A Travellerspoint blog


South America 2003: Arica and Santiago (redux)

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I have come to my last full day in South America. Tomorrow I board a plane in Santiago at 3:25 Chile time (1:25pm Toronto time) and will land (assuming all goes according to plan) at 6:30am on Thursday. So this is my final update. After the excitement of guns and tanks in the last update, this one will seem positively dull (as if they don't seem positively dull already).

We pick up the story in Arica, Chile (Ah-reek-ah). Arica is a small ocean-side town in a river valley of the Atacama desert. I had an impression upon arriving in Arica which my 5 days there could not shake. I was in Florida. Arica reminds me of one of those little towns that dot the coasts of Florida. Wide main avenues lines with palm trees, cute little bungalows painted bright colours, motels along the beach strip perfect for the "driving family vacation."

I was pretty worn out from the altitude sickness from La Paz, so I did very little in Arica except hang out at the beach and sit on the patios that line Arica's pedestrian mall. After the hustle and bustle of constant travel and exploration of the last 6 weeks, though, it was a welcome change.

As for my health, it improved almost immediately. My appetite came back and my energy level increased immediately. I was a little weaker than usual, though that was probably due more to my having not eaten in the past 5 days rather than any ill effects of the altitude. However, some facets of my health were longer to come back. For about a day and a half I still found it hard to quickly form thoughts. Speaking to people was a chore, because I paused so much to gather my thoughts. It would take me half a second to figure out what I wanted to say in English, and then another second to figure out how to say that in Spanish. I am sure people thought I had suffered a head injury. It actually was a welcome change from my usual spouting off without thinking though. However, soon my thought process was back to normal, and I am back to putting my foot in my mouth on a regular basis again.

The other thing which was slow to return was my sense of balance. For about 3 days I was walking around like a drunken sailor. I would often find that I had (unconsciously) leaned to far forward or backward or to the left or to the right and suddenly find myself stumbling in that direction. It was especially bad after I had been sitting or lying for a spell. In one of those patios I mentioned earlier, I rose after eating dinner and took my first step in about an hour. The first step was fine, but during the second step my right foot landed on my left foot, and thus during the third step I ended up tripping over my own feet. I stumbled through the patio, attempting to regain my balance without knocking over or crashing through any of the glass topped tables which adorned the patio. I was able to regain my balance without injury to myself or the furniture, however the two older German women at one of the tables gave me a "there's a man that can't hold his liquor" look, even though I had no alcohol at dinner.

After 5 days of relaxing, I boarded a bus for Santiago, stealing myself for a 30 hour ordeal. The bus started off inland and into the heart of the Atacama desert. The Atacama desert in the north of Chile is almost completely lifeless, just miles of sand and barren rock. Occasionally this otherwise lifeless landscape would be punctuated by a river valley. A river running from the Andes to the Pacific would pass through the desert, and create a ribbon of green in the otherwise brown landscape. The river valleys also tended to be 500 feet below the usual desert floor, so the bus spent a lot of time descending and ascending into canyons. Those were fun rides! The canyon walls are probably at a 60 or 70 degree slope, and thus off to the side of the bus was a very steep drop off.

The further south we got, the more the desert filled with life. Soon (and by soon I mean by hour 16) the brown sands were covered with cacti and small, gnarled trees. As we approached Santiago (hours 26 through 30) the landscape changed again to rolling hills covered with brown grass and small dark green trees. It reminded me of the hills around San Ramon, California, where (for those following my career will know) I spent the last 10 months (on and off) of 2002.

That's the amazing thing about this whole trip, how much the geography has ended up reminding me of places I have already been. Santiago is like Northern California, Arica like Florida, the lake district like Lake Tahoe, the Patagonian coast like the Pacific Northwest, Patagonian inland like Montana. It's a strong reminder that this truly is a small world (though I wouldn't want to have to paint it).

I had big plans for Santiago - going to Vina del Mar and Valpariso to see the beach and fishing ports, going to the mountains to horseback ride. However, when I arrived at the Marriott in Santiago (thank you Marriott Reward points!), I knew that I would do very little during my last 5 days in Santiago. My world has consisted of the hotel, the neighbouring mall and the middle-class suburban neighbourhood surrounding the hotel. Truthfully, I have been crashing since my last few days in Buenos Aires, and I have little energy left to be the great explorer anymore. One of the most important lessons I learnt on this trip, I am not meant to be the kind of person that spends 6 months backpacking around the world. I still love travel and seeing new places, but the energy required to be constantly planning your next move and the laissez-faire attitude required for the travel is just not in me. Plus, after about a month I start to miss things "North American." I miss Harvey's hamburgers and Swiss Chalet Chicken and TV in English and good Caesar salads. Don't get me wrong, I am glad I took this trip. But I don't think I will be taking another like it again. My next trip - shorter, more focused on a single location or task and planned in advance.

So that's it. Soon I will be home in Toronto. I am looking forward to being home, though not to the cold weather or my impending return to the world of the working stiff. I will have to play the lotto when I get home. So thanks all for indulging me and reading my little stories. I hope they were entertaining and maybe a little educational. Actually, I don't really care about the educational part. I just hope I made you laugh at least once.

P.S. In the last message (Chapter 4) I wrote...

And this is where you find me now, Arica, Chile. Population around 200,000 people with lots of great beaches. And so ends what I hope will be the most dramatic and harrowing of my updates. In fact, if all goes according to plan, my final update will say simply "spent 5 days in Arica, 5 days in Santiago. Saw some pretty girls."

Oh were I only so brief...

Posted by GregW 17:33 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

South America 2003: Punta Arenas, redux

A look back one year later at my original comments on Punta Arenas

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Punta Arenas, Redux.

I am writing this addition in 2004 because I realize in re-reading my original email that I was unusually hard on Punta Arenas. It's not a bad town, actually.


Punta Arenas has some nice turn of the century architecture. It used to be a big deal, sitting on the tip of South America on the Mageallan straight, as it does, with lots of ships passing through as they made their way around Cape Horn. Then the Panama Canal was opened, and things dried up for the prosporous town. It still was (and is) an important industrial port for Chile, and has come back in recent years thanks to tourism and especially the cruise ship industry.

The real reason that I need to revise my Punta Arenas story, though, is that it holds one of my most important memories of my trip.

There is one moment that really shines through whenever I think of travelling, and that was early morning in Punta Arenas, Chile. I walked out from my hotel to a bright sunny day (of which they had been few in Patagonia since I had gotten there).

I was suddenly struck by how happy I was. I was in a place as far as I had ever been from home. Everything was at the same time both so familiar and so alien. Everything that was worrying me back home was completely and totally off my shoulders. I was totally free to not worry about anything except walking around and checking out the town. It was a moment of complete and total freedom. And the sun was shining.

Whenever I am feeling low, I think back to that moment in Punta Arenas, and it always makes me smile. So Punta Arenas is not Sudbury on a bad day. It's the place that represents freedom to me. And that makes it one of the greatest places in the world.


A version of this blog was posted on the Solo Travel website under the title Sun on my face : The joy of being away from home for a backpacker

Posted by GregW 20:35 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

South America 2003: Patagonia

Puerto Montt, Navimag Ferry, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas and Rio Gallegos, Chile & Argentina

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Hola Todos!

I have just arrived in Buenos Aires and have already managed to find a place to stay, drop off my laundry and eat lunch. A wholly productive day if I do say so myself. The sun is shining here and the temperature is about 25C, which is a nice change from yesterday and the last two weeks (but I will get to that in a moment). I will save my thoughts on B.A. until my next update (chapter 3, I suppose) seeing as I haven't yet seen much of it. But enough about the present, let us pick up where I last left off, in Bariloche, Argentina almost two weeks ago.

I have already described Bariloche, and only really have one point to add - ARGENTINA MEAT IS GOOD! Argentina is known for its beef (though I suppose if you didn't know that then the last statement would be false, no?). I spent four days in Bariloche testing all sorts of cuts of meat including beef, lamb and pork. And due to their economic woes, it is cheap too. The best meal I had in Bariloche was at a small parrilla (steak house) off the main street. I had a 1/2 bottle of wine, a sausage appetizer, a 10 oz filet (that was the small one!) and a side salad. Total of the bill was 34 Argentina pesos, which comes out to about 16 dollars Canadian. The saddest part about leaving Bariloche was knowing that it would be a week and a half until I would eat in Argentina again.

From Bariloche I took the bus across the Andes to Puerto Montt. The bus ride across the Andes was spectacular, though not as impressive as the boat ride over (see the first update for details).

Puerto Montt, Chile is a smallish town situated on the Chilean coast. It is a weird mix of cultures, being part naval base, part cargo port, part cruise ship destination and part fishing village. The most interesting thing in Pto. Montt was the fish market at the end of a pier. There were about 100 stalls each selling the catch of the day. In fact, many of them have small kitchens and a few tables were they will prepare a meal for you right there. However, this is not for the weak of stomach. The fish are removed from the boats and placed on watered boards to await sale. Every so often the fish are sprayed down to remain cool. There are no fridges, freezers or even ice on which the fish is kept cool – just the occasional spray from the hose.


I must admit that other than a few seafood meals, I had a very American existence in Pto. Montt. As Pto. Montt has a mall with a food court selling KFC and McDonalds and Superbowl was on that Sunday, I decided to live American for the weekend, eating fried chicken and watching American football, though for a touch of local colour I did have to listen to the game in Spanish.

Monday, January 27th I boarded the Navimag ferry for a 4 day trip along the coast islands of Chile to Puerto Natales in Patagonia. The coast of Chile can best be compared to the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia, Oregon, Washington). Lots of mountainous islands covered with evergreens and waterfalls. We sailed for 4 days through the fjords and channels, only spending 8 hours in the open ocean. Though I didn't see killer whales or dolphins (both which occasionally make appearances along side the boat), I did see a number of sea lions both sunning themselves on rocks (when the sun made a rare appearance) or splashing through the ocean.

The Navimag ferry is also called the "gringo boat," due to the large number of backpackers which take the ferry down to Pto. Natales and on to hiking adventures in Torres Del Paine national park (more on that later). I must admit I met some very interesting people on the boat. Most people had been or were planning on backpacking for multiple months. I met one woman from Detroit who had just quit her job as an engineer at Ford and was spending a year hitting 5 of the 7 continents. I also met a couple that had driven their Range Rover from Alaska all the way down to Chile and were planning on going all the way to the tip of South America. Oh, and they had brought their two and a half year old daughter along for the journey. Listening to stories like these made my seven and a half week journey seem like a picnic in the park!

After 4 days we arrive in Pto. Natales, which is an unremarkable town. Its only function seems to be as a starting point for trekking expeditions into Torres Del Paine national park. Torres Del Paine is a large national park in Chilean Patagonia comprised of flat plain and towering mountains, including the famous "towers," three near straight up rock formations climbing from near sea level to a mile high. In addition it is home to a number of glaciers, which are constantly cracking small icebergs off to float in the numerous lakes in the park. Torres Del Paine is a fascinating place and encapsulates Patagonia to a tee - wind swept plains where no tree can grow more than a few feet high lest it be blown over by the wind. Soaring, snow capped mountains buffeted constantly by rain and wind. And cold. Overall, my impression was that it looked a lot like Montana, though I have never been to Montana and am basing this solely on things I have seen on TV about Montana.


For those of you who I talked to previously about my trip, you may have heard me mention a 5 day hike I was planning on taking. Torres Del Paine was to be that hike. However, once arriving in Patagonia I had a serious change of heart. I was prepared for a little cold weather down in Patagonia, but the weather presented to me was nothing that I expected at all. The temperature could be mild enough, rising to 15C during the day when the sun was out. But that was infrequent at best. Usually the sun was covered by black clouds spewing rain. And the wind was hellish, coming off the ocean and across the plain like a freight train. You couldn't even talk at times to the person next to you over the whistle of the wind. All this combined to make it feel close to freezing most of the time. Seeing the breath escape my mouth was a common occurrence.

My fleece jacket and wind breaker were no match of the Patagonia weather, and I had to abandon the planned hike. In fact, so wet and cold and miserable was I that I made it my mission to see how quickly I could arrange to get my shivering buttocks to Buenos Aires and the sun again.

My last act prior to leaving Patagonia behind me was to see some Penguins up close. I took a half day trip to a Penguin reserve. Fascinating creatures, and I could have spent more time watching them for sure. The first 45 minutes was spent watching them waddle around the beach and up along well worn paths into the grass lands. About that time I spotted a family unit, two parents and two kids. Watching them interact with each other and the other penguins was amazing. The parents are very protective of the young ones, often raising their heads and making a loud "wun-wun-wun" cry. While doing this, their small wings flap wildly at their sides, and their chests heave with the effort of such a small bird making such a big noise. And most amazing was seeing the penguin nests, which are burrows underground. Exact how a bird with short, stubby flippers digs a 3 foot deep hole in the ground is beyond me, but somehow they manage it.

And after a bus trip to Punta Arenas, Chile, another bus across the border to Rio Gallegos, Argentina (both towns not worth mentioning in a travelogue except to say that a fellow traveller I met from Hamilton compared Punta Arenas to Sudbury on a bad day, which was a very fitting description), I caught a morning flight to Buenos Aires.

And that brings us to the present. I am healthy other than a stomach virus I have been fighting for a week now. However, I think I have it on the run (or rather, the runs it was producing in me are fading - hahaha). Tomorrow I plan to do a tour of B.A., including Eva "Evita" Peron's grave and the place from which she (and Madonna) implored Argentina not to cry for her. As well, I will be planning my next moves - most likely a flight to La Paz, Bolivia and then buses to Isla Del Sol (the birth place of the Incas) and the ruins at Machu Pichu, Peru. So while this missive has been filled with the geographical and natural wonders of Patagonia, expect the next one to be focused on historical and archeological features.

Posted by GregW 17:26 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Superbowl 37 at my hotel in Pto. Montt

Puerto Montt, Chile

-17 °C
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I'd been down in Chile for around 2 weeks by this point, and despite promising myself that I was going to stay away from everything "North American," ended up having a total hankering for a North American day come Superbowl.

I staked out the TV in the main lounge of my hotel early (wanted to make sure none of the locals put on one of the many soccer games that were constantly running) with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a 2 litre bottle of Diet Coke.

Not everything was American, though. The game was playing on ESPN2 in Spanish.

Superbowl 37 featured the Tampa Bay Bucs soundly beating the Oakland Raiders 48 to 21. For once, without alcohol clouding my system, I actual remember the outcome of the game. Sadly I was cheering for Oakland, given that I had just spent the past 10 months hanging around 3 towns South in San Ramon, California.


For other experiences viewing "The Big Game", check out the rest of my Superbowls Around the World blog entries

Posted by GregW 18:32 Archived in Chile Tagged sports superbowls_around_the_world Comments (0)

South America 2003: Santiago, Puerto Varas and Bariloche

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Well, I am now in my second week in South America. Currently I am sitting in an Internet cafe in Bariloche, Argentina - but I will get to that in a minute.

The trip started (after almost 20 hours of travel from Toronto) with five days in Santiago, Chile. Beautiful weather in Santiago - sunny every day with highs of 30c. I got a wicked sun burn on my forehead though. I can never seem to apply sun screen correctly. They should give a course on that.

Santiago (population 6 million) is like most big cities. It's cosmopolitan and expensive (at least by South American standards). It has interesting things to see and do (museums, winery tours, historic architecture), but is ultimately exhausting. After 5 days in Santiago I was looking forward to going to a smaller, less noisy and dirty place. So I hopped onto an overnight bus to Peurto Varas in the South of Chile.

Imagine my surprise on arriving in Pto. Varas to find that it is raining and 10c! Not at all what I was expecting from South America!!!! Anyway, luckily I had warm and dry clothes to wear. Eventually the temperature climbed to around 15c, but the rain never broke once. Pto. Varas is very nice. Very German influenced. Small town (only about 30,000 people) but right on a beautiful lake and with views of the Andes in the distance.

Yesterday I took a boat and bus trip from Pto. Varas to Bariloche, Argentina. The trip was amazing. We started for an hour long bus ride which included a stop to view some beautiful rapids and waterfalls. Eventually we arrived at Lago Todos Los Santos (Lake All Saints) - apparently named so because it was founded on Nov 1 (All Saints day), but I couldn't get that damn "Never Ever" song by the All Saints out of my head all day...

We cruised Lago Todos Los Santos for about 2 hours. INCREDIBLE! The Andes Mountains surround the lake, rising almost vertically up from the lake. I have never seen anything like it. The mountains in the Andes are like the mountains you draw as a kid, steep and pointy at the top. Very unlike the Rockies in Western North America, which time has smoothed. After the boat ride (and lunch) we went by bus through an evergreen rain forest (it was raining, of course). Mud roads with lots of switch backs cruising up and down the Andes mountains. I think they said the highest point we reached was 2,700 meters. After another couple hours, two more boats and two more buses I arrived in Bariloche.

Bariloche is a ski town in the Andes Mountains situated on a very large Argentinean lake. It reminds me of Kelowna or Lake Tahoe in geography. It is very tourist focused, but not in that corporate way that Vail or Whistler are - just lots of independent hotels and hostels and restaurants. The weather is not much better here than in Pto. Varas. It's a little colder, but at least the sun is out.

And now I must place a pox on all of the Internet information and book-form travel guides that I read. For all of them stated that reservations were not required ANYWHERE, even in the high season, because housing was SO plentiful. I spend from 9:30pm until midnight stopping in EVERY hotel and hostel I saw trying to find a room. Eventually, aching from carrying my pack for 3 hours up and down the hilly streets of Bariloche, I found a place to stay. Only around $CDN 20. Very basic, but at that time of night I just wanted a place to sleep.

Today I have been taking it easy. Booked a bus out of here (again a pox on Lonely Planet for the information that buses were easy to get. The first bus out to my destination I could get was Saturday), found a new hotel and grabbed some lunch. Note to anyone travelling in Argentina. While the "Smoked Venison" sounds like a very fancy and interesting dish, ultimately it is just deer jerky. I imagine the chef in the back with a Ronco Food Dehydrater and a pound of deer meet snickering as I ordered it. At least the beer is good.

Future plans - Hanging around Bariloche for a few days and then to Pto. Montt to watch Superbowl (anyone now how to ask "are you showing the Superbowl" in Spanish) and prepare to catch a boat down the southern fjords of Chile to watch icebergs and glaciers cleave. After that, probably up North again to get some WARM weather again. Probably Buenos Aires for a few days.

I hope everything is good where ever you are. I hear it is very cold in Toronto, so despite it only being 10c here today, I don't feel too bad that I am missing the -15c weather in Toronto.


Posted by GregW 17:24 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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