Chile: Reasons to Sell

Santiago, a Welcoming Capital
First stop for almost every Chile-bound visitor is Santiago, located midway down this string bean-shaped nation -- close to 3,000 miles from north to south, and not much more than 110 miles wide from east to west.

Getting acquainted with Santiago means starting with Constitution Square, facing the fortress-like Presidential Palace, where at 10 a.m. on alternate days, the national police band plays for a changing of the guard ceremony.

Seeing historic Santiago means hanging out around the 16th-century Plaza de Armas, bordered by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the City Hall and the ornate Central Post Office.

Also here in the older section of town is the San Francisco Church whose adjoining cloister houses a collection of religious art, including a splendid series of canvases depicting the life-story of Saint Francis of Assisi.

If clients can visit only one museum, it should be the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, with its collection of South American artifacts that include textiles, funerary masks, pottery and the oldest mummy in the Americas -- unearthed in Chile's northern Atacama Desert.

Among slightly more modern attractions are the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, containing the largest collection of Chilean paintings, and La Chascona, the house of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, which is filled with fine paintings and whose architecture -- in the original wing -- imitates a ship.

Also, visitors should reward themselves with a morning visit to the Mercado Central, a huge cast-iron structure. Beneath its lofty ceiling one finds a matchless selection of Chilean fruits, vegetables, meals and flowers. Just to the east is the fish market, a veritable showcase of Neptune's domain, and behind the market are rustic bistros serving up such specialties as a Chilean stew called chupe de locos.

Another showcase, this one for national crafts, is CEMA-Chile, a government run emporium displaying and selling handwork from most of Chile's 12 official regions, including rustic red clay pots from Pomaire, black clay figurines from Quinchamali, baskets from Osorno, heavy wool sweaters from Chiloe Island, Mapuche Indian silverwork from the Lake District and copperware from the north.

Santiago's Barrio Bellavista, a district noted for its lively nightlife, art galleries and coffee houses, is the place to go for lapis lazuli jewelry, while some of the country's most original craft buys can be made at El Pueblito de Los Dominicos in the eastern suburbs; it is built like an Andean village, and among the best buys are wall hangings in brilliant colors, hand-knit sweaters and traditional Chilean musical instruments. Singers and guitarists provide weekend entertainment.

Day trips from Santiago include a drive to Vina del Mar, a seaside resort with fine fish restaurants and gambling casinos, or to Valparaiso, a bustling port of stairways and cable cars climbing up from the sea with grand hilltop views and some extraordinary examples of Victorian architecture.

On a day away from the capital, travelers can also experience life on a Chilean hacienda at Los Lingues, a historic estate where visitors can ride horseback or mountain bike, swim, fly fish and enjoy a hearty Chilean lunch. Better yet, guests can spend the night "down on the farm" with all the ambience expected of a member of the Relais & Chateaux group.

Sample Product: All South American operators with programs to Chile have city packages for Santiago and day trips from the capital.
4th Dimension Tours, for example, offers a Starter Package that includes two nights accommodations with breakfast, transfers, a city tour, hotel tax and service at a choice of eight hotels (ranging from moderate to deluxe). Choices are available for extra hotel nights and optional tours (night tour with dinner and show, all day to Vina del Mar/Valparaiso or Hacienda Los Lingues). (800) 343-0020.

Desert Highs: Scenic, Natural, Archaeological
Almost any time is a good time to go north, to an area famous for the world's driest desert, stark lava fields, soaring volcanoes, rolling and trackless dunes and scattered ghost towns.

Almost any client interested in the mosaic of South American cultures will be fascinated by the region's superstar attraction: the Atacama Desert, where the remains of man dating back 20,000 years have been found.

This discovery is exhibited and documented in the village of San Pedro de Atacama where visitors learn all about prehistory at the Father Le Paige Museum. Getting here is easiest from the the gateway city of Calama.

New visitor comforts have been added at San Pedro de Atacama with the recent opening of the Hotel Explora, accommodating 100 guests with such amenities as a pool and shower, and offering them excursions by foot, by horse or mountain bike, guided by local Atacaman cowboys. Designed to reflect the Atacama region and its culture, the hotel is a project of the team that built and manages Explora in Patagonia.

Far north is Arica, whose seashore and colorful harbor are populated by pelicans awaiting discards from the daily catch of local fishermen.

The desertscape begins outside the city where barren hills display large figures of ancient geoglyphs. In the Azapa valley is the San Miguel Archaeological Museum, with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts of the Diaguitas Indians, as well as sand-preserved mummies from cultures pre-dating those of Egypt.

Arica is one of the gateways to the Lauca National Park, dominated by volcanoes, and Lake Cungara, located 14,000 feet above sea level. Living here are exotic birds, as well as llamas, alpacas and vicunas.

Another park gateway is the resort town of Iquique, boasting some of the finest beaches on South America's Pacific coast, and about 60 miles away are the Pintados (literally, the painted), where immense glyphic images of animals and stylized figures cover the foothills.

Sample Products: Freegate Tourism offers a three-day/two-night Atacama Desert package, priced at $765 per person, double, including transfers on arrival from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, two nights at Hosteria San Pedro with breakfast, full day sightseeing including the colonial town of Chiu-Chiu and the Chuquicamata copper mine en route back to Calama on day three. (516) 222-0855 or (800) 223-0304.

Myths & Mountains runs 15-night escorted tours a year focusing on Archaeology and the Altiplano. The Sept. 19 departure, priced from $2,595 for land, examines the fauna, colonial heritage and ancient ruins of the north. FIT trips available on this program. (702) 832-5454 or (800) 670-6984.

Love Those Lakes and Volcanoes
The gateway to Chile's Lake District of sparkling Andean waters and snow-trimmed volcanoes is Puerto Montt, accessible by daily flights from Santiago. This small but vital community is snuggled against Reloncavi Sound -- the bluest of bays plied by myriad fishing skiffs and island-hopping ferry boats.

The most colorful attraction in Puerto Montt is the Angelmo fish market and craft market -- the largest in the region -- full of sweaters, leather goods, baskets and carved wooden items.

From Puerto Montt, the ferry trip across the Chacao Channel to Chiloe Island is a special dividend. The island -- remote and densely forested -- has its own architecture, folklore, gastronomy and handicrafts.

For those tarrying in this region, one of the prettiest towns is Frutillar, right on Lake Llanquihue and full of colorful and interesting Victorian-cum-Bavarian style homes and churches, pretty little boutiques and tea houses.

Visitors to the Lake District who want to make the crossing to San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina can do so via boat on Lake Todos los Santos.

A very special stay in this region is available at the Termas de Puyuhuapi Resort, offered as the Patagonia Connection program. It features cruises aboard the catamaran Patagonia Express, including a sailing to the San Raphael Lagoon during a three- or six-day stay at the resort.

In addition to day cruises and overland excursions, the resort offers forest walks, hot mineral water pools, fishing, windsurfing, kayaking and waterskiing. The waterside lodge features rooms with private bath and cabins, with meals served in the international restaurant or cafeteria.

Advance lodging and transportation reservations are essential on all arrangements in the Lake District, as well as the rest of Patagonia, from November through April.

Sample Products: Solar Tours offers a Lake Crossing: Santiago to Bariloche. This five-night package spends three nights in Santiago, one night in Puerto Varas and one night in Peulla with breakfast; it includes a lake crossing ticket, transfers and English-speaking assistance. Priced from $850. Solar Tours at (202) 861-5864 or (800) 388-7652.

Southwind Adventures features Bike Patagona, a new nine-night mountain bike tour (moderate level) whose Lake District overland routing includes seven days of van-supported bike touring using 21-speed mountain bikes and averaging 25 miles per day on unpaved roads from Puerto Montt to Ensenada, Puyehue National Park, Villarica, Herquehue National Park and Temuco; two nights are in Santiago. The program operates October to March at a cost of $1,725 with 6 to 10 persons in the group, $2,495 with 11 to 15. (303) 972-0701 or (800) 377-9463.

Adventure in Patagonia
Scenically, an excursion to rival that of the lakes area is the trip to the southern tip of Chile's Patagonia, a region of wild forests, snow-tipped mountains, glaciers and fjords.

One can travel by land, or preferably by air (a trip that offers spectacular flightseeing) from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, the largest town in the south. Located on the Magellan Straits, Punta Arenas is a compact little red-roofed place which exports wool, builds wooden boats and serves up excellent king crab.

Some of the choicest accommodations are offered at the Hotel Jose Nogueira, an exquisite mansion built in 1895 with marble floors, a glass conservatory and murals on ceilings and walls; an old-time favorite is the Cabo de Hornos.

During summer (winter in the Northern Hemisphere), there are day trips offshore to the penguin colony at Isla Magdalena. Closer to town is the Seno Otway penguin colony, and a six-hour drive north and overland through sheep farm country is Torres del Paine National Park, one of South America's largest national reserves and a site of rugged mountain beauty.

The "Towers of Paine" are strange, needle-like rock formations that rise to about 2,500 feet and form the backdrop for Lake Sarmiento and Lake Grey, two of many glacier attractions in the park.

The easiest and most pleasant way to explore the park is from a base at the now very popular, 30-room Hotel Explora on Lake Pehoe, a luxury lodge with grand views from every corner. During a four-day, all-inclusive stay, guests have daily choices of escorted hiking, horseback and mountain-bike excursions.

On the same lake, with the same views, is the more modest tourist class, 31-room Hosteria Pehoe, linked to the mainland by a footbridge. Additionally, local tour operators offer the 26-room Hosteria Las Torres, located at the entrance to the national park, with a view to the Paine "Towers," and the 20-room Hosteria Lago Grey, facing Lake Grey with a magnificent view over the Grey glacier.

Taking the road south to Torres del Paine, travelers will want to stop in Puerto Natales, near the Argentina border. Boat trips out of this port include sailing on Ultima Esperanza Sound and visits to the imposing Serrano and Balmaceda glaciers.

Sample Product: On Wildland Adventures' 10-day Patagonia Sojourn, travelers camp for six nights in Torres del Paine park, with day hikes along trails beneath the peaks, along the rivers and lakes. Priced from $1,767 (with seven people), departures are monthly November through March; the trip can be customized for two persons. (206) 365-0686 or (800) 345-4453.

Offshore Specials: Easter Island & Robinson Crusoe
Some 2,300 miles off coastal Chile (a four-hour, 50-minute flight aboard LanChile) is one of the greatest outdoor museums of the world: Easter Island.

On exhibit are clusters of giant statues called moais; they are distinguished by their elongated heads and stand on raised platforms, lie scattered in pasture grass, or remain in quarries, incomplete or too large to have been moved. A survey by Chilean and U.S. archaeologists has counted nearly 900 of these statues, whose average height is 14 feet and weight 14 tons; one however, measures 32 feet and 89 tons.

The newest grouping of statues -- some 15 in all -- have been restored and resurrected on their original seaside site called Ahu Tongariki which sits at the base of the Rano Raraku volcano.

These monumental statues are the legacy of a people who landed on Easter Island -- known as Rapa Nui -- from Polynesia; scientists believe the island was colonized around A.D. 800.

Another sightseeing thrill takes visitors to the edge of Rano Kau volcano and the ancient ceremonial village of Orongo, where petroglyphs are carved on rocky outcroppings and some 40 aboriginal stone dwellings rest in situ.

Island tours -- by van or on horseback -- depart from Hanga Roa, the island's only town, where comfortable accommodations are available in several small hotels and in homes of the native islanders. Clients staying on the island on Easter Sunday go to church.

Closer to the Chilean mainland -- 400 miles off-shore -- lies Robinson Crusoe Island, part of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, whose capital town is San Juan Bautista; the town is about a one and a half-hour four-wheel drive from the air strip, served by a six-passenger air taxi from Santiago, then a long motor-launch ride along the coast to the port.

Clients can take a page from the novel, "Robinson Crusoe," and come here to enjoy the volcanic topography, unique flora and fauna of the Juan Fernandez National Park which is an official Unesco Biosphere Reserve. They will also enjoy a friendly town, simple accommodations, and all the lobster they can eat.

Late spring or summer (November to February) is the best season, and the one with most frequent air service aboard a six-passenger aircraft from the mainland.

Sample Products: Departures are scheduled Fridays on Tara Tours' seven-night Easter Island program that spends three nights in Santiago and four on the island. The cost per person, double, is $2,788 with air from Miami (air surcharge of $75 at certain periods), daily breakfast, tours as noted with guides. (305) 871-1246 or (800) 327-0080.

TCS Expeditions runs Project Easter Island in cooperation with the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It departs Jan. 7. This education program will be accompanied by a team of lecturers: paleontologist Malcolm McKenna from the natural history museum and Chilean archaeologists Edmundo Edwards, Patricia Vargas and Claudio Cristino. Priced at $4,990 per person, double, the 11-night, all-inclusive tour (eight on Easter Island, three in Santiago) features educational programs and a professional tour manager. TCS Expeditions in Seattle at (206) 727-7300 or the Museum's Discovery Tours at (212) 769-5700.

Alta Tours has a Robinson Crusoe three-night package; passengers are on their own on the island, where accommodations (at the Villa Green), breakfast and dinner, and transfers to and from airport are included. The cost is $885 per person, double, including roundtrip air from Santiago to the island, accommodations with breakfast and dinner. (415) 777-1312 or (800) 338-4191.

Fruit of the Vine Touring
The wine industry in Chile is booming: U.S. and French vintners have made substantial investments in its vineyards, and Chilean wines are winning prizes in leading wine circles and competition. Visitors in Santiago can made day tours to historic vineyards in the neighboring valleys -- some of the most commonly visited are Undurraga, Concha y Toro and Cousino-Macul -- or tour on circuits that extend to the Mendoza wine district in neighboring Argentina.

Don't expect well-organized tours like those available in Europe and the U.S., with formal tastings and wine experts showing off the process of wine growing; however, there is no shortage of interesting winemakers to meet. Vineyard doors are open weekdays for informal visits and tastings, although more extensive touring for interested FIT clients or wine clubs can be organized in advance by local tour operators.

March is the month of the vendimia, or harvest; the farther south the vineyard, however, the later the picking.

Fine wine, of course, is meant to compliment good food, and wine touring can be linked to Chile's world-renowned seafood which includes delicious shellfish found nowhere else on earth. A visit to Santiago's famous fish market, as well as samplings of traditional cuisine, are some features that fit deliciously into good tastings in Chile.

Sample Product: Alta Tours runs a Wine & Gourmet Tour of Chile, a seven-night program operating year-round for a minimum of 10 passengers. Visits to six wineries and vineyards (as well as olive oil and fruit producers), deluxe hotel in Santiago, plus two nights at the colonial Hotel Termas de Cauquenes, breakfast daily and many other meals. Cost is $950 per person, double, FIT arrangements available. (415) 777-1312 or (800) 338-4191.

Angling Fun Equals Great Fishing
In Chile, fishing means the Lake District, beginning at Lake Villarrica, just south of Temuco. Anglers will find brown, rainbow and brook trout, as well as perch. The trout season opens on Oct. 15 and lasts through March 31.

The best months for river fly fishing are from October until early January and again in March. Popular spots are around Lake Villarrica, Lake Pucon, Lake Panguipulli, Lake Ranco and Llifen, Rininahue and Lake Calafquen.

Deep-sea fishing is most common in the north of Chile, where anglers pull in swordfish, long-finned and big-eye tuna, bonito and shark. World record catches have been made at both Iquique and Tocopilla. The season is April to September.

Sample product: November through March in Patagonia, anglers can book PanAmerican Tours' six-night package the Llanquihui Lodge, about 40 minutes from Puerto Montt, where rainbow and brown trout are the super-stars found in Lake Llanquihue, Lake Verde and River Petrohue. The per person, double, cost of $3,199 covers fishing guide services, accommodations, meals, transfers; rafting, horse trekking, mountain biking and thermal baths, also optional activities. A four-day extension to fish the River Yelcho and stay at the Yelcho Lodge is also available; participants fly into this private lake by charter. (801) 364-4300 or (800) 364-4359.

Sublime Summer Skiing
From July to October, many clients choose to beat the heat by heading south to ski in Chile. Conditions normally are optimum in August and September. Among the best centers, featured in ski programs of U.S. tour operators, are the following:

  • Valle Nevado. Located 66 miles outside of Santiago, this most popular of Southern Hemisphere ski resorts encompasses more than 20,000 acres (34 square miles) of skiable terrain in the midst of the majestic Andes, and more than 25 diverse, fully groomed runs. For those who seek excitement off the beaten path, Valle Nevado offers heli-skiing, accompanied by expert guides.
  • Slopes are tailored to: 25% for the novice, 40% for the intermediate, 35% advanced skiers; lifts include one quad, one triple, one double chair and seven drag; and accommodations are offered at the Hotel Valle Nevado (superior first class), Hotel Puerta del Sol (standard first class) and Hotel Tres Puntas (tourist class).

  • Portillo. The resort is located at 9,500 feet on the border of Chile and Argentina, 90 miles from Santiago. The top draw here is not only fine facilities, but snowmaking capability; Portillo is the only resort with this equipment on the continent.
  • Skiing is guaranteed on 30 acres of slopes, 24% for the novice, 33% for the intermediate, 43% for advanced skiers, who are served by one quad, one triple, two double chairs and eight drag lifts.

    Portillo's ultimate thrill is climbing into the wilds above the hotel on a 30-dress face, then making the nine-mile run down from the statue of the Christ of the Andes.

    The Portillo Hotel has facilities for 650 guests in accommodations ranging from singles, doubles and triples to family apartments, annexes and chalets.

  • Termas de Chillan. Situated 250 miles south of Santiago and best reached by air in one hour or by train in six, the resort is actually 58 miles from Chillan. With its southerly location, snow conditions are reliable, and skiers schuss the longest trail (eight miles) in South America. Total lift count is four doubles and six drag lifts (T-bars and poma).
  • Termas offers diverse terrain for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities, divided roughly into 30% for novice, 40% for intermediate, 30% for advanced. Skiers of all abilities can enjoy a bath in the natural thermal pools at the end of the day.

    Accommodations range from the deluxe Gran Hotel Termas de Chillan, to the first class Hotel Pirigallo.

    Sample Product: Adventures on Skis' packages to all Valle Nevado and Chillan are offered from mid-June to mid-October; Portillo packages operate to mid-September. At Valle Nevado, for example, the lead price using at the Hotel Valle Nevado is $2,185 per person, double, with air from Miami, transfers, seven nights lodging, breakfast and dinner, ski lift ticket. (413) 562-3621 or (800) 628-9655.

    Cruising Chile
    Two expedition-style cruises, scheduled with weekly departures, highlight the Chile travel experience, and are featured by major tour operators specializing in both escorted and FIT programs to South America. For the cruise portion alone, tour operators offer the same rates.

    The 100-passenger Terra Australis sails on a roundtrip circuit from Punta Arenas in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina through the Strait of Magellan, a popular choice in soft adventure and comfortable cruising. Cruising spectaculars include Beagle Channel and Glacier Alley -- here Espana, Francia, Romanche, Alemania, Holanda and Italia glaciers, as well as Garibaldi Bay.

    Departures run October through April, and on-board amenities include twin-bedded cabins with picture windows and private bathrooms, air conditioning and heating; single-seating dining with fine cuisine and Chilean wines and drinks; daily lectures; excursions by Zodiac boat into fjords; touring at ports of call that make up the southernmost cities in the world, and walkabouts in wildlife areas such as the penguin rookery at Magdalena Island.

    Cruises are also available on a three- or four-night basis, for travelers who wish to cruise one way and fly the other, or for those incorporating this cruise for itineraries that combine travel in Chile and Argentina.

    The M/V Skorpios vessels (the 160-passenger Skorpios I & II and the 125-passenger Skorpios III) cruise through fjord country for six nights between Puerto Montt and the San Rafael Lagoon from September through May.

    The ships sail through a spectacular labyrinth of channels and fjords such as Elefante and Quitralco, and en route passengers take motorboat excursions between iridescent icebergs to visit small fishing villages. The super-stars of this cruise are the glaciers in Laguna San Rafael and the San Valentin glacier.

    At Quitralco quay, passengers may take a thermal bath in indoor and outdoor pools, and end the cruise with a visit to Castro before returning to Puerto Montt.

    Facilities aboard the ships include single, double and triple cabins, as well as suites, all with comfortable berths, heating, carpeting and private bath; board the newer Skorpios II, all cabins are either doubles or suites, and offer choices of twin or king-size beds. Guests dine on lots of fish and shellfish, as well as meat dishes, accompanied by Chilean wines; there is an open bar on board.

    Sample Product: Tourlite International offers Patagonian Adventure, an 11-night tour program, featuring three nights in Santiago, one night in Punta Arenas and seven nights aboard the Terra Australis, cruising between Chile and Argentina. (212) 599-2727 or (800) 272-7600.

    Discover a New Horizon: The Falklands
    With the introduction of a LanChile weekly flight on Saturdays from Santiago to Mount Pleasant airport (with intermediate stops in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas), travelers are now able to add a week's stay in the Falkland Islands to Chile itineraries.

    The airport is on East Falkland, one of two main islands and about a half dozen smaller islands which are of extraordinary interest to the natural history traveler who will find the archipelago a pristine habitat for millions of sea birds -- including five species of nesting penguins -- as well as sea lions, elephant seals, fur seals.

    While cruise ships en route to Antarctica call here, until now, only a few hundred land-based tourists came each year. Yet the islands are equipped to accommodate travelers. What they find is four-wheel-drive vehicles, scheduled light aircraft service around the islands and specially created lodges that make access to wildlife colonies easy and comfortable.

    Islands with access, facilities and large concentrations of wildlife include Port Howard on West Falkland, Sea Lion Island, Pebble Island, Saunders Island and San Carlos on East Falkland.

    Port Stanley is the capital and generally first stop on the one-week Falkland itineraries now available in the U.S. market. The optimum travel season is October to April.

    Sample Products: Ladatco offers Penguins and Glaciers, 17 nights, including a Terra Australis cruise; all arrangements for one week in the Falklands, spending two nights at Port Howard, two nights on Sea Lion Island, three nights in Port Stanley with a visit to Volunteer Point, plus one day each way in Santiago. The cost is $5,900 with air from Miami and such features as most meals. (305) 854-8422 or (800) 327-6162.

    Tread Lightly offers a seven-night Falkland Islands itinerary including one night in San Carlos, two in Port Howard, two on Sea Lion Island and two in Port Stanley. The price of $1,995 includes local air within the Falklands and all meals. (860) 868-1710 or (800) 643-0060.

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