Santiago, Chile Travel Crash Course
If you’re heading to Chile any time soon, two days in Santiago is plenty. 90% of the main attractions are localized and if your travel like this on a mission like I do, you will have seen all of that plus some on the first day, and the second day can be spent doing the rest and riding busses and metros to random locations around the city. Just don’t include Monday or the holidays.
*Feel free to skip to the end of the Article for 17 Need To Know and Helpful Tips for Santiago, Chile Travel, along with a map with places to see.
Table of Contents
Is This Guide A Good Fit?
Read this section to find out if my guide is a good fit for you. I travel light and fast, so, this is not for everyone.
There is time for relaxing in my life, but not when I’m seeing a new place that I will probably never see again. I talk to everyone that has some interest in talking about their city and I hit every highlight from the guidebooks, Google, blogs, and from locals, unless I can’t for some reason.
If someone is telling me something cool, I’m happy to listen. If there are things in English I will read it. And, if it is an amazing view I’ll check it out, but otherwise, I’m out. 5-10 minutes is good enough for me.
If locals recommend their museums I go, otherwise typically not. Unless it has something cool, like checking out mummies when I was in Egypt. I typically do read up on local history, before the trip, and maybe at night. I don’t want to waste time reading about it when I could be visiting and exploring.
In Santiago, unless you speak or read first Spanish, which I don’t, you can’t read anything anyway and few people speak more than a few words of English.
To do this I travel with this rucksack (though it’s not the best, it’s just cheap and works well enough so I don’t have to worry about destroying it) and my wife uses this one. She loves it, but I have a suspicion that her love for it has as much to do with the attached flower and turquoise color as it does the easy access zipper. Mine is expandable, so on the plane, it goes as a carry on (I cheat, mines a little bigger), and then I have a personal bag with the rest of my stuff that fits inside it, or straps to the outside once I’m off the plane.
My traveling companions do the same. In this case my wife. I just carry all of our joint gear and that makes her okay with it.
The Start of Our Santiago, Chile Travel Plans – The Airport
We got into Santiago at around 10 AM, without cash and a little lost, and headed out of the terminal.
This was relatively quick, but we also bypassed the super relaxed customs guys.
Mostly because the security guy said “no problem” as he pointed us to the Chilean citizen only access point.
We then proceeded to fight through the line of 50 people trying to get Chilean pesos as we worked our way towards the exit.
Jokes on them, the exchange rate was $1 US to 720 Chilean Pesos (CHP) there and in town, it was $1 to 750 CHP and according to google fair exchange is 775 CHP.
Besides, the ATM exchange rate was about 755 CHP to $1, I have USAA so, ATM fees are reimbursed for me. And, it was right at the exit of the airport. That’s where we drew out cash and then found a booth selling cheap bus tickets to the city.
Taxies were around 35,000 CHP and a bus was 5,500 CHP for both of us. For us, that was an easy choice.
Downtown Santiago, Chile
After an hour or so bus ride we got into the city and got dropped off at the Los Heroes station downtown and realized we needed to kill 5 hours with our bags.
We couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 3 PM.
Fortunately, our bags are rucksacks, so, while it wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible.
First Things First – Find A SIM Card
So, we went to find a place we could get a SIM card for my phone. We decided to not get one at the airport (25,000 CHP) and find a local store selling one for 3,300 CHP.
We learned on our trip to Vietnam that having local data access makes traveling easy.
It gives you accurate Google map data (satellite maps are often better than the road default for rural places). Let’s you use the speaking translator app for Google that actually lets you hold some sort of conversation with locals. This is especially helpful when you need to ask more than yes/no questions and understand their answers. Sometimes hand gestures only go so far.
And, of course, it’s great for looking up random information, like where is the local bus terminal or do I flush toilet paper or not (turns out, in general no). All around, totally worth it and normally dirt cheap in foreign countries. Santiago, Chile travel was no exception.
With a lot of awkward silences, using my pre-downloaded Google translator for Spanish, and a lot of hand gestures. We found a store that would sell us a sim card and that would activate the phone for us.
Chile Is By Far The Most Confusing Country I’ve Been To Get Data
Of course, upon completion, we checked to verify it worked and what do you know, it didn’t.
I’m trying to tell the woman who activated it, and soon we are back trying to talk to each other in different languages. Then she calls her phone with mine to prove it works. She writes down my number and walks away.
Effectively ending the conversation.
So, now, I’m like, “shit, I only got minutes to talk on the phone in a country where I don’t speak the language and they don’t speak English”.
I’m trying to figure out the next plan as we wander out of the small hole in the wall store.
I’m vaguely remembering reading a blog article about needing to add data after getting a number.
We wander around until we find Wi-Fi, so I can do some quick research.
This is also when we started noticing that everything seemed closed. But, leaving that as a mystery to be solved later, we eventually found a place that had Wi-Fi.
On the second cup of coffee (the first cafe had a huge sign that said they had Wi-Fi, but really didn’t). I find out that you have to buy data separately or “recharge” it onto your new sim card.
I head online and find out that a lot of small stores will “recharge” your data for you, or there is a site online called “Mobile Recharge” that will let you pay for it online for a couple of US dollars (about $5 a GB, we got 3 GB and used less than 1).
That’s the route I took.
We have already walked 4-5 miles (according to the offline Google map I had downloaded before I arrived in Santiago) looking for open stores that sold sim cards. My wife was beat and I was still mentally recharging from the mind-numbing attempts at communicating across a very wide language barrier trying to discuss how cell phones work.
What the Mobile Recharge site doesn’t tell you, is that you still have to dial *103# to get to a menu, that through some intelligent guessing and the Google translate app, will let you “purchase” the data with the money you had just stored on the phone.
Off To The Air BnB And To Explore
We have finally killed enough time to start heading to the Airbnb. It’s still another 4 miles away. If I did it again, I would take the bus or the metro, but we thought we might see some sights walking. So, that’s the route we took.
While we had walked a lot before this, it was mostly to the north and west, but somewhat in a box fashion. The sites had been mostly University and residential buildings, not much different than in the US and a bunch of closed shops.
We finally got to our Air Bnb and met our host who also didn’t speak English, but he is extremely friendly and using google translate we figured out all the essentials.
After settling in, we head out to explore. It’s about 4:30 PM at this point.
Using Google Maps, we check out almost every attraction according to our Lonely Planet Guidebook for Chile. All in about 4 hours. Since It’s summer, it was light until 9 PM, so not crazy, but we did realize all of the “main attractions” were pretty localized.
Places we saw:
- La Moneda Palace
- Barrio Paris-Londres
- Plaza de Armas
- Central Market
Saw the outside of:
- Chilean National Library
- Bellas Art Museum
- Santa Lucia Hill
Then we ate a Chilean favorite, hotdog, and mayonnaise. This is when I decided I was not a huge fan of Chilean cuisine. Which mostly consists of processed meat and an obscene amount of mayonnaise.
After that, we headed back to our place and crashed until the next morning.
After the first day, we decide to go to bed and head to the free Chilean tours in the morning.
Santiago and Valparaiso both have free tours that has guides paid entirely by tips. We latter paid them 5000 CHP or $7ish for each of us, but that’s up to you.
The Metro For Santiago, Chile Travel Is Borderline Magical
The following morning, the first stop we made was to the train station.
We heard about how magical the bus system was in Chile, especially for Santiago, Chile travel. But, besides the one bus, we took from the airport, we didn’t really know how it worked.
So, early morning we walked to the closest metro to figure it out.
There we bought a “Bip” card. It’s essentially their universal metro card. It works for buses and trains and you only need one card. You can scan it as many times as you need for as many people as you want. It works by you charging it with cash and then depending on the time of day, each time you scan it, it subtracts the amount of money off the card. It’s less than a dollar per trip regardless when you go and both busses and metros come every 5-10 minutes.
Every station has multiples places to charge it and the machines are straightforward, no real Spanish required, just cash (there are also ATMs everywhere) including at the metro stations.
Though of course, we didn’t know any of this until after we had a kind of entertaining exchange with the lady in the information booth. Fortunately, we had 2 or 3 kind souls in line with us that helped explain in broken English what we needed to the lady in the booth.
Take the Free Tours In Santiago
After figuring out the bus pass. We covered all the distance from the night before in less than 10 minutes and got into the “Old Town” (I made this up, but it’s pretty accurate) area of Santiago. Our destination was the free tours mentioned in our guidebook.
The free tour in Santiago was completely worth it.
Granted we saw all of the same sites we saw the day before, but the tour guide actually spoke English (surprisingly well), and he explained the background behind all of the sites.
I highly recommend it, and this is coming from a guy that’s not a fan of tours.
With him, we saw all the above places, but what was cool is that he broke down what was happening with the Chilean revolution and how those sites tied in. He also fended off some angry protesters and explained that everything was shut down because of the holidays/weekend.
He also told us that most parks/museums/libraries are all closed on Mondays as well, it was 29 December (Sunday). Added bonus, he recommended a few non-touristy, but cool places to check out, like the actual market the locals use. Shown in the Map at the bottom of the artical.
One thing that he pointed out was the mass amount of graffiti everywhere. While we had assumed this was normal. He explained that this was all new.
Typically the city was very clean, but in the last few months half of the streetlights had been torn down, signs destroyed, public buildings defaced, it was almost a kind of shame even if it did encourage some pretty beautiful artwork.
In a rough paraphrase from our tour guide, essentially, the protests were actually started from the middle to upper-middle class and typically the little bit older generation. But, soon after that started younger crowds joined in and things started getting out of control.
The police felt pressured to crack down on them and used rubber bullets and water cannons. During the course of this, two people had eyes shot out and that’s when the outrage really started.
Now all over the country the artwork and statues with eyes being covered or shown covered in red paint has become a rallying cry for police brutality.
Despite all of the turmoil, it was interesting, because freedom of speech wasn’t being suppressed, so everyone we talked to openly discussed what was going on, to include the government employees. In fact, there seems to be very few government supporters that we talked to.
The common graffiti signs were “A.C.A.B” (All Cops Are Bastards) cries for getting rid of capitalism and an up-cry for “neoliberalismo”.
These carried on throughout our travels in Chile.
With the exception of seeing the police spraying down some protesters with hoses that we had to dodge and free tours in Talca being suspended, it didn’t really affect our trip.
But you could see the sentiment radiate thought the country.
To include artwork depicting the evils of large corporations like “Lider” overtaking the smaller mom and pop stores in Valparaiso and a few of our Airbnb hosts discussing it with us.
San Cristóbal Park and Santa Lucia Hill
After the 4 hour tour wrapped up. We hit the recommended places and headed up to San Cristobal hill. To be honest the only real reason to head up is the awesome views from the top.
There is a church up there and a massive statue of the Virgin Mary from France, but nothing crazy.
We had also decided to pay for the gondola ride while we were there.
The reason being, it goes overtop the entire park, which is probably a couple of miles and it’s an easy way to see the whole thing in under an hour. Turns out, it was also my wife’s first time in a gondola, so, totally worth the $10.
After that, we headed back down and went to Santa Lucia Hill, which was a cool little park in the middle of Santiago.
Turns out, it used to just be a rocky hill, but the Chileans watered it and built it up into a park surrounding the fort the Spanish built there.
Some More Chilean Cuisine
I know I said I wasn’t a huge fan of Chilean cuisine, but the tour guide recommended going to a place called “Galindo”. He said we should at least try the Pastel De Choclo which is basically corn mush and meat and olives, and then we would have had all of the traditional Chilean food with the exception of fried fish worth having.
Although, they are also a huge fan of French fries, anything sweet (a million ice cream places), a weird corn/oat slushy they make with tea that they sell on the streets called “Mote Con Huesillo”, sopapillas, and empanadas for breakfast.
Funny thing is, the tour guide explained that Chileans don’t have a lot of “traditional” dishes, which is why it’s so hard to find Chilean restaurants. Most restaurants are lots of sushi, Peruvian, French, and/or a distorted kind of American food.
Also, on an interesting note, most things are relatively bland by American standards, Chileans typical food does not have a lot of strong flavors. They had nothing with any kind of “kick”.
Two Days Is Probably Plenty For Santiago, Chile Travel
After eating, we headed back to our Air BnB and passed out until the next morning.
One of the things we had to get used to, is that Chileans don’t seem to do anything before 9 AM, so, if you are an early riser like we are, be prepared to kill a few hours before you can even have a cup of coffee.
The next day, while waiting to buy some coffee, we were honestly pretty bored. We ended up checking out the Chilean library, learning about the bus system, and taking random rides around the city on the metro. And, even went to check out their local Walmart, also owned by Walmart, called “Lider” (they are everywhere in Chile to include mini ones every other block).
America’s powerhouse of logistical expertise seems to have made it’s way to South America. It was really nice to actually have some standardized prices.
After finally getting some coffee, and doing some exploring, we headed to the non-tourist market that’s north of the advertised Market in the guidebook we used.
It was really cool, hundreds of stalls, selling everything from socks to rash fish to car parts. Reminded me of the West Side Market in Cleveland. Though, much dirtier.
After that, it was one more quick meal and time to rack out, we had an early morning bus the next day to Valparaiso that we had bought before arrival in Chile.
Time to head to Valparaiso for one of the biggest parties in the world for New Years’.
Final Advice for Santiago Chile, Travel
While we did come back at the end of our Santiago, Chile travel before we went home. Two days would be plenty in Santiago. I will say that we did not go into all of the museums (they have 5 different art museums) and we did skip the local wine tours, there is so much to see in Chile. If you are like most of us and can’t spare more then a month at most in a new country, and often less, there are better sites to see.
We later headed to Maule Valley (Internationally famous wine country), farther south of a couple of days, down to the edge of Patagonia, and then eventually up to the Atacama Desert and the Andes Mountains. All of which, I would have gladly spent more time at, with the exception of maybe Talca.
The only other place I might recommend in the Museum of Human Rights. We made it there when we returned to Santiago for our flight out. It was mostly in Spanish (for 2000 CHP you could pay for an enlish recording), but interesting, and it’s always unique to see other countries views on world history, especially in the context of war crimes. It also had a huge section on Chilean atrocities and it was interesting to view that in light of the protests we dodged while in Santiago.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting Santiago, Chile
- Plan for Mondays to be Slow days, most things are closed.
- Chile takes holidays seriously, so, see above.
- Buses/Metro are awesome for going everywhere within Santiago, so plan on using that.
- If you want to leave Santiago, buy your bus tickets online and in advance. Ticket counters can print the tickets off for you. For buying them in advance I used the Busbuds website.
- Use the free tours. The guys wear bright red jackests they say “FREE TOURS” on it and they start by the presidential palace. For us the first one started at 10 AM.
- Don’t flush TP
- No need to barter in Chile, most places have set prices, and we never had anyone try to scam us.
- Water is potable almost anywhere. We brought a steripen just in case. But, we only used it when staying in a shack in the Atacama desert, but any major city has potable water, though you will taste the heavy minerals in it.
- Phones are the magical easy button for traveling in the modern age. So, bring yours and pop out the sim card (I used my wife’s earring) and have a Chilean who is selling it to you activate the card. Then find some Wi-Fi and use the mobile recharge site to put money on your account and then type in *103#, follow the Spanish menu until you apply the money to data. I recommend getting an Entel sim card, they have the most service.
- Google translate is a lifesaver and so is google maps. We marked all of our locations on google maps the night before we were going to explore that area.
- Don’t exchange money at the airport, you will get as much as a 10% worse exchange rate. ATMs were the cheapest way to withdraw money
- Chilean money fluctuates compared to the US$ quite a bit, but we just used 750CHP to $1 for a rough conversion.
- Two full days in Santiago is plenty.
- Air BnBs are the way to go in terms of cheap and comfortable places to stay.
- Chile is not that cheap of a country, despite the exchange rate. We spent about $75 a day (for two of us) to include our Air BnB, transportation, and food costs. Though you can easily spend way more than that.
- See the below map for all the pre-marked locations. I recommend downloading the offline version for google maps and saving the locations you want to go, prior to getting there. It saves you from backtracking and maximizes your time while traveling.
- Lastly, when you first arrive in Santiago, customs is going to give you a receipt, keep it. That is actually your tourist card and you need it to leave the country. No one will tell you that, you will just be screwed if you are on a tight deadline. If you do lose it, you can head to the PDI station on San Francisco Street in Santiago and get a new one. Just show the guy at the gate your US passport and say you need a tourist card. You will have to fight through a crowd of people to get to him. Now is not the time to be timid. Once inside, follow the mainline, use google translate to say you need a tourist card at the main desk, skip the ”cajar” (even though it seems like you have to, because you don’t need to pay anything. Then head to the number on the ticket the main guy gave you and fill out the form you got. When I went it was cubicle 18, because, yes, I didn’t know this was important.
Keeping on living your life with no hesitation, until next time.