Landing in the Chilean capital Santiago is a great start. The last bit of the Andes offers grandiose scenery before the plane heads steeply downhill. The best time to travel here is when Europe is swept into the November’s gray blanket while the summer just started in the middle of Chile – the time difference is also only four hours. So despite the long trip you can go on and enjoy the town already on your first day here.
Here in the valley, with the snow-capped mountains so close you can almost touch them, the Incas had an important outpost when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s. Santiago is located exactly where the lush farmland of the south begin moving into drier areas and after a one day trip to north, the landscape turns into pure desert. Today it is just a couple of hours drive over the low coastal mountains to the sea in the west, you will find yourself at 3,000 meters of altitude soon, surrounded by volcanoes.
Despite the fact that the indigenous people were here long before the Spaniards, there are a few traces of them left – Santiago certainly has not the pre-Colombian treasures as Lima or Mexico City. The fact is that most of the buildings the colonists had built have disappeared over the years – earthquakes have left their mark. In addition to a number of churches there are a few buildings that survived disasters just fine, the former Spanish court house is now the Museum of Chilean History.
But the real historic pearl in Santiago is undoubtedly the Museu Chileno de Arte Precolombiana with fine collections from all over America – ceramics, wooden objects and textiles. In the basement Chile’s own heritage of indigenous peoples is presented, and that part is actually even better – one of the few must-sees in Santiago.
For anyone who remembers the military coup in 1973, the Palacio de la Moneda is a well-known sight from television pictures where the air force bombarded the elected president Salvador Allende. His statue now stands next to the museum. But the military coup and dictatorship years are still a sensitive subjects in Chile, it is something that people just discuss with close friends because opinions still divide the country.
With it’s more than 6 million inhabitants, the capital today is considerably widespread but almost everything in the center is within a walking distance and places further away are easily accessible by subway. As for the wealthy, modern Providencia district – a place with skyscrapers, shopping malls and American coffee shop chains, you can here more English here than anywhere else in the country.
Not for nothing it is called ”Sanhattan” by Santiago residents. In any case, the area does not feel like something you have to cross the globe for. It’s more fun in the district of Bellavista, where every other house is decorated with painted facades, where the restaurants’ supply is just fine and the beer is the cheapest in town.
Far more charm and character is waiting when you take a bus to the sea and the port city of Valparaiso. The city is a World Heritage Site since 2003 for its a historic center, all the colorful Victorian houses and climbing the 42 steep hills that form an amphitheater around the center which is close to the sea. If you choose to live in the hills, many slopes and long stairs awaits.
The best era of Valparaiso ended almost a hundred years ago when the Panama Channel opened. Before the channel was built, all ships to and from California went along the Cape Horn and the Valparaiso was an obvious stop on the way. Now Valparaiso is not even Santiago’s main port city, instead, Valparaiso adapted a mix of tourism, rich cultural and bohemian lifestyle. Many locals warn of robbers as soon as you have a camera.
The scenery changes after a short train journey north. Here is Viña del Mar, Chile’s most famous beach town with lots of new high-rise holiday apartments, large casinos, fine parks and considerably more expensive cars . The sandy beach is wonderful but the waves are often large and the sea is almost always too cold – the Chilean coast’s climate is influenced by cold ocean currents. From here, and almost all the way to Santiago, high-quality white wines are being grown which thrive in the slightly cooler climate.
Road signs lead me towards a complicated highway intersections and the traffic moves on real fine. Santa Cruz is one of Chile’s most charming cities. A nice city where most of the hotels, casinos, parks and restaurants are mostly built and owned by internationally wanted weapon dealers. Right outside the city there are one of the best wineries in the country, all of them are beautiful facilities which often welcome visitors. As Viña Montes, which was the first to cultivate wine on the mountain sides and not just on the plain soil, gives the landscape a striking resemblance to the Mediterranean’s best wine regions.
Mostly all the time you will be astonished by the landscape of the Andes Mountains to the east. When the weather is clear it’s impossible to notice the line of powerful and most active volcanoes. Almost all of them have had an outbreak but the country is sparsely populated so it rarely affects populated areas.
Valdivia is a really small town which has a huge market in the city center. Few towns in this region have houses older than 50 years, there have been many earthquakes in previous years. But a lot of buildings still look old in small towns which helps to preserve authenticity. This includes the area around the tourist metropolises Villarrica and Pucon in this part of Chile, which is known as the Lake District. Here you can find amazing views of volcanoes with snow on their tops. Volcán Villarrica erupted last spring which partly influenced adventure hiking, riding and ski tourism in the area.
If you want to go further south – down to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, you have to take a boat.
Chile is an amazing country, it offers nice beaches, magnificent views, world class wine tasting opportunities and genuinely welcoming culture. Enjoy great food and salsa dancing.