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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

20 July 2011

Chile nutshell

Chile wasn’t the most satisfying country to visit. It has some wonderful landscapes, truly breath-taking, but it sometimes feels like you get developing world quality for developed world prices. The Chilean people make up for this by being wonderfully friendly and helpful. For the prices below, exchange rate was 750 pesos to £1 when we visited.

Accommodation

Accommodation we encountered in Chile generally sits in the ‘adequate’ category, as we didn’t have any real nightmares but nor did we find many places with great charm (exception: our cabin at Chepu). You might pay £30 for an en-suite room in a good backpacker place or a decent budget hotel, or this might go up over £40 in a touristy place like San Pedro de Atacama or for a more boutique option. This all ends up seeming regrettably poor value, when you can find similar places cheaper in developing countries or charming places for only a little more in New Zealand.

At least there was usually hot water. It’s worth noting that you never seem to get your own coffee-making facilities in South American hotels, and that there are plenty of places with no heating or where you must request a heater – and much of Chile is very cold in the winter, either due to altitude or latitude.

Food

Oh dear. Chile has frankly had the most disappointing food of the fourteen countries we’ve visited, except possibly Madagascar. They prefer bland food, and have a particular fondness for churrasco – thinly sliced beef stuck in a bun with a range of accompanying ingredients. Even trying to go up-market (no easy thing outside of Santiago or Valparaiso) we didn’t find anything very special. I guess we usually managed to spend £12 on a light churrasco-style meal for two with soft drinks, or £25+ on a more involved dinner.

Drink

The coffee in Chile is often crappy instant, and alarmingly the instant coffee is often better than filter coffee. They basically don’t keep their machines clean, so the coffee tastes yucky. At least I found the odd place that did a decent cafe cortado – my drink of choice in Chile, an espresso with some hot milk to lengthen it. You can get some good fresh fruit juices in Chile, although on average definitely not as good as those in Peru or Ecuador.

The wine we had with meals was all Chilean and decently drinkable red. I’m particularly a fan of the local Carmenere grape, which was born to go with pasta. Perhaps more often than wine we took a Pisco Sour with our meals, an appealingly tangy drink of grape spirit, sugar and lime juice whizzed up with some egg white. When well made it is gorgeous. The local beer is typical yellow fizz, the same the world over.

Expect to pay almost UK prices for most of the drinks here, maybe 30% less.

Transport

Driving a car in Chile is no problem, the local drivers tend to behave reasonably and don’t even drive as fast as the typical UK speed-demon (i.e. me). Car hire rates from the big companies (Hertz etc.) are rubbish, more expensive than the UK or Australia, so seek out a local dealer perhaps offering used cars for rent. Roads are typically good, but if you head into the wilder parts of the country then check carefully beforehand as many dirt roads end up needing high clearance vehicles.

We took a couple of long distance buses, and they were clean machines with seats assigned at booking time and luggage kept below the bus. Perfectly good, easy to sleep on, good value too.

Weather

We were in Chile in winter, and the country lived up to its name. From around Valparaiso southwards it is cold everywhere, right down to the coast. A sunny day can be cosy, but otherwise you’ll need to wrap up and at night it could be nearly freezing. In addition, the high altitude areas like San Pedro de Atacama or Lauca in the far north are definitely cold and truly freezing at night – each morning small streams and ponds would be frozen. In the sun it becomes just about nice, as long as the wind ain’t blowing. Which leaves just a narrow northern coastal strip from Arica to Antofagasta that could actually have T-shirt weather in the winter, and only require a light jacket at night.

Scams, hassle and crime
We didn’t see much hassle, and weren’t scammed. For all the less than glowing things I’ve said about Chile in other sections, it feels like a safer country than anywhere else we’ve been in South America.

Hiking and wildlife watching

We didn’t do much of any hiking in Chile, not finding the energy at high altitude and generally hopping around too often to spare a day for a walk. There’s some very special and interesting wildlife to see, but it doesn’t occur with such great diversity as in other places you might go. Chiloe Island and Lauca NP were the highlights for us. You can generally go looking for the wildlife by yourself in the places we went, although obviously any opportunity to get a local guide would be best.

Regional variations

Chiloe Island is green and wet and very rural. The whole of the north from Arica down past Antofagasta is a bleak and bone-dry desert right down to the seashore, and it’s only when you get right up to the high altiplano among the Andean peaks that vegetation takes hold again – grasses, cacti and low bushes.

There was not much evidence of local culture and people in the areas we went to, it’s a developed country and pretty much everyone we encountered were just modern Chileans with about as much variation (to our eyes) as you’d get across England.

Conclusion
Chile was not a fantastic country to visit. In part this was down to the winter, and how little we liked the cold. In part it was down to the food, which was average at best and terribly dull in most places. And in part it was the accommodation, which didn’t feel like good value (having been in South-East Asia and New Zealand, to give contrasting examples) and was often not heated well enough to make us feel comfortable. That said, I must emphasise one positive thing which almost trumps everything else: the Chilean people are incredibly friendly and helpful, every single one of them, and I mean that even by comparison with many other places we’ve been. Lovely people.

We liked best:

  • Watching marine otters at Punhuil
  • Watching southern river otters at Chepu
  • Soaking in a hot pool at 4,500m surrounded by mountains at Salar de Surire
  • Horseriding in the Catarpe valley near San Pedro de Atacama
  • The tour to El Tatio geysers and the secret Viscacha valley

We liked least:

  • Being really cold, everywhere
  • Getting stuck in crappy Calama for a day and a night
  • Rubbish food most everywhere


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