When We Were There: November 5-20; November 24-December 1; December 21-26, 2008

Places We Visited: Santiago, Pucon, Puerto Varas, Chiloe, Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine, San Pedro de Atacama, Calama, Arica

View all of our posts about Chile here.

Exchange Rate: $1 = between 630 and 660 Chilean pesos
See a breakdown of our Chilean budget here.

What We Did
A great walking city, we spent most of our time just wandering the city, people-watching in the plazas, and exploring the parks. Plaza de Armas was never short of entertaining, and Santa Lucia Park has great views. The Mercado Central bustles with fishmongers and other vendors, and though the food wasn’t spectacular, we enjoyed a fish lunch here. Just outside of town is the Concho y Toro Winery, where we took a tour of the grounds and the production center and enjoyed a tasting for 7,000 pesos each. It’s the largest of Chile’s wineries, and they do a very professional tour. We also attended a soccer game, watching U. Catolica defeat Colo Colo 1-0. Additionally, we made a day trip to Valparaiso, where we visited Pablo Neruda’s Casa La Sebastiana and just wandered the colorful city.

An adventure lovers paradise (and a tourist mecca akin to Aspen), there’s more to do in Pucon than you could possibly pack into one trip. In three days, we had three adventures. First off, we spent a day hiking in Huerquehue National Park, where the lakes are stunning and the waterfalls powerful (Bus: 3000 pesos; Admission: 4000 pesos). On day two, we took rental bikes to the turquoise waterfalls of Ojos de Caburgua, enjoying the bucolic scenery along the way (Full-day bike rental: 6000 pesos; Waterfall admission: 300 pesos). Finally, we donned thick wetsuits and trusted our lives to a piece of foam on a hydrospeeding trip with Aguaventura (Half-day trip: 20,000 pesos).

Though Lonely Planet claims this is the place to be in 2009, we found it to be a little underwhelming. It’s a nice place to chill, however, which is mainly what we did. We also checked out the wooden churches and the palafito houses, were supremely disappointed by the town of Achao, and spent a long time walking on the beach to nowhere at Chiloe National Park (Bus: 3000 pesos; Admission: 1000 pesos).

Puerto Varas
Another adventure hotspot, we found the city to be more pleasing than Pucon (which we did like) because it felt more lived-in and less touristy. We stopped in on an art show, climbed to the city’s highest point for a good view, people-watched along the lake, and eventually gave in to our craving for adventure, spending a day canyoning (jumping off cliffs and sliding down waterfalls) with outfitter Pachamagua (Half-day trip: 29,000 pesos).

Torres del Paine
One of the most spectacular places either of us has seen, we spent five days hiking the W route plus an additional 17 km leg (Admission: 15,000 pesos).

Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales
These two cities were primarily jumping-off points for other destinations (Ushuaia and Torres del Paine respectively), so we mainly just used these towns as bases and for organization.

San Pedro de Atacama
This tiny desert town seems to exist just to cater to travelers, who crowd the town’s few streets and are much more prevalent than locals. There are a million possibilites for tours incorporating the area’s amazing scenery, but we limited ourselves to three: a sunset tour of the Valles de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a sunrise tour to the Tatio Geysers, and a late night stargazing tour. I’ve seen better sunsets, but the landscape is cool at Valley of the Moon and the price low enough that the tour is definitely worth it. The Tatio Geysers are pretty impressive and the soak in the hot spring is a nice treat. And the desert environment makes for great stargazing with the telescopes providing privileged views of planets, nebulae, and galaxies. (Valles de la Luna and Tatio Geysers package with Desert Adventure: 18,000 pesos; Stargazing with astronomer Alain Maury: 12,000 pesos).

A copper mining town, this is not a traveler’s destination, but rather a connecting point between San Pedro de Atacama and the rest of Chile. Without any seats available on any northbound bus, it became our Christmas stop. Luckily the copper brings a lot of money to the area, so there are nice hotels, which we took advantage of, holing up and forgetting that this rather horrible town was outside the window.

Right on the Peru border, this was our transition town, but it also made a nice post-Christmas stop. Though the water was too cold for my thin skin, the beach was long, and the sun hot enough to roast us to a bright pink. The town center also makes for pleasant exploration. Though we only stayed one night, it would have made a good town to relax in.

Where We Stayed
We had very little trouble finding places to stay in Chile, and were generally pleased with our accommodations. We found that the price of a double room was usually equivalent to the price of two dorm beds, so Chilean accommodations are economical for couples traveling together. We usually went with the shared bathroom option, as having a private bathroom is where the cost kicked up. None of the shared bathrooms were dorm style (all were just individual bathrooms with toilet, shower, and sink) and only on very few occasions did we find our shared bathroom occupied when we wanted to use it.

The Green House (Santiago): Right near the Santa Lucia metro and the park of the same name, this family-run establishment is well-located and has basic but nice and quiet double rooms. The first place we stayed after Nicaragua, it felt like pure luxury. 16,000 pesos for a double room with TV, wi-fi, shared bathroom, and breakfast.

Ecole (Pucon): Highly recommended by Lonely Planet, we found it to be just okay. The rooms and bathrooms are sufficient, but the walls are exceptionally thin. Fortunately, everyone went to bed early while we were there, so it wasn’t a problem, but if you had loud neighbors, you wouldn’t be sleeping. We didn’t find it to have the congenial atmosphere LP boasted of. In fact, the one night we hung out in the bar having hot chocolates, we were the only people in there. No kitchen access. 15,000 pesos for a double room with shared bath and wi-fi.

Casa Margoulis (Puerto Varas): The double rooms here are tiny; hardly big enough for the bed, and the two bathrooms aren’t quite sufficient. Also, the rooms are all right off the common room, so they’re pretty noisy, especially when the staff continues to drink and party long after all guests headed to bed. The kitchen is tiny and the stove hardly works. 14,500 pesos for a double room with shared bath, breakfast, and wi-fi.

Hostal Cordillera (Castro, Chiloe): This family-run establishment offered large, nice doubles. The rooms with private bath in the annex building are better and a bit quieter. Our room, overtop the common area, was a bit noisy, but the family is very friendly. The large kitchen is good for cooking in, a nice benefit since eating options are limited in Castro. 14,000 pesos for a double room with shared bath, breakfast, and wi-fi.

Ellenhaus (Puerto Varas): This is a sprawling hostel you could get lost in. It has plenty of bathrooms and the rooms are nice enough. Small but sufficient kitchen. Strict rules keep it clean and quiet. 13,000 pesos for a double room with shared bath and wi-fi.

Erratic Rock 3 (Punta Arenas): We arrived late at night and left very early in the morning, so we had limited experience here. It seems more like you’re staying in a family’s extra room than a hostel, and the room above the bakery (unfortunately ours) suffers from extreme noise about 3 a.m. when the bakery gets to work. The owner is extremely nice, but I still wouldn’t recommend it. 15,000 pesos for a double room with shared bath and breakfast.

Hostal La Luna (Punta Arenas): The double rooms in this family-run old house are large and quiet. Not many guests when we were there, and it doesn’t seem to have too social of an atmosphere. The hostal also provides a very inexpensive laundry service. 14,000 pesos for a double room with TV, shared bath, and breakfast.

Hostal Nancy (Puerto Natales): The first room we had here was one of the best we’ve had. Large room with bed and chairs, and a nice bathroom. Upstairs and at the back of the house, this room was quiet and private. The second room we had here wasn’t quite as nice (a bit smaller and more worn) and was noisy in the morning as it was located near the front door. The family is very nice. Internet is interminably slow, however. 18,000 pesos for a double room with TV, private bath, and breakfast.

Paine Grande Lodge (Torres del Paine): The most luxurious of the Torres del Paine refugios, Paine Grande feels like a fancy ski lodge with cafeteria, bar, and lounge rooms with leather couches. The rooms have three sets of bunks and nice views from large windows. There’s a building outside with stoves and sink where you can cook your own meals, but you need to bring your own dishes. 22,000 pesos for a bunk bed in a 6-bed room with shared bath.

Refugio Cuernos (Torres del Paine): This is a basic refugio, with the only common room being the dining area, which can get very crowded at meal times. They have a stove you can use to cook your own meals. It’s pretty chilly at night in the dorms, which have two bunk beds that are three high and one bunk that is two high. 19,000 for a bunk bed in an 8-bed room with shared bath.

Refugio Chileno (Torres del Paine): Another basic refugio, but with a bit nicer and larger dining/common area and many outside picnic tables. They’ll let you use the kitchen outside their service hours. Rooms are the same as at Cuernos. 19,000 pesos for a bunk bed in an 8 bed room with shared bath.

Hostal Eden Atacameno (San Pedro de Atacama): There’s a whole lot of places to stay in this tourist town but most are underwhelming and overpriced. The rooms at this place are very basic, just a double bed and one night stand in an adobe brick room, but the outside courtyard is very nice with tables and hammocks. Plus the price, at about half of what most others were asking, was right. 16,000 pesos for a double room with shared bath.

Hosteria Calama (Calama): Our Christmas splurge, this hotel is among the nicest in town with very comfy beds, TV, wi-fi, refrigerator, and jacuzzi tub. Unfortunately the pool was closed when we were there, but it normally has one. Best of all was the generosity of the staff, who allowed us to check in at 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve and despite an official 1 p.m. check-out time, allowed us to remain in our room until 10 p.m. Christmas night, when our out-of-town bus left. 42,000 pesos for a double room with all the amenities plus a breakfast buffet.

Sunny Days (Arica): A bit of a walk from the center, but close to the bus station and the beach, this is a great hostel for relaxing. The room was nice, though a bit thin-walled, and the bathroom sufficient, though the water temperature and pressure seemed to have a mind of its own. The owners are very nice, speak English, and loan out for free beach towels, boogie boards, and other beach toys. The breakfast spread is the best we’ve had in Chile. 18,000 for a double room with private bath and breakfast.

Notable Places We Ate
Chilean food is more varied than Nicaraguan food, but still leaves a lot to be desired. The staples seem to be hamburgers (with multiple variations of toppings, each listed as a separate menu item), chicken, pork, and beef sandwiches, hot dogs (specifically the completo, which comes with avocado, tomato, mayonnaisse), and empanadas. There are multiple fruit stands throughout the country, and the produce here is excellent. The grocery stores also offer quite a variety of food, and we cooked many of our own meals here…especially when we couldn’t stand another hamburger.

Trawen (Pucon): This excellent restaurant in Pucon was one of our favorites. They offered a wide variety of food, not of the typical Chilean type. The Salmon Empanada was huge, and the pasta was homemade, filling, and delicious. 10,300 pesos for lunch for two.

Ecole (Pucon): We found this restaurant to be a bit over-rated. The menu is pretty limited, and the Salmon Curry was nothing but salmon and sauce. The Vegetable Quesadillas, which were from the appetizers menu, was actually a good meal, with two large portions packed with veggies. Good but not great. 10,300 pesos for dinner for two.

Dane’s (Puerto Varas): A popular place for the set lunch menu, which is a good deal and filling. Nothing special, but solid food. The kuchens looked very good but we didn’t taste them there so I can’t say for sure. 5,800 pesos for lunch for two (One Plate of the Day Special–Pork Chop and Mashed Potatoes, and one huge empanada.)

Crepe Stand (Punta Arenas): This was a God-send for us, as it was a complete change of pace. The owner/operator was super friendly. He’d only been in business a few weeks and we were his first American customers. We ended up going back to this roadside stand (corner of Colon and Bories) for lunch the next day. 3,000 pesos for dinner for two (two ham & cheese crepes and one dulce de leche, nuts, and powdered sugar crepe)

La Picada de Don Carlitos (Puerto Natales): Though hamburgers were on pretty much every menu in Chile, these hamburgers were something special. To begin with, they’re enormous, pretty much the size of a dinner plate. And then they’re delicious—well-seasoned, well-cooked, and well-topped. We ate here twice; they were that good. 9,000 pesos for dinner for two (two hamburgers and one French fry)

Afrigonia (Puerto Natales): Our big Thanksgiving splurge, this small, classy restaurant served excellent food although the portions were rather small for the price. They even had turkey (though it was in kebab form and with African spices). A nice treat, but expensive. 20,500 for dinner for two (Turkey kebabs, Curry Shrimp, African Rice Pilaf, Chocolate Lava Cake)

*Everyone in Chile seems to speak in fast-forward. It’s definitely not beginner-Spanish friendly, and it’s even a challenge for more advanced speakers.

*The buses in Chile are excellent: reliable, on-time, safe, and comfortable. They aren’t cheap though.

*If you want to fly, check out the round-trip price even if you’re just going one-way. We flew between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas on a $66 round-trip flight, though we didn’t use the return leg. The one-way ticket price was over $200.

*Most Chilean cities are extremely walkable. I think we took a cab twice the entire time we were in Chile, otherwise we just walked (or used the subway in Santiago).

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