Exploring Buin Zoo

If Cerro San Cristobal's minimal hilltop National Zoo has left you wondering where Santiago's fauna has fled, head south to the spacious and colorful Buin Zoo on the outskirts of town.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Elaine Madrigal (click for more photos)

At Buin Zoo, one of the six zoos in Chile, you will come across animals that you won’t find at just any other zoo, like the Kinkajou, resembling a nocturnal ferret with drugged-out eyes. Discover the amphibian incarnate of Medusa in the axolotl, an aquatic Mexican salamandar, with an cheerful yet eerie smile.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Elaine Madrigal

Aside from the quirkier critters, you'll find the usual lion, tiger and bear roaming their territories--when you're not distracted by the jumping antics of the howling monkeys, that is. In the Baby Zoo, a free petting zoo, packs of parents attempt to place their children in picture-perfect scenarios with roosters and sheep. The farm section lodges horses and mammoth pigs as sizable as the zoo's own brown bear in a roofed stable setting you can wander through to better see the beasts.

The 2,000-plus animals of Buin Zoo are dispersed among five outdoor "zoonas" based on their native stomping grounds—the Americas, Chile, Africa, Asia/Oceania and Europe--along with the traditional indoor exhibits of reptiles, nocturnal mammals, arthopods and sea creatures. The enclosures themselves are often as unusual as the animals and occasionally inaccurate; look out for a lighthouse making a poor attempt to recreate the sea lion’s natural environment and some indigenous Native American art in the African zone. Even a glimpse at the animals can leave you puzzled; what at first appears to be an elephant is about as real as a mirage--a mechanical imposter moving its head and trunk well enough to fool some visiting seniors from a distance.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Elaine Madrigal

Hopefully, the expansion of the African zone (currently under construction and scheduled to open in winter 2010) will contain a legitimate elephant and another missing zoo staple, the giraffe. The addition will add exhibits to the 7.5 hectare zoo that better attempt to mimic the animals’ environments, giving the patrons the feeling of being immersed with the animals in their natural environments.

The now extensive zoo began in 1985 as the simple project of Veterinarian Ignacio Idalsoaga to help wild animals recuperate from injuries and illnesses. Idalsoaga realized that some of the animals would be in danger if released back into their natural habitats, so he and his family set up cages to shelter them. On a visit to Buin Zoo, Idalsoaga himself can be seen around the zoo, sometimes trying to animate the sluggish tigers.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Elaine Madrigal

As far as lunch goes, hot dogs, sandwiches and empanadas can tide you over, or head to the onsite restaurant Café Los Alpes, which serves a more refined Lunch of the Day option, like Pastel de Choclo, as well as hot dogs, typical Chilean sandwiches like Barros Jarpa and Lomito, and salads. Food here is overpriced (one small, unappetizing italiano hot dog is CP$1,200, or US$2.20) so bringing your own lunch is an option.

To get there, take the 30 minute train ride from Trenes Metropolitanos that leaves outside Santiago’s Estación Central Metro Station directly to Buin Zoo, one of the six zoos in Chile. Buses also leave from the San Borja bus station (metro stop Estación Central) in Santiago and leave you about 50 meters from the entrance. Onsite parking is available. To avoid a sea of children, strollers and scouts, go during the week. (The Buin Zoo website also has a calendar listing any school groups which will be visiting the zoo on a given day.)

For English-speaking guests, there are translations on most of the outdoor animals’ info signs, but the signs for indoor animals are less helpful. A portable audio guide to the zoo is also available at an additional CP$2,000 (USD$3.65) in Spanish and CP$3,000 (USD$5.45) in English.

Buin Zoo
Panamericana Sur – Km. 32
Buin, Chile

Price: Adults CP$3,500 (US$6.35), children and seniors CP$2,500 (US$4.55)
March–December hours:
Tuesday–Friday 9am–5:30pm; Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 10am–7pm
January–February hours:
Monday–Friday 9am–6pm; Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 10am–7pm
Ticket office closes one hour before the park closes

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