Important note about my frequent travel: these are my experiences and observations I share eagerly and enthusiastically. I receive no compensation in cash/kind/discounts, etc. of any kind from any business/locations I’ve visited. None of the businesses paid for my travel expenses or offered any free services.
About a year and half ago I started googling best place for astronomy themed vacation. The answer was Atacama Desert, Chile. This was our first time in South America. I wanted to see as much of Chile as possible so this will be one of our longest vacations. We were in Chile for almost 3 weeks and even then we didn’t have the time to visit Easter Island, Tierra Del Fuego, and a few other places.
Flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas
Since the vacation was astronomy based, I had to plan it around the moon phase. So we visited Patagonia first, then Atacama Desert. We wanted to spend as little time in Santiago as possible. Ever since we moved to NYC in 2011, cities just don’t interest us. We prefer to be in more remote locations, surrounded by nature. We enjoy places that are not crowded and, in general, have few people.
Our flight from NYC landed in Santiago at around 7 pm and as soon as we got out of the airport we saw a Holiday Inn. I didn’t realize there was a hotel so close to the airport that we could have practically walked. If I had known how close it was to the airport, we might have stayed there depending on cost.
I had a reservation at a hotel called Diego De Almagro (it’s a chain in Chile) because they offered free airport shuttle and breakfast. It was only a 10 minute shuttle ride so not far but I think Holiday Inn would have been a more convenient location since we had a flight to Punta Arenas the next morning.
Since we didn’t even go outside our hotel in Santiago, we purchased sim cards from Fotokina at the Santiago Airport next morning. The cost of two sim cards was about 31 USD. It’s significantly cheaper in Santiago but that would mean spending time in the city and we had no interest in doing that. Over the three weeks, we spent a total of about $50 on data for both our phones. This was clearly a cheaper option than activating our Verizon phones for international use.
During out stay in Chile, I realized that offline google maps we had downloaded are not as good as they have been for Scotland, Finland, and other European countries. Google maps was definitely helpful on major highways but maps.me was much better in Chile. It had more detailed information about roads that aren’t completely paved and was easier for us to navigate to certain tourist destinations. My advice is to download both, offline google maps and maps.me.
Now, I admit that before going to Chile, I didn’t really know much about the country itself. I had done some research about the places I wanted to visit and tours I wanted to take but I didn’t know as much about the culture, history, and other aspect of life as many other places I’ve visited in the past like Scotland, Finland or India. So, below are a few general things, good and bad, I noticed over the 3 weeks in Chile.
A few notes about Chile:
- People are very friendly and helpful everywhere we went. We didn’t speak much Spanish and a lot of the people we interacted with didn’t speak English. Language barrier didn’t stop them from going above and beyond to help us. In many cases, we ended up having long conversations in completely different languages but managed to get our points across. Everyone was always smiling and happy to assist.
- Everyone in travel and tourism industry was honest, reliable and trustworthy. We didn’t have to worry about being conned like in India, Brazil, Italy or France. Everyone from cab drivers to hotel staff to tour guides were honest and friendly.
- Driving in Chile is easy. Roads are paved and drivers follow the rules. Speed limits and other signs are well marked. A lot of signs are in Spanish so knowing a few basic words will help. Some roads are narrow but overall it was easily manageable. Depending on the destination some roads are unpaved and uneven but that’s due to the location and natural landscape. Even then, a regular 2 wheel drive car is fine to get around and visit all the tourist locations.
- There are dogs EVERYWHERE but for the most part they leave you alone if you leave them alone. Many of the dogs are pets because they had collars but there were also many dogs without collars. As one of our hosts told us, the “stray” dogs aren’t exactly stray. They are neighborhood dogs. Everyone living there helps take care of the dogs so they don’t belong to one particular family. They don’t bark or bite unless they feel threatened. There were a few dogs in Elqui Valley that ran after cars like in Bahamas but mostly they were fine.
- Tap water is safe to drink everywhere we went, except San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA). We didn’t have to buy bottled water in Santiago, Patagonia, or Elqui Valley. The only place we drank bottled water was in SPdA because everyone told us not to drink tap water. I’m not sure if it is truly unsafe to drink tap water or if it’s more of a precaution.
- There are plenty of clean, functional, usable bathrooms everywhere. There were multiple clean toilet with full plumbing at El Tatio Geysers at over 14,000 feet elevation! Occasionally, private toilets charge about 300 Chilean Pesos (~50 cents). However, we only came across two such private toilets in the 3 weeks. These toilets are still significantly cheaper than paid toilets in Western Europe.
- I’d heard that Chile is VERY EXPENSIVE and while that’s true of Patagonia, it wasn’t exactly true of Elqui Valley or San Pedro de Atacama. Most of our meals in Elqui Valley were between $9 and $30 total for two adults. San Pedro de Atacama has restaurants that serve two course meals for about $6 per person. Street side empanada cost about $5. It’s not as cheap as Trinidad or Jamaica but then again, the infrastructure and other facilities are also far better in Chile.
- I thought Chile was a more developing or third world country. To my surprise, it seemed more like a developed, first world nation. The infrastructure and the facilities are closer to what I expect in developed nations. There was a basic standard of living, no trash on the road, no abject poverty or misery that we noticed. I suppose it’s also the reason why Chile isn’t as cheap as expected.
- If you expect to have amazing, delicious food, you’ll be greatly disappointed. Chilean food is very, VERY bland. They hardly use any spices or herbs. The food isn’t bad as such but it’s just not flavorful or memorable. They do have really good quality wine and it’s cheap.
- Lastly, everywhere we went we met people who came for a visit and loved Chile so much they stayed. We met people from England, Spain, France, USA and many other countries who came to visit and years later, they’ve made a life for themselves in Chile.
Lastly, this was one of the most memorable trip we’ve been on and there will be lots of posts in the coming weeks.