Many tourists are really impressed with the city of Santiago in the Southern American country of Chile. I know I certainly was. This is a very large, modern, organized, clean city full of very friendly people with so many wonderful and interesting attractions.
However, there is a lot more to experience if you ever find yourself visiting Santiago, as the city is absolutely blessed, being surrounded with so much natural beauty in virtually any direction you travel.
The biggest and most obvious natural beauty (by virtue of its sheer size and proximity) is the Andes Mountains which form an impressive backdrop to the east of the city and can be easily seen from just about anywhere. This magnificent mountain range has so much to offer anyone who loves nature and in recognition of that, there is a separate article done on the Andes alone which you can see by clicking here.
Even putting the Andes aside, there is still so much beauty surrounding Santiago that would be impossible to do proper justice to here. So instead I have included a summary of the favourites that I really enjoyed during my visit.
Let’s begin with the coastal region, some 90 minutes’ (120 Kilometers or 75 miles) drive north-west of Santiago…
This is a charming coastal city and major port for Chile. The city displays some wonderful (and colourful) architecture with houses and businesses all built on 41 hills facing the ocean. Declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003, Valparaiso has been nicknamed “The Jewel of the Pacific”. On a clear day, you can see right through to the Andes Mountains which sit behind Santiago. It is a beautiful sight.
Valparaiso was my port of entry to mainland Chile, having just visited Chile’s Easter Island on a cruise that travelled the South Pacific from Sydney, Australia. As a person who loves the ocean, I could just imagine being very happy living in one of those colourful houses on one of the 41 hills overlooking the ocean.
Although this is a busy port city the attraction for many are the beautiful nearby beaches which are all around the wider bay area and the water here looks very clean as does the city itself.
Vina del Mar
Situated right next to Valparaiso on the waterfront is Vina del Mar. Translated from Spanish to mean ‘Vineyard of the Sea’, Vina del Mar was initially a land of wineries but in recent decades it has transformed into a premier beachside city.
This is where I was told that many of the elite and wealthy in Santiago society have a second or holiday home that they use on weekends and vacations. Like Valparaiso, Vina del Mar has beautiful beaches and lovely beachside cafes and amenities.
Making up part of the greater Valparaiso region, Vina del Mar is often referred to as ‘La Ciudad Jardín’ (‘The Garden City’) with one of Vina del Mar’s most famous features, the Flower Clock, visited by many tourists. And yes, I got my photo taken there also, along with many other visitors that day.
So, having had a quick look at the coastal centres of Valparaiso and Vin del Mar, let’s now look inland.
Driving between the coast and Santiago
There are so many interesting towns and settlements that you can experience by not sticking to the main highway. These are located amidst a more natural setting where you are still surrounded by the hills and valleys that make up this scenic countryside.
The group we travelled with drove off the beaten path a bit and enjoyed a much more scenic route than most would, stopping off at a restaurant to experience Chilean cuisine.
It was at this place that I was first introduced to a national drink ‘pisco sour’, which I thought takes some getting used to. However, it was still part of the enjoyable time getting to know a little bit about the local culture.
The Maipo Valley, virtually surrounding a lot of the city of Santiago got its name from the river in that region. Here you will find the home of many first-class wineries that are world renowned for the quality and award-winning wines they produce.
While in the area, James and I visited the Undurraga winery which was a lovely experience. We took their classic guided tour, which is offered in Spanish and/or English. It included a complete visit of the park, including the vineyards, soil analysis test pit, vinification plant, entertainment garden, underground cellars, and ending with a great tasting of their wines and a souvenir wine glass.
I loved exploring the fields of vines and the wonderful gardens designed by the famous French landscape designer Pierre Dubois. The winery has done a great job of maintaining the beautiful flora that has been cultivated over generations since they first started here in 1885. It was both interesting and enjoyable.
There are of course other great wineries in the Maipo Valley area and it would take some time if you were to try to visit them all.
And when it comes to being within the city limits of Santiago itself, there are a couple of things I would recommend doing.
Sky Costanera is a viewing platform at the very top of the Costanera Centre. 300 meters (984 feet) tall, the building offers the tallest man-made 360-degree viewpoint in the whole of Latin America.
From here you can really get a stunning perspective of the size of Santiago and the enormity of the Andes mountain range. On a clear day, you would be absolutely amazed how beautiful such a vista can be. Probably not the best place though if you are afraid of heights. Once you are done taking in such a glorious panorama, you can also indulge in a bit of retail therapy by taking the elevator back down to a world-class shopping centre.
San Cristóbal Hill and Santiago Zoo
San Cristóbal Hill is located in northern Santiago and rises to a height of 880 meters (or 2,890 feet). Many enjoy hiking this hill which is not small and it certainly doesn’t have much in the way of gentle slopes. Most visitors take the Funicular Santiago to travel the steep journey to the top.
At the summit, there is a sanctuary with a 22-meter statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, an amphitheatre and a chapel. Of course, being up this high provides a pretty good view of the Santiago region and this proves to be a popular spot for visitors and photographers.
Irrespective of whether you hiked up or used the funicular, you can visit Santiago Zoo on the way down as the entire zoo is set on the side of the hill, providing multiple levels of exhibits. They did a good job of integrating this into the hill and wherever possible, maximizing the existing natural elements to blend in with the hill.
What I have shared above is not all that I was able to experience here by any means. However, I am mindful that there should really be a limit to what is included in any one article. There is certainly so much you can see and do here and I also spent a bit of time doing other things unique to Santiago itself. Things like watching the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace, walking through some of the many beautiful parks in this city, conversing with the locals, visiting their monuments, old castles and sampling their cuisine. The city itself has a fabulous carefree, laid-back atmosphere that is completely missing from many other major cities of comparable size.
The region of Santiago was very special to me and this is definitely within my personal ‘Top 10’ of places I have visited so far. It just has so much to offer. Heck, even if you regard yourself as more of an indoors person, there is still so much to see and experience. The shopping is amazing. The museums covering history and culture are fascinating. Santiago is definitely up there in terms of development, its amenities and infrastructure to rival pretty much anywhere else in the world. Its people are warm, friendly and engaging despite the fact that I don’t speak a word of their official language of Spanish.
I began the visit not knowing what to expect and just wanting to keep an open mind. On departing on a flight from Santiago bound for the USA, I felt elated and so pleased to have included Santiago and Chile more broadly on my itinerary. I was sad to leave, feeling I wanted more time there. I have a definite feeling this trip won’t be my last to this wonderful part of the world.