I entered Chile from the Bolivian border in the country’s north east not far from San Pedro de Atacama after the conclusion of my 3 day tour of Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia Salt Flats). These neighbouring countries unfortunately aren’t the best of friends and apart from a border they don’t share much else culturally, economically or politically.
Bolivia is widely considered to be one of the cheapest (and poorest) countries in South America and in contrast I found Chile to be one of the most expensive. On average I was paying at least double for most travel essentials (not inclusive of tipping which is also customary in Chile).
Whilst all Latin American countries (excl. Brazil) adopt Spanish as their national language, the Chilean dialects are well-known for distinctive pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and slang usage. Despite being the last country on my itinerary and racking up 6 months of Spanish practice in 11 other Latin American countries, I was constantly asking locals to slow down and repeat themselves. Being Australian I can’t really criticize as we do the same with the English language.
Climate was also another factor that distinguished Chile. Even though I only covered ground between San Pedro de Atacama and Valparaiso I found very little variation in the depressingly cold winter climate and light precipitation. Bolivia on the other hand offered variation with cities such as La Paz and Copacabana being equally as cold but places like Rurrenabaque being quite warm and humid.
I could go on comparing other notable aspects such as cuisine, local people, attitudes and infrastructure but I think you get the picture. Despite some of the comparisons not being flattering to Chile, it is definitely a country that should firmly be on any South American itinerary.
I only had 7 days in Chile which might sound like a lot to some people, however considering I had travelled for 12-months at my own leisurely pace this was a restricting short amount of time. My initial plan was to spend a day or two in San Pedro de Atacama, two days in Valle de Elqui, three days in Valparaiso and a day or two in Santiago.
As I was on the bus heading towards the Chilean border chatting with new friends I made on the Uyuni tour, I made a decision to bypass San Pedro altogether as I felt it was not going to offer enough contrast to what I had just experienced. Sure there were some native species of Flamingo and totally surreal desert landscapes that resemble other planets which under normal circumstances I would not dream of skipping, but with the pressure of limited time I rolled the dice and boarded a bus to La Serena where I would change and head towards Vicuna in the heart of Valle de Elqui.
First impressions of Vicuna upon arriving at around 8:00AM were not as I had expected. It was depressingly cold with fog and cloud completely blanketing the small town. It felt deserted – no people around and nearly all the local businesses were closed. Looking back on my travels I really can’t think of any other time during where I felt my choice of destination was such a mistake.
Things got worse when I found an internet café and googled the Valle De Elqui Wikitravel page. The page was useless with worthless information. I was seriously considering going back to the bus station when I started chatting with the owner of the Internet café who suggested I visit the local tourist information office.
I received some great advice from the english speaking gentleman working in the tourist office. He assisted me in building an awesome 2-day itinerary around the Valle de Elqui.
1. Visit the Capel Pisco Distillery – For about US$5 you get a comprehensive introduction (English or Spanish) to the world of Pisco and the process of production. The modest fee also includes a tasting.
2. Lunch at Solar Cocina (Sun Kitchen) Villaseca – A beautiful 30-minute stroll from the Capel distillery is the charming town of Villaseca where you will find the little solar kitchen which relies exclusively on the sun to prepare rustic and generous meals. At about US$15 for a 3-course lunch including wines and pisco it is great value with a beautiful backdrop.
3. Afternoon walk around Villaseca
4. Mamalluca Observatory Tour – Chile is undoubtedly the world’s capital for astronomy and boasts one of the world’s clearest and driest night skies. Whether you are an astronomy buff or not, this tour will definitely be of interest. We had a very engaging astronomer who captivated us with amazing explanations and I will never look at the night sky the same way again. The telescopes allow you to get up close and personal with several planets and even the views with the naked eye are some of the best you will get anywhere in the world.
5. Visit Guayacan Micro-Brewery and Cavas Del Valle Organic Winery followed by an afternoon in Montegrande and a visit to the Casa de Gabriela Mistral. For a US$2 bus fare, you can explore some neighbouring townships of the Valle and sample some great artesian beers, organic wine (Syrah & Cabernet) and get an insight into an icon of Latin American literature and Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral.
Following two very relaxing days in the Valle de Elqui it was time to get back on the bus and head to the port city of Valparaiso to spice things up a little. I was definitely ready for some major contrast to what I just experienced as this region is Chile’s 3rd most populated and for what it lacks in beauty, it definitely makes up for in character.
After arriving at about 6:00AM and navigating my way up a few colourful stairs I finally found my hostel – Casa Volante. I could not have picked a better place to stay and instantly befriended a cool local Renee then spent 2 hours talking about a whole range of topics. In addition, I received a customised orientation to Valparaiso followed by a personal tour of one of the city’s main attraction – its nightlife.
Valparaiso has a very interesting “Riches to Rags” history where prior to the opening of the Panama Canal it was a thriving port city that was awash with cash. The opening of the Panama Canal dramatically cut the volume of ships coming through the port and the investment disappeared as quickly as it came. There is still a large naval base in the city as well as a functioning container port however from simply looking around and talking to locals you can sense the city struggles to contend with the challenges of day-to-day life.
Valparaiso’ character is a blend of edge and grunge which I found to be addictive. Being a university town, the students add an element to the subculture which complements the history and social fabric. The reputation of the city being ‘unsafe’ I found to be a little exaggerated however common sense definitely applies to valuables and walking alone in the evening.
Most Valparaiso’ attractions can be accessed simply by walking around the streets. There is an abundance of street art on offer ranging from some older pieces from the 1980’s to more contemporary works. The city is large and I recommend grouping neighbourhoods in addition to utilising the extensive bus network.
The architecture scattered across the city was a real treat for the senses. Travellers of all backgrounds will appreciate the explosion of colour that surrounds them. I can imagine the city would also be a photographers wet dream.
A great way to get orientated is to do one of the walking tours on offer. As Valparaiso is so large and diverse, the tours of this city tend to be longer in duration and incorporate a bus ride or two. I did the tours4tips tour and found it really informative and covered a lot of the street art.
Food is another big drawcard. With nearly all cuisines represented in the thriving restaurant scene, there are a few local specialities that are worth a try. For me though, the seafood was the standout attraction and I can recommend Los Portenos for a real deal authentic seafood experience. Be warned that the service is non-existent and the ambience leaves a little to be desired but you will receive generous portions of the freshest seafood cooked traditionally and authentically in the open-kitchen.
The most famous traditional food in Valparaiso is the Chorrillana, a massive pile of french fries topped with steak, onion, and eggs. One serve could easily feed 2-4 people depending on appetite and if you counting calories then just looking at this dish will send you skyrocketing. I highly recommend a traditional restaurant full of locals called La Moneda de Oro if you want to try this dish or any other local dish cooked with authenticity.
I was also very fortunate to be in Valparaiso during the Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Feast Day festival held at the end of June where fishing boats are decorated with flowers and candles. The streets are filled with colourful processions and followed with feasts of seafood with plenty of drinking and dancing.
I had such a great time in Valparaiso that I decided to stay a few extra days and skip Santiago altogether. It was a befitting end to the 2nd leg of my Solo World Tour and I owe a huge thanks to the crew at Casa Volante for looking after me so well – it seriously felt like a home away from home.
Chile has so much more to offer but it’s dependant on the seasonality and the amount of time you posses. Rich with natural beauty and culture as well as possessing an excellent bus network, travellers of all backgrounds will fall in love with this South American powerhouse.