Mainland explorations and options…
Whether you're spending a day, a week, or longer, mainland Chile has so much to offer. We have separated the offerings into Santiago and the central coast and wine valleys, Chilean Patagonia in the far south, and the Atacama Desert in the far north. Are you interested in something more than we mention here? Let us know because chances are we can arrange it through our local parters.
Santiago has a distinctly European flavor to it, with broad avenues and grand architecture – a mix of neo-classical and gleaming glass, sidewalk cafés and lush parks. Located at 1550 feet in elevation the climate is fairly mild – typically dry and in the 80’s during the Austral summer (December-March), and in the 50’s-60’s during the winter.
The Centro district is home to the Civic Center & La Moneda Presidential Palace. The Plaza de Armas was originally an open plaza for street markets, with the first flower gardens planted here in 1860. On the plaza are the Cathedral, central post office, and government offices and restaurants. Radiating from the plaza are some of the busiest pedestrian streets. Nearby is the wonderful Pre-Colombian Museum. Santa Lucia hill is a beautiful forested respite in the middle of the city, and the site of the foundation of Santiago on February 12, 1541.
The Mapocho River bisects the city, with the old wrought-iron Mercado Central inspired by Eiffel on its banks. Inside the market colorful seafood and produce vendors are side by side with numerous lunchtime cafes and restaurants.
Across the river is Bellavista; Santiago’s nightlife and artistic center, with narrow streets lined with galleries, open-air cafés and restaurants. San Christobal hill rises from the neighborhood. A funicular and gondolas climb the hill, and the national zoo is located on its flanks.
The neighboring districts of Las Condes and Providencia boast modern high rise residential buildings and exclusive shopping malls. A modern and affordable subway system connects the various neighborhoods.
To the east, on a clear day, the snow-capped peaks of the Andes form an impressive backdrop. Throughout the region beautiful valleys are home to many of the most famous Chilean wineries. The latitude here is the same as California's Napa & Sonoma Valleys and the setting every bit as gorgeous (and the wines as wonderful), but without the crowds.
The coastal towns of Viña del Mar and Valparaiso are located just 85 miles west of Santiago. This piece of coastline is easily one of the world’s more beautiful ports. Valparaiso is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
International flights usually arrive in Santiago from North America in the early morning, between 6 and 10am. Return flights usually depart between 8 and 11pm. The drive time to central Santiago is roughly 30 minutes.
Our standard choice for city accommodations is the Hotel Plaza San Francisco. Your room, and a warm breakfast, will be ready for you on arrival. Other hotels are available on request.
SANTIAGO & CENTRAL CHILE TOUR OPTIONS:
Santiago City Sightseeing (private half day tour): Visit many of the main attractions of this vibrant capital city. Beginning with the Civic Center & La Moneda Presidential Palace (originally the mint, then for over 100 years the president’s private residence, and now renovated as a government palace and seat of the republic). The Plaza de Armas was originally an open plaza for street markets, although the first flower gardens were planted here beginning in 1860 (many of the shade trees in the plaza date from this time). Fronting the plaza is the Cathedral (1775) - the fourth on this location, with its predecessors falling victim to either fires or earthquakes. Also on the plaza is the main post office, dating from 1882 and built using some of the walls remaining from the former governor’s palace. Some of the busiest pedestrian streets, Huerfanos & Ahumada, radiate from the neighborhood. Continuing on, pass Santa Lucia hill park - site of the foundation of Santiago on February 12, 1541 - and the Bellavista district; Santiago’s nightlife and artistic center. San Cristóbal hill - the highest point in the city at 880 meters above sea level – affords visitors a wonderful panorama view of the city. The surrounding districts of Vitacura, Las Condes and Providencia boast modern high rise residential buildings and exclusive shopping malls. Notes: half-day private tour – morning or afternoon.
Let’s Do Lunch (private tour - 3 hours): This is a hands-on opportunity to experience a slice of local life, and cuisine. This morning visit Santiago’s main produce and fish markets: La Vega Central and Mercado Central, to buy fresh ingredients for a fresh and tasty meal. Accompany your guide as we select the best products from our favorite vendors, or caseros. It’s also an opportunity to explore the variety of produce, products and culture at the market. Next we will head away from Santiago Centro to the base of the Andes to a private home in either San Carlos de Apoquindo, a community at the foot of the looming mountains, or in the residential section of Bellavista. Here we will prepare a simple but delicious Chilean meal using the fresh fish and produce we just selected. The actual meal depends on the market and seasonal availability of products. Prior to the meal we will also prepare Chilean pebre and pisco sours. It’s a great opportunity to pick up a new preparation to take home to your friends and family. Rather than a formal cooking class with technical instruction, this is a collaborative effort to prepare a fresh meal and talk food and culture. After lunch you will be delivered back to your hotel for an independent afternoon.
Go to Market (private tour - 3 hours): Experience Chile’s vibrant market district first hand. You’ll get not only an introduction to the fresh, simple but wholesome typical fare that Chileans eat at home, but you’ll get to sample it as well. We start in the Plaza de Armas and walk our way north through La Vega Chica, La Vega Central, Tirso de Molina and Mercado Central. This takes us through the lively bustle of the real working markets that supply much of the city with its fresh goods. A blend of colors, smells, faces with just a bit of chaos.
You’ll have the opportunity to try home-style dishes like Porotos Granados; enjoy a refreshing Mote con Huesillo and the drink of the pueblo, the Terremoto. We wrap up with a seafood empanada in the Mercado Central paired with a crisp glass of white wine. More than just a culinary tour, this is an excellent way to discover the local culture.
Valparaiso (private full-day tour): Spend a full day visiting the eclectic coastal city of Valparaiso. Together with neighboring Viña del Mar this is one of South America’s most beautiful working ports. Today Valparaiso is a UNESCO world Heritage site owing to its natural beauty, historical importance and classical architecture. Explore an urban landscape of narrow streets, brightly painted homes, funicular elevators, street art, and giant ships moored at the wharves. High on a hillside overlooking the harbor visit the eclectic home of Chile’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda. Lunch will be at a seaside restaurant.
Casablanca Valley Wineries (private full-day tour): Spend a day exploring the delightful Casablanca Valley. Less than 90 minutes from Santiago you are in a world apart, surrounded by rolling hills and rich valleys: this is one of the best wine growing regions in the world. Today you will have the opportunity to tour two award winning wineries, walking the vineyards and sampling a variety of their wines. Lunch will be a House; Casa del Vino, where gourmet Chilean cuisine will be paired with special wines for a delightful lunch experience.
Best of the Wine Country (private 3-day tour): What's better than a day in the wine country? Three days! Taste wines from 7 or 8 award winning wineries, often paired with tasty bites. Explore the quiet backroads of the Casablanca, San Antonio, Colchagua, and Apalta Valleys while learning about viniculture, organic growing, biodynamic agriculture, and more. Walk through vineyards and lush gardens during the day, then relax poolside before sumptuous dinners. It doesn't get much better than this!
Day 1: Rather than returning to Santiago following your visit to the Casablanca Valley spend the night at the luxurious country inn La Casona, Metetic. You'll want more than one night here once you see the inn, but we have to keep moving. Dinner at La Casona will be accompanied by the Metetic wine of your choice.
Day 2: We start the day with a drive to the nearby coast and the community of Isla Negra, where Pablo Neruda had his favorite home (which you will tour). Later visit the extravagant Metetic Cellars, and the coastal-influenced Casa Marin Vineyards. Roughly 2 hours south we reach the Colchagua Valley, arriving at the Noi Blend Hotel in time for a pisco sour poolside before dinner. The hotel will be happy to heat the wood-fired hot tub if you'd like to enjoy the spectacular night sky after dinner!
Day 3: After breakfast we visit the nearby Montgrass Vineyard, which you'll have the opportunity to explore by horseback, riding to a hilltop vineyard overlook. Following a tasting here visit probably the most architecturally stunning winery in Chile; Lapostolle (founded by the Grand Marnier family). Lunch amid the vines here, before continuing to Montes Winery for your final stop. By now it's time to turn north for the 2 1/2 hour drive back to Santiago. Wineries and accommodations subject to change.
In the far south... Patagonia
The jumping off point for exploration of Chilean Patagonia is the town of Punta Arenas. The city is located on the historic shores of the Straights of Magellan, where the sea meets the Andes.
Founded in the mid-nineteenth century Punta Arenas has flourished. Vast fortunes have been built on shipping, sheep and cattle ranching, fishing, gold and oil. The downtown is a rich eclectic mix of architectural styles from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, including many grand mansions from the city’s heyday.
Exploration opportunities might include bird watching, whale watching, hiking and fly-fishing. There are several museums on the history of the area and her peoples, plus a private museum with full-size replicas of the classic exploration sailing ships from the region (including Magellan’s Nao Victoria). The Punta Arenas cemetery is a national monument owing to the elaborate tombs and interesting gardens.
By far the most notable excursion is to the Torres Del Paine National Park. Located in the heart of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Chile, if not the world. Accordingly, the park was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO 4 decades ago. The 450,000 isolated acres of parkland encompass grasslands, southern beech forests, astonishingly rugged granite mountain peaks of up to 10,000 feet, glaciers, intense blue lakes, and spectacular waterfalls. Guanacos (wild relatives to the llama and alpaca), gray fox, rheas (an ostrich-like bird) and condors are some of the most frequently sighted residents. In all there are over 100 bird species and 25 mammal species found in the park (plus 270 plant species). If you’re lucky pumas may also be found here…
Whether Punta Arenas is your destination, or a stop on the way to Antarctica, the Chilean Fjords, or Torres del Paine National Park, the city is sure to charm. It is compact and easily explored on foot.
Flights arrive daily from Santiago (roughly 3½ hours non-stop). Winters can be harsh, and summers quite windy.
The hotel options are fairly numerous, with our favorites being the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, and the boutique Hotel Jose Nogueira, both centrally located in the heart of the city.
PATAGONIA TOUR OPTIONS:
Penguins and More: Magdalena & Marta Islands (half-day group tour, weather dependent): Early morning transfer from your hotel to the port in Bahia Laredo. From here we navigate to Magdalena & Marta Islands via covered Zodiac boats. Our first destination is Magdalena Island where we’ll have roughly an hour ashore to observe the immense (50,000 breeding pairs) Magellanic Penguin colony. Next we cross to Marta Island where we observe the rich ecosystem while we circumnavigate the island (landings are not permitted on Marta). Keep your eyes open for Cormorants, Skuas, Austral gulls, and Antarctic pigeons. The island is also the domain of Patagonian sea lions and the occasional Southern Elephant Seal. Midday return to Punta Arenas. (offered daily, December - March; subject to cancellation due to weather).
Torres del Paine National Park (4 or 5 days):
Located in the rugged heart of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is roughly 200 miles/300km from Punta Arenas.
The recommended way to experience the national park is with an all-inclusive lodge program. Our favorite is the lovely 4-star, 85 room, Hotel Las Torres. This is the only lodge located inside the national park affording guests the best possible location. The style is gaucho/cowboy chic which feels just right for the region, with all rooms having either a mountain or valley view.
The tour program begins with a (9am) transfer from Punta Arenas, with a stop at the Estancia Cerro Negro sheep ranch. Here experience a traditional Patagonian lamb lunch, followed by sheep shearing and sheepdog demonstrations. Mid-afternoon arrival at Hotel Las Torres.
Each evening at the lodge the staff guides gather fireside to talk about the guided excursion options available for the following day (typically as many as 6 to 8 options are offered each morning or afternoon).
From easy to challenging, half or full day, by foot, horseback, boat or van - the variety and range of options has been created to offer the greatest variety of experiences, with something for everyone. Group sizes are kept small on most outings.
Meals at the lodge are amazing, with options ranging from an extravagant buffet in the restaurant, to more casual fireside fare while you savor views of the mountains through a two-story wall of windows. Meals, and most drinks (with the exception of premium spirits) are included. Much of the produce comes from their own organic gardens.
On your last day at Hotel Las Torres join either a morning or afternoon direct transfer back to Punta Arenas (if you opt for the afternoon transfer you will have time for a morning excursion before departure). 12:30pm or 6pm arrival in Punta Arenas.
The weather in Torres del Paine is surprisingly mild for much of the year with many “spring-like” days from November to April. Rain, wind, sudden snow or bright sunshine could be part of the experience at any time of year though. The region is largely inaccessible May-October.
Tour pricing is based on the view: 2017/2018 high season rates are $2280 to $2530 for a 5-day/4-night program, or $1890 to $2070 for the shorter 3-night program. 2018/2019 rates are due to be published soon.
This all-inclusive program includes transfers from Punta Arenas to the lodge, guided group explorations within the Torres del Paine National Park daily, park entrance fee, all meals, accommodations, and WiFi in the fireside lobby/lounge. A 20% discount is offered on all spa services. Accommodations in Punta Arenas, gratuities, and premium spirits are not included.
Expedition cruising Patagonia & the fjords of Tierra del Fuego (4 or 5 days):
Australis Patagonia operates two expedition ships that explore the extreme southern regions of Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego. The most popular route transits between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, Argentina.
These five-day itineraries cruise some of the planet’s most remote places and incredible scenery. Discover the wild beauty of Patagonia on an Australis cruise that showcases the region’s pristine landscapes, rich wildlife and fascinating human history aboard an expedition ship that brings an extraordinary level of comfort and service to the uttermost edge of the world. Call on legendary locales like Cape Horn, the Beagle Channel and Straights of Magellan. Cruise the maze of small islands and explore fjords along the southern edge of Tierra del Fuego. Experience massive glaciers and wildlife rich areas as well as well as some of the region's most important historical sites.
Programs are offered during the southern spring and summer: October - March. The vessel is the lovely 210 passenger Still Australis. Pricing is based on voyage length and cabin category. In 2018 the 5-day cruise options start at $2,298 (per person/double cabin, B category).
In the far north... Atacama
The Atacama Desert is considered the driest desert in the world, yet at its heart is the lovely oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama. Inhospitable as the surrounding area appears, the first humans arrived here over 10,000 years ago. Later, the first European explorers here were drawn by tales of a land rich in gold, somewhere to the south of the Inca Empire.
Situated in a high plateau between the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, the desert dominates the landscape and extends for hundreds of miles, including parts of southern Peru and Bolivia. The terrain is dominated by rocky terrain, huge sand dunes, volcanic fields, geysers, and salt lakes. With shades of pink and orange that go on forever, all stretching out below a crisp blue sky, the views can only be described in superlatives.
The region is equally known for night skies that are beyond description; between the high elevation, lack of city lights, and clear desert skies (350 clear nights per year) the star viewing is unmatched.
Wildlife might include Andean Flamingos, Grey Gull, Burrowing Owl, Vicuna, Mountain Viscacha, South America Grey Fox, and more.
The village of San Pedro de Atacama is a wonderful mix of whitewashed adobe houses with thatched roofs, lining narrow unpaved streets. As a historic monument the village has neither high rises nor flickering neon signs. The shady Plaza de Armas is surrounded by the requisite town church (one of Chile's most picturesque), post office and government offices, plus the Padre Le Paige Museo Arqueológico, with a collection of over 400,000 items collected locally, from mummies to tools to religious artifacts. The surrounding streets are a mix of restaurants and cafes, handicraft vendors, and tourist shops. The village atmosphere is relaxed, catering to the needs of the individual budget backpacker as well as of the luxurious organized tour groups, and everyone in between.
This is a true high desert, with summer daytime temperatures in the upper-70’s to mid-80’s (10 degrees cooler in the winter) and evening temperatures year round dropping below freezing.
Daily 2-hour flights from Santiago arrive in Calama. From Calama it is a 90 minute drive to San Pedro.
ATACAMA TOUR OPTIONS:
Our preference for exploring the area is the all-inclusive Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.
Alto Atacama enjoys a special location, totally enveloped by natural surroundings. Located in the lush Catarpe Valley of the Salt Mountain Range, just over a mile from the plaza of San Pedro, the Alto Atacama’s design was influenced by local village architecture and conceived to blend seamlessly into its environment. The setting, the sweeping views, the tranquility and silence, and the hotel’s wonderful outdoor lounge spaces make the Alto Atacama a destination unto itself. The grounds are landscaped with local flora and dotted with six secluded pools and a jacuzzi, all with a backdrop of the surrounding red mountains.
Environmental sustainability is a cornerstone of the lodge, from the landscaping and decorative flora, construction, a stable of friendly llamas and alpacas, local cuisine, and Leave No Trace-schooled guides.
The Alto Atacama seeks to open a traveler’s eyes, to explore, to feel, to connect, and to return revitalized and changed by a truly authentic experience one will never forget. Rather than simply taking photos as a passive traveler, Alto Atacama encourages guests to get off the beaten track, interact with the local indigenous culture and explore the desert’s varied and eerily beautiful landscapes by foot or bike. More than half of Alto Atacama’s staff is indigenous, and their personal stories and histories enrich a guests’ understanding of the region. Geysers, hot springs, volcano climbs, mountain biking through desert canyons, and exploring ancient Incan ruins and petroglyphs are just a few of the 30 adventurous excursions offered, always led by highly trained local guides.
Spend 4 or 5 days savoring the Alto Atacama experience. These all-inclusive programs includes daily guided small-group outings, accommodations, meals, and transfers from Calama.