I knew very little about Chile before embarking on my 4,000km journey. I now know it’s a country of wonderful extremes which stretch from the belly button of South America to its big toe. Beginning with my entry from the salt flats of Bolivia into the hot and dusty Atacama Desert, through the mild wine region and the tranquil lakes and fjords to my exit way down south in wind-swept – get your hat, gloves and scarf back on Tierra del Fuego, I lapped it all up.
After a laborious border crossing (Chilean civil industrial action), I immediately noticed that nobody jumped on the bus or banged at the window to sell my anything. Bit by bit I began to notice other things. Well maintained roads, the compulsory wearing of seat belts, a receipt for the ticket I purchased, free to use restrooms, stocked with toilet paper, soap and dryers (imagine the luxury), nice cafes and shops, smart hostels with 24 hour electricity, hot water (bliss) and drinkable tap water. These small details were reminiscent of being back home, however, the price tag that goes hand-in-hand with western standards sorely tested my budget!
A very noticeable difference between Chile and its northern neighbours is the lack of indigenous people. The Mapuche of the central west and the Selk’nam in the far south have all but disappeared. For me this was a major sadness. I love meeting people of different cultures. I am fascinated by their history, beliefs, customs, homes, clothes, way of life, and always enjoy learning from them. Interesting isn’t it, how you drive over a metaphorical line and everything changes.
Indigenous aside, Chile is fabulous and unlike its Andes-hugging neighbour Argentina, less crowded with tourists. So, starting in the driest place on earth where in some areas it has never rained, there was only one, actually two, things to do. Firstly sand board down the dunes- exhilarating, frustrating and exhausting in equal measures and secondly take an astronomy lesson with telescopes through which I could clearly see Mars, Venus and Saturn, the moon as if it was within touching distance, and several ‘open’ and ‘closed’ clusters of which one was one of Orion’s 8 arms (often described as the Milky Way). Impressed? I love deserts. This trip I’ve been to the Australian desert area of Uluru (very spiritual), Tupiza cowboy desert (yeehaw) and now the charming adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama. I feel a trip to Namibia coming on!!
San Pedro which, being a little touristy, provided excellent Christmas shopping but frustratingly didn’t have a single beauty salon. Odd that because there are some very well healed tourists with time on their hands as well as the likes of me who have come from 5-day tours of Salar de Uyuni in uncomfortable 4WDs and need pampering.
I will always remember my last morning in San Pedro because I awoke to the news that Donald Trump had won the US election. Everyone I spoke to was in total shock and dumbfounded as to how the hell it happened and fearful of what is to come.
Moving on, I headed to the town of Calama whose only redeeming features are an airport and the largest copper mines in the world. Having found the Potosi silver mines so interesting I was keen to check out Chuquicamata mine. The photo doesn’t properly convey the magnitude of the pit which is 5km long, 3km wide and 1.2km deep and is still the largest exporter of pure (99.7%) copper. However, it now only produces one truck of copper in every four which is not financially viable therefore in 3-4 years time mining on the surface will cease and drilling below ground will start. After touring the mine I visited the miners ‘ghost’ town where 25,000 people had lived before being relocated to Calama because of unhealthy levels of dust from the mine. The town has been left exactly as it was which is kind of eerie.
The funny thing about my accommodation in Calama was that it was in the beauty salon neighbourhood of the city so I had a choice of a dozen different salons to get a hair cut and a mani & pedicure! I suggested to the young women looking after me that she should up sticks and set up shop in San Pedro pronto.
And so a flight to Santiago and to……….wait for it………the Ritz Carlton Hotel!!! To cut a long story short, my dear friends Bob and Pippa were staying there for a business conference and of course I was dying to see them but couldn’t find a hostal nearby because it’s in such a swanky part of the city. Another dear friend John very sweetly shouted my an early Christmas (or was it a late birthday) present of two nights at the hotel. Well you can only imagine how thrilled I was to find myself gliding through the revolving door to be greeted by a concierge in black tie. It felt like a “Pretty Woman” moment. The porter showed me to my room and looked slightly askance when I exclaimed ‘wow, a bath, I haven’t had one of those for 10 months’! The bathroom was stocked with Asprey lotions and potions, there were chocolates on my pillow and the most luxurious bathrobe to don for going to the rooftop leisure complex. I decided downtown Santiago could wait for Bob and Pippa’s arrival the following morning and so spent the afternoon lazing about. I had a swim, jacuzzi, sauna, steam, bath and shower and felt a million dollars.
I was feeling very excited about seeing Bob and Pippa at breakfast but I wasn’t expecting to start crying. I guess it was the emotion of the warm embrace and familiarity after so many moths alone that overcame me – a special moment.
We spent a delightful day visiting Valparaíso and Vina del Mar about 2 hours drive from Santiago. Viña del Mar could pass for South Beach or Cannes but Valparaíso is a one-off. We climbed the steep ramshackle streets and crumbling steps admiring the faded charm of the houses and some of the best street art I’ve ever seen. Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda had a home here with an eclectic mix of furniture and objets d’arte and magnificent views across the rooftops to the port. There are samples of his poetry which is eminently understandable. Sadly, because of the country-wide strikes the world famous funiculars were not working.
It’s said tourists are electing to spend more time in Valparaíso than in Santiago, and after 2-days exploring the city I can well see why. The historic centre is dirty and has more than its fair share of rough sleepers/beggars/drunks. The museums are at best average (though there was an interesting photographic exhibition on the Selk’nam tradition of intricate ritualistic body art), ditto the parks and markets.
Saying a fond farewell to my dear friends (and 5*luxury) I spent a pleasant day visiting a couple of wineries in the Maipo Valley. It was the wrong season for the grapes but it’s never the wrong season to sample wine and it was my first sampling of Camanere which is the delicious king of Chilean wines. I didn’t know that when the phyloxia plague destroyed all the vines in Europe and the US, it was Chile that sent the Cab Sav, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines back to them to start to repopulate their vineyards. Chile has the perfect climate for growing grapes; copper-rich soil, the protection of the Andes and the winds of the Pacific with only 175km separating them, little rain and plenty of sunshine. No wonder they cunningly didn’t send back the Camanere grape.
Next up, I took a flight down to Punta Arenas to begin my southern odyssey. The drop in temperature was dramatic – from 32 degrees in the desert to 12 degrees here. The compensation was that my hostel had a fabulous view across the Magellan Straights which gave me the sensation of being at the end of the world.
That came true later when I crossed to Tierra del Fuego to see a colony of King Penguins. Word’s out that, due to a successful programme to eradicate predators (most notable the mink), it’s a great place to settle and more KP’s are arriving each year. They were pretty active when I visited, chatting, flapping, cleaning etc, and I was even treated to a courting ritual followed by what must be one of the shortest matings in the animal kingdom. None of the 5-hour turtle torture; more of a wham, bam, thank you mam and then they are joined for life!
The main purpose of my trip down south was to undertake the 5-day ‘W’ trek in Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia. The jumping off point is Puerto Natales, a relaxed, hiker-friendly town. I managed to organise my trip from there though most people had organised theirs a good few weeks in advance because of the scarcity of campsite spots/refugios along the way. I guess I was lucky. I bought walking poles for less the the cost of hiring them and having been carrying them in their deconstructed state in my backpack ever since which is a bit of a pain. I ate a last supper of guanaco (bit like Alpaca but even more tender) washed down with the finest Chilean red and at 7am the next morning set off for Torres del Paine.
The entire 5-day experience was amazing. I averaged 12km a day, which doesn’t sound much but given that you walk no more than 2.5km an hour it’s enough. My longest day way 11 hours, my shortest 5 and I can honestly say I loved every single step. Day one I had to contend with strong headwinds that totally shredded my poncho but from there on in the weather was unseasonably kind, which was just as well as I now didn’t have protection from the rain, and the terrain wasn’t difficult. Sometimes I chatted to fellow trekkers but most of the time I chose to walk alone in order to fully immerse myself in the nature. There are fast-flowing, bulging rivers, waterfalls, precarious bridges, parkland, forest glades, rocks to scramble over, windswept passes, lakes that change from blue to turquoise, green to grey, dramatic peaks of different coloured rock, snowy mountains, avalanches, glaciers, strange cloud formations, fiery red sunsets and pallid sunrises, an abundance of flowers, dozens of species of birds, jack rabbits, armadillo and apparently puma though sadly I didn’t encounter one.
So how did the ageing body hold up after 36 hours of hiking? No leg, back, shoulder or foot pain whatsoever but I was only carrying a 7kg daypack, electing to pay extra to have my tent set up for me, complete with minus 15 degree sleeping bag (it was only 2 degrees at night so I was warm enough) and my meals in the refugio canteens. Lots of people were saving money by carrying their tent, gas, utensils and food for 5 days, weighing in at roughly 17kg. Not surprisingly they were suffering a bit.
What makes trekking in Patagonia so enjoyable is the following:
not too much climbing up or down
no problems with altitude
no mosquitos, sand flies, snakes or poisonous plants
no humidity or dust
no need to carry litres of water due to the abundance of streams
daylight for between 16-17 hours
Feeling totally exhilarated, my dilemma was where to go next. Should I cross over the Andes into Argentina and mirror my Chilean experiences in reverse – trekking in El Calefate and Chalten, bombing up to the lakes near Bariloche followed by wine tasting in Mendoza and finally the desert in Salta or should I stick with discovering more of Chile.
With only 2 months remaining (yikes) I felt that I would be rushing things if I went the Argentine route so instead I went up the west coast of Chile to a little known place called Puerto Varas. My mistake was in not taking the 4-day cargo boat through the fjords to get there. A few people had told me it was uncomfortable and dirty but of course once I arrived I met several people who said how amazing it was. Bummer!
I like Puerto Varas a lot. It’s a chilled out lakeside town just on the cusp of becoming a ‘must-go-to’ destination, mirrored over the Andes by Bariloche. The town has a heavy German influence, immigrants having settled there in late 1800s to early 1900s. Further along the lake is a small village called Frutilla where I found not only an interesting museum explaining the life of the settlers but also an incredible concert hall perched on the side of the lake. It cost a cool $25m to build and hosts an annual week-long international music festival but it defies all logic being in such a remote place.
There is a beautiful lake called Llanquihue (the largest in Chile) which produces 80% of the country’s salmon – Chile being the second biggest salmon exporter after Norway. The lake is surrounded by 5 or 6 volcanoes, the most active is Calbuco which, following a 9.5 earthquake in April 2015 sent ash 16km up into the atmosphere, most of it blowing over in Argentina! Another gem is picturesque Todos los Santos lake surrounded by lush forest. I took a short bus ride up Osorno Volcano, hiked to the glacier (tough vertical climb) and tobogganed down on a plastic bag. Not my idea but the crazy German guy I was with.
My favourite activity in PV was rafting on the Petrohue river. Taking on some rapids was on my ‘to do’ list, and whilst I hadn’t imagined they would be Class III or IV, it seemed like the perfect opportunity so I went for it. The water surging all around the boat made it difficult to oar at times and the risk of falling in as we were tossed about was ever present but our expert instructor kept us under control.
The river twisted and turned for 14km with about 10 rapids requiring different tactics. At one point we got out, climbed a rock 5 meter above the river and jumped in and at another the instructor made us get into the river to swim down a rapid. Two thrilling, adrenaline-pumping hours of crazy fun and I’m hooked.
And finally back to Santiago airport for the third time for a flight to Buenos Aires. I didn’t make it to Easter Island because it was just too expensive to fly there, good old LATAM having the monopoly. Apart from that I feel happy that long, skinny Chile is a country I fully explored.
A word about my children. It seems that my travels have prompted them all to do extreme things. This month it was James’s turn by proposing to his girlfriend Laura. I am very happy for them and looking forward to helping with wedding plans; that is when I’m not on granny duty with my gorgeous granddaughter Tilly (undoubtedly the most adorable baby ever) and my grandson to be. He’s due 2 days after I get back so I’m looking forward to that. Let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to come along early!
There are times when it’s been hard being away from my family, especially Rebecca who as a new mother needs my support but the weeks are whizzing by now so it won’t be long before we’re all together again.