Torres del Paine – Los Cuernos

Waking up the day after the Torres Mirador hike was a new lesson in leg soreness. Our rental apartment’s bedroom was on the second floor, and I made sure I only had to go down the stairs once. I don’t even want to think about the multiple minutes it took to get to the first floor. My knees seemed as though they were discovering  their ability to bend for the first time. Clearly, they were not excited by that prospect.

Once again, we made sure we had our our layers, snacks, and the makings of lunch sandwiches, and were out the door before 7 a.m. The bus ride was gorgeous again, watching the sun rise over nearby mountains, the driver honking to shoo herds of guanacos off the roadway. At Laguna Amarga, we showed our stamped tickets from the day before and headed back to the bus. This time we were headed to the last stop at Pudeto, about another half an hour beyond the entrance. After a short wait, we were joined by many of the other passengers, most of whom were heading to the ferry and longer hikes.

The most majestic guanaco  – presumably king of all he sees

Our bus arrived at Pudeto just after 10, and we breakfasted at one of the picnic tables behind the cafeteria. Once again, the sun was warm and we had over-layered in anticipation of bad weather. A couple we had seen the previous day joined us as we were finishing and were impressed we had done the entire Torres hike in a day with two bus rides thrown in. They were smart enough to have at least one knee brace, however. We settled for ibuprofen.

The Cuernos Mirador trailhead begins a few hundred feet up the road from Pudeto, which is thankfully a smooth slope. We picked this trail to do after the Torres Mirador because it was much shorter and much flatter. We also wouldn’t have to rush to make it back for the 6:30 bus pickup so we’d be able to spend more time enjoying the vistas.

Wind warning, the Salto Grande, and the Condor and Cuernos peaks

This trail begins as a flat walk to the Salto Grande waterfall. The falls crash into a small, dark-walled canyon with smaller torrents above and below. Like many places around Torres del Paine, the canyon walls reveal a small section of the rock layers that help form the park’s geology. These layers are made up of stone of various hardnesses, so they often wear unevenly. In some spots, this means that fins of rock arc up from their surroundings and create formation that almost look like manmade fences. Just beyond the waterfall is a viewpoint of the Condor and Cuernos mountains where many day-tours stop.

But the trail continues and so did we. By now, our legs had warmed up to the idea of some more walking and hurt less. The next section of the path took us gently around and through areas of forest that had been burned over in human-started forest fires. While many of the trees in this area are still standing, their bare branches eerily reach toward the sky as if in supplication. This area perfectly illustrates the reason the park is so strict about camp fires and stoves – the wind can pick up in seconds and the flames can be out of control in moments. As far as I know, all the recent fires have been caused by tourists. Fines have been increased and enforcement is strict.

The Condor and burned-over forest

Down past a lake and up over the final ridge, and we were at the Mirador. There were a handful of people snacking on the rocks, but this trail sees much less use than the Torres does. We settled in and ate our lunch, chatted, took pictures, soaked in the views. Echoing across the lake, occasional glacial crashes could be heard. We saw one small section collapse and side down a rock face – what must have been hundreds of feet but looked small across the distance.

Patience paid off and eventually we were the only ones at the look out. Without other voices and low wind, we could hear the ice and rocks grinding almost continuously. We could watch wind push sparkly waves across the lake at our feet. It was absolutely enchanting. Every direction you can look from this point is beautiful.

The Condor stretching its snowy wings across the mountain peaks

Again, the wind picked up suddenly in the afternoon, this time about 3 p.m. Signs at the beginning of the trail warn that gusts can reach dangerous levels quickly and so we donned our jackets and started back. As we walked, the breeze only got stronger, confirming our decision. By the time we reached the waterfall viewpoints, there were moments where it was difficult for me to walk when the gusts swept in just right. Not quite Iceland bad, since we could still breathe facing into the wind, but gaining strength. The spray from the falls was now reaching up and over the viewpoint and it seemed wisest to head back to the cafeteria.

The Cuernos (Horns)

We spent the last couple of hours before our bus arrived sipping beer and warm coffee in the cozy cafeteria building and watching clouds being pushed over the distant mountains. After an hour or so, the ferry arrived and we were joined by dozens of others.

While we didn’t get to see the iconic glaciers or trek the ‘W’ or ‘O,’ we at least got a decent taste of Torres del Paine. It really is one of the most spectacular places in the world. The two days partially filled our hiking meter, but left us craving hikes in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll have a lot of trail miles to make up for when we return, though I am so happy to have seen and hiked in one of Chile’s most iconic landscapes.

View from the Pudeto cafeteria

In case anyone wants to day hike from Puerto Natales, there are several bus companies that make daily trips to Torres del Paine. We used Bus Sur because they let us buy tickets in advance online (though if you buy in person at the terminal, you can get a discount on round-trip tickets). Other companies like Juan Ojeda, Maria Jose, and Bus Gomez also make the trip. As a general rule, buses leave Rodoviario Terminal in Puerto Natales between 7 and 8 a.m. in the morning and arrive at various points in the park between 9 and 11. For day hikers, the returning evening buses leave between 6:30 and 7:45 p.m. and arrive in Puerto Natales between 9 and 10 at night. It makes for a very long day, but there are several hikes that can be done in that time.

If we opted to do the Torres hike again, I’d go on the same 7 a.m. Bus Sur trip since it is the first one to arrive and that saves time waiting in line during the registration process. But I’d consider taking a later return on a different line in order to have more time at the Mirador. After all, it is a shame to hike all that way and turn right around again. And that also gives more time for the shuttle to show up and get back to Laguna Amarga.

(Also if you happen to be at Rodoviario Terminal and the small bakery/minimart across the street is open – get their torte de calafate. The berries on top look like blueberries but are more seedy and bitter. It is an absolutely delicious dessert!)



Torres del Paine – Las Torres Mirador

Our stay to Punta Arenas was not going to be complete without a trip to Torres del Paine National Park. While it is possible to take a day-tour from PA, we didn’t just want to spend most of the day on a bus and only a couple hours in the park. We opted instead to find a cheap Airbnb and head to Puerto Natales for a couple of days. Due to a hassle getting a computer shipped to and from the US for repairs, we had to delay seeing the park until the very end of our time in Patagonia. But somehow we lucked out – ending up with the apartment we had been eyeing after another guest canceled and great weather for our hikes.


Puerto Natales is about three hours by bus from Punta Arenas – and the entire drive is scenic. We passed thousands of grazing sheep, guanacos, and rheas, and saw wild flamingos for the first time. After arriving, we took in the town’s waterfront, which provided tempting views of the mountains we’d be visiting. A short stop at Unimarc set us up with groceries and snacks for the hike. We tried and failed to get to bed early even though we knew we’d need to be up by 6 a.m. for the two-hour bus ride to Torres del Paine itself.

Thankfully reachable by bus – the Laguna Amarga entrance station

At the Laguna Amarga entrance, everyone got off the bus to register, pay the entry fee, and watch a safety video (NO fires, stay on trail, pack out all garbage). We also needed to get our tickets stamped so we could use them to reenter the following day. From there we hopped into a van acting as a hotel and campground shuttle. The gravel roads in the park are in fairly good condition, but the vans and buses still take the corners frightfully fast, especially when you are stuffed in with everyone’s camping gear and the pile is threatening to tip over with every turn.

After the short ride, we were left off in front of a cafeteria about a 10-minute walk from the Hotel Las Torres, where the Torres Mirador trail begins. Even walking up the last portion of the road, the view is stunning. It is hard to take a bad photograph; it is also hard to capture the vastness of the landscape.


The trail begins innocently, taking hikers through some flat ground where giant hares keep the grass trimmed and where we saw a fox slinking around the bushes. After crossing the stream for the first time, the path starts gently upward. The first portion has a lot of small gravel and larger stones that are easier to walk up than side down. Many people had hiking poles, and that would have been a good idea, especially later in the day after our muscles started to burn. We also quickly realized that much of the path between the Hotel and the El Chileno refugio, about halfway up, is shared with horses. They are used to transport supplies and tired hikers up and down the trail, but also tend to use the path as a bathroom… Our limited packing space means I did the trail in cloth running shoes, so it was extra important for me to pay attention to where I stepped.

Trail running along the river, a crested caracara at El Chileno refugio, one of many bridges

Despite it being fall, the weather was warm and we found ourselves shedding layers fairly quickly. Fortunately, we climbed into some trees and had shade to protect us from the sun. In Patagonia, the sun is always strong, even in a cool wind. We were glad for sunscreen and bugspray, since the nice day brought out the last of the mosquitoes as well. The first few miles of trail gain elevation and then lose it as the trail approaches El Chileno. Views of the surrounding peaks only confirm that every step downward means one more upward later. As we dropped beside the river, the forest surrounded the path. Moss-covered trees reminded up of the Pacific Northwest and this stretch was one of our favorites parts of the hike.

Looking up the boulder field, the forest

Going up through the trees, we eventually came out along the boulder field that makes up the last kilometer of the climb. The sign warns it takes about 45 minutes to make it to the top – we took 40 and moved at a fast pace to fit our bus schedule. Here, sections of the trail are essentially stream bed – we climbed over wet rocks slippery with dust and mud. This single kilometer packs in about a thousand feet of upward gain. It is possibly the steepest section of trail we’ve ever gone up. It was especially crowded with people, and in some spots there isn’t much room, so stopping and pausing while others passed by headed the other direction was common.

And then, finally, after more than three and a half hours of hiking, the Torres themselves. They are spectacular, made more so by the turquoise-sunset blue waters at their base. Even with dozens of other groups eating lunches, it doesn’t feel crowded. The granite towers rise almost vertically out of the surrounding rocks – other nearby mountains are being worn down and might someday reveal other spires. The scenery leaves no doubt why this is one of the world’s best known hikes and one of Chile’s top destinations. Superlatives don’t cover it, and pictures don’t come close to doing it justice.

Las Torres

Of course, only having nine hours from the time the bus dropped us off to when we expected to be picked up again meant that we only had about 15 minutes at the top. Our timing was fortuitous, however. After we’d been up there about 10 minutes, the wind started out of nowhere. I went from not needing a jacket to layering back up instantly. Clouds that had hung over distant peaks began to cover the sun. Standing up again after a quick granola bar, our legs were already tired and we still had almost 6 miles left to go. (No wonder you can order horses to take you back from El Chileno!).

Having not done much mountain hiking in the last year and half, we were out of practice. Scrambling down the boulder field, I shamelessly used by hands to steady myself and lower myself over taller rocks (my legs are not really that long). Once we got into the woods, it was easier and the trail mostly clear of rocks and roots. Going down and back up out of the river basin was the final straw for my knees, though. The last downward portion of the trail that takes you from forest back to the more open scrubland was slow and painful. So what I looked a little penguiny for the last rocky kilometer or so, I finished the hike and reminded myself that others who were in better shape are some of the best hikers in the world.

Hotel Las Torres

We were faster than our 8-hour limit and had time for a beer from the kiosk at the trailhead before walking the last (mercifully flat) stretch to meet the shuttle. The bus back to Laguna Amarga was supposed to arrive just after 6 p.m., giving us about an hour before the 7 p.m. bus back to Puerto Natales.

That time came and went, as did 6:30 and 6:45. I started to get a bit panicky – as did several others who were waiting. The shuttle was called for a couple of times and finally arrived just before 7. Fortunately for us, most of the passengers were also supposed to be on our bus back to PN, so it was held for us at the Laguna Amarga entrance. It ended up leaving more than half an hour late. If we’d have known, we could have had a lot longer at the top or taken it easier coming down. Still, was thankful to have made the bus and not have to worry about getting seats on a later departure.

Back in Puerto Natales, we had just a few minutes to spare before Unimarc closed for the evening. We came away with a meal of as many empanadas as we could eat. The short walk back to our house made us grateful for the wine that was waiting. I’ve never had my tendons and muscles seize up so fast after a hike. I hadn’t looked at the mileage or the elevation gain beforehand, and we now discovered we’d gone nearly 12 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain (and then loss). I’d guessed it was more like 8 or 10 miles and 2,000 feet. At least I’d earned all the aches. Of course, we’d be up early the next day to do another hike – but at least we’d planned for a shorter one to follow our first-day adventure.


Chilean Cuisine

We were thrilled to get off of the cruise ship so we could once again shop for our own ingredients and make our own meals. Based on the fruits and veggies that make their way to the US from Chile each winter, we expected big things. We made our way to Santiago’s markets our first afternoon in town and were not disappointed.

About a ten minute walk from our apartment was the Mercado Central, the most touristy of the three markets we frequented. It was full of seafood – both vendors and restaurants selling the fresh catch of the day. We splurged ordered ceviche and chupe de mariscos from a crowded sit-down place in the center of the building. It was delicious, of course, but much pricier than doing it ourselves. So for future meals we found a vendor we liked, Pescaderia Puerto Palmeras, and kept going back to them. We tried salmon (not as tasty as in the Pacific Northwest), congrio dorado (an eel that tends toward oily while cooking but is really tasty), tollo (white meat from a small shark), and reineta  (seabream with firm meat that is good by itself or in tacos or in ceviche or in just about anything). 

So much fresh fish!
Homemade reineta ceviche, chupe with mollusks, more reineta being fried up

Right across the river from Mercado Central is the Mercado de Abastos Tirso, with produce and groceries on the main floor and eateries upstairs. And just a couple blocks further is the massive La Vega market where is seems possible to buy anything.  There are hundreds of fruit vendors, bread stands, butchers, spice sellers, and hawkers shouting prices for dried grains, pickles, fish, dog food. It is a maze of delicious smells and crowded hallways. During our stay the tomatoes, blueberries, and strawberries were in season and incredibly cheap. Fresh produce arrives on trucks seemingly hourly. It’s possible to arrive and get vegetables and fruits that were picked the same morning and taken off the truck before your eyes. Outside are street empanadas and other hand-held cuisines from all around South America.

Even away from the markets, it’s easy to grab a snack of fruit or ice cream from vendors on the street. The local ice cream brand is Danky – weird word but yummy, heat-fighting products. Also readily available is Santiago’s traditional summer drink, mote con huesillo – dried peaches soaked overnight and combined with cooked wheat. In the 90 degree plus heat, it’s a refreshing way to cool down.

Restaurants in Santiago focus on fish and Peruvian cuisine. In fact, when we asked around, many locals claimed their favorite ‘Chilean’ food was Peruvian. Overall, Chilean cuisine falls somewhere between what we found in Peru and Argentina. There tends to be more spices, more limes, and less beef than in Buenos Aires but less fish and fewer stand out umami flavors than in Lima.

So many berries! Danky ice cream, favorite new spice mix, warm poutine in Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas, different foods were needed to combat the chill and rainy weather.  (The 1,300 miles that separate PA from Santiago completely change the climate and many of the local tastes.) Take away restaurants sell warmed sandwiches with gooey cheeses and empanadas with garlicky beef. Our favorite choripan was from Kiosco Roca (it seemed to be everyone else’s favorite as well). On the advice of a Santiago Uber driver we tried it with the leche con plantano (milk with bananas) – it went together better than I anticipated. Rather than fish, more focus was on red meats, though ceviche still rules at the downtown market.

Chorizo with leche con plátano, mote con huesillo, and restaurant ceviche


Since we didn’t eat at any of the tourist-oriented restaurants in Punta Arenas, we didn’t have any of the lamb (though it looks amazing) or the king crab that is famous in the area. Instead, we cooked at home and made lots of rice and lentil dishes with gravy sauces and red meat. Punta Arenas is the kind of place that made me crave curl-up-on-the-couch-under-blanlets meals. Mulling wine also helped fight the chill and was another reason to try local drinks.

All manner of crunchy snacks

Like many places around Latin America I was left disappointed by the snacks. Chips boasting big and varied flavors (pizza! choripan!) never delivered. Queso-flavored Doritos were the best bet – they at least tasted like cheese and were good for dipping. One odd exception to the salty/savory snack set is the chirimoya alegre flavor that some corn puffs have. The fruit flavoring made it closer to a fruity breakfast cereal than an afternoon snack. It was a shame to be let down overall, but Punta Arenas is fortunate to have a duty-free import zone that receives shipments of goodies like ajvar, chocolates, and ratatouille mix from around the world. They seemed to have more variety than Santiago.

All burgers came this way. I have no explanation.

And finally, I have no explanation for the scores of individually pre-packaged hamburger patties that we found in every grocery store in Chile. Each packet had a different combination of meat cuts and spices and varied in size. We tried a couple, and they were mediocre and a little freezerburned. Maybe choice is very important for weekend grilling?

In any case, Santiago’s teeming produce and fish markets left a delicious lasting impression. La Vega set a high standard that other mercados will have a hard time following in the future. We came for wine and seafood and ended up happily eating just about everything we could get our hands on.

Punta Arenas

Part of the fun of being in Punta Arenas is getting to Punta Arenas. From just about every way I looked at it, Chile is one of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in the world. High desert salt flats and rocky peaks lead southward into Santiago. We flew over the Atacama on our way from Lima to Buenos Aires and were stunned to see brightly colored mining ponds from the air. But to get from Santiago to Punta Arenas we flew almost straight down the Cordillera – mountains colored red, yellow, and orange by their mineral makeup, active volcanoes issuing wisps of smoke. As we neared the Puerto Montt and lake region the land became less dusty and sprouted trees and the mountains grew glaciers. Further on, great ice sheets took over, darker lines of crushed rock marking their inching currents. Finally, through the clouds, the southern straits and islands of Patagonia. 

Some of the best airplane views anywhere

Punta Arenas is the smallest city we’ve lived in during this trip, with a population of just over a hundred thousand people. Tourists often visit for just a day or two on their way to Antarctica or to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park. The town is friends and much less chaotic than most places we’ve been. Around our Airbnb, the nearest beach is dominated by a sunken ship, and the park has statues of extinct dinosaurs but also a live horse that roams the grounds.


The sunken Lord Lonsdale, dead dino, live horse

The most popular activity in town seems to be touring the Cervecería Austral, which claims to be the southernmost brewery in the world  (though I can think of a couple smaller ones that might debate that point). As far as beer tours go, Austral’s was a good one. Our guide  was kind enough to give his talk in both Spanish and English, even though we were the only non-Spanish speakers in the group. We saw their storage facilities, bottling line, and tanks that had active fermentation going on inside. And of course, we ended with a tasting consisting of five Austral Beers and two brewed for Imperial. Austral’s Calafate Ale was my favorite – the berries used to flavor it make it taste a little like candy.

At Austral Brewery and the mirador

A few blocks away from the brewery is one of PA’s best views. It looks out over the Strait of Magellan and the town’s bright roofs. The “how far to?” signboard is here – most cities seem to have one hidden somewhere. There is an impressive amount of smaller towns, especially from Germany. It seems like anyone can add their own as long as they have a spare couple of nails.

Nearer to the old center of town is the Museo de Magallanes. The rooms of the Palacio Braun Menendez  have been kept/restored to their early twentieth century glory and some have been converted into displays presenting the region’s history. It’s free, so it was easy to stop in for a few minutes and avoid an impromptu rainshower. The first few rooms proved that wealth means comfort just about everywhere, even on the far corners of the continent. The family had imported hardwoods, gaming tables, sumptuous fabrics, and enough gorgeous inlay to rival grand homes in any capital. Some servants’ quarters in the basement are also kept in a near-original state, though they are obviously more spare.

At the Museo de Magallanes

We are in Punta Arenas at the end of their summer (equivalent to mid-August to mid-September in the northern hemisphere), but that doesn’t stop the weather from feeling wintery. One of the first things I sought out was a jacket to layer under my raincoat. The wind off the Strait can be biting, and the sun stays hidden much of the time, making it even harder to warm up. And rain seems to be constantly threatening on the horizon. Thankfully, indoors there is a working heater and we can take the opportunity to cook heavier meals that summer doesn’t lend itself to. Anything for an excuse to mull wine and make a batch of poutine!

Isla Magdalena

If you are going to spend time in Punta Arenas, penguins are usually high on the to-do list. There are a couple colonies nearby, but the best known is the Magellanic penguin colony on Isla Magdalena. We purchased tickets through the Comapa agency downtown; the other option was to buy them at the terminal. We had skipped the overpriced penguin tours on the cruise, and this was our chance to make up for it.

The Melinka ferry leaves from the Tres Puentes terminal in the afternoons about 4 and arrives on the island about 6 pm. Buses or collectivos running directly to the terminal are rare, but just about all of them go to the nearby Zona Franca. From the duty free area, the terminal is just a fifteen minute walk away.

We waited in the terminal building for a few minutes until boarding. It was small but had spots to sit and decent pastries. Clearly, visiting penguins was a popular choice. Once on the Melinka, there was a warm cabin with seats across two levels. The space was a little cramped but there was another coffee stand and some videos showing off the gorgeous landscapes of Patagonia. I’d recommend bringing a book to pass the time sailing down the coast. (Four hours on a boat can be entertaining… or less so.)

Before arriving at Isla Magdalena instructions for behavior on the island are repeated four or five times in Spanish and English. They really want you to remember not to feed or touch the penguins or lay down on the path. But then we landed, the front of the ship was lowered, and the crowd was off.

We visited in late February, when summer starts waning and the penguins molt. The chicks were already grown so we missed our chance to see youngsters. But there was no getting around it: the island was full of penguins. It doesn’t have much else to recommend it since all the grasses and vegetation have been plucked to line penguin burrows, leaving only bare windswept rock.

It surprised me to learn that Magellanic penguins live in burrows while on land. They never struck me as digging animals, but apparently they do a pretty good job of it. At the other extreme, they also spend months also the also time in the ocean, swimming as far away as Brazil in search of meals.

The one of the left is so embarrassed to be molting!

The roped-off trail looped left, uphill toward the lighthouse, and then back towards the boat. Groups are only allowed to be on Isla Magdalena for an hour, and the length of the walk is timed to this. We took a few minutes to explore displays inside the lighthouse, but spent most of our time watching the penguins toodle awkwardly around on land.

We had relatively nice weather, but it is always windy and often rainy on the strait. Layers went a long way to keeping us comfortable while we were there.

Our ferry ride back seemed to pass more quickly, partly because dolphins were playing alongside the ship for a while. Getting back to the terminal at night makes flagging down collectivos more difficult and the buses had already stopped running. We waited a while but decided to take a metered taxi instead. The rate was many times higher than a collectivo would have been, but still less than $8 back to the far corner of town.

Overall, Isla Magdalena was definitely worth the trip and the price. Seeing penguins in their natural habitat and completely unafraid and unworried by gawking humans is an experience I’d recommend to anyone. All the penguin movies don’t do the real thing justice.

Santiago – Part 2

Santiago is a massive city – about 40% of Chileans live inside its metro area. It would be easy to get lost in any of dozens of neighborhoods, but we mostly focused on the places we could walk to from our apartment. There were more than enough museums, markets, and palaces to keep us occupied just in the central areas of town.

As usual, the churches we stumbled across were mostly Catholic and always beautiful. The Virgin Mary is often the central focus, with shrines to other Virgins around the interior of the church. Unlike in Europe, where most saints are statues or paintings, here, the Marys are usually draped in sumptuous fabrics and laces.

Churches around Santiago, La Vega Market

We made the little bit of extra effort to book a (free!) tour of the Palacio de la Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace. Upon arrival, we discovered we were the only ones signed up for English during that time slot, so our guide Carla gave us a private tour. The Palace originally served as a mint under the Spanish crown. In the mid-1800’s it started housing the Presidential residence and offices. It was here in 1973 that the democratically-elected Salvador Allende was overthrown (with help from the CIA) and the Pinochet regime installed. Military jets bombed the palace and destroyed much of the building. It has been rebuilt, but its gorgeous interiors were not restored to their previous glory. Currently it serves only as offices for the President and some of her ministers; Chilean Presidents are not given a government residence.

Parque Uruguay and Costanera Center, inside Palacio de la Moneda

We saw the courtyards, which are planted with orange trees and native plants, and which also house two cannons that used to guard the coast from pirates. The cannons’ names are Furious and Lightning – because naturally cannons work better when they know they are loved. Inside, we had the chance to walk through the rooms used to greet dignitaries and sign bills/make speeches in front of the cameras. Chile used to officially be Catholic, so there is a chapel inside the palace. That has changed over the years, and now many religions worship there. And of course, at the entrances, the guards are snappily dressed and happy to take a moment to pose for pictures.

Palacio de la Moneda, Presidential Guard, moonrise over the Andes

One of the most important museums in Santiago is the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. It commemorates the victims who were disappeared, tortured, murdered, and imprisoned during the Pinochet government as well as the dictatorship’s eventual downfall. Abuses began the day Pinochet came to power, and thousands suffered terrible fates during the following 17 years. Many remains are still being found and identified today. Ongoing resistance by the public and by church leaders eventually helped to bring about the regime’s dissolution. In 1988 a plebiscite vote about letting Pinochet begin another 8-year term. The resulting ‘no’ led the way for open elections in 1989. The TV ads but together by both sides are wonderfully ’80s. My new proposal: all parties in an election should have hilarious ads and musical numbers at their disposal. And of course, there is an added level of absurdity about voting to keep (or not) a dictatorial regime in place. It is one of the few awful eras in world history ended by a peaceful vote and happy campaign buttons.

Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, at the Natural History Museum

In a park next to the Museo de la Memoria is the Natural History Museum. We arrived about half an hour before closing. That gave us just enough time to walk through the exhibits, which are mostly about the different ecological zones of Chile. I finally got some help to explain the differences between all the alpaca-y animals – there are four species! Not all look as surprised to be a part of the museum as the one in the picture.

Our Airbnb rental had two decks, one facing east and the other west. No matter the time of day, we always had a place to sit out in the shade and admire the mountains or cityscape.  We didn’t have air conditioning, which was annoying for a few hours each day when the sun poured through our windows, but Santiago is often windy. One of our favorite things to do was to grab a glass of wine (or beer) and relax in the breeze to cool off. The hot days were more enjoyable knowing that soon we’ll be enjoying the Seattle winter-like temps in Punta Arenas

Santiago, Chile – Part 1

Our cruise dropped us off at the port in Valparaiso, Chile, just a couple blocks from the bus station. Tickets to Santiago were mercifully cheap, even last minute, ($5/US) and the ride was under two hours. Like many other places in South America, drivers love speeding as soon as they are on a road with any sort of space. The highway goes by many wineries, which we took as a good sign.

The forecast for our arrival was “smoke,” which turned out to be sadly accurate. Chile was in the middle of the worst wildfire season in its history and scores of separate blazes were burning in the regions around the capital. The air was so thick that breathing was scratchy and our eyes watered overtime. We booked our apartment in part because of the mountain views, but hills just a mile away were barely visible. More than a million acres have already burned, along with vineyards, whole farms, towns, homes. Several lives were lost in the fast-moving fires. Thankfully most of the fires are now under control due to the efforts of thousands of locals and tanker aircraft crews (with some help from slightly cooler weather). We have seen several small fires on hills around the city, or at least little thin clouds of black smoke rising in the mornings, but so far those have been quickly brought under control.

Same hill at midafternoon on a smokey day and a few weeks later

Santiago is another massive, sprawling city, and when we finally did get a clear day, we walked over to Parque Metropolitano to take the funicular up the hill. There were large sprinkler systems that seem to run around the clock, no surprise given the country’s recent experiences. Several hundred feet up, we had a great view of just how far the city stretches – we couldn’t see an end to the buildings except in places where the land became too steep to build on in the mountains’ foothills.

One of many stray dogs, Parque Metropolitano funicular, on the gondola

At the top were the usual stray dogs, ice cream stands, and mote con huesillo carts. The highest point on the hill is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary and a sanctuary garden and chapel celebrating. the Immaculate Conception. A concrete are was full of candle holders and rosaries left in thanks.

Gondolas run from near the summit toward the Costanera Center, the tallest building in South America, and the Bellavista neighborhood. We started at the stop and turned it into a shopping trip to the Costanera mall, saving ourselves an extra mile of walking each way. Heading back later in the afternoon, the wind picked up and came whistling through the gondola windows and swaying the cab. Not quite as fun. The start and end of the trip is extra exciting because the cab speeds up or slows down rapidly and barrels toward the one in front of it. More rollercoastery than I expected.

Cafe Literario; view from Parque Metropolitano

A muddy and polluted river runs through the middle of the city, confined to a home in concrete flood control barries. But the city has turned much of the riverfront into a park that forms a greenbelt with bike and walking paths connecting large portions of the city center.

Other parks contain one of my favorite spaces, Cafe Literario, a mix of cafe, library, and public work space. You can come in and read any of the thousands of books on the shelves, have a coffee, use the free wifi. There might be a patio outside as well. Their central locations in parks means they act as gathering places as well. Definitely a relaxing space in the middle of such a vast city.

Once again, fantastic pottery and at the Precolumbian Art Museum

We visited the Chilean Museum of Precolumbian Art on one of its free first Sundays. It showcased a much wider range of cultures than we expected – focusing not just on civilizations from inside Chile’s borders, but from all around Latin America. I’m always struck by how modern (and even futuristic) some of the pieces look and the wide range of beliefs and traditions. Didn’t know until we visited that some places here mummified their dead centuries before the Egyptians got around to it, and then cared for their ancestors for centuries after they passed away.  Or that in other valleys, it was traditional to be buried with a statue of yourself (if you were lucky and wealthy) with a puffed out cheek full of stimulant leaves to chew on to show off your status.

Precolumbian Art Museum – statues, quipus, mummies, masks

Naturally the art museums were also on our list, though Contemporary Art Museum, which is run by a university, was closed for summer break. The free-to-enter Bellas Artes Museum remained open and had a fun collection of Chilean art. Some more modern pieces being showcased looked as though the artist smashed soap operas, my 8-year-old-self’s Lisa Frank sticker collection, and bad ’80s album covers together. Brilliant, in other words.

Some arts around the city

We are already down to our last days in Santiago, and have a few more places we want to visit. Sadly, Kevin has had some serious computer issues this month and now we need to spend time computer shopping rather than playing at tourists.



Chile’s East Coast

We moved twice from Argentinian to Chilean waters, once to see Cape Horn before we visited Ushuaia, and then through the Beagle Channel towards Punta Arenas. (Interesting note: In Spanish, Cape Horn is called Cabo de Hornos, literally the Cape of Ovens.) Unlike some videos we’d seen before leaving that included solid masses of fog and walls of waves, we encountered flat seas and calm winds around the bottom of Patagonia. Small islets increased in height throughout the day as we sailed from the Falklands toward Cape Horn. The terrain rises rugged and rocky – it really does look like the end of a continent. In some protected spots, plant life takes over and it gives the impression of wide, smooth lawns from the deck of the ship. Just east of the Cape is a small Chilean Naval station and a chapel, as well as a memorial to sailors killed while attempting to make the passage. Just a mile or two past the Cape, the ship did a 180 degree turn and headed back toward Ushuaia.

Cape Horn, sunset over mountains in Tierra del Fuego

Picking up after Ushuaia (it’s covered in a previous post about cruise stops in Argentina and Uruguay), we reentered Chilean territory just before Glacier Alley in the Beagle Channel. Again, we had reasonable weather, though clouds kept the largest mountains hidden and the wind was fierce. Our ship sailed by six glaciers, five in quick succession and then a sixth about an hour later. Sadly, though several used to reach the waterline, only one, the Holland Glacier, still does. Others, shrunken by climate change, are surrounded by large sections of bare rock, marking their former limits. After sailing by the initial five, rain picked up and we headed inside, catching glimpses of the final glacier from a warmer corner of the vessel.

Holland Glacier – the only remaining tidewater glacier in the Beagle Channel, and the drastically climate-change shrunken French and Romanche glaciers

Punta Arenas was our first Chilean port, and we had the entire day to explore the town. However it was a Sunday, and almost the entire city center shuts down each weekend. Luckily for us, we will be returning later this year and can see everything we missed. We again hiked uphill to the back of town to get a better view. Like other small towns in Argentina and Chile, quite a few wandering dogs crossed our path, and that always makes me wary. Happily all were completely absorbed in their own animal lives and ambivalent to our fleeting presence. Spotting what we assumed might be the Mercado Municipal from the viewpoint, we headed back toward the waterfront. Our guess was only one block off, and thankfully it stays open every day. Fishmongers were selling all sorts of shellfish, salmon, octopus, as well as pre-mixed ceviches. We ate ceviche at a table tucked into the corner of a tiny restaurant, and it was refreshingly crisp and spicy  after bland food on the cruise. Without needing to see anything else, we decided to walk back along the waterfront and ended up at the Zona Franca where a shuttle would take us back to the pier. I’m glad we found the duty-free zone before moving there. The stores within its boundaries sell everything from imported pastas and shoes to new refrigerators and SUVs. This area turns Punta Arenas, all the way at the bottom of the continent, into a shopping destination for Chileans, Argentinians, and Falkland Islanders all hoping for deals. It certainly seems to have served its purpose of spurring on the local economy, and we’ll be spending pesos there in the future.

Full double rainbow – too large for my camera, view of Punta Arenas, Chile
Around Punta Arenas

After leaving the southern city, we spent two days cruising in and out of the fjords that line Chile’s coast. The weather never fully cleared, but the dark shapes of mountains were usually in sight, and watching a line of peaks vanish into the mist is moving in its own way. Nestled in the fjords on day three was a quick stop at Puerto Chacobuco. Its few hundred buildings are surrounded by water and peaks and were topped by gray clouds during our stop. The port buses dropped us off next to a set of geodesic domes that have a couple dozen local artisans selling knitted hats and mementos that had the fairest prices of any port. Without time to rent a car to reach inland lakes and hiking, we opted to see all of the town, and I think we managed it. There is a hotel, a couple restaurants and markets, a gas station, a fire station. The waterfront here also boasts a shipwreck, the rusting Vina del Mar.

In Chile’s fjords, an arm of the bay and homes in Puerto Chacobuco

Our final port of call was Puerto Montt, though we spent much of the day in nearby Puerto Varas hoping for volcanoes to make an appearance. Puerto Montt doesn’t feel focused on tourism, though it certainly is one of the gateways to some of southern Chile’s incredible landscapes. Next to the waterfront is a fair with rides and even a small roller coaster, though we saw no one there on a Thursday. Just beyond that is the main bus station where we caught a microbus to Puerto Varas after seeing the downtown, visiting the Cathedral, and finally getting our phones hooked up with local SIM cards. (Fun discovery: the Claro office did not have nano-sized SIM cards or a cutter, so Kevin delicately trimmed ours down to size with a pair of safety scissors).

Shrine to the Vision of Lourdes and a church in Puerto Varas, some spring-feeling graffiti, “There should be a volcano behind this lake!”

Bussing to Puerto Varas only took about forty minutes and cost about $1.25US. Unlike Puerto Montt, this is definitely a tourist town. It freely embraces its German heritage. Many of the buildings and hotels along Lake Llanquihue belie a German style, as do many of the bars around town. (If you’ve been to Leavenworth, WA, this is the light version.) Finding the Osorno Volcano just as hidden from view here, we stopped at one of the restaurants and grabbed local beers as a way to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Turned out we made a good choice; Chester Beer is quite tasty and doesn’t make it too far from the source. If we hadn’t have tried it in Puerto Varas, we would have never found it. As a bonus, we got to watch a local TV show was filming at the same restaurant and the hosts reactions to being recognized by passers-by and one busload of loud teenagers. We easily caught a microbus back and made our way for a final full day of sailing before the end of the cruise. Apparently lots of passengers had taken a bit too much time exploring; we left a little bit late and were underway before the crew even pulled the last life/tenderboat back out of the water.

After two weeks we arrived in Valparaiso and jumped on a bus to Santiago. From our new internet access in Puerto Montt, we learned that large sections around the capital were burning, and this was absolutely the case. Santiago was hazed in thick smoke, that blocked everything over two miles away, but more on that in a future post.