Chile … Patagonia ~ Feb-Mar 2012

Return to Central & South America

We spent the winter of 2012 in Chile escaping the cold northern CA weather.

Our trip to Chile actually began in Arequipa, Peru. Chile is a very long, thin country and we wanted to start at the top and finish at the bottom, so, we began in southern Peru. Southern Peru and northern Chile are both very dry desert, in some places having no recorded rainfall! Beginning at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and going on up into the high plains of the Andes is an incredibly vast and desolate desert wilderness. Occasional cities and small enclaves break it up, but you have to wonder how people manage to survive here.

On February 1st we crossed into Chile and stopped at the first city on the northern coast, Arica. We were there for 5-6 day relaxing and visiting sites before we moved on. When we visited the Altiplano (high plains) in Peru, there was 3-4 inches of snow across the plains. Our guide and driver were so excited they had a snowball fight. They said they had only seen snow there on the plains once before. Then into Chile it was hot and dry.

Next stop was the town of San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis in the Atacama Desert; the driest desert in the world. Parts of the Atacama do get some rain this time of year, but there are also vast areas with no-ever recorded rainfall. This year, being another extreme, there was raining and flooding in the towns of the Atacama. Even though it was summer in South America, it was winter, or the rainy season, in the Andes. Locals call it the Bolivian Winter. This year was a particularly heavy rain/snow year, and it caused major flash flooding in the towns. The few towns there are have developed along the rivers that flow from the Andes. Year round these rivers are dry or have very little water, and towns developed as close to the little bit of water as possible. There is so little rain here that nothing (people nor nature) is equipped to handle it; many of the buildings are adobe brick and thatch roof. The soil does not absorb any of the water; even just a few inches can cause major damage. Then you have a once in 20 years bad year like this one and homes, roads, and bridges all get washed away. They average 28mm (1in)/year. They have had three times that in the last couple of weeks before our visit. It was very tragic and many people lost their homes and crops.

Since many of the roads had washed out tours to the surrounding national parks were suspended. We still enjoyed ourselves, seeing some of the sights, and at least giving the town a few tourist dollars, but the locals were suffering. We met a biologist from Chicago, Boris, who is in the Atacama researching a wild tomato, and we went out with him on one of his explorations. We found a few plants, but most of them had been washed away as well because their habitat is the slot canyons that carry water down from the Andes. On the way back we headed into a storm that was raging over San Pedro. The first part of the storm was a heavy wind that had stirred up a sand storm. We could see it looming on the horizon as we drove towards it, and as we passed into it, we had 30+ seconds of complete whiteout from the sand. That’s a long time when you’re driving on a narrow 2-lane road! After we passed through the sand, we moved into an incredible lightening storm. There were 2-3 strikes every minute all around us. They were so close you could see the red flashing sparks as the strikes hit the ground. Finally we moved through the lightening and into the rain. That was the tail end of the storm and by the time we got back to town it had all passed. Of course the dirt streets, which had finally just dried out that morning, were all big mud pools again.

San Pedro de Atacama is in the Cordillera (foothills) of the Andes, so we were back in the mountains again, but we began our trip down Chile along the coast, first in Arica, then Iquique, then Tocopilla (terrible place, don’t ever stop there), then Antofagasta. Each place (except Tocopilla) we spent several nights seeing the sites. Arica and Iquique were great, and Antofagasta was OK. Outside of Iquique we visited Humberstone, an old nitrate mine ghost town, and a very interesting place. That took us through the Norte Grande region of Chile. From there it was into the Norte Chico region, and back on the coast, having taken an overnight bus to Caldera and Bahi Inglesa. They are beautiful little beach towns and we spent a few days there before continuing south.

Our suitcases were heavy with both winter and summer clothes, but since we had no set agenda, and keep zigzagging back and forth from the mountains (cold) to the coast (hot) as we moved down Chile, we needed everything we brought! If a place was interesting we stayed and saw as much as we could. It we didn’t like it (Tocopilla) we moved on as fast as we could!!

We met interesting people from all over the world, one of the great things about travel!

The dry desert of northern Chile, continued almost to Santiago. Where Chile’s northern rivers flow into the Pacific, and supply vital water, you’ll find most towns and cities. Between is very dry, very empty land. La Serena is one of those cities; situated at the mouth of the Rio Elqui, which flows to the Pacific through the beautiful Elqui Valley, it’s a wonderful green oasis in the incredibly dry north. The Elqui Valley also happens to be the Pisco producing center of Chile. Chileans sip Pisco straight, but we tourists drink it in Pisco Sours. We visited a couple of Pisco distilleries, drank a few Pisco Sours, and visited an observatory, while there.

Next stop of note was the port city of Valparaiso, a terrific city that felt very much like San Francisco, but with steeper hills and beautifully bright colored houses! There are numerous ascencors (funiculars) to take you up some of the steepest streets, but mostly you suck it up and climb. We spent part of an afternoon up on a hillside above the port, watching them load and unload container ships below. Believe it or not, it was fascinating. Another afternoon was spent climbing to the very top of another hill to visit one of Pablo Neruda’s three houses. What a collector he was, everything you can possibly imagine, from all over the world. Pablo Neruda, a famous Chilean Nobel Prize winner, poet, and politician, had houses in Santiago, Valparaiso and Isla Negra. We made a pilgrimage to them all, each different, and each full of his life collections. Fantastic! Quitay, a village just south of Valparaiso, on a beautiful little cove, held a very interesting whaling museum built in the remains of an old whaling station.

Santiago was next, but we only spent one day there seeing Neruda’s house and the Central Mercado, both great. We don’t like big cities so Santiago was primarily a stop for catching our plane to Easter Island, or Rapi Nui.

Rapi Nui was everything we hoped it would be, a small tropical island in an incredibly warm deep blue sea, with some of the most amazing sites. The Moai (stone heads of Easter Island) were tremendous. Many have been restored, but still more are half buried in the earth or toppled where they have been for centuries. Every incredible picture you’ve ever seen of them are true to form. We stayed in a very small, family owned, two-room Residence, Chez Steve Residencia Kyle Mio. The family lives on the property and really helped to make our stay memorable. We toured the entire island, saw the Moai and Moai quarry, snorkeled in the clear blue warm ocean and relaxed. We spent 4 days, and could have spent 4 more enjoying everything for a second or third time.

Back from Rapi Nui, we continued into middle Chile and the River Region, where we finally found green Chile, no more northern desert! Additionally, since fall was coming on in the southern hemisphere, we began to pull out the cold weather clothing we’d been carrying forever. Here are the highlights. Isla Negra was small and not very noteworthy, except for Pablo Neruda’s best house of the three. One night in Pichilemu, the surf capital of Chile. Santa Cruz and wine tasting at the winery Vui Manent (we enjoyed their Carmenere and Malbek, both Chilean varietials). El Abanico took us east to the Volcan Antuco whose last eruption blocked the river, forming a deep blue lake. Hiking there was through dramatic lava flows to water falls rushing through the lava blockage. Pucón, noteworthy for Volcan Villarrica, a near perfect smoking volcanic cone, was a nice small town, perfect for hanging out and hiking.

From the River Region we moved south into the Lakes Region. Notable was Valdivia, a nice little city situated between three rivers just up from where they flowed into the Pacific. There we found several forts, a few partially restored, left from Chile’s fight for independence from Spain. They made for great exploration as did the incredible coastline. Further south was Puerto Varas, one of our favorite cities in Chile. Our hostel was in a beautiful 1930’s historic house. Situated on a hillside by a large lake, there were beautiful views of the surrounding volcanoes, nice hikes in the hills, and great excursions to out lying villages.

This brings us to the last leg of our journey. We journeyed to Patagonia on a Navimag Ferry. Navimag is primarily a commercial transport line, but they realized they could make good money transporting tourists to Patagonia. The 4-day, 3 night trip from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is a journey through the Patagonian fjords. It’s a ferry, not a cruise ship, but included in your fare is a cabin, all meals, and a few tourist sites. We had an hour or so at Puerto Edén the most remote port in the Patagonian fjords, where the ferry, their only outside access, stops once a week. We detoured a bit to visit glacier Pío XI, the largest glacier in South America, and one of the few world glaciers still growing. We saw several dolphins and a few minke whales. It was cold and windy, but we spent most of our time on deck enjoying the incredible sites.

Finally in Puerto Natales we had only one day to visit Torres del Paine National Park. We found an all day tour and hoped for good weather. We were not disappointed. It was cold and windy, but we had mostly clear skies and no rain. There were dramatic granite towers, a brilliant blue glacier, Guanacos (non-domesticated llamas) and Rheas (ostrich like birds). It is a beautiful park and we are glad to have seen the little of it that we did. It had been raining for several days before we arrived, and it began raining again the next day when we left. So the one day we had was lucky and beautiful.

The next morning we took a four-hour bus to Punta Arenas, the southern most point in our journey, not quite Tierra del Fuego, but close. The weather had turned very cold, and very windy and we were happy to be getting on an airplane the next day. Coming home from so far south took 4 plane rides and 30 hours before we were finally back in Sonoma County.

It was a great adventure. We’re glad we did it, but we were also glad to be home in our Tiger again. We’ll see you all on the road.