This post was written by long-term traveller and co-founder of Keteka – Jack Fischl.
Chile is becoming increasingly popular as a travel destination and while the top attractions are definitely worth visiting, it is also good to have a few off-the-beaten-path options ready for your trip. I’ve been living in Chile for six months, based out of Santiago, traveling consistently, and I’ve made it my mission to find unique and authentic experiences that are accessible from the main hubs. Following are some trips and travel hacks I’ve found that can help make your trip to Chile cheaper and less crowded.
Curarrehue – An Alternative to Pucon
Pucon is an adventure travel hub with excellent hiking, horseback riding, and world-class whitewater rafting. With a landscape reminiscent of Colorado (and apparently parts of rural Germany), Pucon is famous for it’s looming Villarica volcano, which is flanked by sparkling blue lakes. It’s a beautiful area, but unfortunately completely overrun during the high season (December-March), which has ideal weather for outdoor adventures. If you want to avoid inflated prices and crowded trails, the town of Curarrehue is an good alternative, and an easy one hour bus ride from Pucon.
Potential day trips include rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, and some of the area’s best and least populated treks. While the Villarica volcano is hikeable when it’s not erupting, it can be so full of tourists, that you are forced to essentially wait in line as you trudge up the extremely beaten path. Fortunately, Curarrehue has some practically unvisited peaks that offer similarly amazing views and challenging terrain.
And if you prefer a night in the country over a night in a hostel town, you can arrange to stay with a local Mapuche family, who will introduce you to their traditional food and beliefs (which they often refer to as “cosmovisión”).
La Persa (Bio Bio) Flea Market in Barrio Franklin, Santiago
If you will be in Santiago for more than about four days, La Persa is worth visiting as an opportunity to see a side of Santiago that is grittier, less affluent, and more culturally diverse than the areas you will experience on the tourist route. This is especially true if you can make it on a Saturday morning, when the market is most bustling. Gorge on cheap street food while you browse through the bizarre amalgamation of pirated clothing, furniture, antiques, and electronics. My personal highlights were watching a man walking slowly down the main strip, inexplicably, with two donkeys in tow, and later finding a stall that sold Super Nintendo games and Game Boys.
To get here, take the yellow metro line down to the Franklin stop and take a right out of the exit.
(Note that if you’re looking for artisan goods, gifts, or souvenirs, this is NOT the place. To be quite honest, Chile does not have strong locally-made artisan options, especially compared to neighboring Bolivia and Peru. Most of what you will find in the touristy Santa Lucia and Los Dominicos markets in Santiago, or in San Pedro de Atacama (the northern desert) is Peruvian. There is still some great stuff, but it is technically not authentically Chilean).
The Cheap Restaurant Row in San Pedro de Atacama
The northern Atacama desert has quickly become a top destination in Chile, and even nabbed 5th spot on the New York Times’s 2015 Top 52 Travel Destinations. San Pedro is the tourist hub – it’s a small town, that’s often operating at capacity, so restaurant prices are actually higher than in many of Santiago’s upscale barrios. Since the vast majority of the attractions near San Pedro are only accessible through a tour or a rental car, and the restaurants are pricey, a few days can become quite expensive in this desert town. Fortunately, there is a row of restaurants where the locals eat, hiding in plain sight, just outside of the main strip.
Wherever you go, you can expect to get a menú, which means a small salad, a main course (usually something like chicken and rice or mashed potatoes), and a drink (juice, soda, or bottled water). On the cheap restaurant row, you get essentially the same meal as you would in town, except it’s about half the price. So save some pesos in San Pedro and follow my sophisticated map below.
Sophisticated Map of San Pedro de Atacama
The Other Side of the Water in Puerto Natales
Almost everyone that comes through Puerto Natales is on their way to Torres del Paine National Park. Which is totally fair – the Torres and the surrounding park deserve the hype. But that unfortunately means that most travelers go right past several world-class trekking opportunities that are literally within sight of the port.
On the other side of the Antonio Varas Peninsula (the water you see from Natales), there are ancient forests, fjords, inland freshwater lakes created by snow melt, glaciers, and snow-capped mountains all around. There are also more than 50 species of birds, including condors, eagles, cormorants, woodpeckers, swans, and hawks. And despite being so close to the popular Puerto Natales, this area is virtually untouched, which means you are totally immersed in undisturbed nature, without being in completely the middle of nowhere.
These are just a few of the alternative Chile travel options from the north, south, center, and from Santiago. I’m excited to discover and share more and welcome your recommendations and input!
Author Bio: Jack Fischl is a co-founder of Keteka – a website that connects travellers with authentic experiences in Latin America and allows them to book online. He lived in rural Panama for two years as a United States Peace Corps volunteer, has traveled to over 20 countries, and currently lives in Santiago Chile.