All travelers flying into Chile land at Santiago’s modern airport, Arturo Merino Benitez (SCL). Along with Santiago-based LAN airlines, most major airlines from the United States fly nonstop to Santiago from hubs like Miami, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles. United Airlines provides nonstop service from Houston starting December 7, 2014.
Given that Chile is a country of unimaginably long distances (it's over 2,600 miles from Arica in the north to Punta Arenas in the south), flying is by far the quickest and easiest way to go, allowing travelers to potentially cover the north and south in one trip. While LAN has a monopoly on the local market, Sky Airlines offers competitive, less expensive fares, often better schedules, and new Airbuses to many of the same destinations. Long-distance buses are comfortable for inter-regional trips over shorter distances, and fare classes range from cama (bed) to ejecutivo, offering more legroom. Once at your destination, you can rent a car or book a local taxi. Road rules and signage differ from the U.S., but in most areas roads are well paved, with the exception of parts of Patagonia.
From outstanding scenery to picturesque villages and dramatic wildlife, there's so much to experience: the vibrant cultural scene in cosmopolitan Santiago, Parque Torres del Paine in Patagonia, the wooden churches on the island of Chiloé, the colorful port of Valparaiso (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the stunning altiplanic lagoons in northern Chile, the flowering desert in spring, Easter Island and its Moai, and, of course, winetasting in the central valley.
In autumn, the grape harvest takes over in the central, wine-producing region of the country, and wine festivals are organized by each of the dozen-odd valleys to celebrate the fruit of the vine. At Easter, the traditional Cuasimodo festival, dating back to colonial times, still takes place in the countryside, where a priest brings the Holy Communion to the sick, escorted by costumed horsemen. In mid-June, in the northern Tarapaca region in the small town of La Tirana, dancers and musicians enact La Diablada, the “dance of the devil.” This carnavalesque event features scary masks and elaborate costumes as dancers move to the rhythm of drums and flutes. The 18th and 19th of September marks the National Holidays, a near weeklong celebration of Chilean cuisine and roots. Early spring is celebrated in open-air fondas that serve up classic dishes, empanadas, grape cider, and red wine, while locals try their hand at cueca, the national dance.
Liz Caskey is partner of Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences, a boutique travel operator based in Santiago, Chile, and an American freelance food and travel writer who has called Santiago home for over 14 years. She focuses on weaving together the region's unique cuisine, wine, culture, and characters in stories and pictures (with her Chilean husband, a photographer). Follow her adventures in South America on her blog, Eat Wine, or find her on twitter @lizcaskey.