Travelblog SA#38: Chiloé Island – Chile

17th-20th January 2019

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In many ways, Chiloé reminded me of Wales, my home back in the UK. Although it is an island, it is so close and well connected to the mainland it feels more like a peninsula, and it is a domain of grassy hills and cows and sheep, with intermittent forests and quaint towns and villages, where time seems to pass a little slower than the rest of the country.

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I spent my first day in Castro, its biggest city which wasn’t actually very big, wandering its streets. I soon saw some of its famous palafito houses, perched over the water, and also paid a visit to its church which is of the distinctive Chiloéan Jesuit style, built from wood.

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I also made a little trip in the afternoon to the islet of Quinchao and walked around the village of Achao, which also had churches and views of the mainland.

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The following morning I ventured out to the island’s west coast for a hike through Chiloé’s National Park.

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For any other travellers thinking of going to this area, I will quickly explain how to get to the Cole-Cole beach trail, for both the Lonely Planet and websites like Wikitravel do so quite poorly. They make it sound like all hikes around Cucao region begin from the same place, whether you are heading to Laguna Huelde or up the coast to Cole-Cole, but this is not actually the case.

When you catch the bus to Cucao, the bus driver will likely try to coax you to get off at the entrance to Chiloé National Park headquarters, because that is where most of the gringos who come to this area go to but, if your destination is not Laguna Huelde but actually Cole Cole, stay on the bus because you do not need to pay the entrance fee to the park for this particular hike and the bus can drop you off a little closer to the trailhead, saving you a good hour of walking down a concrete road.

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I will be honest, the first hour or so of this trail was not awe-inspiring, but I have been spoilt recently, spending the last month hiking some of Patagonia’s finest parks. The path begins along a rather flat beach. You do have a fairly good chance of seeing some interesting birds and there are little hamlets along the way, but it is very samey for a long time and you soon get bored.

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There are also the bugs. I believe they may by some kind of breed of horsefly, but this particular kind are huge and much more annoying than anything else I have come across before. I am used to things like mosquitoes and leeches from my travels but these things, whatever they are, are truly one of nature’s worst abominations. They are very noisy and I didn’t actually realise they bite at first, as it seemed that they lacked any other purpose but buzz around you, clumsily and aimlessly, but eventually I discovered that if you stay still for too long they do bite and it’s painful. On some occasions I had over twenty of them chasing me down the beach. After over an hour of it, I threw a tantrum and went into a rage, swinging my hat in the air around me and screaming curses.

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Once I reached the village of Huentemo, I crossed a bridge and the trail became much more enjoyable. I entered a series of hilly woodlands with coastal views.

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The flunts, as I named them, were a little less in number, but continued to be an annoyance. At one point I smacked one with my hat and it fell to the ground, dazed. I crushed it with my shoe, and it was the most satisfying moment of my entire day.

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When I reached Cole-Cole, I set up my tent by the beach and I actually felt a little wistful. I realised this was my last overnight trek in Patagonia. I guess it was a great way to finish it, with a view like this.

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The sunset was pleasant too.

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In the morning, I wandered outside and there were lots of interesting birds out on the beach, including this group of (what I believe to be) curlews (video here).

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I finished off my time in Patagonia by spending a couple of days in Chile’s Lake District. Puerto Varas was the place I based myself. It was perched upon the shore of Lago Llanquihue and, although it was a bit touristy and there wasn’t actually too much to do there, it did have stunning views of the Volcanoes Osorno and Calibuco.

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This area is an old German colony so it has lots of interesting architecture. The following morning I went for a day trip to the village of Frutilla to walk around its neighbourhoods before I caught a night bus back to Santiago, where I would spend a few days shopping and seeing friends before I crossed the border into northern Argentina.

 

For more photos from Chiloé, click here, and for more from Puerto Varas, click here.

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Travelblog SA#37: Cerro Castillo & The Naviera Austral – Chile

10th-16th January 2019

After my road trip up through Ruta 40, I was dropped off at the border of Chile which I needed to cross to continue my journey through Patagonia. Once my passport was stamped, there were 10 kilometres of no man’s land to get through but I was soon picked up by a friendly family willing to give me a ride.

Once stamped back in, I stayed that night in Chile Chico, a small frontier town on the banks of Lake General Carrera. The boat left the next morning, so I packed away my tent early and got on board.

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When I reached Puerto Ibáñez a few hours later, I was a little worried it would be difficult to get to Villa Cerro Castillo as there were no direct public transport links, but I was on the Carrera Austral, after all – an area famous for hitchhiking – so I stuck my thumb up again and, true enough, it only took a few minutes for a friendly soul to pick me up.

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I arrived in Villa Cerro Castillo still with plenty of time to make the trek up to Laguna Castillo that day. It was a relatively short hike but very steep and it was also extremely foggy. At one point during my way up I couldn’t see anything more than ten feet away because the mountainside was so covered it mist, and I began to wonder if there was any point, but suddenly the clouds lifted and I caught a view of the valley.

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And then, shortly after, I reached the viewpoint for Cerro Castillo itself but it had grown foggy again, so I had to wait for a while for it to clear before I saw it.

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I never got to see its famous spires though, as that is where the cloud-line was that day, but I did get to see its glacier, waterfalls, and beautifully blue lake. Here is a video.

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I left the following morning for Coyhaique, the biggest town in the whole of the Aysén region. There wasn’t all too much to see there but it did have a certain charm, being surrounded by dramatic mountains, and I treated it as a pit stop, staying in an actual bed after weeks of sleeping in my tent. I took it easy for a couple of days while I waited for my boat to Chiloe.

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There are lots of boat cruises available in Patagonia but most of them are mega-expensive. The Naviera Austral, the one I took, is just a fraction of the price of the others because it is mostly intended as a supply vessel for a series small villages which exist along the coastal fjords and islets in Northern Patagonia.

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I was one of the only Gringos on board, as it is still a bit of a secret. I actually feel a bit guilty mentioning it on here, but it has already made it onto some other blogs and alternative guides such as Patagonia on a Budget so more people are catching on to it. I expect that, like a lot of things, it will feature in the next version of the Lonely Planet one day and the floodgates will open. A few years after that, they will introduce a dual-price system that charges foreigners more.

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I enjoyed this journey very much. I had a window seat and they had big, shelf-like sills, so I spent much of the time sat in it, catching up on my blog, watching films, and reading as the scenery went by. As well as making the occasional walk up to the balcony for a better view and air. There were lots of stops along the way at quaint water-side villages.

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For people considering doing this, it can be booked here. I would recommend it. The boat is large, the seats are quite comfortable, the toilets are clean, and apparently, there is even a hot shower you could access by request, but I never bothered because the journey was just two days and a night. The only problem I experienced was that, while the cafeteria did provide food for reasonable prices, none of the savoury options were vegetarian. I cooked my own food with my stove and got away with at first but on the second day, one of the workers saw me making lunch and told me it was not permitted. We got into a bit of an altercation because I (quite rightly) told him they can’t expect to enforce rules like that if they can’t provide vegetarian food themselves, and we reached a bit of a stalemate.

 

For more photos from Cerro Castillo and the Naviera Austral click on the hyperlinks.

Travelblog SA#36: Perito Moreno, El Chaltén & Ruta 40 – Argentina

4th-10th January 2019

Fresh from trekking the Torres Del Paine circuit, I began to head north. The Antarctic region of Chile is disconnected from the rest of the country by road so I was forced to cross over the border into Argentina in order to continue my journey. This was something I was not upset about at all, as there are many awesome things to see in this region of Patagonia.

 

Perito Moreno

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It did feel a little bit like I was cheating, being able to get right up close to such a marvel without doing any of the work. All it took was catching a bus from El Calafate and then I found myself at a park which had a series of boardwalks from which I could view a huge glacier from all angles.

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As I walked around, every now and then I heard a rumble as chunks of ice fell from the wall of ice and into the lake. I managed to catch the aftermath of one on my camera which you can watch if you click here.

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I also saw a pair of condors which suddenly, out of nowhere, swooped over me. I saw them from much closer than I did when at Cruz Del Condor in Peru, all those months ago. I was too awed to get my camera out to capture them. I just enjoyed the sight.

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For future travellers to this place, here is a tip; you can enter the park for half price if you manage to find a ticket from the previous day, so ask around your hostel when you arrive in El Calafate. I was a little worried they would clock me as the tickets state your country of origin and mine said ‘Brasil’, but the woman who came onto the bus when we entered the park didn’t say anything when she was collecting money. It was quite hilarious though when she got back on a few minutes later with the printed tickets and asked everyone from Brazil to raise their hand and I – probably the whitest dude in the entire carriage – raised mine. She did look at me a little funny when she gave me my ticket but I just said, “Vivo en Brasil pero soy de Gales.”

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If you are hesitant to do this, just remember; they charge foreign visitors 700 Argentinean pesos (not much shy of $20) per person whereas Argentineans only pay 100 and they receive hundreds of visitors a day. When they are taking in that much money you know only a fraction of it is going to the preservation of the park and the other 95% is just gringo tax. To sum up how guilty I felt, here is a picture:

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El Chaltén

A few decades ago Argentina sensed a land dispute coming up so they threw a few houses and a street at a frontier to lay claim. It just so happened to get very close to one of Patagonia’s most stunning landscapes and thus, over the years, it has grown.

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The day I arrived it was very windy, so I claimed a dorm bed into a hostel and had a wander around town, buying provisions and getting all my camping gear ready for the three-day trek I intended to embark upon known as the Fitz Roy & Cerro Torres Loop.

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The weather cleared up quite nicely by the following morning and I set upon the trail.

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It didn’t take me long till I began to start seeing stunning panoramas. When I reached the top of the first hill outside of the town, I could see the valley.

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And, to the other side, the iconic Fitz Roy Mountains were in the distance.

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They loomed before me for most of the day, as I got closer and closer, passing through forests, meadows, hillocks, rivers, and Lake Capri.

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It was a gentle hike – certainly after doing the Torres Del Paine just a week ago – and I reached Poincenot campsite within just a few hours, where I set up my tent, made dinner, and spent the evening reading a book in my tent, feeling very content.

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I woke up at sunrise and began my climb up to Laguna de Los Torres. It was steep but not too long and it only took about an hour to reach the top. When I first arrived it was cloudy, obscuring the view of Fitz Roy, but I waited and eventually, the sky cleared and the sun illuminated the peaks.

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I walked back to Camp Poincenot and dismantled my tent. I was walking along a trail towards Laguna Torres that day. I passed through forests and several lakes – including a pair known as Madre and Hija – on my way.

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It was as I was walking the final stretch to Camp Agostini that I bumped into Benjamin, a Swiss guy I had met a few weeks ago in Punta Arenas. We had a quick catch up and realised that we were both, over the next few days, heading in the same direction and he just so happened to have a car. We decided to meet up the next day to do the journey together.

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I walked around Laguna Torres for a while, which was fed by a glacier of the same name and had icebergs floating across its surface. I was camping nearby that night so I also returned in the morning just after sunrise, but to be honest I thought it looked better in the afternoon so I didn’t take any more pictures.

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When I returned to El Chaltén, I treated myself to lunch, collected my backpack, had a shower, and sat in a café for a while, waiting for Benjamin to come and pick me up.

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I enjoyed the Fitz Roy & Cerro Torres Loop very much. The actual hiking itself is very easy and the days are short. It has a very relaxed pace so you can take your time and it feels more like a languid series of walks with camping in between then a proper hike but you still get to see many views along the way. Ones which you would usually need to venture much further from civilisation for. I would recommend it as either a warm-up for those about to do the Torres Del Paine or for those who, like me, have just done the Torres Del Paine and fancy winding down with something easier.

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It is also great for wildlife. I saw Andean Foxes (videos here), Falcons (videos here), an austral parakeet (click here), and also a couple rabbits (which I didn’t quite manage to capture before they scarpered away, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

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Ruta 40

When Benjamin came to pick me up, it was late in the afternoon but, with it being Patagonian summer, we still had plenty of daylight left. His car was huge, with four spacious seats and a bed at the back which he sleeps in most nights. He bought it in Ushuaia and intends to drive it all the way up to Colombia over the next few months.

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We left El Chaltén behind and entered the Patagonian Steppe. A flat, windy, barren landscape covered with little shrubs which seemed to be the only thing which grows there, and the guanacos which fed upon them. Most of the road was fairly good but there was a good hour or two of gravel which – combined with the wind – made for a bumpy ride.

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It seemed that Benjamin was not the only old face I would see this week; when we stopped at a gas station I bumped into a girl I met while in Sucre in Bolivia almost two months ago and we had a quick catch up. She was hitchhiking but going the opposite way to us, towards El Chaltén.

When it got dark, we parked up by some trees by the side of the road and I set up my tent for the night. I slept, and in the morning we got up, ate, packed away and got back on the road.

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We saw a couple of rheas that day and some foxes. The landscape became less flat and we eventually saw white-capped mountains in the distance, a sign we were getting closer to Chilean Patagonia. We reached Los Antigos by the afternoon and there was a cherry festival going on with live music, rodeos and other things, so Benjamin decided he wanted to stay there for a while. I was more pressed for time though so he dropped me off at the border of Chile and we went separate ways.

 

More more photos click to see the following albums: Perito Moreno and El Chaltén.