Places to Visit in Chile: The Trip I Never Want to Repeat

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A few years ago, I was on an amazing adventure exploring places to visit in Chile, a new country I had never been to before. The trip was a perfect mix of visiting a cosmopolitan city with a lot of history, exploring a relaxed island, and seeing a stunning coastal town.

However, my vacation quickly turned upside-down. Here’s my experience dealing with a natural disaster while on vacation, and my cautionary tale about doing your research before you travel.

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Valparaiso Photo Credit: Kim Mason

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Easter Island, One of the Top Places to Visit in Chile

I had checked an item off my bucket list: Easter Island, or Isla de Pasqua, home of the almost 1,000 moai statues created by the Rapa Nui people. The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and breathtaking. I hadn’t realized it was one of the most popular places to visit in Chile and part of the country. When you travel to Chile, I believe it’s a must-see.

I enjoy visiting UNESCO sites and seek them out as I know they are always worth seeing. Easter Island is a bit off the beaten path, as it’s an approximately 5-hour flight from Santiago, the capital of Chile. It’s well worth seeing for the people and culture, the incredible local fish and cuisine, the beaches, the volcanos and of course, the moai.

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Easter Island Moai
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Me and the Easter Island Moai
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Easter Island
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Easter Island

Easter Island has moai scattered around the island, and many near the capital, Hanga Roa. Also littered around the island are tsunami safe zone signs. I remember we laughed about them as they were plastered everywhere, and even took pictures, like this one.

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Tsunami Safe Zone

I no longer laugh when I see them.

I would love to write more about the beauty that is Easter Island but will save that for another post. I wanted to frame my head space before sharing the location that I’m writing about in this post. After all, this post is about a different place: Valparaiso.

Places to Visit in Chile: Valparaiso

Valparaiso, Chile is a beautiful seaside city on the Pacific Coast of Chile. Called “Little San Francisco” and “the jewel of the Pacific,” it is beautiful with an array of colorful buildings, marked by steep climbs along a steep coastal wall. The historic center is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Valparaiso
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Valparaiso

We arrived with a few days to explore before returning home to the United States. It was the last leg of our trip. I had heard and read so much about this beautiful city as it is one of the most popular places to visit in Chile and was very excited to check it out. We arrived a few days before the Chilean Independence Day, or Fiestas Patrias. The city was poised for celebration with signs displayed and a wonderful vibrancy.

Our first day in this city was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed ourselves. We saw some of the main sites and explored some of the back roads in the neighborhoods.

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View from La Sebastiana
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Valparaiso Harbor and our hotel (rainbow-colored building on the left)

Our Eventful Night

In fact, the night I will never forget had us watching a show in celebration. It was right by our hotel, by the water in Plaza Sotomayor. The sounds of traditional Chilean music lured us in, and there was a stage with many people in traditional attire dancing.

People were singing and clapping, and everyone was enjoying the festive evening. My friend and I met a gal traveling solo from Australia and invited her to join us for the festivities.

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Plaza Sotomayor, Photo Credit: Kim Mason

It felt like someone was steadily kicking my chair. After maybe ten seconds, I looked behind me to the person sitting there. She was a tiny and old local woman. She made eye contact with me and looked terrified. She kept turning around to look behind her.

I think I knew what was going on before it truly registered, as I just couldn’t get my head around it. Looking around, I noticed everyone was looking around, and looking behind us.

It continued.

And continued.

It wasn’t the person behind me kicking my chair at all. It was an earthquake and my first rolling earthquake. We learned later that it was 8.3 on the Richter Scale. That would be bad enough, except we were very close to the coast. Clearly, the terror on people’s faces was not due to the earthquake directly, but for the tsunami that they knew would follow.

Earthquake

I had been in some minor earthquakes before, feeling the dull rumble of one in Massachusetts that felt like a large truck going down the street, and once in Los Angeles where I was awoken out of a dead sleep to something that felt like I was being shoved by a sharp jolt.

This was different and seemed a bit less threatening. The music and dancing continued, but the crowd started to chatter. People were looking behind us. We were curious about why.

The music stopped and a policeman went up on the stage. We didn’t understand much of what he said, but heard “evacuar” and that was very clear. Then we realized why everyone kept turning around in their seats: they were turning towards the water. Tsunami.  We were right on the ocean and a significant earthquake was in process.

Evacuation

People collected at the bottom of the stairs from the plaza and it felt like it took forever to place our feet on the steps. We started to climb, and climb, grateful now for the steepness of this city. When we approached an area that had signs saying “Tsunami-safe Zone,” we discussed if we should keep climbing.

A woman approached us who spoke English to say we were safe.  As we debated further if we should keep climbing, another one hit, or more accurately, an aftershock. It unnerved us—the sound of the sirens, the people racing about, the earthquakes and the feeling of complete unknown. Were we going to crumble into the sea? Were we going to have a wave crash over our head? Where should we go and how can we find help when so few people here speak English?

My friend and I were concerned. I was so grateful our new friend from Australia was not alone, and equally grateful that I was not either, as I do occasionally travel solo. When the aftershock hit, I believe it was a 7.1, she looked terrified. My friend calmly said, “we’ll go higher.”

The Long Night Continued

Up we went. We eventually stopped after maybe 30 minutes. We met a young couple from Germany and other people as we gathered in an open area at the top of some very large hills. There were police cars and a fire truck there, so we felt that we would be safe.

Our cell phones died quickly due to the alerts we were getting about the approaching tsunami. We lost touch with our friends and family and lost any ability to get information about what was going on.

Safe to Return

Around five hours later, at one in the morning, we decided it was likely safe to go down the hill to return to our hotel. We had stopped at a restaurant to get some food, wine, and warmth and noticed when we left that the sirens had stopped. When we went back to the large area we hung out in for a few hours, there were few still there.

We went down, leaving our German friends at their hostel, and continued down the hill to our hotel. When we walked up, we noticed it was dark. The doors were locked and there was no sign on the door with instructions.

Our Repeat Climb

We climbed back up the hill to the hostel where we left the German couple and banged on the door. They were not supposed to open the door for anyone but felt sorry for our predicament. Thankfully there was an open room with three beds and we quickly laid down to go to sleep. We were able to charge one of our phones to send messages out to friends and family that we were ok.

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Tsunami Sisters- the morning after, Kim, Sam, Rebecca

The next three days were marked with steady aftershocks. My friend, Kim, just reminded me of a funny moment when I was napping the day after the earthquake to be woken by a 7.1 aftershock. I jumped straight up and looked at her. She nodded, indicating that, yes, it was another aftershock. My response was, “for #$%& sake!” and I flopped my head back down to go back to sleep.

The tsunami that hit was around 15 feet high and easily contained by the seawall. We continued to track the strength of the aftershocks hoping that they were receding, and got updates from friends and family.

I have never been so excited to leave a place and we actually got on the bus to Santiago to catch our flight hours earlier than we needed to. We got onto the plane, grateful to be leaving, until we saw the movie preview play over and over on the mini-screen on the seat in front of us: San Andreas. (Seriously)!

Always Do Your Homework When Traveling

This post is not attempting to trash Valpo—it’s a great city and one that I’d definitely recommend to people. There’s a lot to see and do there. However, it’s important to know a little bit about the places you travel to, and this is a perfect case in point.

It’s funny, as a person who is so big into researching a place before I travel there, I failed miserably with this one. I had no idea they are prone to earthquakes. I would have known they had a significant earthquake just a few years earlier, which caused significant damage. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have stayed right on the water.

So, do your homework when you’re planning and make sure you’re familiar with the area you visit. You’ll be thankful for it!

Valparaiso is a lovely city and one of the most popular places to visit in Chile. After this experience, I’d recommend it but with caution. Make sure you keep important paperwork on you and carry cash. Know your hotel’s evacuation plan and where to go in an emergency. And above all, do NOT stay on the water.

This will forever remain in my mind as the trip I never want to repeat.

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