A Few Things to Know About Chile
- Wine is CHEAP and delicious! Buy all of the wine.
- It’s more expensive than you think it’s going to be – think American prices.
- Go to Easter Island (we didn’t and we regret it). It’s a part of Chile and while it’s really expensive to get there, what other time in your life will you go?
- If you’re up for a real adventure you could travel through Chile by motorhome though don;t expect to find the same camping amenities as Western Europe or the USA.
- The ocean currents are coming from Antarctica so that beware that the water will be frigid during your lovely beach visits. And you’ll need a wetsuit if you surf.
- The bottom third of the country is not accessible by road; only by boat or plane. Plan accordingly.
- The “W” trek in Torres del Paine National Park is not for the faint of heart but continues to be one of the best hiking adventures we’ve ever had.
- In Santiago, there is a phenomenon called “coffee with legs” which are coffee shops that businessmen patron because of the attractive baristas (and traditionally these baristas would occasionally get up on the coffee bar and dance).
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Our Chile Itinerary
From Bariloche in Argentina we had a few options; we could take a long and tedious bus ride down to El Calafate on a bus that is known to break-down regularly and often OR take a lovely boat/bus ride combination through the Andes into Puerto Varas, Chile.
We settled on the boat/bus ride combination through a company called Turisur. The route was a bus ride to the first boat which took us through Lago Frias then another bus to a boat through Lago Todos Los Santos, and finally another bus ride into Puerto Varas.
We were lucky to get fairly good weather for the trip and to meet a nice young couple from Germany. We made plans to get settled into our hostels and meet for dinner later.
Our selected restaurant ended up being a great one and probably the best restaurant we tried in all of Chile – Donde El Gordito. It was small clearly family-owned but the portions are huge and reasonably priced. We had the Conger Eel with shrimp and garlic sauce and the Parilla Marina… yum!
When we arrived in Puerto Varas it was raining and fairly gloomy but we found it to be a very quaint town and quite similar to Bariloche with German and Swiss influence throughout.
The rain continued throughout our stay and we spent many hours in a small coffee shop hoping it would cease so we could check out the volcano or do other hiking that is abundantly available in the area.
It. Never. Stopped.
We might as well have been at a coffee shop back in Portland. Finally we decided to brave the wet, dreary weather to take a short bus ride to a waterfall.
The waterfall was nice but the highlight of the trip was getting new llama sweaters from a small shop in the park… true tourists!
In talking to several people and doing some research we found that a popular way to explore the fjords of Chile and get deep into Patagonia for the “W” hike was to take a 4-day boat trip called the Navimag Ferry from Puerto Montt (a neighboring port to Puerto Varas) to Puerto Natales.
We decided on a Wednesday that we would take the boat that Friday and were hopeful for better weather along the journey.
Navimag Ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales
Prior to boarding the 4-day ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales we figured it would be a good idea to get wine and snacks for the trip. The boat ride included meals and there was a bar available but we figured the food would be questionable and the drinks expensive.
One of the best parts of Chile is how inexpensive the wine is – and good wine at that! We loaded up on 6 bottles of red wine at between $3-4 US per bottle; I packed 3 into my luggage and Nick put the others in his backpack. We loaded the boat and found our room which was tiny with a small set of bunkbeds and a locker and nothing else.
The crew on the boat had been responsible to get our luggage from the check-in area to our room and when I opened my bag to unpack I was horrified to find that one of the bottles of red wine had broken. In my luggage. Turning almost every piece of clothing that I owned pink!
I spent the first hour or so of the trip in our cramped bathroom washing wine out of everything with handsoap and hanging to dry. Turns out clothes don’t dry very well on a cold boat in Patagonia so I spent most of the trip in my only dry pair of stretchy pants and my trusty llama sweater.
The first night was initially fairly awkward. No one knew each other but we were all drinking, playing games, and trying to meet new people. Then the first activity of the boat got started – karaoke.
This started off awkward as well as no one wants to be the FIRST to get up and sing so the poor crew member sang the first few songs by himself. When “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls came on he noticed me, sitting at a table, rocking out by myself and handed me the microphone. Never one to turn down a microphone, I hopped up to the front of the room and made everyone cringe with my off-key rendition.
Turns out you get a free pisco sour when you sing so that really got the ball rolling! Nick sang his tried and true crowdpleaser “Raining Men” by The Weather Girls and I found a new friend and singing partner, Bobbi, and together we sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” of course. The karaoke unfortunately ended too early but we had established a fun new crew of people from all over who had a common bond – travel, wine and singing off-key.
We were quite lucky during our ferry ride to have excellent weather. It rained a bit but was mostly sunny with clear skies. Do not confuse “sunny” with “warm”… this is Patagonia and it was frigid.
The views of mountains and glaciers along the way were truly spectacular and we spent our days taking pictures, reading, and playing Mafia with our new friends. The last night started out with bingo led by the boat staff and ended in an epic dance party including a conga line around the bar and out onto the deck.
At the end of the trip we all exchanged information and made plans for beers later in the evening but no one was ready to leave the boat. I wanted to get right back on board and head back to Puerto Montt just to do it all over again (or maybe keep going and navigate the Straits of Magellan)!
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
The hiking in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine was not originally on our list of desired things to do in Patagonia but it seemed to be on the minds of pretty much everyone we met along our journey. It was also recommended by a few friends who had previously hiked in Patagonia (although they failed to mention the level of difficulty of the hike…)
Hiking the W Trek would be the first multi-day, carrying a heavy pack type of trek for me and I was NOT excited about it. But the W Trek is known as one of the best hikes in Patagonia (some would even say the world), and I am always willing to try something new.
We were able to rent pretty much everything we needed for the trek from a lovely hostel in Puerto Natales called Lili Patigonicos. The list included… 2 trekking backpacks, 2 sleeping bags, 2-person tent, stove, cookware, hiking boots, rain pants, and a rain jacket. We had heard that the weather was often challenging in the Parque and generally quite rainy and windy so we wanted to be prepared for anything.
Luckily the weather was sunny and clear most days so we ended up trekking in running shoes and stretchy pants (okay, maybe only one of us wore stretchy pants…) and ended the trek with feet in much better condition than all the super serious trekkers. However I was seriously annoyed that I hauled those damn hiking boots around on my back for 4 days since I only wore them for maybe an hour.
We decided to do the W trek from East to West and do as much day-hiking without our heavy packs as humanly possible. We arrived on Tuesday evening and set up camp at the base of the valley into the Torres and were lucky to have a decent bathroom that even had showers. The night was frigid.
Like, sleep in all of your clothes and your knit cap and zip the sleeping bag over your head, type of frigid. We woke up the next morning with ice on our tent and damp sleeping bags.
The hike to the Torres on Wednesday was challenging and I was happy to have left my super heavy pack back at camp. It was a lot of uphill climbing and a very long day (4.5 hours each way) but the view at the end – the Torres del Paine, was breathtaking. The weather was clear and warm and we spent quite a bit of time eating lunch and having an epic photo shoot. We spent the second night camping in the same place and had another frigidly chilly night.
Thursday was yet another challenging hiking day. We hiked from the Hotel Las Torres to Campamento Italiano (8.25 miles) all while carrying our heavy packs. I was much smarter this time and stuffed my pack with clothes and the lighter food so Nick got stuck with the tent and all things heavy.
It was fairly risky to plan to camp at Italiano because the gossip around town was that it was closed due to sanitary issues. Lucky us, it wasn’t (well, there may have been sanitary issues but we didn’t care, we were beyond exhausted).
Friday was a day hike into the French Valley. Starting off was very rough on me, but not so much on Nick (so annoying!). The views along this hike were amazing from beginning to end. This was Nick’s favorite of the “W” hike which was evidenced in the 5,845,900 pictures he took along the way.
The day hike took about 6 hours total and when we were done we had to pack up camp and head another 2.5 hours to camp at the base of the Grey Glacier valley.
Luckily this refugio had showers. Unfortunately they didn’t rent towels. It was a hot shower followed by a drip dry for us!
We had a few beers at the refugio and then retired to the tent for a night of surprisingly warm and fairly comfortable camping.
The Saturday day hike to Grey Glacier was rather disheartening. It was beautiful but much of this area was damaged in a fire so most of the plants and trees were charred along much of the trek.
This hike was 5.5 miles each way and by this day I was over the soul-sucking hike and ready to shave my legs. We had to haul-ass back to camp to make sure we could catch the last ferry of the day out of the Parque and back to civilization.
On the way back to the ferry we ran into several people hiking in flip flops, their feet covered in band aids. We felt very lucky to finish without a single blister.
All in all the hike was amazing and beautiful with some of the most spectacular views that either of us had ever seen before. We also wanted a beer, a bed, and never wanted to see oatmeal again for the rest of our lives.
Upon leaving El Chalten, we were on the fence about where to go next. Mendoza was high on the list but several friends had mentioned Pucon as being a nice stop. Nick, being rather annoyed with Argentina and their beef and unmarked stairs, picked Pucon. And what a lovely stop it was!
Pucon is a small town on a lake that is rather touristy but full of charm. We stayed in Paradise Pucon Hostel which was small but has been one of our favorite hostel experiences to date. Dave and Greg were running the place and had a knack for bringing people together through bonfires and BBQ’s. We met some amazing friends here and the resulting hang over and smell of campfire lingered with us for days after we left.
There are adventures-a-plenty in Pucon; from horseback riding to volcano trekking to rafting, this is an outdoorsy backpacker’s dream. Nick was determined to hike Volcano Villarrica and had his job cut out in convincing a weary, hiked-out Val that this was a good way to spend $90.
I put the misery off for a day by suggesting a Hydrospeeding adventure. Hydrospeed is similar to rafting but is more every man for himself. You sport a wet suit, booties, a helmet and a life vest and they give you a small foam raft and you get dragged through the rapids while half-emerged in the frigid river. It was fun…ish. Regular rafting on bigger rapids = way more fun. This is fairly painful on your knees and they keep the group so closely grouped together you end up pretty much on top of each other… awkward.
Later that evening we thought it would be a good idea to soak our weary bodies in the Termal Pools to get ready for our long volcano trek that would be coming bright and early on Tuesday. These natural hot springs were nice – there were several to choose from and were well maintained. Though it seems the Pucon locals like to go here for heavy make-out sessions so… ew.
We knew the Termal Pool transportation would get us back late, but two troublemakers kept us waiting and it was 1:00am before we were finally tucked into bed.
Then, we were up at 6:00am for our 6:45 pick-up to trek an enormous volcano. I was stoked!
At the base of the trek you have two options – take a ski lift part of the way up for 70.00 pesos ($14 US) or hike an extra 2 miles uphill. No thanks, we will take the lift.
After the lift we had some uphill hiking through dirt but nothing too strenuous. Then came the glacier and so out came the crampons and ice axes. This part of the hike consisted of doing switch-backs up the side of a glacier on a nonexistent trail.
This was quite steep at a high elevation and if you made a wrong step you would definitely tumble down to a painful and embarrassing death. It probably took less than 2 hours but it felt more like 8. The guide had the slowest people at the front of the group and so it was baby steps with a lot of breaks.
Finally we reached the top which was quite an accomplishment. We spent some time taking pictures – you could see into the volcano and the views surrounding were impressive. I kept asking the guides where my victory beer was – it seems they didn’t realize that I always celebrate every accomplishment with a cold one. Super sad face.
The trip back down was WAY better than the trek up. We got fancy thick pants and jackets and butt pads and got to slide down the side of the glacier. Weeee!
When we got back to the hostel there was beer and BBQ and a hot shower waiting for us – it was a sight for sore eyes.
Leaving Pucon was a sad, sad day. Our crew at the hostel was drinking wine and eating delicious food by the bonfire as we had to say tearful goodbyes and board a bus to Santiago. Gone but not forgotten…
Valparaiso or “Valpo” as the locals say, was a lovely city filled with colorful buildings and endless street art. The first day of our visit we did a walking tour which helped us to get accustomed to the layout of the city.
After the walking tour we visited La Sebastiana Museum which is the former house of the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda with our new Irish friends.
We took a day trip to Vino del Mar and lounged on the beach and then drank cervezas which catching an amazing sunset. But most of our time in Valpo was spent exploring the city and the amazing street art and eating delicious meals and drinking too much wine.
Valpo was our first exposure to Chorrillana which are french fries (papas fritas) topped with meat, onions, egg and cheese… aka a heart attack on a plate, which Nick chased with a pitcher of Terremoto. I was disgusted with myself for partaking in the meat fries and had to pass on the pineapple ice cream and wine concoction.
A boat tour of the port came highly recommended by several people and we attempted this tour two days in a row but unfortunately the port was closed; either due to construction or a strike, we never got the full story.
While we were impressed with the views of the city and the amazing street art, we both found Valpo to be a bit overrated and excessively dirty; the streets were filled with dog poo and dirty diapers. By the end of our trip we agreed that it would have been a better idea to stay in Vino del Mar and take a day trip into Valpo.
San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro de Atacama, a quaint little desert town, is the southern gateway to the Atacama Desert which covers the northern third of Chile and holds the distinction of being the driest desert in the world!
We spent a couple nights in San Pedro de Atacama while we explored the Valley of the Moon and El Tatio, the world’s highest geyser field at ~13,700′ above sea level.
A few other spots we checked out in Chile:
- Humberstone – Saltpeter mine turned ghost town
- Santiago – Capital city – ask about the “Coffee with legs”!
- Pichilemu – we went surfing and Nick had a very entertaining hospital visit. Buy him a beer and ask for the story firsthand.
Chile is BIG. Obviously. But what that means for the average tourist is really looooong, cold, expensive, uncomfortable bus rides. Or long, amazing boat rides. But either way, in hindsight we agreed that for the money we spent on bus tickets, we could have easily taken a few short flights for around the same price and saved our sanity.
IF you opt for the bus, don’t drink any liquids because bathroom breaks are few and far between and bring a blanket!
Patagonia is amazing, the W trek is still to this day my all-time-favorite trek, and the fjords are out-of-this-world. Also, we regret not going to Easter Island – it’s expensive to get there but you are so close!
We visited Chile in March 2013
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