First Timer’s Guide to Chile

Chile has been on my travel bucket list for some time now so at the start of 2020 I decided this was going to be the year to visit. I could never have predicted when I scheduled my trip that the world would be upended by Covid-19 and feel rather lucky that I was able to squeeze in this one last trip before my Peru leg of the tour was cancelled and I promptly hopped on a flight to Canada to be with my family.

Let this be a testimony to how savory and awe inspiring Chile is, that despite the worldwide eerily impending doom in the air, I had the absolute time of my life there. And since I covered quite a bit of ground from Santiago, to San Pedro de Atacama, to Valparaiso, I felt it was best to write a first timer’s guide to Chile rather than a city guide since I wouldn’t be able to do any one location justice.

In the interest of full disclosure, and setting the tone for this guide, I want to be clear that I was on a guided tour and at no point was walking around on my own. When I landed in Santiago, there was a 1 million strong female protest erupting which made driving difficult and walking dangerous. Riots are currently an every day realty in the city as well as Valparaiso but are by no means a reason not to visit.

Ok, now let’s begin! As with every trip, I visited my NYC travel clinic before leaving to ensure I had all the necessary vaccinations. I also wanted to be prescribed medication for altitude sickness as I had been warned this would/could be necessary and it was! Like a lot! I started my medication in Santiago, roughly 24hrs before we began our journey towards the Atacama desert and thank goodness I did. I felt the wooziness.

I also think it’s important to mention that packing for this trip proved to be a bit of a challenge to cover the range in temperatures you can encounter from morning to evening, city to desert, and back again. In Santiago it is 28 degrees and sunny most days but mornings in the Atacama desert can be below freezing (especially to see the Geysers).

My recommendation is to pack light summer dresses for the daytime with a good layering piece, be it denim jacket or sweater, with a fun pair of walking shoes. Call me impractical but I brought a pair of pointed flats for city walking and a pair of superga sneakers for the desert. They served me just fine. I also packed a few pairs of jeans and turtlenecks along with my oversized blanket coat which I used many mornings and evenings in the desert. A great hat and sunnies are also key.

As you may have gathered from above, I started my tour in Santiago. We spent one night at this lovely little spot called Hotel Loreto that was charming, well located, and affordable. The next morning we got on a flight to Calama and drove over an hour through the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, as you can see in the photos above and below, where we spent the next 3 days.

Weather was not on our side in the afternoon/evenings for this part of trip so we missed stargazing during a full moon and also weren’t able to visit Chaxa and the Altiplanic Lagoons (damn you rain!!). However we did get to see some other super miraculous spots. My favorite highlights were:

  • The Moon and Death Valley
  • The Geysers
  • The Rainbow Valley
  • Long Drives through the Atacama

We even managed to catch some flamingos dancing in smaller lagoons along the way and had our van stopped more than once by these very sassy llamas pictured above. I never dreamed I would be out accessorized by llamas but alas anything is possible these days.

From San Pedro de Atacama we flew back to Santiago and hopped in our car to drive another hour or so towards the coast to stay in Valparaiso. I LOVED this city!! It was just as sunny and vibrant as Santiago but had that laidback, San Francisco meets South America with a twist, personality that draws you in.

We had an incredible full day walking tour here, stopping along the way at several cafes overlooking the water, and dinner watching the sunset over the coast at night. It is just as edgy/precarious as Santiago in the evenings so do make sure you are with a group and looking out for one another. That said, you can marry the night here, and I highly suggest you do, with pisco sours, charming locals, and amazing music pouring out onto the streets.

But what would a trip to Chile be without WINE?! Incomplete is the answer. On our way back to Santiago we stopped at the gorgeous winery Veramonte which was quite honestly the best possible way to end the tour and my last bit of freedom (aka life as I know it pre-covid quarantine). I highly, highly recommend a wine tasting, tour, and lunch here. And as with all guides, feel free to leave any comments or additional questions you may have about my experience below. I certainly hope this is only the beginning for me and this vibrant country.

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