Chile: Tall, Thin and Gorgeous

Few countries in South America can compete with Chile when it comes to its epic diversity of adventures and landscapes.

Tucked away on the southwestern edge of South America, Chile may look rather wispy and unassuming on the map, but it packs a mighty wallop of diverse attractions for visitors—from mountains to coastline, from high culture to street art, from glaciers to volcanoes, there are plenty of things to do in Chile. Indeed very long and narrow, Chile is just about 110 miles wide on average, but it stretches for more than 2,650 miles from the moonscaped Atacama Desert near the top to gorgeously dramatic Tierra del Fuego at the bottom.

Bellavista district in Santiago

Photo: eStock

Santiago

Most Chilean trips start in sophisticated Santiago, the country’s vibrant capital, with its stunning skyline backed by the Andes Mountains. Stroll the café-lined cobblestone streets of the chic and historic Lastarria neighborhood, where a visit to Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a must. Set in a magnificent Beaux-arts building from 1910, the museum holds one of the country’s best collections of fine art, and hosts exciting temporary exhibits. For a younger and edgier vibe, head over to the Bellavista district—it’s the city’s bohemian hub, and home to a wide array of excellent restaurants, shops, galleries and bars. History lovers should be sure to visit the Yungay neighborhood and its fantastic Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights), which explores Chile’s most difficult political period, and the human rights violations suffered in the 1970s and 1980s under the regime of Augusto Pinochet.

Valparaíso

Just 75 miles away from Santiago is the colorfully quirky and magical seaside metropolis of Valparaíso, Chile’s second city. Once the most important port on the west coast of the South American continent—where every ship stopped to refuel after the grueling journey around Cape Horn from the east—Valparaíso’s fortunes changed nearly overnight with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Valpo (as it’s known to Chileans) experienced an extended period of decline, with its moneyed families fleeing the city and leaving their gorgeous grand mansions to fall into disrepair. But since the turn of the millennium, Valpo’s star has been on the rise once again, now as a hipster mecca whose hilly streets and winding alleyways are home to some of the best street art in the world. It’s also beloved by Chileans for its connection to Pablo Neruda, the nation’s most famous poet—whose hilltop home, La Sebastiana, is now one of the city’s top attractions.

If time permits (and you should make sure that it does), some of Chile’s best winemakers are within easy reach of Santiago and Valpo, and they’re also some of the most beautiful vineyards on earth. And wherever you go in Chile, you’ll find wonderful hospitality, and a Chilean eagerness to share this special corner of the earth.

Castro on Chiloé

Photo: iStock

Chiloé

Its name may be just one letter away from “Chile,” but Chiloé, the country’s second-biggest island, is a complete world apart. Connected to the southern Chilean mainland by ferry (a ride of about 30 minutes), Chiloé has managed to preserve its slow pace and rich traditions, remnants of the Mapuche culture that predated European settlement in Chile—and which many believe has undeniable connections to Polynesian culture across the Pacific.

Some 160,000 proud and effusively warm Chilotes live on the island, around a quarter of those in its biggest city of Castro. One of Castro’s most distinctive traits is its coastline of brightly colored palafitos, traditional wooden fishermen’s homes that stand on stilts above the waters.

But Chiloé is probably best known to the outside world for the stunning churches that dot its bucolic landscape. Made entirely of wood, these churches have roofs shaped like upside-down boat hulls—reflecting, like so many things in Chilote life, the deep local ties to the sea. Sixteen of these churches have collectively been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

No single thing is more crucial to the Chilote way of life than curanto, a massive feast cooked in layers over hot rocks in a large circular pit, while family and friends gather around it to sing songs and tell tales. Ingredients vary, but generally include meat, seafood, potatoes, vegetables, potato pancakes and potato dumplings—the potato being an especially important ingredient in Chilote cuisine, since many genetic scientists believe Chiloé to be the ancestral home of the modern potato.

The writer was a guest of Chile Tourism.

Plan your trip to Chile with AAA Travel. Call 877-396-7159 or contact a AAA Travel Counselor.

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Rose Stadt, AAA Travel Counselor, Vallejo, Calif.

More and more people want to customize their escorted trips with longer stays in certain cities or visits to specific sites. I make sure the independent pieces fit seamlessly with the tour.

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