Tag Archives: backpacking in chile

Money in South America

One of the questions we’ve found a lot of people asking before they go on a trip is “what’s the best way to take money abroad?” For a trip in South America ATMs are plentiful, except for a few, more remote places, so we’d advise using a debit card. Hopefully in this blog we can provide some useful advice as to why, based on our experiences. 

Worried about taking a card abroad

A prepaid cash card is an alternative that some travellers use to access their money abroad. Whilst they can be a useful backup we’d advise against them as your main access to money for a few reasons.

  • There are often quite a few fees involved in using a prepaid card abroad. Yes debit cards have them to, but they can be the same or lower than prepaid cards.
  • They can’t always be used for all types of transaction.
  • They have to be reloaded with money when you run out, which may not be as straight forward or cheap as it seems at first. Some cards can take up to five days to move the money around and charge you a percentage fee.
  • They come loaded either with your home currency, US Dollars or another currency that your provider offers. This means that you can suffer from bad exchange rates, especially if you’re travelling through multiple countries.

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Before you leave

There are several important things you should do before you leave your home country.

  • Work out which debit card has the lowest fees abroad
  • Get some US Dollars (USD)
  • Get some of the local currency of the first country you’ll be visiting. Or even each one you plan on visiting.
  • Tell your bank you’re going abroad and let them know which countries.
  • Make sure you have a reserve way of accessing money, another debit, credit or prepaid cash card.

 

Where to get the foreign currencies

Use the internet to look up the best foreign currency exchange office in your local area. If Google can’t help you out, ask some friends or go on a message board. We’ve found it’s often easier to get some foreign currency before you head abroad. It’ll also give you peace of mind that you’re not at some dodgy street vendor’s mercy. For people heading through London we’d definitely recommend Thomas Exchange Global on the Strand. You can order the money online through their website and it’ll be there when you turn up. They offer excellent exchange rates on commonly used currencies and pretty good rates on the more obscure ones.

 

Debit Cards

If you’re going to take a debit card (we suggest you do) then head on over to London and set up an account with Metrobank. When we first opened our accounts with them they offered free withdrawals abroad. They do now charge £1 per ATM withdrawal or transaction (outside of Europe). This is still far lower than any of the other UK banks, and there aren’t any confusing percentage fees that keep adding up either. For example Lloyds charge an additional 1.5-2.99% non-sterling transaction fee on top of a flat fee, so on one of my transactions i was charged a total of £7.89 on a £150 transaction. Nearly £8 versus £1 is a no brainer really… Of course if you’re not based in the UK, Google the best cards for travel in your country.

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Why USD

You should always have some USD on you. As the worlds base trading currency its easy to exchange pretty much anywhere in the world with good rates. After the USD then the Euro is probably the second best to have on you. Not only is the USD easy to exchange but in lots of countries, especially in tourist hotspots you can usually pay for a lot of things just with it without having to exchange to the local currency first. If you run out then many countries, especially in South America allow you to withdraw USD straight from ATM’s. As a rule your USD will be more useful in poorer countries or those experiencing economic instability.

 

ATM’s abroad

Withdrawing cash from ATM’s abroad isn’t of course as straight forward as in your home country and they react differently to different cards, so offering advice on which banks to use in various countries may not of course be helpful. The best thing to do is ask other travellers and use various machines until you work out which one is the best for your cards. Things to take into account are whether the ATM is going to add an additional fee on top of the one you’re already paying your bank and the maximum it’ll let you withdraw. There’s no point in saving a small amount of money on one withdrawal if you have to make three withdrawals instead of one from a different bank.

 

Let your bank know.

We’ve found a lot of people actually argued against this as they informed their bank they were heading abroad, only to find their cards blocked anyway. This is of course a worst case scenario which is why you should always have some local currency on you. With Metro Bank we have never experienced any problems with using it in over 20 countries. When you ring them up let them know your dates of travel (you can leave it open ended) and which countries you’re likely to be visiting. Lloyds did stop one of my transactions but sent me a text which would allow me to use the card unrestricted in that country if i replied by text. Annoying but i can’t complain too much for them being cautious and it only delayed me by 5 minutes.

 

Using your debit/credit card for payments.

We’ve only paid with card a couple of times as often there are hefty percentage costs for paying with your card abroad. It’s also worth remembering that some places only accept Visa or Mastercard, not both. If you set up a MetroBank account you’ll receive a Mastercard Debit card. Occasionally this can cause a headache as most people are only used to seeing a Mastercard Credit card and will try and charge you a higher credit card transaction rate. Just let them know it’s debit.

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What if my card gets cloned or stolen.

This a worry to everyone, and worse when you consider you could be thousands of miles from home. As long as you’re always safety conscious and keep your main card and your backup separate then the worst this should be is a headache without stranding you abroad. Card cloning is probably a bigger problem is your home country than in South America. In the UK we’re used to ATM’s dotted outside all along the high street.  In South America you’re more likely to find them inside a bank with a couple of security guards in constant attendance. This makes it much more difficult for crooks to set up a system to copy your card.

Some country advice

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Peru

We’ve found that Peruvian ATM’s don’t seem to charge for withdrawals as a rule. The maximum we can withdraw at one time in 700 PEN, equivalent to £150 GBP. ATM’s are usually found inside banks, if the bank is closed there will be a door accessed by scanning your card through a reader. If you’re worried about doing this, just wait for someone else to open the door on the way out. USD are easily exchanged, can be withdrawn from ATM’s and can be used to pay for tours and transportation such as planes and intercity busses.

Chile

Chilean ATM’s did charge us for withdrawals as a rule, but did allow us to take out fairly large amounts in one go. The USD isn’t as accepted as readily as elsewhere in South America due to the strength of Chile’s economy. In especially touristy spots such as San Pedro de Atacama or Torres del Paine national park USD can be used to pay for most tours and activities, just ask.

Bolivia

Some Bolivian ATM’s charged us but not all, other nationalities had different experiences. Your money will go a long way in Bolivia so you won’t be making lots of withdrawals. If you have a lot of USD then chances are you’ll never have to go near an ATM anyway, just exchange it for Bolivianos. Some places actually prefer you to pay in USD but be aware that the exchange rates can be pretty bad.

Argentina

At the time of writing Argentina has been experiencing a period of economic unrest. As such they have introduced numerous sanctions to try and stabilise their economy. These are aimed at their own citizens but affect  tourists just as much. If you’re really interested there are lots of economics articles that will explain it much better than i can. The point is you can’t withdraw much in one go from ATM’s and it’ll probably cost you a fair bit. Don’t be worried though as there is a black market for USD as Argentineans try and ride out the crisis. The Blue Dollar rate will save you 30% or more on your trip to Argentina. Take as many USD as you are comfortable taking and exchange them for the much better Blue Dollar rate on the street. If you run out of USD, pop into Chile or Uruguay to withdraw more. Be aware that the Blue Dollar trade is illegal but exists in a grey zone. As long as the police don’t physically see you exchanging the money they don’t care. They want dollars over pesos as much as anyone else.

Uruguay

We didn’t spend much time in Uruguay, only visiting Colonia. However the shops and cafes there allowed us to pay in USD, Euro, Argentine pesos as well as the local currency. We only tried one ATM and it did charge us quite a bit, but this may not be the rule.

Paraguay

Again we only visited Paraguay briefly. From what we understand the USD is easily accepted. We weren’t charged for our ATM withdrawal and we could withdraw USD. As with Bolivia your money will go a long way. We withdrew £40 for our day in Paraguay, we still had over £30 at the end of the day.

Brazil

Brazil gave us the most hassle when it came to withdrawals. Some ATM’s won’t allow you to withdraw cash. I don’t mean some banks i mean some specific machines. The best thing to do is to try every machine in each bank you visit, when you find one that works remember which one it was. Santander didn’t charge us for withdrawals. The USD is best exchanged into the local currency in cities but tours in more touristy areas can be paid for with it.

Colombia

You can usually withdraw between 300,000 and 600,000 COP in one go from an ATM (£75-£150) BancoColombia ATM’s were really easy to use and didn’t charge us any additional fees. They also allowed us to withdraw the upper amount of 600,000 COP. The ATM’s are nearly always inside a bank or a lobby for use after hours. These lobbies always have excellent air conditioning, great for cooling off when you’re out and about!

Top Sights Chile

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Chiloe

The second largest island in South America after Tierra del Fuego. Chiloe is a cultural and gastronomic delight. The island has remained fairly isolated from most of mainland Chile and has a distinct feeling to it. Covered in unique and colorful wooden jesuit churches there is plenty to see. If you go at the right time of year, penguins and whales are also something you might get to enjoy. The islands capital Castro has lots of the traditional Palafitos, or stilted houses as well as a bright yellow cathedral. Chile is a country of excellent seafood, and Castro has the best of the best. If you can, head to Mercadito for some truly great food.

Concha y Toro

Concha y Toro: Wine Tasting

If there’s something the Chileans can truthfully say they excel at, it’s wine. At the top of the worlds wine producers is Concha y Toro. As one of the biggest wine producers in the world in both size and sales, the quality of their wine is truly amazing. From cheap boxes to exclusive casks they offer good wine in nearly every price bracket. A visit to the original vineyard can be easily organised on their website and can be achieved in a day from Santiago. You can go for the normal tour, or pay a bit more and sample some of their better wines with cheeses and breads.

Street Art in Valparaiso

Valparaiso

The next nearest city to Santiago, Valparaiso sits on the Pacific coast. A city that stretches up into the hills, you will find Valparaiso a city that you want to walk around. Whilst most of the grander colonial buildings sit on the thin stretch of flat ground near the sea, the real Valparaiso is in the hills. The buildings here are a mix of constructions, but it’s the street art that draws the visitors. Whilst it’s technically just graffiti, it’s the type of graffiti that improves a city. The local artists have taken every blank wall and covered it in paintings from the imaginative to the bizarre. A set of steps becomes a piano, and a rocky wall an iguana made out of bubbles.

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Las Dunas

Found just up the coast from Valparaiso, Las Dunas (the dunes) are a collection of huge sand dunes that stretch from the top of sea cliffs right down to the waters edge. Whilst they’re now being slowly overtaken by the same developers who bought the land to “protect it” you can go and get some inspiring views of the Pacific coast. Take some snacks and wine and enjoy the view.

San Pedro

San Pedro de Atacama

As one of the usual first/last stops in Chile, San Pedro in the Atacama desert is a must on the South American backpacker trail. This adventure capital is a great place to see the surrounding salt flats, hot springs, volcanoes and the world famous Valle de la Luna. The valley of the moon is an other worldly landscape of ridges and sand dunes. The tiny town looks like something out of an American Western and the night skies offer some of the best starscapes in the world. This is also the place to begin your trip into Bolivia with an unforgettable salt flats tour.

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Valle de la Muerte

Just outside San Pedro de Atacama, we thought the Valley of Death deserved it’s own mention. This martian landscape is equally if not more impressive than the Valley of the moon. If you want to this is a great place to try your hand at sand boarding. Shooting down the dunes is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon and the views from the top are spectacular. If you’ve got the time, we’d recommend cycling there on your own. Unlike the Valley of the Moon, it’s not a National Park, so there’s no entrance fee. Grab some mountain bikes and explore off the beaten path.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

Probably the best known of Chiles sites, the Torres del Paine national park is a hikers dream. The 4-5 day treks through the park feature some of the best scenery in the world, with the Torres (towers) being most peoples highlight. Whilst the weather is so unpredictable you can “experience four seasons in one day” you’re bound to have a great time. If you’re not up for the five day hike, you can do one day trips to the Torres in the summer, or even just catch a bus around. Whilst you won’t get as close this way, you’re still going to see some amazing scenery.

Santiago

Pre-Columbian Museum: Santiago

If you’re going to visit one museum to get some basic history on the South American peoples, then we’d definitely suggest the Pre-Columbian Museum in central Santiago. This museum is highly informative with excellent displays of artifacts. We came out truly astonished with the crafts of the peoples of South America. The level of craftsmanship that was being performed hundreds, even thousands of years ago is on display throughout the museum. If you’ve got little or no Spanish all of the displays are in English as well.

Chile in Photos…

Cycling and Sandboarding in Valley de La Muerte

Having spent one of our days in San Pedro touring the Moon Valley we decided to get a little more energetic for our remaining two days. We had heard the Valley de La Muerte was worth a visit so on the first day, spurred on by the boys enthusiasm I committed to an afternoon of sandboarding.

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As I stood at the foot of the sanddune and looked at the height regret started to sink in. As I reached the peak, puffed from exertion and altitude, vertigo kicked in and the prospect of fixing my feet to the board filled me with panic. You can see from the pictures below that some of us were more confident than others…

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Yet after watching Iain and Sam go first and after some spurring on from our instructor I took the plunge.

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I look about as confident in this picture as I felt at the time. Though after the first run and the first few falls I really started to enjoy it! Even if I was a little uncoordinated and tried to take out those walking up the sand dune…that’s me on my arse…

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It’s fair to say I never looked quite as elegant as this pro, who made it look so easy…

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But on the flipside I didn’t fall quite as spectacularly as the boys did either…

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And nor did I end up with teeth full of sand…

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To finish off the afternoon…as if sandy teeth and acing ankles weren’t enough…we were treated to a couple of pisco sours and were once again whisked off to watch the sunset at Moon Valley. The drinks and the view were well earned and made a perfect end to the day!

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We choose to go sandboarding with Inca Tours, who are located on the main square in San Pedro, and we can’t recommend them highly enough. Unlike other companies they provide you with an instructor, instead of just dropping you off with the sandboards and picking you up a few hours later, and you get a short video of your best runs and falls thrown in for good measure.

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Having been amazed at the beauty of Valley de La Muerte on the previous day, on day two we decided cycle there once more and explore further. The cycle to the valley is a pretty flat tarmacked road…

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But once you’re in the valley the scenery really speaks for itself…

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Surprisingly for a desert there was a lot of sand flying around in the wind, so my wardrobe had to be adapted accordingly…

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But don’t let that put you off, as the scenery really was amazing! Words do not do it justice so here are a few more photos…

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The cycle to the valley was about 30mins and the entire return journey was about 3 hours. Rent a bike and give it a go!

Walking the Moon: San Pedro de Atacama

Our night bus from La Serena saw us rolling into San Pedro de Atacama at about 9 in the morning. As we awoke and peered through the curtains for our first glimpse of the desert, we were all a bit bemused. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the planet was covered in snow. This rare event occurred two days before and due to the low temperatures there was plenty around to play with. Sam had survived his first overnight bus despite a brief spike of fear when he found out he was sitting in front of a 10 month old baby.

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San Pedro de Atacama sits at around 2,400 metres on the Bolivian and Argentine borders. This tiny little town sits on an oasis and is one of the biggest traveller hubs in Chile. The town has a dizzying number of natural wonders within easy reach and it’s proximity to Bolivia makes it a popular stop for backpackers heading out on to the Bolivian Altiplano.

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From the moment you get off the bus, you get the impression of the old American wild west. The setting of the tiny town is on an oasis, with small single story buildings and one long main street. There are plenty of horses wandering around and numerous rustic drinking establishments. The only thing missing was a gun duel…yet the whole effect was somewhat ruined by the snow…

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The whole town is set up for tourism. Tours operators, hostels, hotels, restaurants and tourist shops are found all down the main street. Most importantly there are plenty of places to buy those supplies for your trip in to Bolivia. San Pedro might be rustic by Chilean standards but compared to the three day salt flat tour it’s luxury.

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Tours and excursions can be arranged all over town and we quickly set up our expedition to El Valle de la Luna. Moon valley is well named as the landscape is surreal. The whole valley is a national park and there are wardens to make sure you don’t walk (or sandboard) on the giant sand dunes. All that perfect sand is incredibly tempting but the lack of human marks really does make it a stunning view.

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We spent 3 hours travelling around the valley running down our camera batteries before heading up to the cliffs that overlook it for sunset. As the sun sets the shadows and colours change all across the valley. After the sun has set you get the incredible colours all along the mountains that form the Chilean – Bolivian border.

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Whilst it was warm in the sun, the moment it set the temperature dropped sharply. We bundled back in our bus and headed back to the hostel. Like most of Chile, the hostel of course had no central heating. Our fears were calmed when a wheelbarrow full of wood was rolled out, lit and everyone cosied up around it. Plentiful Piscolas (pisco and cola) definitely helped as well.

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The next day we’d booked on for a stargazing expedition. Even just standing in the lit streets of San Pedro the nights sky is stunning with the full sweep of our galaxy clear to the eye. We’d managed to be in San Pedro when there was no moon (intentional of course) so the spectacular sky was even more visible. We’d be viewing the stars from a spot just outside of town. Upon arriving we were served some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had by the worlds most enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Over the next two hours we looked through the two powerful telescopes at nebula, white dwarves, star clusters, the rings of Saturn and even other galaxies.

Tune in to see how we got on on the Bolivian Salt Flats…

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Drinking Pisco in the Elqui Valley

After visiting Santiago we intended our next stop to be San Pedro de Atacama. However the prospect of facing another 24hr plus journey didn’t appeal to any of us. Also since Sam had only just joined us in Santiago we figured we had better break him into South American bus travel slowly. So the three of us, with the advice of our good friend Tomas, settled on breaking the journey in lovely La Serena.

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La Serena is one of Chile’s coastal cities. Situated about six hours north of Santiago, it made the perfect place to break our journey. It is Chile’s second largest city so offers the usual supply of city comforts, decent restaurants, shops etc. As well its fair share of beautiful architecture and churches.

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During the summer people flock to La Serena for the beaches. It being winter we choose to admire the empty beach (and the wind) only briefly. Nevertheless the beach and the walk from town are definitely worth stretching your legs for.

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Apart from being a base to frequent the beaches, La Serena is also used as a base for exploring the Elqui Valley. So on our full day here we set off on one of the many tours.

Upon greeting us, our guide inquired if we all spoke Spanish – “Hablan Español?” I jumped in and replied “Hablo un poquito” or “I speak a little”. Understanding me, the guide unfortunately took the others silence to mean they were fluent…most were not.

First stop was to a Papaya Farm. Unlike the Papayas that spring to mind, these Papayas are smaller, sour and are used mainly for tenderising meat or making many Papaya based products: Jams and chocolates etc. For my benefit alone the guide continued to speak his clearest and slowest Spanish. However as Iain and I understood more than most of the Brits, at this first stop on the tour we quickly became interpreter for the group…

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Further into the Elqui Valley we stopped at a hydroelectric dam for a few photos. The electric station was a bit of an eyesore but the view over the valley was worth the visit.

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Next stop was the Aba Pisco distillery. It is one of the smaller family run distilleries in the area but gave us a good overview of the Pisco making process. Fermented from grapes and often matured in oak barrels it is not unlike the wine making process.

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Naturally we took the opportunity to stock up on a few bottles after the tasting, thinking we’d try our hand at making Pisco Sours later…

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On route deeper into the Elqui Valley we stopped at a viewpoint to admire the vineyards growing in the base of the valley. Having gorged myself on Avocados whilst in Chile and Argentina (they are 100 times better than any in the UK) I was interested to learn they grow on the mountainside in the valley, note the dark green triangle in the picture below.

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A quick stop off in the sleepy towns of Vincuna and then Pisco Equi concluded the tour. Over lunch in Pisco Elqui the “fluent” Brits were exposed. The guide asked our friend Sam where he had learnt his Spanish and the game was up. The guide, of course, was fluent in English and thought it was fairly amusing that none of us had had the heart to correct his assumption.

After lunch there was just enough time to take in a few sights and the Gabriela Mistral Museum. Gabriela Mistral is Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet born in the Elqui Valley.

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It’s also worth noting the Elqui Valley is one of the worlds top star gazing destinations…unfortunately for us, our trip to one of the many observatories that evening was cancelled, as we had managed to visit on one of the rare cloudy days! This would have made the day perfect but we hear there are plenty of other star gazing opportunities in San Pedro, so look out for the next blog!

 

10 days with Captain Latin America in Santiago

Some good friends from London recently moved back to South America and settled in Santiago, so as we arrived into Santiago bus station we were so excited to see some familiar faces. The endless generosity of Teresa and Tomas made it so hard for us to eventually leave Santiago and ensured we saw all the best bits of the capital city. Thank you both again if you are reading!

Their six year old son, Matias, kept us constantly entertained throughout our stay. He had a fancy dress outfit for every occasion, from Batman to pro-footballer, and for the duration of our stay his outfit of choice was Captain (Latin!) America.

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With a superhero by our side we were invincible…even when we were all squished into the back of a Taxi…

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Half way through our stay in Santiago another familiar face made a surprise appearance. You’ll notice Iain is absent from the picture above and instead Sam a good friend from London is trapped in the middle of the pile. For the next few weeks or possibly the near future Sam will be joining us on our South American adventure. He quit his job and like us booked himself a one-way flight…and people, travel really is as simple as that…well once you’ve read our blog on financing your travel of course.

Naturally with good friends in tow much of our time was spent exchanging stories and generally catching up but here are a few of the other highlights from Santiago that we haven’t already blogged about. Valparaiso and Concha Y Toro are not to be missed but here are a few other suggestions for your stay in Santiago…

Visit La Moneda and Plaza de la Libertad

Our first foray into Santiago saw us getting off the Metro at La Moneda, the presidential palace. Unplanned by us we had arrived just in time to catch a flag raising and military ceremony.

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Also a popular protest spot, there were many groups at La Moneda protesting everything from water conservation, to students and native rights…as far as our limited Spanish could tell. We had no idea what their chants were, but they were incredibly catchy. The side effect of the chanting was that all the stray dogs were drawn from miles around. Upon reaching the picket lines each dog picked a side, some fancy themselves as fellow protesters or others as police backup.

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Plaza de Armas vs. Plaza de la Constitucion

The guidebook had promised Plaza de Armas to be a great place to relax, drink coffee and people watch. This might be true, however, if visiting any time soon unfortunately all you will see is corrugated iron. When all but a thin sliver of it is closed for renovation all you can really do is try and push through the bottleneck.

However the Cathedral (also under renovation) was still open so we crept inside for a quick look.

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Wanting to bask in the sun, drink a coffee and people watch we instead headed for Plaza de la Constitucion and admired the Palace, the guards and the people.

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Mercado Central and La Vega

Having explored Mercado Central and its fish market only briefly, our friends insisted we revisited and tried the produce, and so grabbed us all a table at “Donde Augusto”. If you go, make sure you try the ceviche, as it is amazing!

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On our first visit we experienced a slight sense of De-ja-vu as the markets metalwork roof is almost an exact replica of Spitalfields market in London. Be prepared the restaurateurs will gleefully tell you again and again that the metalwork was in fact made and assembled in Birmingham, whilst not so subtly dropping in an invitation to sit down it their restaurant. Nevertheless it’s worth a visit.

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Across the river is La Vega Mercado, which is the best place to buy your fruit and vegetables in Santiago. Also a great place to people watch…I picked up a friend who wouldn’t look out of place in the East End of London.

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If you fancy some authentic street food then the bridge between the two markets is covered in locals selling ceviche and noodles out of supermarket trolleys.

On the subject of food…

Have a Sandwich at Tip y Tap

After picking Sam up from the airport our friends Tomas and Teresa took us to a restaurant that sold traditional Chilean sandwiches.  Sam doesn’t like excess sauces or greenery in his sandwich and was pleased to find many are just meat and cheese. What arrived was a mountain of meat between two pieces of thin bread…apparently a traditional Chilean sandwich should collapse under it’s own weight whilst you’re trying to eat it. This annoys Mati who likes his sandwiches to do as they’re told. So be warned if you’re expecting it to be a light snack!

Los Dominicos and the Costanera Center

When it comes to shopping, with these two destinations Santiago has it covered. Los Dominicos, on the end of Line 1, is one of the best Artisan Markets in South America.

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And if you’re lucky during your visit you may even catch a glimpse of Captain Latin America wrestling a fierce cat.

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And if you’re hankering for all the modern comforts and purchases of say Westfields then look no further than the Costanera Center. This, the largest shopping center in South America is easily found by heading towards the tallest building in the city…seriously you cant miss it. We stopped in at H&M followed by Lush to resupply on socks and soap…very exciting.

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Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

One of our highlights was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, so if you have some time then we’d thoroughly recommend a visit. Covering many of the different South American civilisations it’s a real eye opener as to the level of craftsmanship that existed on the continent for thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived.

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“Coffee with Legs”

If you fancy some more modern Santiago then head for some “coffee with legs.” Iain entirely missed the point with this the first time we passed a coffee shop. Assuming the “legs” referred to the fact that you had to stand up to drink your coffee, I surprisingly had to point out that the “legs” might in fact refer to the waitresses in the heels and very short skirts. Sorry no pictures.

Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal

In the center of the city is the Santa Lucia Hill which is somewhere between a park, castle and stately home. Climbing to the top of the tallest tower will give some nice views of the city and a pleasant wander through the gardens. Beware it’s a bit of a hike up but worth it.

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If you fancy a more panoramic view of the city then taking the funicular up Cerro San Cristobal gives the best views of the city and the Andes behind. Be aware though that due to the low rainfall and light wind, Santiago often suffers from smog that hangs above the city, so try and pick a clear day.

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Final Thanks and Advice

Santiago is a brilliant city so all that is left for us to say is thanks again to Tomas, Teresa and Mati and leave you with a final piece of advice…

Get a BIP card! This little piece of plastic will make travel around the city much easier and can be purchased and topped up in any metro station. Best of all multiple people can use the same card.

Stalking the Street Art in Valparaíso

As mentioned in our previous post we took a few days away from Santiago and travelled to Valparaiso. Valparaíso is one of Chile’s major cities and seaports.

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A section of the city is now a UNESCO world heritage site and in recent years more and more artists have taken residence here. With stunning architecture and street art to be discovered on almost every corner, it was hard not to spend every afternoon strolling around and photographing everything.

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From Santiago, Valparaíso is about 60-90 minutes away on a bus. We recommend taking the Metro in Santiago to Pajaritos and taking one of the buses from just outside the station. (This way you skip a lot of the Santiago traffic!) They are very frequent, about every 10 minutes, so unless you are travelling at peaks times there is no need to book in advance.

Once in Valparaíso we stayed just inside Cerro Conception, the UNESCO area. Some choose to stay in nearby Viña del Mar, famed for its beaches and connected to Valparaíso by local bus or metro, a great day trip if not staying there, but we preferred the rugged charm of the Fischer Steps.

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Apart from taking a day trip to Concon, read more about that here, we spent many hours exploring the hills. There is so much street art it is impossible to find it all, but certainly during daylight hours Valparaíso is safe enough to explore to your hearts content. Here is a handy map to get you started – this map can be picked up in most hostels and tourist information desks.

Map of Valparaiso

It’s hard to do the place justice in words, so here are a few of our favourite finds in photos.  In our next blog look out for our very own walking tour of Valparaíso street art, which will tell you where to find some of the below.

Sandy Shoes: A Visit to Concón and Las Dunas

After the snow, wind and rain of our days in Patagonia, we were pleased to find the sun shining in Santiago. Naturally we did the only sensible thing and made our way to the coast, to Valparaiso one of Chile’s major cities and seaports. With its UNESCO status and with street art to be discovered on almost every corner Valparaiso is a charming place to visit. Valparaiso and all its charm deserves an entire blog to itself so for now here is just one of the things we got up to during our stay…

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On the advice of a good friend, we decided to take a trip to Concón to visit Las Dunas (The Dunes). Although not mentioned in our guidebook we were keen to try out a local’s recommendation, as often these turn out to be the best and most memorable experiences…and this was definitely one of those times…

One morning we jumped on a local bus marked Concón, paid for our tickets and hoped for the best. We had no idea where to get off or if the bus would take us to the dunes but we figured we would work it out as we went. The bus driver was clearly running behind schedule, so we held on tight, closed our eyes on the hairpin bends and made it to our destination in half the expected time. About 30mins.

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Despite our fears, you can’t miss the dunes. When you see them jump off the bus near the Jumbo supermarket (they all seem to take the same route) and cross the road and you’re there.

It doesn’t look like much but once we began to ascend the first dune our excitement grew. It was a bit of steep scramble…

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But once we made it over the top, our perilous bus journey was forgotten, and our jaws dropped in amazement.

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Naturally we filled our afternoon photographing and pulling our best poses.

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Boys will be boys…

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With water reserves running low we started to wonder if we would ever find civilisation again….

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Truthfully we were never more than a 30-minute walk away from the main road, but once on the dunes enjoying the silence it was easy to forget.

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All posed out, we made our way down the opposite side of the dunes, towards the sea, and took in the views of Valparaiso and the rocks.

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We also took the opportunity to free ourselves of the extra weight we’d picked up along the way, before flagging down another bus back to Valparaiso.

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Part 2

When our good friend Sam joined us in Santiago we decided he had to visit the dunes so once again we set off for Concón.

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This time we picked up a dog along the way…

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Cue more posing…

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A break for some lunch…

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Then some motorcycles ruined the peace and quiet. But the puppy thought chasing them was great fun! And honestly we quite enjoyed watching them…

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We were amazed just how much the landscape had changed the second time around. It certainly proved to us sand dunes really do move a lot in a few days. Take a trip and see for yourself!

A Date in the Devil’s Cellar: Concha Y Toro Winery

After our days in Pucon we travelled to Chile’s capital, Santiago. We will let you know in a bit more detail about what we got up to in the city in a further blog soon, but for now we want to tell you all about our trip to the Devil’s Cellar….

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Having heard it was one of the best tours around we set off one afternoon with great expectations. The winery was founded in 1883 and is situated in Pirque in the Maipo Valley, a key wine-producing region in Chile. The best bit…Concha y Toro is assessable entirely by public transport in just under an hour from central Santiago. We took Line 4 (Blue one) to La Mercedes and then it’s a short bus journey from there*.

And once we entered the grounds we could already see why it was worth the visit. It’s hard to believe this place is so close to a bustling city…

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The basic tour includes a tour of the grounds, including a visit to the manor house and summer residence of the company’s founder, Don Melchor de Concha y Toro.

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Next it was off to see the vineyards and the variety garden. Unfortunately it being winter the vines looked a little sad but don’t let this put you off going.

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Then it was time for our first wine of the tour. A mixed grape that we sipped as we admired the view over the vineyard.

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Next it was inside for a (short!) lesson in the ageing process and a tour of the oak barrels. The barrels are shipped in from France and North America and make for a very good photo.

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Then it was off to the famous Casillero del Diablo or Devil’s Cellar. Where we were lucky enough to catch a sight of the Devil himself…with some help from the handy light show. Sounds corny but it’s a lot of fun!

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After the ordeal of meeting the Devil our nerves were calmed with two more wines to finish of the tour.

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However our experience wasn’t over yet. We had opted for an additional section to the tour – so at the end we were welcomed into our own private tasting room where a Sommelier conducted a further tasting with cheeses. Here we got to taste four of their more premium wines.

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We highly recommend opting in for this, as it doesn’t cost much more, the cheeses are delicious and being walked through the wine tasting process step by step meant for once I could actually distinguish a few of the smells and tastes everyone keeps going on about!! Before whenever I’d be asked if I could smell the berries or the leather I would sniff and nod enthusiastically.

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If you don’t get chance to go further afield and visit any of the other beautiful bodegas of South America then we highly recommend taking an afternoon to visit Concha y Toro. Our expectations were certainly exceeded!

•Full travel instruction can be found on the Concha y Toro website but we assure you it’s a really easy journey!