Visitors will find everything from colonial grandeur to modern efficiency in South America’s economic powerhouse, where most tourist areas emerged unscathed from the February earthquake.
Packing for Chile can be a challenge. In the span of 48 hours, one can be hiking at the foot of a glacier in the southern extremes, sipping a robust red in the warm sun of the central wine region or watching the rising moon illuminate one of the world’s driest deserts in the country’s northern reaches. With so many destinations within driving or flying distance of Santiago, vacationers can comfortably take in two or more regions during a single visit. Business travelers can easily add a side trip to their agenda of meetings in the capital.
The Feb. 27 earthquake should not deter would-be visitors. Although the temblor shook the country, Santiago’s homes, museums, offices and hotels suffered only light damage. Most of the major destruction took place around the coastal city of Concepción. A few museums and hotels in Santiago, along with several hotels and wineries in the Colchagua Valley, Chile’s primary wine growing region, remain closed for repairs. Elsewhere, it is business as usual.
Most trips to Chile begin in the capital city of Santiago, a modern metropolis of some 4.7 million people that is replete with cultural and historic attractions.
The seat of national government, the Palacio de la Moneda, is a prime example of 18th century colonial architecture, encompassing an entire city block in the center of downtown Santiago. The complex, originally built to serve as the mint, houses the presidential residence and offices. Several courtyards and other areas are open to the public.
A major restoration replaced a parking lot with a pedestrian-friendly plaza that tops the Centro Cultural Palacio la Moneda, the subterranean cultural center that opened in 2006 and hosts exhibitions of modern and historical art. Fridays are Cultural Nights, with exhibits open until midnight.
History is also on display at Cerro Santa Lucía, the hilly, sculpture-laden park that marks the spot where Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded the city in 1541.
For a taste of the more recent cultural past, there is La Chascona, the quirky residence reflecting the humor and creativity of the poet Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel Laureate. Neruda, who won the prize for literature in 1971, collected everything from paperweights to paintings. His home — designed to resemble a ship — is a fascinating place to learn about the country’s history through the prism of the life and work of its most celebrated writer. It is one of three homes operated by the Fundación Pablo Neruda, and includes a look at the years of dictatorship that followed Neruda’s death in 1973 and lasted until 1990.
For a pastoral break, visit the scenic Parque Metropolitano, which extends nearly 1,800 acres (722 hectares). Take a ride on the funicular railway or the cable cars to the top of Cerro San Cristobal for a panoramic vista.
As the capital of one of the region’s most stable economies, Santiago boasts a growing number of hotels. Among the newest is The Aubrey, a 15-room boutique property in a refurbished 1920s mansion in the bohemian Bellavista district.
Travelers also fare well in the upscale neighborhood El Golf, which is home to both the W Santiago and the InterContinental Santiago. Business travelers and shopaholics alike are among the guests at the towering Grand Hyatt Santiago, which is a short walk from the fashionable Parque Arauco shopping mall in the elegant Las Condes district.
Within an hour’s drive of Santiago is an array of stately vineyards, where tastings prove why Chilean varietals grace so many tables around the world. Viña Cousiño Macul is Chile’s oldest, with a wine cellar that dates to 1872.
At Concha y Toro, Chile’s biggest wine producer, visitors can take in the grounds of the family’s distinguished former summer home against the mountain backdrop of the Andes (the cellars are temporarily closed for quake-related repairs). Tastings are held at the Pirque Wine Tourist Center, which also serves light fare paired with each wine.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
About an hour by car from Santiago lie two very different cities that make a complementary odd couple: Valparaíso and Viña del Mar.
The charm of the port city of Valparaíso lies in its architectural informality, from the neoclassical mansions downtown to the delightful assortment of charming Victorian homes that line its steep hills, drawing frequent comparisons to San Francisco and helping Valparaíso to achieve the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The unique architecture is the legacy of the era when Valparaíso was one of the continent’s wealthiest port cities. The opening of the Panama Canal nearly a century ago spelled the end of Valparaíso’s s glory days, but visitors can still sample some of the boomtown flavor — most notably by riding one of the historic ascensores, the rickety funicular railways that connect the waterfront with the neighborhoods above. A growing number of bed-and-breakfast inns, shops and restaurants — as well as Neruda’s home there, La Sebastiana — lie along the upper ridge, offering magnificent views of the port.
A few minutes up the coast is Viña del Mar, a sleek resort city, which, in perfect contrast to Valparaíso’s small-scale hotels, restaurants and shops, offers luxury accommodations, sandy beaches, the famed Viña del Mar Casino and the acclaimed annual music competition, the Festival Internacional de la Canción. The last night of the 2010 event was canceled because of the earthquake.
Visitors to the Atacama Desert, which stretches from Chile into southern Peru, find another climate. The high-altitude desert is baked by the sun nearly every day; temperatures plunge at night, as low as freezing during the winter months. It’s a stark change from the temperate conditions of the central region – and the hustle-bustle of Santiago, a mere two-hour flight away.
About a decade ago, tourists were limited to mid-range hotels or bargain-basement hostels. In 1998, the luxury operator Explora was the first to open a true resort, in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis in the desert. But options have multiplied recently, among them several sanctuary-like hotels pampering clients with spa services, gourmet cuisine and customized excursions for everyone from the novice adventurer to the seasoned trekker.
Top choices include the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, a pristinely landscaped resort dramatically situated within a ring of mountains; Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, which features strikingly contemporary architecture and stylish décor; and Awasi, where each guest is assigned his or her own personal driver.
Activities abound for all levels of physical prowess. Hiking, mountain-bike riding and horseback riding are popular pastimes. Guided excursions lead to places like Laguna de Chaxa, a nature reserve whose lagoon attracts flocks of flamingos; and Yerbas Buenas, the site of numerous pre-Hispanic petroglyphs etched in massive rocks that depict humans, llamas and other creatures inhabit the arid terrain.
The sprawling landscape is so otherworldly that the U.S. space agency, NASA, used it to study how primitive life might exist on Mars.
LT Guide: Santiago
Ruta Chile: Provider of city tours of Santiago and escorted tours and packages to most of Chile’s major tourism destinations.
The Aubrey: A stylish boutique hotel in the bohemian Bellavista district is housed in the one-time mansion of a political family. It has a swimming pool and an upscale restaurant.
Grand Hyatt Santiago: This towering structure, in the upscale Las Condes district, offers extensive amenities and a large spa and outdoor pool area.
W Santiago: Typical trendy W style, in an excellent neighborhood.
InterContinental Santiago: This hotel is also a venue for business meetings.
LT Guide: Atacama
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa: Superior luxury and pampering, in a dramatic desert setting.
Awasi: This tiny hotel specializes in highly personalized service.
Explora Atacama: The desert’s original luxury retreat, with an extensive list of excursions and on-site amenities, including a large swimming pool area and recently expanded spa services.
Tel: 56-2-206-6060 (in Santiago)
Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa: Contemporary flair at an upscale lodge.
Filed Under: All Articles
About the Author: