A Beginner’s Guide To Chile

7 May 2016
Read Time: 3.2 mins

It is said of the Chilean capital, Santiago, that you can ski in the morning and sail in the afternoon, sitting as the city does between the majestic Andes and the Pacific Ocean. But there’s plenty more to do in this cosmopolitan city, from its colonial heritage to traditional crafts, thumping nightlife and more. We spoke to Aussies Denise and Jason Beckton, who have lived and worked in Santiago over the past several years, for a beginner’s guide to the capital and beyond.

City Highlights

No matter how intrepid you are, says Denise, a hop-on hop-off bus tour is a brilliant starting point. “The double-decker bus is actually a really good start because not everyone speaks English in Chile – so it’s a good grounding of the major sights in Santiago.”

 The Andes frame the city of Santiago in Chile. The Andes frame the city of Santiago in Chile. Picture: Getty Images

Sights along the route include the Plaza de Armas in the heart of Santiago, with its historic landmarks such as City Hall and the Metropolitan Cathedral; Mercado Central, a bustling marketplace; Plaza de la Constitucion, with the famous Moneda Palace; the El Golf business district; shopping spot Parque Arauco; cafe districts Providencia and Bellas Artes; and elegant Santa Lucia, with its two forts.

Other sites worth a look include the Centro Artesanal Los Dominicos in Las Condes – a traditional arts and handicraft village at the foothills of the Andean Mountains – which is a great choice for families, Denise says.

The funicular up to Cerro San Cristobal, or Parque Metropolitano, is also a must. It offers sweeping views of the city framed by mountains and sea, and features a giant statue of Mary (Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion).

Poetry lovers might also like to check out La Chascona, the quirky former home of Pablo Neruda in the bohemian Bellavista neighbourhood, which he created for his lover (and eventually third wife) Matilde Urrutia.

Denise’s favourite district of Santiago is Barrio Italia, where warehouses burst with antiques and you can watch furniture being restored in the street. She also recommended the Vitacura neighbourhood, which is popular with families, as well as foreign embassies.

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Dining & Nightlife

The fish market at Mercado Central is a good spot for reasonably priced seafood. Top-notch seafood can also be found in the seaside village of Zapallar, a couple of hours outside Santiago. Denise also recommends Tiramisu, a pizzeria in the Las Condes neighbourhood, and Mestizo in Vitacura, which serves South American cuisine in a beautiful park setting.

Jason reckons the must-try dish is the Chilean salty meat barbecue cooked on a parrilla, as well as ceviche – fresh fish cured in lemon or lime juice.

 The pisco sour is Chile's national drink, consisting of pisco, a brandy-like liqueur, and lime. Two pisco sours is quite enough. Picture: Getty Images

And he says the must-drink beverage is, of course, pisco sour, Chile’s national drink, but suggests stopping at two. Sometimes described as a sledgehammer in a glass, pisco sour is a cocktail made primarily of the pisco liqueur (a brandy similar to grappa) and lime, although some variants also contain syrup, egg white and Angostura bitters. For bars, Jason recommends the Lastarria neighbourhood, known for its thumping night scene.

Day Trips

In the Maipo Valley, south of Santiago, sit some of Chile’s oldest wineries, which are well worth a visit. Denise says: “You can get a bus ride to the wineries down there, which are lovely, and only an hour out of Santiago – that’s quite fun to do.” Most of the vineyards produce Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet blends.

Malbec vines stretch across the Maipo Valley in Chile. A vineyard in the Maipo Valley. Picture: Getty Images

Zapallar, a pretty coastal town less than two hours northwest from Santiago, is where the locals go on their summer breaks. “It’s equivalent to an upmarket Gold Coast,” Denise says. The beach sits in a pretty cove, but she warns the water can be cold, particularly for Australians.

The famous port city of Valparaiso, about 1.5 hours from Santiago, was once also home to Neruda and has become known in recent years for its cool buildings and street art. It is full of steep alleys and escaleras (stairways) and has attracted a rather devil-may-care lot since its earliest days as a port.

For the skiers, Portillo ski resort is the closest to Santiago, and is a popular spot for ski racers to train during the northern hemisphere summer.

Further Afield

If you want to get active and off the beaten path, Chile is the place for you. A two-hour flight north of Santiago is the Atacama Desert, parts of which are known as the driest place on earth. A rare significant rainfall late last year caused the desert to bloom in an explosion of pinks and purples. While you’re there, visit Chile’s largest salt flat, sandboard down giant dunes, or go stargazing with an astronomer.

Chile's snow-capped Villarrica Volcano stands against a pink sky as mist rises from the lake in the foreground. Hike up Volcan Villarrica in Chile's Lake District. Picture: Getty Images

A 10-hour drive south of Santiago lies Chile’s Lake District, chief of which is exclusive Lake Pucon, which Denise described as the “Lake Como of Chile”. The Lake District is also something of an adventure capital – you can go whitewater rafting, horse-riding, mountain biking and even hike up Volcan Villarrica, a snow-covered, smoking volcano.

And in the very south of Chile, Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia is known for its radiant blue glacier. It is a favourite of serious hikers and climbers, “but there are quite low-key hikes you can do there as well”, Denise says.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Santiago.

Renae Spinks

Travel for me is about conversations and connections. There’s nothing like setting foot in a new land and meeting people a world apart. From talking to North Sea fishermen in Norway’s Lofoten Islands to breakfast chat at a B&B in my own back yard, there’s always a story to share and a tale to tell.