The Colors of Chile

Despite a major earthquake, this South American tourism hot spot is open for business. By: By Mark Chesnut
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa // © 2010
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa // © 2010

USTOA Members Weigh In on Chile’s Appeal

Members of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) chose Chile for this year’s out-of-country board meeting and fam trip, giving them the opportunity to evaluate Chile’s tourism potential and how perceptions of earthquake damage compared to the realities of travel there.

“We were expecting to see damage to the infrastructure, and we have just not seen it,” said John Stachnick, president of Mayflower Tours. “We’re also impressed with the efficiency and professionalism here in Chile.”

“Chile has a lot more to offer than we had expected,” said Roger Mahal, chairman and CEO of Sita World Tours, which offers a 12-day program that includes Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

The destination offers numerous selling points for travel agents, according to Juan Pablo Chovar, director for North America at Turismo Chile.

“Chile is the safest country in Latin America and among emerging tourist destinations, with modern cities and first-rate ground and air transportation,” Chovar said. “Geographically speaking, Chile is home to several well recognized names that are part of the DNA of every world traveler — Atacama, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Andes, Easter Island, Antarctica. All of these names evoke great natural richness, diversity and dimensions.”

“It’s like Christmas day in terms of what we’re seeing and doing,” said Dennis Savage, senior vice president at CIE Tours International. “Every day it’s something new. The people are very friendly. The focus on quality is extraordinary. And the landscape is extremely beautiful — we expected some contrasts, but there is even more than we expected.”

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Click here to read more about the recent USTOA meeting in Chile.

It’s a challenge to describe Chile without mentioning colors. After all, beautifully striking geographic contrasts — from the bluish hues of the southern glaciers to the fiery red sunsets in the northern desert — are nothing out of the ordinary in this diverse land, which stretches some 2,600 miles from north to south.

This vast geographic diversity translates to a wide variety of vacation options, making it possible for clients to cruise through chilly waters like Antarctic explorers, dine on gourmet cuisine in Santiago and hike across rambling desert landscapes, all within a matter of two or three days.

The idea of vacationing in Chile might, for many people, bring up questions about the major earthquake that struck the country in February. But in spite of worrisome headlines immediately after the quake, what travelers — and agents — should know is that most tourist areas were unaffected. Chile is unusually long, which means that what happens in one region doesn’t directly affect other areas.

The major destruction took place in and around the city of Concepcion, and recovery efforts there continue. In addition, some of the wineries and hotels in the Colchagua Valley were damaged, and some hotels there remain closed — including Hacienda Los Lingues, which has not yet announced a date for reopening, and Casa Lapostolle, which is to finish repairs and renovations in September.

Santiago’s airport, which suffered more damage than the city itself, is fully functional, and only minor repairs remained as of press time.

Hotels, stores, restaurants and public services are up and running in the city of Santiago. Clients interested in visiting a specific museum, however, may need to verify that it is open, as repairs are ongoing and some attractions — including the new Museo de la Memoria y
Los Derechos Humanos, a human-rights museum — are still closed.

The Pacific Coast hot spots of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar suffered minor damage to decorative architecture, but tourism sites and businesses are open and operating normally.

Patagonia and the northern desert — as well as far-flung Easter Island — were completely unaffected by the quake.

“The facts are that in terms of tourist offerings and services, Chile was not affected to any large extent [by the earthquake],” said Juan Pablo Chovar, director for North America at Turismo Chile. “The regions where there is a heavy concentration of tourist zones — Patagonia, the Lakes region, Atacama, Easter Island, Santiago — didn’t suffer damage, and that’s something we should be very clear about.”

Capital City
Chile benefits from its image as one of Latin America’s most progressive, economically and politically stable nations. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the capital city of Santiago, a well-run metropolis of some 7.2 million people that serves as the main point of
entry for most international visitors.

Santiago’s Cerro Santa Lucia park is where the city was founded.// © 2010 Jorge Lascar

Santiago’s Cerro Santa Lucia park is where the city was founded.// © 2010 Jorge Lascar

Among the most visited historic and cultural sites here are Cerro Santa Lucia, an ornately decorated hilltop park where conqueror Pedro de Valdivia founded the city in 1540, and La Moneda, the government headquarters that since 2006, has also been home to the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, a subterranean cultural center that hosts local and international exhibitions of modern and historical art.

Another must-see is La Chascona, the quirky former residence of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most celebrated poet and writer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. La Chascona is one of three homes operated today by the non-profit Fundacion Pablo Neruda, and it’s a fascinating place to learn about how his work and life reflected Chile’s history, including the years of dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1990.

The capital has, in recent years, welcomed an ever-growing array of hotel options, with various price points and styles. The newest hotel to make a splash is The Aubrey, a 15-room boutique property that opened in late 2009 in a 1920’s mansion in the Bohemian Bellavista district, near the entrance to the funicular railway that climbs into the scenic Parque Metropolitano (Metropolitan Park). Also in the upscale vein is the W Santiago, located in the stylish El Golf neighborhood, and the Grand Hyatt Santiago, which soars over the equally chic Las Condes district.

Coastal Treasures
Only about an hour away from Santiago lie two distinct cities that complement each other: Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. Together, they make for an easy day trip from the capital but are also well worth a longer visit.

Valparaiso’s geography and architecture may remind visitors of San Francisco.// © 2010 Alex E. Proimos

Valparaiso’s geography and architecture may remind visitors of San Francisco.// © 2010 Alex E. Proimos

Valparaiso — which is sometimes compared to San Francisco because of its architecture and geography — was for years a very wealthy port city. Today, Valparaiso’s charm remains, most noticeably in the seemingly random array of historic architecture on its winding hills.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the city is home to a growing number of bed and breakfasts, restaurants and shops. An absolute must-do activity for every first-time visitor is to ride on one of the city’s historic acensores — literally, elevators, but more like tiny funicular railways that crawl up steep inclines to link the waterfront downtown with the narrow streets on the top of the hills. These streets are lined with impressive neoclassical and Victorian architecture.

A different world awaits just a few minutes away from Valparaiso. The city of Vina del Mar attracts vacationers with an array of modern luxuries, including upscale hotels, a large casino and designer shopping — not to mention ample beaches, good surfing conditions and a
world-famous annual music festival, the Festival Internacional de la Cancion.

Heading South
The region of Patagonia enjoys excellent name recognition, thanks in part to the clothing brand. And while some clients may not quite be able to point out Patagonia on a map (it actually spans parts of both Chile and Argentina), the name itself certainly conjures up images of the great outdoors — with thick forests, unexplored waterways and plenty of nature-oriented activities. Chile’s Patagonia region lives up to expectations and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways.

Patagonia’s San Rafael glacier has been retreating dramatically.// © 2010 Vince Huang_1

Patagonia’s San Rafael glacier has been retreating dramatically.// © 2010 Vince Huang

Visitors normally fly from Santiago to gateway cities such as Puerto Montt or Balmaceda and, then, either join a cruise or stay at one of the luxurious hotels, including Puyuhuapi, a lodge and spa tucked into the far corner of a lush Pacific Ocean inlet, or Explora, part of a well-established group of upscale lodges in Chile.

Both cruise ships and hotels can serve as an excellent base for exploring the scenic fjords. From Puyuhuapi, for example, guests may board the Patagonia Express, a 90-foot, 247-ton catamaran that features business-class-style seating and a second-floor dining room designed to keep travelers comfy for extended excursions.

Whether it’s a one-day or multi-day excursion, one of the highlights of a visit to Patagonia is the cruise south toward the San Rafael glacier, a popular tourist site that is one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world and has been receding rather dramatically in recent
years. A multi-textured mass with countless shades of blue, the glacier is so colorful that it would be easy to think it was artificial if not for the crashing sound that the large chunks of ice make as they fall into the water. Zodiac craft are the usual means of transportation for getting groups as close as possible to the magnificent ice mass.

The Dry North
A two-hour flight north from Santiago brings travelers to an entirely different terrain: namely, the Atacama Desert. The city of Calama is home to the airport that serves the most tourist-friendly part of this region and, from here, it’s just one hour by land to San Pedro de Atacama, a town that within the past few years has debuted numerous chic desert resorts.

Patagonia’s San Rafael glacier has been retreating dramatically.// © 2010 Vince Huang

The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa is one of the region’s top properties.// © 2010 Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa

Among the best properties is the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, a pristinely landscaped property dramatically situated between imposing mountains, which received extra press this year for hosting one of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue photo shoots. Also worth considering is the stylish Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, which features a modernist touch; Explora Atacama, which has extensive tour activities and an observatory; and Awasi, which offers an extremely personalized upscale experience, complete with private driver.

San Pedro de Atacama’s small luxury hotels offer a full menu of desert excursions and activities, but they are also firmly focused on pampering, with amenities that include gourmet cuisine, spa services and Wi-Fi (although clients should be warned that it can be a
challenge to find a luxury hotel here that has televisions in its guestrooms). Most properties offer both a bed-and-breakfast price that includes accommodations and breakfast, as well as an all-inclusive program that includes three meals and the privileges of an open bar — and, in some cases, all activities and excursions.

Activities range from mild to adventurous and include hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Guided excursions by van or private car bring travelers to sites including Rio Grande, a picturesque village of some 90 residents centered around a tiny church that dates to 1780; Rainbow Valley, where multi-colored rock formations create dramatic photo opportunities; and Hierbas Buenas, a site that’s home to ancient petroglyphs that depict llamas, humans and other inhabitants of the desert.

One of the most popular trips is to Laguna de Chaxa, a nature reserve with a lagoon that appears to have been plopped randomly in the middle of sprawling salt flats. Rocky pathways twist through the otherworldly landscape, leading to a viewing point for the lake, where pinkish flamingos graze in the shallow waters for brine shrimp. It’s a natural photo opportunity, with pastel flamingos and blue water providing a stark contrast to the washed-out beige of the craggy mountains in the distance — still more hues in Chile’s kaleidoscope of colors.

Turismo Chile

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