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Atacama Desert, Chile

Chile

Stunning landscapes, unmatched adventure

Our Chile Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to Chile or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
15½ hours

Time zone
GMT -4

Currency
Chilean peso (peso) = 100 centavos

Language
Spanish

Travel advice
(UK/US) None

Travel Guide

Overview

From the dry, 1,000km long desert of the Atacama to the frozen Tierra del Fuego in the south, the high Andes that score the eastern edge of the country, to the myths and monoliths of Easter Island way out west in the Pacific, Chile is a constantly epic, rewarding destination.

Defined by its geographic edges, it is almost ungainly in its long, thin appearance yet it is packed full of stories - both celebratory and tragic - and has a rich, wonderful culture of music, literature, fine wines and feasts. It's home to a handful of cultures, old and new, including numerous indigenous minority groups, modern day Santiago's suited salesmen and the Atacama's alpaca herders, each with their own story to tell, and each well known for their welcoming attitudes and buena onda: very distinctive, easy-going Chilean good vibes.

It may be understated compared to its louder neighbours, but Chile's subtleties make it a joy to travel in and safe and easy to get around, too.

Culture & etiquette

Chilean's share much with their European ancestry and are often considered more formal and measured than their Argentine neighbours across the Andes. A handshake should do it if meeting for the first time, but more informal greetings - a kiss and a hug - are common among friends.

Family plays a central role in Chilean life and for many the Catholic Church comes in a close second. Chile is still quite conservative - divorce was legalised in 2004, homosexuality decriminalised as recently as 1999 (compared with Brazil which decriminalised it in 1830) - but a more liberal approach is emerging, bolstered by a healthy arts scene.

Drink

Most consider pisco sour - a sweet and sour cocktail of grape brandy, lemon juice, bitters, sugar and egg-white - to be the national drink of Chile and, for many, an evening has not quite begun until one of these delectable drinks has been sipped. Chilean wine has an excellent international reputation and rightly so, with luscious reds so in demand that Chile is now one of the world's largest exporters of wine. Unfortunately this means that most of the best bottles are loaded on a boat and shipped overseas, but you can still find some fine wines for good prices in restaurants and, of course, at one of the country's wineries. In contrast, Chilean beer is often outdone by international brands, which prove more popular with travellers. It is worth sampling some local brews though, especially those traditionally brewed by East European immigrants, such as Szot, a 12% ale.

On the non-alcoholic side, Chile is famous for delicious jugos naturales, freshly squeezed fruit juices of which orange, peach and raspberry are perhaps the most popular. Unfortunately coffee served in Chile is generally of the instant Nescafé variety, though espresso machines are on the rise, appearing like steaming silver saints on the counters of bars and cafes across the country.

Festivals

20 January - San Sebastian, feast day to commemorate San Sebastian

Easter - Semana Santa, Holy Week

03 May - Santa Cruz de Mayo, celebration of the cult of the Holy Cross

13 June - Noche de San Juan Bautista, feast night with a giant stew known as Estofado de San Juan

29 June - Fiesta de San Pedro, celebrations for the patron saint of the sea

mid-July - Virgen de la Tirana, the country's largest religious festival

16 July - Virgen del Carmen, military processions across Chile to honour the patron saint of the armed forces

01 November - All Saints' Day

Food & drink

Long and thin, Chile stretches over an immense variety of landscapes, all of which contribute a multitude of ingredients and therefore to the notable diversity of the country's cuisine, which is also a combination of Chilean native culture, traditional Spanish dishes and the culinary traditions of the French, Italians and Germans that arrived later. These influences, together with the vast amount of fresh produce - vegetables, fruit, a wealth of seafood from the cold waters of the Pacific and the thriving sheep and cattle ranches - have led to an eclectic national cuisine, which has some similarities to that of Peru, but evolved separately to become a distinctive and delicious culinary combination.

Popular street food and starters include humitas, seasoned ground corn wrapped in corn leaf before being boiled, and the ubiquitous empanadas, turnovers with a variety of stuffing - de Queso, with cheese, or de Pino, filled with diced meat, onions, olive, raisins and hardboiled egg, or Mariscos, the seafood version. A typically Chilean combination - half French, half local - makes for another popular snack, Pan con Palta, French bread spread with ripe avocadoes; or tasty churrascos, white buns stuffed with beef, and sometimes tomatoes or mashed avocados. Hotdogs, a legacy from German immigrants and known as Completos, are all but a craze. Milcaos - potato based pancakes - are also popular as starters or sides, but are most typically served as part of a curanto.

Curanto is a traditional feast from the south of Chile, similar to the New Zealand hangi, in which fish and other seafood, meat, potatoes, bread and milcaos are wrapped in big leaves and cooked over red hot rocks in a hole in the ground. A slightly speedier - to prepare if not to eat - version of this is Curanto en Ollo, in which the same ingredients are cooked in a pot. In either instance both seafood and meat typically feature- two of Chile's great mainstays. The former is outstanding, and so fresh that many dishes are more a case of assembly and not complicated cooking - Almejas con Limón, for instance, raw clams with a dash of lemon juice, or varieties of ceviche, in which raw fish such as sea bass is 'cooked' by a lemon or lime marinade, or superb sea urchins, in season, served with nothing more than a sprinkling of either coriander or parsley and lemon. There is so much fresh fish and shellfish to choose from thanks to the country's long coastline that the variations are vast.

Among the more unusual dishes are sea squirts, often eaten with diced onion, coriander and lemon; or Chupe de Locos, abalone cooked in a savoury bread pudding. Abalone is known as locos, which also means 'mad' so look out for some interesting menu translations, such as 'crazies with tomatoes and onions' - locos have been popular for centuries in Chile, and are widely available today. Other marine treats include Machas a la Parmesana - shellfish similar to razor clams cooked with parmesan, or Pastel de Jaiba, a crab pie, served in its own shell, or scallops grilled on the shell with butter and parmesan - Ostiones a la Parmesana. Slightly more substantial are the traditional fish pie or Pastel de pescado, Cancato, a stew of fish, onions, pepper and cheese, and the fish soups so loved in Chile, including Caldillo de Congrio, or conger-eel soup with onions, potatoes and carrots, Paila marina, a shellfish soup with herbs, Sopa de Ostras or oyster soup, and Mariscal, which is a cold soup with assorted steamed seafood seasoned with lemon and salt, and accompanied by a mixture of chopped tomatoes and onions. 

Meat is as popular in Chile as it is in neighbouring Argentina, with asados or barbeques almost as much of the culinary scene here as they are over the border. In the north, it may feature alpaca meat, but in the south it will most commonly feature lamb - an asado de cordero. There is also a special occasion asado al palo, in which a whole animal (usually a lamb) is roasted next to a wood fire to optimum tenderness. The standard accompaniment is pebre, a heady hot mixture of garlic, spicy peppers and herbs.  It's not uncommon to find entrails and offal prepared as part of an asado, and these are also used in other dishes, such as Picante de Conejo, a spicy stew of vegetables, rabbit, chicken or cow stomach, or Guatitas, a stew of cow stomach. There are a vast array of more conventional meat dishes on offer, from Pastel de Choclo, a layered pie with ground beef, chicken, olives, hard-boiled egg topped with a mixture of ground fresh corn, or Albóndingas al Jugo - meatballs in sauce, or lamb stew - Estofado de Cordera. Cazuela is the most common everyday dish - a nourishing stew with either chicken or beef, and pumpkins, potatoes, rice, onions, green peppers and coriander.

Sweets, like other aspects of Chilean cooking, have been shaped by both native and immigrant traditions, so Mote con Huesillo or cooked dried peaches and stewed corn, halfway between a drink and a pudding, and Calzones Rotos (literally 'torn underwear') fragments of sweet dough twisted before being fried are as popular as the German-inspired Kuchen, a fruit flan, and that Latin favourite, Dulche de Leche, the super-sweet caramel dessert made from milk and sugar. Fruit is a fabulous alternative if the hearty stews have taken the edge off your appetite, for the country produces everything from exotic mangoes and custard apples to rhubarb, apples and cherries.

Geography

Chile covers an area of over 750,000 square kilometres, has over 6,430km of coastline and shares 6,339km of borders with Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, with which it shares the world's third largest border. It extends long and thin over 4,200km, from 5 degrees north of the Tropic of Capricorn to Cape Horn. Its average width is 117km. The highest point is the summit of Nevado Ojos del Salado, which at 6,893 metres is the world's highest active volcano.

Getting around

Perhaps because of the obvious length of the country, transport services between north and south, from domestic flights to long-haul buses, are excellent. However train services are inadequate.  

Roads are generally well-paved and even gravel and dirt roads - more prominent in the south - are well maintained. Hiring a car will give you great freedom when visiting more remote areas. There are many hire companies to choose from, including the big international names, so check with your Wexas Travel consultant which will provide the most suitable service. Self-drive trips, in particular around Patagonia, are very popular, but for those looking to explore both the north and south, flying is a more realistic option. There are many border crossings into Argentina, and you will be able to take your car over the border.

Santiago boasts an excellent metro, which is clean and punctual. In other towns and cities, consider taking a registered cab.

History

When, in the 1980s, a 12,500-year-old footprint was discovered in Puerto Montt in Monte Verde, Chile, it threw earlier predictions of when and how the Americas were inhabited out of the water. It opened up the possibility that people may have arrived by the Bering land bridge and by other means, too, perhaps landing on the Pacific coast. Further evidence, discovered recently, appears to show that people may have been in Chile as long ago as 33,000 years.

The first few thousand years are a little hazy, but once these early people settled, they could be generally separated into three main groups: the northern people; the people of Patagonia; and the largest cultural group, the Araucanians, which included the Mapuche. When the northern Inca Empire encroached on the northern territories, they faced fierce resistance from each group, particularly from the Mapuche and Picunche in the south.

By the time the 15th century rolled around, there were over one million people living in Chile. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed (1494), bequeathing everything west of a meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde to the Spanish.

And the Spanish officially arrived in Chile in 1535, led by Diego de Almagro whose ill-fated journey led him over the frozen slopes of the Andes. Men and horses perished, and it wasn't until an expedition led by Pedro de Valdivia that the Spanish reached the Mapocho Valley and founded Santiago, in 1541. Indigenous groups reacted fiercely, but were no match for horses, firearms and foreign, infectious diseases. Within a decade, Valdivia had founded numerous settlements and, recognising the agricultural wealth of the country, laid a blueprint for colonialism. He died at the hands of the Araucanians in 1553.

This new Spanish territory, Audiencia de Chile, lasted as a colony until the early 19th-century, developing new towns, importing West African slaves and introducing taxes and encomiendas - local legal systems that were subject to the Spanish crown. Chile was never a highly prosperous part of the Spanish Empire, however, and was more useful as a source of food to the Viceroyalty of Peru than anything else.

By 1810, the criollo class - Chilean-born Spaniards - had grown restless with Madrid and an independence movement - mirroring those across Latin America - started to gain traction. José de San Martin, who had liberated Argentina, crossed the Andes into Spanish Chile a few years later, defeating the colonialists at the battles of Chacabuco and Maipu and soon occupying Santiago. In 1818, San Martin's right hand man, Bernardo O'Higgins became supreme head of a new, independent government.

The first few years of this new Chile (which was much smaller than its modern day size) were relatively prosperous. As the rest of Latin America endured an economic slump, Chile set about further investing in mining and agriculture, buoyed by an initial optimism of independence.  In 1879 the War of the Pacific broke out between Chile and a united Bolivia and Peru, following a dispute over commercial rights to the (Bolivian) Atacama. Five years later Chile took control of large portions of the Atacama and the Tacna and Arica provinces of Peru; where once Bolivia had enjoyed a stretch of coastline, it was now a landlocked country. At the same time, the country expanded its southern Pacific presence, occupying Easter Island, though it lost much of Patagonia to Argentina.

The nitrate boom years followed, accompanied by the construction of railroads and an influx of capital investment from British, North American and other European companies. It brought with it a level of prosperity to a handful of individuals within and outside of government and, with a growing working class, conflicting political lines of conservatism and liberalism were threatening the country's stability. The result, after liberal President José Manuel Balmaceda was forced from office by a conservative Congress in 1890, was the Civil War of 1891.

Though it lasted less than a year, over 10,000 people died, with the navy and army backing opposing sides. The victorious conservative Congress saw an end to the Liberal Republic that had first been instigated in 1861 - though the new Parliamentary Era continued many of the major public works projects that had been so controversial under Balmaceda.

The following years brought economic hardship - the Panama Canal opened in 1914, reducing the importance of Chile's Pacific seaports, and the country's dependence on nitrate revenue became increasingly problematic. Over three-quarters of the rural population remained dependent on haciendas, large land holdings, and thus large swathes of the electorate were under the influence of a small group of wealthy landowners. It wasn't until Carlos Ibáñez del Campo returned to power democratically in the 1950s that any real land reform was introduced; he also revoked a ban on the Communist Party, making way for the creation of a number of new leftie parties in the late 1950s of which one, the Christian Democrats, handled power under Eduardo Frei Montalva between 1964-70.

In 1970, with the support of the Christian Democrats, Salvador Allende came to power, the first Marxist to become president of a Latin American country through open elections. His three years in power were dogged by inefficient policy, economic collapse and mishandling of Chilean resources. As a result, in September 1973 General Augusto Pinochet implemented a violent coup d'état, overthrowing Allende and murdering many of his supporters, marking the end to civilian rule in Chile until 1990. 

A period of brutal dictatorship followed. Pinochet banned all socialist parties, suspended all opposition and implemented the 'Caravan of Death', a group that travelled by helicopter across the country murdering political opponents. His brutal suppression of political opponents spread overseas, with high-profile assassinations carried out in Argentina, Italy and the US. In 1980 he drafted a new constitution, ratifying his presidency until 1989. Throughout his time in power, thousands of Chileans were 'disappeared'; tortured, killed or exiled.

By 1983 the regime became increasingly imbalanced and opposition groups grew braver and more public in their dissent but it wasn't until 1989 that Pinochet stepped down and Chile held multiparty elections. Democracy was slow to build, with Pinochet's military senate appointees still blocking reform and Pinochet himself retaining his role as lifetime senator. It wasn't until the early 2000s, following his arrest in London in 1998, that he finally stepped down. He avoided the courts and died, in December 2006, without ever being convicted of his crimes.

Since 1990, Chile has had five presidents, including the country's first female president, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, who was tortured under Pinochet. It has enjoyed economic success and an increasing say in regional relations and international affairs, though dealings with Peru and Bolivia remain somewhat frosty.

Tipping

Like the UK, tipping is optional in Chile, but customers are usually expected to tip 10% of the bill if the service has been good. Waiting staff are generally poorly paid, so tips can make a significant difference to their overall earnings.

Taxi drivers do not expect tips, but consider rounding up the total - if nothing else, it will prevent you from being left with tiny, almost impossible to use denominations.

Where to eat

During the day, markets, especially those selling seafood, provide a great taste of traditional foods and dishes, so they're a fun way to stroll and sample while soaking up some local atmosphere. Along the coast, almost every port has a small market or a selection of seafood restaurants, in smaller places, it may be possible to eat with the fishermen themselves. Out in the countryside, rural kitchens turn out traditional dishes, while in urban centres visitors have their pick of fast food outlets, authentic street snacks, and in the largest cities, a range of restaurants serving everything from Chilean classics to Middle Eastern staples such as falafel. Santiago in particular, has become something of a gastronomic hub running the range from authentic to avant-garde. The appearance of a restaurant won't necessarily reflect the quality of the food - though the chances are that the more refined the restaurant, the more extensive the menu. Lunch tends to be the main meal of the day for locals, and many restaurants offer great value fixed-meals at lunchtime, making this a good time to experiment. The chances are, wherever you pick, whatever time of day, the abundance and variety of the local produce will ensure an interesting and often tasty dining experience.   

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