What to Do in Chile

The question is not whether to visit Chile, but where to start? Cosmopolitan Santiago? Parque Torres del Paine in Patagonia? Colorful Valparaiso or Easter Island and its Moai? Or maybe winetasting in the central valley? You’d better start packing.

Andres Bello 2425, Providencia, 7510689, Región Metropolitana, Chile
Give your senses a jolt at Sky Costanera Observatory, on the 61st and 62nd floors of the Costanera Center. A 50-second elevator ride takes you almost 1,000 feet into the sky for a thrilling 360-degree view of the city, population over five million, with the snowcapped Andes as a backdrop. Guides are on hand to point out cityscape highlights. Not for scaredy-cats. Note: In case of rain, return first thing the following day, the best time to visit for the clearest view.
Vicuña Mackenna 37, Santiago, Región Metropolitana, Chile
The permanent collection of this museum dedicated to the Chilean artist Violeta Parra includes her arpilleras, hand-embroidered tableaux exhibited at the Louvre in the 1960s—the first time a Latin American artist had a solo show there. The tableaux still stand the test of time. Other works at the Santiago museum include paintings and papier-mâché sculptures that bring to mind some of her Latin American contemporaries such as Ecuadoran master painter Oswaldo Guayasamím. And yet Parra’s works are as original as the artist herself—colorful depictions of everyday life as seen through the eyes of a Renaissance woman who left her unique touch on every genre she took up. Referring to her visual productions as “painted songs,” she is best known for her music, which is played throughout the museum’s galleries so that visitors can experience the close connection between the two art forms. The collection’s small scale—only 24 works are on display—reflects the artist’s own modesty: Diminutive in stature, she made preserving Chile’s folklore and promoting its music her life’s work, traveling tirelessly both at home and abroad.
Av. Apoquindo 9085, Las Condes, Región Metropolitana, Chile
During an especially difficult time in the eighties, the Dominican priests at the church next door to this park allowed unemployed artisans to set up their workshops here in order to create and sell their products. Today, the Centro Artesanal Pueblito Los Dominicos houses hundreds of shops where visitors can watch craftspeople carve stone and wood, knit, embroider, and make jewelry. Every kind of Chilean handicraft is on offer, and there are items for every budget (haggling is customary). The workshops are a particularly good spot to buy lapis lazuli jewelry—Chile and Iran are the only countries in the world where this blue semiprecious stone is found.
The so-called Barrio Italia is a funky, up-and-coming Santiago neighborhood where you can easily while away an entire day exploring its shops, cafés, and artists’ ateliers. The community website suggests several walking routes by theme (design and decor, culture and heritage, gastronomy and galleries, for example). Or you can wander on your own, checking out antique furniture set on the sidewalk to catch customers’ eyes. In Barrio Italia, seemingly ordinary doors give way to hidden courtyards with small cafés and shops amid geranium- and fieldstone-finished gardens. Almost everything you see is on offer, from panama hats or one-of-a-kind lamps to futuristic sofas and handmade shoes. Set aside time to sip a pisco sour or dine at Sombrerería Girardi, a restaurant on the site of a former hat factory whose original structure is still intact. Casona La Candelaria houses several shops in a beautifully restored mansion.
José Arrieta 8401, Peñalolén Commune, Santiago, Chile
The Villa Grimaldi Memorial and Park for Peace occupies the site of a former interrogation and extermination center operated under Chile’s 1970s and ’80s-era military dictatorship. A wall lists the names of the prisoners who died here, and there’s a garden with a rosebush for each woman executed or “disappeared” that was inspired by survivors’ stories of being able to smell the roses outside their cells. Willows convey sadness engendered by the unspeakable crimes committed on the property. (Only the foundations of the original estate remain, but a model can be viewed.) A focal point of the garden is a gigantic tree that was burned down but somehow survived and grew back to its present-day height of more than 50 feet, a symbol of the indomitable human spirit.
Constitución 30 - 70, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
At Patio Bellavista, a complex of more than 90 shops, restaurants, and bars occupying an entire city block in a bohemian Santiago neighborhood, you can always count on action. The infectious buzz and upbeat feel are enhanced by a multilevel design that was awarded an urban revival prize. Come day or night for a drink or to eat, hear live music, and shop for jewelry and books.
Junín 1760, C1113 CABA, Argentina
La Recoleta Cemetery is one of the most visited cemeteries in Latin America, mainly because Evita Peron is buried there, among other notable figures. The cemetery is built around a convent and a church, Our Lady of Pilar (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar), that was built in 1732. The order was disbanded in 1822, and the garden of the convent was converted into the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires. Occupied by mostly wealthy families of Buenos Aires. Highly recommended to have a guided map to find some famous graves.
San Pablo, Santiago, Región Metropolitana, Chile
If you’re aiming to see what last night’s catch looked like before it became your supper, head to Santiago’s Mercado Central, where every edible sea creature is up for sale. As boisterous as a stock market, the seafood exchange assembles hard-working fishmongers, clad in high rubber boots, who hawk a full fishy portfolio including conger, swordfish, and shrimp (peeled for an extra fee). Live sea urchins peek out from rock-like shells and oysters slam shut as scores of restaurateurs arrive early in search of what will become the chef’s daily special. The market is loud, bustling, and crowded . . . and it can be jarring to discover just how ugly in life that delicious reineta you savored really was. Following local tradition, students come here the morning after their proms—fully regaled in tuxedos and gowns—for a bowl of restorative broth.
Av. Grecia 2001, Ñuñoa, Región Metropolitana, Chile
The “beautiful game” is dear to most Chileans’ hearts—you’ll even hear stories of families who could not afford a real ball and so fashioned one from layers of old pantyhose. Regardless of where the ball comes from, there is no limit to the enthusiasm with which locals embrace their national sport. When the Chilean national team is playing an international match, busy streets go quiet and a cab is impossible to find, but you’ll hear shouts erupt in unison from thousands of windows in a countrywide goal celebration. Julio Martínez Prádanos National Stadium can hold nearly 50,000 spectators; if you want a real sense of the game as experienced a la chilena, buy cheap tickets and find someone who can translate hilarious and highly off-color chants that fans spontaneously invent to goad or humiliate the opponent.
Av Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins 227, Santiago, Región Metropolitana, Chile
There is always something interesting going on at GAM, as the Gabriela Mistral Center is affectionately known. Theater, dance, and music performances, as well as seminars and art exhibitions, crowd the marquee at this busy arts venue. GAM’s philosophy is that art can be socially transformative if it’s accessible, and that audiences can be cultivated through education. The building’s history is a mirror of Chile itself. Built in record time for a 1972 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, it was the headquarters for subsequent military juntas, who stationed themselves behind fortified doors and machine-gun-toting sentinels for years. With Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, the structure became a conference center but was severely damaged by fire. Undaunted, authorities rebuilt and transformed it into the dynamic venue it is today. Various guided tours include an historical appreciation plus a peek at what’s going on backstage.
Pío Nono 450, P 2, Recoleta, Región Metropolitana, Chile
As New Yorkers have Central Park, Santiagueños have what everyone calls the Cerro San Cristóbal, an expansive green space in the center of the city to get away from it all. Drive, bike, jog, or hike to the top of the park’s diminutive peak, where a large statue of the Virgin Mary—visible for miles around—overlooks the city. Valhalla to joggers, the park also includes two pools, several picnic areas, lookouts on two sides, and a zoo. Or take brand-new cable cars to the top of the hill (15 minutes of spectacular scenery; bikes allowed). Others cab up, then walk down. The park’s Anáhuac Cultural Center hosts free Sunday concerts.
Nobel poet laureate Pablo Neruda did most of his writing at his oceanside house in Isla Negra. Almost every corner of the home still bears some intriguing Neruda souvenir, be it his blue-glass collection displayed in a window, his maritime paraphernalia, or any other of the hundreds of objects he amassed as part of a lifelong fascination with the sea. Neruda kept an impressive assortment of ships’ prows here, as well as a desk that he fashioned from driftwood. The collection goes a long way to explaining why the house in Isla Negra was a favorite of his. Neruda addressed poems to the sea, and wrote others about solitude and, most of all, love. Note that Neruda’s Santiago house is also open to the public, as is his Valparaíso abode, La Sebastiana.
Alcalde Francisco Domínguez 2240, La Reina, Región Metropolitana, Chile
The Danish motorcyclist who runs this operation learned his chops on a round-the-world journey, so he knows just what you’ll need and provides tools, 24-hour support, and advice, whether you’re setting off on a three-day trip to the Elqui Valley or a 10-day excursion to Patagonia. In addition to sales and maintenance, the shop offers tours. Cruise from winery to winery along the Ruta del Vino, with the wind as your only companion. And although a rider’s first reflex is usually to think south, the Atacama Desert is also a great destination on a BMW or a Kawasaki. At least one cookout under the stars is included on every guided tour. The service operates year-round, but excursions to Patagonia run from roughly April to September only.
Cau Cau, Puchuncavi, Puchuncaví, Región de Valparaíso, Chile
What was supposed to be the first drawbridge in South America ended up as a monument to inefficiency and made laughingstocks of those involved when, just before construction finished, it was discovered that one of the bridge’s two spans had been installed upside down. The $42 million project was later featured in the Discovery Channel documentary “Horrors of Calculation” as an engineering mistake too expensive to fix. The bridge, which spans the Cau Cau River in the lovely city of Valdivia, is unusable except as a background for selfies and a caution to anyone whose mind wanders during calculus class.
Hijuelas Nº 2 Ex Fundo, Sta Rosa, Casablanca, Valparaíso, Chile
Casas del Bosque is an award-winning boutique winery just outside Casablanca where, besides tasting the vintages, you can also learn how to prune grapevines or even the basics of wine-making in one-day workshops. You can also tour the estate on bicycle, along with a picnic lunch. If you just want to walk through the vines, you’ll find everything at its prettiest in December and January. Tanino, the Casas del Bosque’s excellent restaurant, has a menu designed to showcase the wine.
Machalí, O'Higgins Region, Chile
Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll spot free-born condors as well as birds bred in captivity then released in the park. There is abundant nature here: Chilean oaks, soapbarks, and frangel trees stand tall and beautiful above a forest floor tangled with guindilla and chuquiraga bushes. Gray and Andean foxes, little grisons and cururus, scamper through the underbrush. And guanacos, indigenous animals that resemble llamas, gather at the Los Cipreses River basin, where cougars gambol. Despite all the wildlife, tranquillity is one of the aspects visitors to the reserve praise the most. There are bike paths, picnic areas (no fires are allowed, so bring food that can be eaten cold), and plenty of staff on hand to point out the best spots. While it’s just a two-hour drive from Santiago, it’s a whole other world.
Panguipulli, Los Ríos Region, Chile
If sitting in bubbling hot water on a winter night, surrounded by nature and with no disturbance save the sound of the wind in the trees, is your idea of paradise, the Pucón area has enough hot springs to keep your toes permanently wrinkled. The springs range from high-end to amusingly rustic, each with its own appeal, style, and atmosphere. The area itself is beautiful, but to contemplate it from the vantage point of a natural pool is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In summer, people begin arriving at Los Pozones around midnight, when the casino and clubs begin to empty (summer days are usually too hot to tolerate the water’s high temperatures). If you drive up at night, the headlights’ glare will catch hares jumping across the road.
Yes, it is worth traversing the great distance required to see the Moai sculptures on Easter Island. You may have seen them in hundreds of photos, but going nose-to-nose with their beauty and immensity makes for an unforgettable thrill. The surrounding landscape is otherworldy in its beauty, too.
Valparaíso, Valparaiso Region, Chile
Valparaíso is to Chile what San Francisco is to the United States: a unique and charming port soaked with atmosphere, unlike anywhere else in the country. Its painted, corrugated-tin houses cling to the sides of the city’s 24 hills. Funicular railways in myriad styles make an ascent to the city’s different neighborhoods easy (but take the stairs down, there are thousands). Some areas, named for the hills on which they sit, are gentrifying, and there’s a new swath of boutique hotels and restaurants, especially on Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre. Be sure not to leave without visiting Nobel laureate poet Pablo Neruda’s fascinating house, La Sebastiana, in the Bellavista quarter.
Santiago, Santiago Metropolitan Region, Chile
Chile’s national folk dance is a stylized depiction of the mating ritual between a rooster and a hen. Sounds silly? When danced with gusto—the man jangling his spurs loudly, circling his partner like a proud rooster strutting his stuff, and the woman, ever-resistant, flirtatiously waving her white kerchief—it can be utterly moving. Children are taught the cueca from an early age and dance in traditional costumes during the week leading up to the September 18 national independence observances. Establishments known as fondas are also set up for a week in September as temporary venues for traditional cueca (even as some complain there’s more and more cumbia, less and less cueca), and there are clubs open year-round where families—including Grandma—learn and practice the dance.
Machalí, O'Higgins Region, Chile
Sewell, a ghost town at 7,200 feet above sea level in the Andean foothills, was founded in 1903 as a copper mining town. One of its unique features is a lack of streets: Because of the slant on which Sewell was erected, inhabitants used stairs to get around. In its heyday, the town was home to miners who worked the world’s largest underground copper extractions. When Chile nationalized its copper industry in the late 1960s, part of Sewell was dismantled (the state could not afford the upkeep), but what remains—50 buildings—is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The official tour, which includes a meal just like one that the miners used to eat, takes a full day and is the only way to visit. Bring warm clothing no matter how balmy it is when you set off.
Atacama Desert, Antofagasta, Antofagasta Region, Chile
The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, and so still that the silence can be deafening. A series of natural wonders here includes geysers, glaciers, and valleys that resemble the surface of the moon. But perhaps the most jaw-dropping feature is not the desert itself but the sky. So just look up. At sunset, the colors of the heavens begin to change from light- to dark-blue shades, then lilac, deep purple, and magenta, fading finally into a startlingly clear black against which a million stars twinkle. The Atacama Desert is a magical place that evokes superlatives from even the most experienced travelers.
Concón, Valparaiso Region, Chile
On the central coast north of Valparaíso, the beach resort town of Concón is popular with Chileans for its boardwalk, great restaurants, and, most of all, the 52 protected acres of monumental sand dunes that cascade down from high bluffs all the way to the sea. In addition to hikers, the dunes draw sandboarders who climb to the top, wax their rented boards by rubbing them with candle stubs, and then slide or sled down the slopes to the sound of the sea lions barking in the waters below.
Santa Cruz, O'Higgins Region, Chile
Located 100 miles south of Santiago, the Colchagua Valley has in the past decade become one of Chile‘s wine hotbeds for the production of robust red wines. Stretching from the Andean foothills in the east through the coastal mountains to west, always following the Tinguirrica River, the valley is renowned for its “big” reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chile‘s flagship wine, Carmenere. The majority of the vineyards lie in the center of the valley around the small country town of Santa Cruz with its charming colonial plaza and several hotels. New vineyard plantations are also extending into the hillsides in prestigious sub appellations like Apalta nearby and to the west towards the sea. Besides red wine, Colchagua is also steeped heavily in Chile’s country traditions and cowboy culture as an agricultural valley, making it an ideal weekend getaway. For wine enthusiasts, every March during harvest the valley puts on its annual harvest festival during a whole weekend with tastings from valley wineries, regional food, music, dance, and local color.
Chile
This rocky setting, which offers natural protection against predators, is the only place in the world where Humboldt and Magellanic penguins are known to nest together. The Humboldts are midsize birds that grow to a maximum two feet tall; the Magellanic are smaller specimens that can stay underwater for several minutes at a time in pursuit of prey. Once eggs (usually two) are deposited in nests, both parents take turns brooding before they hatch, then raise their young together until the offspring can survive on their own. Magellanic penguins winter in Peru and Brazil. Although killer whales and seals are natural enemies, oil spills are sadly their biggest threat.
The famed German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was the first to document the ocean current that explains why the adorable, nattily plumed penguins favor this part of the Chilean and Peruvian coasts—the water brings oodles of anchovies, sardines, and crustaceans along with it. (Both the current and the penguins were eventually named for Humboldt.) The reserve includes three islands—Damas, Choros, and Chañaral. From the boats bound for Punta de Choros, visitors can catch glimpses of dolphins, whales (including humpbacks and blue whales, especially in January and February), and frolicking sea lions.
Bahía Inglesa, Caldera, Región de Atacama, Chile
Although Chile’s central coastline boasts a string of attractive beaches along with towns filled with visitors seeking relief from the heat, the truth is the water is freezing cold year-round due to the Humboldt Current that brings Antarctic water up the coast. You’ve got to go pretty far north to find temperate seas. Bahía Inglesa is a stretch of coastline where the turquoise waters are tranquil, the sand is white, and there are dozens of beaches—some are along waveless bays (perfect for children), and others are great for scuba diving, kayaking, and kitesurfing. The area has restaurants for all tastes, and while there are lots of lodgings, in summer crowds flock in, so reserve as early as possible.
The Andes are home to numerous active and extinct volcanoes. As recently as 2008, the entire town of Chaitén had to be evacuated when its namesake volcano erupted, piling thick ash over thousands of square miles; half the city’s 7,000 inhabitants never returned. The 22,000-foot-tall Ojos del Salado volcano, on the border with Argentina, is, in fact, a fairly easy climb from the Chilean side. Villarrica Volcano, snowcapped and postcard-perfect, lies near Pucón and attracts visitors year-round, who ascend to admire its crowning crater lake. Parinacota, on the border with Bolivia, provides more of a challenge to climbers, mainly because of extreme cold and winds. And if hiking becomes a ho-hum way to visit volcanoes, you can actually ski the Lake District’s Osorno Volcano.
Fernando Márquez de La Plata 0192, Santiago, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile
Pablo Neruda was an eccentric romantic, writing love poems that infallibly give goosebumps and lend a new meaning to passion. In 1951, Neruda bought La Chascona in the Bellavista neighborhood for his lover, Matilde Urrutia. Today, the house (in reality, four small cottages clustered together) is now a museum part of the Fundación Pablo Neruda. Inside, visitors will find an eclectic collection of the Nobel-winning poet’s personal items, from a portrait of Matilde by Diego Riviera to odd sculptures and English china. There is an immediate feeling that there existed great emotional connections to each and every item, transforming it into a great love poem itself.
Las Urbinas 2124, Santiago, Providencia, Santiago Metropolitan, Chile
This shopping mall on the chaotic Avenida Providencia contains a clutch of small boutiques that carry the best in local design, including handmade objects not found anywhere else. Four full floors are packed with apparel shops, shoe stores, and vinyl emporiums. Among the treasures here: Cocodrilo Bazar’s amazing artisanal handbags and backpacks; natural oils at the Majen shop; and delicate wooden music boxes at Wooderful Life. Two of the six bookshops on-site, Nueva Altamira and Contrapunto, are landmarks on the Chilean literary scene. When you wind up your shopping expedition, stop for coffee at Tavelli or ice cream at Sebastián.
501 Avenida Matucana
There’s something within these walls—perhaps simply the silence—that helps visitors imagine the real-world horrors that once took place in Chile. A visit to Santiago’s Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos is a trip through the darkest hours of Chilean history, those surrounding the military dictatorship that ran from 1973 to 1990 which left behind thousands of victims and unsolved “disappearances.” The museum is a modern, almost 54,000-square-foot (5000-square-meter) facility that recounts the sickening history, soberly, in the form of survivor testimonies as well as in displays of victims’ correspondence and personal items. There are also radio reports, press clippings, drawings and literature, alongside other artifacts of a past from which often only fragments remain. A prominent mural shows the faces of those no longer with us. On the third-floor, screening booths play related documentaries. The museum is a must for anyone looking to understand today’s Chile.
Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago here on February 12, 1541. Eventually two Spanish fortresses were erected on the hill, alongside early hermitages and Chile’s first astronomical observatory. You’ll also find one of the capital’s oldest public promenades, originally from the Spanish-colonial period—lined by the statuary, fountains, and gardens of subsequent centuries—twisting uphill through gardens and past trees that have been preserved over the centuries. These days, couples and students favor the park for long afternoons spent beneath the boughs. Don’t miss the monumental entrance, as well as a Spanish escutcheon in stone, the park’s castle, and the 360˚ city views. For those who like traditions, a blast from an 1824 cannon announces the stroke of noon to Santiago residents each day.
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