MIRADOR TORRES DEL PAINE

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If you make the trip to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile, there is one thing you MUST do while there whether you’re hiking the circuit, the W, or staying just one night. I personally demand that you visit the Mirador Torres del Paine at sunrise. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, and unique sights you will ever experience in your life. If that claim isn’t enough to get you there, I don’t know what is.

The Mirador Torres del Paine is a lookout point that gives a breathtaking, up-close view of the park’s namesake massive granite towers. Of course, you can visit this gem of a spot any time of day, but the best views are at sunrise when the towers turn a shockingly bright orange. (Photos don’t do it justice, so you’ll have to check it our for yourself.)

The best way to know if the sunrise trek is worth it is to wake up at around three or four in the morning and check if you can see stars. This alone is a heart-stopping experience, as you’ll likely see more stars and in a clearer sky than you’ve ever seen before. If you do, in fact, see thousands of luminous stars, you’re in luck – chances are good that the view at the Torres will be lovely. However, if you see a sea of blackness and clouds, go back to sleep – the view won’t be worth it. At least this is what the park guides promised us.

If you’re lucky and find yourself under a blanket of twinkling lights, get your camera and get ready to go. Depending on where you sleep, your trek will be between an hour and a half to three hours. For those of you out there who aren’t frequent hikers, this won’t be an easy few hours... but it will be worth it. Trust me. The first part is simply walking through the pitch black woods. Not too difficult. The last hour of the hike, though, is a tough one. All uphill, you’ll be traversing hands and knees over rocks at some points. At other points you’ll be literally hiking up streaming waterfalls, and walking next to massive drop-offs. Needless to say, be aware of your footing! I highly doubt there’s much of a history of hikers falling off the mountain, but it’s worthy of note, just for good measure. The trek can be tough on the knees, especially on the way down, but again -- it’s worth it.

One last (important!) piece of advice: at the end of the hike, you’ll come to a quite steep rocky incline. You need not scale this dangerous stretch, especially if you’re an inexperienced hiker. There is a path marked by orange poles, and though it’s hard to find at this last part, it is much easier, safer, and faster.

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The best way to access the Mirador at sunrise is by camping the night before at Campamento Torres del Paine, which is situated at the foot of the mountain. If you don’t have camping gear of your own, you’ll have to stay at Lodge El Chileno (the nearest refugio) or rent camping gear. If you stay at the refugio, plan to wake up around 3:30 or 4am to start your trek to the Mirador, depending on the time of year and when the sun will be rising. The trip should take you two and a half to three hours. Remember, you’ll be hiking in the dark, so be sure to bring a headlamp or a flashlight, or rent one before you get there.

Good luck, and don’t forget your camera. This is certainly a frame-worthy sight.

SLEEPING IN TORRES DEL PAINE

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If you’re planning a trip to Torres del Paine, you’ll most likely be needing somewhere to rest your head at night. There are several options, based on what you’re carrying with you and how much cash you’re willing to drop.

BYO Camping

For the real outdoorsy hiker types, you'll probably be carrying your own tent and gear. This will prove to be a huge advantage, as you can camp much closer to some of the best sights.

If you bring your own camping gear, you’ll have two options for where to set up camp. The first option is at a refugio-run campground, where you will find showers and bathrooms, and have the option of purchasing meals. Of course, if you choose to stay at one of these places, you have to pay a small fee to use the campgrounds, but it is usually reasonable (around $10 USD). The other option is to camp in the non-refugio-run campgrounds, which have no facilities or guides available. These sites are usually excellently located, so if you don’t need a shower or breakfast, this is your best bet. They’re also free!

If you do choose to carry your own equipment, be sure to spend a night at Campamento Torres – it gives you the best access to the lookout point for the massive granite towers and makes it a whole lot easier to get up to the top for the beautiful sunrise view (a must-see!).

Camping Rentals

If you want to camp but don’t have the gear, fear not. Most of the refugios have an adjacent camping area, where they will rent you a tent, mat, and sleeping bag for a reasonable price. This is a great option for people who don’t have gear or don’t want to carry it with them for the duration of their trek. The fee for camping includes showers and bathrooms, and is a much better deal than staying inside the actual refugio.

You can also rent camping gear in the town of Puerto Natales, in which case you will carry it with you for the extent of your trek. If you choose this, refer back to the Bring-Your-Own Camping section.

Refugios

If you have a decent amount of money to spend and aren’t that into camping, refugios are the way to go. Of course, they will lower your bragging rights a bit, but a real bed and shower might be worth it to you. There are several refugios in the park, giving you plenty of options depending on what path you choose to take.

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Most refugios are relatively pricey, running fromm $40 to $75 USD a night, depending on if you want sheets, a sleeping bag, breakfast, lunch, etc. All of them include a shower and a bed. During high season it’s usually recommended to reserve your spot ahead of time so you don’t end up bedless -- many allow you to reserve online, or you can go directly to the company offices in Puerto Natales. Fantástico Sur owns the refugios on the east side of the park near Sector Las Torres, whereas Vertice Patagonia owns those on the west side within the park.

If you are hiking the W or the Circuit, you may want to spend a night in a refugio somewhere along the way to reboot and reenergize. But if not, more power to ya.

Hotels & Hosterías

If you’re really not into the idea of “roughing it” but you want to stay in the park, there are various hotels and hosterías. They will, however, cost you a pretty penny. Rates can be anywhere from $150 to $250 USD a night, and we’re talking pretty basic accommodations here. Still, it’s a good option for those who physically can’t camp and have the cash to drop on a nicer bed.

No matter what your timeline and preferred accommodations may be, spending at least one night in the park is definitely recommended, as there’s nothing more beautiful than the mountains at sunrise. Trust us, you won’t regret that 4am wakeup call!

PARQUE NACIONAL TORRES DEL PAINE

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South America is home to some of the most beautiful national parks on Earth. One such park is located in Chilean Patagonia, and boasts 1,810 square kilometers of crystal-clear, blue lakes, dense green forests, soaring peaks and babbling brooks at every turn. As part of Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine rests peacefully as a mecca for nature lovers from around the globe.

There are tons of activities to be enjoyed inside the park, including horseback riding, kayaking, and even ice trekking on the park’s radiant glacier. The main attraction, of course, is some good old-fashioned hiking. I recommend a minimum of three days in the park, though if you want to fully enjoy all the breathtaking sights (and have the stamina for a longer trek), plan to stay seven to ten days.

Entry to the park ranges from $15,000 Chilean pesos in the high season to $5,000 in low season. The best time to visit is between November and March. Keep in mind that January and February bring the most visitors, so if you choose to go then you may be trekking amongst larger crowds.

Check out my posts on Parque Nacional Torres el Paine: 

  • Puerto Natales as an Entry Point to Torres del Paine
  • Camping & Refugios in Torres del Paine
  • Mirador Torres del Paine

EXPLORING PUERTO VARAS

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If you’re making your way through Chile, try to schedule a stop in Puerto Varas. There are several other options in this region, including Osorno and Puerto Montt, and even the slightly further Pucón. These towns are popular destinations because of the two towering volcanoes that dominate the landscape– Osorno and Calbuco. However, in this article I’ll tell you why Puerto Varas is the best destination for a layover if you’re trying to travel between Santiago and Bariloche.

Located in the Lakes District and just across the Argentine border, my travel companion and I stopped here planning to spend only one night. We ended up enjoying the town and surrounding areas so much that we extended our stay an extra night… and in all honesty, we could have stayed longer. If you’re interested in spending time in Puerto Montt and Osorno, I recommend staying in Puerto Varas and making the 20-30 minute commute. The other towns certainly have something to offer, but for the best views of the volcanoes and Lake Llanquihue and access to the Río Petrohué, Puerto Varas is where it’s at. Some have billed this lakeside town as the new Pucón, but somehow it seems to have avoided allowing tourism to overrun its quaint streets.

The town, which was originally occupied by German farmers and acted as the main port along the Lake Llanquihue, has managed to preserve much of its original colonial German architecture. At times you might even feel more like you’re in Europe than South America. A good German beer and some hearty food isn’t hard to find here either.

If you do spend time in Puerto Varas, you’ll most certainly get out of town for a bit to explore nature’s nearby treasures. Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park is a small, yet beautiful park that offers excellent vistas of the Osorno Volcano, raging rapids and serene lagoons. If the weather’s nice you can easily spend half a day here, taking in the views and relaxing somewhere between the waterfalls and mountains.

The natural landscape surrounding Puerto Varas offers excellent outdoor activities, including trekking, fishing, horseback riding, kayaking and white-water rafting. Pristine lakes and rivers are the sites for high-quality water sports that promise not to disappoint. I highly recommend checking out Ko’Kayak for any water sports you’re interested in. The guides, Coco and Matias, are young, fun, knowledgeable and experienced. And after your excursion they treat you to a celebratory Pisco Sour and snacks! What’s better than that?!

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If you choose to partake in the activities Ko’Kayak offers, you’ll have to take a bus down the winding seaside road to Ensenada. Don’t mourn the extra hour of commuting, though– the destination is the ideal setting for rafting and kayaking. We’re talking crystal-clear waters accented by snow-capped mountaintops. The rapids along the Río Petrohué are class III, IV, and V, so an experienced rafter will enjoy the run as much as a first-timer.

At the risk of coming off as pushy and more informed than I actually am, I have to say that Puerto Varas is one of the top destinations on my list for anyone traveling in Chile. If you have the chance to enjoy this town’s unique energy and gorgeous location, do it.

 

VALPARAÍSO VIEWS

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It’s no surprise that Valparaíso has the word “paradise” in its name, though it may not be the type of paradise you’re used to – it’s not all palm trees, daiquiris and white sand beaches. But if you’re into deep-rooted culture, vibrant color, and sweeping, beautiful vistas, look no further than this lively port city.

The city of Valparaíso is built on 42 hills along the Pacific coast. A port city by nature, it has all the characteristics of a city run by sailors– port life is still alive and kicking, especially in the flat neighborhoods adjacent to the waterfront. The main attraction of the city is its colorful hillsides, spotted with bright pastel-painted homes, unique street art, and century-old funiculars (ascensors). In fact, the town is so culturally intriguing that it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003.

If you’re looking to shed a couple pounds or work on those calves, you’ve come to the right place. Almost everything you’ll want to do or see will require scaling the city’s many hills, a tough but worthy feat. Most hills have funiculars that will take you to the top, but be sure to walk up a few! The winding roads that lead to the hilltops are filled with street art and culture.

Best Photo-Ops:

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1. Paseo 21 de Mayo on Cerro Artillería gives a nice view of they bay and the cranes and containers stacked on the bustling Valpo port. Take the Acensor Artillería to the top from Plaza Aduana.

2. Mirador Diego Portales on Cerro Barón is one of the best views of all of Valparaíso’s vibrant hillsides. Take the bus or metro to Barón– no need to use the ascensor, as the walk up is short and easy.

3. Cerro Cordillera can be somewhat seedy, so be careful. However, there’s a beautiful viewpoint on Calle Merlet.

When you get sick of the colorful cityscapes (as if that were possible), there are plenty of other options to get you through the day. An open-air art museum, Museo a Cielo Abierto, is situated on Cerro Bellavista, and is directly accessible via the Asensor Espíritu Santo.

In the true spirit of the country, you may also decide to take a day to honor one of Chile’s favorite celebrities. Beloved Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is not only known for his beautiful words, but his fabulous houses. Yes, he owned many homes, several of which are accessible from Valparaiso. Although, the truth is that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. So, unless you are Neruda’s biggest diehard fan, take my advice and visit Isla Negra. Though it certainly isn’t the most convenient of his homes to get to, I’d wager that Neruda’s estate in Isla Negra is one of the prettiest. A beachside cottage, his home sits next to the crashing waves of the Pacific. 

Public transportation in the city isn’t fancy, but it’s easy to use and a good way to get around. The buses will take you most anywhere and are an affordable alternative to taxis. The newly constructed metro system runs along the shore and is clean, fast, and modern.

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If you’re looking for great budget accommodations, I highly recommend Angel Hostel, which is located at the bottom of Cerro Cárcel and just next to the Cerro Concepción funicular. I spent five nights there and thoroughly enjoyed my stay. The staff is wonderful, the beds are surprisingly comfortable, and the location is ideal. Some might try to convince you that staying on Cerro Concepción is the way to go, but I have to disagree. Being on top of the hill requires that you descend every time you want to go anywhere. Staying at the base of the hill gives you easy access to all public transportation, grocery stores, and funiculars. If you have a bit more cash to spend, I recommend staying in the same area– Cerro Concepción is a central spot that will give you a lot of freedom.

A note on safety: Valparaíso is a safe place, and you shouldn’t feel intimidated or scared to explore this fascinating cultural hotspot. However, as in anywhere in the world, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and be cautious of your belongings. Don’t whip out your iPhone on the bus or when strolling the port. It’s simply a matter of street smarts. At one point on our trip, we were shooed away from Cerro Cordillera by a police officer who felt that it was unsafe for three young girls to be there alone. I’m not saying don’t visit that hill (as it does have some lovely views)– just be smart. The port area of town is also still lively and traditional in nature. To put it bluntly, here’s where you’ll find lots of liquor stores and brothels. Though it’s not dangerous, this is the seediest part of town, and you should be aware of that when strolling its narrow corridors.

If you have an extra day or two in Valparaíso, be sure it check out Viña del Mar, a lovely beach town just minutes away!

DAY TRIP: VIÑA DEL MAR

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If during your travels you find yourself in Valparaíso, reserve an extra day or two to check out its nearby sister city, Viña del Mar. Just 20 minutes up the coast, this small beach town is a popular vacation destination for Chileans, and a great place to wile away a few days in the sun.

The easiest way to get there is by taking the metro, which runs from Valparaíso along the shoreline to Viña del Mar. If you’re going straight to the beach, get off at Estación Miramar and walk the few blocks to the water. If you prefer to check out the town first, stay on the metro one stop further until Estación Viña del Mar, which will drop you at the main town square.

The beach is reason enough to schedule an extra day here. Full of colorful umbrellas, tanned bodies and big blue crashing waves, this stretch of sand is both lively and relaxing at the same time.

After spending the day in town and on the beach, your hard work deserves a nice cocktail. Check out Enjoy del Mar on the water at Avenida Peru. This seaside spot is perfect for sunset drinks and a tasty dinner if you hang around long enough.

Unless you plan to enjoy the Viña beaches for more than a couple days, there’s no real reason to stay in town. You’re better off staying in Valparaíso and taking the short train ride to the beach. If you do, however, choose to stay in Viña del Mar (and have a few extra bucks to throw down), I recommend the Sheraton Hotel, which is located right on the water and boasts beautiful seaside views.

SANTIAGO DE CHILE IN 3 DAYS

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Santiago’s a big city. You could spend weeks discovering every corner of town and still find new restaurants to try and streets to wander. But if you’re working with a time constraint (like we travelers usually are), you’ll want to maximize your time to see the best spots. Three days will give you enough time to visit the main attractions, as well as explore some of santiago’s hidden gems.

Day 1: Bellavista & Cerro San Cristobal

Bellavista is likely where you’ll want to spend much of your time. Cobblestone roads, graffiti-adorned walls and an abundance of al fresco dining spots makes this a tourist’s dream.

Your best bet is to allow yourself a few hours to simply wander the charming neighborhood and enjoy the atmosphere. When you get hungry for lunch, calle constitución is lined with great restaurants where you can try the chilean staple, lomo a lo pobre.

Patio Bellavista is a shopping and dining complex located in the heart of the neighborhood. As a relatively new construction, it doesn’t have the quaint feeling of the rest of the area, but it does have lots of swanky options and a cool vibe. I recommend grabbing dinner elsewhere and then stopping by patio bellavista for a drink later in the evening.

The famous chilean poet pablo neruda loved bellavista’s charm so much that he built a house here where his affairs could go on undetected. He aptly named the home la chascona after his mistress’s crazy hair. (On a personal note, i’m a big fan of the house’s name– i myself have some highly uncooperative curls.) However, if you plan to spend some time in valparaiso, i suggest you skip this one and check out isla negra instead.

After you explore bellavista, make your way to Plaza Caupolican, where you will take the funicular to the top of Cerro San Cristobal. At the top you’ll find a 14-meter-high statue of the virgin mary and sweeping views of the entire city. The hill hosts a system of cable cars and funiculars, but if you feel like walking, it’s a great place to do some light trekking. There are also two public pools on the hill– check out piscina tupahue for a little r&r.

Day 2: A Walking Tour & Barrio Brasil

Today you’re going to put your legs to work and check out the city’s many plazas and neighborhoods. Depending on where you’re staying, you may want to modify the route, but be sure to hit these main attractions.

Starting at plaza de las armas, stroll the massive square shaded by over a hundred palm trees and crowded with locals, tourists, clowns and street vendors. The plaza is flanked by the central post office, the city’s largest cathedral and the national history museum.

Next you’ll be heading southwest, straight into the barrio civico, home to all of the main government buildings. Plaza constitución is the site of the palacio de la moneda, which houses the country’s presidential offices. You’ll recognize it by the many, many chilean flags waving proudly on the lawn. Behind it is plaza ciudadania, which shows off the facade of the palace.

After checking out the plaza, head east on avenida o’higgins (often referred to as alameda). This main vein of the city will give you a decent picture of urban life in chile, and leads straight to the next stop: cerro santa lucía. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you see a massive marble fountain at the base of a large lush hill. After admiring it’s beauty, trek up to the top of the hill, where landscaped paths lead to a lookout tower providing a sweeping view of downtown santiago.

Coming down the other side of cerro santa lucía, you’ll end your self-guided tour in santiago’s historic quarter, which is really just one street: calle lastarria. Now would be a good time to reward yourself with a glass of wine. Hey, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, right?

Depending on your pace, you’ll likely have time to check out another part of the city before naptime. There are several neighborhoods that don’t boast many attractions, but paint a nice picture of residential life in santiago. Located on the west side of town, barrio brasil is one of them. Though it offers nothing special in particular, it’s a nice place to stroll and get a feel for the real santiago. If you want to check it out, you can take the metro from santa lucía to república and meander north toward plaza brasil.

Day 3: Providencia

Day three is time to pick and choose what interests you in the city that you haven’t done yet. Shopping? Art? Museums? There are a multitude of options, and you can spend your day doing a combination of any.

But before we get to that, i recommend taking some time in the morning to stroll santiago’s parque de las esculturas, an interesting attempt to overshadow the murky waters of the rio mapocho, which runs through the heart of the city. This free, public green space is an open-air museum containing sculptures created by chilean artists. It’s a nice spot to wander if the weather’s nice, and if you’re up for it, a good place for a picnic lunch.

The park is just due north of the upscale neighborhood of providencia, so that is the logical next stop. Like barrio brasil, providencia doesn’t boast many attractions or activities, but is a great place to wine and dine.

I personally don’t think santiago is the best museum town, but if you’ve had enough meandering and prefer a little a/c, the city does have several quality museums. Check out the museo de bellas artes (museum of fine arts), museo de artes contemporáneo (museum of contemporary art) or the museuo histórico nacional (national history museum).

For those who’ve had enough cultural enlightenment for the day, head back to bellavista or over to las condes to drop some cash at the city’s best shopping spots.