The Perito Moreno Glacier, in the southern end of Argentina’s huge Los Glaciares National Park, is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing instead of receding. The massive sheet of ice pours slowly out of the Andes into Lago Argentino, forming at its end a solid wall over three miles wide and taller than a twenty-story building. You can take a boat up to either the north or south face of the glacier, or watch it from a series of trails and viewing platforms where you can feel the ice-cold wind blowing off its surface and listen to the thunderous noise as blocks of ice the size of houses break off and crash into the lake.
We went twice.
A year of summer – that’s what we told ourselves when we left the United States in August. We flew straight to the tropics and as the northern hemisphere slid into autumn we traveled south into a second spring and then, of course, another summer.
We weren’t completely delusional. We knew that Patagonia was going to be frigid and arranged to have cold-weather clothing shipped to us in Chile. What we didn’t anticipate was that aside from a few warm islands here and there, the trip was going to be chilly all the way down the West Coast, that our “year of summer” was going to be dominated by the high altitude of the Andes and oceanic currents from Antarctica, and that the prolonged hours of sunlight weren’t going to do much at all to warm us up.
Oh well. We’ve been assured that once we get into northern Argentina, summer heat will become a sweaty reality. Until then, we still have several weeks to appreciate the harsh steppes of the South.
The launch point for trips to Los Glaciares is the little town of El Calafate. It’s not the kind of place where one generally spends a week, but we did. Ushuaia was too expensive – and boring – and El Calafate was the best place to rendezvous with Lea’s sister Lisa who will be spending the next two weeks traveling with us!
Staying in El Calafate for longer than normal gave us the chance to scope out tours and excursion options in advance while, as I said earlier, seeing the Perito Moreno glacier twice – something we haven’t been able to do with any other point of interest along this trip.
Other things to do around El Calafate: We visited the town’s amazing Argentine Toy Museum, with its huge collection of toys from around the world from 1870 to 1970. We visited the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary right on the edge of town. We had unlimited drinks for 25 minutes in the Yeti Ice Bar, where the temperature inside is a balmy -17⁰C. We hiked into some windy, sandy desert formations 100 kilometers outside of town to see a petrified forest. Oh, and we Zip-Lined down the eastern face of Cerro Frias.
El Calafate is a town of expensive hotels and cheap backpacker hostels, with nothing in between. Since we were staying for a whole week, we went for cheap – especially since the backpacker place afforded us the use of a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out. It did land us in a dorm-room situation, which we’ve previously endeavored to avoid. We booked an entire room for ourselves to avoid sharing bunks with total strangers, but even so our room in El Calafate wins hands down for the single most cramped accommodation we’ve had.
That’s a minor quibble next to the main difficulty Argentina has thrown at us this week. Last week I discussed the dearth of bus transportation in Argentinian Patagonia. This week in Round Two of “Us vs. This Country,” the point of contention is Argentina’s ATMs. We budgeted plenty of money to get through Patagonia, but the banks down here are making it annoyingly difficult to gain access to it. From our research we knew this would be a problem, but reading about it and experiencing the reality are two different things.
Imagine, if you will, that you were operating solely on cash, that the most you could get out of a bank machine at a time was $100, and that you got charged a $10 fee every time you made a withdrawal. To add insult to injury, imagine that the ATM then dispensed your $100 in a giant wad of $2 bills. Imagine paying rent in those conditions. Imagine saving up enough cash for a big purchase. Imagine buying groceries.
Because of Argentina’s banking laws, the ATMs have very low caps on how much money you can withdraw and very high fees when you do. Compounding the problem is the fact that the ATMs in tourist towns in the middle of nowhere, like El Calafate, are continually short on cash. Rounding out the trifecta of annoying money problems is that Argentina has virtually no coins. Everything is done with paper money, so you end up carrying around thick stacks of bills that are not really worth that much but are difficult to hide without making giant bulges in your pockets.
We’re lucky that we were able to set up a bank account for this trip that refunds ATM fees – that’s been a life-saver – and also that we’re allowed to take up to three withdrawals a day. It’s annoying that we’ve had to do that. Because the banks here can’t be trusted to have sufficient available cash, the rule has been for us to take money out well in advance if we have an expensive tour or a week of lodging to pay for at once. It’s not fun to have to carry that much money, and it may not be the smartest thing in the world to be advertising that fact on this blog for all the world to see.
Thankfully 1) no one down here reads English and 2) by the time this is posted we’ll be well out of El Calafate.
Next up: caves, more caves, and… cherries? Stay tuned, dear readers.
Ushuaia, nestled between the Beagle Channel and the Martial Mountains, is the southernmost city in the world. A gaudy tourist trap at present, it was originally an Argentinian penal colony. Back in those days, a train ran west from the settlement into what is now Tierra del Fuego National Park. Prisoners would take this train into the wilderness and chop down lumber for the construction of the town.
The last seven kilometers of the old rail line still exist and, like the city itself, has turned into a cheesy tourist attraction – El Tren del Fin del Mundo. For a mere $1200 Argentinian Pesos ($30 USD) you can ride in a cramped passenger car along a narrow, twisty track pulled by an actual steam-driven locomotive from a terminal 8km outside of Ushuaia into the National Park itself. For an extra fee you can have a cheesy photo taken with actors in prison garb.
It’s the most expensive and complicated way to get into the park, but come on – there’s no way we could pass it up. (Except for the cheesy prison photo.) The ride takes an hour to go 7km, putting it at the pace of leisurely jog. There’s a recorded narration in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, set to – I kid you not – the theme to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.
From the platform on the other end, you’re still at least 8km from most of the hiking trails. The easy way to see the rest of the park is to book a tour that takes you to the train station, picks you up at the end of the ride, and drives you around for the rest of the day. The cheapskate way (our way) is to hire a cheap transport company to do the driving and hike on our own with nothing but a poorly detailed and somewhat inaccurate park map as a guide.
Tierra del Fuego National Park is a beautiful confluence of mountains, meadows, lakes, rivers, and winds straight from Cape Horn. These were nothing to the gales that blew us over at Torres del Paine, but the hiking was long enough that it made me pine for my crappy old Honda. Eventually we found our way back to the end of the rail line and waited in the rain for the train back to town. And that, it turns out, was an adventure all on its own.
“An adventure is something horrible that happens to someone else.”
-Charles Stross, Accelerando
It turns out that the company we hired to do our driving for us was further on the shady side than we’d have liked. (When we mentioned who we were waiting for, an attendant at Tren del Fin del Mundo said, “Ooh, I wouldn’t recommend them.”) But on Friday they took us up to the Martial Glacier and back with no problem, so we booked them for Tierra del Fuego Day as well.
They took us out to the train station, but never turned up at the other end. If we’d waited five more minutes (after the twenty we’d already hung around past pickup time) we could have ridden with one of their partner companies, but we hitched a ride with another driver who took pity on us. We were able to find our own company again to take us from the Tierra del Fuego Interpretive Center to the park train platform, but they never showed at the Ushuaia platform to take us back to town. All the other passengers and train station employees had left for the day. We had to contact them several times until they finally sent a driver from a different company to get us.
Half a week in Argentina and our relationship with this country is already a little… antagonistic, shall we say. Part of the problem isn’t Argentina’s fault, it’s just that we’re running into Tourist Season in a part of the world that’s solely comprised of tourist trap islands separated by hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of absolutely nothing else.
Our bus left Punta Arenas at 8:30 a.m. on the day after Christmas and arrived ten long, tedious hours later. Unlike other ten-hour rides we’ve endured, this was at least broken up in spots, first for the ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan and later at the border crossing between Chile and Argentina. Border crossings stress me out, but at least they give you a chance to stretch your legs.
Then we got to Ushuaia and had to climb up an [expletive deleted] mountain. I guess we’ve gotten spoiled. With the exception of Valparaiso, all of the places we stayed in Chile were flat. What little flat land there is in Ushuaia is taken up by the coast road, travel agencies, shopping, and expensive restaurants. The one affordable hostel that wasn’t miles outside of town was still a leg-breaking climb up eight steep blocks from the bus station and it wasn’t close to anything. Laundry, groceries, restaurants, bus tickets – everything we needed required us to repel down the mountain and climb the rock wall back to our room afterward.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame a country for its own geography. You get what you’re born with, fine. But the buses – the buses are a point on which it feels like our travel luck almost ran out and Argentina nearly put us in a bind.
We’ve already had to shift gears in terms of booking rooms. For months we had the luxury of flexibility, the option to extend stays in cities we liked and not lock ourselves into accommodations until shortly before we traveled elsewhere. Because it’s now High Season we’ve had to book our rooms much farther in advance, but we didn’t realize that we had to do the same for our transits. We don’t like buying bus tickets online because so far we’ve always found that there are more, cheaper options available when booking in person at the bus station and paying in cash.
Ushuaia doesn’t have a bus station. It has a parking lot where buses drop you off and pick you up. Okay. Fine. The bus company offices were several blocks up the street and we already knew that we wanted to leave on Saturday. As soon as we dropped our luggage at the hostel we scaled back down the cliff to make arrangements for the next leg of our journey.
We knew that there were three bus companies that ran into and out of Ushuaia. What we discovered that evening was that two of them only run routes back into Chile. The third company, Marga/Taqsa, is the only bus company that will take you from Argentina to Argentina, and they only run one bus a day out of town. And the bus on Saturday was already full.
This, dear readers, is when I started to panic. Using crampons, pickaxes, and other mountaineering gear, we climbed back to our hostel and prayed to our lord and savior the Internet for a solution. A search of bus websites confirmed what we’d been told – there was no way out of Ushuaia on Saturday unless we stowed away on a cruise ship. We inquired at our hostel about staying an extra night, but no luck there either – they were already booked up. So not only did we have to find out if we could leave Ushuaia on Sunday and get to our next stop in El Calafate, but we also had to find lodging on a weekend in a town that was already booked out.
I won’t lie. I’ve got this irrational fear that somewhere along the way we’re going to get stuck sleeping in a bus station. (It’s happened before – we spent a cold night in the Mexico City airport in October 2017 because our layover hotel canceled our reservation.) Thankfully it didn’t happen here. There were a handful of places with beds still available, and we found a room at a hotel that ended up being much nicer than its rating on Booking.com suggested. And we got Sunday bus tickets – twelve hours from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos, then a layover and another four hour ride to El Calafate, arriving at our next tourist trap at 12:30 in the morning on December 31st. We went ahead and booked our next ride too, an overnight haul to Los Antiguos a week from now, despite the online service fees.
It was a hell of a transit day, but at least we weren’t huddled outside with our luggage in the rain in the town at the End of the World. Ushuaia was such a tourist town that it never really struck me that we’d crossed into another country until we left Tierra del Fuego behind and were riding across the endless pampas. This vast, brown expanse of dry scrub was not pretty during the day, but during the long southern sunset the plain turned to gold as far as we could see.
At last we’ve turned the corner. We’ve traveled as far south as we ever will until we come back for a cruise to the Antarctic. From here the nights will get longer and the days will slowly grow warmer. We’ve come to the other side of the Andes into a whole new world to explore. Four more countries remain, with glaciers, grasslands, beaches, and jungle. A new year starts tomorrow. Who knows what it’s going to bring?
P.S. We miss you, Chile!
One last shout-out to the country that’s been our home for two months, and to Punta Arenas – a much nicer place than Ushuaia. (There, I said it.) Christmas and Christmas Eve were two lazy days spent recovering from our blitz of excursions. (See last week’s article.) However, while drinking Carménère and eating at wonderful Casino buffets are in themselves worthwhile things to do for the holidays, Punta Arenas still had more to offer. On Christmas Eve, we visited an outdoor museum with full-size recreations of Ferdinand Magellan’s Victoria, a very tiny ship to sail around the world, and H.M.S. Beagle, a cruise liner by comparison. You can climb on board and wander around these models, getting a feel for how unimaginably hard life at sea must have been during the Age of Exploration.
On Christmas we went to the cemetery, since it was the only thing open. We weren’t the only ones. The place was packed with tourists looking for something to do!
Which, at last, bring us to:
Lea’s Christmas Day Cemetery Flower Macrophotography
In planning this trip we plotted out month-by-month which countries we expected to be in, and it worked out that we would probably “turn the corner” at the bottom of the continent sometime in December. It occurred to the astronomer in me that it would be awesome to be as far south as we could on the December 21, the Summer Solstice. So here we are for the holidays in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city, on the Strait of Magellan itself.
Technically our next stop – Ushuaia, Argentina – is even further south, but only by a hair. Between the two, there’s a lot more to do in Punta Arenas so we decided to spend the time here.
On the topic of “Things To Do,” this last week has been more densely packed with excursions and sightseeing than any other period of time on the trip since the Galapagos. And while we didn’t do any “trekking” (as they call it down here) some of these trips were grueling simply for the sheer amount of time and territory covered.
The plan was to alternate our sightseeing with days for rest in between, but the gods of weather and travel schedules had other ideas. We ended up with five solid days on the road, on the water, and in the air.
We went to Chiloe, the big island that forms the western side of the Gulf of Ancud, because Puerto Montt was intensely dull and we had to go somewhere. The Chiloe tour options either visit the towns and the bays down the island’s east side, or send you on long, arduous hikes through the national parks. We picked a day trip that was a little longer than others but offered both nature and civilization without a lot of exertion. It went to the towns of Chacao, Ancud, Dalcahue, and Castro and stopped at an “Ecological and Mythological Park” outside Ancud that offered a hike through a wooded area sprinkled with carved models of wizards, witches, and monsters from Chiloe folklore.
These included the Trauco, a woodland creature who lures young women with the sheer force of his sexual attraction, and the Furia who inflames the passions of men and drags them off to have her way with them. Other cultures’ mythological systems answer questions such as “How was the world created, why are there seasons, and what happens to us after we die?” Chiloe mythology, on the other hand, seems more focused on the question “Where the hell were you last night?”
It was nice to get away from Puerto Montt and the landscape of Chiloe was pleasant to look at, but there wasn’t much to see in the towns except churches, ships washed up on shore, and houses built on stilts so the tide washes under them.
Wednesday, December 19: Transit Day from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas
Alarm Clock: 5:30 am | Sunrise (Puerto Montt): 6:13 am. | Bus to Airport: 7:20 am | Flight Time: 10:50 am | Arrival at Hostel: 2:00 pm | Sunset (Punta Arenas): 10:10 pm
Change in Latitude: 12⁰ Southward | Immediate Increase in Daylight: 2 hours
Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas have this in common: their airports are a long way out of town. The flight took us over stunning glaciers and fjords that we’re going to have to come back someday to see by cruise ship. Punta Arenas is on the Brunswick Peninsula, a barren grassland where the few trees on the plain lean at a steep angle due to the nonstop 20-30 mph wind.
Our hostel is a handful of blocks from the shore and not too far a walk from the center of town if you only make the trip once. We did laps around the city several times on our first day, first to track down travel agencies and groceries, then to eat at a lousy “Chinese” restaurant, and later to walk along the beach – which turned into a trip over to the Casino and back up through the tourist sector in search of new sunglasses. No sunglasses were found, but we did catch a drum circle in full swing.
Thursday, December 20: Torres del Paine
Alarm Clock: 3:30 am | Sunrise: 5:12 am | Pickup for Tour: 5:15 am | Return to Hostel: 9:00 pm | Sunset: 10:10 pm
Tour Language: Spanish & English | Guide’s Knowledge of Geology and Glaciology: Good enough to keep up with Lea | Wind Level: Wizard of Oz
At sixteen hours, the excursion to Torres del Paine National Park is the single longest day trip Lea and I have ever taken. It’s not the most time we’ve spent in a bus without a break; that honor goes to our overnight transits back in Peru, but it was an awful lot of butt-in-seat time on unpaved roads once we got to the park itself. The park is… Holy crap, guys, just look:
Pictures can only convey half of the experience: namely, the stunning beauty. The other half? The WIND. When we stopped for our first view of Torres del Paine’s iconic skyline, I stepped out with my trusty tripod and the intention to weigh it down with a backpack full of heavy lenses to keep it from shaking. All that weight wouldn’t even stop it from blowing over. I asked our guide Manuel if the wind was going to be that bad all through the park. He gave me a look, then answered that he didn’t want to say because it could change so quickly. I understand now that that look he gave me said “Oh, you poor fool. You have no idea what you’re in for.”
Once we passed the rangers’ station, we turned west for a look at Grey Lake and its accompanying glacier. This involved walking across a suspension bridge over a river in the middle of a gale, then struggling across a sandy beach toward the lake face-first into a frigid, hurricane-level blast.
Think I’m exaggerating? The Internet tells me that gusts in Torres del Paine have been known to reach 110mph. I’m a Gulf Coast boy who once drove through a tropical storm on my way to work without even realizing it, so I’m no wimp when it comes to wind. This was nearly intolerable. My backpack acted like a sail and almost pulled me off my feet a few times. I never made it far enough to see the glacier; I had to turn back for the shelter of the van.
¿Vale la pena? Oh, hell yes. The cloudy morning turned into a clear blue afternoon, the best possible conditions to see one of the most beautiful parks in the world. I only wish I could have held my camera still to get better pictures of the icebergs on the lake. My next chance for that is a couple of weeks away in Argentina.
Friday, December 21 – Summer Solstice! – Magellanic Penguins on Magdalena Island
Sunrise: 5:12 am | Alarm Clock: Not a chance | Check-in at Dock: 1:30 pm | Ferry Departure: 2:00 pm | Return: 5:00 pm | Sunset: 10:10 pm
Tour Language: Spanish & English | Guide Involvement: Negligible | Penguin Cuteness: Extreme
Originally we meant to take the Torres del Paine tour on the Solstice, but were persuaded to do it the day before due to the weather forecast (which was a good choice). After such a long trip we meant this for a day of rest, but the Penguin Problem wouldn’t let it be so. The penguin colony on Magdalena Island was one of our pillars – like the Nazca Lines or Machu Picchu, it was a place we absolutely had to visit. Unfortunately, getting there turned out to be harder than we were lead to believe during the planning phase.
It used to be that there was a public ferry out to the island that ran in the morning and the afternoon unless the weather was bad. All you had to do was buy your ticket and get to the dock. It seems that the company that ran that service stopped doing so – the last date listed on their website was December 3 of this year. That left the other tour companies and consolidators, and the tours were filling up quickly.
We wanted to wait until Sunday or Monday, and because the weather here tends to be worse in the morning we wanted to go in the afternoon. It turned out that we could have one or the other, but not both. The company we used for Torres del Paine had slots open for Friday afternoon, but we had to decide before 11:00 am if we wanted to go. The other company that had monopolized a lot of the tours had an opening on Sunday, but at 6:30 in the morning. After checking one or two more places and having no better options, we chose to forego our afternoon off and see the penguins immediately.
The ferry took a little over an hour to get to the island and about ten more minutes to pull up onto the beach. There was a roped path for humans to walk, but the thousands upon thousands of Magellanic penguins don’t care. There were many breeding couples with fuzzy offspring, many right next to the trail. Some of the birds gave out warning calls that tourists were approaching, but while they didn’t hang out on the walking path they didn’t run away either. The hike around the island was forty-five minutes, the first part in mild but stinging rain and the second in open sunlight.
While this was our shortest excursion we would take this week, it was also the most expensive. To get that close to penguins in the wild and be able to spend so much time around them was definitely worth it.
Saturday, December 22: Tierra del Fuego and King Penguin Park
Sunrise: 5:13 am | Alarm Clock: 6:00 am | Pickup for Tour: 7:15 8:00 am | Return to Hostel: 8:00 pm | Sunset: 10:11 pm
Tour Language: English | Guide’s English: So-So | Confusion Level: Moderate | Penguins: Kingly
For the first time in our five months in South America, the tour company we were waiting on arrived early! Unfortunately, this meant they caught us in the middle of breakfast and we had to ask them to come back after picking up the other passengers, who turned out to be an irritating herd of Italians. From Punta Arenas we took a two-hour ferry across to Tierra del Fuego Island while the guide explained some of the history of what we were going to see – mostly pertaining to the Selk’nam people, a group of Native Americans who were quite literally hunted to extinction in order to protect the local sheep farms.
The ferry across to the island only ran in the morning, so we were going to have to take the long way around to get home. About five tour groups were running the same route that day, so the operators got together and worked out who would go where in what order before disembarking the ferry. This meant our tour got rearranged slightly, giving us an early lunch before visiting the local history museum and the small Selk’nam memorial park. The main draw for this trip, and the only reason we signed up for it, was the visit to the King Penguin colony on the island.
King Penguins are the second largest species (after the Emperors in Antarctica) and are identified by the yellow and orange markings on their chest and head. According to our guide the Kings fled Torres del Paine five hundred years ago. This small colony returned to the area in 2010 and set up camp on private property, which the owners turned into a conservation park. Unlike on Magdalena Island you can’t get close to the penguins, but you can view them from two “duck blinds” set up far enough away that the penguins aren’t disturbed by the tourists.
Once again the winds were ferocious, but the birds were beautiful. We got to spend an hour watching them before the interminably long drive back.
And that’s about it for Chile. Christmas will be our last full day in the country. I want to give a shout-out to Turismo Selknam, the travel agency who took care of us in Punta Arenas, and Hostal Doña Irma, the wonderful, homey place we stayed.
We entered on October 30 and will be leaving on December 26, the most time we’ll probably spend in any one country on this trip. Having been through Chile from top to bottom, we wish that we had spent less time in the North and more in the South – and also that we’d won some lottery tickets so we could have taken that fjord cruise. In scoping out retirement possibilities, Santiago is definitely on the list of possibilities with its modern big-city atmosphere and easy access to the Lake District.
The country is so skinny that I’ve had to break the map up into sections to show any detail about our travel. My next report will be from East of the Andes.
You gotta love insomnia. We stayed three nights in a pleasant, secluded neighborhood in the (almost) seaside town of Valdivia. For two of those nights in a row I barely slept at all. We went from Valdivia to the absolute dump of a city that is Puerto Montt and I finally managed to nod off. Part of the insomnia was due to hard beds and biting cold. We’ve hit the region of Chile that’s chilly and wet all the time and none of the rooms we’ve found are heated. Sure, they’ll layer five heavy blankets on the bed, but that doesn’t help the rest of the time. At least our hostel in Puerto Montt keeps a fire going in the kitchen.
A big part of what kept me up, though, is that we’ve hit a stage in the journey where we have to invest a lot more energy and stress into planning ahead and that’s prompted me to start thinking about our lives once this saga is over. It’s become harder to figure out the basics of housing and transportation in our short-term future (given that we’re heading into tourist season and things are booking up more quickly). That’s got my mind churning about the long-term future as well, dwelling on the difficulties of returning to the States and resuming our lives in whatever form they take.
How hard will it be to find jobs and an apartment? What unseen problems are going to crop up while trying to reestablish our lives? Will I eventually be able to make money from my writing, or will I have to go back to management and customer service? Will our cat even remember us? That’s a lot of uncertainty to process at 3:00 in the morning when the cold is causing condensation from my breath to build up on the inside of my C-PAP mask, which is also lovely.
Anyway, one positive thought to emerge from my middle-of-the-night ruminations was the decision to assemble and publish an anthology of my short stories that saw print during Phase One of my writing career (2008-2015) while I push forward on Phase Two. Next summer, dear readers, I expect you all to buy copies of The Unwinding House and Other Stories. Here endeth the sales pitch – for now.
On with the tourism!
Valdivia is a city just one or two river-bends from the Pacific. It’s here that the Lake District wears its German heritage on its sleeve. Many place names and businesses are German, as are the family names in the cemeteries. If I were a beer geek I would happily have tried the local German-style brews and compared them to the real thing, but unfortunately I can’t stand the stuff. Lea and I did, however, sample the local German cuisine.
The German food that’s popular in southern Chile isn’t the sausage and sauerkraut that I was expecting. Instead it’s kuchen, a word used for pie, cake, and cobbler that don’t resemble any German pastries I’ve ever seen, and crudos – or “raw” – which is the specialty of Das Haus 1959, Valdivia’s premier German eatery. Crudos is a thin layer of beef tartar spread over toast (see above). Lea enjoyed it, but my digestive system is firmly against raw red meat so I had to pass.
After four months of travel, Lea and I have become jaded toward the normal tourist stops. A museum of ancient artifacts? Sure, I guess. A collection of colonial Spanish art? If we have to. Ruins? Oh, please, no more. The first question we have of any place we visit now is, “What do you have that we haven’t seen yet? Is there anything original or unique?
Valdivia provides in the most German way possible – with a U-boat! Behold the Chilean naval submarine O’Brien:
The O’Brien was in active service from 1976 to 2005 and is now permanently docked in Valdivia as a museum. Tours run once an hour in both Spanish and English. Inside, the sub is amazingly cramped and endlessly fascinating. That 75 sailors lived on board for 50 days at a time is almost unimaginable, and to think that I’ve complained about the size of some of our hostel rooms. On the O’Brien I couldn’t even stand up straight without banging my hardhat.
Other sights in Valdivia include a Foucault’s Pendulum on the riverwalk, a lovely botanical garden on the UACh campus, and the nearby Parque Saval which features a sculpture garden and a pond full of lotus plants currently in bloom. On our last day we took a bus in the rain out to the Fuerte de Niebla, the old Spanish fort overlooking the Pacific and the mouth of Valdivia’s river. After that we took our final inter-city bus ride down the west side of the continent.
There’s no nice way to say this – Puerto Montt is ugly. Puerto Montt is so ugly that if I were to take a picture of it, my camera would turn to stone. Puerto Montt is the port that marks the end of the Lake District and the beginning of Chilean Patagonia – channels, fjords, and inaccessible glaciers. We looked really hard at taking one of the cruises that sails from Puerto Montt and explores that region, but the cost and timing were both prohibitive.
However, there’s still stuff to do. Puerto Montt is just south of Lake Llanquihue and another of Chile’s most active volcanos, Volcán Osorno. We took a day trip to visit the lake, the volano, another lake (Todos Los Santos) from which several volcanos are visible, and the glacial blue Petrohue Falls. Before we leave Puerto Montt we’ll take another day trip south to Chiloe Island, but more on that next week.
It feels really weird to be typing this, but we’re almost at the halfway point. Months ago in Ecuador, in order to show “proof of onward travel” at border crossings, we booked a flight for December 19 from Puerto Montt down to Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego. That fixed date has always looked so far away, but now it’s upon us. Back then we also booked our accommodations for Christmas week, thinking all the places to stay might fill up before we got there. Beyond that we hadn’t planned much until recently.
Now, though, January has turned into a logistical nightmare. As I said earlier, we’re coming into High Season for tourism in the vast, barren wasteland that is Argentinian Patagonia. We’re going to cross from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, then north to see the glacier at El Calafate and the Marble Caves near Los Antiguos. The trouble is that those towns are packed out already, especially Los Antiguos which is having its annual Cherry Festival during the time we wanted to be there. There are no rooms available at all during the festival, so we’ve had to work our plans to get there ahead of it and still, barely, have a place to stay.
The great news is that in a few weeks Lea’s sister Lisa is coming to travel with us! Lisa is a travel pro who’s lived overseas, been on five continents, speaks multiple languages, has a degree in International Communications, and knows people everywhere. We’re really looking forward to sharing the road for a while.
Which reminds me… If any of you folks fancy taking a vacation south of the equator this spring, let us know and we’ll see if our paths can cross!
After pretending to be city dwellers for two weeks in Santiago, it was time to hit the road. We squeezed back into our backpacks and hopped on a grueling nine-hour bus ride to the city of Temuco, the gateway into Chile’s Lake District, which RoughGuides.com describes as “a region of lush farmland, dense forest, snow capped volcanoes and deep, clear lakes.” Gone were the arid, skin-cracking deserts we’d spent most of our time in since leaving Ecuador. Here there are actual forests and – believe it or not – rain.
When we got off the bus, we were tired and sore. Apparently we’ve lost the knack of long-haul bus travel, although even the shorter rides in this region are bone-crunchingly bumpy. Also, for the first time since our odyssey began, it was hard to figure out how to get to the next town. The major bus websites in Chile are shockingly barren of routes to Pucón and Coñaripe, the lakeside tourist towns we were aiming at next. In the end we reasoned that the vast majority of tourists who come to this area drive on their own. We did at last find the local collectivo buses that service the tourist towns, much to the chagrin of our lower spines. If the rides weren’t short, my teeth might have rattled out of my skull.
Temuco itself isn’t much of a destination. As we were told by people who live there, its only tourist business is from those passing through on their way to the lakes. Nevertheless it has a good museum of the Mapuche people, who were the last indigenous culture to hold out against the Spanish, and a lovely nature preserve (i.e., a forested mountain) right in the middle of town that, being in need of exercise and greenery, we climbed.
We came into Temuco on the second day of the “Teleton,” Chile’s annual charity drive. There were performances linked to the Teleton right in Temuco’s central park, but for some reason nearly every shop and restaurant was closed, even though it was Saturday night. On the next day there was some sort of celebration around the local fútbol team, which involved lots of people chanting, driving around, making noise, and nearly setting themselves on fire.
To begin our week of excursions, we bypassed the tourist hub of Pucón to go straight to the tiny village of Coñaripe. Tiny, as in the whole pueblo is about seven blocks long and three wide, only the main street is paved, and at least one public utility (water, electric, gas) went out every night we stayed there. We did score a spacious and very comfortable guest house and, despite our first inclement weather in a long while, enjoyed the sunset over Lago Calafquén.
The reason for going to Coñaripe was to visit Termas Geometricas, billed as the classiest of all the hot springs in the region. It had been a long time since Termas Papallacta in Ecuador, and our muscles needed a good, warm soak.
Termas Geometricas is a series of seventeen (give or take) heated pools that snake up a narrow river gorge into the Villarrica National Park. There are tours from the larger towns of Villarrica and Pucón, but on those you waste most of your time in transit and only get to spend two hours or so at the pools. By hiring a driver in Coñaripe, we were able to get to the termas soon after they opened and spend most of the day relaxing.
Which was all fun and games until we dared, dared! to eat a bag of Doritos. While it was clear that no one was allowed to eat in the pool area, there was nothing to indicate that we weren’t allowed to bring food from outside at all. It put a crimp into our afternoon to be told we weren’t allowed to snack while sitting right next to people who were eating food from the overpriced on-site restaurant. The staff chewing us out took a while to explain exactly what we were doing wrong. At first, all they said was “You’re not allowed to eat” while the people next to us were happily munching away.
In the end, we had to take our lunch out to the parking lot. Oh well; that’s what cranky travel blogs and TripAdvisor reviews are for: customer feedback.
The tourist hub of the area is on the other side of the national park from Coñaripe, nestled between the shore of Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica, the giant active volcano looming over the city with a steady stream of superheated water vapor puffing out of the top. Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, but that’s okay – it hasn’t had a major eruption since 2015.
The trouble with Pucón is that its tourist industry is all based around “adventure tourism” – kayaking, white-water rafting, biking, climbing to the top of the volcano, etc. We wanted to see the sights, but not if we had to hike ten kilometers uphill.
So I’m going to give a shout-out to Viajar en Chile, the fantastic travel agency we used for all of our excursions around Pucón. The great thing about Viajar en Chile is that they actually run their own tours. Before now, almost every tour company we’ve dealt with was a “consolidator” that sold seats on other agencies’ tours when they couldn’t fill enough of their own. As such, no matter who we booked a trip with, we were never really sure which company was going to take us. With Viajar en Chile, that’s never an issue. If you book with them, you travel with them.
Which leads to another nice thing about Viajar – they offer different tour options than the other agencies in town. Walk down the main street of Pucón and the trips listed on all the billboards are exactly the same: climb the volcano, tour the region, go kayaking, go fishing. With Viajar we got to do things that weren’t on the generic Lake District menu, and we didn’t have to keep pace with a bunch of twenty-year-old German athletes who run up and down mountains every day before breakfast.
On the day we arrived, we were able to schedule a tour to the base of the volcano (meaning the point halfway up where the ski lift starts). All the agencies in town offer tours to the base, but only Viajar has a sunset tour, complete with hors d’oeuvres, Chilean beer, and pisco sours. From that far up the mountain, you can see four of the nearest lakes and several other volcanoes. Once it gets dark, and if it’s a clear night (it was) you can see all the stars of the southern sky and, as an added bonus, the volcano’s glow.
That’s not actually fire and/or lava. (Aaawwww…) It’s the water vapor cloud that you can see during the day, which at night reflects the light of the lava in the volcano’s crater. After four pisco sours (our guide Paulo kept pouring and pouring) it really didn’t matter. It was just pretty.
I’ll reiterate what I said last week: Chile is driving us to drink.
Next we took an all-day tour of the local area. This one visited the rapids at Saltos de Marimán, the waterfalls at Ojos del Caburgua, the beach at Lago Caburgua, and Termas Peumayen. The most fantastic of these was the Ojos del Caburgua – four waterfalls pour into an azure pool from all sides. Trails and miradors let you view it from every angle, and cool air blows upward from the glacial water – a relief on an otherwise blistering summer day.
After a day of rest (overcast with a high chance of rain) we took one more tour that only Viajar had as an option and that Lea couldn’t pass up under any circumstances. We went into the volcano.
There are volcanic caves (lava tubes) accessible at a private park on the side of the mountain. These are quite different from the limestone caves most people have toured at one time or another. We had hoped to visit lava tunnels in the Galapagos, but there they were closed due to venting of toxic gases from the volcano on Isabella. These caves were safe at the moment, so we jumped at the opportunity. It was cold as a knife both on the mountain and inside, but well worth the trip.
Next on our tour of the Lake District we’ll be heading into German-settled Valdivia and Puerto Montt before hopping on a plane and flying to the ends of the earth. Will there be bratwurst? Stay tuned!
Chile is driving us to drink. Not because it’s particularly stressful and that’s the only way we can cope, but simply because they make such good wine. In Santiago we drank a bottle almost every night. More often than not it was Undurraga Pinot Carménère, the wine that we discovered by chance back in Vicuña. We are now thoroughly addicted.
We picked up that first bottle because we were looking for a pinot noir. We have since learned that in this case the word “pinot” is just one of Undurraga’s brands and the name refers to the shape of the bottle, not the wine inside. We know this because the one touristy thing we did this week was to visit the Undurraga Winery thirty minutes south of Santiago.
Undurraga owns many vineyards in Chile, but the grapes are all brought to their central winery to be processed into yummy goodness. The tour of the beautiful grounds was actually the most “sciencey” excursion we’ve had on this trip, and that includes visits to tortoise breeding centers, natural history museums, and an observatory on top of a mountain. Our guide, David (Dah-veed), went into great detail on the agricultural and fermentation practices that enable them to fine-tune the growing of the grapes for the exact amount of acidity and sugar, the precise control of the fermentation process, and the delicacy of aging the wines in the right kind of barrels to produce the quality and flavors of each different wine. And then he started pouring.
The particular wine that Lea and I have fallen in love with is a Carménère. Here’s the story: The Carménère was a grape from Bordeaux that was wiped out in 1867 by a plague of phylloxera (sap-sucking insects) and presumed extinct. It turns out that the species survived in Chile, where it was mistaken for a merlot until its rediscovery by researchers in 1994. Since then, Chile has become the producer of 90% of the world’s Carménère and it’s really, really good.
The sad part of this story is that it’s going to be very hard if not impossible to find our new favorite wine when we get back to the States. However, it will give us something to look forward to if we ever come back to Chile. After two weeks in one city it’s certainly time to move on, but we just might return one day and (like the vines pictured above) put down some roots.
Retirement in Santiago?
One of the reasons for going on this South American tour was to scope out possible places to retire. While I’ve enjoyed many of the towns we’ve stayed in, Santiago is the first I could really imagine making a home someday. Part of that might be due to the familiarity of all its U.S. cultural influences and the little taste of home they afforded us. But aside from that, it has a lot of points in its favor:
It has nice hospitals (an important thing to consider in retirement). It has many more culinary options than other places we’ve been on this continent. It has an easy-to-use public transit system with a subway that makes Atlanta’s look deficient. It has a plethora of parks and museums, and is large enough to host as many cultural events as any big American city. It has real Asian grocery stores, so we can buy all the fish sauce, curry paste, and ramen noodles we need. It’s flat. And it has, as I’ve already pointed out, a very good wine selection.
Instead of staying in a hostel, we spent the last two weeks in an apartment. In fact, we’ve spent most of the last month in apartments or guest houses – which Lea has pointed out has resulted in less interaction with people besides ourselves. We’ll be back to hosteling for the foreseeable future, but I believe our apartment experience has been valuable for testing out what it would be like to actually live here and what adjustments we would have to make – either to our residence or to our expectations. The following bullet points have been the same for hostels as well as apartments, but the fact that they’ve held true for both shows that these are South American norms.
Tiny, Understocked Kitchens
Of all the places we’ve stayed, only two have had what I’d consider a full-size kitchen – the hostels in Chachapoyas, Peru and Vicuña, Chile. In both those cases, it was the owners’ own kitchens that we were allowed to use, and even then there was something missing – be it a cutting board, a sharp knife, hot pads, or trash can. The hostel where we stayed in Trujillo, Peru had a good-sized kitchen but the stove and oven didn’t work, forcing us to cook everything on a tiny electric burner the size of a portable camping stove. Mixing bowls, in particular, seem to be in short supply. Should we move to South America, an apartment with a full-sized kitchen may be hard to find, but we can take care of some of the problem by buying sufficient cooking implements to prepare an actual meal.
Hot Water and Air Conditioning
Neither of these are a given in South America, but starting in Santiago air conditioning seems to be much more widely available. We still haven’t had access to it except in the Galapagos Islands, Puerto López, Ecuador and one night in a Holiday Inn Express in Santiago. Nevertheless, we’ve seen a preponderance of air conditioning units gracing apartment buildings, including the one where we stayed. I guess the availability of such units is purely at the discretion of the apartment owner, just like satellite dishes back home.
Hot water is also an iffy proposition, one that we’ll have to take into consideration if we move here. We left behind the “death-by-electrocution” shower heads somewhere in Peru, but hot running water has still been untrustworthy. To date I haven’t seen anything like the hot water heaters in the United States. Instead they have pass-through heaters that use gas to warm water as it flows through the pipes to the faucet. In Santiago, at our landlady’s request, we turned the water heater off any time we weren’t using it, which meant having to reignite the pilot every time we showered or washed dishes.
Garbage Cans, and the Lack Thereof
This is something that’s bugged me all through South America, and it’s long past time to get it off my chest.
і¿What do these people have against garbage cans?!
Trash cans are more common in Chile than in the first three countries we traveled through, but size is still an issue. Garbage cans are tiny, if you have one at all. That picture above? That’s the waste can for the kitchen in our apartment in Santiago. It fits as much as you can stuff into a standard plastic grocery bag. Except for the can in the bathroom, which was tiny beyond belief, it was the only garbage can for the entire apartment. The complex had recycling for plastic, glass, and cardboard, so we had to line all our bottles along the wall until we remembered to take them out.
The garbage truck came by every day and compressed trash right under our window, thanks. We wondered why it came so often until I realized that the dumpsters for the entire complex (there were two) were no bigger than the garbage collection cans used by single-family houses in the United States.
At least they were using something. In Peru, the standard practice was to throw your grocery-sized trash bags out on the curb and hope the collectors picked them up before your trash was torn open by stray dogs and spread all over the street. The dogs won that contest nine times out of ten.
Now let’s talk about bathroom cans. This may be a little gross, so skip ahead if you want. In Latin American countries, the plumbing isn’t up to the same standard as it is in the United States. This means that you can’t flush toilet paper without eventually clogging the drain. They have many signs posted in tourist areas to explain this to foreigners who don’t know any better. Instead of flushing TP, you’re supposed to put it in the garbage can. If you’re very, very lucky, that garbage can will have a lid.
In my mind I’ve affectionately begun referring to these bathroom waste bins as “chamber pots.” In most of the places we’ve stayed, the chamber pot was the only trash can we had at all. In Vicuña, we couldn’t even find a garbage can in the kitchen. I’m pretty sure the owner was composting the organic waste – it was an eco-friendly hostel after all – but when I had to throw out other things, like food wrappers, I eventually had to go out into the street and look for a public trash can.
If we move to South America, we might have to import real trash cans and bags. Alternatively, we could roll with the way things are done down here. I still bet there will be far more trash cans in our own place than anywhere else in the city if we end up retiring here.
Now to escape from the trash compactor, here’s –
My Recommended Read for Chile
When picking a book to read for Chile, I went straight to Isabel Allende. The House of the Spirits was her first novel, which I would describe as an “expressionistic painting” of Chile in the Twentieth Century as seen through the eyes of three generations of unique, colorful women and one tyrannical patriarch. I had problems with Allende’s writing style (and her lack of paragraph breaks) but in the end I was glad I read it. The final chapters, dealing with the rise of Pinochet’s dictatorship, are especially powerful.
Traveling from the coast to Santiago is a quick bus ride, not more than an hour and a half, during which the outside temperature goes up by twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Welcome to Spring!
A friend of Lea’s from Chile (Hi, Alex!) assured us that once we got to Santiago, it would be just like Atlanta. Our first hour in the city gave us cause to doubt that assertion. Around the bus stop it was loud, crowded, dirty, and there wasn’t a single functioning ATM within twenty minutes walking distance. We discovered this while lugging around a combined 45kg of baggage on our backs and shoulders. Dispirited and short on rent money, we flagged down a taxi to the apartment we’d booked for the next two weeks.
Things got better.
And Alex was right. Once you get away from Central Station and make it to the other parts of town, Santiago is very much like any modern city in the U.S. and nicer than quite a few. It’s got more American-style shopping malls per square mile than any city I’ve ever seen. They love malls in Santiago, and they’re as full of American stores and restaurants as they are of Chilean equivalents. They also – and this was important – have theaters that show movies in English.
There are several things we wanted from Santiago. Thanksgiving Dinner was a high priority since we missed it last year (we were in Israel’s Negev Desert). We also wanted to stop moving, unpack, and live like humans in an apartment for a couple of weeks, not backpackers in a hostel. I needed a check-in with a neurologist (my doctor in Atlanta gave me a referral), I wanted to watch a movie in a theater instead of a bus (Bohemian Rhapsody was still showing and it was fantastic), and Lea and I both wanted Taco Bell.
My god, y’all. Taco Bell. Lea and I cringe every time we see a McDonald’s, and the only times on this trip that we’ve dipped into American chain food were starvation stops at Domino’s Pizza in Quito and Lima. (Fun fact: Domino’s is better in South America than in the U.S. It’s a sit-down restaurant and they go easier on the sauce.) But at some point after moving to Atlanta and enjoying its wide variety of Mexican cuisine I came to the conclusion that the appropriate scientific unit for measuring “happiness” is the Taco.
Imagine our horror once Lea and I realized that South America is almost completely bereft of tacos! The countries we’ve traveled in so far seem to actively scorn Mexican food and any time they attempt it they get it wrong. So picture my delight when I did a “what the hell” search on Google and discovered that Santiago has Taco Bell. It quickly became a priority.
We spotted one on our way to climbing a mountain. (More on that in a bit.) Once we came down the mountain we went straight there, hoping against hope that it was close to what we were used to back home. Dear readers, the menu was a little smaller than in the States but the food was exactly the same. They even had shredded cheese, something completely missing in every grocery store on this continent. (And to be clear, the stores don’t even sell cheese hard enough for you to shred yourself.)
We ordered more food than we normally would have, then went back and ordered seconds. Imagine the feast at the end of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; Lea and I had the Taco Bell equivalent.
I think the main problem that Santiago has presented for me is that it’s so much like a city in the U.S. that it’s made me achingly homesick for the real thing. I don’t miss having a job and being mistreated by horrible customers (by which I mean all customers) but I do miss a lot of other things: my friends, my cat, my stuff, a real kitchen, and generally understanding what’s going on around me most of the time.
That’s not a good mindset to be in, since I’m not going to have any of that back for six more months. So, given the (American) holiday that was celebrated this week, here is a list of things in my life right now that I’m thankful for:
I’m thankful that my loving wife, Lea, called me up at work last year and asked how I felt about quitting my job and heading to South America. That’s not how the idea started, mind you – we’d planned to do this crazy thing years ago – but that’s how it got put back on the table. I’m thankful to be able to spend so much time with her, facing the world together and following our dreams.
I’m thankful for the lovely folks at the Black Rock Pub and their All-You-Can-Eat Thanksgiving Buffet. The proprietors of that fine establishment are Australian, but they cater to all sorts and draw a good crowd of expats for Turkey Slaughter Day. They even had American football on the telly, and Who Dat havin’ a good season this year? The Saints. If they make it to the Superbowl, I hope we can find a place in Argentina to watch it.
I’m thankful that our resupply package from home arrived. We had it shipped a few weeks ago from the States, with refills for stuff we’ve used up in our First Aid kit, replacement parts for my C-PAP machine, and cold weather clothes that we’re absolutely going to need in Tierra del Fuego. Which segues into:
I’m thankful for people willing to meet with us and help us out along the way. On our first weekend in town we hooked up with our new friend Gabriela from Couchsurfing.com and hiked to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal. We also connected with our friend-of-a-friend Arnulfo to whom we’d had our resupply package shipped and who went to the trouble of extracting it from Chilean customs. Long-term travel would be much harder and lonelier without awesome, generous people along the way.
I’m thankful to put my backpack away for two weeks, even if our apartment is hot and noisy. I’m thankful that we can do our own laundry without having to carry it somewhere blocks away. I’m thankful that Santiago has such a fantastic subway system, and that all the public transportation routes are available in Google Maps. I’m thankful for American fast food restaurants, bless their hearts, and being able to have a little unhealthy taste of home after months on the road.
Now for the touristy stuff!
Cerro San Cristóbal
The first thing we did once we’d settled in, found groceries, and figured out the Metro system, was to climb the highest mountain in town and take a photo of the Virgin on top. This isn’t the first time we’ve done something like that. Looking through my blog posts I came across an early entry where I stated that we’d take gondolas up to the top of mountains instead of climbing them. It appears we’ve broken that promise to ourselves. We should really reassess. At least we’re not as crazy as the people who biked up the mountain that day.
Sampled Local Cuisine
A signature Chilean dish we’d been told about even before leaving Atlanta was “Italiano” style hot dogs and sandwiches. There’s nothing Italian about them. It’s just that Chileans love to layer avocado, mayonnaise, and tomato on things so that it looks like the colors of the Italian flag. Lea and I both agree that to do this to hot dogs (which is all the rage here) is a crime against tubed meat, but we were willing to try it on sandwiches. It’s… okay. Color me redneck, but I still prefer cheddar cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, and BBQ sauce.
At lunch, Arnulfo chided us Americans for putting BBQ sauce on everything. Given that in Alabama I used to eat BBQ sushi, I could hardly dispute the point.
Broadened Our Minds
This week we visited the Parque De Las Esculturas (Park of the Sculptures), Museums of Fine Arts/Contemporary Art, and Museum of Visual Arts, all of which have the virtue of being free to the public. Half of the Sculpture Park was closed for renovation, but the part that was open was nice to walk through. The Museums of Fine/Contemporary Art (two separate museums in a connected building) are currently housing an exhibit of the work of Roberto Matta, whose art is both bizarre and refreshingly different from the unending displays of religious art we saw from Ecuador to Bolivia.
Went Up the Tallest Building in Latin America
That’s Sky Costanera. This one we did not climb. For a somewhat pricey ticket, there’s a lovely elevator that will take you to the observation deck on the 61st floor, and you can take an escalator from there to the 62nd to get even higher. The bottom five floors of the building are part of an enormous shopping mall. What did I tell you about Chileans and malls?
Accidentally Stumbled On the Procession of Saint Martin de Porres
We don’t find parades and processions in South America, they find us. For once, though, we caught one right at the beginning. We were in the Plaza de Armas just wandering around when we saw a banner on the Catedral Metropolitana announcing a procession beginning in less than an hour. We waited around for mass to let out, the band to start up, and for Saint Martin to very slowly process out of the church. Right outside they paused for photographs and dancing (!) and then turned up the street. Lea and I, sleepy from a large helping of Burger King, headed home.
That’s all for now, folks. Next week, the rest of our stay in Santiago and the start of our journey into Chile’s Lake District. The road awaits!
This week we accomplished one of the major goals of our trip through South America – to visit San Alfonso del Mar, home of the largest swimming pool in the world. Here’s the view from above:
And here’s the view from our balcony:
But first, we went to Valparaiso. If you’re traveling down the coast of Chile, a stop in Valparaiso is mandatory. Because of its deep water harbor, Valparaiso was a city of major importance in the 1800s as a stopover for ships traveling the Atlantic – Pacific route. Today it’s mainly known for its steep hills with brightly painted houses perched on the cliffs going down to the sea.
Basically, Valparaiso looks as if someone cut La Paz in half, put an ocean at the bottom of it, then went berserk in the exterior paint aisle at Home Depot. The only problem with Valparaiso is that there really isn’t much to do there. The city itself is the attraction; all the tourist spots suggested in the guidebooks are hilltops you can take pictures from.
So we did that, choosing as we normally do to see where the dead people are. Valparaiso’s main cemetery is on top of one of the hills overlooking the bay, giving great views of the city. We could also see one of the working “ascensors” that people can ride to avoid climbing the stairs.
That’s the other problem with Valpariaso: the obscene number of stairs. Follow me up this: Our hostel was on a hill on the edge of the “flat” central section of town. To get to our hostel, we had to climb two long, steep stretches of uneven stone steps through a narrow alley between two buildings. Once we reached the hostel, there was a flight of steps from the gate at street level to the lobby. From the lobby and kitchen area, there was another steep flight of steps up to an eating area, then another flight of steps up to our room. From our room, if we wanted to sit down and relax, there was one last, tight spiral stair up to the patio on the roof.
If the gods and Elisha Graves Otis had wanted us to climb that many steps, they wouldn’t have invented elevators.
A strong point in Valpraiso’s favor: it’s full of cats and a lot of them are friendly. Lea and I have been cat-deprived since leaving Atlanta. Here we got some much-needed kitty time.
After three slow days in Valparaiso, we hopped on a bus to the village of Algorrobo and from there took a taxi up the coast to the resort of San Alfonso del Mar, where we’d rented a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, hot water and everything for two nights. Forty-eight hours of beach time, ahoy!
Sal Alfonoso del Mar isn’t a hotel. It’s a complex of eleven luxury apartment buildings facing the Largest Swimming Pool In the World (I can’t say that too many times). There are plenty of apartments for rent and in the off season a one-bedroom for two people goes for about $100 USD per night. That’s more than we’ve been paying for our other stays on this trip but less than a lot of hotels in the States with nowhere near this kind of view.
The thing about the off season is that everything is closed, including the big pool. When we were there, San Alfonso del Mar was a ghost town. In a complex that can house thousands and thousands of vacationers, we could count the number of other guests we saw each day on our fingers. Even the grocery stores nearby were only open on the weekend; we had to take a bus back into town to buy food and wine. Once we did that, though, we didn’t have to leave the resort at all. And we didn’t.
Now about that pool. I mentioned that it was closed, but the big pool isn’t for swimming anyway. Each apartment building has its own semi-circular swimming area extending out into the main pool and we could have gotten in that if we’d wanted to freeze our butts off. In late spring, the Chilean coast is still frigid. The big pool opens to the public on December 15, and it’s for sporting activities like kayaking, sailing, wind-surfing and dive training.
We were content merely to sit in the sun and look at it. On our first day we walked all the way around it, which took an hour. Aside from ourselves and a handful of other tourists, our only company was the cleaning staff and the crews working to scrub the pool clean before summer, which they did from slow-moving motorboats trailing very long suction hoses held aloft by small, inflatable buoys.
Our two days in San Alfonso del Mar were probably the quietest we’re going to have on our entire ten months around South America. I wish it had been warmer – even in the sun it was too cold to sit poolside due to the wind, so we spent a lot of time enjoying the view from our protected balcony. Nevertheless, it was definitely worth it to go, slow down, recharge, and watch the sunset over the ocean.
It occurred to me as we were leaving that even though we’ve got a month left in Chile and it’s a real skinny country, this may be the last we see of the Pacific. I don’t think the bay and fjords around Puerto Montt count as part of the open ocean, and when we get to Punta Arenas we’ll be on the Strait of Magellan, the frighteningly windy midwaters between the Pacific and Atlantic. So, adiós al Pacífico. I hope that when we finally reach the Atlantic it’s a little warmer.
We’ve been in Chile for two weeks. “Wait a minute,” you say, “weren’t you in Bolivia last week?” No, but I was writing about Bolivia. There was still a lot to recount and our first week in Chile wasn’t exactly action-packed. I mentioned in my last post that Lea and I had taxed our forty-something bodies’ tolerance for high altitude, cold showers, lugging backpacks up steep inclines, and what have you. After our mad dash through Peru and our month on the oxygen-deprived Altiplano, we’ve spent our first two weeks in Chile convalescing for want of a better word.
I spoke last week of my aching desire to get out of the mountains and down to a nice, pleasant beach. Did I get what I wanted? Well, yes and no. Here’s a Chilean beach:
THAT PICTURE LIES. It looks warm and pleasant, but no matter how bright the sun and how inviting the sand, the harsh reality is that Chile, even more than Ecuador or Peru, is plagued by the despicable Humboldt Current from Antarctica. This photo offers a much more honest appraisal of the Chilean coastline:
I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t at least pleasant to sit near the beach for a while, listen to the waves, and smell the ocean air. Lea and I just had to bundle up in warm clothes to do it. Let’s settle on this photo for a happy medium:
Serene, tranquil, crystal clear, and cold as a bucket of ice on a polar bear’s butt.
Anyway, here’s the travel report:
San Pedro de Atacama
As I mentioned last week, San Pedro is the sister city to Uyuni, Bolivia. It’s entirely a backpacker town, full of hostels and travel agencies. After coming down from the Andean Plateau, the main thing San Pedro has going for it is that it’s warm and has actual air pressure. Even though we were still higher in elevation than Denver, it made a world of difference. We took off our jackets, slung on our backpacks, and felt like superhuman demigods with all that oxygen suddenly coursing through our veins as we hiked to our hostel.
There’s a lot for a tourist to do around San Pedro de Atacama, but much of it seemed just like the stuff we’d covered in our three days across the Bolivian desert. The place we stayed was breezy with a nice porch looking over a garden and hot water in the shower. We got groceries and bus tickets, then didn’t leave the hostel for two days. (It would have been nice to do laundry, but there are no laundries in San Pedro. Oh well. Surely we’d be able to do it later…)
Eight hours down the coast is the village of Caldera, which our Australian friend Simon (who had traveled ahead of us) recommended as a place to recoup. Instead of a room in a hostel, we found a little guest house right off the main square on AirBnB. It had a fridge and a microwave if not a full kitchen, so we went back out for dinner and groceries.
Oh My God. The grocery store was packed like the one open Piggly Wiggly on the night before Thanksgiving. Any comments we made about how crazy crowded the store was were met with a shrug and a rapid-fire blast of Chilean Spanish. We didn’t find out what was really going on until the next day, when we were down to our last clean anything and tried to take our clothes to the only laundry in town (open Monday, Wednesday, Friday). It was Friday, and it was closed. After much ringing of the doorbell and yelling “Hola!” someone appeared to tell us in Chilean Spanish (más despacio, por favor) that it was closed for the holiday and would be open the following Monday.
Side note: I keep saying “Chilean Spanish” because what the Chileans call Spanish isn’t Spanish any more than what a cattle auctioneer is speaking can legitimately be considered English.
Anyway, the holiday. November 2 was Reformation Day, a holiday that commemorates Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. The holiday is only observed in Germany, Slovenia, and Chile. We knew that southern Chile at least was supposed to have some German influence. So far we haven’t seen any bratwurst. Instead, we got to wash clothes in our AirBnB’s (cold) shower and hang it in the courtyard for anyone walking to Caldera’s central plaza to see.
Despite the frustration, we did get more recovery time on our surprise holiday weekend. The town has a pleasant park to hang out in, a nice little museum of paleontology with some megalodon fossils among other things, and a tiny beach with no shade or bars. We took a cab over to Bahia Inglesa, the supposed “tourist side” of the area, to find it wasn’t any more exciting. We did meet up with a guy named Jorge on Couchsurfing who took us careening over some sandy trails in search of seafood by the bay until finally settling on a restaurant in town. (The fried eel was fantastic, by the way.)
We had to get up before dawn on Sunday morning to catch our next bus. When we woke, not only was the shower still cold but all the power had gone out. We put on our wind-dried outfits, gathered our belongings by the light of our headlamps (Always be prepared!), gave up on the idea of washing ourselves, and once more hit the road.
By now it had been a week since coming down from the mountains and it was time to ease back into seeing stuff and not hiding in our hostel. La Serena is the starting point for tours to the nearby Humboldt Penguin Reserve, one of the “must see” spots on our trip. But first we needed hot showers, clean clothes, and something to eat.
Instead of a hostel, we booked an honest-to-god apartment for four nights. The apartment had hot water, a kitchen, and an actual washing machine. Granted, it was small and had no dryer. There was a drying rack (also tiny) on the patio and two small bedrooms in addition to the master. Among our gear are two retractable clotheslines that we normally take camping to hang up towels. We strung those up in both the spare bedrooms and between them and the balcony were slowly able to do our own laundry over the course of several days.
The apartment was right around the corner from the travel agency (sweet!) and right across the street from a shopping mall with a supermarket. The less we eat out the more we save, so after rinsing several days of sand and dust out of our hair we set out across the giant American-style parking lot. As we approached the supermarket (called “Lider”) we saw a familiar logo. We thought, “That looks like… Surely it can’t be… No.”
Yep. For real, y’all. Chile has Wal-Mart.
Apparently Lider was a local chain that Wal-Mart bought out and kept the name. Everything inside, though, is just what you’d see in the States, down to Wal-Mart brands, sale stickers, and fonts on the labels. The arrangement of the store was confusing with plenty of quirks to remind us we were still in South America: huge wine selection, no cheese to speak of, and giant bone-in cuts of meat. But just like Wal-Mart back home, we had to keep going back every day for one more thing.
La Serena is split by the Pan-American Highway, east of which is the city proper with a green central park, some nice European architecture, the usual assortment of museums (that we didn’t visit) and a post office. Functioning post offices have been a rarity on this trip and postage rates in the first three countries we visited were sky-high, so we’ve lugged around an accumulation of items to be mailed back to the U.S., waiting for the right moment.
Going by the single data point of the post office in La Serena, the postal system of Chile is much more pleasant to interact with than our own. Not that that’s a high bar to clear.
Anyway, about those penguins…
On our last day in La Serena, with the last batch of clothes drying on lines spread through the apartment like the work of a giant spider, we got on a tour bus heading north to the coastal village of Choros, where we piled onto a boat and made our way to the islands where the penguins live.
Humboldt penguins are small, cute, and extremely shy – so skittish around humans that they’ve been known to jump off cliffs to get away from us. Therefore, you’re not allowed to get off the boat on the islands where the penguins are. The penguins nest on top of the island and only come down to the shore to fish. According to our guide penguin populations are down this year for reasons unknown, but we were still able to spot a few as well as plenty of other birds, sea lions, and a pod of fin whales.
There is one penguin-free island where we were allowed to disembark, hike, and look at rocks, gulls, and cacti. The weather was cold, cold, cold. I looked up La Serena’s latitude and realized that it’s just as far south of the equator as Jacksonville, Baton Rouge, and El Paso are to the north. November is late spring, equivalent to May in the northern hemisphere, so why was I still freezing?
Geography. The Andes have more influence on weather patterns here than anything else. Chile’s central valley is warm. The coast is frigid. The temperature in La Serena fluctuates from 50⁰ to 70⁰F all year round, even in “high season” – which is January and February. If you want to experience spring and summer, you have to get away from the coast. Which we did.
In a dirt parking lot behind the Wal-Mart, we picked up the bus inland to Vicuña, gateway to the Elqui Valley (Chile’s wine country) and heart of the country’s astrotourism industry. With some of the clearest skies in the world, northern Chile is vitally important to the study of astronomy. There are many world-renowned research facilities, such as the cleverly named Very Large Telescope and the even more original Extremely Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. While some facilities allow limited tours during the day, no way are they going to let you go at night. (Besides, modern research telescopes don’t have anything like an eyepiece you can just walk up and look through.)
Vicuña, on the other hand, has several observatories open to the public for night visits and stargazing tours. Having seen the night sky from the Altiplano (in the freezing cold) I wanted another good look before we went south into more humid, and probably cloudier, regions of the country. After hearing about some of the expensive private tours to observatories farther out of town, we elected the cheap route and chose to visit the nearby Mamalluca Observatory instead.
This may not have been the best choice. It saved us money, but we ended up being two of nearly sixty to eighty at the observatory that night. The English-language group had about twenty people, which means that even during a two hour tour the group was only able to view five celestial objects and no one individually got much telescope time. Not to mention all the idiots trying to take pictures of the sky with their iPhones using the flash.
However, the sky was clear and beautiful. We could see the Milky Way, and the guide pointed out the stars Canopus (brightest in the southern sky) and Alpha Centauri (nearest to our own Sun, if you count Proxima Centauri as part of the same system). When he pointed out the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, my brain blew a fuse and I stared at the sky like a cat fixated on a laser pointer.
A little background: The Magellanic Clouds are two smaller galaxies that orbit our own. They’re the Milky Way’s “moons” so to speak. Some personal background: I’ve been an astronomy nerd since I was a kid. It was my first career path, and I actually taught college-level astronomy for a couple of years in my early twenties. Alpha Centauri and the Magellanic Clouds were talked about in every book about the night sky that I devoured as a child, but I never thought I would see them. And there they were right in front of me. It was an exhilaration as powerful as what I’d felt watching humpback whales leaping from the water off the coast of Ecuador. I was looking at other galaxies with my naked eyes, and I hadn’t thought it was important to bring my camera.
The next day we did something that we hadn’t done since La Paz, and almost never did in Peru. We went to Jaime, the hostel owner (at Hostal Las Delicias, if you ever want to book a room) and asked to extend our stay.
Jaime’d helped us book a tour of the wine region that we were going on that morning. The original plan had been to leave town the next day. Instead, we decided to stay so we could go out at night to someplace dark and take pictures of the sky. Jaime called around to several cabbies and tour companies to see if anyone would drive us. We ended up going with the same company, Elki Magic, who would drive us on the morning tour as well.
The Elqui Valley is a splash of green amidst the Chilean desert thanks to the Elqui river and lots of irrigation. The valley is lined with vineyards, fruit groves, and quaint towns that have maximized the amount of greenery on display. They don’t just make wine in the Elqui region, though. They make Pisco.
Pisco is an amber-colored brandy made from Muscat grapes, a signature high-proof spirit from both Chile and Peru, and the key ingredient in the Pisco Sour, one of the finest beverages known to man. On the tour we visited Fundo Los Nichos, the oldest pisco distillery in the region. It smelled heavenly. We saw the distilling equipment, the fermentation chambers, and the old Masonic club room beneath the distillery in which the club’s members were entombed behind bottles of pisco. We tasted samples and I was shocked that no one tried to sell us a bottle or five on the way out. We would’ve been easy marks.
Later we went out and took pictures of the stars until midnight. The next day we slept in, lounged around, drank a bottle of Carménère pinot for lunch and had four pisco sours for dinner.
That’s all caught up for now. I’m logging this from sunny Valparaiso. Next week I’ll be able to report on the largest swimming pool in the world. Hasta later, dear readers.
P.S. We’re finally back where there are flowers! It’s time for more of:
And now, for the main event. Copacabana and La Paz were both lovely surprises, but the thing that put Bolivia on the “Go” list was… a big, flat plain of salt!
Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the remnant of one or more prehistoric lakes and has an “extraordinary flatness” according to Wikipedia, with its elevation varying less than one meter in altitude over its entire expanse. Apparently its so flat that it’s used to calibrate the altimeters of satellites passing overhead.
But first, let me recount how we got here. We left La Paz on a fairly sketchy bus for Oruro, a city in the middle of the Altiplano that claims the title of “Folklore Capital of Bolivia.” Its archaeological museum has a better collection of traditional masks and costumes than even the one in La Paz and its Carnival in February is said to be one of the most impressive in South America.
From there we took an awful, bumpy, bone-shattering train ride to the horrible desert town of Uyuni. We were trapped on the train with a large tour group of loud, fidgety college kids, some of whom spent the entire seven hours taking selfies. Uyuni was once an important rail station, but now exists to support the travel agencies sending tourists out into the Salar. We spent two nights there, but had we been able to finalize our tour arrangements online it would have been preferable to spend an extra night in pleasant Oruro instead.
Anyway, on to the tour!
The first step, of course, is waiting for your ride. We signed up with Uyuni White & Green as our tour agency, but as has been the case throughout South America the travel agencies tend to consolidate with other operators and we ended up on a tour run by Salty Desert Adventures instead. (Which was fine; they were well rated on TripAdvisor.) Our guide, Jose Luis, was friendly and helpful but didn’t speak a word of English. This wasn’t unanticipated. At least I could understand the basics and Lea’s Spanish keeps getting better.
The first location we visited was the “train graveyard” just south of Uyuni – a scattering of old engines, freight cars, and the occasional passenger car left in the desert to rust and be graffitied. This is exactly the kind of photo opportunity I love and would have been fantastic if the trains weren’t crawling with tourists using them as adult monkey-bars. I had to walk pretty far from the crowd to enjoy the trains in peace, but there were a lot of trains and a lot of desert to go around.
Next on the itinerary was a short tour of a place where the salt was processed for commercial use. (Fun fact: Bolivia exports no salt, except what tourists take with them.) Basically it was just a room where the crystals were toasted, broken down, sifted, or whatever it is they do… I don’t know, man, it was all in Spanish!
There were big crystals to make Lea swoon and about a dozen shops to buy souvenirs. What surprised me was that this was our only shopping opportunity for the remainder of the tour. After this, we were truly in the Wild.
The Wild wasn’t far away. A short drive brought us to our first photo stop on the Salar. Other tour groups were still around, but the herd was starting to spread out. The first stop wasn’t completely dry, either – there were springs where gas and water bubbled up from beneath the desert. Mainly it was useful as a place for us wannabe photographers to check light levels and test exposure times before heading out into the Unbearable Whiteness. Another quick stop for lunch, then we were on our own in the vastness of the Salar.
That’s when Lea grew to ten times her normal height and tried to stomp me.
Silliness aside, the beauty of the place is mind-bending. Yeah, sure, the Andes are majestic and such, especially around Machu Picchu, but the Salar is so alien that it hurts your brain just to look at it. There’s nothing but white all the way to a horizon so blurred by mirages that the mountains appear to float in the air.
After drinking in the beauty for an hour or more, we drove on to Incahuasi Island, a rocky outcrop in the salt flat where a forest of cacti hang on for dear life. Beyond that (after half an hour of trying to get our jeep to start) we got to watch the sunset before moving on to our first lodge, a hotel made entirely of salt.
A hotel made of salt sounds cool. The salt bricks do in fact provide really good insulation against the frigid night air on the Altiplano. What no one thought to mention, though, was that the floor was nothing but salt-sand. Aside from two narrow beds and a stone block that served as a nightstand, there was literally nowhere to set anything down in our room. We ended up piling everything we pulled out of our backpacks on top of our backpacks and playing “the floor is lava” as we tucked in for the night.
This was less than pleasant. Had we been staying in a campground on the beach with warm air all around and tiki bars really close by, it would have been a different matter.
The salt hotel was in the little village of San Juan, which is also home to the Kawsay Wasy Necropolis. This wasn’t included in any of the tours we looked at, but we asked if we could make a side trip and our guide arranged it. Therefore, while everyone else was snug in bed, Lea and I got up with the sun and rode to the edge of town to engage in our cemetery-haunting hobby.
This particular cemetery is unique in that the inhabitants used natural stone towers to act as tombs for their dead. The remains have been left in situ and can be viewed through a small “window” in each of the Necropolis’s burial chambers.
After that and breakfast, our gang took off in our jeep for even more wonders of the desert. Specifically, alkaline lakes full of flamingos. Also (not in the lakes) wind-eroded rocks.
And an active volcano! Our first stop was at a baño and snack bar with a fantastic view of several volcanoes in the area, one of which was actively smoking.
The first lake we stopped at was a very interesting shade of pink. The second was an algae-covered green with a saline froth along the shore and, in place of seaweed washed up on the sand, a rind of salt-encrusted flamingo feathers. Flamingos were everywhere. Back in the Galapagos we spent quite a bit of time stalking the handful of flamingos we saw, always waiting for that perfect shot where one of the birds would pull their head out of the water for the briefest of instants. If we’d known what was coming, we wouldn’t have bothered. If Hitchcock had wanted to make a sequel to The Birds starring flamingos, he could have filmed it here.
Then there were the rocks.
Plenty of rocks, in interesting shapes, but like the trains on Day One they were crawling with tour groups. Taking a photo of this particular formation without someone posing in front was nigh impossible. But I did it!
I’m going to mention right here that at this point in our excursion, neither Lea nor I were feeling very well. Without going into the gruesome details online, suffice it to say that both of us were feeling the mileage weighing on us in different ways. It wasn’t altitude sickness per se, those headaches and feelings of light-headedness you get when you suddenly find yourself thousands of meters higher than you were. We’d been at high elevation ever since Cusco, but the fact is that we’d both been pushing our bodies beyond their usual limits, hauling backpacks and ourselves up and down mountains in the rarified Andean atmosphere (with its accompanying lack of oxygen) and were both paying the price.
We ached for sea level. We longed for beach chairs under a cabana. We wanted heat, dammit, enough air to breathe, some decent adult beverages, and life without an alarm clock once in a while.
The wind on the plateau steadily picked up all day. The sky was cloudless, but the sun wasn’t enough to fight what eventually became a full-on gale by the time we got to our final vista: Laguna Colorada.
What that gorgeous, unearthly image doesn’t show is the tropical-storm force winds picking up thousands of needle-sharp volcanic sand grains and blowing them right in my face every time I turned west. As windy as it was, Lea overheard one guide comment that often it was even worse. We took our photos then decided to enjoy the view from the safety of Jose Luis’s enclosed 4×4.
That night we stayed in a hostel that only ran their generator from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Skylights warmed the building during the day, though, and at least it had a floor! It was quite an improvement, even if we had to use headlamps and flashlights to brush our teeth and pack.
Up before sunrise. The wind had died down overnight. The first lake we passed had frozen over. We got up that early for the best views of the geysers. (“Not geysers,” says Lea. “Mudpots.”) They’re more active in the morning and the steam is better seen in the early sunlight. The last time Lea and I were taking photos of geysers, it was in Iceland in January 2015. This was warmer than that, at least, and we didn’t have to worry about ice on the ground. Lea, though, made sure to inform me that when walking around mudpots like these, the ground could theoretically open up under us at any time. (Email subscribers click here for video of our potential bubbly demise.)
If you gotta go…
After the geysers, the group went to a hot spring bath. Lea and I did not partake, not wanting to add wet clothes to our backpacks. The last stop for us was Laguna Verde, another salt lake which wasn’t as verde as normal because there wasn’t enough wind to kick up all the algae. Still, more great views of volcanoes:
And that was it for us. The rest of the group had one or two more stops to make on their way back to Uyuni, but Lea and I had chosen this as our exit point from Bolivia into Chile. For a nominal fee our guide helped us across the border and gave us tickets for a bus to take us into San Pedro de Atacama, Uyuni’s sister tourist town on the other side of the mountains.
We longed for warmer air. We longed for thicker air. We wanted to be someplace flat. We dreamed of getting back to the coast. We imagined the sound of waves and the feel of a humid sea breeze.
We waited for two hours in a cramped, stuffy van just to get our turn at the inspection station at the border into Chile. As for the beach? That, my friends, is another story.
Here’s our route through Bolivia. As you can see, we barely touched the country and kept entirely to the upper Andean plateau. Should we return, and I have to say we probably will, it’ll be to visit the green areas on the map – and Oruro one more time.
P.P.S. Jared’s Book Corner
There’s not a lot of Bolivian literature available in English translation. However, there is American Visa, a gripping crime novel from the mid-1990s about a down-on-his-luck Bolivian teacher who will do whatever it takes to escape his native country and get to the United States. Check out my full review on Goodreads.