Chile


Until San Pedro, the most touristy thing we had done was go hiking in national parks, we had almost completely avoided doing the typical tourist tours and activities. They simply do not fit into our very scant budget. However, San Pedro is a vertitable disney land of natural wonders, most of which are impossible to get to without a vehicle, so we were left with no choice. Soon after we arrived, we found ourselves booked into a package of tours that would take us to most of the main attractions. In the next couple of days we were herded around like all of the hundreds of other tourists, seeing salt flats, geysers and amazing desert landscapes, and swimming in super salty pools and hot springs.

While we really don’t enjoy being treated like sheep, we were able to pack a lot of amazing sights into just a couple of days. I would like to go into more details of the wonders experienced, but tomorrow we are being herded over the border and into Bolivia, on a 3 day trip that will end up at the Uyoni salt flats. Until we have time to do that, I will leave you with the pictures.

San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama
Northern Chile, the driest desert in the world.

Having spent a good amount of time in Chile already, we were keen to get north and into Bolivia as soon as possible so we didn’t intend to spend more than a night or two in Santiago. However, having arrived just before Easter, the bus timetables decided otherwise. There were no buses north until after Easter Sunday. So, like it or not, we were forced to spend a very quiet and relaxed 3 nights there. Especially quiet since most of Santiago seemed to have left the city for the weekend. We were really lucky to find a very nice backpackers there (Footsteps), whose friendly staff and residents really made us feel like we were with family over the Easter weekend.

Over the 4 days there we walked the streets of Santiago many times. It seems like a nice place to live, a lot less hectic than Buenos Aires, but still a fair bit happening. Some highlights were Cerro San Cristobal, a big hill in the middle of the otherwise flat city, and Santa Lucia, a smaller hill in the otherwise flat city, both with parks and interesting architecture. The one museum that was open was also really nice, all of the others were closed either because of the holiday or earthquake damage. I really feel for the staff of the National Library who had millions of books to stack back onto the shelves. On the monday when everything was open Sophie found her paradise in Banderas St. Several blocks worth of nothing but second hand cloths shops. Once again though, the severely limited space in our backpacks was a huge thorn in her side.

One thing that was a bit disappointing was the food. While I’m sure there are nice restaurants somewhere, the only ones we found were either very expenisive touristy restaurants, or really cheap and nasty pizza, hamburger and hotdog places. One of those takes the prize for the worst attempt at spagetti we have ever experienced. I don’t think the tomato paste even touched a pot before it was out of the can and splattered on our over-cooked spagetti.

We enjoyed our stay but 4 days was plenty and we were glad to finally get on the bus and moving again. Next stop, the desert north of Chile, San Pedro de Atacama.

A couple of hours west of Santiago, the old port city of Valparaiso is a place to behold. From the stately old buildings in the centre of town rise up steep slopes, on which which are crammed more shanty, rickerty, wobbly buildings than you would imagine physically possible. One on top of the other they are piled, clinging to the hills like colourful, wood, concrete and tin molluscs. Winding their way amongst these are some seriously contorted, steep and often very narrow streets and walkways, making the map of Valparaiso look a bit like a bowl of spagetti. In addition to hundreds of steps, many of the hiils are equipped with ancient rail and cable contraptions that rumble up and down the slopes. Everywhere you look is colourful graffiti and street art. In short it is a photographers dream. In the many areas that we walked, it was like walking in an artwork.

We didn’t have to “do” anything in Valparaiso. We just wondered around, marvelling at the architecture, the colours and the “trole buses” that run on electricity from overhead lines, but are not quite trams, as they have normal wheels just like buses. There were also some really nice little cafes and restaurants, and of course plenty of markets and art/craft shops to get lost in.

We could easily have stayed in Valparaiso for months, years even, but as always there is a lot more to places still to see and limited time. So after 4 very interesting days, sadly,  we said goodbye and hopped on a bus to Chile’s capital, Santiago.

Valparaiso
Valparaiso
An hour or so West of Santiago, Valparaiso is a photographers dream. So many colours, so much character. We will be back one day!

In Pucon “Adventure capital of Chile” we were not able to be too adventurous unfortunately. I was still suffering from an upset tummy and Soph was coming down with the flu. So, beneath the looming, smoking volcano and beside the gorgeous blue lake, we simply relaxed. We stayed with Pablo, a friend we met in Puerto Montt, and our main activities were watching movies, cooking, eating and playing Go.

The town itself is in an incredibly beautiful location, and although we weren’t able to swing through gorges, raft rapids or hike up smoking volcanoes, our stay in Pucon was just what we needed. Besides, Pablo’s friend Gonzalo’s Macchas Parmesiana (fresh muscles, grilled on the shell with Parmesian cheese) were as amazing as any volcano hike.

We decided we had to do at least one touristy excursion, so on our last day we bussed out to Los Posones hot springs and spent a blissful couple of hours in the crystal clear pools there. Then it was straight onto an overnighter to Santiago and on to Valparaiso, apparently the place that invented the word “bohemian”.

Sophie is hurriedly tapping away on this one, but till she’s done, here are some pictures!

Chiloe Island, Chile
Chiloe Island, Chile
A beautiful, rural, rustic island, where people make huge blocks of cheese and knit cosy woolen goods.

For a long time Sophie and I Ummmed and Ahhhed about the best way to go north from Puerto Natales. We had originally planned to go on the Navimag, a five day cruise through the islands along the coast. The website makes it sound like a tourist cruise with spectacular views the whole way, but the boat is actually primarily a transport ship, and after more research and the cheapest fare of US$420 seemed a bit steep to hitch a ride on potentially a ship full of cows. The other option at one quarter the price was a huge bus trip that would take at least 3 days and would require us to back track into Argentina. It was just then that Gloria came to our rescue and suggested we just fly. Just like that. The same price as the bus and only few hours travel. So we did.

At the airport we had a last minute crisis  when Sophie realised that we were missing a potential opportunity to see penguins in Puntas Arenas, but I managed to convince her that this wasn’t worth cancelling our flight for and that we would probably get another chance later. (Luckily we did…)

While the ferry would have had some awesome scenery, so did the flight, and with the clear weather we had, the views of the moutains and ice fields below were unbelieveable. For a “cheap” flight, the service on our our “SkyAerolines”  flight was great and we even got dinner and drinks. Not the most original name, but great service.

Our stay in Puerto Montt was something like our stay in Bahia Blanca. Its not a particularly pretty place and definiitly not on the list of tourist hotspots, however after all the very tourist-centric towns of the south it was actually quite refreshing. Simple things like buying yummy candied peanuts or chocolate marshmallows really cheap at the bus station, and shops that charge non-tourist prices were very exciting. Combine that with meeting up with some really awesome guys through CouchSurfing and you have a really great few days.

On the first night we met up with Christian through CouchSurfing and he took us for a drink and some cerviche (yummy seafood with lemon, coriander and chilly). The next day him and his friend Roosevelt borrowed a car and took us out on a road trip to the nearby lakes at Puerto Varas and the beautiful nearby National Park. Later on we met up with more of his friends and many beers were had, followed by some exceptional homemade sushi that we all put together. We were also taught how to make pisco sours, from the raw ingredients, which added to the fun.

We woke up a bit groggy the next day and made the biggest, baddest cooked breakkie for Christian and his sister. It was a real treat for us too as they don’t seem to know about huge, unhealthy cooked breakkies here. A roll and some coffee is the usual fare.

With very happy tummies we headed off to Chiloe island for (what became) a week. On our return from Chiloe, we had a great day helping Christian make an authentic PVC didgeridoo. I crafted a real wax mouthpiece for it and we all contributed to what in the end was a very cool, pseudo aboriginal paint job. Having travelled for so long, we found it really enjoyable to sit down for a while and make something crafty. You just don’t get usually get the chance to do stuff like that. Of course that was followed by another typical Austalian meal, stir-fry, along with lots more pisco sours.

So like Bahia Blanca, not such an attractive town, but the hospitality shown to us by our new friends there was just amazing and we had a really special time as a result.

Our trip there did not start too well. The bus leaves early and on the morning we were set to leave it was cold windy and raining. We slept in. In our defense though we were also waiting on some news of my gran who was very sick at that time. The next morning it was also cold and wet. We slept in again. Who needs an expensive bus, we’d just hitchhike a bit later in the day. So a bit later on with the sun out we set off to hitchhike there.

Soph was looking particularly cute in her scarf and adorable hand written sign, I was doing my best not to look too tall. Our technique was perfect, however, there were just not enough cars going to the park so we had to retreat back to the expensive bus station. So we finally arrived at the park in the late afternoon and, somewhat grumpy, set off on our eight days of adventure.

Torres Del Paine! The Towers of Pain! Would you believe the merchandising people have not capitalised on this at all!?
I’d be all over it with the funny teashirts. Its actually pronounced more like Pie-neh and has nothing to do with pain, being an old Indian word for the blue colour of one of the lakes. But the funny slogan potential is HUGE!

The park itself is a most spectacular area of rivers, forests, snow capped mountains, huge glaciers and the Torres themselves, massive spires of grante rising 3000m or so. The route we took is known as Circuito Grande del Paine, The Big Circuit of Paine! (Not on a single teashirt!) It is a trail that runs in a big circle around the monumental peaks in the centre of the park. In total we carried our packs 110km over a period of 8 days and it was the absolute limit of Sophie’s tolerance of time sleeping in a tent in the cold. It was also quite close to mine as well I think. But not only was there cold, but also a lot of rain and a LOT of wind. Some days were quite bad, but given the park’s notoriety for insane weather, comparatively the weather was apparently not too hard on us.

I won’t write up a blow by blow account, rather limit it to the highlights and you can look at the pictures.

Some of the highlights were:

  • Seeing the mountains dusted with fresh snow after a cold night.
  • Climbing up the John Gardner Pass and actually walking through some of the fresh snow.
  • Building a tiny snowman.
  • Crossing the pass, with the most spectacular view of the ice fields of Glaciar Grey, while trying desparately to persuade my fingers to operate my camera in 70knot wind at 1 degree celcius.
  • Walking along next to a huge glacier (Grey) for several kilometres.
  • Walking through the forest in the Valle Frances with a layer of soft white snow on the ground.
  • Having the sun pop out in an otherwise dreary day, just as we reached the Valle Frances viewpoint. The view from there was breathtaking.
  • Building an even bigger snowman.
  • An absolutely mind-blowing sunrise on our last morning. The sun managed, beyond any expectation, to find a way through the cloud filled sky to light up the mountains in the most intense glowing orange, before disappearing again for the rest of the day. Looking at the time-lapse that I managed to get, you can actually see a small avalanche happening, just as the sun hits the mountains.
  • Hungrily eating delicious meals after hours of walking. I think we have got our camping cuisine down to a fine art at this stage.

Some tough bits:

  • Walking most of the day every day. I think it would have been nicer to take more days, but I guess then we wouldn’t have seen as much.
  • Arriving at a Refugio Grey in the rain, cold and very wet. In this case though, luckily there was a warm room with a wood oven that we could recover in.
  • Being milked like a cow at every oppurtunity. Although its worth every cent, tourists pay through the nose for everything there. The buses there and back, entry fee, camping fees, and shop prices were all exhorbitant. It’s not even possible to camp cheaply, as camping is only allowed at designated sites, most of which charge the amounts we usually reserve for a bed, internet and breakfast. So out of spite (and also necessity on the first night) we made use of a couple of unofficial campsites a score or so metres off the beaten path.

So all in all an amazing experience. The weather could have been better, but it could have been so very much worse. We survived and we saw some unbelievable scenery along the way.

Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
Reputed to be one of the best spots of hiking in the ENTIRE WORLD. However this is much dependent on the weather which can be ferocious. We had some good and some bad…

We arrived in Puerto Natales (Southern Chile) nearly 2 weeks ago… 8 of those days we spent exploring – walking over 100km’s – in the neighboring very beautiful National Park Torres Del Paine. Somehow, we spent the rest of the time was spent hanging out with the Seguel Albernoz family of Puerto Natales.

I don’t know where to begin to try and explain this extrodinary family. Their house was originally set up as a resturant out the front and hostel out the back but after hearing about Couch Surfing a few years ago they have opened up their house to the world. Since then they have had almost one thousand people from across the globe stay with them. We arrived to an open armed Gloria and we’re welcomed by a warm cosy, delicious-smelling house filled with kids, dogs and other travlers.

The family consists of Gloria – Our tempoary and very loving mum, Oscar – our temporary and very strict espanol proffesor! And their four children, Alison and Enzo of which we spent the most of our days with, exploring strange and wonderful fruits in their garden, playing games like limbo and how-long-can-you-balance-a-stick-for and experiencing the great Enzo’s magic tricks!

Every night was a new taste experience depending on the nationality of the chef. Austalianos you will be proud to know that our Pumpkin Pie and Pavlova was a success (As was our big, fried Sunday breakfast!) But despite the nationality of the food dinnertime was always a noisy, memorable and delicious Chileno family experience! Due to our limited Spanish and their complete lack of English we were never really sure what was going on in the house. On a couple occaisions we made the mistake of going out for dinner, having a big dinner out in the local restaurant only to arrive home to table piled with steaming food! One thing is for sure, we have left Puerto Natales with very satisfied tummies and a warmth in our hearts!

Traditional chilean food consists of all of my favourite things. Fresh seafood, soups, corriander, potatoes and a delicious local drink called pisco sours (a local spirit served with lemon and icing sugar mmm). In most of the restaurants you will find ‘menu del dia’ which is set three course menu that costs between $4-6 aussie dollars, consisiting usually of a home made soup, a main of locally caught fish (or chicken) and a dessert. Much to our delight we found another cheap and very popular delicacy amoung the locals is helados – ice cream! Every afternoon at about 4pm there is a long line outisde the tiny ice cream shop of kids both young and old… For two aussie dollars you can have two giant scoops of any flavour ice cream in a wafer cone…

I could go on and on about the time we spent in Puerto Natales, the tiny little southern chilean town, but I will leave you to read about our 8 long (and very beautiful) days in Torres Del Paine….

Puerto Natales
Puerto Natales
The gateway to the famous Torres Del Paine National Park in the far south of Chile, but also a great place to hang out.