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.