Travel Tips: Chile Travel Guide

Posted on 02 September 2011 by JB

General Comments

I probably short-changed Chile due to the fact that I needed to get to Ushuaia to get a cruise to Antarctica and thus only had about a month to spend. I crossed the Andes from Mendoza, Argentina arriving in Santiago. I then moved on to Valparaíso, Pucón, Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas (if you count spending the night in the airport), and finally Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine. My original plan was to cross from either Bolivia (at the end of the Salar de Uyuni tour) or Salta in Argentina to the Atacama desert and San Pedro de Atacama. That didn’t happen and I have mixed feelings about it, in part because I heard mixed reviews and because I saw some similar sights in Bolivia and Argentina. Other places I DIDN’T visit but would have liked to, include: La Serena, Ovalle, Curicó, Chiloé, Lago General Carrera, Cohiaique, and the trip from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales aboard Navimag.

When you arrive keep an eye out for a Get South booklet, which offers hostel discounts and suggestions for things to see and do in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

Chile, like Argentina, is a country where apparently every hostel has decided that a towel is something that should come with a charge. I hate that. A hostel is great for meeting people, but the only two absolutely mandatory services of any lodging is a bed to sleep on and a shower. A bed needs sheets and a shower needs a towel. Yes, I always have with me my travel towel, but I shouldn’t need it. Rant over.

Many people say that the Spanish spoken in Chile is the hardest to understand in Latin America (some people think Argentina is worse, especially that spoken in Cordoba). I didn’t get a chance to meet and talk with many Chilenos but the woman sitting next to me on one bus ride was from the southern region and I did indeed have a very difficult time understanding her.

The empanadas in Chile are a bit different, and much larger. I have heard many people say they are great but the few times I tried them they were awful – just big bread-like items with very little inside. Others have since told me that I must have just had bad luck or gone to bad places. You can try and decide for yourself. For me, I opt for those of Argentina!

Border and Visa Issues

I crossed the border by bus and everything was quite smooth, no fees and no visa required. Chile is however, famously strict about bringing in fruits or vegetables so don’t even try.

According to Frommers, “Chile charges a reciprocity fee upon entry to citizens of the following countries: $131 for the U.S., $61 for Australians, $132 for Canadians, and $23 for Mexicans. Visitors from the U.K. and New Zealand do not pay a fee. The one-time fee is good for the life of a traveler’s passport, and is charged when entering through the Santiago airport only. Travelers crossing over land do not pay this fee. You may pay this fee at the airport counter (to the left of Customs) with your credit card.”

Santiago

Lodging

I believe there are many good hostel options in different parts of Santiago (Centro, Bellavista, Barrio Brasil). I stayed at Moai Viajero Hostel in the Centro (which I believe was previously known as Hostal de Sammy and is still listed as such on a couple of sites). It’s a bit of a walk to two different subway stations, but definitely manageable. The Centro area might be less convenient for nightlife, but I can’t say for sure as I didn’t go out while I was there. The facilities were pretty good and the breakfast was decent. It was quiet when I was there but the room I was in has a window that opens to the courtyard below and that could be noisy, especially if a rowdy group was staying there. The staff was helpful and friendly. My one big complaint was that the price they charge in person is higher than online. That happens sometimes. But, even though I booked online, when I decided to stay some extra days, I was charged the higher price for those extra days. I think that is a horrible hostel policy. It simply makes no sense to punish your best customers, those who liked you enough to stay longer and thus are more likely to recommend you to a friend.

Other

I don’t know why exactly, but I didn’t hear very many complimentary things about Santiago from fellow travelers. I actually quite liked it, even though large cities aren’t really my favorite places to visit. I can’t speak to the local bus system, but I found the subway to be quite convenient and as a person who likes walking I didn’t find it too bad going between Centro and Bellavista on foot. A fellow traveler passed on a subway card which proved useful and I passed it on when I went to Valparaíso. Mostly I did the basic tourist sites (though no winery tour as I did that in Mendoza), walked around the city, looked for street art, and met a few times with a friend I made traveling more than a year earlier in Guatemala. Overall, I guess I would say that Santiago doesn’t have the architecture, full range of culture and general excitement level that you will hear exists in Buenos Aires, but it’s not at all a bad city and probably worth a visit.

Photos

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Valparaíso and Viña del Mar

Lodging

I stayed several days in Valparaíso and just took a day trip to Viña del Mar so I can’t speak to any particular lodging in the latter place. In Valparaíso I stayed at the wonderful Casabella on Avenida Francia 224. The owners were great, the facilities were good, and the other guests were friendly and easy to meet. Some might consider the location a bit far but I like walking and I thought it was just fine. It’s not the biggest place and it seems to be popular so you might be wise to book ahead. Highly recommended.

Other

What can I say about Vaparaíso. As a street art fanatic there was absolutely no chance I was not going to love the place (see my separate post on the street art of Valparaíso). Bogota and Buenos Aires have great street art and so did the ruta de las flores in El Salvador. But, in terms of sheer concentration, Valparaíso takes the prize. You will often hear the town called a bit gritty and I think that is accurate. In some ways it is a lovely port town and in some ways more gritty. There are some unsafe areas, and unfortunately some of them are right where some good street art is (as I found out when some passing police warned me). So, take the standard precautions and ask at your lodging which areas are to be avoided.

Lonely Planet lays out a basic walking route that captures most of the city and I think it is a good one. There is a similar route mapped out in Casabella where I was staying. Of course, you can’t miss at least one ride on the Ascensors. I did the tour of the Neruda house and it’s interesting though for just a run through one of his old houses I am not sure it is a good value.

Viña del Mar is a lovely little beachside city. I was surprised by the large number of high-end residences, especially skyscrapers. I guess it is the home for some well-to-do and a get-away for the rich of Santiago. Buses and the train can take you to Viña in about 20 minutes from Valparaíso so it is quite a good day-trip option and I believe you will save money by staying in Valparaíso instead.

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Pucón

Lodging

I went to Pucón in February without a reservation and quite a few places were booked. In the end I stayed at Hostería ¡école! which, though still high season and recommended in Lonely Planet, strangely was not full at all. And, it turned out to be a nice play to stay.

Other

I took a night bus directly from Valparaíso to Pucón and, with the exception of a long wait to get into the terminal in Santiago, it was a pleasant ride. The town itself is lovely and extremely tourist oriented (with correspondingly high prices). I can imagine it must be completely different in the off-season than in the high season.

The most recommended thing to do in the area is to climb volcán Villarica and unfortunately that I did not do. It is a bit expensive and the weather was not so great while I was there, but others I have met who did the climb did indeed recommend it. I did visit the Ojos de Caburga and that was nice, though rain spoiled it in the end.

Photos

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Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt

Lodging

I stayed at Hostel Melmac Patagonia. The facilities were actually quite good, with great beds, a spacious and well-equipped kitchen, and a back lawn area. There was a problem with the security of the lockers which I made mention of but don’t know if that has been fixed or not. When I was there a lovely Swiss girl was taking a break and working in the hostel and she was super friendly but frankly didn’t know the area at all so not too helpful. Unfortunately, the owner seems to only put in rare appearances, though his friends are often found loitering about. They can be a source of information but you have to press the issue. I actually went to Casa Margouya for some tourist information and they were very friendly even though I wasn’t staying there (someone recommended it to me but it was fully booked). There is also a tourism office which can be helpful.

Other

I had read that Puerto Varas was a nicer alternative for sleeping and I have to agree with that. It’s a lovely town right on the water and there seems to be more and better hostel options. Purto Montt is a short minibus ride away so if you need anything there it isn’t too much effort to go and long-distance buses (like the one I took from Pucón) usually pass through Puerto Varas as well as Puerto Montt. If you want to take the Navimag or fly then Puerto Montt could be more convenient. I actually flew to Puntarenas and just took the local bus to Puerto Montt and then from that terminal took a tourist bus to the airport. It took a bit longer but was much cheaper and not at all inconvenient.

There is a walking route that covers pretty much all Puerto Varas as a town has to see and I spent a couple of hours doing that. It isn’t terribly exciting, but if you like walking it is worthwhile.

If you have time, a trip to Chiloé was highly recommended by the few fellow travelers I met who did it.

I did a quick day trip to Frutillar, but it started pouring rain right before I arrived so I can’t say much about the place.

A fellow guest at my hostel and I took a day trip to hike in Parque Nacional Vicente Peréz Rosales. We just caught a minibus to Petrohué and took the trail toward Volcán Osorno. It’s not a difficult hike but it’s a bit long and as we didn’t leave too early we turned around mid-way. We took a different path back, one that went along Playa Larga. Overall it was a nice trek and worth a day’s time if you are into hiking.

Transportation

There’s a good chance that if you are in Puerto Varas you are on your way toward Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine. There are three main options to getting there:

  1. Navimag offers what is supposed to be an excellent, though pricey, scenic trip through fjords and icebergs. Apparently it isn’t very luxurious but the views are worth it. I’ve also heard and read that it can get rough so bring along some seasickness pills. In high season the slots can fill up so definitely book in advance. When I was thinking of going there was nothing available for an entire month.
  2. Pullman Bus (part of Cruz del Sur 56+65+254731) goes from either Puerto Varas or Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. The Cruz del Sur website doesn’t seem to offer Punta Arenas as a booking option so you’ll have to call or go to the office in town. The last I checked the bus only runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays so be warned that, especially in high season, it sells out and there can be a lengthy wait for the next available seat. When I was there some others in the hostel were unable to get seats but luckily the company decided to add an extra run to the schedule to meet the demand. I don’t know if they do that often or not. The trip takes 36 hours (though I read somewhere else it was closer to 30 hours). I don’t know the exact price, but I believe it was about US$70 (35,000 or 40,000 CLP I think). Also note that the route actually crosses into Argentina and then back into Chile so there will be two border crossings to deal with, though they are fairly painless. Still, don’t bring that fruit unless you plan to eat it before the crossing.Note: Lonely Planet says Queilen Bus (253-468) or Turibús (253-345) also do this run, but when I was there Pullman Bus was the only option.
  3. LAN (253-315; O’Higgins 167) flies up to four times daily to Punta Arenas. Supposedly Sky Airlines (248-027, cnr San Martin & Benavente) offers considerably better prices than LAN, but I found a good offer (68,000CLP) with LAN and had a good experience with that airline. Do note that you probably won’t be able to pay with a credit card and thus you’ll have to go to the local office to book and pay. And, be aware that there is a fee to pay in cash at the office.

Once you arrive in Punta Arenas, Bus-Sur can get you to Puerto Natales.

Photos

Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas

Lodging

I took an evening flight to Punta Arenas and as it arrived quite late decided to just sleep in the airport and wait for the bus to Puerto Natales which stops at the airport. Thus, I can’t comment on any Punta Arenas hostels. When I got to Puerto Natales I stayed at Hospedaje Nancy which, besides being one of the cheapest options, was also quite nice. Actually, there are two parts to this hostel. The main hostel is always open, but across the street the brother (or son, I forgot) of the owner has his personal home and has only very recently (2010 I believe) converted a few rooms for rent. Basically, you are sharing his family’s home more than staying in a hostel and they close it to go live in Punta Arenas in the off-season. As I speak some Spanish and love situations like that I was really happy there. If that doesn’t describe you (they don’t speak much English but are super nice) then definitely only stay in the main hostel, which is more what you would expect (though the owner’s family lives there too I believe). After returning from Torres del Paine I did have to move to the main hostel so I can compare the two. Rooms, showers, etc. are fine in both locations. There is only WiFi in the main hostel, but if you are sitting in the living area of the overflow house you can still get the signal. Or you can just go across the street and use the WiFi there. They also rent gear. I got my cooking equipment from them and my tent from Erratic Rock.

Other

I don’t think anyone comes to Puerto Natales for any reason other than to hike Torres del Paine so I have no recommendations on other things to see or do. I think Lonely Planet recommends warming up for the big TDP expedition on Mirador Dorotea, a rocky headland less than 10km from Natales off Ruta 9 but I didn’t do that.

Useful Links

Torres del Paine

Some thoughts:

  1. Torres del Paine is simply amazing. It, along with El Chaltén, were my Patagonia highlights.
  2. I didn’t do any good research ahead of time and got VERY lucky to meet a French traveler in Hostel Nancy that was also hiking alone and was willing to pair up. He had a complete plan already worked out and I was more than happy to follow that. In fact, he had a fantastic plan worked out, and one that was slightly unusual and more strenuous than the standard trek. My point is, this is not the place to wing it—do your research.
  3. For your research, see the links below. Also, you can’t do better than a visit to Erratic Rock (Av General Baquedano 719), which offers a very comprehensive and free intro talk about Torres del Paine at 3pm daily. You can ask any general or even specific questions you might have. They also rent good quality gear. For some of their gear, prices are as good as you will find, some other things cost a bit more. For tents they will make you set it up before taking it and upon returning it, which is a great policy. I heard many stories about trekkers not doing so much to their regret.
  4. Also at Erratic Rock you can pick up used gas stove canisters. As part of their recycling effort they encourage you to return any canisters after your trek. They recycle the empties and make the partials available for free to other travelers. Fantastic!
  5. We camped the whole way, but many will want to take a break and stay at least one night in a refugio. They are expensive and can fill up so make advanced reservations. Camping at the refugios costs 4,000CLP including hot showers. If you don’t want to lug them on your hike, you can rent sleeping bags and tents (4,500/7,000CLP per person vs. 3,000/3,000CLP in town). Beds at the refugios run CH$12,500-17,500.
  6. Everyone talks about the famous wind and rain in TDP. We had incredible luck avoiding most of the rain and had several sunny and beautiful days. Wind? Nada! I really mean no wind. Nobody I have told this to can believe I am not lying. Really, no wind. So, in a way I didn’t really get the fully authentic TDP experience. I feel a bit cheated.
  7. There are quite a few routes/combinations one can make into a plan for tackling TDP. I’ve heard good arguments for going East to West and equally good ones for West to East. We went East to West staying in only the free campgrounds, which makes for longer hiking days. I don’t recommend that for those of you who aren’t in really good shape or experienced hikers as it is really tough. But, for those who do, it is awesome. We also spent two nights in the campsite near the Valle del Frances which meant we could spend an entire day enjoying the incredible beauty of that part of the circuit with the added benefit of being able to do it with just a day pack.
  8. The most popular trek is the “W,” so named because the hike forms a W shape. I met a few who did the full circuit and heard it was great. But, keep in mind that you have to carry much more weight (more days, more food) so it is probably best left for the more serious hikers out there.
  9. My hiking partner decided to save a few quid and hitchhike while I took the bus (6,000CLP each way if purchased round-trip). He had no problem getting there but getting back was a challenge and he ended up having to get on the bus with me.
  10. The park entrance fee (15,000CLP) is not cheap. I also took the shuttle from the entrance to the start of the trail for 3,000CLP because I knew I had some grueling days ahead and didn’t want to add to it just to save a bit of money.  If you hike it you’ll basically just be walking on a gravel road without any spectacular scenery so really the only reason to do so is to save money.
  11. SUPER TIP: At the Paine Grande lodge/refugio there is a communal kitchen free to use by anyone. It has gas stoves so you can save some of your own fuel. But, even better, a lot of people end their hikes here and dump their leftover food and other supplies so if you misjudged your food needs or just want to mix it up, find something good here. You can also use the showers here. Well, I don’t know if you are supposed to officially, but nobody seemed to mind. One great benefit of the route we took was that we passed through this lodge coming from Valle del Frances en route to Glacier Grey and arrived around lunch time. We took a much needed shower and ate well then continued on our way. Then, the next day we arrived back at the lodge coming back down from Grey and repeated. Heaven, I tell you.
  12. Speaking of the lodges/refugios, supposedly they have small stores where you can buy some snacks and basic food. We were told they had pasta and other staples, but it was only Paine Grande that really had a decent selection. I don’t know if that was just a fluke of timing or if it is typical but keep it in mind. Maybe ask the folks at Erratic Rock.
  13. There is a guy who has a small dried fruit and mixed nuts shop in town which is great for trekking food. It’s a block or two from Erratic Rock and is pretty well known so ask around for the location.

Packing List

I don’t claim this is exhaustive, but here’s a start for things you will want to pack. Note that I think I stole this from one of the links below or from the Erratic rock website but don’t recall which.

  • tent
  • sleeping bag and mat (note that most of the campgrounds don’t have grass so you might want to invest in a better quality mat)
  • hiking poles (I admit I never used one before but this hike made me a believer. I only brought one and that was enough for me, but some prefer two. I bought mine on sale in Puerto Varas for about US$12).
  • stove and mess kit and fuel
  • hat (both warm and sun)
  • sunglasses
  • mosquito repellent and sunscreen
  • gloves
  • rain jacket and pants
  • trash bags (to help keep your gear dry, especially if the famous wind makes your backpack cover useless)
  • One pair of zip-off, convertible hiking pants; one pair of lightweight hiking pants
  • Two lightweight, moisture wicking t-shirts
  • One long sleeve, lightweight, warm (made of wool), moisture wicking shirt
  • One microfleece
  • One lightweight, waterproof rain jacket (leave the poncho at home; the Patagonian wind will make a poncho its bitch)
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks (Smartwool or anything made of merino wool work best for hiking, in my opinion)
  • One pair hiking shoes; one pair small, lightweight, comfy shoes for camp

Photos

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Other Useful Chile Related Links

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Ian Stone Says:

    I think Valpo is the best city in Chile. Of course, Patagonia is the best place.

    Valparaiso

  2. Jeff Says:

    I liked Santiago fine but it does seem that most backpackers seem to dislike Santiago and shower the love on Valpo.

  3. Gorilla tours Says:

    On the contrary , I have a cousin of mine in Chile back packing with her boyfriend , just saw their pics on facebook

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