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Chile

Plenty of love for Santiago

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View Getting to know Chile on Rebecca Heller's travel map.

Before coming travelling, I had always felt like I preferred big cities to smaller places, but since I've been away I've grown to love the smaller, more chilled out towns and amazing natural beauties. I spent a lot of time in Chile in just those kinds of places.

Throw into the mix the conflicting opinions of Santiago that I had heard from people along the way, and it's not surprising that I was a little unsure how I would feel about a big capital city like Santiago.

I loved Santiago. It's a big modern city, with green spaces, it's colourful, there's culture and plenty of opportunities to have a great time, whatever having a great time means to you.

That evening I made some friends in the hostel and we went out for a few drinks on Pio Nono, a street full of cafes (by day) and bars (by night).

On my first morning, I headed straight for Cerro San Cristóbel. It's a big hill, with not a lot of shade, that you can walk up, take the fenicular, or apparently cycle up very quickly. I walked which was very hot indeed. At the top is a statue of la virgen and space for quiet reflection for those who wish.

That afternoon I did the free Tours4Tips walking tour. It was the first time on this trip that my guide was not native to the country we were in, ours was French Canadian, so in fact speaking her third language. She was an excellent guide, and I only mention her nationality because I think it perhaps gave her a more objective perspective on some elements of Santiago's recent dark history, namely the Pinochet years.

That evening I went to a pool party. I was invited by the people I met in Pucón who live there and it seemed like as good idea as any! It was really fun and a great way to meet people living in the city. Viewing the sunset over the mountains from the roof top pool was pretty spectacular and a surreal moment.

The next day I dedicated to cultural Santiago. My first stop was the Museum of memory and human rights. I first heard about this museum in my final year of university whilst enrolled on a module called the Human Rights Abuses in 20th Century Latin America.

I'll leave a more detailed account of this museum for another post and only say that it's an excellent and truly important museum. It's a must if you are ever passing through Santiago.

That afternoon I also made it to Pablo Neruda's house, which has been turned into a museum about his life and loves.

Finally, I popped into the National Gallery, for all of 20 minutes that I had left before closing time. It was a shame not to dedicate more time, but you know, there should always be something to come back for.

It seems as though many people skip Santiago, pass through the airport without spending any time there, but I would strongly recommend spending at least a few days there. I did, and now I want to go back!

Posted by Rebecca Heller 19:11 Archived in Chile Tagged parties walking culture city friends memory dictatorship Comments (0)

Valparaiso and Viña del Mar: street art and beach


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I made it to Valparaiso early the next morning. I was excited for this stop as I'd heard great things about this city. When I found my hostel, I was greeted by a hostel guest that I'd apparently woken up (sorry!) as the staff member on duty had popped out! I spent the morning pottering around the city, getting lost in all the little lanes and stair wells just taking it in before heading to the square for the afternoon Tours 4 Tips walking tour.

I think this was my favourite walking tour I've done. They cover both historical significance of Valparaiso and the more contemporary street art scene. We heard about different artists, symbols in their work, we even met one of the artists, the art really makes the city special. It's such an integral part of the city that artists move there for the art and opportunities there.

We were told about the Terremoto drink, a white wine based concoction, with additional grenadine and pineapple ice cream for extra sweetness. Terremoto means earthquake in Spanish, and it is named that way because people apparently walk like there's an earthquake happening, after they've drunk it. I can neither confirm nor deny the truth in that...

I made the mistake of staying only one night in Valparaiso and had booked a night in Viña del Mar, the seaside city which is really only half an hour away. If I did it over again, I would stay in Valpo and commute to Viña for the beach. It's not that Viña isn't nice, it is, but it's also a city built as a holiday beach destination, so it lacks the charm that fills Valparaiso. The beaches were lovely though.

Posted by Rebecca Heller 16:34 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Pucón: climbing Chile's most active volcano


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My next stop was Pucón. My bus arrived a little late, so when I got to the hostel, the first thing the staff asked was did I want to climb volcano Villarrica the following day, and if so I needed to sign up right then. This had been recommended by people I'd met, so when I was advised that this could be my only day to climb, I signed myself up.

The 6.30am safety briefing was fairly intense, I started to wonder if perhaps I should have thought this through a little. They provide you with ice boots and a backpack full of gear for the climb, including an ice pick. It had been a while since I studied geography and I hadn't really considered that climbing a volcano meant climbing on ice, something I'm definitely not used to!

When you arrive at the volcano you have the choice to take the chair lift or walk, I followed advice from other travellers to get the ski lift and conserve energy for later. I'm pretty glad I did that as I did need a lot of energy for the next bit of the climb!

Walking on ice is very hard work and I was in all honesty nervous when walking on the ice, but the views at each rest point make it worthwhile. It's spectacular and we had a clear day so we could see far and wide. I might have had a little slip once on the way up, but otherwise made it up there slowly but surely.

When you get near the top, we split into smaller groups as not everyone can be at the summit at once. You're not allowed to spend too much time up there since Villarrica is an active volcano, to be precise it's the most active volcano in Chile, and so there are poisonous fumes up there. Thankfully, the levels of dangerous gases were deemed low enough that I did not need to wear the gas mask up there. We were lucky enough to see some real life lava from the crater, it's apparently rare, and before we knew it, we were being herded back down to prepare for the descent.

They've really taken advantage of the fact that ice is slippery and dug chutes or slides in the ice, making this the most fun and also the quickest way to get down an icy volcano. I may have constantly been slowing myself down with the ice pick, but it was pretty funny.

I was also glad to make it to the bottom though. I had a great experience, and am really glad I didn't overthink it before I signed up, otherwise I may not have actually done it and that would have been a crying shame!

Pucón itself is super small and extremely touristy so I went out of town on the next two days. I went for a day hike in the national park on the Sendero Tres Lagos with two girls who did the volcano climb with me, and to some hot springs with a group from my hostel. Both were relaxing days following a tiring volcano climb!

The day of the hot springs was lovely until my journey back. I had allowed 4 hours to leave the hot springs, travel for an hour and have 2 hours to eat and get ready for my bus up to Valparaiso.

Unfortunately, there's one road in and out of Pucón and most of Chile seemed to be driving on it that evening. I was convinced I was going to miss my bus, and the journey back took nearly 4 hours. When we finally arrived in Pucón, I had 15 minutes to make it back to my hostel, pick up my bags and leg it to the bus station which was about 10 minutes away. I made it with about 3 minutes to spare! Unfortunately I had not had time to make my food and I was on a 12 hour overnight bus journey so dinner consisted of nuts and raisins, but I had made my bus!

Posted by Rebecca Heller 16:28 Archived in Chile Tagged springs volcanoes Comments (0)

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)

Hiking the W at Torres del Paine

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View Exploring Patagonia on Rebecca Heller's travel map.

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)

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