A Travellerspoint blog

The journey through Chile: Puerto Varas and Valdivia


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I hadn't really planned much of my journey through Chile. I just knew I had three weeks to get from Bariloche, Argentina into Santiago de Chile, and that I wanted to travel up the Chilean side.

I took recommendations from my new Chilean friends and other travellers and ended up loving my stops on the way. My first stop across the border was Puerto Varas.

Puerto Varas
I had been advised to stay here rather than bigger Puerto Montt (the port to pick up a Patagonia cruise that takes you to the end of the world!). It was a pretty town, full of Chileans on holiday, which felt like a seaside town, although the beaches were on lakes, not the sea. The lake is the perfect spot to catch the beautiful view of the snow capped Osorno volcano.

I stayed for two nights in a small family run hostel called Compass del Sur. On the first evening I wandered into town following my dinner and ended up at the main plaza where there was a free concert for the Feria de las Rosas.

Now I didn't know who was playing, but it seemed as though the whole of Puerto Varas had come out to see this free concert, and they clearly knew the artists since men, women, boys and girls were singing along, the only ones present but not joining in were tourists (that would be me) and the babies in their parents' arms, headphones on.

I later found out it was Nene Malo on stage, an Argentinian singer, famous all around Latin America.

I also went rafting in Puerto Varas (it was much cheaper than in Bariloche). We went in two rafts down a grade 3/4 river. We were unable to go the full way that the company used to go since the roads are still blocked from a volcanic eruption last year. If we had continued as before, apparently we'd have to raft for 8 hours more to reach a point where the roads were accessible again. So instead, we stopped for a chance to jump into the river.

Now I'm not particularly scared of heights, but jumping off them into fast moving water is rather contrary to my nature so I initially chickened out of jumping. I did eventually pluck up the courage to take the plunge, and it was actually pretty fun, and not that high up. As a well done treat I did purchase an ice cream back in Puerto Varas, from a place recommended by the hostel, guide books and the long long queue of people.

Valdivia
I was planning to skip Valdivia altogether but the friends I made in Bariloche suggested I really should stop if I could. I'm really pleased I stopped in, although I was only there for 24 hours, I really liked the vibe in this city.

I stayed in the cool hostel my friends recommended called Aires Buenos. Although it was a Monday when I arrived, and most state run museums are closed on Mondays, I decided to visit the various islands there. First I went to see the fort, then walked back to the port to catch the ferry over to Isla Corral. By this point is was getting a little late and chilly so I just visited the old fort, watched the historical reenactment and hopped back on the ferry. It's a shame I didn't explore more, but I do think I got a good taste of what's there.

I met fun people at the hostel and a small group of us went for a nighttime stroll to some recommended bars. Being a Monday night, it was not a crazy evening, but it was nice to meet some interesting characters and exchange travel stories, tips and tricks.

The next day I had a few life admin missions to complete before I went exploring further. I had realised as I left Puerto Varas that I no longer had my raincoat. I'm still not 100% sure where I left it, but I have a feeling it ended up somewhere in no man's land between the Argentinian and Chilean borders. Chilean border control check absolutely every piece of luggage so it likely got lost in the moving of bags.

So the next morning I set off to find a new rain coat. It turns out, that whilst Chile is cheaper than the UK in many aspects, food, transport, adventure activities and more, it is not cheaper for clothes, especially not outdoorsy clothes. There is an abundance of shops with rain coats costing a mere £80 or so, so I landed up purchasing a fetching fluorescent yellow get up that was on sale!

My second big task was to find somewhere to fix my hiking boots. It seems that landed both feet in a river is not so good for hiking boots - see the post named 'Hiking the W at Torres del Paine' for more details on that incident! After a fair bit of asking around, I found a small little shoe repairs place who charged me only £4 to sew the sole back to the boot, which seemed like a much better plan than £90-£200 on a new pair!

After that I was able to go for a wander, back onto one of the islands for a trip to the botanical gardens which is on the university campus. I also visited the museum of contemporary art for a bit of culture. I didn't spend much time in the city, but I liked this environmentally-aware, cool, student city that felt like people lived and grew up there, rather than being there simply for work.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 16:12 Archived in Chile Tagged islands volcanoes Comments (0)

Bariloche: chocolate in the Lake District

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After my adventures in Patagonia, I headed to Bariloche, a popular holiday destination in the Argentian Lake District.

This city is full of artisanal chocolate shops, most of which have gelaterias inside too. As you can imagine, I was in heaven since chocolate and ice cream are two of the best things in life, and I was still pretty tired after my southern adventures so this was a perfect way to unwind.

I stayed in Hostal Pudu, a small and super friendly hostel not far from the busy streets, with a view of one of the lakes. There I met two students from Santiago who were taking a short break there. I ended up spending the next day with them going to sunbathe on the lake beaches and wander around town.

The following day I agreed to go on a day hike up by Cerro Catedral (the main skiing spot in winter). I did not do my homework, so was unaware we were headed for a 24km day hike, but that we did, 12km up the mountain to the glacial lake, and another 12km down. Compared to the hikes I had just done it was very manageable; it was pretty, but not as stunning when compared to my views just days before.

I can imagine it feels very different in the winter when Bariloche is packed with skiers, perhaps it's somewhere to come back to in winter...

Posted by Rebecca Heller 04:44 Archived in Argentina Tagged lakes chocolate hike Comments (0)

Hiking the W at Torres del Paine

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I didn't sleep all that well the night before; I spent a bit of time wondering if this was such a good idea after all but I got up ready to get on with it. I got down to breakfast and met Diego sitting there; he was also leaving that morning to hike the W, also in 4 days.

Hurrah! A friend! Someone to walk with, at least on the first day, I'd thought. As it turned out, we walked together every day, even when we didn't stay in the same campsites.

First stop is Administración, where you register and pay to enter the park. You also get briefing of the rules: leave NO litter anywhere, stick to the trails... You also have another opportunity to reserve a free spot at the free campsites. Unfortunately, I was still unable to book my spaces, which is apparently quite rare. If you are planning on going, it's worth being a bit planned and booked them in advance if you can.

I then got back on the bus so that I could catch the catamaran across the lake to start the hike at Paine Grande. At this point it started raining and I did start to wonder again, if this was the best idea ever but then I got the first glimpse of the outstanding scenery we were about to spend the next few days surrounded by and I perked up!

Since we were doing the trek in 4 days, we set up shop at the Paine Grande campsite, before heading up the first branch of the W to Mirador Grey. If I'm completely honest, I'm pretty glad I didn't have to carry my bag up there and could get used to hiking up with just me myself and I (and Diego) before the really hard work began! It gave me a chance to get accustomed to the walking poles, and really enjoy the first day of the hike.

The official map weirdly gives you time estimations rather than distances, so I was ready for a 3.5 hour hike but it actually only took 2 to Mirador Grey where you get a spectacular view of the Glaciar ahead. There we were exposed the well known Patagonian winds, strong enough that I didn't stand too near any edges!

Since Diego wanted to walk further up before returning to camp, I returned to camp by myself - my first real solo hike. I didn't really know how I would feel about hiking alone, but I really enjoyed that walk back. There I was in still unspoiled nature, that is both visually beautiful and a joy to listen to.

I have heard several comments about how quiet, silent even, it would be to hike alone. On that walk back I discovered that those nature relaxation albums you can pick up at supermarket check outs aren't as bullshitty as I had previous thought.

We rarely hear it but nature has it's own orchestra. There's the chorus of the wind whistling through grass and trees and the valley, rivers running large and small, quickly and slowly, perhaps some ice cracking or crashing down from a glacier. There might be insects, birds and animals. Rocks falling. The sound of me walking along the trails.

So you see the walk back wasn't silent at all. It was peaceful, calm, and fairly unbelievable. I have had plenty of opportunities on my trip to reflect on how privileged I am, but realising those nature albums weren't made up and acknowledging that some people will never hear earth's own music, struck a chord (if you'll excuse the pun). I am one lucky lady.

The next day, I realised that a morning routine that requires camp stove cooking, queuing to wash it all up, packing up my tent and organising my backpack was a far longer process than I had imagined. I'm fairly slow in the mornings anyway, and that's when I don't need to pack my 'house' away every morning, so add the extras and it was a slow process. Eventually though we set off from Paine Grande campsite to Italiano.

This trail took us about 3 hours with the path along the lake bank, with a view of snow peaked mountains surrounding us. It was the first real distance I had gone with my bag on my back, so whilst it wasn't the most difficult section, it was the first real challenge for me. We took regular breaks at river banks and waterfalls and made it in about the average time (according to the map).

I hadn't got a spot at Italiano campsite so I went straight on the additional half an hour to Francés. That stretch was full of black and yellow butterflies that flew with me part of the way one at a time, making me feel like they were keeping me company on my journey.

After setting up camp, I went back to Italiano to meet Diego to make the trip up to Mirador Francés. This part of the trek is through woodland areas, and you can hear the rivers from afar, even when it's hidden from view. We saw some people bravely bathing in a river (I say bravely because the river is fed by the glacier, so it's fairly chilly water).

You can also hear the sound of the glacier cracking and the crash as the ice falls. We were lucky enough to see this in action from the mirador, which was quite something to witness!

Back at camp, it was possible to cook in cooking cubes near the tents, or there was a bench with shelter, unfortunately near the toilets. I chose the latter for my cooking as it was less crowded and I was far less likely to cause a fire (which apart from the danger of a forest fire, could have resulted in a Large fine and/ or imprisonment!). By the time dinner was ready, I had made friends with a group of Chilean girls my age, a group of veterinary students who were trekking in their summer break. It was a fun way to pass the evening, comparing life notes and getting a be deeper than my planned travel route.

On day 3, I met Diego at 7.30am, knowing we had a long day ahead. As the previous morning had taken me so long, I got up super early to ensure I wouldn't be late. We set off in good time, and I was surprised that we were amongst the only people starting early, as at least some others were doing the same section as us.

As expected, this was our hardest day. We did more uphill climbing than the previous day and we found ourselves stopping every half an hour or so to rest our tired shoulders. The walk was still beautiful, breathtaking not only from physical exertion, but also from the turquoise lakes on one side, mountains on the other and the crystal clear rivers we crossed.

That is apart from one river. We came to this wide, fast flowing river having followed some trekkers up ahead. When we came to it, Diego bounded across, jumping slightly from rock to rock to reach the other side. I however, hesitated. At 5 ft tall, I am considerably shorter than Diego, who had needed to jump across. I was scared to jump, miss and land up on my back being dragged down the river. After much hesitation, Diego came back across to take my bag to make it easier, and I still struggled. I landed up both feet firmly in the river, being the only way to make it across with my little legs!

When we eventually got across, we needed to climb up a fair way, me with soaking wet feet, and damp legs up to nearly my knees. At this point we realised the bridge way way above us was clearly the path, and would in fact have been the better (and probably quicker) option. You live and you learn!

We still had a considerable way to walk through the Patagonian mountains, and after some lunch (and shoe drying time) we kept going on our epic adventure. We eventually moved away from the lakes, and climbed a fair way, making us exposed to the strong Patagonian winds. I was thankful for the walking polls here!

By the time I reached the Chileno camp, I was exhausted and happy to set up camp. I waved Diego off who still had another hour or so to go to the Torres base camp (where I had really wanted a spot!) and said I would probably see him at the Torres in the morning for sunrise.

Over dinner I spoke to a few people to determine that others were planning the two hour walk to see the sunrise at the Torres del Paine themselves and I resolved to do it too. So I hurried off to bed and set my alarm for 2.15am.

It took me all of about two minutes to be good to go in the morning, but being alone, I decided to wait in my tent until others walked past for the trek. It wouldn't have been at all clever to attempt the walk alone in the pitch black. Eventually at 2.30am some people headed towards my tent and I jumped up to join their group.

It took us about two hours to reach the top, which included getting lost on the way and having to retrace our steps. We reached the top as the light was starting, but way before the sun was visibly rising. Once we stopped walking, it was freezing up there, so I found a spot with other people for warmth, ate some breakfast and waited for the sun.

It was the most amazing sunrise I have witnessed; even my photos look edited (I promise they aren't!). To one side I saw the sky painted in inky blues, reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, with clouds for extra dramatic effects, all of which you see reflected in the lake beneath the mountains. To the other, I saw the Torres del Paine illuminate into view reflecting the colours of the sunrise opposite.

It was a hard trek in the dark, but honestly one of the best things I have experienced on my trip. As tired as I was after the whole trek, and particularly the early start, I am proud of myself for having done the trek and if I may say so myself, smashing it!

Posted by Rebecca Heller 04:39 Archived in Chile Tagged landscapes waterfalls lakes bridges night mountain glacier hike patagonia Comments (0)

Preparing for Patagonia: Chilean style


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When I decided to head to Patagonia, I dutifully read up on both the Argentinian and Chilean side, which is where I really learned about the Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia. It didn't even occur to me that I could trek it independently of a tour, so I started researching companies. They turned out to be pretty expensive and I assumed my best bet would be to stick to some day trips.

However, I met several people on my Uyuni/ Salt Flats tour who had been trekking there and they all gave me tidbits of advice and encouragement to go and do the trek independently. There were a few women like me who'd gone alone, also with minimal previous trekking experience, and that's how something that had not originally been on my agenda at all, turned into a new adventure I could realistically do.

As per the advice I was given I tried to get to Puerto Natales in time for the 3pm information and advice session at Base Camp. Base Camp is a pub and trekking rental store next door to, and run by, the Erratic Rock hostel, their staff give this talk every single day and stay around to answer all the questions you have. I'll include some of that advice as I go here, but if you're planning to trek, especially the O or the Q, please don't take my words as gospel, still go to the talk if you can, as they will give up to date and more specific advice.

Thanks to a longer than necessary border control (and which border crossing isn't?), I arrived at the talk at 3.15, a little flustered having missed the beginning. It didn't matter though, I heard all the advice for people wanting to do the W trek, normally a 5 day trek. I had had to wait in El Calafate as the buses had been full, so I only had 4 days to complete the trek which the staff there helped me plan.

The rest of that afternoon was about preparing everything I needed for the next four days, including equipment hire and food shopping. As I was going alone, I needed to be able to carry everything for myself, and knowing exactly what to buy was quite tricky as you need to pack food that will properly sustain you but that is light and resealable. There was plenty of umming and ahhing in the supermarket but finally I settled on dinners of rice, veg from a carton, soup packets to add flavour, and tuna. For breakfast I purchased the two portion packet of oatmeal from Base Camp as I didn't want to buy a whole box for just me and for lunch I got rice cakes, nuts and raisins.

In the end, I took about the right amount and type of food. This included some beloved chocolate, as we had been advised to take some sort of treat. I was also glad they reminded me to bring ziplock bags, which are excellent for sealing open food packets without them leaking.

The next challenge was packing the bag with the right distribution. I had been lucky to get a bed at Erratic Rock (they don't take reservations!) so I was close to some very knowledgable people. Thankfully, someone noticed my phaffing and decided to help me pack it all in! No the process he noticed I had purchased a large plastic bottle to take with me. Horrified, he rushed into his room and returned with a 500ml bottle, and almost demanded I swapped since there was no need to carry the extra weight. I was slightly sceptical, but actually this was one of the best pieces of advice.

Unlike other treks, the Torres del Paine national park is full of fresh and clean streams and rivers, so rather than schlepp around 2 litres, it's much better to carry a small bottle and refill it all the time.

After what was probably way too much flapping about, I finally finished packing up and collapsed into a very comfy bed ahead of my early start the following morning.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 03:06 Archived in Chile Tagged landscapes preparation patagonia hikes Comments (0)

Patagonia: Argentinian style


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I had had it in my mind that I wanted to go to Patagonia as part of my trip. After looking into the buses, I realised I could fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate for a similar price to the bus whilst saving myself a whole heap of time. It's not that it wouldn't be worth the bus down. To contrary, I think with all the time and money in the world it would be wonderful. That, however, is not my reality so fly I did.

The view of Lago Argentina as we flew into El Calafate was nothing short of magical. The water was turquoise in a way I've only ever seen on the telly or in an old Polly Pocket seaside toy I once had and the surface sparkled like the Eiffel Tower after dark.

The following day I went on the Alternative Tour to the Perito Moreno glacier that my hostel offered. Since I've never done one of those tours before, I'm not so sure what was so alternative, but that didn't really matter. For the record, you can go independent of a tour if you prefer but the price difference isn't very big and you get more for your money on a tour.

My guide book told me that the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of Argentina's greatest natural wonders, and it wasn't wrong. It is a pretty spectacular wall of brilliant white and bright blue ice that seems to go on forever. It's considered a stable glacier, meaning that on average it is not advancing or receding. However, I was lucky enough to witness it in an advanced state, where the ice blocks the river from the main body of water. Eventually, the pressure will builds, and the river water will force it's way through the ice. The rupture that will occur soon is said to be spectacular.

When I got back from Puerto Natales and the trek in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile (more on this in another post), I was pretty exhausted from the trek and had planned on a day of rest and laziness. However, I ended up meeting someone who'd been in the same hostel in Puerto Natales and we decided to visit the natural reserve and Laguna Argentina.

It was a gorgeous sunny day and we ended up spending over 4 hours there. I think it helped that Ofir is a bird watching enthusiast. I was planning to visit and mooch round quickly but enthusiasm is contagious and very soon I was excited when I spotted various species through the binoculars we hired. It seems enthusiasm may be not be good for memory as I can no longer tell you which birds I saw.

We were also befriended by a dog. It's often tricky to know if dogs are stray in this part of the world as they don't wear tags and this particular dog looked clean and well fed. However, Alexa, as we named her, stayed with us for hours and no one seemed to be looking for her so it's fairly safe to assume she's a stray. I'd describe myself as dog shy so it took me a while to bcomfortable having her bound about around us, but I warmed up to her eventually. Had we not needed to go to the supermarket, Ofir may just have tried to adopt her as his new travelling companion, and whilst it's probably for the best he didn't, he was very sad at the loss of his new best friend.

I didn't spend long in El Calafate, but I have great memories from my visit (apart from the names of the birds I saw...) and would highly recommend a visit.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 20:04 Archived in Argentina Tagged lakes glacier patagonia Comments (0)

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