Our October 2022 holiday
Introduction Santiago The Atacama Desert More Of The Atacama Desert San Pedro To Puerto Varas The Lake District On To Patagonia Torres Del Paine National Park Grey Glacier Punta Arenas Back To Santiago And Home Conclusion
Over the past 16 years, my sister Silvia & I have enjoyed a series of holidays together and this was our 14th such adventure. Following an enjoyable visit to Colombia [click here] four years ago, we returned to South America to experience Chile [click here] with the travel company Cox & Kings [click here].
Now some countries - such as Norway and Sweden - are long and thin, but Chile is unreasonably long and preposterously thin. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountains to the east, it is 4,300 km (almost 2,700 miles) long and averages just 175 km (about 120 miles) wide.
It stretches from the dry heat of the Atacama desert in the north to chilly Patagonia in the south with a temperate region - where most Chileans live - in the centre. Roughly 29% of Chile is preserved in national parks and conservation areas. Over two weeks, we visited each of these regions and the finest national park and therefore needed to take clothing for different climates.
Chile is the southern-most country in the world. The total size of the country is three times that of the UK but the population is only about 18M or twice that of London with a third of the population living in the capital Santiago.
Chile was colonised by the Spanish in the mid 15th century and eventually gained its independence in 1818. Following the War of the Pacific (1879-1884) with Peru and Bolivia, Chile increased its land mass by a third in the north. After a coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, there was a 17 year dictatorship in the country.
Since March 2022, the president of Chile has been left-winger Gabriel Boric (born 1986) who is the youngest president in the country's history and the second youngest state leader in the world (Burkina Faso has the youngest). However, in September 2022, a radical new constitution favoured by Boric was defeated in a referendum.
If Chile is a country that at times has swung ideologically from one extreme to another, it is also a nation of economic contrast. On the one hand, it has the highest average household income in the whole of Latin America. On the other hand, it has one of the greatest cases of inequality in the developed or developing world (rivalled only by the United States and Mexico).
So, in terms of climate, politics and economics, Chile is a country of extremes and contrasts.
London to Chile is 7,240 miles (11,650 kms) as the crow flies but we are not crows. So the flight from London to São Paolo in Brazil - starting on Sunday evening - was almost eleven and a half hours and the flight from São Paolo to Santiago in Chile was just over three and a half hours.
On Monday morning, we were met at the airport by our guide for the entire tour Valentina Periez and taken to our hotel, the Plaza San Francisco, arriving about 1.45 pm local time but 4.45 pm London time (having first taken off at 10.30 pm the previous evening). Valentina explained to the group that in Chile there are "tremors" every day but that they do not call them "earthquakes" unless they reach 7 on the Richter Scale. How reassuring.
The group should have been 12 but somebody lost their passport at São Paolo airport and was denied entry at Santiago airport, so a couple had to return to London. There was one married couple and the rest were travelling with a relative or friend or alone. There was another Roger who used to work with my then sister-in-law (it's a small world). So, including Silvia & me, the group consisted of 10 and, together with our guide, we immediately formed a WhatsApp group for the trip (something that I have not experienced before) which proved really helpful.
We had a welcome drink of pisco sour and a quick briefing from Valentina and then Silvia & I went out for lunch locally before chilling in our hotel room. We made sure then we had a really early night (9 pm in my case).
Our first real day of the tour (Tuesday) was devoted to Santiago.
Founded by Pedro de Valdiva in 1541 and surrounded by the spectacular Andes mountain range, Santiago is not just the capital of the country and its largest city but the dominant part of the country. Some 6M live in the city itself and 8M in the metropolitan region out of a total national population of 18M, so Santiago is home to a third of Chileans. Interestingly, both houses of Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate - which used to be in Santiago are now located in Valparaiso.
It was 18 October and the third anniversary of the explosion of the 2019-2022 Chilean protests, known in Chile as the Estallido Social (literally 'social outburst') which were a series of massive demonstrations and serious riots that originated in Santiago and spread to all regions of the country. These protests were in response to a rise in Santiago subway fares, a probity crisis, the rise in the cost of living generally, the impact of privatisation and the prevalent inequality in the country.
Valentina was anxious that we should not become caught up in the expected demonstrations, so we conducted our city tour in the morning before the demos began, but the city was already quiet and full of police. A major destination was the Plaza de Armas where the presidential place is located. Around the square are statues of some of the leading presidents of Chilean history, including Salvador Allende who was president from 1970 to 1973 before the coup led by General Pinochet. Another stop was at the Mall Espacio M where Silvia & I grabbed a coffee.
To be honest, the centre of Santiago is rather drab and almost every wall is covered by political graffiti. This has been the case for the last three years because of the 'social outburst' and the municipal authorities are planning a clean-up programme.
Then we drove east to a much smarter part of the city which houses the Gran Torre Santiago which at 300 metres (984 feet) is the tallest building in Latin America. On the 61st and 62nd floors of this skyscraper is the Sky Costanera from which we had fabulous 360 degree views of the city. The Andes were rather shrouded in mist but clearly visible. Towards the bottom of the skyscraper, Silvia & I found a cafe to buy some lunch to eat on the coach.
Later we heard that someone had committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of the building's shopping mall onto the interior floor. We wondered if this was a political protest timed to coincide with today's demonstrations.
Finally we drove out of town to visit a vineyard called Undurrago. This was established in 1885 by a Spanish family of this name who only sold it in 2007. We were shown round by a young woman called Nadia who had excellent English and an astonishing knowledge of wine. The tour finished with the testing of four of the vineyard's wines and we were given the branded glass from which we had drunk the wines.
We had a early start next day so we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant in order to have an early night.
THE ATACAMA DESERT
It was a very early start to Wednesday and I mean early. In Santiago, Silvia's alarm went at 4.30 am and mine at 5 am. The group left the hotel at 5.50 am with a packed breakfast and headed to the airport. We flew from Santiago in the centre of the country to Calama in the far north - a flight of one hour 40 minutes with spectacular views of the Andes.
We were met by a new - smaller - coach and driven south-east to our accommodation for the next three nights. When we left Santiago, we were at an altitude of about 500 metres (1,640 feet); when we left Calama, we were much higher and quickly rose up to 3,430 metres (11,250 feet), before dropping down to 2,440 metres (8,000 feet), so we had to breathe deeply.
The Altiplanico Hotel, just outside the village of San Pedro de Atacama, is a delightful, if rather basic, place consisting of chalets around a garden and swimming pool, all overlooked by the Licancabur Volcano. Silvia & I immediately walked the 15 minutes into town where we made a few purchases and ate a salad lunch. at a welcoming gay bar called "Lola".
Our tour was in this part of Chile to see the Atacama Desert [click here]. This is the driest non-polar desert in the world and it has been used as experimentation sites on Earth for Mars expedition simulations. The desert occupies 105,000 sq km (41,000 sq mi), or 128,000 sq km (49,000 sq mi) if the barren lower slopes of the Andes are included. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.
We were out from 4 pm until almost 7 pm visiting a part of the desert called the Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon). This is a mere 15 kms (9 miles)west of San Pedro de Atacama at the northern end of the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range and overlooked by the higher Cordillera de Domeyko range. The area is part of the Reserva National Los Flamencos. The reserve is tightly controlled and visitors are only allowed to walk on set paths and not cross over lines of stones or low strings of chain.
Our first and most spectacular visit was to a huge sand dune called Duna Mayor. We climbed up one side which was mainly soft sand and came down the other side which was mainly rock. It was not an easy climb, especially since we were so high and the weather was so warm, but it was most certainly worth the effort.
We went on to visit several other locations in the reserve, each with its own display of rocks and canyons, including one called The Three Marias. Finally we left the reserve so that we could set up a table with wine and nibbles (no food or drink is allowed in the reserve) and observe the sunset. Frankly it was somewhat underwhelming (maybe we were unlucky) and a short sand storm led to particles in our eyes, ears and nose plus shoes.
Dinner was an individual affair but we all ate at the hotel. We were exhausted - although in a happy way - and wanted an early night. As Silvia & I walked from the dining room back to our chalet, we looked up and saw stars. Then more stars. And even more.
MORE OF THE ATACAMA DESERT
Today (Thursday) was spent exploring more of the Atacama Desert with particular reference to the salt flats. Valentina told us the salt flats of the Atacama Desert are the largest in the world after some in Bolivia and Argentina respectively.
We set off south and eventually stopped to look at some salt flats by the roadside. We were delighted when a herd of perhaps a hundred or more goats appeared on the other side of the road and proceeded to cross the road in single file to wander through the salt flats. They were completely unaccompanied.
Then those of us with mobiles started to receive news that Liz Truss had announced her resignation as Prime Minister after the shortest tenure in the post in British history. A loud cheer went up from the group.
Out first major stop was at the Laguna de Chaxa where beyond the salt crystals pink flamingos were having brunch. This was a magical location: a blue sky and blue water with black rocks, green deposits, white salt and those pink flamingos in hot sunshine and pungent smells of sulphur. It was like a dream.
Next stop was a delightful little village called Toconao where most of the buildings are made of white volcanic stone. The village is located at an elevation of 2,485 metres (8,150 feet) and it is home to 700 villagers. We called into the church of San Lucas and an artesian store with a couple of llamas in the yard behind the shop.
At this point, the road became really rough, the small coach was bouncing all over, and later a banging noise under our vehicle proved impossible to locate or stop. But it was worth it because we now visited the Tebinquinche Lagoon. This is a very lengthy expanse of water with extensive salt deposits overlooked by high mountains. It was like being on another planet.
Finally we went to a family farm not far from San Pedro de Atacama where we had a three course lunch which included llama (like a tough version of venison) and afterwards looked around the farm which had llamas, goats and peacocks.
Now I have been interested in cosmology all my life and the best place on earth to view stars is the Atacama Desert in Chile due to the high elevation and the low humidity. This is why the ALMA array of 66 radio telescopes - the most powerful observatory in the world - is located here.
So, when I found that it would be possible to go on a stargazing tour, I jumped at the chance and four others in the group joined me. We were out for two hours with a local astronomer called Alvero. He pointed out all sorts of features with his laser and he had set up powerful telescopes which enabled us to see Jupiter and some of its stars, Saturn with its rings, and a binary star system.
In London, I can see no stars. Tonight I saw hundreds and hundreds and, of course, the Milky Way arching over the view, although - of course - I recognised no constellations because we were in the Southern Hemisphere. It was an utterly magical experience.
SAN PEDRO TO PUERTO VARAS
Friday was a day of leisure and it was an opportunity to explore the little town of San Pedro de Atacama. Overlooked by the Licancabur volcano, the town itself only has a population of about 2,000. Essentially it is one main street, which is essentially pedestrianised, with a few smaller streets running off it, plus a square and a church.
Entering the town in early morning is a bit like being Clint Eastwood's nameless character at the start of "A Fistful Of Dollars", but things soon pick up as more and more (mainly young) travellers stroll around the dusty thoroughfare. Besides cafes, clothes stores and craft & souvenir shops, there are lots of outlets offering local tours and activities and other outlets providing bicycles and equipment for walking, hiking, cycling and so on. I have seen similar streets in larger towns like Kathmandu in Nepal and Queenstown in New Zealand.
Drinking, eating, strolling and a bit of shopping as a group or in smaller units happily filled the day. We all had lunch at "Lola" where Silvia & I ate on Wednesday. Since lunch was so large and we had such an early morning ahead of us, we had a light evening meal at the hotel.
Saturday was an early start for a full day of travel. Having been to the capital Santiago in the centre of Chile and the Atacama Desert in the north of the country, we were off to the Lake District south of Santiago.
So Silvia & I set the alarm for 5 am and our minibus left at 5.50 am when it was still dark. The day was then a road journey from San Pedro back to Calama (1 hr 30 mins), a flight from Calama to Santiago (1 hr 40 mins), another flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt (1 hr 20 mins), and finally another road journey from Puerto Montt to Puerto Varas (30 mins). So we arrived at our new hotel by Lake Todos los Santos at 3.50 pm 10 hours after leaving our previous accommodation.
The Cabana del Lago Hotel is located next to the lake with sweeping views from our room of the centre of Puerto Varas and the lake itself overlooked by the Osorno volcano. Most of us had a splendid dinner in town at a place called "Las Buenas Brasas". This restaurant specialises in steaks and sea food. I had a 300 mg steak (the largest on offer was 500 mg) while Silvia had salmon.
THE LAKE DISTRICT
Using Puerto Varas as our base, Sunday was another wonderful day in which we visited three major locations In Chile's endlessly picturesque Lake District [click here]. Although it was chilly in Chile at first and certainly up the volcano, the weather was otherwise excellent.
First, we drove over to the Osorno Volcano and up a very winding road as high as an elevation of 1,200 metres (almost 4,000 feet). At this height, the mist constantly came and went, making amazing patterns. I tried to walk a bit further up but the pathway quickly disappeared beneath black volcanic ash and then slippery white ice. In the cafe there, I sampled lemon pie.
Second, we had a boat trip on Lake Todos los Santos with fabulous views of surrounding volcanoes and mountains, most notably Osorno Volcano. I talked with a Canadian couple who work in the travel business and they told me that they had been to around 120 countries! At 85, I still have a way to go ...
Third, we had a splendid time at Petrohué Fall in Parque National Vicente Pérez Rosales where there are marvellous views of different cascades and flows. The majority of the greenish tint of the water comes from glacial meltwater containing mineral debris. Silvia & I had some lunch here.
We had left our hotel at 9 am and we were back at 4.30 pm after a full but joyous day. Silvia & I had dinner at the hotel with a member of our group called Sue: good food, good company, good night.
ON TO PATAGONIA
On our last morning in Puerto Varas (Monday), just after after 10 am local time (4 pm London time), we learned that back home in the UK there was only one nomination for the Conservative Party leadership election, so now Rishi Sunsk is Prime Minister - the third occupant of No 10 in two months and our first PM of Asian descent.
We had a free morning, so Silvia & I visited a really strange museum called Museo Pablo Fierro named after the local curator and painter. The fairytale-like lakeside building houses a surprising fusion of the traditional Chilote culture of the Chiloé Archipelago with that of the German farmers who made this corner of South America their home in the 1850s.
Silvia & I had lunch in the centre before the group left Puerto Varas to return to Puerto Montt for a flight to Patagonia, the fourth and final segment of our trip.
That flight, south to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia, took just under two hours. We were met by a coach and immediately transported to Puerto Natales which is 250 km (155 miles) north west. This journey took two and three quarter hours so it was 11.10 pm when we arrived at Hotel Costaustralis on a dark, cold, windy night.
TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
It was a fabulous day (Tuesday) as we spent our time travelling to and around Parque Nacional Torres del Paine [click here]. We knew that it would be cold in Patagonia, so I wore a thick shirt, a jumper and a padded jacket plus scarf, gloves and hat. In fact, it was not that cold today and not really windy, so we were quite comfortable and had great views of the terrain.
We set off from our hotel in Punta Natales at 9 am and reached our hotel in the national park about 4.30 pm, so we were on the road for some six and a half hours but, in that time, we made around 10 stops of different lengths.
The first major stop was at a tiny village called Ville Cerritos Castillo. For our group, this was an opportunity for coffee and toilets but the location is also a route to enter nearby Argentina. Next stop was to view the gorgeous Sarmiento Lake. Then we halted for our first view of a herd of guanacos, relations of the llamas and alpacas. From then on, we saw the guanaco everywhere and each time the British group of animal lovers would cry louder "Oh! Oooh!! Aaaah!!!" followed by semi-hysterical laughter.
About noon, we paused at a spot where there was a couple of shelters so that group members could partake of a packed lunch since there are no facilities whatsoever in the national park. The next stop was at Cascada Paine which is the watershed of the Serrano River and a truly impressive waterfall.
Only at this stage did we enter the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine proper. The word 'torres' refers to the towers of rock - the granite peaks rise up to 2,800 metres (over 9,000 feet) - while 'paine' means blue in the indigenous language. The park covers 1,810 square metres (almost 20,000 sq ft), so there is a lot to see.
The park has several entrances and we entered at Laguna Amarga. We soon reached a special sight: the Salto Grande which is the waterfall of the Paine River with a particularly powerful flow. The area is noted for its sudden and strong winds, but members of the group set out for a walk along a rocky pathway. One by one members turned back until only three were left: Edwin (the youngest member of the group), Silvia and me. However, the weather was becoming grim and eventually even the intrepid trio returned to the coach.
It was terrific day. Round every corner and over every hill, there was another wonderful view that cried out to be photographed. And there was so much more to see. Another British group in the park - travelling with the company Exodus - saw a puma with its cubs.
We stayed in the park for two nights at Hotel Grey overlooking Lake Grey which in turn is overlooked by snow-capped mountain peaks - a magnificent location (but with slow and intermittent WiFi because of the isolation and the weather).
Wednesday was another wonderful day as we spent the morning on an excursion titled Navigation To Grey Glacier. In the night, we had lashing rain and whistling wind. In the morning, it was dry and less windy but still overcast. So this time I wore a thick shirt, two jumpers and a padded jacket plus scarf, gloves and (when the wind allowed) a hat.
The term Grey Glacier is a bit of a misnomer: it is a glacier at the end of the Grey Lake which is indeed grey because of the sediment but the glacier itself is bright blue because of the absorption of light by the ice.
There was a walk of an half hour or so to the vessel. The walk started with the crossing of a new bridge over a river. Alongside this new bridge was the remains of the original bridge which was a steel rope bridge known as 'the bouncy bridge' that would only take six people at a time. Mainly though we had to traverse exposed flats where the wind tore into one's body and whipped off my hat. Our vessel was a catamaran called "Grey III" which takes 98 passengers in its main cabin with bright orange life belts for each passenger which have to be worn when out on deck.
The trip was about two and a half hours in all. Most of the first hour was travelling out to the Grey Glacier front wall during which time we were given information about the glacier, offered an alcoholic sour drink, and viewed the imposing mountains and dramatic landscapes. The Grey Lake is 475 metres (over 1,500 feet) deep and 15 kms (over 9 miles) long.
The Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which is 80% in Chile and 20% in Argentina. This ice field is the third largest block of ice on the planet after Antarctica and Greenland. It has 49 glaciers of which six are in the Torres del Paine National Park. The Grey Glacier front wall is over 25 metres (around 80 feet) high and it really is blue while the floating icebergs - technically "growlers" or "bergy bits"- looked even bluer. To view such spectacles of nature so close is an awe-inspiring experience and the cold and the wind served to make this experience even more memorable.
The rest of Wednesday was free so we spent the afternoon relaxing in our hotel room and the evening having a meal in the hotel restaurant while the weather - in true Patagonian style - blew a gale and poured with rain. Indeed it rained ALL night.
Essentially our Chile holiday was over. For the next three days, we would be travelling home but, for the next two days, we would still be in Chile and there would still be things to see.
So, on Thursday, we left the Hotel Grey and travelled south-east to Punta Arenas where we had landed in Patagonia on Monday. We left the national park from a different point from that which we entered (Rio Serrano) and made two stops during the day.
First, we returned to Hotel Costaustralis in Puerto Natales where we had spent one night on Monday. Most of the group did not realise that this was because I had accidentally left a jacket there, but the visit doubled up as a toilet stop. Since we were in town, it was still raining, and we had some time, we called into a cafe-cum-shop called "Nandu" for refreshment or retail therapy depending on the individual.
The second, longer, stop was at an estancio or ranch called Cerro Negro which translates as black hill. This sheep farm was established by a Croatian immigrant a couple of generations ago and now has 6,000 merino sheep for meat and wool. We had lunch of delicious roast lamb cooked over an open furnace and then called into the sheep shearing shed (it was too wet for actually shearing) and the first family home (all the original furnishing has been retained).
Having left Hotel Grey towards 9 am, we arrived at our hotel in Punta Arenas (Cabo de Hornos) some time before 5 pm. The town sits on the edge of the Strait of Magellan and, at 53' 10" latitude, it is one of the most southerly towns on the planet (Ushuaia in Argentina is a bit further south but less populated).
The majority of the group again followed a Valentina suggestion for dinner and she joined us. "La Luna" is a colourful restaurant with lots of decorations and posters and walls covered in notes from customers. The food was good too.
Next morning (Friday), at the end of the Earth (aka Punta Arenas), once we had had breakfast and packed, there was only a couple of hours before we were due to leave for the airport. Silvia & I were not going to let those two hours go to waste.
So - braving the cold and very gusty winds - we took in three sights: a plaque commemorating the time in the town of the British 20th century explorer Robert Falcon Scott, a statue commemorating the role of the Spanish 16th century explorer Ferdinand Magellan, and the Municipal Cemetery with lots and lots of dramatic resting places some of which are the size of small homes.
BACK TO SANTIAGO AND HOME
On Friday, we took the first of three flights to get us back to London. The flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago involved some excitement even before we boarded as, for three of the group (including Silvia & me), seats were only eventually allocated at the boarding desk. None of we three sat together. The flight was almost three hours.
We now had almost exactly 24 hours back in Santiago before we took the other two flights home.
Just half an hour or so after checking in back at the Plaza San Francisco Hotel where we stayed before, seven of the 10 members of the group, plus our guide Valentina and her husband Mario, had a Last Supper. It was in Hotel Almacruz at an indigenously-themed restaurant called "Mak Te Mak Te" named after the god worshipped by Easter Islanders. The group members insisted on paying for the dinner of Valentina and Mario as partial thanks for her being such a wonderful guide.
Saturday morning saw different members of the group going in different directions on extensions or to home. Silvia & I had the morning to fill and, together with another member of the group called Andrea, we took the metro to visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights [click here]. Opened in 2010, this commemorates the victims of the coup of 1973 and the subsequent 17 years of totalitarian rule. The number of arrested, tortured and exiled people ran into 40,000, among which more than 3,000 were murdered or remain missing. Although most of the descriptions are in Spanish, one can download a very informative English-language app.
It seemed a respectful way to end a wonderful trip.
Our flight from Santiago to São Paolo was three and a quarter hours and the flight from São Paolo to London was another eleven and a quarter hours. Altogether we had done nine flights in two weeks. If that was not disorientating enough, since we had left the UK, there had been a dramatic change of Prime Minister and, on the day we left Brazil, there was the second and final round of voting for the next President (Lula won - thank goodness). Turbulent times.
This holiday in Chile had its challenges: a total of nine flights and a few longish coach journeys, seven hotel stops usually for a night or two only, frequent early mornings and long days, and changes in climate from dry heat to bitter wind. But our group consisted of inveterate travellers who were up for all this. Also we were blessed with a brilliant guide in Valentina Periez: she was so knowledgeable about her country, she went to a lot of trouble to address individual needs, and she had huge enthusiasm and a lovely sense of humour.
These two weeks in Chile were very different from my earlier four weeks in Central Asia in September [click here], but that is what travel is all about - lots of different experiences.
Above all, this holiday was different because, although we were only in one country rather than four, we experienced such extremes of temperature and climate: the dry heat of the Atacama Desert, the sunshine of Santiago, the temperate weather of the Lake District, and the strong, biting winds of Patagonia. This required the wearing of different clothing but we had prepared for that.
We had some fabulous experiences: flamingos on the salt flats of Atacama, sky gazing at San Pedro de Atacama, the boat ride on Lake Todos los Santos, the awesome scenes in Torres del Paine national park, and the boat ride to the Grey Glacier. There were endless and varied photographic opportunities and I took almost 500 pictures. In contrast to my time in Central Asia, conveniently credit cards were acceptable everywhere and paper was usually available in toilets.
In the New Year, for me I designated this 'the year of travel' to make up for two years of covid. Plus: who knows how many more years I have for this type of travel? So this year I have had three trips totalling 7 weeks and 8 countries. Home now for a while ...