Visiting Santiago, Chile

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Santiago is a wonderful city. After living in Brazil for so long, we appreciate the infrastructure and how modern it is. Yet, there is no need to stay more than a few days. Santiago is fun, and has its sites but it is not the same as touring iconic cities like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. You can see most of the major sites in Santiago in just a couple of days. That said, we would love to return and spend more time in this beautiful city.

We recently spent some time in Santiago on our way to the Atacama Desert. Santiago is a short stop for most tourists as flight and cruise schedules require at least one night in this city. We were in Santiago for 4 nights and accomplished a lot of fun activities.

Hop On/Hop Off Bus City Tour

Our first full day in the city we decided that we would do the Hop On/Hop Off bus with TURISTIK to get our bearings of the city and see as much as we could.

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TURISTIK has a large red, double decker tour bus that takes you through the city. They provide headphones for the prerecorded talk about the history of the city and the sites as you go. It is a great way to become familiar with Santiago. You can hop on and off at any time between 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m. you can still board the bus but it will only take you 5 more stops. There is about a 30 minute wait between bus stops.

If you use this service we recommend starting the day early. We made the mistake of starting around 11:00 a.m. and we wasted a lot of time waiting at bus stops. We didn’t make the entire loop. In fact we only got off at two stops, El Golf/Isidora for lunch, and Bellavista to go up the Funicular which was closed. The Funicular takes you to the top of a hill which offers some of the best views of Santiago. We were disappointed to miss it, but now we have another excuse to return to Santiago. We did visit the Pablo Neruda house, La Chascona, while in Bellavista. It was wonderful, and if you are a Neruda fan, we recommend stopping by his house. By the time we finished the tour of La Chascona it was almost 4:30p.m. We waited a long time for the bus and eventually gave up, so we took a taxi.

Later we decided that paying 21,000 Chilean pesos or around $30 USD each for the Hop On/Hop Off bus was expensive and a waste of money. Our recommendation is to do a walking tour of the city. Free Walking Tours, and Tips 4 Tours provide this service and you pay what you like at the end of the tour. We did this in Valpo and it was one of our favorite tours. To get to areas of the city farther away, get a Bip card and take the metro. It is a clean, easy, and extensive metro system.

Gran Torre Tower in Costanera Center Complex and Shopping Mall

Since the Funicular in Bellavista was closed we decided to go to the top of the highest skyscraper in South America. The Gran Torre Tower gives a 360 degree view of Santiago and the Andes Mountains. We recommend visiting this tower. It is 300 meters or 980 feet tall and 64 stories high. The elevator takes you to the top quickly. It is impressive. Also the tour guides at the top do an excellent job of explaining the city of Santiago and the skyscraper in multiple languages.

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When you take the elevator down, you are dropped off in the food court of the mall. This food court has excellent high end restaurants that you would be remiss to not try. We also felt guilty for spending so much time at the mall. Who takes a trip to Chile to spend time shopping at the mall? That is not our usual style, but we must have been in Brazil for too long because we couldn’t help ourselves.  We ended up on a floor entirely of sporting goods stores with brands we cannot find in Brazil. This was perfect because there were a few things I needed for the trip to the desert that I didn’t get yet. This mall it is the largest shopping mall in all South America.

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Tour of Andes Mountains and Ski Resort

Dale was once into rock climbing and mountaineering. I grew up in the Cascade Mountains of California. So we had to visit the Andes Mountains while in Chile! We went with TurisTour for this trip.

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This tour started a little shaky but makes for a funny story. We were waiting in the hotel lobby next door to our apartment. The tour guide called out someone’s name but we couldn’t hear her. Another couple quickly went with her so we assumed the tour guide was there for them. We waited and waited for our tour to pick us up. Finally the lady at the front desk called and it turned out the couple that went with the guide got on the wrong bus. The guide apologized to us many times and then said, “who doesn’t know their own name?” laughing about the couple that answered to Dale Hampton.  It was actually funny because the couple got off the bus when we got on. Everyone was laughing and smiling about their mistake!

This was one of our favorite tours. They took us on a small bus through the mountains and we stopped at three places. The first stop was a dirt road on top of a hill to look at the mountains from below and take photos. The bus driver ended up scraping the bottom of the bus and they had to stop to do some maintenance. We think they may have used duct tape to keep the muffler attached. This was when I became a little nervous on the bus. Who takes a bus full of tourists off-roading? Turns out lots of Chilean tour companies do! This was just the beginning of a series of nail biting, bumpy, fast driving bus rides.

Our second stop was at the ski resort. We enjoyed coffee (mine was spiked) and a walk to the top of the hill for another great view of the mountains. Our final stop was for lunch in a lovely small ski resort town.

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Last full day in Santiago: Visit to Plaza de Armas, Coffee with Legs, and Concha y Toro Winery

We had booked a wine tour at Concha y Toro for 4p.m. so we spent out morning touring the places we couldn’t reach in time on the Hop On/Hop Off bus. We walked from Centro to the Plaza de Armas. This is a square with a lot of action. The buildings are beautiful but what is interesting is the amount of people that gather in this square. It was packed. We enjoyed watching some street performances and traditional Chilean dances.

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We read about the famous Coffee with Legs places in Santiago. Unfortunately the most famous one, Café Con Piernas was closed so we went to Café Haiti instead. The premise is women wear tight fitting short dresses and serve you coffee while you stand at a bar and drink your coffee. The second we walked in the door we got a lot of stares as we obviously do not look Chilean. Once we figured out the process, we bought our ticket and the lady came and took our order. We drank an espresso and left. It was all rather underwhelming, although the coffee was good!

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We then took the metro to Concha y Toro winery. We did not want to pay for another expensive tour so we booked through the winery, did the nicer tasting that was paired with food, and took a 45 minute subway ride there. It is actually easy to reach by subway. You take line 4 (blue line), get off at the Las Mercedes stop, and take a taxi for about 10 minutes to the winery. The Plaza Puente Alto stop is closer, however it is a cluster you know what. There are people, buses, and chaos everywhere at this stop. The stop before is much better if you don’t like all the chaos and is recommended by the winery.

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Now, I was not too thrilled about touring a winery that sells $10 bottles at Walmart. Yet, Dale spent his youth drinking a lot of cheap Concho y Toro wine with his cousin and it is the most famous winery in Chile so we had to go. If you are a wine connoisseur there are much better wineries to tour near Santiago, but Concha y Toro is responsible for the birth of the Chilean wine industry and is worth a visit. So with low expectations we gave it a try. We were not expecting the wine to be great, but it was pretty good.

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What surprised us is that the tour and tasting was great and a lot of fun! They show you around the grounds, give you the history, and spread out three tastings throughout the tour. They take you to the “Casillero Del Diablo” (Devil’s Cellar) and there is a fun show that explains the history and myth of the cellar. This is the end of the tour, unless you pay for the Marques tour.

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During the Marques tour you get a special tasting paired with food. It was a lot of fun and we are glad we went!

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Tips for Touring Santiago

Our first tip is to avoid taking a taxi if you can. Taxi drivers in Chile know that you are a not a local. They will overcharge you. Of course we were warned about this by a local a few days too late. The first time we took a taxi in Santiago we were charged around $30 for a ride that should have been around $6. The driver put the seat up on Dale’s side to appear as if he was making more room for Dale, but it was to hide the meter from us. The meter was obviously tampered with as it was running fast. The subway system in Santiago is great.

While Santiago is known as a safe city, we got the impression that there is a lot of pick pocketing that goes on. Even the locals wear their backpacks in front and the women all wear purses with cross straps. So be careful with your belongings.

Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Everyone tries so hard not to stand out as a tourist. Unless you look Chilean, which is a distinct look, you will immediately be identified as a tourist. So, go ahead and dress comfortably. You will do a lot of walking around Santiago so comfortable shoes are a must!

Carry tissues or toilet paper in your pocket or purse as the bathroom attendants don’t always get around to cleaning bathrooms and replacing toilet paper. Also when you ask for paper, they are toilet paper Nazis and will give you a couple of squares only. With that also bring hand sanitizer for when the soap is empty.

Surprises

Expect some people to be standoffish. Santiago is a major city and just like most major cities people are in a hurry and have little patience for strangers. We encountered some snarky people and we were a little surprised. I am used to the friendliness and warmth of the Brazilians and Colombians so I just assumed that people in Chile would be just as friendly. This trip was planned last minute so we did not read much about Chilean culture. This was a mistake. Always read about the culture of the place you plan to visit before you go! Chilean people are a little more guarded than other South Americans. Had we known this before our trip, some of our encounters would have made more sense.

Before this trip I read some great articles about Santiago written by the Globetrotter Girls and Along Dusty Roads. We recommend these blogs if you are planning a visit to Santiago. However, according to the Globetrotter Girls, the food in Chile is lacking. They wrote a funny article about Chilean food that went viral and generated the hate of an entire nation. Some of the angry comments on their page had me laughing so hard I was crying. We appreciate how they laid it all out there, the good and bad, and were open to the criticism. They took it in stride with great humor and admitted their mistakes. It turns out that Chilean people are proud of their food, some to the point of making threats and calling them horrible names. Needless to say we were prepared for some bad food.

We were pleasantly surprised by the food in Chile. Now, they are vegetarians and we are not. Also they were backpacking on a budget and we did not budget our spending well. We had a few meals that were around $25 per person that were excellent. We also ate at an old fashioned soda fountain and had some inexpensive sandwiches that were delicious. I discovered that I love conger eel. I was disappointed that most seafood dishes were the same everywhere, shrimp, farm raised salmon, squid, eel or tuna. I was hoping for more variety in fish as you can eat salmon and tuna anywhere. I had envisioned myself eating fantastic ceviche and seafood the entire time in Chile, but I think the seafood in Brazil is better. That said, shrimp Pil Pil and Eel are awesome!

We were surprised by what an amazingly geographically diverse country Chile is! In one day we went from the ocean, to wine country, to the base of the Andes Mountains. Total time driving, one hour and a half! Chile is one of the most beautiful countries we have visited.

So many people smoke in Chile. It seems that most countries in South America now have the memo that smoking causes cancer but Chile has misses this memo. There are people walking everywhere smoking, and smoking in patio restaurants. It’s a little shocking coming from Brazil where you rarely see people smoke.

Many Chileans speak English. It was nice to be in a country where so many speak our language. I speak Spanish, or at least did speak it well until I started studying Portuguese. Every time I tried to speak in Spanish people would respond to me in English. It is easy to get around Chile, even for someone who doesn’t speak Spanish.

The infrastructure of Santiago surpasses most South American cities. The roads were free of potholes, lots of parking everywhere, shopping, great dining, museums, arts, etc. Being used to Brazil and the often lack of infrastructure, Santiago was a nice visit. It reminded us of any major U.S. city.

In Conclusion

Santiago quickly became one of our favorite cities. The good far outweighs the bad. We talked about how easy it would be to live in Santiago and how much we would enjoy it. There is still a lot of the city we did not explore and we hope to return someday soon! Have you been to Santiago? What was your experience and what would you recommend?