Visitors to South America would be mad to miss Chile: its charming cities are full of personality, while its natural landscapes have real wow factor. On my round the world trip, I could only spend two weeks in Chile but it was one of the highlights of my whole journey. And this year is the time to come. Valparaiso, the UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its street art, has been voted by Forbes as one of the 38 Cheapest Places to Travel in 2019, while the dramatic landscape of Chile‘s Atacama desert is the best place to witness the rare and spectacular total solar eclipse forecast for July 2019. Read on for my ultimate guide to Chile backpacking and the best itinerary for two weeks.
Planning your Chile backpacking route
With natural scenery ranging from the world’s driest desert to vast icefields and glaciers, as well as the highest mountain range outside Asia and even rainforests, Chile is arguably one of the best places to visit in South America. The cities are colourful and relaxed, the people are friendly and the food and wine is magnificent. Slow travel is the ideal way of backpacking through Chile, but if you only have two weeks you can still experience plenty of what this country has to offer.
Where to go in Chile depends on your preferences. If you are arriving on an international flight, like me, chances are you will arrive in the capital city of Santiago de Chile. As the country is very long and thin – over 2,650 miles (4,270 km) long, in fact, and an average of just over 100 miles (175 km) wide – your Chile backpacking itinerary will need to be selective. Would you rather head down from Santiago to the southernmost extremities of Chile and go backpacking in the Patagonia region? Or fly 2000 miles (3500 km) east to see the mysterious moai statues of Easter Island? Or travel 1000 miles (1600 km) north to experience the delights of the Atacama desert?
For my two week Chile travel itinerary, I really wanted to go and see Easter Island, but unfortunately the flights were too expensive. I’d recommend booking in advance if this is your plan. As I’d just spent several months in Australia and New Zealand during their winter, I wasn’t keen to head to the frozen south of Patagonia, even if they do have cute penguins there. So, the best Chile itinerary for me was to head north from Santiago, via the UNESCO World Heritage site of Valparaiso, to the heat of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. Not a bad set of sights for just a few days.
Travel Chile on a budget
You may be wondering, how much does it cost to travel in Chile? It’s definitely possible to travel Chile cheaply. Over the two weeks I was travelling around Chile in 2013, I spent the equivalent of US$150 on transportation, $265 on food and drink, and $230 on beds in hostel dorm rooms. Overall, the cost of my trip to Chile (not including airfares) was just over $1000, which works out at around $77 a day. This included a busy schedule of travelling through Chile and taking several tours. If you are able to slow down and spend more time here, your Chile backpacking budget will work out even cheaper.
Some things to bear in mind for your Chile travel budget: it’s customary to tip 10% in restaurants, while taxis drivers do not expect a tip, though you may wish to round up the fare.
Where to stay in Santiago de Chile for backpackers
Ancient snow-capped Andes mountains calmly cast their gaze over Santiago de Chile, where silver skyscrapers stand next to historic cathedrals. The country’s capital is a charming and surprisingly understated city. You can easily spend a couple of days here at the beginning and end of your Chile backpacking trip.
For backpackers in Santiago de Chile, there are plenty of accommodation options. I stayed at the Rado Boutique Hostel near the bars and restaurants of the bohemian Barrio Bellavista district. This cool, contemporary hostel is decorated with rock music murals.
Using public transport, it takes half an hour to travel into the city centre, but we walked it most of the time. The hostel also has laid-back communal areas, which are great for meeting fellow backpackers, and a terrace with incredible views over to the mountains. Prices start at $19 (I paid $21 per night) including breakfast.
A nearby, similarly priced hostel is Santiago Backpackers. This one is located in building that is 100 years old and has all the vintage details you’d expect. As well as complimentary breakfast, staff serve weekly dinners and sometimes free drinks too.
Tucking into the tasty Chilean food
On my first night in the Rado hostel, I met a lovely English girl called Katie, who was also on a round the world trip. That evening, we headed out to a restaurant called in Barrio Bellavista for dinner. I opted for a fish and seafood ceviche, a dish comprising raw fish, squid and octopus marinated in citrus juices, which was light, tingly and fresh to taste. One of my favourite seafood dishes here was machas con parmesan – razor clams topped with gooey, oozing parmesan.
Street food is also popular in Santiago, with stalls serving pastry treats such as empanadas and ‘Italiano’ hot dogs topped with fresh chopped tomato, avocado and mayonnaise (symbolising the red, green and white of the Italian flags). Also sold on street carts is mote con huesillo, a sweet drink containing dried peaches and soft husked wheat. It comes served with a spoon, as it’s almost a meal.
Another local drink we tried was terremoto, which translates as ‘earthquake’ – presumably because of the raging hangover it gives you if you drink too much. It’s made up of white wine, grenadine, bitters and… pineapple ice-cream. While we weren’t sure at first, once the ice-cream had melted we enjoyed it so much we ordered a second jug. The most popular alcoholic drink with the Chileans we met was pisco, a type of brandy which is usually drunk with Coke (called piscola) or bitter lemon (pisco sour). This drink is certainly a party starter.
Another Chilean dish we enjoyed here was chorrillana: a huge mound of a meal, made up of chips, beef, sausage, fried onions and topped with fried egg, it is often shared and is a student junk-food favourite. I happily devoured mine with a large Corona beer. We also sampled a ‘gourmet’ version with seared beef strips marinated in Merlot, alongside caramelised red onions and potato wedges, which was delicious. Smoked pork is also big in Chile and a smoked pork leg I was served was just enormous – almost the size of my head. But the meat was so tender it fell off the bone so the friends at my table were more than happy to help me out with it.
Free walking tour of Santiago
Our hostel recommended a free four-hour walking tour of Santiago, during which our guide Franco described the country’s shocking history and how that has informed its citizens’ modern day life.
If you prefer to be picked up by vehicle from your accommodation, you can book a sightseeing tour of Santiago online here.
Chile’s spell under Pinochet’s brutal 16-year military dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s saw the General’s critics forcefully silenced and any attempts at culture or expression by the people effectively squashed. Franco showed us sights including beautiful cathedrals, statues and La Moneda Palace. You can still see bullet holes in the palace, from when it was attacked during the military coup d’état in 1971 and where President Allende made his last speech before he died inside.
These days, the ability to freely and happily express yourself in Chile, either creatively or politically, is seen as a gift. Every day you can see impromptu performances with costumes, stilts, and guys skillfully juggling in front of traffic stopped at lights for spare change. There are huge signs advertising music festivals and opera houses sell affordable tickets so everyone can access the performances. In the city parks, dozens of couples, straight and gay, lounge on the grass snuggling up to each other. Political demonstrations are plentiful, despite a visible armed military presence, tanks and all. I heard that a fellow traveller’s bus journey was delayed by four hours because of a demonstration in the city, while the police stood by and watched.
Climb up to Cerro San Cristobal
A ride up the city’s funicular cable car (around $4 for a return trip) leads to Cerro San Cristóbal, a mount with a small chapel and shops serving refreshments. High up at the top stands the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, gazing humbly over the bustling metropolis. She is reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer but without his giant-sized glitz and glamour.
Looking down at the city from here you realise quite high up you are, but it is a peaceful tourist spot that offers a welcome respite from the city’s heat.
Tour of the famous Concha y Toro winery
Chilean wine is loved around the world, so we visited the Concha y Toro winery to have a taste of some of the best. It’s located just under two hours south of Santiago by public transport, which costs around $5 for the return journey. If you’re on a backpackers’ budget, public bus is often the best way to travel in Chile. The Concha y Toro tours are priced from $25 so not cheap, but it’s a great day out if you are a wine lover. As the region’s largest producer of wines, Concha y Toro is one of the global leaders in its field.
Don Melchor de Santiago Concha y Toro and his wife founded the winery in 1883, importing varieties of grapes from France. On the tour, we learned how the Andes mountains protect these vineyards in the Maipo River valley from the elements, providing ideal conditions for these grapes to grow. As we walked around the beautiful sunny grounds and into the cool, dark cellars, the guide told us how local thieves kept breaking in and stealing the Concha y Toro wine. To deter the thieves, Don Melchor invented a rumour that the cellars and its wines were cursed, inspiring the winery’s most famous brand name, Casillero del Diablo, meaning ‘devil’s locker.’ Of course, at the end of the tour we sampled a few of these renowned wines.
Street art tour of Valparaíso
One of the things that had attracted me to Chile was its street art. I’d heard much of the best artwork was in a city called Valparaíso on the coast, an hour and a half’s bus ride from Santiago (around $15 for a return ticket). Katie and I decided this would be the next stop on our backpacking Chile route.
Here, large colourful murals adorn the walls of its residents’ homes. In fact, this city’s historical quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with work taking place to restore its more dilapidated streets.
When we arrived in Valparaíso, it was the first of November – a national holiday in Chile for All Saints’ Day. To get to know the city, we did a four-hour walking tour to explore its astonishing street art. Around every corner was another vivid and intricate artwork.
Prepare your trip in advance and book your Valparaiso walking tour here for instant confirmation.
Exploring the city’s maze of winding paths, steep streets and stairways uncovered the quirkiness and multicultural influences of this unique port city, as we shared this arty adventure with our walking tour group.
Some of the local guys staying in our hostel had left their apartments in the big smoke of Santiago to enjoy the long weekend in Valparaíso. This meant we had plenty of company for pisco sour-fuelled parties at the city’s popular clubs and bars. The next day, we all took a 20-minute bus ride to the neighbouring city of Viña del Mar for lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Street dogs in the city
In Chile’s cities, there are many stray dogs. Most of them are happy and healthy, because the locals take it upon themselves to feed and look after them. The people here believe that these dogs belong to no-one and to everyone.
While in the daytime the dogs are placid, sleeping on the concrete in the warm sun – one we saw was using the kerb as a pillow – at night, you can hear them barking and howling as they fight over their territory. What’s really cute is that the local people build little houses for these street dogs and make jackets to keep them warm in the winter.
Chile for non-Spanish speakers
If you are an English speaker, the language barrier is notable in South America compared with Asia. Many shop assistants and even tour operators don’t speak English. When I needed to buy something, I often found myself trying to act out what I was after, like a game of charades. Signing up for a yoga class in Santiago led to an amusing 90 minutes. The teacher, who spoke little English, didn’t demonstrate the moves and everyone went at their own pace. I just attempted to keep up and try to look cool. Luckily, it turns out that many yoga terms are universal, so mostly I got it, I think.
Travelling to the Atacama desert
The next port of call on our Chile backpacking two-week itinerary was San Pedro de Atacama, a town at the entrance of the Atacama desert. It’s a 24 hour bus ride to San Pedro from Santiago, which cost us around $100 for a return ticket. Internal flights are available from Santiago to the nearby Calama, which only takes two hours, followed by a bus journey of just over an hour to San Pedro. If you book in advance and it’s low season, you can get flights for as little at $40 return, but at the time we travelled the 24 hour bus ticket was considerably cheaper than flying.
After the full day and night’s bus ride, we arrived in San Pedro at 9am, tired and spaced out. Our ears had popped and water bottles had pressurised during the journey due to the increasing altitude: San Pedro is 2,408 metres above sea level. Luckily we received a warm welcome at the laid back and bohemian style Hostal Rural, where we could put our feet up in one of their amazing hammocks.
In need of a nutritious meal after the copious crisps and cheese snacks we’d eaten during the journey, we found a great café nearby to quench our thirst, replenish our energy levels and revive our bones.
Star-gazing in the desert
Advertised at our hostel was the chance to go star-gazing, taking advantage of the desert’s legendarily clear skies. After visiting some of the many tour operators in San Pedro to see what else was on offer, we chose a star-gazing trip run by a local company that has its own mini-observatory, complete with what they claimed was one of Chile’s largest telescopes. The price was around $27.
After the heat of the day, the temperatures plummeted at night, so we had to wrap up in as many layers, thermals and fleeces as we could. This explained why there were so many alpaca-wool gloves and hats for sale on the tourist shops. Our star-gazing host was knowledgeable and a great storyteller, clearly passionate about astronomy from a social and cultural perspective, as well as scientific. He led us into the backyard where he used a powerful laser to point out various constellations. The sky was so vast with twinkling stars as far as the eye could see and the moon beamed like a torch.
Then we entered the observatory. Here we were invited to peer into the telescope to see some of the constellations up close. It was incredible. One star that we could see with the naked eye, under the telescope’s magnification – more than 180 times – revealed itself to actually be a cluster of twinkling stars. Another was a pair of stars orbiting each other in a flirtatious galactic dance, each emitting a beautiful blue and yellow glow. I was lucky enough to see a shooting star fly past as I looked through the telescope’s lens. More stars were pointed out, each more stunning than the last, some as radiant and glittering as diamonds. When each of us took our turn using the huge cannon-sized telescope, there were gasps of delight as we realised what we were seeing. An awe-inspiring experience.
Sandboarding on the dunes
The next day we booked a trip to go sandboarding on the desert dunes. Combined with a visit to the Valley de la Luna, the day trip cost around $27. We journeyed into the Atacama desert in a minivan and arrived at the sloping sand dunes.
With my sandboarding boots, I trudged up the sand dune in the afternoon heat and fixed them to the newly waxed board. After a short tuition from our guide, I propelled myself down what seemed like an intimidatingly steep slope.
I steadily gained speed and, after a couple of strategic falls into the soft sand, soon found myself really enjoying it. If I get the opportunity to try this brilliant sport again I will have to hone my skills, though the instructor was happy with my control of the board. I’m clearly a natural.
Exploring the Valley de la Luna
After the excitement of the sandboarding, we got back on the bus. Our next stop was the salt caves, which we squeezed through, discovering walls covered in salt stalagmite-type scales, which made twinkly musical note sounds when stroked gently with your fingers.
Then we entered deep into the Valley de la Luna. Named because of the landscape’s resemblance of the moon’s surface, it was beautifully desolate with mile-wide craters and a amphitheatre naturally created from the rock worn by the elements over thousands of years. This trip is good if you’re keen on hiking in Chile, as the scenery is so unique.
We started making our way up one of the mountains. Many hiking tours are known to visit the same places in Chile’s Valley de la Luna, resulting in crowds of people, which must lessen the impact of this dramatic place. Our tour guide goes a different route. My old, beaten up trainers weren’t ideal, slipping on the loose sand and parched rock – I’d recommend wearing proper hiking shoes – but I made it to the summit with a little help from my friends.
From the top, we took photos and watched the sun go down, sipping pisco sour while our guide shared the mythological tales of the mountains. A really special experience.
More to do in the desert
As I only had two weeks in Chile, I only spent three days in San Pedro, but there is so much more to do here. Lagoons so salty you can float in them, spurting geysers, rare rock formations and flocks of wild flamingos (one example of such a tour is here, though unfortunately I didn’t have time to do it, as I needed to catch my flight to Rio de Janeiro). I even spotted a flyer for a yoga trip to one of the lagoons. Sitting beside a serene blue lake in the mountainous desert while practising yoga sounds blissful to me.
It is said that if you eat mango in the Atacama desert that it is destined that you will return. While I didn’t taste any of this deliciously tempting fruit, I may well still be compelled to come back to this special place.
As I settled in for my return 24 hour bus trip to Santiago, I reflected on my incredible two week itinerary in Chile. As well as the memorable cities, natural scenery and experiences, I realised that travelling, for me, is a lot about the connections with people along the way. This is what makes it such a fun and enriching experience. In Chile, the local people I met were so open, friendly, warm and obviously enjoying life, it was just a joy to hang out with them.
Next up, read about my experiences of backpacking in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and the city’s dramatic stories, here.