available
- Bife a lo pobre or pollo a lo pobre is what the locals call a poor man’s steak. It’s a cut of beef tenderloin, respectively chicken with fries, a fried egg, and onions
Tourism in Chile
Given the Pinochet regime, tourism in Chile as we know it only picked up after his era in the mid-1990s. By 2005, the sector grew by nearly 14%, generating more than $500 million, which was equivalent to 1.33% of Chile’s GDP. The general tourism infrastructure has been growing steadily with its growing reputation, offering a variety of tours, accommodation options and services available.
As opposed to the early days, tourism in the country now covers all segments of tourism, ranging from backpackers up to luxurious resorts. In 2017, Chile welcomed nearly 6,5 million international tourists. Nevertheless, the road infrastructure in the less populated southern regions is still a work in progress, however, the tourism in the whole country is generally very well organised.
When to visit Chile
Mainland Chile extends across 4025km in latitude, making any general weather recommendations impossible. The country comprises seven major climatic subtypes, ranging from dry deserts in the north to alpine tundra and glaciers in the south, Mediterranean climate in central Chile and Oceanic in the south, not to mention the humid subtropical climate in Easter Island.
There are the classic four seasons in most of the country but the obvious fact to remember is that the Southern hemisphere has the seasons exactly opposite to the northern hemisphere.
For Patagonia, I’d recommend picking shoulder seasons to avoid the crowds as well as to save few bucks, plus both options will leave you with very colourful memories. The main season runs from November/December to early March/April.
Ranking at 27th position globally (2020), Chile rises above all Latin American countries in Global Peace Index, which is pretty high up. But that is statistics and they do not apply to the whole country equally. Speaking for myself, I haven’t personally experienced any trouble, I must however say that I’ve used the normal precautions, meaning that I haven’t wandered on empty streets at night and I haven’t flashed my valuables around.
On few occasions, I’ve been warned by the friendly locals not to enter certain (non-touristy) areas in Santiago as well as in Valparaíso and I’ve obliged. Petty theft is known to be present in large cities around the region, the tourist-populated areas are however generally safe. When it comes to Patagonia, Chile is as safe as it can get. Some useful general travel safety tips could be found in this piece, in case you were interested.
That is about being safe from other humans. But then there’s Mother Nature. Please know your limits and do not overestimate your hiking skills and fitness level. The multi-day hikes, as much as adventurous and beautiful they are might present you with extreme weather conditions that are not to be underestimated.
Furthermore, please watch out for the currents when swimming in the Pacific as it could get rather hardcore. Rip currents are behind many deaths per year so please make sure you are aware of them. And last but not least, there’s wildlife, a lot of stray dogs and so on, you know what I mean…
Places to visit in Chile
Santiago de Chile
To be honest, I’m not sure if I can provide an objective description of the city. I have found Santiago a little claustrophobic and busy but I must say that it was the first location of my long trip around Latin America and everything was new and a little different. Furthermore, the jet lag caused by the plane delay, which made my journey over 50 hours long also hasn’t helped the objectivity of my assessment…
Santiago‘s urban planning reminded me of multiple versions of Tetris being played at the same time. Mixing the ugly modern megastructures with the colonial architecture into an eclectic and dense concrete jungle just didn’t work for me that much. Don’t get me wrong, there are many charming spots but the visitor must look for them. More descriptive as well as practical details about Santiago could be found here.
Valparaíso and Viña del Mar
Only a few hours drive from Santiago westward, towards the Pacific ocean, there’s another popular destination for tourists worth visiting. As opposed to the country’s capital, Valparaíso instantly impressed me with its colours as well as the ever-present street art, bohemian atmosphere and general vibe.
I admit that the city is not for everyone because it could be a bit gritty. More details and practical information about Valparaíso as well as how to get there from Santiago de Chile could be found here. In case you were more into luxurious and modern places, you can hop on the metro and get to its flashy neighbour Viña del Mar.
Tierra del Fuego
If we travel south, like the most south where people live on a regular basis, we’d reach the mysterious Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The name “Land of Fire” apparently comes from the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who allegedly saw multiple fires upon his first visit. The reason for that is that the native people (Selk’nam and Yaghan) used nearly no clothes so they’ve used fires to them warm.
When it comes to popular touristic attractions, the Chilean part of the largest island (Isla Grande) is rather boring because it’s more or less just flat and windy. For some Andean remote trekking, a visitor can travel south of the main island to Isla Navarino (see off the beaten path below). The most popular destination in the area is arguably Isla Magdalena, home to 120 thousand Magellanic penguins. More details and practical information about Tierra del Fuego could be found here.
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine is one of the most famous and iconic national parks in the whole Patagonia. When you Google-picture Patagonia, one of the top four pictures would be one of the three towers (Las Torres). The more adventurous visitors usually head to do multi-day hiking in a park, others can enjoy the hotels or day trips from Puerto Natales.
In spite of the rather steep pricing, I would definitely recommend visiting the park. It’s very well organised, beautiful and not so crowded (especially during the shoulder seasons), considering its popularity. More practical details about this park, including the prices, various trekking options and transportation could be found here, compared with its Argentinian competitor El Chaltén.
FYI, there’s an additional popular attraction in the area called Mylodon Cave Natural Monument, which is a set of caves that hosted prehistoric huge sloths. I haven’t visited the place but here‘s Wiki’s take on the place.
Once arriving in northern Patagonia, the obvious location to rest for few days would be the small pretty (but also a bit resorty) town of Puerto Varas. Located in the heart of the Chilean Lake District, the place comes with multiple trekking options as well as seasonal skying options on the picturesque Vulcan Osorno.
Chilean Lake District has basically plenty to offer, whether it is skying and hiking in Parque Nacional Conguillío or Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, visiting the volcanic thermal springs in the Pucón region. Some practical info about Puerto Varas, as well as its Argentinian counterpart Bariloche, could be found here.
If case you were interested in the whole Lake District area, here‘s Vogue‘s take by Jen Murphy. I don’t think that Jen‘s piece mentions the Cochamó Valley, which is another popular location among tourists so here‘s its Wikivoyage‘s page.
Another major attraction in the region doesn’t stay far behind the Lake District attractions. In my humble opinion, it’s even more mind-blowing but that’s my subjective assessment. Only a few miles south of Puerto Varas, in the otherwise rather uninteresting town of Puerto Montt, there’s the starting point of the stunning Carretera Austral, the 1240km long partially paved highway famous for its stunning views of glaciers, lakes, fjords, steep mountains and forests.
In case you were thinking about exploring the region, I strongly recommend doing it so in a hired vehicle because it would allow you to stop wherever and whenever you want. The thing is that even any random stops along Carretera Austral are worth it. There are however few of the so-called ‘must-see places’ and I’ve listed them down here in a north-to-south order, together with some external informative links, in case you wanted more details.
- Parque Pumalín and the near by fjords;
- Queulat Parque Nacional and the village of Puyuhuapi;
- Coyhaique AKA the travellers hub;
- Villa Cerro Castillo, the ‘up and coming’ trekking hot spot;
- Marble Caves (see bellow) and Exploradores Glaciar;
- The road ends in Villa O’Higgins, where there’s an option to explore O’Higgins Glacier.
More details and information about Carretera Austral could be found here.
This place was more like a stopover for me when I’ve travelled from Argentinian El Chaltén to northern Patagonia. Catedral de Marmol however turned out to be a proper treat. The colours nature prepared for us on that day were truly spectacular, plus Puerto Rio Tranquillo, a small settlement nearby proved to be a charming little place, worth its name.
Furthermore, the glacier-origin Lago Gral Carrera, where the caves are located. Lake comes in with a microclimate and stunning surrounding nature that includes the above mentioned Exploradores Glaciar. More details about Marble Caves as well as practical information of how to get there and so on could be found here.
Desierto de Atacama is apparently the driest nonpolar desert in the world. It stretches over 1600 km along the Pacific coast of northern Chile from near Arica to La Serena. The touristic centre of this large desert is the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. The town itself is just another tourist trap with a lot of scam but the stunning nature that surrounds it is well worth visiting the area.
If you can hire a car, you could do most of the activities by yourself, which is the option I’d recommend in case you wanted to skip the crowds. More details about San Pedro de Atacama could be found here. The must-see places in the area are listed below:
- Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna): the name has it right;
- Rainbow Valley (Valle del Arcoíris): equally well-named place;
- The Petroglyphs at Hierbas Buenas: often connected with the Rainbow Valley tour, explore the Altiplanic culture’s message that dates back to the 5th century
- Go stargazing: the low light pollution will give you an opportunity to see the skies like many haven’t ever seen it, given the clouds weren’t naughty;
- Aldea de Tulor: an abandoned village that dates back to around 300BC
- Pukará Quitor: 700 years old pre-Columbian fortress
- Tatio Geysers: swim at 4,320 meters above the sea level
- Salar de Tara with pink Flamingos and Lagoons: unless you were heading to the more impressive Bolivian Uyuni Salt Flats nearby, please don’t skip its smaller cousin in Chile as those places are truly surreal
Other popular locations in Chile
- Easter Island. After Patagonia, Easter Island is probably the obvious place to mention in touristic connection with Chile. Isla de Pascua or Rapa Nui (in Polynesian) was however unfortunately out of my budget so here‘s Wikitravel‘s take on the island for you;
- Valdivia. I’m told by some of the cool locals that Valdivia a place with a great buzz and bohemian atmosphere AKA new Valparaíso;
- La Serena. The country’s second-oldest city is also a popular destination for tourists looking to explore the Elqui Valley, the nearby town of Punta de Choros to observe the marine wildlife, Fray Jorge National Park and more;
- The Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works: UNESCO world heritage site;
- Valle Nevado is a popular ski resort located not far from Santiago with some hiking options;
Off the beaten path
I’m not going to enter the philosophical angle regarding ‘the beaten path’ vs ‘off the beaten path’ debate, I’ve elaborated on it here, in case you were interested. I only say, that once things are written down and published, it kind of beats the purpose of the whole “off the beaten path” idea. Let’s just say that when it comes to the less-visited locations in Chile, here are few modest suggestions for the slightly more adventurous travellers:
- Isla Navarino, Tierra del Fuego. An island that’s located just over the Beagle Channel from the Argentinian Ushuaia comes with the actual most southern human settlement called Puerto Williams. The place is apparently as remote as it can get. One can get there from Punta Arenas by plane or a ferry (more info about the ferry options in the area are here) or with a speed boat from Ushuaia. The island is also a home to one of the more challenging multi-day hikes in Patagonia: Dientes de Navarino trek;
- El Chaltén – Villa O’Higgins walk, Patagonia. Some more adventurous travellers like to walk across the Argentina-Chile border from El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins (an end of the stunning Carretera Austral). Due to the rather excessive weight of my luggage, I’ve unfortunately opted to skip this part. However, some people I’ve met on my journey talked about it as one of the highlights of their trips. It involves taking two ferries across the lakes and a night spent by Lago del Desierto. In case you wanted to find out, the most recent description of this trip I found could be found here, published by Stingynomads;
- Chiloé Island, Lake District. I wouldn’t call the largest Chilean island exactly an off the beaten path location but it’s certainly not a place overcrowded with tourists. There are some parks to be explored, Penguins are also around and the area is known for mystical witch hunt stories. Read more here, in case you were interested;
- Valle Elqui, Región de Coquimbo (Northern Chile). More info and some suggestions about trekking and other activities in this northern location could be found on the Wikitravel page here;
- Ferry travel, Southern Chile is not exactly a location by its definition. However, some of us love to take boats and/or ferries to get to places and imagine sailing along fjords, icebergs, waterfalls and so on. The four main ferry options one can take in the area are described here, with prices, how to get tickets and so on…
Although Chile is relatively small country within the South American continent (it’s 7th out of 12 countries), it’s still 3,1 times bigger that the United Kingdom. In practical terms it means that unless you’re blessed with a lot of spare time and a good budget (Chile doesn’t come cheap, especially not in Patagonia), you won’t be able to see the highlights listed above in one go. I’d therefore recommend to go and explore central and northern regions and leaving Patagonia for a separate visit, if you wanted to enjoy your holidays without rushing it through.
Important practical notes about entry requirements
- Please do keep the little paper slip you will be given upon your arrival to Chile during the passport control. You’ll need it again when leaving the country;
- Except your country’s entry requirements agreement with Chile, please make sure that you must declare all products of plant and animal origin you are entering into Chile. The requirements are listed here.
Other Traveller’s Guides to explore
Some general tips about travelling in Latin Americas
- Budget: in case you were interested, here‘s an article listing the country-by-country basic expenses for a traveller in Latin America
- Safety: Few safety tips on how to secure your valuables, what to watch out for and more could be found here
- Transport: Information, safety and some other practical advice regarding public transport in Latin America can be found here
- ATM withdrawal charges: Some practical info, including the list of free-of-charge ATMs in Latin America, can be found here
- Border fees: To find out how much will you have to pay to enter or exit certain countries in Latin America, please click here
- Pre-trip preparations: Few things you can do ahead of time before you’ll become frantically busy prior to your departure are listed here
- Packing list: What to take with you for an extended trip as well as some security tips could be found here
- Cheap Flights: few tips on how to score a cheap/er flight, better seat on a plane, where to get a nap at a particular airport and so on