Our first team trip back in 2011 was to Chile. We took advantage of 1) a 50% American Express Membership Rewards points transfer bonus to British Airways Avios and 2) British Airways business class award for 80,000 miles (note, this is no longer available now) that allowed stopovers to visit both Santiago de Chile and Easter Island. With the 50% transfer bonus, it only cost us 54,000 American Express Membership Rewards points to fly in business class the entire way. To date, it is still one of the best trips we’ve taken. Multi-time contributor, Angie is back with some practical tips from her own experience in Chile.
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Copa Airlines has been offering great deals to South America (generally with Panama City layovers) over the last year. A group of friends booked this flight deal from DC to Santiago, Chile, for a road trip along the Chilean coast in June and have put together the following guide to the country.
- While there are opportunities to use credit cards (especially in larger cities like Santiago), many smaller cities and towns in Chile have more “cash-only” type places
- Exchange currency at the airport if possible, as many of the currency exchanges in smaller Chilean cities charge a large premium on rates; ATMs are available in larger cities
- In larger cities such as Valparaiso or Santiago, many people speak English; in smaller cities, it is less common to be able to ask for directions in English, though it is still fairly common (especially at tourist-heavy hostels and hotels)
- Driving in Chile is relatively easy (and affordable) compared to other South American countries; however, rougher terrains along the countryside along with frequent construction zones do require additional driver attention
- It cost us about $100 per person/week for a car rental and an additional $100 per person for gas over the course of the same week; this replaced having to pay for buses and flights to get from northern Chile to Santiago
- Tolls are cash only and can get quite expensive (anywhere from a few USD to upwards of 20 USD depending on toll location)
- It is quite common to find roundtrip domestic flights in Chile to be less expensive than one of the one-way legs (especially between tourist-heavy cities like Calama and Santiago)
- Outlets will require an adapter if using American devices – there are not many universal outlets or direct USB outlets available otherwise
- There are a plethora of “tips only” tour companies in larger cities (such as Valparaiso and Santiago) which provide 90 to 180-minute walking tours for a tip (generally 10-15 USD)
- A “Zona de Niebla” literally means a “cloud zone.” However, it is common when driving along highways of higher altitudes in Chile to encounter these zones, which generally mean sporadic periods of fog so heavy that one cannot see a few feet in front of them
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama is a small town of a few thousand located in the north of Chile that acts as a common gateway to the breathtaking Atacama Desert, which lies west of the Andes Mountains. The most common way to reach San Pedro is by bus from the nearby city of Calama, which has a larger airport for domestic flights. There are also buses that run from Santiago to San Pedro for anywhere from 50-100 USD but it’s a 30-hour bus ride!
Once in San Pedro, there are many spectacular natural wonders to see. The ones listed below can be accessed by car (many people rent their own car or travel in tour groups).
Geysers del Tatio – El Tatio is a well-known (and tourist-heavy) geyser field located in the Andes Mountains. There are over 80 active geysers, making it the third largest geyser field in the world! It is best to arrive before sunrise, as that is when many of the geysers release steam into the cold air, making for a breathtaking view to leave one doubting whether they are still on the same planet.
Valle de la Luna – There are many “Valleys of the Moon” in the world (in fact, there is one in nearby Argentina). This one is located about 10 miles west of San Pedro and is distinctive in its great natural beauty, stemming from the sharp sand and stone formations that have been carved by wind and water over the years. Going at sunset is a must — at first glance, with the range of colors and textures, one does feel a little bit like they are setting foot on the moon.
Salar de Atacama – this is the largest salt flat in Chile (third largest in the world) and is located about 30 miles south of San Pedro. Within the expansive salt flats (which encompass over a thousand square miles), there are many distinct things to see among the rugged landscape. Note that one of the most popular destinations, the Laguna Cejar (a large water lagoon that tourists can swim in) will require a separate entrance fee.
This port city in northern Chile is home to the first railway station (from 1850) and the Church of San Vicente de Paul. It is a nice stopover city to fuel up on gas, a little bit of history, and expansive views of the water. It is also a short 5 kilometer drive to Bahia Inglesa, known as the place “where the desert meets the sea.” The “English Bay” is actually a village/beach with about one hundred inhabitants and is known for its white sands and warm waters.
Another port city in northern Chile, this is the capital of the Antofagasta Province and Region and has been known as “The Pearl of the North.” This is a relatively bustling city with a beautiful square (Colon Square), tall buildings and shopping centers, six universities, and a natural arch named “La Portrada” (The Gateway) that sits on the coast.
Be sure to check out the local fish market, which sits close to nearby docks so that travelers can enjoy their ceviche and empanadas while observing the infamous sea lions that sunbathe next to boats.
Just to the south of Antofagasta, along a barren stretch of highway in the desert, there appears a large hand, rising out of the sand. This sculpture, named the “Mano de Desierto” (Hand of the Desert) was constructed about a quarter century ago, and has been waving to travelers since then.
The second oldest city in Chile after Santiago, this city is a great stopover spot along the coast. Tourists will frequent the beaches here during the summer, and its local cathedral and lighthouse are both beautiful resting spots for observers.
Vina Del Mar
The “Vineyard of the Sea” is a beach town very close to the city of Valparaiso that is known for its more high-end resorts and buildings. This is a good place to grab a bite and relax as the main strip of restaurants and parks provide a very clean and new city feel.
Known as the “cultural capital” of Chile, this hilly city was once the most important seaport in the world; it formerly served as the stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the 19th century by crossing the Magellan Straits. As such, the city developed in a very bohemian and international fashion, the spirit of which carries over to the city today.
There are many historical places to visit – South America’s first volunteer fire department, the first public library in Chile, the oldest stock exchange in Latin America, the home of Pablo Neruda – but the best thing to do in Valparaiso may be just to roam the hilly streets or take a walking tour.
While there are “ascensores” (funiculars) that will transport pedestrians up and down the numerous hills of Valparaiso for about 1 USD, walking along the streets allows travelers to notice the details of the city. From street musicians to staircases painted like piano keys to the large murals that greet pedestrians at every turn, Valparaiso is a bright and vibrant city that has a grungy, old-school charm. A sunset from any Valparaiso hill is uniquely beautiful.
The largest city and capital of Chile, Santiago sprawls over many locales and flavors and styles. It is home to a number of tall, modern buildings as well as urban parks (such as the Parque Forestral) that seemingly transports city dwellers to nature’s forests. The Andes Mountains surround the city from all points, to the point that travelers may feel like they are visiting a city within a crater (this also leads to a fair amount of smog during the winter).
The Mapocho River flows through the city, dividing it into two main sections, which serve as a grounding for navigation. Regardless of which side of the river one is on, there is a bustling and rich history to the city as well as plethora of restaurants and bars. One of the best ways to become familiar with the large city is to start with a walking tour – there are many “tips only” tours that cover the city over the course of 2-3 hours. Such an introduction can then serve as the beginning of many adventures in Santiago.
About the Author:
Angie is a born and raised Midwesterner who has spent the last five years living on the East Coast. She spends her time running, hiking, and traveling with her “Flight Deal Friends,” who have a pledge to purchase tickets for each other if there is ever a deal (there is an implicit trust amongst the group). Internationally, they’ve been to Chile, Colombia, Kenya, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway in the past year on flight deal trips (with Australia and Brazil coming up).
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