by Katherine Li
Wanting to escape Australian winter, for more winter? Eager to venture beyond the ski fields of Queenstown but still want the snow-capped mountain ‘grams? Desperate for a (welcome) culture shock without too much of a language barrier? If you answered yes to all of the above, your perfect destination is none other than Chile, South America!
Armed with 2 friends (or amigas as the Chileanos say), 1.5 years of mediocre Spanish (muchas gracias to our lecturer Henar for not kicking us out of the course) and winter break, we decided to head on over to our Southern Hemisphere neighbour and hit up 3 beautiful countries in 3 weeks. First stop: Chile. (Disclaimer: despite the enticing pun of a title, Chile is actually pronounced Chi-leh as opposed to Chilly).
A 16-ish hour, $1,000-$1,300 return flight via Auckland is all it takes to reach Santiago, Chile’s capital, from Sydney and once you pay for your flights, the rest of the trip will be cheap as chicharrón. The easiest, cheapest and safest way to reach your chosen hostel of choice in Chile is definitely TransVIP, a shuttle company which have their own stalls at the airports.
!!!!You will get approached by taxi drivers as soon as you walk through the arrivals but do not follow them!!!!
South America is notoriously dodgy for scamming travellers so I implore you to research transport options beforehand or just look for the TransVIP counter which should be orange and grey.
Like most capital cities, Santiago is developed, industrial, and reasonably English-speaking so while I would always recommend learning some Spanish before you go, just to be safe and courteous, you will be quite alright without. Sadly, I only experienced Santiago for one night and despite being delirious post long-haul flight, the city bustle felt welcoming and so incredibly exciting! The excitement in the air was probably also due to the fact Chile had beaten Portugal in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup and was through to the finals, but my football knowledge is dismal so all I have to offer is an over-eager ¡VIVE CHILE! to fool my way through any sporting conversation.
My Santiago experience was very short-lived so I’m sure travel books and blogs can offer more insight than I can, unless you’re interested in Santiago airport in which case I’m ya gal but otherwise, onto my favourite place in the entire world, San Pedro de Atacama.
San Pedro de Atacama, where mi corazón lies, is a desert town set in the Andes mountains. A desert town? In a mountain range? Are you for real? I sure am. It’s unique location- accessible via a short flight to Calama airport and a 1 hourish bus ride (I went with Licancabur)- is conducive to quite possibly the most breath-taking landscapes and natural phenomenon that I have ever seen (lo siento, Machu Picchu). The main area of town itself is very easy to navigate since it’s basically grid-shaped, like a mini, desert based New York I would imagine.
Again, the atmosphere was so welcoming and since it’s full of tourists, energy is high and best of all, there are dogs everywhere!!! Domestic dogs roam the streets and are always up for a pat (if you dare) but I did see a sign which I roughly translated (very poorly I suspect) that said dogs should be leashed at all times. Either I mistranslated entirely or its not strongly enforced but regardless, San Pedro is very dog friendly!
So other than eating your weight in delicious Chilean food and buying (fake) alpaca wool sweaters, the best way to fill your days is with tours, tours and more tours! Walking down the main street you will be inundated with tour agencies so best to ask around your hostel for agency recommendations but be careful- many agencies have lower prices because they don’t include entry into actual parks so make sure you confirm this. If your budget allows, which mine didn’t, I would definitely recommend doing an astronomical tour because Chile is renowned for its clear skies and starry nights but if you prefer early morning, I’ve heard magnificent things about the sunrise hot air balloon rides. However, if you’re on a tighter budget, here is my definitive ranking of the tours I went on:
- Geisers del Tatio, 10000/10: I believe this is a winter only tour and it was damn incredible. Home to over 80 active geysers of all sizes at 4,320m above sea level it is truly breath-taking (the high altitude does that to you). Standing there in the Andes mountains, surrounded by snow and massive plumes of smoke really puts things in perspective. Despite the snow- pack a cozzie! You’ll get the chance to hop in a thermal pool of about 26°C and while it’s -5°C outside, you don’t want to miss this opportunity. On this tour we also went on a drive to an Indigenous town where we got to explore around an old church and eat llama meat which it pains me to say, was delicious
- Valle de la Luna, 10/10: The valley of the moon is an insightful tour into the old salt mines and is very picturesque. It does involve sort of climbing a mountain so definitely wear hiking boots but you will be treated to a gorgeous sunset over the valleys.
- Puritama hot springs, 9/10: a series of natural geothermal hot springs at the bottom of a canyon with medicinal properties. Winter probably wasn’t ideal for this, but hey the water is warm!
Basically Chile can do no wrong. A week is more than enough time to see the beauty that San Pedro has to offer and if I could impart any advice, it would be to take every opportunity, carpe diem and all, and experience things you’re likely to never do again, and eat foods you’ve never heard of and drink aaall the pisco sours. Those things are delicious.