Chile for me was always a country of such mystery, I knew very few people that had been here and due to its geography, it had become a bit of an isolated country. Around 4,000 kilometres in length and about 100 kilometres wide Chile has the driest desert in the world in the north, polar icecaps to the south and the 2nd highest mountain range in the world along its eastern border. Despite all this Chile has become known as the Latin Dream in South America. The Chilean economy has been consistently rising over the past couple of decades, and with a good infrastructure and high public safety, it makes it an attractive country for both tourists and immigrants.
For the moment we arrived in Chile it felt friendly and it was a beautiful view flying in over the Andes Mountains. We had pre-booked an Airbnb and our host also arranged an airport pick-up which we took for pure convenience. As we drove into the city and got to our apartment there were fire engines and police all around the building. Turned out that one of the flats had a fire, so the whole building was being evacuated. Our host was speaking with some of the people around the building and it was unclear how long it was going to take until we could get into the building. I managed to get access to WiFi and jumped on Happy Cow to see the vegan options, which there were quite a few. I asked our host if she would like to join us for a dinner and we drove to a place that made vegan versions of Chilean favourites. I asked our host what is popular and she recommended a Chacarero, which is a type of popular meat sandwich, but here the meat was soya. After a couple of hours of chatting and getting to know each other, we were able to enter the apartment block. The building was massive, four blocks housing around a thousand people and really central in the city. How host had bought a small apartment in one of the blocks and now was running in at a full-time Airbnb rental. From the moment you walked into the apartment you could see this woman really cared about this place and had thought all about the small details. The kitchen was well equipped with nice pans, knives and all the small things you need to make life easy and practical in the kitchen. Also, the apartment was just above one of the main supermarkets in town, so super practical. The apartment was on a split level with the bedroom on a balcony above the living space, it was small but perfect with a big walk-in wardrobe off the bedroom and an ensuite bathroom. But the best part about the apartment was the view, especially at night which showed all the lights of the city and in the daytime, we could see the snow-capped peaks of the mountains surrounding the city. Just stunning. There are lots of good cheap options in the city for Airbnb, so I really recommend it if you are here for a few days +.
We had rented the apartment for just over a week as we wanted to get a feel for the city and also to have some rest as we had been travelling a lot. The city had a great vibe. On the first day, I just wanted to walk around and get my bearings. To be honest, I just ended up getting a little lost, but I was soon found again. For South America, the city felt really modern with some nice Spanish style architecture. The city feels very safe and cosmopolitan. On the next day, we decided to take one of the free walking tours which are available twice daily from Plaza de Armas. The free walking tours team have been doing these tours for some time, so have refined the experience and know how to tell a good story, very worth doing and a great way to get your orientation too.
On one of the other days, we took a walk to the San Cristóbal Hill, arriving there you can either walk up the hill which takes just under an hour or take the funicular to the start of the view. Once you arrive there, there is a bit of a further climb to get to the top of the hill where there is a statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the city, this statue is to Santiago what the Christ statue is to Rio, and of course a great view over the city and valley. Close to where the funicular stops is also a cable car that takes you over the national park in the city. The park seems like a great place for walking and there are many bikers riding their various hills too. From the cable car, you get a great view and a lovely 20-minute ride across the whole park. From the other end, we decided to head to the Gran Torre Santiago, which is the highest tower in Latin America. After a look around the shopping centre on the lower floors we took the elevator just before sunset for a view of the city, and to be honest it was breathtaking. Personally, I really enjoyed the view at night, as the city seems to light up really nicely.
Other than just enjoying the ambience of the city the other thing we enjoyed was visiting the Santa Lucía Hill which was right next to our apartment, this is just a park on a hill, but it seems to take so many little twists and turns and is a real pleasure to climb.
Being Vegan in Santiago:
There are a bunch of options here and Happy Cow has a good number of listings, I was also able to find a few stores where to buy vegan goods like milk, cheese etc, so it was not a struggle at all, of course, it can’t compete with some of the major vegan places in the world, but if you are vegan and coming to Santiago it should not be a challenge at all.
The only real challenge is when you are taken on the tours, you tend to be taken to some restaurant which is not included in the price and the options of vegans are crap. On both the tours, I bought a packed lunch for myself and was glad I did.
Tours outside the city:
We decided to take two tours which were out of the city, one to Cajon del Maipo and the second to Valparaíso. Both tours started early and were a bit of a drive. Going to Cajon del Maipo we had a brief stop at a café on the way before arriving at the viewpoint. When we arrive there it was a little busy and there are clearly tours and private cars coming here all the time. I would not say that it is overly crowded and once you are focused on the stunning views you forget about the people their anyway. The tour brings you here and you get about 30-40 mins to walk around, take pictures etc. After this our tour brought us to a small outdoors sports place, where we got to ride a complimentary zip line which was fun, after this, we were taken to a place for lunch that was not included and was not so easy to organise options for vegans, but they made their best effort.
On reflection, I would say if you can rent a car and do this yourself. Although the tour guides are very pleasant and do their best to make the experience nice for you, I just would have like to spend more time at the viewpoint and less time doing other stuff. Also, tours do seem to be very highly priced here.
The other trip to Valparaíso was the longest day. We first stopped at a place on the way where a lot of the wines from Chile are produced and you can get some free tasters and the bottles are cheap. From here we were taken first to Viña del Mar, which is a smaller town across the bay from Valparaíso. Here we saw the famous flower clock and was taken to see one of the original statues from Easter Island that was brought to the Chilean mainland. After this, we had a little time to walk along the waterfront by the lake and on to the sea, this was very pleasant and the views were really nice. After we were taken over to the old city of Valparaíso to a lunch place, again lunch was not included and to me seemed a little overly expensive and shitty vegan options. After lunch, we had a guided tour through some of the old cobbled streets and got to see some of the many artworks painted across the buildings. Valparaíso old city is like an artists canvas with so many great murals all around.
After a small walk in the city, we arrived at this really old funicular which took us down to the main square by the waterfront where from here we were taken for a small boat ride. This was the last activity of the day before it was time to head back.
So it is totally possible to go to Valparaíso by yourself from the bus station and it would be cheaper, but what you save in money you would lose out on the number of things you could see and the chance to go to Viña del Mar as well. On reflection, if I could repeat this I would have opted to stay a few days in Valparaíso, take the free walking tour here and spend some time exploring the city.
Chile is stunning and I only really scratched the surface. For sure I want to return, and there is so much to see in both the north and the south. I just hope I can get the chance to come back.