Photo Courtesy of Paula Porto
Chile extends like a backbone down the southwest Pacific coast of South America, a chiseled line of mountains and volcanoes clinging to the edge of the continent. The fantastical geography, nearly 2,600 miles from north to south (that’s the same distance as Boston to Los Angeles) covers over thirty …latitudes and a myriad of climates ranging from deserts to glacial fields, temperate rain forests, Alpine terrain, and Mediterranean heartland.
What to know before you go to Chile
With its many latitudes, Chile is a year-round destination. Warm temps peak during the South American summer, November to March, but spring and fall are also delightful with minimal rainfall and sunny days. Winter is the “rainy” season, with the Andes gleaming in fresh snow and ski resorts in full gear. In central Chile, from La Serena down through Santiago to Concepción, a mild, Mediterranean climate offers four marked seasons. The northern desert has sun-filled days and cold nights—colder with altitude. Be aware of the "Bolivian Winter" in the far north, which produces sporadic rainfall December to February—sometimes washing out roads. In the south, Patagonia is best visited October to April. In the far-flung areas near the national park Torres del Paine, the windiest months tend to be December-February, when you can easily experience four seasons in a day and wind gusts of over 60 miles per hour.
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.
Stretching over 30 degrees in latitude from north to south, Chile boasts a wide range of seasonal produce, seafood, cheeses, and breads. In the heartland, produce is similar to California, with markets full of flavorful fruits and vegetables from small producers. Fish and seafood are also central to the Chilean diet, and where little marisquerias are clustered around the wharves, you can savor a huge range of dishes—freshly-made ceviche, machas a la parmesana (razor clams baked with Parmesan), or the iconic caldillo de congrio, a Chilean bouillabaisse. Chileans are also tremendous carnivores and devour meat in asados, barbecues that are weekend events, or in steak houses known as parrilladas. Traditional food is rustic, with summertime dishes like humitas (corn-basil tamales), pastel de choclo (Chilean corn pie), beef empanadas, and wintertime soups and stews. Santiago and Valparaiso have become culinary hot spots.
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.
Chile may be as far south of the equator as Sydney or Capetown, but its time differs little from that of the Eastern United States. During the U.S. summer, Chile is on EST time; and during the U.S. winter, Chile is two hours ahead for daylight savings. In the past, the exact calendar change has varied. If planning a trip in April or September, be sure to double check. Chile is a very developed country with a good infrastructure and a high standard of living. Tourism is a fairly recent phenomenon and travelers are seen as honored guests. Tell a Chilean how much you like his country to immediately break the ice; you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of useful information.
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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.