Whether it's skiing in the Andes Mountains, hiking and exploring in Patagonia and Easter Island, or dining in the beautiful, multicultural city of Santiago, Chile offers an unmatched variety of landscapes, activities and attractions for just about anyone. We asked Juan Lopez, North American Market Manager for the Chilean Tourism Board, to talk to us about his fabulous country.
If you're not a freewheeling backpacker with limitless time to meander up and down Chile, what's the best way to plan your first and maybe only trip to this uniquely diverse country?
First you should start in Santiago, to acclimatize to a new country, new language and new people. It shouldn't be difficult since Santiago is quite a modern and cosmopolitan city. Actually it's the place where you should relax after a flight from the U.S. Here you should experience the wonderful national and international cuisine that can be found in the city, accompanied with a nice glass of Chilean wine. Depending on what your interests are, you will fly either north to the Atacama, the driest desert in the world, or south down to Patagonia. If you really want to avoid flying within the country, you can always mingle around Santiago and Valparaiso (the former Pearl of the Pacific) enjoying the arts and culture atmosphere of these cities. Between Santiago and Valparaiso you can get lost within Casablanca Wine Valley. If the season allows it, you could go up to Andes and enjoy skiing in the Andes.
September is the start of spring in Chile. What does that mean for travelers? Is this a good time to visit and what are the best locations this time of year?
September through May is the best time of the year to visit Chile, mainly if you want to go south and visit Patagonia, Antarctica, the Lakes & Volcanoes Regions. You can still go to Patagonia during the North American summer months (Chile's winter) but it will be colder. Central area and north of Chile are pretty much open all year round; remember in the northern part of Chile is the driest desert in world where in some area not a drop of rain it has been seen in years, hence this region can be visited year round, from January to December. Central area can be visited in any season, expecting rain in winter, yet getting amazed by the snow-capped Andes Mountain. In spring you will enjoy the beauty of a colorful city.
Skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts seem to hold Chile in high esteem. What's special about skiing in Chile and where are the best snow sport areas?
Skiing in Chile is very particular since you will be skiing in between the highest peaks of the Andes Mountains. When coming from the U.S.A. you would be able to ski in the North American summer months (Chile's winter). Skiing is available just 90 minutes away from downtown Santiago, with four ski resorts easily accessible from the city. The world class ski resorts we have, actually Valle Nevado belong to Mountain Collective Network as Aspen and Whistler do, does tell you the level of ski offerings available in the country. There are also ski resorts down south of Chile, Corralco, Termas de Chillan, Pucon, Huilo Huilo, Osorno Volcanoe.
Now it is quite difficult to pick an area as the best, since this is a personal preference. Yet I can personally say that I prefer to ski in Santiago since the ski resorts are quite close and they cater in an amazing way. Yet I have a Swiss friend that always argues with me that the best ski is in south of Chile -- Corralco particularly. Once again it is a personal opinion.
The natural landscape and diversity of Chile is extraordinary, what are your top 5 favorite sites and why?
First the Atacama Desert, since I was born there... People believe that there is nothing to do in the desert, yet in fact there plenty of activities and natural attractions to sight see. You can find penguins, geysers and lagoons in the Atacama Region. In addition to all this the culture experiences due to the native people that still live in this area is wonderful and unique.
Second, Santiago, place where I currently live, Santiago is such a livable city, super multicultural and modern that it feels good to be back after being wondering around the world for six years. Santiago blends that old and modern architecture, cuisine from Peru, Spain, Italy and Asian influence.
Third, Easter island, it is such a unique and mystical place, it is in fact an open air museum, that you can explore at you own peace, where the Rapa Nui culture (people for island) still preserve their traditions, language and food. In addition you will feel in the "belly bottom" of the world right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Fourth, Patagonia, with Torres del Paine National Park, the fjords and glaciers area. This remote area of the world will just connect you with pristine and pure nature, allowing you to forget the stress of living in a big city. Every time I want to disconnect, I escape to Patagonia. In addition the food here it is just amazing.
Last but not least, it is the Lake and Volcanoes region, I love this area since I am pretty very active and I love outdoors activities, so hiking up to a Volcano, trekking or cycling around one lake to another. What's best is after a full on day... going and relax on one of the dozen hot spring pools is the best.
Chile is known to be one of the safest South American countries. Is that still the case?
Chile is super safe, and it is not just me saying this, but it has been said by the British Publication "The Economist" and its Safe Cities Index 2015 report.
Chile is that safe that Chilean people don't need Visa anymore to travel to the U.S., this is due to a waiver program scheme that the Chilean and American government have signed up. This is actually a vote of confidence to Chile coming from the American Government.
What type of shopping should tourists plan for and what types of items offer the best value?
For American people, I would say Chile is not a shopping destination, mainly because we have the same brands and stores you can find in the U.S.A., and similar prices. Yet handicrafts would be interesting to the North American traveler. A precious stone called lapizlazuli is interesting to the North American traveler. Another interesting purchase would be some of the native wools like the one from Alpaca. In lieu of shopping, we recommend Americans spend money on food and drink given the variety of sea food available (remember 3,000 miles of coast) and the beautiful wines.
What about the cuisine of Chile -- are there native dishes or specialties that visitors should seek out?
I always recommend people to try seafood, especially lobster from Robinson Crusoes Island. In south of Chile, I recommend to try Curanto -- a very ancient and very local dish made of different meats, seafood's and vegetables cooked in a hole dug from the ground and is covered with Nalca (a local plant) leaf. You can't leave Chile without trying Patagonian lamb or Charquican.
Are there any special events or festivals happening in the fall (Sept - Nov) that visitors should check out?
During September we do celebrate our independence day, which some times last an entire week. Music, dances, parades, and traditional Chilean games came to play. Parades include huasos, the traditional Chilean cowboys, music, and displays of national pride. Much of the celebrations occur in ramadas, temporary open buildings with thatched roofs traditionally made from tree branches. Ramadas feature a dance floor, music, and tables to eat. Fondas, or refreshment stands, offer a wide variety of Chilean foods including empanadas, anticuchos (shish kabobs), chicha (alchoholic drink), and more. These Ramadas are held in every single little town or village of Chile. Additionally during September also occurs a religious festivity right in the Atacama desert, that is called Ayquina Festival. During this time pilgrims and visitors from around the world converge on the village, celebrating throughout the night until the skies flare with a blaze of fireworks as the clock strikes twelve. There are many different groups of dancers that you might see throughout the festival, with dances inspired by both indigenous and imported traditions. The International Film Festival, held in Valdivia (South of Chile) happens every October. Due to the German influence this city of Chile has, we also have our own OctoberFest, originally from Germany, yet our celebration is held in early January, when summer is in place. Yet, during October (15-18) we have the homemade beer festival.