In the penultimate of a four-part series on South America, writer Claire McKeever treats us to the sights and sounds of Chile, a country clearly filled with much adventure and offering more to visitors than meets the eye…
Although much slimmer in size compared to its neighbouring countries of Argentina and Peru, Chile impressed me with its captivating scenery, sense of adventure and unique charms. My journey through the country took me from dramatic Patagonian trails to its exciting capital city, along its laid back coastline and finally to the northern deserts of San Pedro de Atacama.
A Jewel in Patagonia’s Crown
So much of Patagonia has impressed me but none more so than Torres Del Paine, a National Park based within the Chilean side of Patagonia. Averaging around 180,000 hectares of land, the park’s different trails will spoil you with awe-inspiring mountain tops, rivers, wildlife, and even glaciers at some points along the way. Avid trekkers take up the challenge of the “W” trek, a 3-5 day trek covering much of the park or some will choose, as I did, a gruelling day trek to the aptly named Torres (Towers), three granite towers that lie impressively at one of the highest peaks within the park.
For anyone visiting Torres del Paine, a stop in the nearby town of Puerto Natales is a wise move if you’re looking for somewhere to load up on supplies before embarking on your trek, or to find a much needed rest on your return (a warm shower, juicy burger and craft beer certainly did wonders for me!)
City in the Andes
As my flight descended into Chile’s capital, Santiago, I was immediately awed by the city’s positioning, lying humbly below the Andes mountains.
Although small in comparison to other cities, Santiago is home to 7 million inhabitants and gives an air of somewhere very cosmopolitan and up to speed with the rest of the world. What’s more, the city boasts a diverse number of areas such as: Bellavista, an area offering street art, endless restaurants and bars; Lastarria, an area so pretty you would almost want to move into straight away, then Providenzia and Los Condes, where the other half like to wine and dine.
Interestingly, Chile has ties with Ireland that go as far back as the early 1800s, when Bernard O’Higgins (of Irish and Spanish descent) lead Chile to freedom (alongside José de San Martin) in the Chilean War of Independence. As an ode to him, his surname can be found as a prominent street name throughout the country.
A City Best Seen by Foot
Handily, Santiago’s main sights and areas of interest can be easily explored on foot, which I soon discovered when participating on a free walking tour. The tour starts just outside the main square’s cathedral and was a great introduction to Santiago: the local guide bringing the group to different points of interest, introducing us to local customs and cuisine, as well as sharing lesser known spots within the city. What was so interesting was hearing about the country’s political, economic, creative, and social advancements as we passed government buildings, the city’s newly developed financial hubs and peaked in at the open home of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s noble prize winning poet.
Terremoto: Pipeῆo (a type of fermented wine) and pineapple ice-cream make up this local drink. The fact its name translates as ‘earthquake’ says it all… Maybe just one of these will do.
Mote con Huesillo – Chileans are all over this non alcohol drink that is sold from every street corner in Santiago. It is made from wheat and peaches which doesn’t sound the most appetising but I challenge you to try it and you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Chilean wine: I fell for Chile’s Carmenere in the same way I did for Argentina’s Malbec –an equally scrumptious red. Take a day trip or long weekend from Santiago to the many surrounding vineyards where you can try it in style.
Pisco: The Chilean version of the pisco is definitely worth a few rounds. Bar de Pisco in Valparaiso or any bar in the area of Bellavista in Santiago will serve you up a great one.
|Take a Closer Look
Although the free walking tour gives a wonderful overview of the city, there are a few specific places worth returning to for a closer look. These include the following:
Pablo Neruda’s home: the late poet’s boat-shaped home overlooks the city and is now open for visitors to take a nosy round. An audio tour will guide you through the poet’s quirky and fascinating rooms and make you wish you were a guest at one of his infamous dinner parties. One of my favourite spots in the city.
Cerro San Cristobal: a cable car will take you to the top of this expansive mountain top which gives panoramic views of the city and also hosts regular open air Mass services.
Parque Forestal: This well maintained park is a perfect stopping point if you’re looking for a rest from any sightseeing. I also found that it is a great place for running if you’re looking to burn off all the incredible food this city has to offer!
Cerro Santa Lucia: This stunning hilltop set within a park, is a special place to see the city in all its glory. As you climb the wide steps up, expect to be treated to beautiful gardens, small churches and quiet sanctuaries.
Mercado Central: Santiago’s indoor fish market and pokey restaurants will provide hours of entertainment and probably some of the best seafood and cerviche you will ever taste.
|Remembering and Moving On from the Past
Chile obviously suffered tremendously under the devastating military dictatorship that occurred from 1973-1990. However, thankfully it has healed and developed in many ways since then.
For an in-depth account of the atrocities of the dictatorship (do be warned this is not for the faint of heart), the recently built El Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos or The Museum of Memory and Human Rights gives an incredible insight into what went on during this time and is an important commemoration of the thousands of victims who were either killed, tortured or who fled the country during this time.
Only a 1.5 hour bus ride from Santiago is the coastal town of Valparaiso, popular for its pretty old town that sits above a busier town centre and port. Similarly to Santiago, a free walking tour is on offer to take you to all the main sights and to make sure you don’t miss out on all the quirky and unique spots along the way. The old part of the town is the most impressive, awash with lively street art, quaint bars to sit and relax in, as well as great restaurants to sample excellent local seafood.
Not far from Valparaiso is Vina del Mar, a beachside town that is probably too touristy for my liking but is a good base to explore more beautiful places such as the surfing and fishing village of Concon, which is just a short bus ride or long coastal walk away (look out for whales and pelicans en route.)
As you reach northern Chile, the dreamy depths of the Atacama desert and surrounding area will be awaiting you. The nearest town of San Pedro, comprised of just 2-3 streets, is filled with quaint open air hotels and hostels, as well as tourist information centres offering activities to throw oneself into, such as: desert star gazing, sunrise/sunset trips on horseback, mountain biking and sand boarding.
|At the time of writing this article, Chile sadly encountered a serious earthquake along its coast. Thankfully, buildings have been built to withstand such events and according to reports, locals have been as resilient but our thoughts do go out to all affected in any way.|