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Backpacking in Argentina and Chile: 4 Must Visit Destinations 

Sharing my experiences traveling through Argentina and Chile. From exploring the lively streets of Buenos Aires and navigating the famous San Telmo Market to discovering the nuances of Argentinian and Chilean Spanish, I’ll take you on a journey filled with language lessons and cultural insights.
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I was so nervous about this trip! My brother and I kicked things off in Sao Paulo, then hopped around to Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and even squeezed in a quick day trip to Viña del Mar and Valparaiso. In just 10 days, we covered so much ground, spending most of our time in Buenos Aires and Santiago. 

But Montevideo (and Valparaiso), wow, they completely stole my heart. You know that feeling when you step into a new city and everything just clicks? Mmhm. We’ll dive deeper into Valpo later, with a separate blog post dedicated to Montevideo coming soon. Let’s focus on Argentina and Chile for now.

Language and Communication 

Before embarking on our adventure, I did my usual research on the places we were visiting. But this time, it just felt different.

I knew English wouldn’t cut it in Argentina and Chile. So, I dedicated a month and a half to taking Spanish lessons to brush up on my Spanish. I was given the heads up that their version of Spanish has its own funky twist, but I had to experience it firsthand to truly understand the difference. Let me give you a brief Spanish lesson to shed some light on it.  

Argentinian Spanish, heavily influenced by Italian and other European languages, is very interesting. Borrowed from Italian, they may say things like “che boludo” (hey, buddy). And there is a familiar Italian melodic intonation, so much so that I thought I was hearing Italian when I first arrived at the airport. Their Spanish also features the use of “vos” instead of “tú” for the informal “you,” and the alteration of certain sounds. For example, instead of saying “tú eres” (you are), Argentinians often say “vos sos.” 

And then there is Chilean Spanish and common Chilean slang, or as they call it, “Chilenismos.” Spanish words that simply don’t exist in any other Spanish speaking country. So in addition to their own distinct pronunciation, vocabulary also sets them apart. On top of that, they tend to speak quickly and are masters at blending words together.  

As an example that can be applied to both Chilean and Argentinian Spanish is the pronunciation of the double “ll”. I was taught in school that the double “ll” is pronounced like “y.” However, in Argentina, it’s pronounced as “”zh” or sh” in some regions, so “pollo” (chicken) becomes “posho.” And a famous plaza, Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires is pronounced “Plaza de Ma-sho”. In Chile, they use “sh” as well, but also have a distinctive way of pronouncing the final “s,” which can sound like a soft “h” or disappear completely. 

The Struggle is Real

I struggled with communicating in Spanish in Argentina and Chile. I thought it might be similar to my experiences in Spain, where I could at least understand even if I didn’t express myself clearly every time. That wasn’t the case for me in these cities. Apps like Google Translate and Deep L really came in clutch, filling in the gaps.

But can we talk about something real quick? Effort to communicate and process a different language while traveling is crucial. It allows you to more seamlessly navigate unfamiliar surroundings and opens doors to create meaningful connections. It shows respect for the local culture and demonstrates your willingness to adapt and learn.

But remember, it does take mental effort. And that mental effort will compound with any anxiety, stress or exhaustion you’re already feeling while traveling.

I think it was a combination of continuous travel and being in places where different languages were spoken (like Portuguese in Sao Paulo) and unfamiliar pronunciation (Chilean vs Argentinian) that led me unintentionally using a strange mix of English words that didn’t make sense even in America. It wasn’t until my brother pointed it out that I realized it. I had reached a point of mental exhaustion. Eek.

Shout out to the young waitress at the vegan restaurant we stopped by on Nueva Providencia in Santiago. After my (failed) attempt at conveying my order, she pulled out her phone to use Google Translate to aid in the conversation. We both shared a laugh, feeling like Wild West gunslingers reaching for our phones. (By the way, the eatery is called Katako veg, and I highly recommend their food and drinks.)

Buenos Aires, Argentina 

If this is your first time visiting either Argentina or Chile, a must visit city is Buenos Aires. A massive city pulsating with history and culture, its origins trace back to the early 16th century. It’s a melting pot of European influences with Spanish colonial architecture and grand boulevards that may remind you of many European cities like Madrid or Paris. Buenos Aires is where tango, soccer, art, literature, and music thrive.

Our journey in Buenos Aires commenced on a sunny Sunday, flying in from Montevideo. We opted for a flight instead of the 2 to 3-hour ferry ride due to time constraints (you pesky limited PTO, you). We dropped our belongings at the Awwa Suites & Spa in the vibrant Palermo neighborhood and made a beeline for the legendary San Telmo Market, open only on Sundays.

Picture this: lively streets brimming with vendors, talented street performers, and an array of the most amazing smelling food. If there’s one thing you must do in Buenos Aires, it’s experiencing the San Telmo Sunday Market. Brace yourself for the hustle and bustle, though, because navigating those crowds is no joke. You’ll want to buy everything in sight, so set a budget unless you plan on leaving penniless. 

Pickpocketing

As a first-timer in South America, safety weighed heavily on my mind. Every resource I found mentioned how common pickpocketing is in Buenos Aires, which had me on edge! I swear, reminding my brother to hold onto his phone became my mantra. But luckily, we didn’t encounter any incidents or even close calls. We felt pretty safe throughout our time in Buenos Aires, possibly because we visited during the low season. 

And then came the logistics.  

Exchange Rates 

Argentina also has two exchange rates. But these days, you can get the higher rate (more bang for your buck, so to speak) using your VISA card, while Mastercard is sometimes iffy. I’ve heard from recent sources that your card may initially reflect the lower exchange rate but refund you the difference later. Check with your credit card company to confirm because this situation seems to be changing from week to week. In any case, carrying cash is key, especially with small-time or street vendors. Just remember that if you withdraw cash from an ATM, you might receive the lower exchange rate, in addition to any fees charged by your bank and/or the ATM. Getting cash with the guaranteed higher exchange rate via Western Union is the route I took and recommend. Downloading the Western Union app makes the whole process very fast and simple. 

SIM cards 

Understanding how the exchange rates work is similar to getting a physical SIM card—it’s no cakewalk. You have to buy and activate it at a store, then add data at a kiosk. I knew up front that this was going to be a process and since my brother was going to use his international data plan for the duration of the trip, I decided to prioritize obtaining a SUBE card… 

Public Transportation: SUBE 

Ah, it’s time to talk about the elusive SUBE card for public transportation in Buenos Aires… The SUBE card, short for Sistema Único de Boleto Electrónico, is a rechargeable smart card used for public transportation in Buenos Aires. It can be used for buses, trains, and the subway system. To obtain a SUBE card, in theory, can be purchased at at kiosks, subway stations, or designated selling points. Once you have the card, you need to load it with credit at kiosks or authorized locations. Then, simply tap the card on the card reader when boarding and exiting the public transportation vehicles.  

Or so they say. 

Let me tell you, finding that magical card felt like a wild goose chase. We searched for it for days. Shop after shop, kiosk after kiosk, train station after.. You get it. By the end, I wanted it as a keepsake, proof that it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination.  

Yea, no. 

Remember when I said I prioritized getting the SUBE card? Since so much time was spent on searching for a SUBE card, neither the SUBE card nor the SIM card ever happened. Even after all the research I did. smh. 

Santiago, Chile 

The next must visit city is Santiago. Nestled in the central valley, surrounded by the stunning Andes Mountains, this city has one of the most captivating blends of old and new that I’ve had a pleasure of experiencing. Aging, but beautiful infrastructure lines the streets reflect a rich history, where colonial architecture and modern structures coexist. And if you look a bit closer, you’ll notice that a significant percentage of its population is composed of young adults. Think of any major college town in America, like Chapel Hill NC, my old stomping grounds, and that’s what it feels like to walk around some of the urban areas of Santiago. Young adults are everywhere.

And it’s apparent that this youthful energy contributes to the city’s lively atmosphere and vibrant cultural and foodie scene. Empanadas, Pisco Sour, Completo, Chilean wine, asado, mote con huesillo… Chile is known for some of the best food and drink in the world, but Santiago seems to take it to the next level. You can find a fresh and new twist to every dish. Interested in a vegan spin on ceviche? Yup, Santiago has it. Love art? Santiago and the surrounding cities have more buildings and structures covered in street art than any city I’ve ever visited. It’s a sight to see.

Aerial view of the city of Santiago from the Sky Costanera tower

Public Transportation

Getting around with public transportation in Santiago is incredibly convenient. A stark contrast to my previous experience in Buenos Aires. Just stroll up to the train station, follow the straightforward prompts on the machine, and boom—you’ve got a card for trains and buses. Payment options include card or cash. Easy peasy. Just keep an eye on your travel direction, which is a no-brainer thanks to their clear maps and signs. Transferring lines is a piece of cake if you’ve ever navigated train stations in Europe or America. It honestly reminded me of the Metro system in D.C. And guess what? We paid a mere 800 Chilean pesos per person for a one-way ride. That’s just a buck per person in the U.S.!  

More of this, please.

Winter in Santiago

Our Santiago adventure started smoothly with our check-in at our accommodation, the Four Points by Sheraton in the Providencia district. During the check-in process, we were reminded about the importance of keeping the “Tarjeta Unica Migratoria” or “Unified Migration Card” safe, as it was crucial for our departure from the country. I was grateful for the reminder because I had carelessly thrown the ticket, which resembles a grocery receipt, to the bottom of my backpack without realizing its significance.

We dropped our things and began a relaxed stroll along the Mapocho River, which spans nearly 5 kilometers or 3 miles and is mostly dry. We started our walk near the Mall Costanera Center, spent some time roaming through the Santa Lucia Park (the steep climb to the top is well worth the views), before we finally reached the Mercado Central or Central Market, guided by the river’s path.

Along the way, we stopped to admire the numerous art-covered buildings, bridges and statues. And spotted Emporio La Rosa—a popular ice cream shop in Santiago. The ice cream was so good. We returned before bidding Chile farewell. If you get the chance, I highly recommend trying the Chirimoya Naranja flavor—it became an instant favorite of mine. 

Viña del Mar, Chile 

When it comes to travel, I like to strike a balance between efficiency and going with the flow. And in Santiago, we achieved just that. With some time on our hands, we decided to embark on a day trip to the coastal gems of Viña del Mar and Valparaiso–my last two recommendations for must visit destinations in Chile.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, we hopped on the train to Central Station, followed by a 10-minute walk to the Alameda bus terminal, where we purchased one-way tickets with Turbus to Viña del Mar.

The journey was smooth and peaceful filled with moments of drifting off into a blissful nap. I managed to wake up just in time to catch glimpses of some of the charming small towns we passed en route to the coast.  

After a pleasant two-hour ride, we arrived at the bustling main bus terminal in Viña del Mar and decided to explore the nearby streets. Every inch was filled with spirited merchants, both street vendors and small shops that spilled out into the narrow sidewalks, creating an atmosphere that I absolutely loved.  

However, due to my erratic sleep patterns over the past few days of travel, I had developed an unrelenting headache. So, I made a quick stop at a farmacia to pick up some ibuprofen tablets. As I approached the counter, I realized just how terrible my Spanish must have sounded as I struggled to effectively communicate, “yo quiero comprar ibuprofeno, por favor.” Despite my shortcomings, the kind woman at the register was patient and understanding.  With the headache subdued, we continued our coastal adventure.  

Moving further from the bus station and street markets, the scenery began to change.

Along our path, we stumbled upon a small, unassuming café nestled among larger businesses. It offered a variety of things: coffee, refreshing drinks, pastries, and, of course, empanadas. Enticed by the aroma, my brother decided to grab a bite to eat, while I chose to remain on the street, absorbing the atmosphere around me.  

A mostly clear sky. Large palm trees that lined every street provided a canopy that limited any distant view of the surroundings. Their huge leaves casting gentle shadows that created a sense of intimacy and whispered a sweet invitation to its visitors. With the streets being noticeably quiet in this area, free from the massive crowds that often define tourist hotspots, I was left mesmerized.  

My brother reemerged from the shop, clutching a small carton of milk. I inquired about the seemingly lengthy and deep conversation he had engaged in with the storekeeper. He chuckled and explained that they had discussed milk the entire time.

We shared a laugh, and then continued our journey to the coast. 

As we ventured closer to the coast, the landscape gradually transformed once again. The dense canopies of trees began to thin, revealing elegant buildings in the distance. Seemingly apartments or condos, these structures added a sense of sophistication to the seaside panorama. Their presence hinted at the town’s allure as a desirable residential destination, nestled harmoniously between the ocean and lush greenery we had just left behind. 

The Coast 

I found comfort in an unexpected moment of tranquility while sitting on the rocks along the coastline. After several days of nonstop walking through city streets, it was a moment that I didn’t realize I needed. Along the rocky shore, a few scattered souls sought solace in the embrace of their own thoughts as well. In that shared silence, amidst the ebb and flow of the waves, bathed in the gentle illumination from the sun, I felt a sense of connection, uniting us in the beauty of that peaceful moment.

Valparaiso, Chile

I wanted a better view of the coastline so we opted for an Uber ride from Viña del Mar to Valparaiso. The moment we arrived, I was instantly smitten.  

This city has a fascinating history that dates back to its origins as a bustling port in the 16th century. Valparaiso flourished as a key stop for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during the California Gold Rush. Its strategic location made it a vibrant and cosmopolitan hub, attracting people from all corners of the globe.  

To our right, the captivating Pacific coastline, while on the left, the alluring hills of the town beckoned. It was like stepping into a postcard-perfect “city in the hills,” with colorful buildings, bridges, and steps surrounding us.  

Food

Starting from Plaza Sotomayer, we embarked on an ascent into the hills, our stomachs growling with hunger. Our last meal had been earlier in the day in Santiago. Luckily, we stumbled upon a charming empanada shop called Delicias Express. They had at least 100 kinds listed on their laminated paper menu, ranging from savory to sweet. We devoured five mouthwatering empanadas between the two of us. The name of the shop truly lived up to its reputation. The flaky, soft bread and the delectable toppings, as if I could taste each fresh ingredient with every bite. Each empanada was *chef kisses*. With our appetites satisfied, we continued our uphill trek.

Hills

Um.. Yea, some of those streets were incredibly steep. But every now and then, a tiny plateau emerged like a sanctuary, granting us respite and an opportunity to revel in the sublime beauty that unfolded before us. Rows upon rows of houses clung to the rolling hills, stretching as far as the eye could see. Along with the panoramic views of the Pacific ocean and the setting sun added an ethereal touch. 

Street Art

Yet, it was the kaleidoscope of murals and artwork that truly stole the spotlight. Everywhere we turned, artworks adorned the walls, steps, corners, railings, cracks, crevices. Anywhere the artist deemed fit for a canvas, there you would find art. It was no wonder some consider this an artist’s paradise. 

But prior to the trip, I had come across a variety of opinions about Valpo, as the locals affectionately call it. Some claimed it was dull and not worth the time, while others suggested that a day was enough to explore its essence. But oh, how wrong those reviews were.  

Valpo is a place that captures your heart if you allow it to. It’s the kind of destination that makes you fall in love with traveling all over again. When I reminisce about Valpo, I envision a place I would love to return to time and time again. From the perfect weather and slower pace of life, to the abundance of art and the awe-inspiring views from the hilltops, Valpo is a dream come true.  

Around 7:30pm we departed and returned to Santiago.  

I wished we could have stayed at least one more day, allowing ourselves to aimlessly wander through the hills, gazing out toward the coast. We chose to visit Valpo on the penultimate day of our South American escapade, and it turned out to be the perfect finale, like the perfect dessert, saving the best for last. *Sitting here actively researching cities that may have a similar vibe to my beloved Valpo.* 

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