Red Hot Chile Vacations

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The top hotels, restaurants and sighseeing in Santiago and beyond.

Not too long ago, Chile was far south of most people's vacation radar. This long, bony finger of a country is a long way away - it stretches more than 2,600 miles from the Atacama Desert all the way down to the icebergs of Antarctica. Though a colorful and fascinating destination, most of what people heard was about its murderous military government. Memo to budget travelers: Put it back on your itinerary. Augusto Pinochet's regime is history and he's spent most of the last year and a half under arrest in London, pending trial in Spain. Meanwhile, Chile has returned to democratic peace and prosperity, its most recent elections held just this past January. It's a safe destination that not only offers some of the most compelling sights but also some of the cheapest prices on the South American continent.

Consider that you can spend a night in Santiago, the sprawling, cosmopolitan capital of nearly 6 million people, for $5 to $15, if you don't require the Ritz. You can gorge on tasty empanadas for less than a Big Mac costs back home. And you can take advantage of South America's flip-flopped seasons: Dig your feet into the white sand and surf of the palm-tree-studded resort city of Vina del Mar when people are shoveling snow back home, or carve up the white powder at renowned ski slopes like Portillo and Valle Nevado when it's sweltering in the States.

First-time visitors will want to spend a few days looking around the museums, monuments, and gracious European-style precincts of Santiago, then, during the summer (December to February), grab a bus to Vina del Mar to wander the beaches and try their luck in a casino for several more days. Those interested in exploring farther afield might consider visiting the glaciers, penguins, and spectacular wilds of Patagonia in the south or the shimmering Atacama Desert in the north.

Chileans like visitors, and they like it when you try speaking Spanish - even if you do it badly. "People from Chile are very warm," says Alejandra Oyarzun, a resident of the island of Chiloe. Despite a prospering economy, the exchange rate favors gringo guests. The U.S. dollar recently sold for some 520 pesos, up from 410 in 1997.

Coming down, going around

While not the cheapest ticket on earth, airfare to Chile is well within the budget traveler's reach. Airline ticket discounters or consolidators that specialize in South America travel offer reasonable prices in peak summer season, December to February. Round-trip flights from New York City cost between $615 and $660; while Los Angeles is only slightly more expensive at around $700. Travelers from Miami get even better rates, around $450. (These prices do not include taxes, which run from $30 to $64. Also, Chile charges U.S. citizens a onetime entrance fee of $45.) Some of the best fares are available from consolidators like World Trade Travel in New York (800/732-7386), Ticketplanet.com in San Francisco (800/799-8888), and Cheap Tickets (800/377-1000). Or fly as a courier; the Air Courier Association (800/282-1202) offers $450 flights to Santiago from Miami.

Once you're here, local carrier LanChile (800/735-5526; www.lanchile.com) offers an air pass-$350 for three domestic flights ($250 if you fly LanChile from the U.S.) - allowing visitors to check out Santiago and environs, bounce north to the fascinating Atacama, and scoot south to Puerto Montt, in the heart of the gorgeous lake district.

Buses are also a popular option. There are dozens of companies that run clean and comfortable vehicles on regular timetables. Buses leave hourly from Santiago to popular destinations like Vina del Mar (the two-hour trip goes for $3.18 each way) and La Serena. Advance booking is suggested only on holidays or for longer trips on a sleeper bus. Among the major companies are Pullman (2/235-8142), Cruz del Sur (2/779-0607), Flota Barrios (2/776-0665), and Tur-Bus (2/776-3690).

Buenas noches

The country is packed with budget accommodations, though options range from a plain room in a local home to posh five-star hotels. Hospedajes and residenciales are the best bargains, with simple digs and shared bathrooms at prices that generally range between $5 and $20 per person. Common in small towns, hospedajes ("oh-speh-DAH-hess") are homes that rent out rooms. Larger cities are more likely to have residenciales, essentially boarding houses with individual rooms and shared baths. Rooms tend to be austere - sometimes with just a couple of twin beds and space to drop your bags - but the beds are comfortable, and some places have communal kitchens. It's perfectly okay to ask to see the room first, and if it's not up to your standards - some are more run-down than others - move on; there are usually plenty of choices. Hospedajes and some residenciales offer a glimpse of how people live and, if you speak Spanish, a chance to discuss Chile with your hosts.

A good word to keep in mind when planning your trip is Sernatur, the country's official tourism office (in Santiago, 2/236-1420). It issues a number of free booklets and maps-including some in English-on sights, rooms, restaurants, and special-interest activities like skiing; some staff hablan ingles, as well. Sernatur also runs an information booth near Santiago airport customs, open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekends. Also, there are plenty of taxi drivers in the terminal willing to help book you into a place in exchange for a tip (usually 10 percent of the fare). In Vina del Mar, the tourist office hands out a map at the bus station that lists dozens of hotels, residenciales, and restaurants, and some of the staff speak English. In many tourist-oriented towns like Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, visitors getting off buses are handed business cards advertising budget lodging. In many cases, the card-giver is the owner of the hospedaje and will personally escort you to the lodging.

At the low end of the scale in Santiago is the Hotel Olicar (Calle San Pablo, 1265; no phone), a sprawling residencial with a winding staircase and balcony windows. Popular among footloose Israelis, its rooms have a bit of peeling paint and some are windowless, but they are a bargain at $4.70 per person. Kitchen facilities are also available. For something homier, try Residencial del Norte (Calle Catedral, 2207; 2/695-1876), which charges $10 per person with a shared bathroom. Residencial Tabita (Calle Principe de Gales, 81; 2/671-5700) has the advantage of being both centrally located and quiet, in a cul-de-sac away from traffic. Rooms are plain but the beds are firm; it's $13 per person for shared bath, $24 to $31 for private bath.

Vi a del Mar is loaded with residenciales, particularly east of the city center along Alvarez and Agua Santa streets, so be choosy. Residencial La Nona (Calle Agua Santa, 48; 32/663-825) has eclectic decor and some tightly squeezed rooms, but it does have rooms with a private bath for about $11.30. For a shared bath, the cost drops to $9.40. Residencial Agua Santa (Calle Agua Santa, 36; 32/901-351) also has rooms for $9.40, but the rambling, bright blue Victorian building is a little rougher around the edges. An interesting choice is Residencial Victoria (Calle Valpara­so, 40; 32/977-370), which features Spanish architecture, a Virgin Mary statue above the front door, and bigger rooms for $13.15.

For midrange travelers who prefer more conventional hotels, rooms in such establishments begin at around $22 for a single, $27 for a double. They offer what an American might expect from a hotel back home: a television, a telephone, a desk and chairs, a bathroom with shower. A fun choice in Santiago is the Hotel Paris (Calle Paris, 813; 2/639-4037) in the University of Chile neighborhood. Tucked away on a brick street and featuring arched doorways, marble staircases, and a French-style cafe with a hanging garden, it costs $26 for a single, $30 for a double with one large bed. The agreeable Hotel Riviera (Calle Miraflores, 106; 2/633-1176) charges $41 to $48 for the same type of room without the Parisian flavor. Another option is the Hotel Santa Lucia (Calle Huerfanos, 779, fourth floor; 2/639-8201), which throws in a refrigerator for the rate of $33 to $40.

In Vi a del Mar, the plethora of conventional hotel rooms includes crisp and clean Hotel Balia (Calle Von Schroeders, 36; 32/978-310), with fine TV-equipped rooms for $25 single, $35 double. Hotel Alcantara (Calle Viana, 575; tel. and fax 32/711-196) offers similar accommodations for $24.60 single, $30 double. Rooms are quite a bit more expensive ($108 for a single, $120 double) at the Hotel Cap Ducal (Avenida Marina, 51; 32/626-655), but it might be the most unique hotel in all of Chile; it's set inside an old ship resting above Vina's crashing waves. Even if you don't stay here, it's at least worth a visit to the bar to watch the surf come in below.

!Buen provecho! (bon appetit)

The food in Chile mirrors the landscape. With its wealth of wandering coastline, it's no surprise that seafood abounds. But the country's fertile central valley also produces a bounty of fresh produce, and Chileans love bread and pastry. Lunch generally takes place between noon and 2 p.m., during the siesta when many businesses close and people go home to eat with their families. Dinner's quite late - usually around 9 p.m. - but restaurants are open for dinner by 6 p.m. if you can't wait.

The dining choices are truly formidable in Santiago, ranging from hot dogs to refined sit-down dinners featuring all manner of local and international flavors. For seafood lovers, a pilgrimage to the Mercado Central on San Pablo, across from Cerro Santa Lucia park, is a must. Here, tasty seafood restaurants nestle between colorful stalls selling just about anything with gills, fins, or shells - and it's straight from the water. At Marisqueria (2/698-6291) in the Mercado Central, a delicious plate of fried fish with tomatoes and onions (pescado frito a la chilena) sells for $3; the fish is so fresh, the tail is still on. For the same price you can get the mariscada especial, an exotic blend of fresh mussels, shrimp, and other shellfish, and wash it down with a half-bottle of excellent local Tres Medallas red wine for $3.20.

Another lunch choice is the Bar Nacional, at Calle Bandera, 317 in the city center (2/695-3368), where the decor is retro-America 1950s and the national specialty pastel de choclo-a hearty casserole of corn, chicken, beef, olives, and onions-sells for about $5.50. For a typical Chilean meal of lomo a la pobre (a huge slab of steak topped with fried eggs and french fries), try Eladio, located at Avenida Ossa, 2234 in the Providencia neighborhood (2/277-0661); enormous portions cost about $7. El Chancho con Chaleco ("Pig In a Jacket") at Avenida Los Pajaritos, 99 (2/557-6152) is also enormously popular and specializes in beef and chicken dishes for about $6 to $7.

Eats are wonderful and affordable in Vi a del Mar, too. Try a bowl of paella (shellfish, sausage, chicken, and pork on a bed of rice) for $2.82 or the pastel de choclo for $2.35 at Autoservicier Santander at the corner of Quinta and Arlegui. Or choose from a vast selection of empanadas and mini-pizzas for less than $1 at Panaderia Suiza (Calle Arlegui, 402) and go sit among the palm trees on Plaza Vergara to watch the crowds while you eat.

The best edible bargain in Chile is the ubiquitous empanada, which costs less than $1 and is advertised in restaurant windows and sold on sidewalks everywhere. They usually have a hearty filling of beef, onions, hard-boiled egg, and olives, though apple filling is also popular. Also look for $1.35 humitas, a delicious paste of grated corn, fried onions, and basil sold by women in little stands on Santiago's busy streets, especially along the Alameda (the nickname for Avenida del Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins, a major city artery). As everywhere, fast food has also made local inroads. A completo - a hot dog with every imaginable condiment - generally sells for around $1.50 and is also listed on signs outside fast-food-type restaurants.

Finally, a visit to Chile isn't complete without a pisco sour, a margarita-type drink made with a popular grape brandy. They are sold in nearly every restaurant and generally cost about $1.75.

Surf, ski, and see

One of the first places to check out in Santiago is Cerro San Cristobal, a 2,800-foot cliff that looms over downtown and is topped by a 115-foot white statue of the Virgin Mary. There's a challenging hike to the statue if you're trying to work off cobwebs from flying, and there's a teleferico (cable car) to carry you to the top for $4.50. Go around 8 p.m. in the summertime for a stunning panorama of city and sunset. Also worth exploring: the labyrinthine Cerro Santa Lucia, with a massive fountain and trails that lead to far-reaching views of the city and the Andes beyond.

Another big attraction: fabulous and relatively economical skiing, both downhill and cross-country (the season runs from mid-June through mid-October). There are about a dozen ski areas above 6,500 feet, with long runs and deep, dry snow reminiscent of the Rockies. The best ones, happily, are clustered within striking distance of Santiago, the most famous being Portillo (2/263-0606), only 90 miles south. It's best done by day trip, though, because while lift tickets are about $35, the lodge is expensive and in peak season usually has a seven-night minimum stay. An hour's drive from Santiago are Valle Nevado (2/698-0103), El Colorado (2/211-0426), and La Parva (2/220-9530), where lift tickets cost about $33 and equipment rentals another $24. Each ski area has offices in Santiago that arrange transportation to and from the mountains.

Santiago's ravenous growth has pushed many wineries out farther into the country, but a few notable ones still remain. Easiest to reach is Vi a Santa Carolina (Rodrigo de Araya, 1341; 2/450-3000), which no longer has actual grapes but still offers tours of the main house of the Julio Perera estate and the bodegas (cellars). Call the day before your visit to make a reservation.

Beaches dot the coast around Vina del Mar, but the best white sand and crashing surf is at Renaca, a suburb about ten minutes from downtown Vina. Take Pony Bus No. 1, 10, or 111 from 2 Norte; directions and maps are available at the main bus station. If you like to wager after a day in the sun, the Casino Municipal (32/689-200) looms over the beach at San Mart­n, 199.

Chile to go

If you don't want to tackle Chile on your own, an abundance of tour operators there and in the U.S. will piece together your trip in advance. Certain elements of Chile-like Torres del Paine National Park, glacier tours, and the lake district - will appear in the listings of every company that deals with the country. It's a matter of shopping around. Even during high season, it's not hard to find your way on your own, with the possible exception of sold-out upscale hotels in remote regions like Torres del Paine.

Escapes Unlimited (800/243-7227) offers a six-night package to Santiago and the lake district for a reasonable $1,299, including flights from New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. Los Angeles and San Francisco departures are $150 more. Extensions are available to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Easter Island, northern Chile, and Peru. Intervac (800/992-9629), meanwhile, flies you down for five hotel nights in Santiago for $765 from New York or Miami; other gateways are available.

U.S. companies have package tours that cover every detail, but many also will customize a tour to individual interests. Ladatco Tours (800/327-6162, www.ladatco.com) offers more than a dozen tours involving Chile, including the ten-day Lakes Explorer from $2,890 per person, double occupancy. But customers are welcome to buy part of a tour and add and subtract as they see fit.

To get quick tastes of different areas of Chile, Latour (800/825-0825) offers two- and three-day excursions from several departure cities to the desert or to glaciers at prices as low as $190 (for two days and one night in Puerto Montt, double occupancy). A three-day, two-night excursion in the Atacama Desert runs $723.

Contact Sernatur, the official tourism office at Avenida Providencia, 1550 in Santiago, for information on activities ranging from river rafting to thermal baths to winery visits (from the U.S., dial 011-56-2/236-1420, fax 011-56-2/236-1417, or log on to www.segegob.cl/sernatur/inicio.html).

To set up Patagonia tours once you get to Chile-including penguin tours of Isla Magdalena for $35-contact friendly and helpful Turismo Comapa in Punta Arenas (Calle Independencia, 830; tel. 61/241-322, www.comapa.com.).

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