Writing our title, we realized we sound a little crazy. Chile is huge. How the heck did we experience it in only 5 days? Why did we rush it? Was it worth the quick trip? Today, we’re sharing our travels through San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago, Valparaiso, and Vina del Mar.
First and foremost, for anyone that’s doing some longer-term budget travel, we’d definitely recommend a little more time for Chile. Our plans wound up changing big time once we arrived, and so our travels through Chile were pretty much made up on the spot. Our reason for bussing across the border from Bolivia to Chile after our Salt Flats tour was because we had a flight (well several flights that is) from Calama in northern Chile down to Punta Arenas to see the Patagonia region. The time we originally planned for Chile was very short unfortunately, so we had only intended to hike the W trail at Torres del Paine and didn’t plan to see any other cities.
We booked our flight out of Calama so that we could take a bus into the country; we heard that traveling by land you could save on the $150 reciprocity fee that Chile charges American travelers, and it was a great way to save that money, especially since many of the Salar de Uyuni tours provide transfers into San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
San Pedro de Atacama
We bussed from Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama at the end of our Salt Flats tour, and we definitely took some risks in doing so. We didn’t take out quite enough money from the ATMs in Uyuni and didn’t realize just how remote our tour would be… luckily the girls on our tour were awesome and they exchanged us some US dollars for our remaining Bolivianos (Thanks again Kelly & Sara!). We had just enough Bolivianos left to pay our exit fee ($15) before entering into Chile. The bus ride itself is beautiful, and our entire bus started clapping once we reached a paved highway in Chile – the vast majority of the “roads” we traveled in Bolivia were dirt, and it felt great to drive on pavement again!
I was having a little (okay maybe a lot..) of anxiety about the border crossing. We had read many blogs and travel sites that recommended entering Chile by bus to avoid the $150 reciprocity fee, but it was no guarantee. If we showed up at the border control and they asked for the fee, we would be $450 short. Considering the border control leaving Bolivia was a little trailer in the middle of the desert, I couldn’t imagine there would be an ATM close by if needed. Needless to say without that money we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the country, and Nicole had her flight home to the States the following day as well as our flight to Patagonia. Cue the nervous wreck.
Luckily, nothing happened and we were allowed to enter Chile without the fee (and with our open bottle of whiskey in the bus – the officers got a little chuckle out of that!). When we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, we opted to follow a group of backpackers to find a hostel to stay for the night. Since this town survives on tourism, the hotels and hostels can get pretty pricey. We found a very basic hostel at the top of a hill, right next to the bus stop – perfect for our trip to the airport the following day. For $20 a piece, we booked a four-person room for the three of us to have a little privacy and relax after three days in a jeep.
Changing Our Plans
We toured around the town of San Pedro for the rest of the day. It was a really cute town, with plenty of little shops and restaurants. We shared some delicious pizza for lunch and then found a place along the main square to have a beer. Unfortunately, I had a hard time shaking off the anxiety and was still uneasy about our travel plans the next day. You see, our last flight into Uyuni was probably the scariest any of us had taken – we landed on a pitch black tiny strip in the middle of a desert in a prop plane during a thunderstorm – and Pete was not ready to get back on a plane. As someone who has flown quite a bit in the past, Pete was having very unexpected, horrible anxiety about flying, and we were seriously reconsidering our travel plans. We spent a majority of this day trying to figure out if we should cancel our flight (which also meant canceling Patagonia) and busing to Santiago instead. Ironically enough, Nicole’s flight had some issues itself, as the East Coast was in blizzard mode and all NYC-area airports were being shut down. So naturally we did all we could to try to convince her to just stick around for the rest of the trip… to no avail.
In the end, we decided that as badly as we wanted to see Patagonia, it wasn’t going anywhere and it wasn’t worth Pete’s anxiety. We realized we really needed more than a week to explore all it has to offer and that we’d have to just save it for another trip to South America! (Anyone ready to start planning? Nicole?..) We spent our last night together enjoying a delicious meal from Adobe thanks to a treat from my mom! The three of us had some of the most amazing food of our trip and obviously had a few tastes of the famous Chilean wine from the region 😉
Once we made the decision to change our plans, we were both pumped to add Santiago to our list. Getting there was a little rough, as it was our first experience with the overnight buses. Since we booked the morning of, there were no “luxury” buses or even premium seats left on the regular bus, so we were stuck with riding Semi Cama on a Pullman Bus. Essentially, these seats are the same as a Greyhound in the States; they extend back a little bit, but certainly not the best for sleeping. We quickly learned that you need to pack lots of snacks and maybe charge some electronics for the journey. As serious newbies to the overnight buses, we of course did neither of those and instead did lots of thinking and praying during our 23 hour bus ride down to Santiago.
After our insanely long bus ride, we opted to cab to our hostel. We arrived outside a closed building with a sign that our driver translated for us: they had been shut down for not paying taxes. Despite having just booked the night before on Hostelbookers, apparently the place had been closed for weeks. We were directed to another hostel nearby and thankfully they had room for us! We quickly hopped on WhatsApp to ping Nicole, as the NYC weather had redirected her flights and gave her a 24-hour layover in Santiago (there are just no coincidences in life!). We couldn’t have been more thrilled to have a few more hours hanging with her, especially since our departure in San Pedro was so rushed and stressful. We made guacamole and reminisced over a few beers.
A Quick (And Very Big) Thank You!
As a quick aside, we can’t thank Nicole enough for joining us on our travels. She’s been one of my closest friends since we were young, and as soon as we mentioned our trip to her last summer, she immediately started planning. She rented out a room in her house to save the extra money, booked her flights, hiked 45km through Incan Ruins right by our side, and laughed her way through our struggles in the Salt Flats. She is just one of those people who never lets anything get in her way and does whatever she needs to do make her dreams happen. She’s one of the most hard-working, fun-loving, adventurous (she’s already on her next trip to Greece!), spirited people we know, and we cannot express our gratitude to her for sharing this experience with us! Nicole, you are the simply the best.
The Chilean Way Tour
Our first full day in Santiago we explored in our favorite way: by foot. Recommended by our hostel, we went on the Chilean Way Tour, a company started by our guide, Sebastian, as a way to show tourists the “local” version of Santiago. We LOVED it. It was such a different way to experience the city, and we think it’s a genius idea that more cities need to adopt! We saw everything from the important government buildings to the Cafe con Piarnas, or “coffee with legs.” It’s essentially a coffee shop with a strip club vibe; however, it’s only open during weekday working hours and doesn’t serve any alcohol! The women walk around in very tiny bathing suits and stilettos and serve your coffee from a raised platform in the middle of the dimly lit room. Needless to say, it was a local experience that we never would have seen without the tour. We also explored the local markets and had delicious fresh fruit smoothies. We bought avocados for $0.20 a pop – that is, after Pete was yelled at for squeezing them to tell which were ripe. Apparently, that’s not a thing there! Woops.
Our local tour ended at a local bar El Hoyo where we were introduced to Terremotos. We should’ve known that a drink called Earthquake was no joke. I could barely finish the Replica (which means “aftershock,” because it’s the smaller version of the drink). It was far too sweet for our liking; it is made with pineapple sorbet, grenadine, white wine, and fernet. The tour itself though was such a great way to spend our day seeing so may different parts of the city. We also met some awesome Aussies on our tour who wound up being great friends during our travels!
Our day ended by buying our bus tickets to Mendoza for the weekend and making some guac and chips at our hostel – our new favorite dinner.
Day Trip to Valparaiso & Vina del Mar
We woke up early the next day to catch the metro to the bus station and buy tickets for our quick trip to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. We heard great things about these cities, and since they are only 1 1/2 hours away by bus, we decided to make a day of it. Of course, we had a nice luxury bus for our short journey!
As what now seems typical for us, we arrived to Valparaiso with a map and no plan. We knew where the free walking tours left from, so we decided to head in that direction, thinking there would be sights to see. Being very honest, it was not what we expected upon arrival. We were both wearing bathing suits and beach cover ups, and it was quite a chilly city. Everyone else was wearing jeans and jackets, and we felt more than a little out of place. Our walk from the bus station to Plaza Independencia must have taken us through a financial district or business area, because it was very crowded and not very scenic. We were a bit nervous and uncomfortable sticking out like sore thumbs with no idea where we were headed.
When we finally arrived to the Plaza, a bit while later than we expected, we were both pretty hungry. We stopped to have a bite at a cafe on the main corner and used their wifi to look up some kind of plan for the rest of our day. We wound up finding our Airbnb for Mendoza as well since we were leaving so early the next day. After circling some sights on our map and figuring out how we’d get to Vina del Mar in the afternoon, we set out to find the “cerro” or neighborhood that was meant to have a ton of cool street art.
While we found some awesome graffiti and what we thought was the right area, we had gone in the wrong direction (naturally). When we rerouted and realized that there was a funicular to reach the top of the neighborhood we were looking for, we decided we’d save a few dollars and take the athletic route: walking the stairs up to the top. Well, that plan lasted for all of three minutes. Right before the entrance of the stairs, a security guard warned us to be safe and keep our eyes open. After turning our first corner and seeing two men sitting at the end staring at us, we quickly turned around and paid the tiny fair for the funicular up. Definitely did not seem like a safe option to walk!
The areas of Alegre and Conception were totally worth it! We were happy to see more of the kind of city we were expecting when we arrived. The views of the little city and the ocean were unbeatable, and there is beautiful graffiti on every corner. Many of the streets are lined with bohemian-style cafes and art shops, and it felt much safer walking around these areas. It was amazing to see how graffiti could be used for art and beauty and really add to the culture of the city – we kept saying if there was a place like this in the States we’d need to move there! You just can’t help but be happy when surrounded by art on every corner. From the stairs to the lampposts, everything is covered in art. It had a very “all love and creativity and no judgments here!” vibe to it. After walking around for a while and weaving in and out of artisan shops, we headed back towards the metro to enjoy some beach time at Vina del Mar.
Vina del Mar
We were nervous we wouldn’t get to enjoy much of the beach since we were traveling so much throughout the day, but since Vina del Mar is only 20ish minutes from Valparaiso, we had to give it a shot. Looking back, we probably should’ve done a tad more research into the beach. We assumed we’d walk out of the metro and step onto a beautiful Chilean beach; we were very wrong.
After wandering around aimlessly, thinking we were following the most formally-dressed beach goers we’d ever seen, we finally stopped to ask directions for La Playa. Looking back, calling this a beach is a very generous term. The “sand” was mostly dirt and for such a small strip of land, it was covered with people. The water itself was very rough and not recommended for swimming. Still, after making such an effort to find the place, we posted up for an hour or two to just relax and talk. We enjoyed some snacks and our nice cheap box of wine (only $3!) before leaving around 5:30 to get back to Santiago before dark (we heard it wasn’t the safest around the bus terminal after 8 or so).
Last Night in Our Hostel
After quite a day of exploring, we relaxed at our hostel, the Princesa Insolente. We shared drinks and stories with the Aussies we had met on the walking tour, as well as some Kiwis staying at our hostel. It wound up being a really great night, and we were thrilled to be able to meet people who were also traveling in the same direction as us. By far one of our favorite parts of traveling was all of the people we met along the way – it’s amazing to hear their stories and backgrounds and learn why they’re on their own journey. It was crazy to hear how for the Kiwis, this trip was sort of like a right of passage. No one questioned what they were doing or its worth, and it was highly encouraged for them to travel for a few months to a year. Theirs is a culture that supports exploration and self-discovery through travel, and we definitely think they have the right mindset on that. We both learned so much more about ourselves, each other, and the world around us in our short three months of travel than we ever could have imagined. The conversations we had with our fellow travelers the last night in Chile just confirmed that to us: travel might just be the best money you could ever spend on yourself.