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Matador’s destination expert on Chile lays out the country’s avoidable attractions…and what you should do instead.
1. Don’t… visit Torres del Paine during high season

December-March in this vast national park in southern Chile is not the time to find quiet solitude — especially on the trekker-happy “W” circuit.

The park fills up with people, the concessioned campsites turn into cities, and the “rustic” ones turn into villages.

Do… go during shoulder season

Or better yet, visit another Patagonia park, such as Queulat, home to bursting fuchsia plants, the elusive huemúl (a stocky, endangered deer that appears on Chile’s coat of arms), and a glacier-spawned waterfall.

Slightly farther north is the practically unvisited Tolhuaca National Park, full of monkey-puzzle trees and red-crested woodpeckers the length of your forearm.

2. Don’t… take the Navimag to the Laguna San Rafael glacier

This boat ride is pricey, uncomfortable, and makes you feel like you’re on a floating class trip, complete with skits and cafeteria-style eating.

Photo: Author

You’ll spend way too much money to sleep in a room with 15 other travelers, beside a ferry engine vibrating at the exact frequency that precipitates insanity, all to spend an hour hundreds of yards from the glacier in a cramped Zodiac with a bunch of whiskey-glomming Chileans.

Do… hike to the El Morado Glacier

This one is much more accessible, your starting point being Cajón de Maipo (near Santiago).

Another option is a day trip from Puerto Natales to the Serrano and Balmaceda Glaciers via a 4-hour boat trip past sea lion and cormorant colonies. Yes, you’ll get to see both ice blocks, plus take a short forest hike.

Alternatively (and don’t tell any Chileans I said this), go to Argentina for the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the world’s only advancing glaciers.

3. Don’t… go to Concha y Toro winery or take the Tren del Vino (Wine Train)

There’s great wine and great wine tourism in Chile, but CyT is considered a “wine for dummies” pick, and the train could be fairly described as the “wine for those very eager to part with large sums of money” option.

Do… go it solo in the Casablanca, Colchagua, or nearby valleys

This is doable with a little research. Pick up Margaret Snook’s book Vinos para Todos, whip out your Spanish-English dictionary, and run your own tasting based on these and regular-folk recommendations for top Chilean wines — which, incidentally, should only run between $2 and $10.

You could also take a tour with a local independent wine expert like Karen Gilchrist from winetravelchile.com. For the luxury wine-tourist set, Liz Caskey is recommended.

4. Don’t… take the Cerro San Cristobal funicular

The top of Santiago’s second-tallest hill is a popular photo-op spot.

But take the funicular and you’ll be missing one of the best parts: fabulous views of the mountains on the way up and down.

Do… hike up on the Zorro Vidal path

This trail takes about 40 minutes at a reasonable pace and is accessible from the Bellavista (Pio Nono) entrance. Or rent a bike on the Pedro de Valdivia side and pedal up (30-40 minutes).

This way, you earn your syrupy, rich mote con huesillo (a drink made with hyper-sweetened peach punch, reconstituted dehydrated peaches, and wheat kernels) from the vendors at the top.

Cerro San Cristobal mini-do: the Japanese Garden
Cerro San Cristobal mini-don’t: the zoo. Animal lovers will cringe.

5. Don’t… assume LAN Chile is all she wrote

The country’s national air carrier is NOT the last word when it comes to domestic travel.

Do… take the bus

Overnight buses can be downright luxurious.

Otherwise, the train is a slow but scenic option as far south as Temuco, and Sky Airlines can often beat all of the aforementioned’s prices.

The usual warning to buy in advance applies, including on buses during the summer, high season, and long weekends.

6. Don’t… loiter downtown or near Plaza Italia after an important soccer match

Photo: Paul Lowry

Especially if Universidad de Chile (La U) or Colo Colo are playing.

Chilean post-game hooliganism (by hinchas, or diehard fans) has taken hold, and a bus or metro trip with these screaming, chanting fans — one of whom stabbed another to death with a fork not long ago — is not where you want to be.

Do… watch a game at an out-of-the-way bar or restaurant

Or simply take the 90 minutes when the game is on as an excuse to enjoy the streets nearly completely solo. And then get back inside before the melee starts.

Word to the wise…those police water cannons? They can (and do) also spew tear gas into rowdy crowds.

7. Don’t… look for Chilean fashion in the fancy malls

That would be Alto Las Condes or Parque Arauco. Chilean-made department store items are even pricier than what you’d buy at home.

Do… hit up Calle Bandera to buy used clothing

Or, better yet, head for nearby Patronato, a zany warren of blasting music and inexpensive clothes, manufactured in Chile (or China) for a fraction of the price (and some say quality) of what you’ll find in big-name stores like Falabella or Paris.

Keep your wallet close, and stop for a falafel or some Korean food while you’re there.

8. Don’t… eat salmon at the Mercado Central

Actually, don’t eat it anywhere in the country.

Nearly all salmon in Chile is farmed, contains antibiotics and dyes banned in many countries, and — if you know your salmon — is nearly flavorless.

Photo: Author

Do… order anything else at the central market

Head into the chaos, choose your spot, and try one of the other grilled fish dishes, or opt for paila marina, a brothy soup of random sea creatures including several kinds of bivalves, the red sea squirt, and — if you’re lucky — a giant barnacle.

Less adventurous stomachs might prefer pastel de jaiba, an impossibly thick cheesy crab bisque.

9. Don’t… expect to understand a word anyone says

Even if you studied Spanish in high school, or college, or high school and college plus a stint traveling around Central America ten years ago, you simply will NOT understand what the average Chilean is saying.

They talk fast, swallow their s’s and wash them down with about half their d’s, and use an impenetrable slang and a special conjugation form that only exists in this sliver of South America.

Do… try anyway

A lot of visitors to Chile don’t speak any Spanish at all, so if you make an effort, people will appreciate it.

If you throw in a “¿cachai?” (“get it?” in local slang) or two, people will grin and nod and applaud your Chileno, as locals call the language.

10. Don’t… expect Santiago to be Buenos Aires

The two capital cities are just a couple mountain ranges apart, but Buenos Aires is South America’s NYC, something Santiago could never approximate — despite the fact that it calls one of its upscale neighborhoods “Sanhattan.”

Do… see Santiago for what it is, past and present

Years of history, miles and mountains of separation, and waves of different settlers have contributed to making Santiago the way it is.

The city tends to be under-appreciated, under-touristed, and generally underrated. Get to know Santiago on her own terms and learn something the travel industrial complex can’t (or won’t) tell you.

Community Connection

Partial to the beach? Read about Chile’s Best Coast Towns and, more specifically, how to have Fun in the Desert Sun: Pan de Azucar, Chile.

What NOT to do

 

  • http://matadornights.com tom gates

    This is a great piece of advice! One question: What’s the budget alternative to the Navimag though? There’s a reason everyone does it an bitches about it – it seems to be the only game in town. Also, for budgeters, I did a bus tour called “Pachamama” and as lowly as backpacker bus tours can be, I really enjoyed this one. OH, and DO climb the volcano in Pucon.

  • http://www.bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com eileen

    Well, there are three navimag trips. the “floating hostel” one that goes either to or from Puerto Natales/Puerto Natales, depending on how you look at it, one from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco (to check out the Carretera Austral) and the one to Laguna San Rafael. I would skip the one to Laguna San Rafael, because although it’s cool, unless you are a really big cargo ship enthusiast (it is a converted cargo ship), it can be a bit monotonous, and the actual facetime with the glacier is not that great. You spend a fair bit of time in and around Aysén, and the port, which reeks of fishmeal as well. The other two trips I have not personally done, but after my experience on the Laguna San Rafael trip, I’d sooner leave those experiences to other people (though the Carretera Austral is amazing).

    Another (pricier, but more fabulous) option would be to take a boat through the fjords from the Chilean side to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, or one that goes via Cape Horn. Seasickness-inducing conditions can abound, and again, you have to ask yourself if you are the kind of person that really wants to spend four days on a boat before you embark. And if so, there are lots of long boat journeys to embark on within Chile, and the Laguna San Rafael Navimag trip is in the running for the most overrated!

    You can take a boat trip at Perito Moreno (in Argentina) that lasts 30 minutes, is reasonably-priced and gets you closer (and more protected) with views like this, that any shmo with a camera in the right place at the right time can capture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bearshapedsphere/2278150455/

  • http://www.bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com eileen

    and by to/from Puerto Natales/Puerto Natales, I meant Puerto Montt/Puerto Natales.

  • http://milesofabbie.com Abbie

    Thanks for the tips – good stuff to know :)

  • Matt Scott

    Great piece, love the advice, agree especially with the overnight buses and Mercardo Central- makes me want to head back to Chili today.
    Thanks

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/egypt/nickrowlands/travel-blog Nick

    I now want to go to Chile and listen to the locals wash down their s’s with sea squirts and giant barnacles!

  • http://www.sophiesworld.net Sophie

    Mmm Chile. Been wanting to go ever since I read Sarah Wheeler’s book “Travels in a Thin Country”. Heaps of good advice in your article here. Thanks!

  • http://www.natashayoung.wordpress.com Natasha

    Yes, yes, yes. Great tips.

    A friend of mine has just been on the Navimag and described it as like being on the P&O ferry between Dover and Calais.

    I’ve never found any clothes I like in Santiago, even in Patronato, but there’s much more atmosphere down there than in the nasty malls.

    With you on the paila marina but so not on the mote con huesillos. It tastes like out-of-date peach syrup with added sugar and crunched up Sugar Puffs.That’s not a drink it’s a cocktail for toddlers.

    Plaza Italia does get a bit lairy after the football I agree, but usually the biggest danger is the police switching on the tear gas.

    Any dos and don’ts for the Atacama?

  • Marisa

    I held my breath before I read this article, having lived/traveled in Chile, but I actually agree with this writer’s advice. Buses are great if you can spare the time (my bus ride from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, Argentina was very memorable, particularly crossing the strait) but keep in mind that if you’re hopping to the extreme north/south from Santiago, a plane is well worth the time and $$. I found that booking flights on LAN or Sky as a Chilean resident was much, much cheaper than going through their US portal, so if you have a friend in Chile, check the fares and have them make the arrangements!

    Eileen, would you recommend visiting Viña Cousiño Macul in Santiago? That and Concha y Toro are within Santiago region limits, which makes them easy to get to if you’re passing through Santiago on your way elsewhere and aren’t *too* serious about your wine. But any oenophile should definitely schedule tours or rent a car to visit the wineries in the valleys outside of Santiago… I regret not having done this!

  • Vikram

    Nice article and appropriate info, will definitely come handy when I travel to Chile :)
    And travel I will, to Chile… One day!

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery,com Ryukyu Mike

    Excellent tips; I like the don’ts followed by the Do’s format !

  • http://www.bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com eileen

    Marissa, re: wineries within Santiago. The thing is, it’s not that Concha y Toro is a bad place to go, it’s just that in my (humble) opinion, visiting a vineyard is the whole experience of getting out and about, seeing the Chilean countryside and being wowed by incredible vistas of row after row of vines, trellised into flat Ts, tendrils grabbing, fruit ripening, etc. Concha y Toro is a hop skip and a jump from the metro (or an easy bikeride from my house), and Cousiño Macul is also well-within city limits. Of course, that is neither of these wineries’ fault, that the city sprawled out to meet them. Concha y Toro offers a variety of tours from the more pedestrian to more demanding, and many wineries make some two-buck-chuck in addition to their more prized wines. Just know what you’re getting into when you book the tour, and please don’t think that going to two wineries on public transportation tells the whole story of wine production in Chile. But you know? With patience and a little study and a good guide and asking the questions you want the answers to, you can learn quite a bit, and maybe more than enough to quench your thirst (argh! bad pun!) for knowlege.

    One giant advantage of the close-in wineries is that they run a lot of tours, and if you didn’t think of wine-tasting until the last minute, you can probably still get into one, whereas one of the valley vineyards may not have any space for you in the language of your choice on a given day. On the other hand, they run so many tours that I couldn’t help but feel a little Disneyfied.

    Like anything, it’s all about balance.

    And thanks for the feedback!

  • Andrea

    I agree with 99% of the article (really excellent advice), but I have to ask: What the h*** is “Sanhattan” suposed to be? I’m a born and bred Santiaguina, have lived here my whole life and this is the first time I’ve come accross that unfortunate nickname for any place in this city. :-/

  • http://www.bearshapedsphere.blogspot.com eileen

    Andrea, It’s where Providencia, Las Condes and Vitacura meet in those towering glassed-in buildings. It’s really real! 33,400 hits on Google, a Wikipedia entry, and most importantly, that bastion of Chilean transparency re: urban develpment, Plataforma Urbana talks about it: http://www.plataformaurbana.cl/archive/tag/sanhattan/. I’m sure you know what they’re referring to. I personally dislike the word on 2 fronts. 1, I’m not a fan of formalized frankenwords, and 2, Santiago doesn’t need to try to be Manhattan, it’s Santiago. And that’s why I like it!

    Glad you liked the rest of the article. Lugareños can be harsh critics!

    • Andrea

      I figured you might be referring to the Isidora Goyenechea/El Bosque area… nice place & certainly Santiago’s (upper) business heart, but “Sanhattan”? I swear, I love my country and my city, but that moniker screams “wannabe-ess” :P

      I’m glad that you love Santiago :)

  • Vlad

    Wuahahaj about the Plaza Italia you forgot say, when the national team is playing too :D!!

    Nice info, Im really smile a lot when read it!

    And I think all feedback is really appreciated.

  • http://www.TheExpeditioner.com Matt Stabile

    Now you tell me not to go to Concha y Toro. Truthfully, I think their wine was quite good, I think what you’re getting at is that there’s plenty of good wineries a little more off-the-beaten-path. But take it from me, if you’re short on time, Concha y Toro can be done as a day-trip from Santiago, and I guarantee you can sample some amazing wines.

  • Trevor

    Excellent read! It brought back all my good memories of living in Chile (Patronato over the malls is great advice). Although I would say DO go on a pisco tour in Valle de Elqui. The pre-cordillera is beautiful, plus spend a couple days on the beach in Totoralillo…beautiful. I will be back in this beautiful country as soon as possible.

  • Andrea

    You are so over reacting about Chile. I think this article is not saying what really happened… I have to say your comments are offending

    • Andrea

      Just in case: this Andrea is not the same from the above comments (me), FWIW

  • http://nicotours.com nico

    wine tours are just boring anyway. concha y toro or otherwise. you can avoid them all together and be better off. you should forego the wine tour, stay in the city and get tipsy drinking pipeño, chicha and the famed terremoto at a place like Las Tejas…

    Getting to the El Morado glacier usually means private transportation. You can also book tours with Nico Tours or a slew of other operators. The El Morado national park is probably the biggest and best mountain-related activity nearest to Santiago.

  • Julie

    Thanks for the advice. I saved the article to my diigo account and highlighted the important parts.

  • Rodrigo

    Do … try anyway. LOL.

    Nice article, Eileen!

  • karina

    I´m santiaguina I don´t know where are you really from, cause if you had never heard about sanhattan is because you probably live far from there, sanhattan its the golf neighborhood, around a few mounths ago the “titanium” building was finished and is the tallest building in southamerica.

  • Cristobal Cerda

    Im from Chile. Im so happy you liked my country.

    The guy who wrote this topic is an excellent traveler. I had a lot of fun reading this post. That’s what we really are.

    Chile is a completly different country from South America. Our languaje sucks! In fact we have a lot of words that the RAE( Real academia Española) had to make oficial because of us.

    Our geography is unique in the world. We have the tricontinentality. We have territory America(obviously), Antartica. Oceania.

    Im so happy that you Tourist recognize that. There are a lot of chileans that don’t realize what they have and they take their first vacations to go and lay down on a beach all the day.

    About the Salmon. We had a crisis last year. A virus ISA infected a kind of salmon. But in NO CASE IT CAN BE DAENGEROUS TO YOU IN THIS MOMENT!

    WE ARE THE MAIN PRODUCTORS OF SALMON IN THE WORLD, being followed by Norway.

    Anyway, KEEP VISITING CHILE! Im just 19 and my dream is to transform the Tourism in Chile. I would like to work in that…

  • Viviana

    I am a Santiaguina living in California for about five years. I love the article, It makes me laugh. However, I have two comments.

    First, As Andrea I never heard a word about this “Sanhattan” term. I realized that maybe the term in new as well as the titanium biulding.

    Second, we don’t call our languaje or anyone else speaking it as Chileno… The correct term in Chile is “Castellano”. If you speak Spanish, a Chilean person will say that you’re speaking Castellano.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.chilean-wine.com Boris

    There’s quite a few great wineries within a short drive of Santiago. Check out this article from my site.

    http://www.chilean-wine.com/wineries-near-santiago-chile

  • Francisca

    Me rei demasiado con tu artículo!

    It’s true, our slang it’s nearly impossible to understand. But we love when you try.
    About the wine topic and viñedos, i think it’s better to have a bottle with some nice group of chileans and enjoy. Go to the museum, or try Cajón del Maipo…

    Ehmmm… a piece of advice: please Don’t use bermudas, hiking shoes and white cotton socks if you’r in the city… the best it’s when u blend a bit in the crowd.

  • http://www.landcruising.nl Karin-Marijke

    Fun alternatives. Like that.

    About Torres del Paine: we visited in December, before the crowds came. Did have the disadvantage that officially the large loop wasn’t open yet, they were still repairing damage from landslides and so on. After some insistance we were allowed to walk it [as did a few others, as we found out along the way], but were on our own so to speak – no help could be expected from the organisation if we got into trouble.
    Had a great walk.

    A good off-the-beaten option when visiting San Pedro de Atacama or Chuquicamata copper mine [in Calama] is a visit to the small villages of Chiu Chiu and Caspara, where only few foreigners come. Lovely area.

  • Rock

    Dumb article

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=654888987 Gustavo Caetano

    I’m going to Santiago in August, where I’ll stay for 2 full days (after that I’ll be going to San Pedro de Atacama) and I was actually planning a trip to Concha y Toro. 

    Is there any winery you’d recommend instead?

  • Silvio Akcelrud

    I first visited Santiago 30 years ago and could see how much Santiago got better and Buenos Aires worse. Someone in Brazil comment, Santiago is very European, isn’t it? I answer: It’s leaning more to Tokyo than Europe actually. Chilean people is the nocest people in South America by far and Santiago is a safe, modern city worth visiting as well as the thousands of kilometers that make Chile such a diverse country with so much to be explored!

  • Amy Rogers

    Great Article. As I plan on traveling around Chile for a couple of months, I do appreciate your advice about the wineries, football-crazed-fans, and salmon!

    • Ryan Smith

      miss you both. i got my passport! now i just need vacation. let’s catch up soon. skype schedule?

  • Francisco Javier Campos Ducass

    Sky es igual de caro que Lan

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