In February of 2020, we traveled through the major northeastern cities of Argentina and Chile: Valparaiso, Santiago, and Mendoza. All three cities offered us different perspectives and unique charms.
For ideas on where to visit before this region, read our blog: Eight Days in Northwest Patagonia.
- At the time of our visit, protests that started in October 2019 were still raging in Valparaiso and Santiago. The media simplified the matter by emphasizing that it started over a price increase for public transportation, but if you speak to any Chilean, you will soon find out it is MUCH more complicated than that. The cities are perfectly safe for visiting, but be aware that there are times and locations you should avoid during planned protests. DON’T BE A LOOKYLOO! Tear gas is NOT fun!
- IVA Tax: In both Argentina and Chile, foreigners do not pay the IVA tax on hotels IF they pay with a foreign credit card. However, we have found that you must DEMAND that you not pay the IVA. Most hostels and hotels, no matter how friendly, will try to boost their rate by not mentioning it. Additionally, if you pay with a card, expect that they will offer their own made up conversion rate to boost the cost as well. We have usually found it impossible to argue against this one…
- Exchange Rates: In Argentina, Western Union continued to have the best exchange rate (see previous posts for explanation of the blue dollar); however, in Chile, your best bet will be to use a no foreign transaction fee credit card when possible. ATMs are plentiful, but they all charge a hefty fee for each withdrawal and limit you to 200,000 pesos (~$250 US). Note that many hostels will only accept cash, especially in smaller towns, so you should always have some cash.
- Uber works in all three cities referenced here. However, note that Uber is technically illegal in Chile. So, ride at your own risk. If you get pulled over, you’ll need to pretend to be friends with your driver….so brush up that Spanish!
- Border Crossing: Some people have been surprised at how often we’ve chosen to cross the border thinking it would be difficult. It is not; the bus drivers are all helpful and will guide passengers swiftly through the process (unlike in Paraguay!). The only major downside is getting your passport filled too quickly. Transitioning to Chile is usually more difficult as they do not allow any produce, meat, or cheese across their border, so choose your bus snacks wisely. Additionally, they will give you a slip of paper labeled “PDI.” You need to keep this and turn it in when you exit the country.
- In Argentina, Spanish speakers use the “sh” sound for “y” and “ll.” In Chile, they use the “y” sound for “y” and “ll.” When traveling back and forth, it can become confusing to code switch this linguistic difference.
In Argentina and Chile, you will need a power converter. We travel with a Universal Converter and have found it helpful everywhere.
6:45am Arrive by Night Bus in Valparaiso/Breakfast
8:30am Uber to Casona Minka Hostel/Drop Bags/Freshen Up
Valparaiso, originally founded as the port for Santiago, has had dramatic shifts in fortune over the years between at one time being the most important port in South America and surviving subsequent earthquakes, fires, the building of the Panama Canal, and a brutal dictatorship…resulting in a community oriented people literally carving out a life for themselves in the 45 hills of the city by any means available.
We arrived in Valpo (as the locals refer to Valparaiso) on a comfortable night bus from Pucon.
The tour takes you over 8 of the 45 colorful hills while providing amazing insight into the people and history of the city. In our opinion, it is the perfect introduction to the thriving, bustling, labyrinthine city, but bring good walking shoes!
One special highlight of the tour is an introduction to the street art of Valpo (which we learned much more about on our second day through an official street art tour).
After a panini lunch in the square, we officially checked into our room at the highly recommended Casona Minka Hostel and discovered the most amazing view on an enclosed balcony overlooking the city! The hostel also offers free walking tours and a pretty fabulous breakfast.
Then, rested a bit, we set out to meet Bella for a Sandboarding experience on the dunes of Con Con Beach. Reuben, naturally, was brave and plunged down the hills, not even minding his several face plants! I was a little more careful, ultimately just happy to use the board as a toboggan! This is very local activity. You can also rent your own (lower quality) sand boards from a vendor at the beach, but we were very happy for the training from a professional!
We had fun meeting two other couples and we all went out for Mexican food afterwards, making for a very long but fun and adventurous day!
11:00am Graffiti Bike Tour
2:00pm Lunch/Take the Boat Tour from the Muelle Port
4:00pm Return to Hostel/Pick Up Luggage/Uber to Bus Station
5:25pm Bus to Santiago
7:10pm Arrive in Santiago/Uber to Airbnb
At the time of our visit, Chile was very tense due to the “war” (as they called it) between political activists and the police/government. The writing was literally on the wall, with both sides taking to the streets to convey their messages through paint.
After a relaxed morning, we began our day with a Graffiti bike tour of the city with Diego, a young local protester and graffiti aficionado. His subdued rage was palpable as he passionately conveyed the messages portrayed in the Graffiti he led us to through the flat part of the city because it would be very unsafe to attempt riding bikes in the hills!
The history and current variations of graffiti are quite complex, varying from basic territorial “tags” to cultivated murals to political protests.
Diego was very interested to show us art by those in the “movement,” even delighting himself in new discoveries as we traveled the city, like this old train station converted into an art installation and artisan market!
In one case, he discovered a new political mural had been destroyed by the opposition and stopped to send out an alert. We felt very close to the desires and passions of those seeking something better here.
After the tour, we met up with our friends Danny and Carl (who we met in Bariloche, then traveled with to Pucon) for an afternoon boat ride from the port to see the city from a different perspective! It was great fun to bounce along in a STUFFED boat as the only gringos on board learning as much as our limited Spanish would allow. To take advantage of this opportunity, go to the docks near Sotormeyer Square. You can have fun haggling the price!
After the boat ride, we lunched, grabbed our stuff, and took a short bus ride to Santiago, where we learned even more about Chile’s past and present. Pro Tip: The buses between Valparaiso and Santiago tend to sell out, so you may want to purchase a ticket in advance online through a vendor like Busbud.
DIY Walking Tour (Follow the Order Below for a Perfect Day)
We made the most of our short time here in the capital of Chile with a DIY walking tour of MANY sites and museums. We expected chaos here with 5.6 million people and ongoing protests, but much of our Sunday, we felt alone and safe on the charming streets of the city.
We began our explorations at Cerro Santa Lucía near our Airbnb in the Lastarria neighborhood. The hill offers an easy climb for views of the city, a Japanese Garden, and the Castillo Hidalgo.
Next, we explored the historic part of town with walk by visits of some of the city’s finest architecture such as the National Archives, Teatro Municipal, Palacio La Moneda, Bolsa de Comercio, Corte Suprema, and the Antiguo Congreso.
A historic district museum worth a visit is the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino that features an impressive array of Pre-Colombian art.
Next, a ten minute walk takes you to the free Museo de Bellas Artes, a small but decent collection of fine art. If it weren’t free, I’d suggest skipping it…but it’s a nice place to get some air conditioning on a hot day!
The Parque Forestal is a long park that runs along the main canal in the city offering a shaded sidewalk en route to the Bellavista neighborhood, where we recommend lunching at Patio Bellavista, a hip chic food court of sorts!
Down the street from Patio Bellavista, you can visit one of the three Chilean homes of Pablo Neruda, La Chascona. Pablo Neruda, a world famous Chilean poet, activist, and politician, died in Santiago in 1973 during the coup de’tat that overthrew President Allende. It is suspected that he was poisoned while visiting the hospital. No pictures are allowed inside the museum.
From Bellavista, if you have time, you can also easily visit Cerro San Cristobal but we saved it for another day to ensure we had enough time. En route back to our Airbnb, we passed by the Plaza Italia, a hot spot for protests and an area to avoid in the evening.
The city is definitely covered from toe to knee in graffiti from the movement. It is mostly tagging and political statements, but there are a few more artistic pieces we found.
We were glad for our tour in Valpo where we learned about the meaning of the symbols, such as bleeding or crossed out eyes to represent the number of protesters who have lost eyes due to the order from the police to aim tear gas at eyes…a black dog with a red scarf, Negro Matapacos, a mascot hailing back to former protests…and ACAB. I’ll leave Googling the last two to you… Regardless of the political strain here, we thoroughly enjoyed our first day in this beautiful, friendly city!
All Day Airbnb Cooking Class
The base of Chilean food is white wine and lard… you can’t go wrong with that!
We spent pretty much our entire day with Gerardo, a delightful Chilean chef, who took us to several markets to buy food and learn a bit of history before going back to his kitchen to make several courses of delicious food and drink several glasses of wine!
We learned not only about Chilean food and culture, but also techniques in the kitchen. It was a great day!
Pumpkin Sopaipillas and Pobre
Palta Cardenal al Pil Pil
Turron de Vino
2:40pm Movie at Costanera Mall
5:00pm Dinner/Hang with Danny and Carl
10:00pm Night Bus to Mendoza
Pro Tip: It’s pretty inexpensive to buy a combo roundtrip for both the funicular and cable car, which we recommend. On a hot day, it’s not worth trying to walk the enormous park though you can if you like. We wished we had brought out bathing suits to visit the two swimming pools in the park.
Afterwards, we ate a delicious cheese plate at the nearby Patio Bellavista.
Next, we took an Uber a bit outside of centro to visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights that provides an overview of the Pinochet dictatorship. Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990, committed serious violent atrocities against his people, embezzled millions of dollars, and was all around a pretty bad dude. Shockingly, after the dictatorship fell, he continued to serve as the Commander of the Chilean Army until 1998, when he was arrested in Europe for human rights violations. No pictures allowed inside.
To continue beating the heat (and cheer up a bit after a sobering visit to the Human Rights Museum), we Ubered to a HUGE mall with a theater that offers movies in English! It was a very fun diversion on a hot afternoon. Pro Tip: If you know you want to visit the mall and Cerro San Cristobal on the same day, take the cable car to the mall area.
After the movie, we met up with our friends Danny and Carl for a final dinner!! They were kind enough to store our luggage in their Airbnb for us after we checked out of ours.
Upon saying goodbyes to our friends, we Ubered to the lively, stuffed bus station to await a (highly unrecommendable) night bus to Mendoza. Insight: The challenge of transporting from Santiago to Mendoza is that it is a very long bus ride. You either lose a day traveling or have a rough night sleep with an overnight border crossing. It’s a no-win situation.
6:00am Arrive in Mendoza/Uber to Maipu
7:00am Drop Luggage Off at Hostel Wineries/Breakfast
10:00am Bike Tour of Wineries
6:00pm Return Bikes/Dinner
Mendoza is the most important wine region of Argentina, especially famous for Malbecs.
After a terrible night bus, we arrived safely four hours late in Mendoza. As mentioned in the previous day’s itinerary, taking a night bus across the border is a choice. We opted not to lose an entire day in transporting to Mendoza, but cannot say that the night bus was enjoyable. We were held us at the border for about 4 hours between 2am-6am and got very little quality sleep during the ride.
After arriving in town, we caught an Uber to the small town of Maipu, a center for many wineries, including Trapiche that recently won the award for the best Malbec in the world. Despite our lack of sleep, we dropped off our bags at a homey little hostel and made a beeline for Maipu Bikes for bike wining.
The company owner gave us a map, suggested route, and sent us on our way! In all, it was a great day with many wines, olive oils, tampanades, and cheese sampled!
We also stopped in for a delicious three course meal at Casa de Campo. Reuben got Rabbit!
At the end of the day, Maipu Bikes hosts a happy hour for folks to drink more wine and socialize (mostly to make sure the bikes get back before closing!). We sat with an Argentine, Swiss, and Brazilian and enjoyed delightful conversation… then essentially fell asleep immediately upon returning to our room. Mucho vino!
All Day Fly Fishing
The primary fish in Andes Mountain streams is Trout: Rainbow, Brown, and Brook. We spent an entire day with Sergio, who picked us up from our hostel in Maipu and transported us to a lovely private piece of land high in the mountains! The drive was lovely and so was our entry to Quebrada de los Condores, where we were served coffee while Sergio prepared the fishing gear.
After a 30 minute hike, we received our first instruction in fly fishing in a small stream. I couldn’t believe we’d be fishing such a small body of water, but we caught a bunch of fish!
The best part was hiking up through the valley along the stream into the mountains as we fished among horses, cows, Condors, and Caracaras.
Upon return to the casa, we were served the most delicious wine, empanadas, asada, and flan. A delicious end to a wonderful day!
DIY Walking Tour of Mendoza
7:00pm Eat at Anna Bistro with Kate/Jeff
9:30pm Night Bus to La Rioja
Mendoza was founded in the 1500s like many colonial towns but was completely destroyed in the early 1800s by a terrible earthquake. The city that exists today was rebuilt along a grid.
On our final day in the Mendoza region, we just kind of winged it with a random self guided tour of the city. Honestly, there are plenty of more interesting ways to plan your day than what we outline below, but we were in the mood for a wandering laid back kind of day.
Once we dropped off luggage at the train station, we began with a visit to the regional history museum, Museo del Area Fundacional. The museum is entirely in Spanish, but definitely worth a visit!
Next we enjoyed the city parks, especially the pink fountains, we assume for Valentine’s Day.
To kill time a bit, we also opted to take the Mendoza Hop on Hop Off Bus. The bus winds around the city for an hour or two and includes an English audio guide to explain the sites you visit. It was…okay.
The most fun we had was meeting up with our friends Kate and Jeff, who we hit it off with on a 12 hour bus from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas about 6 weeks prior! We’ve been following each other’s blogs and found out we’d be here at the same time, so we had dinner and fun conversation.
After dinner, we took another night bus to La Rioja to begin our next segment of our South American adventure in the deserts of Northern Argentina and Chile!