Find the Best of Red Hot Chile
After weeks of punishing hikes, wicked whale-watching, and putting away endless delicious food, I’d learned 17 important lessons about Chile that everyone should know before zipping up their backpack.
1. How to pack versatile
With a coastline stretching the same distance as Scotland to Nigeria, I encountered desert, mountains, glaciers, sub-tropical swelter and a wide selection of beaches.
The challenge is to pack light in a country where snowboards, surfboards and sandboards are all legit ways to get around. While there’s never an excuse to wear zip-off trousers, you’ll still have to be creative to make the most of your backpack.
2. Chilean food is amazing
A trip to Chile is as much about its sensational kitchens as its stunning landscapes. It offers peerless seafood – ceviche, mussels, consommé and rich salmon fillets for cheap – as well as hearty pies, fillet steak barbeques and a swatch of empanadas.
Sit down in Puerto Natales’ luxuriant Afrigonia, munch a skyscraping sanger in Santiago’s Fuente Alemania, or hunt down fresh merquén in Valparaiso’s shabby markets – you’ll fall in love with your tastebuds like never before.
3. Wine-tasting is a national sport
Fine booze is a staple of a Chilean diet, and why not? After I’d paid my respects in the home of the world-conquering Casillero del Diablo, I moved on to carmenére, the country’s exclusive grape.
Then there was the egg-white and lemon toothmelt of the Pisco Sour, champagne at a snip, and the continent’s best ales to ward away the Patagonian chill. Safe to say, I often woke up with a headache.
4. It’s pretty cheap
Travelling around South America, I heard constant moaning about how ridiculously expensive Chile is.
No, you won’t get a two-course meal for a dollar and yes, you might have to splash out from time to time. But with a little effort, there’s endless value to be found. So pre-book your buses, shop around on hostels, and experiment with camping and food markets – you’ll quickly save up for regular treats.
5. How to become nocturnal
Daytime activities in southern Chile often continue late into the night. That’s probably because everyone loves the Patagonian sunsets. I saw skies awash with peach and rose, austral clouds hanging like perfect white sweeps of a calligrapher’s brush.
Once I’d wrapped up warm, I could enjoy sparkling watercolour sunshine dreaming on until nearly 11pm. It’s worth rising before dawn to catch skies ablaze with stars, galaxies and meteors. With 18 hours of sunshine a day, it was easy to top up a short sleep with long siestas.
6. Wind can beat you up
Torres del Paine, a Mecca for hikers across the globe, delivers on the hype.
If you embark on its bruising ‘W’ and ‘O’ routes, you’ll watch condors tumble through the granite snarl of Las Torres, take a battering from the winds over Lago Gray, and mark time against endless mountain vistas and house-sized bricks of ice.
But be ready – weather in TDP is a fickle master. It pounded my tent to bits, soaked me through and gave me chronic sunburn. Get it right though, and it’s pure exhilaration.
7. Valparaiso is badass
An hour from Santiago, Valpo is a faded diamond for budding poets and pirate captains.
Its staggering rise came from The Gold Rush, when boatloads of prospectors paused on long trips round Cape Horn to California. But the bubble burst overnight with the opening of the Panama Canal. By then the city had filled with new money, immigrant workers and an eclectic smash of architecture.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Valparaiso boasts unkempt portside panoramas, and a rainbow maze of graffiti-splattered hillsides around the Austro-Hungarian swank of its centre. Every walk of life is here - it’s Chile’s answer to Banksyism.
8. Banks don't always work
It’s worth reading around a bit before deciding which cash cards to take to Chile.
My Visa account offers free transactions abroad, but it rarely worked with any cash machine – and believe me, I tried lots.
A little research will bypass hours spent traipsing from bank to bank. You might want a backup card handy, and look into money-sending services like Azimo.
9. Margaret Thatcher had colourful friends
For all Chile’s modern airs, its recent past is chequered by its time of military rule in the ‘70s and ‘80s that claimed tens of thousands of lives. It’s a story I found replicated across the continent, but General Pinochet is perhaps the most notorious name to emerge from a lurch into fascism. Brits watch out – Maggie Thatcher was a loyal supporter.
Pinochet’s rule brought about some important steps for Chile’s general living standards. So was he pure evil, or a necessary evil? My visit to Santiago’s excellent Museo de los Derechos Humanos, and Tours4Tips walking route (both free), gave me a vivid understanding of a period that still divides the country to this day.
10. The Humboldt current works for wildlife
Thanks to the Humboldt current rolling up from Antarctica, I found superhighways of migrating whales and dolphins, and wobbling colonies of seals and penguins in secret spots along Chile’s wild coast.
The best place I found for whale-watching was charming Punta de Choros – an unheralded little spot about three hours from La Serena. Boat tours from southerly Punta Arenas will drop you right into a wild penguin parade.
But you won’t have much luck trying to enjoy a swim. Full wetsuit attire is recommended if you’re spending a long time in the water.
11. See the end of the world
The Tierra del Fuego, full of silent forests and grizzled ranchland, is a wilderness far removed from the rest of civilisation.
Its settlers – brought by prison boat, naval exploration or wool trading – have cast themselves a ragtag and often surreal niche.
I found seas of sheep, plink-plonk assortments of corrugated iron shacks, and huge cemeteries moaning in the scraping wind. It’s a whole other side of the world.
12. Boats go further south
The scatter of islands that form Chile’s southernmost regions make for terrific boat rides to suit most budgets.
Try the long-haul ferries, dodging icebergs and dolphins from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. There’s spectacular short-hops braving the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams, or skimming over glacial waters in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
Or you could burn your budget altogether on a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife cruise to Antarctica (starting at £2700).
13. Know your camelids
Everyone knows that embarrassing feeling when the pub quizmaster asks you to correctly identify wild llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos, and you just can’t tell the difference? Right?
Well, when you’re hiking in the beautifully conserved Chilean altiplano, you’ll meet many of these beautiful creatures tiptoeing between grazing spots.
Take your chance to bone up on camelids, and next time you’ll be a bona fide expert.
14. Men will cuddle you on the bus
At almost 2,600 miles top-to-bottom, it’s no surprise that 20, 30 or 50-hour bus journeys are standard if you’re looking to cover serious ground.
Just as well then that your average long-distance bus ticket buys you a super-padded seat, and free drinks and cakes. My favourite trip was from San Pedro de Atacama to La Serena, where I was treated to a long desert sunset, and a maitre d’ who tucked me into a snuggly blanket at bedtime.
15. There’s Spanish, and there’s Chileno Spanish
Think you’re pretty handy at Spanish? You’ve maxed Duolingo and got a ‘high B’ at GCSE?
That’s not going to fly here, where syllables fly like machine-gun fire and perfectly sensible phrases are shredded by the bonkers Chilean dialect.
But once you’ve tuned your ears to hyperspeed, you’re used to people yelling ‘RELAX!’ in your face, and you’re swapping amigos for weones, you can feel like you’ve conquered Spanish for all time.
16. Chilean borders are painful
Be warned. Because its farming regions are isolated by desert (to the north), sea (south and west), and mountains (east), its crops are fragile.
So trying to enter Chile with any live organic matter from vanilla pods, to a runner bean or even a wooden stick, is out of the question. Full searches are order of the day for every entrant; sniffer dogs are trained to discover apples in backpacks. I was stood for four hours in the height of the Atacama desert sunshine – not all that much fun.
Declare everything – if they find something contraband, they’ll fine you - and enjoy the queue.
17. The other true meaning of Easter
Don’t forget about Rapa Nui - Easter Island!
Once filled by a mysterious group of settlers, all that remains are those iconic and beguiling moai stone heads. Tourism is on the rise with travellers tantalised by one of the world’s most isolated spots.
To tackle the trip, you’ll want at least five nights, $800 for return flights from Santiago, and $150 for park fees. You might consider camping to avoid the pricey resorts. After you’ve had enough of contemplating stone heads, there’s sand, surf and starlit skies.
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Ed Cuffe-Adams is a marketer, musician and writer. He lives for shoestring travel, weird history and urban adventures. He's roughed it in South America, Asia, Siberia, the US and Eastern Europe, and he loves to share what he sees. Tweet at him @thephrasebook!