I’m not going to lie. I fell in love with Chile first and foremost because of the dogs.
On our first stop in Santiago, we noticed hundreds of dogs roaming the streets. However, they were significantly different to the street dogs we had seen in other parts of South America.
Namely, they were healthy.
They looked sparkling clean, well-fed and happy. I even renounced my fear of rabies to pet a couple of them.
We learnt on our walking tour of Santiago that street dogs are considered part of the community in Chile and residents voluntarily look after them. They vaccinate them, feed and water them. And thanks to this not only is Chile bustling with happy and healthy street dogs but there has not been an outbreak of rabies in nearly thirty years.
And so my love affair with Chile began. It was only on our excursion to Elqui Valley that I discovered another reason why I was so enamoured by Chile.
While cycling through the gorgeous countryside surrounding the small rural town of Vicuna, I realised that I must have said “hola!’” close to one hundred times that day alone. Every single person we came across greeted us like old friends and not in the creepy way you sometimes get in certain parts of South America.
I felt welcome and people were proud and grateful that you had decided to visit their country. And yes, backpackers complain that Chile is pricey and it certainly is compared to Bolivia and Peru, but you can’t hold that against it (it is a developed country after all).
So without further adieu, here is a fool proof guide to seeing the best of Chile in two weeks:
Start off with three days in Santiago
Chile’s bustling capital of Santiago is the perfect place to get a first impression of the country.
Stay in a hostel in Bellavista for cheap accommodation and bustling bars and restaurants. This area is littered with street art and quirky shops so definitely put aside some time to explore.
Make sure to do a walking tour to take in Chile’s fascinating history. I recommend Tours 4 Tips and take the 3pm highlights walk for good insight into recent history of the country.
Spend some time perusing the street stalls in the city centre for great bargains on clothes and knick knacks (you will purchase an entire second-hand wardrobe for less than twenty euro) .
For more insight into the history of Chile and particularly the human rights abuses that occurred under Pinochet’s government in the seventies and eighties, head to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, about five stops from the city centre by metro.
Head to Valparaiso for three days of aimless exploring
There’s not loads to do tourism wise but this city is made for roaming the streets, taking in the beautiful coloured buildings and street art and of course sampling all the trendy bars and restaurants on offer.
Again, Tours 4 Tips do a great walking tour of the city which is always a great place to start. If you go on the highlights tour, prepare to take in the main stops of the city including the best street art and even sample a free homemade version of one of Chile’s delicacies, the scrumptious alfajores (basically biscuits smothered in chocolate and dulce de leche).
Definitely stroll around Cerro Concepcion for some of the best street art including the infamous ‘we are not hippies, we are happies’ mural. Another great shout is a wander down Calle Papudo which is dotted with quirky art and Instagramable coffee shops.
There are hundreds of places to eat in Valparaiso but definitely try El Pimenton for a sample of Chile’s authentic food. It may not be high brow cuisine but it is certainly something worth sampling.
First try a michelada, a beer mixed with sweet lime juice and sugar. For mains order a plate of the chorrillana, a huge plate of chips topped with fried meat, fried eggs and onions topped with a subtle sweet apple sauce (tip! try the vegetarian version of this also, it is equally if not even more delicious!).
Lastly for a stunning location for food head to Fauna. Sitting on top of one of the city’s many viewpoints enjoy a plate of delicious food or drinks at a reasonable price all while enjoying a panoramic view of the city.
Take in nature for three days in Elqui Valley
Situated just 40 minutes from La Serena, Elqui Valley is a stunning mountainous region dotted with wineries and pisco breweries.
Many people do day trips from La Serena to Elqui Valley, but for better value and more time in the area why not stay in Vicuna just minutes outside the valley.
From here you can rent bikes and enjoy many stunning routes through the valley. There are many slightly longer and more difficult routes but for a great easy option I recommend the four hour cycle through the countryside of Vicuna. Not only will you take in all the views of the valley without having to spend hours cycling uphill, there are also some great stops along the way.
First you will come to the pisco brewery Aba Pisquera where you can enjoy a brief tour and wine tasting.
Secondly, try out the beer brewery Guayacan for another tasting and a pizza if you are in the mood.
Next stop lies the Hare Krishna commune, a small community living up in the mountains. Head in, be friendly and interested in their way of life and they will offer you full insight into their community as well as delicious food all for a tiny donation.
We had literally one of the best vegetarian meals of our entire trip in this beautiful place.
Lastly, you can take the slightly more difficult route up to the Restaurant Solar Elqui Donde Martita on the way back to Vicuna. The inside may be basic but this restaurant is fuelled by solar power and uses mostly freshly grown local produce. It also offers stunning views of the area (if you can manage the tough uphill cycle!).
You can organise bike rental and tours of the region at Elki Magic, a great agency run by a young couple, Adeline and Lincoln who are more than helpful (and super pleasant!).
Four days of adventuring in San Pedro de Atacama
Atacama lies 2000 metres above sea level so prepare for potential altitude sickness. However, I can guarantee that it will be worth it.
In Atacama you tend to spend money as a lot of the things to do there are organised by tour companies. Definitely shop around and read reviews to get good value before booking.
The top things to do in Atacama include a trip to Moon Valley, the Geiser tour, star gazing and various lagoon tours (I wouldn’t recommend doing a lagoon tour if you plan to do a salt flats tour as you will see lots of them on this).
Moon Valley: There are two ways to see Moon Valley, by tour or by bike. While it is undoubtedly cheaper to see the area by bike the cycle is not easy. Think blaring sun, endless sand and a long, uphill slog.
You can get a tour at a good price and it is definitely worth it. Take in all the views of the various valleys in the area, see moon valley from different angles, enjoy a short one hour hike across desert plains, visit a salt cave and lastly watch the sunset descend over the valley. No need to pay more than $20 USD for this half day tour.
Star Gazing: The Atacama is one of the top destinations in Chile for so-called astrological tours and it does not disappoint. Enjoy all of the popular constellations and insight into astrology with various telescopes. The most popular company to do this with tends to be Space but be sure to book early (even before you arrive in the Atacama) to avoid disappointment.
Geyser Tour: Enjoy a day trip up to Geyser del Tatio in Atacama. Tours leave around 5 in the morning so you can enjoy the geysers before the sun has fully risen. Take in the sights before enjoying breakfast on the mountain.
Also enjoy various wildlife and views before heading back to Atacama for around midday.
From Atacama, you can organise the stunning salt flats tour and continue on into Bolivia for your next adventure….