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When people discuss great South American cities, Lima is often overlooked. But Peru's capital can hold its own against its neighbors. It has an oceanfront setting, colonial-era splendor, sophisticated dining, and nonstop nightlife.
It's true that the city—clogged with traffic and choked with fumes—doesn't make a good first impression, especially since the airport is in an industrial neighborhood. But wander around the regal edifices surrounding the Plaza de Armas, among the gnarled olive trees of San Isidro's Parque El Olivar, or along the winding lanes in the coastal community of Barranco, and you'll find yourself charmed.
In 1535 Francisco Pizarro found the perfect place for the capital of Spain's colonial empire. On a natural port, the so-called Ciudad de los Reyes (City of Kings) allowed Spain to ship home all the gold the conquistador plundered from the Inca. Lima served as the capital of Spain's South American empire for 300 years, and it's safe to say that no other colonial city enjoyed such power and prestige during this period.
When Peru declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the declaration was read in the square that Pizarro had so carefully designed. Many of the colonial-era buildings around the Plaza de Armas are standing today. Walk a few blocks in any direction for churches and elegant houses that reveal just how wealthy this city once was. But the poor state of most buildings attests to the fact that the country's wealthy families have moved to neighborhoods to the south over the past century.
The walls that surrounded the city were demolished in 1870, making way for unprecedented growth. A former hacienda became the graceful residential neighborhood of San Isidro. In the early 1920s the construction of tree-lined Avenida Arequipa heralded the development of neighborhoods such as bustling Miraflores and bohemian Barranco.
Almost a third of the country's population of 29 million lives in the metropolitan area, many of them in relatively poor conos: newer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. Most residents of those neighborhoods moved there from mountain villages during the political violence and poverty that marked the 1980s and ’90s, when crime increased dramatically. During the past decade the country has enjoyed peace and steady economic growth, which have been accompanied by many improvements and refurbishment in the city. Residents who used to steer clear of the historic center now stroll along its streets. And many travelers who once would have avoided the city altogether now plan to spend a day here and end up staying two or three.
Arica boasts that it is "the land of the eternal spring," but its temperate climate and beaches are not the only reason to visit this small city. Relax for an hour or two on the Plaza 21 de Mayo. Walk to the pier and watch the pelicans and sea lions trail the fishing boats as the afternoon's catch comes in. Walk to the top of the Morro and imagine battles of days gone by, or wonder at the magnitude of modern shipping as Chilean goods leave the port below by container ship.
Arica is gaining notice for its great surfing conditions, and in 2009 hosted the Rusty Arica Pro Surf Challenge, a qualifying event to the world series of surf.
Valparaíso's dramatic topography—45 cerros, or hills, overlooking the ocean—requires the use of winding pathways and wooden ascensores (funiculars) to get up many of the grades. The slopes are covered by candy-color houses—there are almost no apartments in the city—most of which have exteriors of corrugated metal peeled from shipping containers decades ago. Valparaíso has served as Santiago's port for centuries. Before the Panama Canal opened, Valparaíso was the busiest port in South America. Harsh realities—changing trade routes, industrial decline—have diminished its importance, but it remains Chile's principal port. Most shops, banks, restaurants, bars, and other businesses cluster along the handful of streets called El Plan (the flat area) that are closest to the shoreline. Porteños (which means "the residents of the port") live in the surrounding hills in an undulating array of colorful abodes. At the top of any of the dozens of stairways, the paseos (promenades) have spectacular views; many are named after prominent Yugoslavian, Basque, and German immigrants. Neighborhoods are named for the hills they cover. With the jumble of power lines overhead and the hundreds of buses that slow down—but never completely stop—to pick up agile riders, it's hard to forget you're in a city. Still, walking is the best way to experience Valparaíso.
Niebla is a small village on the banks of the Rio Valdivia where Chile’s Corral Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. Today Niebla is a beach resort, but in 1671 it was a defensive fortress built by the order of the Viceroy of Peru to prevent attacks against the town of Valdivia by pirates and corsairs. Niebla is well-known for its lively markets, the remains of the colonial fortress declared a National Monument in 1950 and restored in 1992, and a museum dedicated to its history. Nearby is the charming river port city of Valdivia, where cultural influences from the native Mapuche, Spanish settlers, and German immigrants have blended.
For most of its history, windy Puerto Montt was the end of the line for just about everyone traveling in the Lake District. Now the Carretera Austral carries on southward, but for all intents and purposes Puerto Montt remains the region's last significant outpost, a provincial city that is the hub of local fishing, textile, and tourist activity.
Today the city center is full of malls, condos, and office towers—it's the fastest-growing city in Chile—but away from downtown, Puerto Montt consists mainly of low clapboard houses perched above its bay, the Seno de Reloncaví. If it's a sunny day, head east to Playa Pelluco or one of the city's other beaches. If you're more interested in exploring the countryside, drive along the shore for a good view of the surrounding hills.
Bright, wooden huts teeter on stilts over Castro's estuary waterfront, inviting you into a patchwork of colour that’s sure to brighten any day. These traditional palafitos give the warmest of welcomes, as you prepare to experience Chile at its most vibrant. Castro has faced something of a tumultuous past, having been hit by a by a succession of earthquakes and fires - the most recent a devastating earthquake in 1960. But this city is incredibly resilient, and today the capital of Chiloe Island makes for a fantastic base for exploring the archipelago that surrounds it.
The Pio XI Glacier is classified as a tidewater glacier, which means the river of ice starts in the high mountains and then courses downhill all the way to sea level where it slowly melts into the salty ocean bit-by-bit. The Pio XI Glacier is an offshoot of the South Patagonian Ice Field and approaching from the sea, the ice sprawls out in front of the ship in a wide band that reflects a remarkable shade of brilliant blue.
Impenetrable forests, impassable mountains, and endless fields of ice define Chilean Patagonia, and meant that the region went largely unexplored until the beginning of the 20th century. Located in the southernmost part of the country, this area is still sparsely inhabited, though you will find a few populated places—like the colorful provincial city of Punta Arenas, which looks like it's about to be swept into the Strait of Magellan. Some unique wildlife, particularly colonies of elephant seals and penguins, call this breathtaking topography home. To the north is Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the country's most magnificent natural wonder, and whose snow-covered peaks seem to rise vertically from the plains below. The vistas, such as the fantastic Avenue of the Glaciers, are breathtaking; along this stretch of the Beagle Channel, you can pass six tremendous glaciers all within a stone's throw of each other.
Punta Arenas. Founded a little more than 150 years ago, Punta Arenas (Sandy Point) was Chile's first permanent settlement in Patagonia. Plaza Muñoz Gamero, the central square, is surrounded by evidence of that early prosperity: buildings whose then-opulent brick exteriors recall a time when this was one of Chile's wealthiest cities. The newer houses here have colorful tin roofs, best appreciated when seen from a high vantage point such as the Mirador Cerro la Cruz. Although the city as a whole may not be particularly attractive, look for details: the pink-and-white house on a corner, the bay window full of potted plants, parking attendants wearing the regional blue and yellow colors, and schoolchildren in identical naval pea coats that remind you that the city's fate is tied to the sea.
The Museo Naval y Marítimo extols Chile's high-seas prowess, particularly concerning Antarctica. Its exhibits are worth a visit for anyone with an interest in ships and sailing, merchant and military alike. Part of the second floor is designed like the interior of a ship, including a map and radio room. Pedro Montt 989. Admission charged.
Housed in what was once the mansion of the powerful Braun-Menéndez family, the Museo Regional de Magallanes is an intriguing glimpse into the daily life of a wealthy provincial family at the beginning of the 20th century. Lavish Carrara marble hearths, English bath fixtures, and cordovan leather walls are among the original accoutrements. The museum also has an excellent group of displays depicting Punta Arenas's past, from the first European contact to the town's decline after the opening of the Panama Canal. The museum is half a block north of the main square. Magallanes 949. Admission charged.
The resplendent 1895 Palacio Sara Braun is a national landmark and an architectural showpiece of southern Patagonia. Designed by a French architect, the house was built from materials and by craftsmen imported from Europe during the four years of construction. The city's central plaza and surrounding buildings soon followed, ushering in the region's golden era. Noteworthy are the lavish bedrooms, magnificent parquet floors, marble fireplaces, and hand-painted ceilings. Don't miss the portraits of Braun and her husband José Nogueira in the music room. Afterwards, head to the cellar for a drink or snack in the warm public tavern (a good portion of the mansion is leased to a hotel). Plaza Muñoz Gamero 716. Admission charged.
Commonly referred to simply as "El Salesiano," the Museo Salesiano de Maggiorino Borgatello is operated by Italian missionaries whose order arrived in Punta Arenas in the 19th century. The Salesians, most of whom spoke no Spanish, proved to be daring explorers. Traveling throughout the region, they collected the artifacts made by indigenous tribes that are currently on display. Av. Bulnes 398. Admission charged.
Isla Magdalena. Punta Arenas is the launching point for a boat trip to the Isla Magdalena to see the more than 100,000 Magellanic penguins at the Monumento Natural Los Pingúinos. A single trail, marked off by rope, is accessible to humans. The boat trip to the island, in the middle of the Estrecho de Magallanes, takes about two hours. Make sure to bring along warm clothing, even in summer; the island can be chilly, particularly if a breeze is blowing across the water.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Some 12 million years ago, lava flows pushed up through the thick sedimentary crust that covered the southwestern coast of South America, cooling to form a granite mass. Glaciers then swept through the region, grinding away all but the ash-gray spires that rise over the landscape of one of the world's most beautiful natural phenomena, now the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (established in 1959). Snow formations dazzle along every turn of road, and the sunset views are spectacular.
Among the 2,420-square-km (934-square-mi) park's most beautiful attractions are its lakes of turquoise, aquamarine, and emerald green waters. Another draw is its unusual wildlife. Creatures like the guanaco (a woollier version of the llama) and the ñandú (resembling a small ostrich) abound. They are used to visitors and don't seem to be bothered by the proximity of automobile traffic and the snapping of cameras. Predators, like the gray fox, make less frequent appearances. You may also spot the dramatic aerobatics of a falcon and the graceful soaring of the endangered condor. The beautiful puma is especially elusive, but sightings have become more common. Admission charged.
Pingúinera de Seno Otway. The road to this penguin sanctuary begins 30 km (18 mi) north of Punta Arenas. Magellanic penguins, which live up to 20 years in the wild, return to their birthplace here every year to mate with the same partner. For about 2,000 penguin couples—no single penguins make the trip—home is this desolate and windswept land off the Otway Sound. In late September, the penguins begin to arrive from the southern coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands. They mate and lay their eggs in early October, and brood their eggs in November. Offspring hatch between mid-November and early December. If you're lucky, you may catch sight of one of the downy gray chicks that stick their heads out of the burrows when their parents return to feed them. Otherwise you might see scores of the ungainly adult penguins waddling to the ocean from their nesting burrows. They swim for food every eight hours and dive up to 100 feet deep. The penguins depart from the sound in late March. Note that the sanctuary is a 1-km (1/2-mi) walk from the parking lot. It gets chilly, so bring a windbreaker. Admission charged.
Reserva Nacional Laguna Parillar. This 47,000-acre reserve lies west of Puerto Hambre, a tranquil fishing village, and is centered around a shimmering lake in a valley flanked by hills. It's a great place for a picnic, and there are a number of well-marked paths that offer sweeping vistas over the Estrecho de Magallanes. About 2 km (1 mi) west of Puerto Hambre is a small white monolith that marks the geographical center of Chile, the midway point between Chile's northern port Arica and the South Pole.
Wool may no longer be king of the economy, but vast flocks of sheep still yield a high-quality product that is woven into the clothing here. Leather products are also common, but the prices are not necessarily low. About 3 km (2 mi) north of Punta Arenas is the Zona Franca (Av. Bulnes). This duty-free zone is where people from all around the region come for low-priced electronics and other consumer items.
The approach to the Garibaldi Glacier is through one of Chile’s newest and largest national parks: Parque Nacional Alberto de Agostini (more than 9,000 square kilometers or 5,600 square miles). It is not only a national park, but has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve because of its swaths of distinct ecosystems and its special landscapes. The Garibaldi Fjord itself is a narrow passage strewn with floating ice in shades of sapphire blue and teal green. Ribbons of waterfalls snake down the steep mountainsides. At the head of this picturesque fjord is the splendor of the retreating Garibaldi Glacier.
At 55 degrees latitude south, Ushuaia (pronounced oo-swy-ah) is closer to the South Pole than to Argentina's northern border with Bolivia. It is the capital and tourism base for Tierra del Fuego, the island at the southernmost tip of Argentina.
Although its stark physical beauty is striking, Tierra del Fuego's historical allure is based more on its mythical past than on rugged reality. The island was inhabited for 6,000 years by Yámana, Haush, Selk'nam, and Alakaluf Indians. But in 1902 Argentina, eager to populate Patagonia to bolster its territorial claims, moved to initiate an Ushuaian penal colony, establishing the permanent settlement of its most southern territories and, by implication, everything in between.
When the prison closed in 1947, Ushuaia had a population of about 3,000, made up mainly of former inmates and prison staff. Today the Indians of Darwin's "missing link" theory are long gone—wiped out by diseases brought by settlers and by indifference to their plight—and the 60,000 residents of Ushuaia are hitching their star to tourism.
The city rightly (if perhaps too loudly) promotes itself as the southernmost city in the world (Puerto Williams, a few miles south on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel, is a small town). You can make your way to the tourism office to get your clichéd, but oh-so-necessary, "Southernmost City in the World" passport stamp. Ushuaia feels like a frontier boomtown, at heart still a rugged, weather-beaten fishing village, but exhibiting the frayed edges of a city that quadrupled in size in the '70s and '80s and just keeps growing. Unpaved portions of Ruta 3, the last stretch of the Pan-American Highway, which connects Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, are finally being paved. The summer months (December through March) draw more than 120,000 visitors, and dozens of cruise ships. The city is trying to extend those visits with events like March's Marathon at the End of the World and by increasing the gamut of winter activities buoyed by the excellent snow conditions.
A terrific trail winds through the town up to the Martial Glacier, where a ski lift can help cut down a steep kilometer of your journey. The chaotic and contradictory urban landscape includes a handful of luxury hotels amid the concrete of public housing projects. Scores of "sled houses" (wooden shacks) sit precariously on upright piers, ready for speedy displacement to a different site. But there are also many small, picturesque homes with tiny, carefully tended gardens. Many of the newer homes are built in a Swiss-chalet style, reinforcing the idea that this is a town into which tourism has breathed new life. At the same time, the weather-worn pastel colors that dominate the town's landscape remind you that Ushuaia was once just a tiny fishing village, snuggled at the end of the Earth.
As you stand on the banks of the Canal Beagle (Beagle Channel) near Ushuaia, the spirit of the farthest corner of the world takes hold. What stands out is the light: at sundown the landscape is cast in a subdued, sensual tone; everything feels closer, softer, and more human in dimension despite the vastness of the setting. The snowcapped mountains reflect the setting sun back onto a stream rolling into the channel, as nearby peaks echo their image—on a windless day—in the still waters.
Above the city rise the last mountains of the Andean Cordillera, and just south and west of Ushuaia they finally vanish into the often-stormy sea. Snow whitens the peaks well into summer. Nature is the principal attraction here, with trekking, fishing, horseback riding, wildlife spotting, and sailing among the most rewarding activities, especially in the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (Tierra del Fuego National Park).
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