Chile was our gateway to South America. Every year we try to ring in the New Year in a different place and we often like to go to colder regions since we get sick of the heat living in Florida. However, the prior year we ended up celebrating New Year’s Eve in Toronto with record-setting cold temperatures, and right there and then decided, next year we are going somewhere warm.
During our 13 days in Chile Itinerary, we visited Santiago, San Pedro de Atacama, wine regions (Maipo, Colchagua, and Casablanca), and Valparaiso. We planned our trip in such a way that we found budget budget-friendly apartment to rent for the entire 13 days in Santiago and only rented a car for the last part of the trip.
With a little bit of research, we found out that Valparaiso puts on the biggest fireworks show in South America and that was enough for us to decide we’ll be there for NYE 2018. Believe us, they did not disappoint, you can find more about Valparaiso and the NYE celebration in our post – Get Lost in Valparaiso.
We did not know much about Chile before traveling there, other than we liked their wine! But the more we learned about it, the more we wanted to visit. Neither of us had been to South America before and visiting another continent definitely added to the excitement and Chile was the perfect country to introduce us to the ways of South America. The people were friendly and kind, the scenery was breathtaking, the food was fresh and flavorful and the wine was cheap and delicious.
Things to know about Chile before you travel
Getting to Chile
Your entry point to Chile is most likely going to be Santiago. Be prepared for customs to take a long time. Chileans pride themselves on having natural borders and they take all the measures necessary to prevent any unknown diseases, viruses, bacteria, parasites, etc. from entering the country. If you bring any fruit or meat with you, dispose of it before you get to customs. Once you get through customs without any issues, you will be issued a piece of paper labeled “PDI” which is proof of your tourist status in Chile. We didn’t know, but apparently, it is something that you should keep with you to prove that you’ve entered the country legally. When checking into the hotels you may be asked to provide this paper.
How to Get Around
Once in Chile, you can find a lot of low-cost options to fly within the Country.
TIP: Do check if that low cost plane ticket includes luggage or an assigned seat, even a paper boarding pass can be an additional cost.
If flying doesn’t work with your budget, Chile has a very developed bus system. These are not just regular buses, they are equipped with AC, TVs, toilets, and fully reclining seats and food and drinks are served. With the long distances between some destinations in Chile, a lot of these bus routes run overnight. The overnight bus routes can be a good budget option since while traveling overnight you don’t have to spend money on lodging, and you get there early the next day refreshed and ready to explore.
You can also rent a car and plan a road trip for yourself. Lastly, you can hitchhike! It is normal to see people with their backpacks on the side of the road hitchhiking to get from one destination to the next in Chile and it is completely safe.
An entry visa is not required from the US, UK, EU, Australia, or Canada at this time, but double-check during your planning stages since it can take up to 90 days to receive a visa if needed.
The currency in Chile is the Chilean Peso (CLP) or as we call it ‘clip’ ( currently 1 USD is 775 CLP). We were able to find banks in the US to exchange money before we traveled, but if you are having issues finding a local currency exchange that has Chilean currency, you can always Western Union money to yourself and pick it up at your destination in the Chilean currency or use an ATM.
We also used our American credit cards, both Visa and MasterCard, without any issues.
Chile, like most other South American countries, has stray dogs everywhere. Chileans call them quiltros. They are usually very friendly and only interested in you if you are giving them food. However, they do sometimes have “turf wars” with other dogs and can be aggressive toward them.
Most businesses you walk by have water and/or food bowls sitting in front of their doors, and we have on multiple occasions seen mobile vet vans driving around and taking care of them.
FUNNY STORY: One local told us that he takes a bus to the city every morning, and he always used to see the same quiltro wandering around the bus station. One morning, the quiltro got on the bus with him. After so many stops, the quiltro got off the bus and about two weeks later he was back at the original bus stop wandering around. This story of course has not been verified, but is cool to tell.
December to March is summer in Chile. Santiago gets up into the ’90s during this time and so do the wine regions, Valparaiso is a little more bearable due to being next to the Pacific, and the Atacama desert is brutally hot during the day and cold at night, Patagonia is in the mid-’60s and ’70s during the day and high 40’s at night and very unpredictable.
Chile is mostly safe for tourists. In bigger cities like Santiago and Valparaiso, you can see the potential for petty crime, but we had no issues. Use common sense just like you would anywhere else.
DAY 1–4: EXPLORE SANTIAGO
We had an overnight flight to Santiago and arrived there in the morning. We had prearranged transportation from the airport which worked out great, except traffic was a nightmare and it took almost 2 hours to get to our accommodation.
After checking into our Airbnb condo in the Las Codas neighborhood, we spotted a sandwich spot from the balcony and decided to indulge. Not to go off on a tangent here, but Chilean sandwiches are out of this world, and you should definitely try them while visiting. After our perfect lunch, we purchased BIP (metro) cards, at the subway stop that was close to our accommodations and set off exploring this city of 7 million people.
TIP: Around Santiago, we mostly traveled by subway/metro and on foot. A couple of times we had to UBER or get a cab late at night, since the subway closes around 23:30. Uber is widespread, but technically illegal in Chile. If you still decide to use it, the driver may ask you to sit up front with him/her so you look like a friend and not a customer. There are buses available too but we did not use them while there.
Points of Interest:
Explore the Historic Center – brace your expectations. This is not going to compare to anything you will see in Europe, but it is still worth a visit and appreciation. It is bustling with people, restaurants, cafes, street performers, and is surrounded by historic buildings, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Central Post Office. There is enough to do and see around here for an entire day.
Have lunch at the Central Market – El Mercado Central de Santiago is in the vicinity, and is best known for its fresh seafood. If interested, you can stop at one of the restaurants in the market for a fresh seafood meal, they seemed pretty desperate to get clientele in by shoving menus in your face and asking you to come in. After the market, we stopped at Santiago’s oldest dive bar for a couple of drinks, and it was everything you would expect from a dive bar. However, we heard from some of the locals afterward that there is a lot of illegal activity going on around there and maybe not be the best place to visit.
Climb San Cristobal Hill – we loved this hike! It is only 45 minutes to an hour long but fairly steep. The views of the city are absolutely amazing. Even though it is pretty much in the middle of the city, it feels like you’ve left the city completely. Suddenly there are very few people around you, no traffic noise, just you and the birds and in our case, the sun. If hiking is not your thing, you can take a funicular to the top and still enjoy the views.
Get lost in the different neighborhoods – Santiago’s different neighborhoods offer different perspectives of Santiago. Barrio Lastarria, a bohemian neighborhood, has a lot of shops, restaurants, arts and green spaces. We loved sipping on pisco sours at Chipe Libre – República Independiente del Pisco. Barrio Italiano, we kept finding ourselves back in this neighborhood for some of the best food and jazz bars. Unfortunately, there isn’t a good subway line to this neighborhood and we had to take an Uber or Taxi from here a few times. Casaluz is a great restaurant in this neighborhood and the place we were introduced to Bodegas RE wines. If you are looking for street art, great restaurants, or nightlife activities Barrio Bellavista is another place to go. Santiago is huge, so take as much of it as you can in.
Sky Costanera – is a typical tourist attraction. Truly we didn’t visit but figured it should be on the list since it stands out so much and it does give you a great view of the city for about $20 per person, we believe the view while climbing the San Cristobal Hill is better and virtually free.
DAY 5–7: EXPLORE THE ATACAMA DESERT
On day 5, we took a plane from Santiago to Calama and made our way to the world’s driest desert. Our airplane tickets were ~$70/per person on JET SMART airline. San Pedro de Atacama is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Calama, and we had prearranged a shared shuttle service, but you can take a bus, taxi, or hotel shuttle to San Pedro as well.
TIP: We visited during the Christmas Eve and Christmas holiday and had to make reservations for all our dinners well ahead of time, since it is a popular destination during this time of the year and a lot of restaurants are closed or have special hours to observe the holiday.
San Pedro is a desert town that is hot, dry, and dusty and is surrounded by volcanoes, salt flats, geysers, and hot springs. There is a lot to do here! Starting with just walking around town on the dirt roads, preferably in the evenings when it starts to cool off, you will find souvenir shops built of air-dried clay bricks painted shiny white and the town’s catholic church built in the 16th century.
We arrived in the late morning, and after settling into our hotel and having lunch, we set off on an evening tour of Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The tour is mainly walking through the desert and exploring unique rock formations, while the wind is constantly throwing sand in your face. The views are never-ending, and the tour is completed with watching the sunset from the Great Dune. It gets cold quickly, so bring a jacket for the sunset.
FUN FACT: This is where NASA tested the Mars Rover.
On clear nights stargazing tours are offered in the Moon Valley, usually starting around 9 pm and going late into the night, or early into the morning.
The next morning, we were picked up at 5 am to go to Geysers del Tatio, elevation 4,320 meters (14,170 ft). To make sure we didn’t have any issues with altitude, we had a light dinner the night before and drank a lot of water. The hotel suggested drinking coca leaf tea in the morning, which millions of people in the Andes use on a daily basis.
Getting to the Geysers takes about 2 hours, and it will be cold up there. For reference: it was 0 degrees Celsius when we were there in December. There are some 80 active geysers at El Tatio, but as the day goes by and it gets warmer, they slow down, which is why the tour is so early in the morning.
After a couple of hours of wandering around, taking pictures, and checking out the wildlife, the tour guides set up lunch and hot coffee or tea for everyone to warm up, and anyone who so desires can take a dip in the hot springs. Our guide was very knowledgeable and wanted to share as much information with everyone as possible. On the way back, he stopped at different areas to show us a lagoon with flamingos and this little village of 7 families in the middle of nowhere where we had the most delicious empanadas. It is definitely an adventure worth exploring.
For Christmas dinner, we made reservations at Baltinache and it was a perfect last evening in the desert. The next day, after some more exploring of the town, we flew back to Santiago where we rented a car at the airport for our upcoming day trips out of town.
DAY 8: MAIPO WINE REGION
About an hour south of Santiago is Chile’s oldest wine region, Maipo Valley. We visited the El Principal winery in the morning, which was more personalized and intimate, with only four of us in the group, and the tour guide took us in her 4WD into the vineyards for some of the most amazing views before letting us indulge in the delicious wine tasting.
In the afternoon, we visited the Santa Rita winery, which has a huge production in comparison to El Principal and is a lot more commercialized however, the property and history of the winery are fascinating, and the wines are not bad either. In between the tours we stopped in a town called Buin for a most delicious Peruvian lunch.
DAY 9: GLACIER HIKE
The best adventure we did in Chile! This is an entire day commitment with everything paid for in the tour price. We booked our tour with AndoAndes tour agency, and they were the best tour guides we have ever had. Gonzalo, who had just purchased the tour agency from the previous owner, was our tour guide and did everything he could to share his knowledge and experience of the region with us.
We were picked up around 6:30 am, and since some people didn’t have breakfast including us (who can eat that early?), we stopped at some village café for the freshest eggs we’ve ever had and more coffee to wake up. Once we arrived at the trailhead, we used the facilities (the last place to use the bathroom until you return), and were given our lunch box, snacks, and a 1.5L bottle of frozen water, all included in the tour price, and then set off on a 16 km (9 miles) round-trip hike to the glacier.
The hike was uphill the first few kilometers but then it leveled off. Once we made it to the lagoon, we all set around on the rocks to enjoy our lunch and the views. Upon our return, the driver who was waiting for us, had set up an amazing spread with cheese, meats, fruits, vegetables, beer and wine for everyone to share before the drive back in the city. The entire experience was simply amazing, and Gonzalo and his team made us feel like part of the family.
Once back in the city, after a badly needed shower, we made our way to Ambrosia for a delicious dinner.
DAY 10: COLCHAGUA WINE REGION
The Colchagua wine region is often called the Napa Valley of Chile. It is about a 2-hour drive south of Santiago. In the morning we visited the Clos Apalta Winery where the production of the wine had some serious investor backing (the winery is owned by the French family that started Grand Marnier). The tour was commercialized and fairly big.
In the afternoon we visited Viña Laura Hartwig, a winery more suitable for our style. Our tour was with another couple and we ended up sitting outside with them after the tour sharing our trip stories for another hour while sipping on delicious wine and snacks. The wine at Laura Hartwig was very inexpensive but of great quality, so we stocked up.
DAY 11: DRIVE TO CASABLANCA VALLEY AND VALPARAISO
Casablanca Valley is known for its white wine, and we hardly ever drink white wine, but we were able to find one winery, possibly the only one, that makes red wine in the valley – Bodegas RE. We booked a brunch and the wine tour and were not disappointed in either. It was just a lovely place, with excellent food and wine.
After the wine tasting, we set off to Valparaiso, where we will be staying for the next couple of days. It is only about a 30-minute drive from Casablanca Valley, and as you are arriving in the city and looking down and around you, it just takes your breath away. The steep clifftop homes are colorful and vast, murals and street art is everywhere, and music coming from the squares and parks, it is just a wonderful mess.
We checked into our Airbnb apartment in the Cerro Alegre neighborhood, which had a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean, and shortly after took off to explore Valparaiso. We really didn’t have a set agenda, just wanted to walk around and let the city take us places. And it truly did! For more things to do in Valparaiso, check out our blog Get Lost in Valparaiso.
We finished the night with dinner at Pasta E Vino.
DAY 12: VALPARAISO
Another day without a plan, other than dinner reservations at La Caperucita y el Lobo for the New Year’s Eve celebration. We walked around, almost every square had live performances going on, and some of the streets were already getting blocked off for the party. We hopped on the metro and went to the beach since it was a really warm day. However, the water was still too cold for us Floridians to dip in.
In the evening we made our way to La Caperucita y el Lobo for dinner. The restaurant is perfectly located on a hill, so most of the barges with fireworks were visible. This is a small family-owned restaurant, and for the evening they offered a 5-course tasting menu with plenty of Bodegas RE wine. It was simply a perfect evening.
PRO TIP: Most of the streets will be closed by the time you are trying to get home, and good luck getting a cab or UBER or any sort of transportation. We ended up walking home from there, since we couldn’t find any means of transportation, which wasn’t too bad, and we ran into many different groups of people still dancing in the streets.
DAY 13: DRIVE BACK TO SANTIAGO AND FLY HOME
Our return flight wasn’t leaving until 11 pm from Santiago so we were not in too much of a hurry the next day to get back. Everyone was telling us that the traffic could be bad since everyone from Valparaiso would be driving back, but we didn’t have any issues. However, good luck finding places open for lunch in Santiago on January 1st. It was a ghost town.
If you have more time, adding a trip to Patagonia would be an excellent option, or if you are more of the wine-and-dine type, you can drive over the Andes into Mendoza. We hear it is an excellent road trip!