Connecting you to the world
one story at a time

Chilean Tourism and the Indigenous Mapuche

The regions of Biobío and Araucanía, which lie somewhere in the middle of the 2,653 miles that stretch from Chile’s top to bottom, are nevertheless known as “the south.” A tourism hot spot for culture, handicrafts, and its pastoral landscape, this area is also a center of conflict— the indigenous Mapuche in the area, as throughout Chile and Argentina, constantly struggle for access to their ancestral lands and basic human rights. Visitors shouldn’t stay away, but rather, be intentional with their time, money, and presence.

A Brief History

Map of Mapuche area
Map courtesy of WikiMedia

Conflict between the state and the Mapuche dates back to the arrival of Spanish colonists in 1541. Throughout the nearly five centuries that have followed, tension has been ongoing, with a particular escalation, corresponding to a resurgence in public visibility, since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. Recent presidential administrations, both the nominally left-wing government of Michelle Bachelet and the present right-wing administration of Sebastián Piñera, have touted policy reforms and community development funding to ease this tension and ostensibly benefit the Mapuche, but have failed to cease encroaching on Mapuche lands and have permitted developers and wealthy private interests do the same.

State appropriation of Mapuche lands for private sale and development for things like logging and other forestry projects is an ongoing problem and frequently leads to unprovoked, violent raids on indigenous communities, and the arrests and occasionally death of community members at the hands of military police. Even when raids are not actively occurring, heavy police and military presence is a constant issue in Mapuche territory. The highway is lined with checkpoints, and arbitrary detentions are common. Another issue has been the poor treatment of Mapuche prisoners in state detention, which has resulted in numerous long-term hunger strikes.

As of March 2019, a complaint against President Macri of Argentina and President Piñera of Chile is pending at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, accusing both governments of violating international law in their treatment of Mapuche communities.

Indigenous Cultures as Tourist Attraction

Travelers to Concepción, Chillán, Temuco, Ercilla— prominent cities in Biobío and Araucanía and popular tourist destinations— and the surrounding region would be remiss not to consider these circumstances. The tourism industry here relies on a tranquil, presentable image of the area, in which the indigenous population is another idyllic and lucrative attraction. Many upscale commercial tours will highlight the indigenous culture in the region without providing any support to these communities in actuality, financially or otherwise. Plenty of non-indigenous vendors in the cities make decent money selling knockoff Mapuche crafts. This is not a warning to extranjeros to stay away, but rather, to be conscientious, and to make the most of a visit while keeping these issues in mind.

It is immensely dangerous, as well as naive, to regard the Mapuche struggle for self-determination as a cultural experience to be consumed by foreign travelers. Stay up-to-date on the evolving situation by keeping track of Mapuche news via sites such as Mapuche Nation (, or, if you read Spanish, Mapuexpress (, among others.

If and when booking a cultural tour, do extra research to be certain that the tour is run by organizations that provide real material benefit to Mapuche communities in the area. Other ways to support the indigenous community in Araucanía and Biobío directly can include small gestures, such as buying authentic handicrafts, for instance at the Teatro Municipal or near the Plaza de Armas in Chillán, or at stalls scattered widely in and around Ercilla. Ideally, however, one’s solidarity extends beyond a small financial transaction.

Mapuche state demonstration. Photo courtesy of CreativeCommons.
Mapuche state demonstration. Photo courtesy of CreativeCommons.

Supporting the Mapuche

There are often demonstrations in support of the Mapuche community in cities such as Concepción and Ercilla. Join such a demonstration if you feel comfortable doing so— the more broad, vibrant, and visible their public support is, the better for the Mapuche fighting for justice. Chilean protests can get rowdy, but are generally safe. You will sometimes see police tanks firing a chemical-infused water from the top of the vehicle. These, known colloquially as guanacos, are unpleasant if you cross paths with the stream, but not nearly as dangerous as they appear. If it happens, shower right away and wash your clothes, and try not to wear contact lenses if you encounter them, as they can trap chemicals against the eyes.

Another method of support is through educational venues. Just outside Cañete, south of Concepción, there is a small museum dedicated to Mapuche artifacts. Outside the regions of Araucanía and Biobío, there are other sites of tribute and education. Should you be spending any time in the capital of Santiago, for example, there is a Monumento al Pueblo Indigena, or Monument to Indigenous Peoples, in the central Plaza de Armas. The National Museum of Natural History or the Violeta Parra Museum will sometimes feature exhibits on Mapuche history and artwork.

Mapuche stone bowl artifact.
Mapuche stone bowl artifact.

A fundamental element of any visit to a conflict zone as a foreigner is a deliberate, intentional understanding of the situation at hand, and how foreign presence in the region can and does impact such a situation. Travelers from the United States should especially keep in mind the role that the U.S. government has historically played in manipulating politics in Chile, from the military coup of 1973 onward, and be aware that the after-effects of the brutal regime which ensued are still very much a part of Chilean life and culture.

Rather than adopting a stance of guilt or resigning oneself to not understanding, tourists should do their utmost to be educated and, to the extent possible, to support communities locked in a historic battle for their freedom.

Mapuche comprando en el merdado de Temuco. Photo: Mujer Chilena
Mapuche comprando en el merdado de Temuco. Photo: Mujer Chilena (CC)


Volungearing photo by Bianca Caruana

Volungearing: A New Way to Do Good

A new kind of volunteer tourism has entered the travel industry with an innovative approach; Volungearing, conceived by TribesForGOOD, taps an individual’s skills to pair him or her successfully in the social impact sector. This concept gives well-mean…

Read more »
Exterior of the Royal Bathouse in Tbilsi. Photo: Sarah May Grunwald

Visiting Tbilisi’s Natural Baths

The Georgian capital Tbilisi’s name derives from a word that means warm place. The word applies to both the glorious sulfur baths on which the city was founded, as well as the generosity and warmth of the Georgian people.  A trip to the baths allows vi…

Read more »

Slovakia: Five Places to Visit

With spectacular mountains good for hiking and bicycling, dramatic castles, charming architectural cities, and a vibrant contemporary arts scene, Slovakia has much to offer tourists. Often overlooked by tourists for its neighboring countries or a desti…

Read more »
The narrow alley in the Souk des Ferronniers, in the Marrakech medina is lined with lamps and other crafts.

A Visit to the Marrakech Medina

The reddish-pink ramparts around the Marrakech medina enclose a thousand years of history. The Almoravids, a confederation of Berber tribes, conquered North Africa and Muslim Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries and established Marrakech as their capit…

Read more »
Women on the World

The Women Making Tourism Powerful

Celebrate International Women’s Day by supporting women around the globe through unique tourism experiences that benefit women’s empowerment and travel with female-led groups. International Women’s Day is honored annually on March 8th to celebrate the…

Read more »
A black Rhino's horn is the object of illegal poaching.

Trophy Hunting in Zimbabwe

I knew very little about the black rhino when I first arrived in Africa. In fact, I knew next to nothing about African wildlife in general and even less about the impact of hunting in Zimbabwe. After three years guiding on the continent, black rhino po…

Read more »
Taipei, Taiwan

Five Reasons to Visit Taipei

When planning a trip to Asia, not many people consider Taiwan as part of their itinerary. But this small island off the coast of China has a lot going for it, in particular, the capital city Taipei. For a relatively small capital city – it has a popula…

Read more »
Philip of Macedon fountain in Skopje's main square.

Macedonia: Five Places to Visit

The Balkan countries in southeastern Europe are popular places to travel right now. Croatia has long had a reputation for being a top beach destination but now more travelers are waking up to the fact that the whole area has much to offer, from majesti…

Read more »
Aerial view of Niagara Falls with a Maiden of the Mist boat.

Exploring Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls, one of America’s most scenic wonders, wasn’t always a pristine park open to the public. Comprised of three waterfalls that straddle the U.S.-Canadian border, the falls have a long history; not all of it pretty. Industrial factories once…

Read more »
Capt. Tucker and Hercules. Photo: Kathleen Walls

Cajun Culture in Lafayette Parish

In Southern Louisiana, French Canadian migrants settled and intermingled with the existing community to create a unique ethnic group, the Cajuns, whose culture continues to thrive today. Visitors can learn more about the Cajuns through a visit to Lafay…

Read more »
View of Lake Chelan. Photo: Eliza Amon

No Roads Lead to Stehekin

Tucked in the rugged North Cascade Mountains near the Canadian border, is a town unreachable except by ferry, foot or flight. Remote as Stehekin is, the Washington town is a hub for nature lovers looking to hike, kayak, ride horses or fish in a nationa…

Read more »

Cycling in Uzbekistan

In many ways Uzbekistan is a fantastic country to cycle through – the friendly hospitality, exotic culture, stunning architecture and, of course, the excitement of exploring faraway lands, well away from the beaten tourist trail. Tashkent Mosque. Uzbek…

Read more »
Burundi village

A Burundian Lesson in Hospitality

It’s evening in the small African nation of Burundi, and the waning sun throws shadows over the city of Bujumbura. In the old Land Rover, we bump and jostle our way through the crowded dirt roads of the capital. Before we left the mission station where…

Read more »
Statue honoring the underground railroad along the Riverwalk in Detroit.

Heartbeat of Detroit

I didn’t know a single thing about Detroit when I moved here a year ago. Most people plan where they want to move but when your spouse is in medical school, you don’t always have the luxury of choice or time. The sudden relocation to the city was a sur…

Read more »

Three Stops on the Trail of Tears

The rich culture and heritage of the Cherokee people and the story of their forced removal from their homeland is sometimes lost amid undifferentiated accounts of indigenous people in the United States. Three stops along the Georgia section of the Trai…

Read more »
Amazon River at night

Adventures on the Amazon

I stepped back into the dark brown muck and leaned on the tree behind me to get a better photo of the anaconda slithering in my direction. I was motionless for a mere two seconds when Ericson Pinedo, our local naturalist, jerked me back by my arm and q…

Read more »

Eau Claire’s Artistic Wonders

The American heartland city of Eau Claire is enjoying an artistic renaissance. Sitting at the junction of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers in Wisconsin, Eau Claire is French for “clear water,” and water is a defining physical feature of the city. Its…

Read more »

Greece By Sea

“Ferries are for wimps,” our guide Tim’s t-shirt read. It was a motto befitting my tour groups’ plan to spend a week swimming 5km a day between and alongside the Sporades, a cluster of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. I’d traveled to Greece with four f…

Read more »
Arch leading into Tehran

Discovering Iran by bicycle

I’ve travelled almost 20,000km by bicycle through over 15 countries. Often one of the first questions I’m asked when people discover this is, “What’s been your favourite country to cycle through?” Without hesitation I always answer, “Iran.” Photo:  Hav…

Read more »