When you think of holiday destinations in the South Pacific with beautiful beaches and a warm, clear blue ocean, then Chile is probably not the first destination which comes to mind. However, this long, narrow strip of coastal land wedged between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean — rather like a large snake — known as the Republic of Chile, has some of the most beautiful beaches in South America and the capital city of Santiago is very gay-friendly.
This narrow land mass borders Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, plus the Drake Passage at the country's southernmost tip and stretches 2700 miles along the Southwestern coast of South America. It is only 150 miles deep at its widest point and the majestic Andes mountain range creates a natural border separating it from neighboring Argentina and Bolivia. But the diversity of Chile from the northern arid land of the forbidding Atacama Desert to the central expansive river valley encompassing vineyards and farmland plus the lush Lake District and in the South the archipelago maze of Patagonia, makes this a truly spectacular adventure vacation land. With more than fifty active volcano peaks, primeval forests and enchanting lakes, a temperate year-round climate, Chile is rapidly becoming the new eco-adventure destination of choice in South America.
Most visitors to Chile arrive in Santiago, the capital city, and from here it is easy to head off into the different regions for unique holiday experiences. Also, in Santiago and nearby Vina del Mar or Valparaiso you will also find the most extensive gay and gay-friendly highlights of this diverse country.
During the past decade homophobia has all but vanished in Chile and same-sex relations have been legal since 1998. The age of consent is eighteen but sexual relations must be conducted in privacy in order not to be considered immoral or indecent behavior. Currently the Congress of Chile is considering a law allowing civil unions between same-sex couples and several notable media celebrities have come out and declared their support for gay rights. This has led to an increase in the number of gay businesses especially in Santiago.
The urban renewal of Santiago is obvious as magnificent new office towers rise above beautiful centuries old estates and Spanish colonial architecture. The CTC Telecommunications Tower is literally the world's largest cell phone and dominates the Santiago skyline contrasting the nearby Bellavista neighbourhood with narrow streets, artsy boutiques of the city's bohemian quarter. This is a very clean, safe city and affords many enjoyable walks in the different tourist and residential neighbourhoods or expansive public parks.
Any visit to Santiago should commence by riding the funicular to see the Statue of the Virgin atop the hill of Cerro San Cristobal and observe the city below. Many of the gay discos and bars are located in the Barrio Bellavista at the foot of Cerro San Cristobal. The nearest Metro station is Baquedano in Plaza Italia from where you cross Avenue Providencia then cross the bridge over the Rio Mapocho and you are in the Barrio. Local restaurants, colorful cafes, bars and night clubs can all be found here and it is one of the most fun communities in Santiago for both straight and gay visitors alike — it's no gay ghetto, but rather a truly integrated district. The other concentration of gay bars can be found in the downtown area a short walk from the beautiful park Cerro Santa Lucia and close to the pedestrian shopping streets. Recommended by some local residents for neighborhood bar atmosphere are the Bar Willy and Holandesa plus for late night clubbing the Bokhara, Bunker and Fausto are worthy of visits. The clubs do not usually get going until about 1:30 AM and then the party can last until dawn.
Whether you start your day early for exploring or sleep until noon, the city of Santiago has much to offer for sightseeing and entertainment. The Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino is Santiago's finest museum, with a beautifully presented collection of pre-Hispanic art assembled from the whole South American continent. Highlights include elaborate Meso-American incense burners, Andean textiles dating back as far as 3,000 years, and Maya carvings — not to be missed for any reason. Or you can try a fresh-as-it-comes seafood lunch at the stately Mercado Central, surrounded by market stalls packed with glistening sea bass and salmon, buckets of salt-crusted oysters, mussels or clams. La Chascona is the former house of Pablo Neruda — Chile 's Nobel Prize-winning poet — which is packed to the rafters with bizarre and beautiful objects, from Victorian dolls and African carvings to music boxes and paperweights. Preserved as a museum, it makes for a fascinating visit. Without a doubt the best place to hunt for souvenirs is the lively Los Dominicos market, where you'll find a huge range of beautiful handicrafts as well as antiques, books, fossils, a restaurant, and live music with dancing on weekends. Plus the many Spanish palaces, castles and historic buildings are a photographer's dream come true.
After a few days in the capital city it is well worth while venturing to the Pacific Coast to enjoy the ocean and more of a resort type holiday. A short fifteen dollar, two and a half hour motor coach ride will take you to the old port city of Valparaiso. This will feel like stepping back in time to enjoy the old world charm of a real Chilean fishing and shipping port. The historic buildings and the open-air market where the locals meet remains unchanged from centuries past. The local restaurants and bars will serve authentic local dishes to delight any discerning palte. The papa fritas — fried potatoes — are a Chilean specialty, particularly in a dish called Chorillana where the potatoes are combined with eggs, onions, beef and sausage. Just remember that the ketchup comes in a green container and the chili sauce in a red container! Here in Valparaiso you will also find the very modern Congress building which is the seat of the country's government. Strolling around town is a very relaxing and fascinating way to spend a day or two.
And by now it's probably time to stretch out on the beach and relax. A short fifteen minute local bus ride from Valparaiso is the resort town of Vina del Mar — Vineyard By The Sea — where luxury hotels, apartment rentals and bed and breakfasts skirt the Pacific Ocean promenade. One of the largest gaming palaces in Chile — the Municipal Casino — is located here and it includes a five star hotel, discotheque and gourmet restaurant.
Also known as the Garden City with numerous parks and over 2.5 miles of sandy beaches Vina del Mar is a popular resort town where visitors enjoy warm summers, beautiful fall colors, exquisite spring flowers and spectacular year-round sunsets. Three beaches are frequented by local GLBT residents and tourists — Caleta Abarca, Los Marineros, and Las Salinas — the latter being popular with the local marines! And if you're wondering about the "Vina" in the name, then you are in for a treat when you sample the local vintages for which Chile is becoming famous. This seaside resort is perfect for unwinding and experiencing a real Chilean holiday.
Accommodations throughout Chile range from back-packer's retreats to modern luxury hotels and everything in between — all at very reasonable prices. However, exclusively gay accommodations are hard to find. In Santiago the gay-friendly Hotel La Foresta is perfectly located in the heart of the city close to the GLBT nightlife and on the edge of Cerro Santa Lucia park. The rooms are spacious, inexpensive and the staff are extremely helpful and knowledgeable of the gay scene. The Hotel Castillo is a gay guest house built in 1920 with an interior designed like a castle and located adjacent to the Bokhara discotheque. The rooms are inexpensive if you like to be right where the night-time — and sometimes daytime — action abounds.
It is important to note that Canadian visitors to Chile are required to purchase an entry visa for a cost of approximately $ 120.00 (credit cards accepted) which is valid for the life of your passport. However, this entry fee is more than offset by the very low cost of living and extremely inexpensive dining and entertainment throughout Chile.
So in the longest and narrowest country in the world renowned for copper, salmon and excellent wines, be prepared for a uniquely gay South American experience and a Pacific Coast vacation full of uniquely gay Latin memories