Santiago was meant to be the place we would stop our travels and live. It’s big and cosmopolitan, with a nice subway, international restaurants, cheap student bars, and old buildings hidden away among mostly modern constructions. It’s the least intimidating and the easiest to deal with as a visitor. But it just didn’t feel right for us when we arrived. Of all the capital cities we’ve visited, it felt the least South American.
“Es caro, pero vale la pena. How do you say ‘vale la pena’ in English? Is ‘It’s worth the pain’?”
“It’s more natural to say ‘It’s worth it.'”
“It’s worth it the pain.”
As a tourist town isolated in the middle of the driest desert on earth, San Pedro de Atacama is a bit expensive, but certainly “worth it the pain.” Attractions include the expansive and stunning Valle de la Luna (not to be confused by the valle of the same name near La Paz), sandboarding, and the ghostly and chilling Geyser El Tatio. At 2,400 meters, it’s also a good place to spend a few days acclimatizing before you cross into Bolivia.
Santiago is surrounded by towering snowcapped mountains. This sounds like an ideal city backdrop, and it may be in the summer. Unfortunately, smog gets trapped in the city during the winter months, obscuring what might otherwise be a stunning vista.
Even with a substandard view, Cerro San Cristóbal is an easy and cheap way to spend a few hours. A ride up the old funicular is a fun little ascent and a touch of living history in this thoroughly modern city.
The mirador sits 485 meters above the city, and offers potentially great views, depending on the weather. There’s a museum, a zoo, snack and souvenir shops, and of course the ever present stray dogs of Chile.
How to get there The funicular leaves from Plaza Caupolicán in Pío Nono, Bellavista. Or, if you’re up to it, you can walk to the summit from the same point.
Cost CH$1300 per person.
Hours 1-8 p.m. Mon, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues-Sun
A visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Santiago is almost worth it just for the first floor lobby. Topped by a glass cupola, it’s an expansive and impressive space which lets in light to better view its striking collection of statues. The museum hosts temporary exhibits from modern artists on the second floor, as well as a collection of paintings from Chilean and international artists. All in all, the collection is rather sparse, and a ticket to the fine arts museum doesn’t also get you into the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Still, it’s a tranquil space and a nice escape from the wide, car-filled streets outside.
Located in Parque Forestal by the Bellas Artes metro stop. It’s in the same building, but with its entrance on the opposite side, as the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MAC).
Cost is C$300 for adults, children under 13 free and free for all on Sundays.
Opening hours are Tues-Sun 10am-7pm.
Other than the famous statues on Rapa Nui, the pre-Columbian cultures of Chile are little known outside of Chile itself. To get better acquainted, you can visit La Serena Museo Arquelógico and its small but impressive collection of artifacts, including skeletal remains, early tools and a dinghy made from the hide of a sea-lion. It’s interesting to look at the maps and displays detailing the history of the early cultures, with a particular emphasis on the pre-Colonial Antofagasta and Coquimbo peoples, especially if you’ve already (or are about to) visit Valle del Encanto. There’s even a complete Moai statue on loan from Easter Island, which I felt pretty damn lucky to see, since a visit to the island isn’t cheap.
Located on the corner of Cordovez and Cienfuegos
admission free on Sundays
Hours of operation
10am-1pm & 4-7pm Sat
Geyser El Tatio, Chile 4,320m
Below your feet, the earth bubbles. Vapor seeps and liquids spew out of shafts and cracks, while the freezing air bites at every bit of exposed skin. It bit at my skin, at least, as I was unprepared for the chill at 4,320 meters before the sun rises. I was so focused on waking up at 3:30 a.m. for the ride that I hadn’t even thought of bringing a hat. I did bring my swimsuit, however, for a dip in the high altitude geothermal spring once the sun rose and the plumes of vapor began to slowly dissipate.
Geyser El Tatio, we were told, is the highest active geyser field on earth. This came into doubt when we toured an even higher geothermal field in Bolivia two days later.
Nonetheless, the ghostly mist is quite a sight before it gets warmer and the steam becomes invisible.
Unlike El Tatio, where little circles of stones delineate where it’s safe to walk, Sol de Mañana is a collection of festering, boiling and bubbling mud pits and gas vents. It’s easy to get close to the action here and wander between deadly pits of hot grey sludge, as the melting earth clings to your shoes. One could fall in, if so inclined, or so delirious from the altitude. It’s a spectacular and odd experience to meander among solid, melted and melting minerals, high from the lack of oxygen to the brain, taking pictures with other tourists and wondering if anyone’s going to fall in.
I could see Hoy Curanto, written in chalk, outside ramshackle restaurants all over southern Chile. I didn’t know much about it, other than that it was a local speciality involving seafood. In the fish market in Ancud, Chiloé, I finally decided to give it a try. When it came to the table, I realized that its inflated price in comparison with the other dishes wasn’t due to superior ingredients, but to its sheer size. This was a meal for at least two people, but could probably be shared by 3 or 4. Here’s a list of what it contained:
1 whole fist-sized boiled potato
a large handful of mussels
a large handful of clams
1 piece of pork
1 milcao (a kind of potato bread)
1 chapalele (a potato dumpling)
a mug of soup (the broth it was cooked in)
Needless to say, I couldn’t finish it.
Valparaiso is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and one of the dirtiest cities we’ve visited. Houses are built all higgeldy-piggeldy on steep hills, covered in scrap metal and paint leftover from the shipping industry. The uneven pavements are covered in dog poo and creakingly old or out of service funiculars make getting around both a pleasure and a pain.
But the really magical thing about Valparaiso is the street art. It seemed like every surface that could be decorated, was decorated. The reason for this, I learnt on a walking tour of the city, was to discourage taggers from vandalizing property. If a house or shop has a planned piece, or mural, it’s respected and left alone. If a wall is just painted a block of colour, it becomes a blank canvas just asking for taggers to use.
I took so many photos it was hard choosing which ones to use for this photo essay. What in any other city would have been super cool became just average in Valparaiso. These are some of my favourites.