People often ask me where was my favorite place of the trip (Galapagos, still the clear winner) – but that may be the wrong question to ask. Where is the place in South America I am most likely to go back to next? Chile, hands down.
As I crossed over the border exiting Bolivia, driving for about 30 minutes until we hit Chilean border control, it was abundantly clear I arrived in a country far more developed than the three I had just spent six weeks in, especially Bolivia where I spent the prior three weeks. The roads were clearly marked, there were guardrails, trucks seemed to have some kind of safety oversight (these are the things you notice when you are an ops lawyer). On arrival in San Pedro we could have been in any cute small mountain town, full of interesting boutiques and mid-range tour operators. We were not in Uyuni anymore and it was a brief preview into what would be wonderfully diverse and modern Chile.
Itinerary: I crossed the Chilean/Bolivian border at the popular vacation spot of San Pedro. After a few days of nursing my body back to its usual self with some fantastic food and relaxation time, I took a flight from Calama (1.5 hours away) to Santiago where I further cleaned up with a lovely stay at the W Santiago (thanks Starwood points!!). I was undecided where to go next, knowing that Easter Island would be unique, but expensive and far. But upon the delivery of this to my room …
I booked a flight within 10 minutes, while in the backseat of an Uber to a walking tour. After returning to Santiago (and impulsively changing my Mendoza trip to an early departure to Europe) I headed for the artistic paradise of Valparaiso. I then returned to Santiago to catch the long (14+ hours) direct flight to Rome.
San Pedro de Atacama: San Pedro is the most popular destination for locals in Chile. It is easily understandably why. I joined a few of my fellow Salar tourmates at a local hostel one had pre-booked with no plans from there. We enjoyed sunny weather, great food, and -finally – hot showers.
Given we had come from there days in the outdoors, our desire to do a day trip to the Chilean version of the sights we had just seen in Bolivia was low. However, if just visiting San Pedro, there are a half-dozen great day trips that can be easily booked from the town.
After the prior Salar night in the hot springs with the most amazing starts we’d ever seen, we decided to look into the San Pedro star tour discussed in a guide book. Northern Chile is widely regarded as the best stargazing in the world and a number of world-class observatories are located in the region. There are a few options for star gazing tours, some in town, others a short drive away. We chose one close to town with the small-group Lodge Altitud Expeditions (SPACE – the larger one had sold out during the day and we had no desire for a longer car ride than necessary). There were three of us, and three others joined. The guide was very excited to share his passion with us, and we used some really cool telescopes to see various stars, galaxies and planets. The resort where the tour was located looked lovely. For more star attractions, see the Guardian and Lonely Planet’s guide.
We also had a few delightful meals in San Pedro. I highly recommend La Estaka (the shrimp dish below) for creative cusine and a steak at any grilled meat restaurant “pobre” style, with an egg and onions.
There are a ton of cute and inexpensive hostels around town. I stayed with at Backpackers Hostel. While a bit out of the main area of town, it had a good vibe, and was quite chill with decent kitchen facilities. The noise around the fire (not quite a bonfire, really two logs somewhat on fire) lasts until midnight, so don’t go here if you are planning to try and sleep much earlier than that. If I went again, I would check out the hotel where we did our stargazing, or stay closer to town center.
Santiago: Culture shock. After seven weeks in Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador, hitting the ultra modern city of Santiago took a day to adjust to. It was also my first use of Starwood points of the trip, netting me two free nights at the W Santiago (click for full hotel review), along with one night half cash half points. I’ve never been so happy to arrive at a hotel, especially after shared dorms for the majority of the past few weeks. With my sweet SPG Gold upgrade to a beautiful corner room, I could have been very happy not leaving the room for two days. I did make it out the first day for a walking tour to get an overview of the city, and then met up with some of the Salt Flats crew later on for dinner and drinks.
The next day started leisurely with breakfast in bed and a trip to the beautiful gym. I then explored the museums. The Precolombian was easily the best museum of the trip (note that all museums in Chile close on Mondays, so Sunday is a great day to explore museums when shops and other attractions are closed). I ended up checking out the various W hotel bars for the evening, including the rooftop for sunset. Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, I would recommend stopping by for a sunset drink.
Monday was travel day to Easter Island. After morning yoga at the hotel, I went to Sky Costanera, an observatory atop the tallest building in South America (the second tallest in the Southern Hemisphere) and had it to myself for 30 minutes. Recommend going just before open and heading directly to the open air deck on the second floor. Then, it being in the middle of a modern mall, I did a little shopping. It was exciting – a headlamp, water bottle, and groceries to cook on Easter Island (eyes rolling). The Internet was correct as usual, many people checking in for my flight to Easter Island went so far as to bring a cooler full of food. The produce quality on Easter Island is lackluster and prices generally are high, so by cooking, it can make the time on the island much more affordable.
Pre Colombian Musuem:
Like most cities, I took a walking tour to get an overview. I’d recommend Tours for Tips, which also offers bike and winery tours.
Valparaiso (Valpo for short): Valparaiso was the first authentically “cool” city I visited in South America. An artistic paradise, full of street art, music, painting, and galleries.
I’ve posted a street art gallery here.
Here are some recommendations:
I’ll ignore the clear must dos – like the ascensores (elevators) around town to skip the hills. They are great, but you will learn about them on your Tours4Tips intro to the city!
Tours4Tips (free walking tour): I did the morning (offbeat) and afternoon (main sights) tours in Valpo. It was a Sunday, so figured not much else to do. The morning was the better tour, as by the afternoon tour I had already walked around the neighborhood of the tour. If you get there, the afternoon would be good to do as a first day activity, but if you have been there a day already, do the morning tour. The tour guides at Tours4Tips are great, they are also in Santiago.
Valpo Street Art Tour: This came recommended by a cooking class that was unavailable the day I was there. It was great to learn more about the artists that call Valpo home, and about the visiting artists. This tour is all about the art, so if you are looking for a mix of art and city history, do the other tour. Way cooler – is that you can actually make your own art. They have tours that include creating your own mural. I didn’t have enough time, but would do this in a heartbeat next time I visit.
Bike and Wine: I didn’t plan ahead enough to go to a winery in the nearby Casablanca valley. A fun way to go that I missed by a day is run by Tours4Tips’ from Valpo and includes winery visits by bike. When I was there in winter, it only went a few days a week. It looks like it runs every day now that it is spring.
Safety Caution: While the tourist areas of Valpo (and Chile in general) felt safe, especially in comparison to certain parts of Colombia and Bolivia, I met a U.S. traveler in my Santiago hostel that had been robbed the same weekend I was in Valpo. He was walking on the hill above the port area to try and find a spot for a photo and went down a deserted street where he was jumped (non-violently). Don’t let your guard down, and use good sense when exploring solo, especially in the area above the port.
Easter Island: Full wrap up available here.
Next up – it’s off to Europe I go, for a few days, then on to Morocco!