Travelblog SA#34: Punta Arenas – Chile

19th-23rd December 2018

Despite never crossing a border my flight to Punta Arenas from Santiago was over three hours long, demonstrating just how vast Chile’s boundaries extend from north to south.

And I noticed the difference in climate as soon as I stepped off the plane and into the cool Patagonian air. It was evening. I was worried that I wouldn’t find a place to pitch my tent before it got dark, but it was surprisingly light for 9pm.

As it turned out, I needed have. I had yet to realise just how far south I had just come, but they call this area Chile’s ‘Antarctic Region’ for a reason and it was the most extreme I have ever been on either of the hemispheres. Not only that, but summer solstice was just two days away.

I set up my tent in the yard of Hostel Independencia, which was a little rustic but one of my favourite places I have stayed in my entire time in South America. Eduardo, its owner, was very forthcoming with advice and the first thing he did was sit me down with a map and tell me about some of the local attractions. The kitchen had a large AGA-type oven which kept the living areas cosily warm. The wifi was faster than the dorm I stayed at in Santiago and the showers were hot.

There was still light in the sky when I when I climbed into my sleeping bag at 11pm and it never really went completely dark. I woke up at 3am a little confused because it was already getting light again. It took me a while to get used to this and I didn’t sleep very well the first two nights there, but the eerie twilight which occurred for just three hours each sunset was quite beautiful.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I began exploring the next morning. Punta Arenas is a charming place. It feels more like a small sea-side town than a city. The roads were never congested and there were boats rocking in the bay. Most of them seem were for fishing but no doubt some were destined for Antarctica.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There were a few museums worth visiting. Most notably the Regional Museum of Magallanes and the Salesian Maggiorino Borgatello Museum. Both of them have a focus on local history, but the Regional Museum also has an entire floor of displays showing how the European colonials who inhabited the area lived, while Maggiorino Borgatello has lots of information on natural history and native cultures.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There is also a world famous cemetery near to the Salesian museum which is definitely worth a wander.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

It was the second day that I began to venture further afield. Originally I wanted to go to Magdalena Island to see its colony of Magellanic Penguins, but the boat was cancelled that day due to the strong winds which often sweep across southern Patagonia during this time of the year, so instead I caught a bus to the nearby Magallanes National Reserve where I got my first glimpse of Patagonian Forest.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

When I registered at the ranger station I chose to do the ‘Las Lengas’ trail, a 10km circuit through the park. It took me about four hours, in all, and it passed through several different kinds of landscapes and viewpoints.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I also saw several species of bird, including a pair of caracaras which I stalked for a while and got very close to a few times but never managed to get a decent photo of because they always flew away just as my camera was ready. I did catch a fairly decent video of one of them which can be viewed here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On my third day in Punta Arenas, the boat to Magdalena Island was cancelled again so I took some time to relax and do some shopping. Not only did I have Christmas coming up but the Torres del Paine trek too and I was worried about Puerto Natales – the next town I am going to – would not have as much variety.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On the fourth day, I finally made it to Magdalena and it was worth both the wait and the hefty price (my funds dwindling as they are, this late in the trip).

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I mean, what can I say? It is an island full of penguins! The species here are Magallenic, which is the third kind I have seen this journey. Some of them had chicks too, which were easily spotted (despite not being too small) from their grey furriness. I have uploaded some videos which can be viewed here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

And a pair of skuas managed to capture a baby gull while I was there, which was a bit upsetting to watch but just as much a part of nature as seeing cute baby penguins. I have a video of this event you can watch here if you choose to click it.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I also saw a pair of Magallenic geese.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After the boat returned to the mainland I got onto a bus heading to Puerto Natales where I would spend Christmas before tackling an eight-day trek through Torres del Paine.

 

For more photos from Punta Arenas, Magallanes National Reserve and Magdalena Island, click here.

Advertisements

Travelblog SA#33: San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago & Valparaíso – Chile

5th-19th December 2018

Chile was a bit of a culture shock. After months spent within Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, I was suddenly in a much more modern country. The buses all had air conditioning, the streets were cleaner and everything just seemed more polished.

But there were consequences to having these new comforts and conveniences. Chile is one of the most expensive countries in South America. Not only that but of all the regions of Chile, San Pedro de Atacama was probably the priciest of all. Partly because it is in the desert, so water is scarce and supplies need to be brought in, but also because it is touristy and thus everything comes loaded with hefty amounts of gringo tax.

The town of San Pedro is quite small. Originally just a village which expanded rapidly when it became a holiday hotspot, everything is within walking distance and the central square is a hub of restaurants, hostels and touts.

I couldn’t afford a dorm bed in a place like this, so I got out my tent and pitched it in the garden of a hostel. Once settled, I began to look into some of the tours available into the nearby Atacama Desert. My anxiety began to rise when I found out how much they cost. If all of Chile was going to be like this, I would be flying home much sooner than I intended.

To be honest, I spent much of my first day stressing about money as a lot of the costs were a shock to me. To top it all, when I went to get cash I discovered that the ATMs in this country charge hefty fees to withdraw money. I ended up exclaiming, ‘fucking bastards!’ in the middle of the bank, drawing many people to stare. Which made me also learn another thing about this country; many more people understand English here.

I eventually decided to try to try to not worry about money too much and enjoy it while I am here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The following morning I got up at 4am for my first tour; to El Tatio, the world’s third largest geyser field. It was still dark so I dozed while the bus climbed through the mountains of the Atacama. By the time we reached the car park, it was sunrise and plumes of steam were rising from the ice which had gathered across the field overnight.

There are two different fields to visit, both of which have a wide range of geysers. I didn’t realise how cold it was going to be though and should have worn more layers. I kept having to blow onto my hands to warm them up and my toes were numb.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The second field had a hot spring you can swim in but it was only at a temperature of 30 degrees so not all too inviting despite the novelty of it being in such interesting surroundings.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Overall I am glad I went to see this place while I was passing through the area but I don’t think I was as awed by it as I would have usually been, having just seen Sol de Mañana a few days ago in Bolivia which, while not as large, was a little more atmospheric.

7.JPG

As expensive as this tour was, I did enjoy it. The guide had a great attitude, spoke both in Spanish and English, and it also came with a free breakfast.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After the geysers, we made a few other stops on our way back to San Pedro. First, to see the fording of the Putana River, which had flamingos.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

And later, a canyon.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There was also the usual obligatory stop where they encourage you to buy some tat. It was at a village, and you could also either have your photo taken with a llama there, or eat one, depending on what mood you were in. I decided upon neither and wandered off for a while, finding a local graveyard and several species of bird on the side of the river, including this pair of Andean geese.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

In the afternoon I went for my second tour, to see Valle de la Luna.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The first hour or so we were clambering through a series of caves which were formed thousands of years ago from subterranean tunnels.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

We also went to see the remains of old salt mines, along with some other viewpoints throughout the Atacama.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The highlight of this tour though was watching the sunset over the valley.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I left San Pedro de Atacama the following morning, destined for Santiago. There are plenty of other tours available to see sights in San Pedro area but they were all way out of my budget.

The journey was over twenty hours long but I enjoyed it. My seat was comfortable and spacious and the air-conditioning was suitably cold. I read a book and watched some videos on my laptop while watching the desert go by through the window.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I liked Santiago. Which is a good thing, as I ended up spending almost two weeks there. There isn’t too much to say of my time there which will be of interest to you, to be honest. I made some friends and recharged my batteries. I needed to prepare for my next destination, Patagonia, where I will be spending the next couple of months, so supplies needed to be bought and some of my camping gear needed servicing.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I did manage to squeeze in some time to see museums, of which Santiago has many, most of which are free. My favourites were the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino and the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos which gave an account of some of the atrocities committed during the Pinochet regime.

15.JPG

And I also went for an overnight trip to Valparaíso, a bohemian, arty city famous for its hilly neighbourhoods covered in graffiti.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

I have plenty more photos, not just from Valparaíso, but Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama too.

Travelblog SA#32: Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia

2nd-4th December 2018

To finish off my time in Bolivia I embarked upon a three-day journey through Bolivia’s crowning jewel, Solar de Uyuni.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and to enter this natural wonder you need to go on a tour in a 4×4 vehicle. Lots of packages are available if you head to the town of Uyuni – the main launching point – but the most common is the three-day excursion which takes you all the way down to the south-west corner of Bolivia.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The only problem is getting the right guide as they seem to vary in quality. Whoever you get is not just your driver, they are also your cook, and a good one will provide you with some information about the area too. Although most of them seem to do a good job there are stories of some behaving badly, not delivering full itineraries, and even drinking while driving. Booking with a good agency is no guarantee as a lot of them will transfer you to another company if they can’t fill all the seats. It can be complete pot luck who you end up with.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I decided to book with Andes Salt Expeditions. They had some of the best reviews out of all the companies and were reasonably priced. They were also one of the bigger ones so I was less likely to be transferred. It paid off, as I was lucky and ended up with a guide called Vladimir who went out of his way to make it a fun experience for myself and the five other people I was matched with.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The first day, after a quick stop at the ‘Train Cemetary’ – a graveyard for the carriages which were abandoned when Bolivia transitioned from steam to diesel – we reached the salt flats. It took hours to drive through the entire expanse, but we stopped a few times to have some fun with the optical illusions you can create there. Such as this encounter I had with a dinosaur.

3

And this.

1

We also made a couple of funny videos, one of which you can watch by clicking here.

2

In the afternoon we reached Incahuasi, a rugged island of cactuses which rises up from the plane of white. It was actually once a massive colony of coral, back when this area was a vast sea, but when the bed dried up it rose to the surface and fossilised.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Not only is it an interesting place to walk around but it also gives you an opportunity to get some wonderful views of the plane.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

To finish the day, Vladimir took us to a cave whose name I have forgotten. It was a bit quieter than the rest of the places we visited that day as most of the other groups go to a different set of caves. It was home to some interesting inner textures formed from fossilised algae. According to Vladimir, part of the latest Star Wars film was recorded here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

We stayed that night in a hostel in San Juan. It was just a place to eat and sleep at the end of the day and a little basic, but it was an interesting novelty that most of the furniture and fixtures were made of salt.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The following day the landscape changed. It wasn’t so flat anymore and the road became rocky as we entered the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, passing through yellow mountains.  Our first stop was at a place with some very interesting rock formations and views of Ollagüe, a volcano with active fumaroles.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After that, we spent much of the day passing by lakes filled with flamboyances of flamingos, stopping every now and then to take photos.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There are three different species of which live in this area, Chileno, Andean, and James. They thrive here because the saltiness of the water creates algae that they thrive on and, apart from the occasional fox, this area doesn’t have many predators. One of the lakes we saw later that day, Laguna Colorada, was red because of the algae. I have uploaded a series of videos of the flamingos here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

We saw lots of other forms of wildlife that day. When we reached Laguna Ramaditas there was an Andean fox.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There was a pair of viscachas on the side of the road and we stopped for a while to feed them carrots.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I saw so many vicunas throughout this trip that I actually forgot to take any photos of them, which is a huge shame. We did end up having a roadside chase down with a pair of ostriches. I have a video of it here. Sorry for the shaky camera.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

In the afternoon we went to see Arbol de Piedra, a series of other interesting rock formations. More exciting was Sol de Manana, the geysers. I have plenty of videos here. It was a surreal place, with clouds of smoke wafting out from crevices in the ground, water bursting out from holes like lava, and bubbling pools of grey mud.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

To finish the day we went to a hot spring by the side of a lake in Chalviri just before sunset.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On the third and final day, some of the people on my tour were driving back to Uynui and making a few stops along the way, but for me and a couple others, it was a shorter itinerary because we were being dropped off at the border of Chile. We did make a little stop by Laguna Verde though, which wasn’t actually that green at this time of the year but still pleasant to see. From its shore, we also got a view of Licanabur Volcano and the border for not just Chile but Argentina too. This was true frontier land.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

For more photos and videos from my last days in Bolivia, click here.