I loved Chile from a 3-month stint there 20 yrs ago before I went back in Dec 2009. I have written about what I saw, did and felt in other entries in my blog so I won’t repeat myself, but I continue to long to go back even after spending all of 2010 in Chile… Why? Well, take a look below and read my other entries about Chile (http://ilivetotravel.me/tag/chile/)
Reminiscing about my trip to Patagonia and the southern tip of the Americas, I think about what I didn’t get to see… Somehow, 7 months later, Patagonia’s grasp on my mind and my spirit is still very strong. I don’t know if it is the remoteness, the “unspoiltness” (though there is tourism there), the closer-to-how-it-used-be, or just a magnificent nature landscape. But Patagonia has got hold of me. I long to return. I’d thought I’d write down those things I would have liked to have time for in case I can go back again – then all I would have to do is look up this entry and, voilá, my travel plans are ready! And perhaps help a fellow traveler or dream-of-traveler…
Towards the top of the list is that I never actually made it to Tierra del Fuego proper. I thought I was going to TdF by going to Punta Arenas but it turns out TdF is the island across the Straits of Magellan from Punta Arenas and my itinerary had me going NORTH and SOUTH of Punta Arenas but not EAST… Now, I am not sure what I would have seen there that would have been worth the trip but, definitely, I would have liked to explore it. (The thought that I went SOUTH of Punta Arenas but didn’t make it to TdF is somehow mindboggling, n’est-ce pas?)
In TdF, Ushuaia would have been the thing I wanted to see the most. A few travelers told me that it was way more beautiful than Punta Arenas and I can imagine that it would be as Punta Arenas as a town was not necessarily scenic nor quaint for the most part.
While I got to navigate a fjord near Puerto Natales and saw plenty of lakes and a couple of glaciers, I would have liked to go further west and north of the area navigating fjords up the Chilean coast. THAT would be a dream. Going to TdF would be about checking it off. Going to Ushuaia would be special. But spending time up and down all those fjords… well, that would be like something.
And, while at it, a cruise through the southern/eastern side of the Straits of Magellan all the way down to Cabo de Hornos would have been a cool thing to do – but taking some dramamine along as I hear the waters can be quite choppy (and that may be soft-pedaling the water conditions from the stories other travelers told me…). Lowest in my priorities for this return trip but worth noting.
Finally, I would go back to the nice hotel in between Puerto Natales and Cerro Castillo called Hotel Posada 3 Pasos (http://www.hotel3pasos.cl check it out but don’t DARE tell folks about it!!) and spend a few days in the quiet and the beauty that now I understand to be the essence of Patagonia. This would be my TOP priority if I go back…
Last December, I finally fulfilled a dream almost 19 years old: to go to Punta Arenas and see the Chilean Patagonia. I have written about the trip already in the blog but I thought this picture merited a Photo of the Week entry of its own. This is a home in Puerto Natales, near the hotel where I stayed and not far from the waterfront. The mix of colors and dominance of the blue of the exterior of the home really caught my eye.
Note: Though I already posted a picture this week, I decided to just “go crazy” and post more than 1 since I will not be posting in the next two weeks
Having traveled a but through Chile (though, admittedly, I missed some places I hear are worth exploring like Valdivia), I thought I’d share what I would consider a good itinerary for those with time (but not boundless time either). I will either expand on some of the items below in other entries or they have been covered already in entries I already made (true for the Atacama and Patagonia bits).
Chile offers a wide range of landscapes due to the fact that it runs a long way in the latitude dimension, therefore, the climates along the country vary significantly. The presence of the Andes clearly has a major effect in the climate as well as provides a great backdrop to many of the places you should see (heck, sometimes it is not just the backdrop but part of what you will explore).
A trip to Chile typically starts of in Santiago, its capital, though one can enter the country from any of the neighboring countries in places like the Atacama, Pucon, the lake district, or Patagonia.
A good itinerary would cover:
- San Pedro de Atacama and nearby sites (4-7 days)
- Pucón and the Villarica area (3-6 days)
- Santiago (a city is a city is a city but I find it worth exploring) (2-4 days)
- Valparaíso (add on Viña and its beaches but they don’t rank up there in my book) (2 days)
- Puerto Montt, the Lake District, and Chiloé (4-7 days)
- Mendoza (OK, this is Argentina but it is almost on Chile and easier to get to from Santiago than from anywhere else!) (2-3 days)
Readers, please feel free to add or provide other perspectives. I, by no means, saw EVERYTHING Chile has to offer!
NOTE: First timers in Chile have to pay an entry fee if they are from certain countries (not many) of which the U.S. is one. BEFORE you get to the immigration line, make sure you go to the line to pay this entry fee. Usually, there is airport staff asking for country of origin at the end of the escalators – they can direct you where you need to go.
The agency that helped me organize my trip down south to Patagonia created a suggested itinerary based on what I wanted to see. In their itinerary, they had me staying 3 nights in Puerto Natales and 1 night in a place sort of in the middle of nowhere. I would stay at that place the second night of the 4 nights. I wrote to the agency asking for the rationale behind this as I would certainly prefer being in one place so I could unpack once, pack one especially in a year where I think I spent 10% of my time unpacking and packing already…
The answer was sort of OK. It was that the morning after staying in this place for one night I would save 20 mins in the ride over to see the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Oh, and 20 mins the night before as I would get dropped off before the bus got to Puerto Natales. In other words, a total of 40 mins savings by staying further north of Puerto Natales since my travels around that night were north as well. I decided to not argue it as they better knew the lay of the land than myself.
I chose right. Though I was up there to see the well-known sites and sights, I was not aware that I was about to discover a place that for me would showcase some of the best in the beauty of the Chilean Patagonia as well as just a plain and simple quiet setting – something well needed after the last few weeks…
A Lodging Paradise in Patagonia
The Hotel Posada 3 Pasos (http://www.hotel3pasos.cl/) is located on a site where there has been a hotel or inn for most of the time that part of the country has been colonized. Of course, the structure has changed a few times since then. But once one has traveled in the area, one can see that a trail or road likely always existed once the land was colonized and that the location of this place of lodging was well chosen as a place to stop, eat, and sleep.
Looking at this inn’s setting I couldn’t help but feel I was in a special place on this planet – a real paradise of serenity and beauty.
A Building with Charm and Good Food!
The employees told me that many visitors stop on the drive from El Calafate to Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas simply to dine (the food was great! anything with the “vazca” sauce is well worth trying!). The next morning I was pleasantly, no, correction: VERY pleaseantly surprised at the incredible spread they served me for breakfast. I was SO engrossed by it that I forgot to take a picture of the table!! The bakery type of items and the jams were all home made and simply exquisite. I could not eat half of what was offered!
But, of course, food always distracts me… The inn is not the very original one from early 20th century but it is still of a period and style: country! It is charming, with a limited number of rooms, a small bar, a living room with a fireplace (which I am sure is used here year-round in the evenings!), and a dining room area.
The inn is in a very remote area so power is not easily available. At some point late at night, the generator is turned off. One is given a rather powerful battery-powered lamp in case one needs it (like for that middle-of-the-night bathroom run…) so it is not an issue should one want to read, etc. All the rooms have a private bathroom and, likely, a beautiful and serene view.
Gardens and Walking Around
The inn is in a great setting and they maximize how you can experience it. Across the road, there is an area where one can walk to one’s content as far as one wants, even up the hill at the end of the area. The inn also has a nice garden dedicated to the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral where I went to town using the micro settings in my camera on flowers, moss, and acorns! Certainly a great way to practice my hobby and also relax and unwind, something I badly needed during this trip.
Finally, I have to say the staff that day was very friendly and wanting to make sure my stay was comfortable and relaxing. I thank them for that!
What Did I Re-Learn?
I have realized over time that sometimes it is better to let things happen rather than have them all planned. This lodging experience drove the point home. Certainly my research would likely lead me to choices that better match what I am looking for in a trip. However, it is impossible for research to uncover it all and leaving space for the random discoveries is just as important. Lesson well learned. I may even get back to Patagonia just to stay at this place but this time for a few days of R&R!
The first time I heard about the Perito Moreno glacier was back in 1991 when an Argentinian friend mentioned having gone there and it being “espectacular!” as Argentines are prone to say when they like something enough. I finally got to visit it but, in doing my research, I was surprised at its location, well inland in Argentina – I had expected it to be near the ocean closer to Tierra del Fuego.
I had to get to the glacier from Chilean Patagonia which meant a long bus ride from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, the main town right outside the ice fields that give rise to the glacier. It took about 4 hrs or so to get to El Calafate and that included a stop at Argentinian immigrations/customs; faithful to expectations, a slow process and rather rudimentary baggage check with some luggage opened on the road and a sniffing dog walking ON (not around) the open luggage. At that border point, we entered the Santa Cruz province which many say is the personal fiefdom of the presidential couple (now just the wife since he passed away). I am not sure if that is the case or not but the place is certainly vast.
The more one gets away from the border with Chile, the flatter the land becomes. The scenery is impressive but then you get a few hours of that same landscape and I quickly dozed off to make up for the early pickup time (around 7AM).
The bus was full of passengers. Most of them were just getting off in El Calafate which seems to serve as a base for backpackers and other travelers but a few of us stayed on to be taken to the glacier, another 1.5 hrs away. Oh and the bus had its share of people who stank but, mercifully, they were towards the front of the bus and I, being the last one picked up on the road from Puerto Natales, got to sit all the way in the back. I guess the Northern Hemisphere folks in the front of the bus thought that being on vacation meant skipping on those showers for a couple of days. Joy.
So, the bus ride was long and tedious. But what about the main attraction, the glacier? Well, one quickly realizes one is facing a monumental piece of ice! The glacier is almost kissing the peninsula directly across from it. When the “kiss” is “deep”, the glacier splits the water body in front of it in two. I hear this is the only place in the world where that happens. After a few years of the deep kiss, the water level rises on one of the sides of the glacier and pressure builds up such that the kiss is broken up. When I went, there was a very small bridge left between the glacier and the peninsula.
The glacier’s front walls are monumentally high. Nothing helps one get this than seeing large boats come close to the glacier for a close-up. The glacier is constantly making noises as it moves and shifts and, every 15 minutes or so, a piece of ice (usually small) would break off and fall in the water making a good deal of noise.
The park has been very nicely prepared for the tourists with recently built walkways meandering down the peninsula’s face. There used to be a concrete path but one clearly sees the difference of being in a nicely built walkway vs. the more rudimentary concrete path that one can still see from the walkway. There are different paths to follow and one can go as far as one wants or stay as close to the carpark as one wants. One can see both “faces” of the glacier from most of the walkways so one doesn’t have to risk missing that falling piece of ice!
El Calafate was not much of a town but one could do some shopping down the main street. We hear that in winter there is nothing much to do. Our guide told us she read a lot and went ice skating on the part of the lake/bay that freezes. Unfortunately, my time there was limited so I could not discover any hidden gems. I had not budgeted staying a night there (which was probably a good thing) so I hopped back on the bus to ride all the way back to Puerto Natales. But I am happy to report that the bus was mostly empty, and most importantly, free of funny smells
I have no better way of describing how the vastness and general flatness of the land (it wasn’t 100% flat) that in this image I have of the Patagonian sky: sky in 3-D. Somehow, one gets a sense of multiple layers of clouds as one stares out and scans the sky. Perhaps it is the same anywhere else but I have never noticed this until this trip. I felt validated when later a fellow traveler made the same observation (minus the “3-D” part)…
Certainly, the trip from Puerto Natales was way too long for a day trip and, while El Calafate didn’t seem interesting enough for me, spending the night there would have been better for my body. However, I will say get to see Perito Moreno however you have to as it will be worth your while!
The Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, is the main “attraction” in the Chilean Patagonia. Certainly, there is a lot more to explore in the region (Perito Moreno in Argentina, Puerto Natales, penguin colonies, etc.) but nothing seems as well known as this National Park and its centerpiece the mountains that carry the name “Paine”. The picture below will not do them justice but it may ring a bell for some readers (read on… better pictures below!).
Seeing these mountains was the top goal for my trip down south. (For more info about the park, check out http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/index.asp). I wish I had had the time and “knee-health” to do the hike (the famous “W” hike) everyone else does but that was not to be. So I signed up for a driven tour of the park which ended up being a really good way to see more in a limited time window. (I used a Chilean travel agency named Comapa (http://www.comapa.com/en/) – there were about 14 of us in a mid-sized bus – it was very well-organized.) While generally I prefer more “on my own” traveling, one good thing about this type of travel is meeting other folks and this particular day was not exception as I met friendly folks from Brazil and Chile. Sometimes it is not only the sights but the people one meets along the way that make a trip worthwhile!
In any case, the day started by visiting the Cueva del Milodón, a cave carved by a glacier thousands and thousands of years ago and where the remains of a prehistoric type of beast that resembles a bear with a long tail were found. Here is my picture of a milodón (or, I should say, a statue of one).
The visit to the cave involved a nice short hike through one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen. Ever.
We proceeded to enter the main part of the park and visiting lake after lake, each beautiful in its own way and most with a view of the Torres themselves. As the day started, there was a cloud-cover on the Torres but over the morning the cover mostly dissipated providing us visitors an almost clear view of the Torres. Since it can be hit or miss, I was worried I may get to see the Torres on the day when they would actually not be visible rending this a rather long distance to go and not see them… But luck was on my side and I was glad for the almost perfect view of the Torres.
In any case, we visited Lake Sarmiento, Lake Nordenskjol (beautiful colored water), Lake Pehoé (where we had lunch at a local place sitting on the shore of the lake AND looking straight at the Torres!), Lake Grey and the glacier with the same name (which was way too far from the lake’s edge where we were to enjoy it much; but the short hike to get there was nice), and Lago del Toro. The views were majestic and offered way too many photo opportunities. But the Torres remained wrapped in fog. I kept getting dis-heartened as there is no guarantee that on a given day, the fog clears…
Finally, the fog lifted enough for incredible views as we went further away from the Torres. Incredible land!!!
The visit to the park absolutely met my expectations of the landscape. I only wish I had been able to stay right there at a place with a view of the Torres so I could see them at sunset and sunrise (assuming a clear view) – I can imagine how spectacular the setting must become at those times and with that type of light… Maybe another visit? But I still had more to discover about Patagonia in the next couple of days, including crossing the border to Argentina…
While Punta Arenas was my entry point to Patagonia (see map for a good visual!), I wasn’t going to spend too much time there – I had places to go in Patagonia! Punta Arenas is known for being very windy but much to my joy, the landing was very smooth.
After a quick lunch at La Luna near the new costanera (“coastal”) avenue (chupe de centolla – a delicious king crab dish) and a failed attempt at using a coffee shop’s wi-fi on Ave. Pedro Montt after buying a coffee (the wi-fi “didn’t” work, something that seems to affect most places in this part of the country who claim to have one…), I walked around town for a couple of hours before I finally left town to head north into the heart of the Chilean Patagonia.
I made a stop at the penguin colony in Otway (I didn’t know I was going to see penguins right off the waterfront in Punta Arenas!). It was fascinating to walk among all the penguin nests on the shores of this body of water (more enclosed than a bay, but not a lake) – you stay on a slightly elevated walkway to avoid mis-stepping onto a penguin nest.
I was beginning to feel the wind and also be slightly disoriented in terms of direction. In Punta Arenas the water was to the east of the town yet somehow my brain thought it would be south and my many months in Chile would make me expect water to the west of land. Going to Otway, the water was to the west again. But my brain had a hard time processing this as I had not studied a map yet. My driver told me everyone from Chile goes through the same disorientation so I felt better.
From Otway, we went back east to the main road again and headed north the remaining 2.5 hrs or so until we got to Puerto Natales, a small town of perhaps 20k inhabitants that tends to serve as the main launching point to explore the Chilean Patagonia. I am assuming El Calafate may serve a slightly similar purpose on the Argentine Patagonia. Puerto Natales does not have necessarily tons of charm but going to the coastal avenue does provide a 180 degree (plus) view of mountains and water that is very nice.
I stayed at a nice hotel called Aquaterra whose staff was very friendly and helpful even if the rooms were somewhat spartan. The best eating experience in Puerto Natales had to be the highly recommended La Picada de Carlitos. I was expecting to eat meat but the waiter recommended the chupe de centolla and, boy, he was right! It was phenomenal and easily beat the one I had at La Luna in Punta Arenas. Here is what it looked like:
Other than this, the only other thing to call out about Puerto Natales that I saw was some of the architecture and some bright coloring of house facades. I found the town to be charming and a great platform to launch into the rest of Patagonia. The views from its waterfront were beautiful.
As I sit to write about my trip, I thought a map of the Chilean Patagonia would be helpful to illustrate the different places I will be writing about!
19 yrs ago, when I spent 3 months in Chile with work, I dreamt of going to Punta Arenas and the southern tip of the American hemisphere (American as in the Americas’ hemisphere). However, the three flights a day or so they had back then were not available on the dates I could travel. Perhaps that was all for the better as the Internet and such resources didn’t exist and I wonder how I would have determined exactly what to do and where to go had I been able to make it then…
But the yearning remained and for 18 yrs, the yearning included getting back to Chile, period. Well, that happened in November 2009 but the trip down south was still a “pending”. As my work in Chile wrapped up close to 13 months later, I figured I needed to make this happen. So I made it happen. I only had a few days between the Christmas holiday and the end of my assignment so I cut my assignment short a couple of days to give me a full 5 days down south (yes, not enough but enough to hit the items I wanted to hit).
I searched online for possible ways to organize my visit but work was in the most difficult stage (pre-rollout and rollout of 4 new systems, 2 of them major, for my client in Chile). So I didn’t get to do my research and planning as I would have liked. I ended up using an agency to organize my visit (www.visitchile.cl). Margarita was my contact there and was very helpful in organizing what I was interested in with an efficient itinerary and offering a couple of good suggestions.
So, all I had to do was get my plane ticket and go. The direct flights from Santiago turned out to not be convenient in terms of schedules so I ended up taking the flight that makes a stop in Puerto Montt (abt 30 mins, you don’t get off the plane unless that is your destination). Pricewise, it wasn’t dirt cheap but given I booked all this about 3 weeks or so in advance, I did well enough.
So I took a 630 AM flight down south. A major sacrifice as you can imagine… I landed close to 11 AM in Punta Arenas, expecting a lot of turbulence given the famous strong winds in the area. The plane barely moved as we approached, took a hard bank right, and landed. As I met my driver, he told me the day before they had had about 120kph winds and planes were made to circle for like 40 minutes until it was safe to land, safe to use the jetways, and safe for ground crews to be out and about (I asked myself, why not land the planes, park them off the runway, and save those poor passengers all the jumping around…). Later in my trip, people I met who flew on that day described rather disturbing jumping around as they landed in Pta Arenas and I counted my blessings!!
Pta Arenas is not, in my limited exploring, a beautiful town. While you sit in the Straits of Magellan, I can’t say the setting is beautiful per se (I hear this is in contrast with Ushuaia in Argentina which I did not get to visit) but the winds, the penguins by the waterfront, and the idea of where I am in relation to the rest of the world did make me feel I was somewhere different, perhaps special.
Pta Arenas was just the start of my trip and certainly was not going to be the highlight as I was soon to find out…
It will almost be a year to the day since I traveled to Chile for the first time in 18 yrs. I was expecting an infrequent trip there in the year to follow due to work but a couple of months in, the game changed and I got to practically be based in Santiago for most of 2010. The surprise was pleasant for the most part, except I had not planned to live far from home for so long, even if I did get to come home for long weekends at least twice every month. Now, I have one more trip down to Chile of a few weeks before this chapter of my life closes…
It is important to note that I had wanted to stay in Chile back then in 1991. I enjoyed life there SO much. But without too much on my resume yet, being “too green”, and no easy way to figure things out (no Internet!), I just went back to the U.S. when the assignment ended.
Seeing Santiago after 18 years was a strange experience. I was able to recognize places from my life those 3 months around 1990-91 (my apt building, work, Brannigan’s on Calle Suecia, the McDs by Parque Arauco where I used to go eat after playing racquetball, and the old parts of town among others). But, of course, 18 yrs in a good economic climate bring about lots of change. I recall back then a skyline littered with cranes of high rises being built. Well, by now, I am happy to report they finished the buildings… and then some! Sanhattan did not exist when I was there – not in its current form, at least. The area around Parque Arauco and Parque Arauco itself have been developed beyond recognition. I got to re-connect with friends from those days there and while their lives of course had changed, the friends were pretty much as I remembered them (physically and personality-wise).
I got to sample numerous excellent restaurants from a list built up by recommendations from a couple of choice people who clearly know food. I have hit just about every recommendation except for some. By now, with 3 weeks left in my assignment, I am more interested in eating at my favorite places than discovering new ones. Tiramisu and Cuero Vaca (http://www.cuerovaca.cl/) rank up there in my book (good eats!). I will be eating there again for sure! [Check out this review of Tiramisu at the NYT: http://tinyurl.com/2fcbum7]
Of course, I got to be in Chile on or around key events in its national history: the earthquake of February 27, the national elections that made history, the trapped miners, the bicentennial (bicentenario), and the national soccer team making it to the 2nd round in the World Cup. Wow, what timing, don’t you agree??
I got to sample the Atacama desert, hop over the Andes to Mendoza, and explore more of Valparaíso. Hopefully, before I return, I will also get to see Patagonia and the key sights down there – Torres del Paine, the Magellan Straits by Punta Arenas, the Perito Moreno glacier, and a few other sights. Places left to see or see again include Valdivia, Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and neighboring towns along the area, and the lakes crossing of the Andes to reach Bariloche. Had work stretched into January, I would have been able to add them to my “itinerary”. But with work wrapping up mid-December, I only had time for one destination before coming home for Christmas. So I think I chose well with the trip to Tierra del Fuego.
Now, I need to focus on the hardest week of work in the whole year, then stabilize things before I move on. I am thankful God granted me the opportunity to return to a land that I love and to have made it for a long stint so that I got to internalize it all. Now, I am ready to leave Chile behind knowing I can always come “home” but ready to focus on my life in my real home…
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