Port of Santiago (Valparaiso)
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This is a sprawling city with a narrow river wandering through it, but with a good look at a map, it is easy to get your bearings. Centro is the downtown area and the oldest part of Santiago. The artistic enclave of Bellas Artes and some unexpected neighborhoods within might make you think you had stumbled into Paris or Rio; streets are busy and filled with dozens of buses. History is found here in the Spanish Colonial buildings in the leafy Plaza de Armas and the stately Civic Quarter; the grandest European-style buildings, including the Municipal Theatre, the National Library and the Palace of Fine Arts, were built after Chile gained its independence in 1818. The funky Bellavista quarter and the big Metropolitan Park are just to the north of downtown, across the River Mapocho.
Modern Santiago is growing to the east. That's where you will find Providencia, an area with wide streets and lovely homes; a popular place to stay because it is walkable and features many shops and restaurants. Further east, Vitacura is home to gourmet dining and to the Boulevard Alonso de Cordova, where the city's most exclusive designer shops are found. Posh new condominiums and lavish shopping malls are beyond in the Las Condes district.
With historic squares, broad avenues, modern buildings, green parks, tempting shops, wonderful restaurants and diverse neighborhoods to be explored, Santiago begs for a pre- or post-cruise stay.
Top Santiago (Valparaiso) Itineraries
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Where You're Docked
Ships dock in Valparaiso, a coastal city about 90 minutes from Santiago; many public buses operate between the two cities (see Getting Around).
Valparaiso has long attracted artists and poets and has been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site (it was once the capital of Chile, before Santiago). Before the Panama Canal was built, ships stopped here before rounding Cape Horn, making it one of the busiest ports in South America. It has seen better days -- paint is flaking on many buildings and some of the downtown shops are vacant -- but the port remains busy and the town is picturesque, with multi-hued houses clinging every which way to the 40-something steep hills that form a kind of amphitheater around the harbor. Fifteen somewhat creaky Victorian-era funicular elevators called "ascensors" can be boarded throughout the city for panoramic views.
The main tourist attraction is La Sebastiana, the hilltop home of Chile's late Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. The house is a maze of quirky rooms, each with a prize city view. The grandest square is Sotomayor, the gateway to the town pier, and is lined with statues and fine official buildings including the Chilean navy headquarters. The tourist information office here offers free maps with walking tours.
Good to Know
Your belongings: Though generally safe, Santiago, like most big cities, has areas where thefts occur. Be careful when visiting the Plaza de Armas and Bellavista areas, and avoid walking around these neighborhoods at night.
The Andes and Coastal ranges meet to completely ring this beautiful city like a crown, jeweled most of the year with sparkling white snow, but you'll have to look closely to see them; as the economy prospers and more people own cars, smog can be a problem. Carry eye drops to alleviate irritated eyes.
From Valparaiso: Turbus, a reliable company with well-maintained buses, has departures every 20 minutes for under $7 one way.
Editor's note: The text is in Spanish, but once you click Venta de Pasayes and enter your cities and date of travel, you will get current schedules and fares. Buses leave from the Valparaiso bus terminal at Av. Pedro Montt 2800, near O'Higgins Square, and in Santiago at Alameda 3750. Cruise lines offer day tours for those who do not stay over in Santiago. Tours usually include Vina del Mar, a lovely seaside resort near Valparaiso.
In Santiago: The central part of Santiago can by covered on foot, but you'll want to see a variety of neighborhoods. The quickest way to get around is by Metro, the city's modern, clean and safe subway system. The cost is just 370 peso, about 60 cents, per ride. Taxis are plentiful and reasonable with typical rides running $5 or $6 between neighborhoods. They are available at hotels, can be hailed on the street or called by phone. Taxis have meters, but to avoid being driven out of the way, it can be wise to set a price before you get in. There are plenty of rental car agencies available at the Santiago airport and in town. Expect to pay around $50 per day for the smallest no-frill cars.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Chile's currency unit is the peso. One U.S. dollar is worth about 650 pesos, so a calculator comes in handy for figuring costs. See www.oanda.com for current rates and an invaluable "cheat sheet" to print out and take with you. ATM's are the most convenient way to get funds; they are found in the airport, at banks, in shopping centers and in many large hotels. Bank hours usually are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Spanish. Most people working in hotels and tourist shops speak English, and restaurants that cater to visitors often have English translations on the menu.
Food and Drink
Seafood is king in Santiago: Sample the delicious Chilean sea bass (known as corvina), the locally farmed salmon, or the Chilean specialty congrio, conger eel, which is actually a kind of fish. Patagonian lamb is also delicious. And soon you'll see that Chileans love bread; look for the "marraqueta," a flat roll served almost everywhere. Fine Chilean wines add to the dining pleasure.
On the Pier: Bote Salavidas (Muelle Prat, lunch from 12:30 p.m.), located on the harbor on the main pier, has great views through glass walls and is one of Valparaiso's best seafood restaurants. Three-course lunches are about $15.
Local Lunch: Central Market is a lunch tradition in Santiago, as popular with locals as with tourists. The market, a vast bustling emporium with a soaring roof has been a fixture since 1872. It is filled with vendors selling every kind of fish you ever dreamed of -- and some you never imagined. Hawkers will try to lure you into one of the many cafes in the market, but the place to go is Donde Augusto, where you may be dining beneath a photo of Bill Clinton or another familiar celebrity. Set meals, including a Pisco sour, soup, generous main course and dessert, begin around $30. The strolling musicians come free.
Editor's Note: The market opens at 6 a.m. daily, except Sunday. Restaurants serve Monday - Thursday until 4 p.m., Friday to 8 p.m., and Saturday to 6 p.m.
Chile is one of only two countries in the world where lapis lazuli, a brilliant blue semi-precious stone, is found in abundance, and lapis jewelry is plentiful in all price ranges. Alpaca woolen stoles and sweaters are another local specialty, along with wooden crafts made by the native Mapuche Indians. A wide selection can be found at Los Dominicos in Las Condes; this picturesque craftsman's village has over 150 shops and stalls, many with working artisans on hand. Bellavista, Santiago's bohemian district, has many shops selling jewelry, as well as a daily flea market. For the best quality in jewelry and crafts, check out Pura (Av Kennedy 5413 Tercer in Las Condes).
Though it originated in neighboring Peru, Pisco sours have been adopted as the national drink in Chile, and are served almost everywhere. The ingredients are Pisco brandy (made with the skin of white grapes), lemon juice, sugar and ice. Sometimes egg whites are added for extra froth.