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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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I also saw a pair of Magallenic geese.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And later, a canyon.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

Travelblog SA#28: La Paz – Bolivia

9th-12th November 2018

La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world. Its official attitude sits at 3,600 meters, but in reality when you are here chances are you could be much higher than that, as it is perched within towering peaks. It’s airport, based in a district known as ‘El Alto’, is 4,100.

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I will begin with the journey there from Copacabana. On the bus I often found my eyes drawn away from the book I was reading to the window as we circled the shore of the lake. At one point the bus began to sway and I was startled to see we were completely surrounded by water. The bus was floating upon a small vessel, being carried to the other side. From there, we ventured up into the mountains for a period of time until we crossed a threshold and were suddenly on a flat, desert-like plane which stretched for miles and miles with only the icy peaks of the Cordillera Real to be seen on the horizon.

As soon as you reach La Paz you are plunged into chaos. The bus crawls its way through unruly traffic on old roads full of potholes, but you are not overly upset about it because it is a vibrant city with lots of street markets.  I even spotted a group of people praying by a small outdoor altar with burning incense.

I was tired the day I arrived and I had things to catch up with online. The wifi in La Paz was somewhat more functional than in Copacabana but still painfully slow. I was staying in a small B&B on the tenth floor of a tower block overlooking the centre. It was a cosy little place with a kitchen, bathroom, two private rooms and one dorm with just four beds. The lady who owned it was helpful and one of the other guys staying there I had met previously before in Ollantaytambo, so I felt at home.

The next morning I began exploring. I started with the sights near to the central plaza. The cathedral is a little empty and bare, but it is the nearby Iglesia San Franciso which is the real nucleus of religious life. I have noticed so far during my time in  Bolivia that, unlike Peru, all of its churches have been free to enter.

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Next to the church there is a museum where you can wander some of the halls of the old Franciscan Monastery. To be honest, there isn’t a great amount to see in there, but the entry does come with a free tour and the guides are helpful and inform you of some of the area’s history.

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I went to visit El Mercado de las Brujas (Witches Market). A place where one can buy all sorts of remedies, potions, herbs, and even some more gruesome ingredients such as llama foetuses from old ladies if you wish. It was interesting to browse for a while, but it seems the street is beginning to be taken over by travel agencies and stalls selling tat which is somewhat polluting the ambience.

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I spent the rest of that day in museums. The Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore had a wonderful collection of ceremonial masks and examples of weaving, pottery, featherwork and all over affair from the different regions of Bolivia. It is a lovely way to spend an hour and soak up Bolivia’s wonderfully diverse culture, but I did come out of there feeling a little peeved that, despite them acknowledging their foreign visitors in a monetary way, by having a perfectly-translated list of rules and entry prices at reception and charging us four times the amount they do nationals, once you have bought your ticket, you discover that none of its displays has any information in English.

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The Museo Nacional de Arte was technically closed that day because they had a temporary exhibition by contemporary artists from all over Latin America. This event was free entry and, once inside, I managed to see some of the museum’s permanent displays too because the doors were left open.

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The next day I set off early in a crowded minivan to see Bolivia’s most important archaeological site, Tiwanaku.

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Pre-dating the Incas by hundreds of years, the Tiwanaku people are one of the most interesting in all civilisations of South America. From their humble origins on the shores of Lake Titicaca, they managed to spread across a vast region encompassing parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, and what makes that even more of an enigma is that archaeological evidence suggests that this expansion was achieved peacefully with very little warfare.

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This site was their nexus during the civilisation’s golden age. Its stones were carved from quarries in Lake Titicaca and hauled all the way up by a very early canal system. It is thought they chose this location, despite its harsh location, climate and lack of fertile soil, because the Tiwanaku were astronomers and it is situated upon a flat plane, allowing them to better observe the movements of the stars. Indeed, one of the pyramids they built – now not more than a mound surrounded by some vestigial walls – was thought to have had a pool on its roof for their holy men to see the night sky in its reflection, and there is also the Sun Gate which acted as a primitive calendar.

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The Tiwanaku people did not meet their end through being conquered but experienced a long period of drought, during which their civilisation dwindled. The ones who survived retreated into little villages because life was so hard they no longer had the luxury to build monuments or map the universe. Tiwanaku was abandoned, but many of its people were swept up by the Incas and I don’t think there is much mystery – particularly when you see sights such as the nearby Puma Punku – as to whom they learned their master stone-crafting techniques from.

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On the way back to La Paz, instead of being caught in all the traffic again I got off the bus and used one of its cable car systems to reach the centre. It was a wonderful way to see the cityscape, passing over all of its rugged peaks and outer neighbourhoods. I even got to see the famous market in El Alto, said to be one of the biggest in Latin America.

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On my final day of exploring La Paz, I went for a little trip to Valle de la Luna which was just a short bus ride away and had some very interesting formations. It was a great way to spend my last morning before I prepared for the El Choro trek, which is what my next blog will be about.

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For more photos from La Paz, click here.