I’ve never been very interested in Chile as a travel destination, but this country has given me a lot to be thankful for; the boy who swiped me into the Santiago metro this morning and refused to let me pay him back; the lady working at the Antofogasta’s bus terminal who called her husband to ask him to drive me to my host’s place when she realized I had no idea where I was going; the vagabond art peddler who gifted me his grass art to sell because my debit card wasn’t working; the woman who pulled over when she saw me melting in the middle of the Atacama desert and gave me a lift to town.
Chile is the kind of place where street dogs are obese because the community takes care of them a bit too much; where the homeless tell you to put on a coat lest you catch a cold; where the security guard acts nice even when he’s busting you for trespassing.
Chile is a modern, developed OECD country with the highest per capita income in Latin America and the lowest national homicide rate. It’s sparsely populated and rich in natural resources, with copper exports playing a crucial role in the country’s continuing prosperity.
Chile shares a common cultural sphere with Europe and other western countries. Its liberal cultural tendencies are evident in the way people dress and eat and the things that are tolerated in the street.
San Pedro de Atacama
Northern Chile is covered by the dry arid landscapes of the Atacama Desert, which boasts an impressive geographic portfolio of volcanoes, canyons, salt flats, lakes, geysers and valleys.
Around sunrise, I came rolling across the Chilean border, physically and spiritually poisoned by a nasty tour operator in Bolivia. The first thing I saw of Chile was this massive barren volcano.
I didn’t book any of the tours in San Pedro de Atacama because I had just seen the exact same things on the Bolivian side of the border. I did have a chance to check out Valle de la Luna (“Valley of the Moon”), however, because my host lived right next to it in the middle of the desert.
The main hub of northern Chile is a small, expensive city hugging the Pacific Ocean called Antofogasta. Copper mining is the lifeblood of Antofogasta’s economy, and has driven up the price of everyday products to triple and quadruple what you might expect pay across the border in Bolivia or Peru.
Antofogasta is all about the beach. I don’t do beach, so I spent my four days there just bumming around with my host.
I stayed with a laid-back 31-year-old English professor named Angello who spent a year and a half in the remote jungle highlands of Malaysia teaching English to the indigenous Orang Asli. Angello took me to the university where he teaches, introduced me to his colleagues, and taught me acro-yoga, a hybrid sport that combines acrobatics and yoga.
Ask a Chilean about the capital Santiago and most will say something along the lines of “ehh, it’s just a big modern city.” I don’t have much I would add on to that description. I enjoyed Santiago for all the things that big cities are good for; arts, nightlife, people-watching.
My guides in Santiago were my lovely hosts, Cristian and Edu. Cristian (left) is a engineer and his 23-year-old partner Edu (right) is a medical student from Venezuela. In one long day the two of them took me to all the important spots in the city.
Santiago’s financial district is known as Sanhattan becuase it has a lot of glass office towers like Manhattan. At a height of 300 meters, the Gran Torre Santiago is the tallest building in Latin America.
For me, the highlight of Chile was Valparaíso, a bohemian San Francisco-meets-Brooklyn gem of a town along Chile’s Pacific coast just an hour and a half from Santiago. Valparaíso is known for its colorful street art and vibrant counterculture.
“Valpo,” as the locals call it, rode the California Gold Rush to prosperity in a time when ships had to round South America to travel between either US coast. Valpo never completely recovered from the economic devastation wrought by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.
Luis, a 31-year-old Peruvian expat, hosted me in neighboring Viña del Mar I was his first Couchsurfing guest ever. We spent my birthday together eating muffins and listening to Evanescence.
Valparaíso has been destroyed many time by earthquakes and fires, including as recently as 2014 when a wildfire destroyed thousands of homes.
Valparaíso struggled with a chronic graffiti problem until it decided to start calling it street art instead.
I Did Not Go To Patagonia
Oh, that’s it? You only visited four cities? Well, I didn’t care to write about Callama and Viña del Mar, but, yes, I didn’t go any further south than Vaparaíso.
Chile is an unusually long country and really I can’t be asked to do all of it in one go with a budget like mine. This is just to say I didn’t forget about the Southern half of the country, namely Patagonia, which is supposed to be very nice for nature lovers.
Personally, nature is not my thing, so visiting Patagonia was not a high priority for me. When I do visit Patagonia, I think I will do so on the Argentine side of the border where it is a bit cheaper.
Logistically, Chile is very easy to travel if you have the money. Its organized tourist infrastructure doesn’t exactly appeal to my sense of adventure, but I imagine it makes Chile an attractive destination for other visitors. It may be also worth noting that, by regional standards, Chileans tend to speak a very high level of English, which non-Spanish speakers will find comforting.
I think Chile is a nice place to live and a pleasant country overall, though I wouldn’t recommend it to those looking to immerse themselves in another culture; indigenous tradition doesn’t have a strong influence on Chile’s cultural landscape as one might expect in neighboring Bolivia or Peru.
Alternatively, if you’re up for some scenic adventures in the great outdoors, Chile gives you a lot to work with.