We are travelling through South America for a few month starting in Santiago, Chile heading south to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel and then wandering north through Argentina via Patagonia, onto Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and return home via Easter Island. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey.
Chile is like a string bean hugging the western side of the Andes about 5,000 kilometres long and about 200 kms wide with good cheap food, and very friendly people.
Santiago: feels a bit like downtown Melbourne except for the 6 million people and a backdrop of the snow covered Andes Mountains. Walking the town a Chilean tour guide who speaks no English asks us to explain to his passenger a young England traveller who speaks no Spanish about an historical landmark. Having just read about it we oblige and appear quite knowledgeable, tour guide and traveller are both delighted.
We enjoy a great coffee at ‘Café with Legs’ where the waitresses are selected for their physical assets, which are on display in tight tops and clingy dresses while the mainly male customers stand at the counter and drink coffee. Downtown there are lots trendy malls and cafes, but we dine in the street on kebabs cooked on an open grill set up in the top of a supermarket trolley. In a restaurant a decent 700 ml bottle of local wine is a couple of US dollars and in the supermarket a two litre plastic bottle of the same wine is about the same price.
Taking a four hour bus ride to Chillan down the Pan American Highway we pass through the central valley, a rich agricultural area with market gardens, then extensive orchards and onto vineyards that go on forever, then on through cattle country before finally reaching our destination. Cathy calculates that buses are US$1 an hour, petrol about US$1 a litre and wine about the same.
Chillan: is a small town known for its hot springs and is close to good snow skiing. It was demolished by earthquakes and rebuilt in the 1950s, so all the buildings are the same concrete 1950s style with little character. The central plaza ´Plaza de Armas´ has the same name as Santiago and most other towns in Chile and translates as ´Place of armed weapons´. Plazas are popular especially for courting, so young couples find hidden seats hold hands and kiss, while everyone else wanders around eating ice-cream.
The food is good and cheap, the people are friendly and we are in the middle of local elections which are taken very seriously so there are lots of colourful parades and events.
Street Dogs: We are most taken by the street dogs, they are in good health and well fed and seem proud. We have already been adopted by them a couple of times. It seems that if they like your style they will adopt you, purposely heeling beside you, sometimes leading and occasionally glancing backwards inferring impatience. After a couple of blocks they may very well abandon you and adopt someone else more suitable to them or go in a different direction. Then they heel by the new owner leaving you to question your dog etiquette!
Pucon: is a further six hours south and a little bit east, and still a dollar an hour. We are pleasantly surprised by the buses, which are more comfortable and have better seat allocation than the planes. Pucon is a snow resort in winter and a lake retreat with black sandy beaches in summer. In spring (now) it is mostly wet and empty, set at the foot of the active Volcano Villarica which is a spectacular backdrop. Here we find some good cheap accommodation and food, laze about reading our travel guides, drinking good coffee and planning our trip south.
Puerto Varas: another six hour trip south starts badly. The start of daylight saving in Chile is a secret -Shhhh! It was actually last Saturday, but nobody told us until we miss our bus this morning. So we go the long way around and catch a bus to Valdivia and then another bus to Puerto Varas, a small lakeside town, 30 minutes north of Puerto Montt. Still a dollar an hour.
We are now quite close to the Andes and it is possible to take several different routes through the passes to Argentina. Our research suggests a pass that involves a local bus, a couple of ferries, and another bus through the mountains around the lakes. We can do this on an organized tour but we decide to catch the local bus for a few Chilean pesos. Of course, connections are not assured so when we miss the ferry we catch the same bus back to our starting point much to the delight of both driver and conductor. In Spanish we think they said, if you want to catch the ferry you must catch the earlier bus, still it was a nice outing. We have a little giggle recalling the failed Pink Flamingo bus trip in Mexico.
Back in Puerto Varas, we chat to Lex from Luxemburg. Lex immigrated to Chile four years ago and bought a small tourist ranch in the Cochamo Valley which receives over nine metres of rain a year. He offers horse riding treks through yet another pass to Argentina via the Paseo Leon which is where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid mustered their cattle from their Argentinian ranch to the Chilean markets.
Lex invites us to join him at his ranch so we catch a very crowded public bus two and a half hours south along gravel roads, around the edge of the lakes and fjords. We walked the last kilometre through a muddy track across a small swinging bridge to his house and three small cabins where a couple of other westerners are already staying. See the web site: http://www.campo-aventura.com/
Over dinner Lex explains in more detail a horse ride up the valley overnighting in a small hut and through the pass led by a Chilean cowboy tour leader. Early next morning after considering the rain we opt for a long hike in the misty mountains whilst the other travellers leave for the pass. Next day we walk back to the road, wait in a cute moss covered bus shelter for the bus back to Puerto Varas costing $US2 an hour. We stay overnight and next morning we’re on a bus again for the trip to Puerto Montt.
Puerto Montt: is at the end of the Pan American Highway, about 1,000 km south of Santiago and it’s starting to get very cold! Our way south from here is by the ferry MV Magellen which sails through the channels and fjords to Puerto Natales. For a good map of this try: https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/2839840/MAPAS%20PARA%20WEB-01%20(1).jpg?t=1519993550534
We stock up on essential supplies of rum and potato chips for the ferry ride south. The boat leaves Puerto Montt in the afternoon with 80 backpackers representing the United Nations. A crew member tells us this is only 25 percent of the MV Magallen passenger capacity so we score a cabin with four bunks to ourselves and head south. The first day is inside the channel and we are protected from the cold and the bitter winds, the second day we are exposed as we head into the Southern Pacific swells to cross the Gulf of Penas (Gulf of Distress).
Statistically 30 percent of all people get seasick, youthful exuberance, alcohol and partying dramatically increases those odds, however it is infrequent for those over 55 years, youthful Cathy downs two Kwells and we travel safely back into the sheltered channels of Southern Chile.
Puerto Eden: is a remote village which started as a weather and flying boat station in the 1930s and is now a fishing metropolis of some 200 people. We stop for a brief visit to unload supplies and are invited to go onshore when a brief but ferocious storm blows down the channel. Getting back to the ship became a mini adventure, forty passengers in three dodgy fishing boats, freezing conditions, a hail storm, the ships’ anchors are slipping as the ship tries to hold its position the middle of a narrow channel.
The Southern Channels are spectacular, narrow and lined with steep treed hills, set against snow covered mountains, it is cold with icy biting winds. Venturing to the bridge for a weather update – we watch as the radar confirms, continuing unstable weather with highs and lows spinning around the polar region at a rapid rate. After four days and three nights we arrive at Puerto Natales to mid-morning sunshine the first we had seen in a week but by the time we disembark the skies have darkened again.
Puerto Natales: was the centre of a huge sheep industry, including meat processing, freezing, canning, and wool export for Southern Chile and Tierra Del Fuego. Some bad political decisions and the success of the Panama Canal contributed to its downfall. Now its major claim to fame is the jumping off point for the magnificent Torres Del Paine National Park. https://www.gochile.cl/en/torres-del-paine-national-park/
After disembarking the other travellers seemed to melt away and we were the only ones at a guest house which felt like, and was indeed someone’s grandmother’s house. Knick knacks, lace curtains, crocheted bedspreads, too many heavy blankets, family photos and yummy food smells coming from the kitchen. As soon as Cathy broke into a little Spanish grandma Anita started her charming life story. She had seen the town through its good times and its hard times and her extensive family was now scattered throughout Patagonia let me show you the photos………
Torres Del Paine NP: is a spectacular piece of geography on the edge of the southern icefields, with stark basalt outcrops, weird carved landscapes and of course glaciers. While many of the League of Nations from the MV Magallen headed off on three and seven day camping treks we choose to stay overnight in the National Park Hotel Posada Rio Serranto. For $US50 a night the rustic charm had more appeal than the $US200 a night Hotel Lago Grey. It turned out to be a couple of bunks in a cold room and a shared bathroom in an old shearing shed. Later a couple of Aussies return from their trek heavy with the flu, with teeth chattering explaining that the 3 day camping hike was tough, blowing a gale and bitterly cold, so we felt much better!
We catch a ride up to Hotel Lago Grey and sit in their lounge drinking expresso and looking out across the lake at an amazing row of dying icebergs on the beach in front of the hotel. We take a boat up the lake to the face of Glacier Grey – it is spectacular. The glacier carves the icebergs into the lake they are blown 30 kilometres down to the beach where you can sit and watch them fade away from the comfort of the hotel lounge. On board we drink Piso Sours chilled with 12,000 year old ice cubes.
Punta Arenas: From Puerto Natales we catch a bus three hours south to Punta Arenas through flat, treeless wind-swept landscape with the occasional sheep and a couple of scattered huts. Punta Arenas on the Magallen Strait has also seen better days. Still there is some good examples of Victorian architecture and a great museum put together by the Salesnian Missionaries including a couple of shrunken heads, lots of stuffed animals and a good history of European settlement in the area.
Across the road and up a block from our accommodation is the cemetery which houses some prestigious mausoleums of past family members of the society set. For the rest, there is a Gold Coast inspired three story walk-up with hundreds of burial compartments, some with ‘for sale’ signs.
Catching the bus to Rio Grande in Argentina, we cross the Magellan Strait by ferry at Punta Delgada which is no more than a guest house sitting next to a light house. We have now crossed to the island of Tierra del Fuego which is cut in half by the border between Chile and Argentina. We drive over the border at San Sebastian which consists of a small office and a guest house.
The best description of Tierra del Fuego is BLEAK, grey, flat, treeless, windswept and icy cold with little sign of habitation and only an occasional vehicle. The only landmarks are a few small petroleum wells burning off gas, somewhat reminiscent of early explorers naming of the island. – Tierra del Fuego –Land Of Fire.