With its stretch of white sand fringed with Tahitian coconut palms, a backdrop of grassy hills and ocean waters that rarely dip below 64 degrees F (18 degrees C) even in the winter months, few places come as close to paradise as Anakena Beach. One of only three beaches on Easter Island, Anakena also plays an important part in the history of the island. It was here that King Ariki Hotu Matu’a first landed on Easter Island and later, the beach became a spiritual center for the Miru tribe–the remnants of which can be seen in the seven beautifully restored moai of Ahu Nau Nau and the single moai of Ahu Ature Huki that overlook the beach.
Aside from its striking setting and dramatically situated moai, the main draw to Anakena Beach is, of course, the ocean and the warm, clear waters make the ideal spot for swimming, surfing and snorkeling.
With 15 gigantic stone-carved moai lined up on a 200-foot-long platform and a remote location framed by the looming Rano Raraku volcano and the crashing ocean, Ahu Tongariki is nothing short of spectacular. For many visitors, this is the star attraction of Easter Island, and looking up at the towering figures, the largest of which stands 14 meters tall, it’s hard not to be in awe of the Rapa Nui people, who achieved the seemingly impossible feat of carving and moving the 30-ton stone boulders to their waterfront perch.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial site ever made on the island, featuring the largest number of moai ever erected on a single site, and each statue is unique, with only one featuring the iconic red-rock “pukao,” or ceremonial headdress. Even more astounding, considering the size and weight of the statues, is that the site was almost completely destroyed by a tsunami in 1960, with the rocks flung more than 90 meters inland.
Restored by archaeologists William Mulley and Gonzalo Figueroa in 1960, the seven grand moai that make up Ahu Akivi are among the most visited attractions of Easter Island. Dating back to the 15th century, the moai are thought to have been built in three stages and are unique in their placement—not only is Ahu Akivi one of few moai sites located inland, but the moai are the only ones on the island that face toward the ocean.
Legend has it that the seven identical moai of Ahu Akivi were built in honor of the seven explorers sent to discover the island by founder Hotu Matu'a; thus the statues look out to sea toward their home land. Another theory on their placement is that the site was used as a celestial observatory—the moai face the sunset during the Spring Equinox and look away from the sunrise of the Autumn Equinox.
La Moneda is easy to spot – its white, neoclassical walls make up the presidential palace that takes up an entire city block in downtown Santiago. Construction began in 1781 and was completed in 1805, when it was used as a mint, which is what the term moneda translates to in English.
The gigantic Chilean flag that waves in front of La Moneda, from a grassy traffic circle in the middle of the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins), can be seen from blocks away. There are two nearby plazas that serve as popular meeting and lunchtime spots, each with lawns, fountains and benches. History buffs will remember that this building was bombed in 1973 as part of the coup d’etat that ended Salvador Allende’s presidency and preceded Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. There are still, a few areas where the damage has been left for visitors to see.
At the heart of Santiago de Chile's historic district is the city's social hub, the palm-shaded Plaza de Armas. Surrounded by the neoclassical facades of Santiago's most important buildings, including the Metropolitan Cathedral; the Municipalidad, or federal building; and perhaps most striking, the magnificent Correo Central, or old post office. Two pedestrian malls, lined with handicrafts vendors, independent musicians, and plenty of cafes and shops, stretch out from the festive city center. Most of Santiago's museums and important sites are within a few blocks.
Since 1540, the venerable expanse of stone, cement, and sculpture has been a social hub, and it still serves as a gathering place for folks from across the cultural spectrum. Whether you're here to learn some history, feed a few pigeons, or just enjoy a glass of wine, the Plaza de Armas probably offers the finest people-watching in Chile.
Cerro Santa Lucia is one of two hills that overlook Santiago, where in 1541 Pedro de Valdivia founded the city long before Chile existed as an independent country. At the time, the hill was called Huelén by the indigenous people; a nearby street (by metro Salvador) still bears that name.
The hill rises about 230 feet over the surrounding part of the city, and there are excellent views of downtown from several terraces up there. Cerro Santa Lucia has three main constructions: the main entrance on the Alameda, with its wide, curving staircase, fronted by a fountain and backed by a yellow mansion; the fort at the top from which the best views of downtown can be seen; and the Castillo Hidalgo, which often hosts large international events.
The Santiago skyline is dominated by San Cristobal Hill - or Cerro San Cristobal, a forest-carpeted mountain rising from the city, protected as the Parque Metropolitano, or city park. It was once called Tapahue, after the indigenous headdress it resembles, and developed into a public greenspace at the beginning of the 20th century, after the astronomical observatory was constructed atop.
Today, the park serves as a scenic escape above the smog that can choke Santiago on winter days, and offers fantastic views across this city of 6.5 million to the Andes. Walking trails, picnic spots, and an amphitheater are all dwarfed by the 22-meter (72-foot) statue of the Virgin Mary, erected here in the 1930s.
The park extends into the cerro's skirts, and also encompasses the National Zoo and two pretty public pools, both excellent options for families.
Bellavista, a walkable neighborhood not far from downtown Santiago, is routinely referred to as the city’s bohemian neighborhood. There’s street art and both sedate and raucous nightlife, art galleries, theater performances, dance clubs, loads of restaurants (both formal and informal) and one of Chile’s most-visited museums, La Chascona. Even this museum has a colorful history; it is one of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s homes-turned-museums. And the whole neighborhood is just a few blocks south of Cerro San Cristobal, the large hill that overlooks the city and has both a sanctuary and a large marble statue of the Virgin Mary on top, in addition to the hiking trails, swimming pools and Japanese garden. On weekends, the hill attracts families, couples, runners, cyclists and participants in group activities, from yoga to zumba. And all week long, the Chileans of all ages and income brackets come to hang out.
Lastarria is one of a few small, mostly cobblestoned neighborhoods in Santiago, and it is definitely one known for its indie fashion, antiques and popular restaurants. Lastarria heads north from the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins), near the Universidad Católica metro station and over a few blocks to the street Merced, an area with esoteric boutiques and stores such as Plop and Tienda Nacional that sell locally published books.
There is always something going on in between the Alameda and Merced, with antiques at the Plaza Mulato Gil and exhibits at the MAVI (Museum of Visual Arts) on the Merced side. The area is home to several shops that have taken space in an old mansion and sell trendy clothing from new designers as well as woven copper and crin (horesehair) jewelry, which is unique to Chile. Lastarria also encompasses some smaller streets, such as quiet Rosal, often the site of local photo shoots because of its old, colonial-style architecture.
La Sebastiana, up on Cerro Bellavista in Valparaíso, one of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s houses-turned-museums is well worth the trip for a number of reasons. One, it will get you off the main tourist hills of Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre, into a quieter part of Valaparaíso where grandmas come out and sweep the front stoop every morning. The second of course, is the museum itself. It’s set inside a grassy yard, with a café at the entrance. There are descriptive texts available at the front door, and museum docents in every room, as well as an audio guide available in several languages. Of all of the three houses turned museums that famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda left behind, this is perhaps that one that most encourages you to look out the windows, with multicolored houses perched on the hills all around, and an expansive view of the ocean.
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UNESCO declared the historic part of Valparaíso a world heritage site in 2003, and when you get here, you won’t wonder why. It’s been called the Jewel of the Pacific, or Chile’s version of San Francisco, but there’s really no comparing it to anyplace you’ve ever been, and you’ll just have to come see it yourself.
The city is split into two main parts, the first of these being the “plan” or flat section, where you’ll find the port, the bus station, the market, and pleasant Muelle Barón (a pier) where you can sit and enjoy the view of the water. The second part, the more eye-catching bit, is the series of hills on which most of Porteños live. There are lively (and connected) Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción, where there are cafés and restaurants and places to stay, and the Paseo Gervasoni where some of the best views are had.
Rising toward the fading stars high atop the Andes, El Tatio Geysers erupt from more than 80 vents into wraith-like plumes, which dance in the first crisp golden rays of dawn. It's not quite the largest geyser field in the world (it's the third), or the highest (it's close), but combined with those snowcapped volcanoes that encircle its steaming expanse, it is perhaps the most magnificent.
In addition to the searing-hot fumeroles and geysers, the field has a few more inviting geological features. A large 35°C (95°F) hot spring lets you soak away the Andes' stubborn chill, while bubbling mud pots offer the perfect masque for cleansing away weeks of grime from the road. Relax.
The interior, wrought-iron construction of the Mercado Central looks like it could contain a greenhouse, but with the masonry outside, this building houses local eateries, a few fruit and vegetable stands, the occasional roaming musician, and just a sampling of souvenir stands, though in total there are more than 200 locales. The building dates back to 1872, and is consistently named as a must-see in Santiago. In fact, in 2012, National Geographic named it as the 5th best market in the world. Due to its central location, and the fact that it is often visited by tourists, it has also become a hub for pickup and drop off for a number of different tour services.
Not a single drop of water has fallen onto the Moon Valley in hundreds of years, thus the wind-sculpted salt statues inhabiting its eerie bowl have continued their slow, centuries-old dance uninterrupted. Come moonrise, when valley's light dusting of salt and metallic minerals shimmers all around, you may well see them move.
The awesome spectacle is one of the most popular excursions from San Pedro de Atacama, and at sunset the sand dunes can be covered with tourists, all enchanted by the quality of light. Fewer people visit in the morning, so sunrise may be a more tranquil experience.
Santiago's Cathedral - or Catedral Metropolitana - is considered one of the finest pieces of religious architecture in South America. This is the Catedral Metropolitana's fourth incarnation (as well as numerous touchups) since a church was first dedicated on this spot in 1561, and must be one of its loveliest.
It was most recently rebuilt in the 1750s, with the help of Italian architect Joaquín Toesca, who designed the baroque-fringed neoclassical facade that set the standard for subsequent structures around the Plaza de Armas. Yet, as impressive as the stone exterior is, it is the resplendent vault and richly adorned altar, inside, that really inspires. A small museum of religious artifacts adjoins the main church.
Chaxa Lagoon (Laguna Chaxa) often serves as an introduction to the salt flat for visitors. The ground here is crusted with an inedible salt, and in the morning, a pinkish light comes over the horizon as the sun rises. While the crystalline ground is fascinating and curious, the wild flamingos in the area often turn heads.
And the presence of flamingos should be no surprise, as the Chaxa Lagoon is one of the easiest entry points to Chile’s National Flamingo Reserve and a great place for photographers with good reflexes (and zoom, as the birds often keep their distance).
As the pinkish light dissipates and the air warms up, packs of the birds take flight over the lake. Three different species often reside here: theChilean, Andean and James' flamingos. A variety of other birds can be seen here as well, including the Andean avocet, the puna plover and a type of sandpiper, a small bird with a long beak that feeds on small organisms in the mineral-rich water.
At the heart of Chile’s political landscape, the Plaza de la Constitucion is a vast, paved square occupying a full square block in the center of Santiago’s civic district. Surrounded by government buildings like the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, and the Banco Central de Chile, the most impressive site of all is the square’s Palacio de la Moneda.
Designed by the Italian architect Joaquín Toesca and built in the late 18th century, the Palacio de la Moneda is said to be one of the finest neoclassical buildings in South America. Originally intended as the Royal Mint, today the palace houses the Chilean presidential offices.
Every second morning, here’s where you can see the changing of the guard set to the Chilean national anthem, and while you can’t go inside the palacio, you can wander its inner courtyards. In front of the south side of the Palacio Moneda, it’s worth visiting the Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda.
Those looking to play and picnic in downtown Santiago always head to Parque Forestal. The park runs from an area near the Central Market up to Plaza Italia as a strip of greenery with walking paths, leafy trees, old-fashioned lamp posts, playgrounds and two of the city’s most important museums.
These are the Bellas Artes and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which stand back to back in the park near the metro Bellas Artes. The latter’s chunky Botero horse statue out front makes it easy to spot, while Bellas Artes faces the street José Miguel de La Barra.
Parque Forestal is popular among runners, walkers and families. On Sunday afternoons, street performers get together in the park to practice acrobatics and juggling, and once a month, there is an open-air flea market where anyone can register to sell household goods such as books and clothing. In the summer, the spots under the leafy platano oriental trees are the most coveted.
Constructed in 1910, at the height of Latin America's frilly neoclassical-meets-art nouveau architectural wave, the graceful Palacio de Bellas Artes still strikes an imposing figure amidst modern Santiago's cold skyscrapers. Its ornate stone facade, which would do any cathedral proud, and permanent artistic merit make it the perfect home for the National Museum of Fine Arts.
The permanent collection, displayed in the Palacio's soaring chambers, begins with the Spanish Colonial era and traces Chile's cultural development through the styles of its artistic masters. Temporary exhibitions come from around Chile and the world.
The MAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo), Santiago's contemporary art museum, is also here. While it University of Chile-operated institution may lack the gravitas of the neighboring Fine Arts Museum, exhibits can be a lot more fun.
Visitors to Santiago can take a trip back in time just by walking through the doors of the famous Iglesia San Francisco de Borja. This iconic church ranks among the city’s oldest—and most beautiful—religious structures, and dates back to the original Spanish settlements. Marvel at the bold and imposing red exterior, then enter to find soft yellows, blues and whites decorating the interior. Learn from your guide about the legend of the statue of Virgen del Socorro and savor the silence of the church, where you can spend some time in quiet meditation or prayer before returning to the hustle of Santiago city streets.
From the outside, the French-styled Correo Central (Central Post Office) is a frothy white wedding cake of a building, while inside its all tiered galleries topped by a beautiful glass dome. Built in 1882 on the northwest corner of Santiago's Plaza de Armas, the Central Post Office, designed by Chilean architect Ricardo Brown, has been a national monument since 1976.
Next door to the Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago, aside from buying your stamps, the Correo Central is also home to the Museo Postal y Telegrafico. Dedicated to Chile's postal history, here you can see a huge collection of stamps from around the world.
This peaceful park along the Mapocho River features several different types of sculpture, from representational to geometric and abstract, in natural materials such as stones, and also some of more distinctive pieces, such as a yellow cage-like structure, and a large metal cube made of parallel bars. The sculpture park is easily found by exiting the metro at Pedro de Valdivia and heading north, and you will recognize immediately that you are headed in the right direction as you cross over the Mapocho river on a bridge that is also dotted with sculptures. Alternatively, on your way out of Cerro San Cristobal, take a taxi or walk down to the Pedro de Valdivia side and walk a few peaceful blocks through the tony Pedro de Valdivia Norte neighborhood before entering the park.
Located just 20 miles from the town of San Pedro de Atacama, this unusual desert sinkhole attracts many visitors. Filled with water, Cejar Lagoon is popular for the opportunity it provides to take a dip in the middle of the desert. The water can have salt concentrations up to 30 percent, which makes floating not only easy, but also pretty much impossible to avoid. For this reason, the lake is often compared to the Dead Sea and is sometimes called the “floating lake.” The top few inches of water are often warm from the sun, while there are cold currents down below, making for a mixed swimming experience.
Even if you decide not to swim in this “floating lake,” enjoy the view and how the glassy surface reflects the scenery back to you, including the Domeyko mountain range. Flamingos occasionally fly overhead and the lake is ringed white with residual salt, while the blue of the lake contrasts with the yellow tussock grass that grows all around.
Santiago is a busy, walkable city, with a fairly compact downtown. But there are times when you’ve had enough of having to move along at the speed of the crowd, and wish you could have a more spacious place to be. And you can. There are three major pedestrian thoroughfares in downtown Santiago, Huérfanos, which runs west down from Cerro Santa Lucía, and both Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Estado, which stretch north from the Alameda (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins) towards the Mapocho River and Mercado Central.
Paseo Ahumada is perhaps the busiest of the three, and you’ll find families and individuals walking, talking on the phone or sitting on benches at most times of day, On the street there are nearly always street performers and vendors, selling hats, scarves, and the occasional television antenna. There are also popular stands selling mote con huesillo, a local drink made of sweet peach punch with reconstituted dried peaches and wheat kernels at the bottom.
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