After a frankly very cold and windy spell in Torres del Paine, and the trauma of losing yet another pair of glasses, we caught the bus back to Punta Arenas. It was even colder here than in the park. And we’d pretty much run out of clothes. And there was no laundry. Excellent.
Interesting note: I’ve never had to wear the same pair of socks for 5 days in a row before. Turns out, I don’t like it.
We were staying around 10km out of town in a log cabin called ‘Le Casa Escondida.’ It was LOVELY! Owned by an incredibly friendly Chilean family, we were treated like family- they cooked us amazing steak and we sat by a roaring fire all night. Exactly what we needed after all the hiking of the past 10 days. As content as we would have been to not leave the fire, we thought we should at least explore Punta Arenas so we got a lift from a friendly Chilean man who was driving in that direction and off we went.
I can’t lie- this wasn’t the most amazing place we’ve been to in Chile, but it did at least have a naval museum, so Sam was in heaven, as is shown by the many many many photos he took. I won’t bore you with them, just this one of my super happy husband:
It was then time for TRAVEL DAY. Not just any travel day either. The monster of all travel days! First it was a 4am start for a 5.30am flight to Puetro Montt- 11 hour layover (but we did get to see stuff like this:)
-2 hour layover in Santiago- 7 hour bus to La Serena. Phew, I’m tired just typing that! Needless to say, we were exhausted by the end of it, and slept so well when we got to the hostel! Finally, the heat was back. Shorts were allowed again! Flipflops came out of hiding! It feels so good to just wear one layer- how did we ever cope living in UK??
La Serena is a nice place- cute handicraft stalls and lovely roadside cafes. It was our 11 year anniversary whilst we were there and we celebrated with some live band watching, pisco drinking and a fairly decent Thai meal (so so sick of bread and anything that doesn’t involve it is a blessing now!)
On Sunday we left the town to explore the Elqui Valley, a place that had been recommended to us by the lovely owners of Campo Suizo down in the Lakes District. We decided to base ourselves in the small town of Vicuña. Hhhmm, but wait. Google maps is showing us something about 20 mins away from it- a tiny village in the middle of a valley. Excellent- more travelling!
The Elqui Valley is SPECTACULAR. Incredibly beautiful and chilled out. We took walks through villages and hired bikes to get to Pisco distilleries, microbreweries and an amazing solar restaurant, where they actually use the sun to cook everything!
In the valley, there’s an average rainfall of 5-6 times a year so a lot of structures aren’t exactly watertight either.
Today we’re heading back to La Serena, where we’ll wait for a few hours and then take a night bus upto San Pedro de Atacama, our final Chilean destination. We’re going to spend around 5 days there as we want to visit an observatory, see the salt plains and Valle de Luna, as well as some seriously big geysers. Goodbye budget!
More on that shortly!
I’m writing this as we travel on yet another bus. After the luxury of 5 nights in one place in Pucon it’s been hard to be travelling around on buses again. All the seats here have a big recline, and we always end up behind the one person that reclines the seat the whole way back. It’s a pretty cramped writing space but needs must!
After the wonder of Pucon we headed south to Puerta Varas, a lovely little lakeside town in the vicinity of not one but two volcanoes. It was really very pretty, with lots of nice little cafes and food trucks. There was even a local Chilean pan pipe/guitar band playing in the Plaza de Armas which we found surprisingly good. This was just a stopover town to get us to our flight the next day but I’m really glad we went.
The next day was less fun, as it was full of transport: Bus (Puerta Varas to Puerta Montt), bus (Puerta Montt to the airport, after a 2 hour wait in the bus terminal), plane (we met a very nice man from the US with a Chilean wife and had a good natter about all things Chile and US,) taxi (to get into Punta Arenas to get our next stage) and bus (Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.) It literally took all day but as masters of travel we took it in our stride, and even managed to fit in a delicious pizza and beer before our final bus.
But why did we go through all this? To visit Torres Del Paine in Patagonia, the 5th most beautiful place in the world according to National Geographic. Located about 1.5 hours from Puerto Natales (which is the nearest town) it’s most famous for the W trek, a 4 or 5 day trek that takes in glaciers and mountains and lakes and much more. We’d wanted to do this, but as we had no camping gear and the fact we don’t like camping, we decided to instead come down and do a couple of day hikes and explore the town. We weren’t the best prepared for this part of our journey; information on the net is all regarding multi day hiking so we thought it’d be best to get here and find out once we’re on the ground. Plus, most people book their flights, accommodation and their multi day hikes months in advance- this is an extremely popular place. We booked our flights 3 weeks ago. Enough said.
The most famous part of the W is Las Torres (the towers), a series of three mountainous peaks above a lake about 800m up from sea level. We knew this was available as a day hike and was our itinerary for the first day. This meant, having gotten to our hotel and to bed about midnight we then had to be up at 6:30 to get a 7:45 bus. At the park we then had to queue to buy our passes (36 quid for the two of us!) before getting another bus to the start of the hike; this meant we didn’t get to start walking until 11. To top it all off the visibility was really poor, due to the terrible weather. Nonetheless we ploughed on with smiles on our faces excited for the walk ahead.
The hike itself is split into 3 sections; a steep uphill section, a mostly flat section, then a really steep bit. I found this to be the most challenging of the hikes we’ve done as my legs were knackered afterwards, but it was really enjoyable. All the scenery around here is so dramatic and beautiful. There was also a camp site at the mid way point which served hot drinks which meant when we were suffering on the way back we could recharge with hot chocolate and coffee.
The hike is 25km and labelled as 8 hours but we managed it in about 6 and a half. It took us about 4 hours up, particularly as we were struggling at the top. The path disintegrated to boulder climbing along with wind and actual snow, and there was a fair amount of traffic- it’s a really popular hike. We made it though to find this lovely glacial lake at the top. It’s just a shame the towers were partly hidden by cloud cover!
We wanted to stay up longer but it was too windy and cold so we clambered down at speed. We got to the start of the trek again about 5:30. Fortunately, there’s a really fancy hotel at the start which meant we could relax with a beer and a cheese board.
The second day of our stay I’d put my foot down to say I wasn’t hiking; the tickets are a 3 day pass but I was quite happy to have a days rest so we could properly enjoy the day after, plus the weather hadn’t perked up. As a result we had a nice stroll around Puerto Natales. Like everywhere in Chile, it’s based on a Lake with stunning mountain scenery in the background. There were lots of nice coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants and we had a very nice and relaxed day. It was also valentines day so as a treat I got us take out pizza to have in the room before going to bed early to go hiking again!
Our second and final day of hiking was a bit of a voyage into the unknown. There was genuinely no information about any other day hikes. If you imagine the W route is in the shape of a W, Las Torres is the right hand part of the W: |||. We decided to do the bottom part of the right hand side for day 2, as we knew how to get there and I’d found a snippet online to say it was meant to be very nice. We were pros now too; we managed to skip the queue for buying tickets and get an earlier connecting bus which meant we were hiking by 10:20.
We realised that, if we went fast enough, we could do the entire bottom of the W and get a catamaran back to the bus connection at 6:30. This was certainly achievable and meant we wouldn’t hike back on ourselves. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. Although it was (mostly) sunny, I’ve never experienced winds like it before; they were strong enough to push a person over (and I fell over a couple of times as a result). This made it incredibly hard going and meant by the time we reached the mid point we knew we had to turn back- if we’d missed the catamaran we would have been stranded. To further the fun, Laura twisted her ankle early on which started swelling and causing her a lot of pain. Although the walk was very pretty, particularly on the way back, it wasn’t the greatest day of hiking we’ve had by some way.
I really can’t stress how strong the wind was. Waterfalls were genuinely going backwards as the water was being blown back up at the drop off. The top layer of water from the lake was constantly being blown into a cloud causing “rainbow lake” (see photos). And this is how Laura lost her current sunglasses; they were literally blown off her face and down the side of the mountain to never be seen again. She was holding the big water bottle at the time and couldn’t react fast enough to catch them. She was understandably disappointed. Despite this I certainly had a good time, and I think by the end so did Laura. We were both ecstatic to see the hotel at the end, and the beer tasted excellent again.
The shuttle back was almost delayed because one of the busses had been blown over (did I mention it was windy?) The fire brigade (which is entirely volunteer in Chile) had been called, had righted the bus and some people taken to hospital, and they’d sent a replacement shuttle to ferry us back to where the main bus was to collect us. Although it was now chucking it down with rain the wind had calmed so we felt pretty safe on our journey back!
We both agree Torres Del Paine is not the 5th most beautiful place in the world. We think it’s probably not even the 5th most beautiful place we’ve been to. It was however still very very nice and we’re both pleased that we’ve come down here. Patagonia itself is very interesting- it’s so empty! Laura thought it would be barren (wrong) and I thought it would be full of forests (wrong). It’s mostly just shrubbery as far as the eye can see, a few hills here and there, but mostly nothing. It’s just empty. We really are in the middle of nowhere. Did I mention we’re less than 800 miles from Antactica?
We’re now on our way back up to Punta Arenas for 2 nights. We’ve chosen a place that is a bit out in the middle of nowhere and has it’s own sauna and log cabins, so this should be interesting! There’s a naval museum in town which has replicas of the Endurance, the boat Shackleton took to the Antarctic when he and his crew were stranded for over a year, along with the boat that rescued it. And Laura has agreed to come too! I may write the next blogpost too to talk about how brilliant it will be hopefully, although there’s a chance it will all be in Spanish.
After a few exhausting days of massive hikes and long bus journeys, we decided to stay put for a while. Luckily, we’ve landed in a fab little town, dubbed the ‘Queenstown of Chile,’ called Pucon. It was amazing- as soon as we stepped off the bus, we heard English for the first time in weeks! This is a proper little tourist town, with loads of outdoor adventure places, great restaurants and seemingly hundreds of hostels.
Luckily, we’d already booked ahead- a couple we met at the bus station hadn’t and ended up walking around for 5 hours trying to find somewhere to stay. It’s Chilean holiday season as well as high season for tourists so everywhere in Chile is extremely busy- we’re now all booked up until the Inca trail in March! We don’t like having to book ahead as it limits us in terms of extending somewhere however it’s a necessity for February in South America.
We’ve been super fortunate with most of the places we’ve stayed in Chile and this is probably our favourite yet. We’re at ‘Chili Kiwi Hostel,’ a typical hostel but with loads of quirks like treehouses (where we stayed for 3 nights,) glamping vans (smaller versions of Vanatar) and tents with proper beds in them (where we’re currently at.) The only downside of this place is the noise- in the treehouse we were right above the assembly point for the 6am trip to the volcano- 12 people talking full pelt for 40 mins is not fun. Last night at our tent, 2 foxes decided to start screaming right outside.
Oh, and apples from the apple tree above the tent sporadically drop onto us and wake us up. Lovely.
However, we are having a really great time here- everyone is so friendly, there’s loads of outdoor hammocks, comfy seats and swings to hang out on, so many bathrooms (this becomes important when you’re sharing with 40 other people) and a killer view of the lake.
One day we hiked out to a waterfall, about an hour and a half out of town- we had just started the last mega hill up when some lovely people pulled over and gave us a lift up. RESULT! After a few wrong turns and scrambling over rocks, we made it to this:
It was freezing cold glacial water, which meant we couldn’t swim in it, as much as we wanted to in 35 degree heat.
One afternoon we decided to take kayaks out on the lake and paddle over to a nearby beach. When will we learn that WE CANNOT KAYAK TOGETHER?! It just doesn’t work. The beach was black sand and really lovely, apart from the hundreds of Chilean tourists and many many wasps. It was no Fiji beach, but hey, at least it was hot and Sam could paddle!
Today we took a local bus to the Parque Nacional Huerquehue and did a stunning 4 hour hike to the 3 lakes. We managed to motor on past all of the dawdlers and make it to the lakes when they were completely empty- so beautiful and serene.
The highlight for both us though, throughout the whole of Chile trip so far, has been this, hiking to the top of the most active volcano (last eruption was March 2015) in South America, Villarica:
This was an intense day. We woke up at 5.30am for a 6am start, got kitted up in heavy duty hiking boots and some weird leg things we had to wear. We then drove around 30mins out of town upto 1000m above sea level, the base of the volcano. Here, we took a ski lift up another 400m (we had the option to walk this but as it was on volcanic ash and our experience of this in NZ wasn’t pleasant, we decided to shell out for the ride.) Almost everyone in our group of 12 chose the ski lift and mocked those who decided to walk up. From here, we were already above the clouds.
Our walk began with putting on crampons and grabbing an ice pick. Trepidation set in. It was bitterly cold as we hiked up in zig zag lines through ice and rock for 5 hours, with occasional 5 minute breaks. The breaks were supposed to be longer but it was so cold we couldn’t sit down for long. We wanted to eat and drink but doing that would have involved taking off the industrial sized gloves we’d been given. No thanks, I’d rather go hungry.
I suffered quite badly with altitude sickness around 2000m, (slightly worried about the Inca trail now) but slowed down to catch my breath, which put me right at the back of our group. Finally we saw the top of the crater and were told to put on our gas masks (absolutely hideous) as the fumes were too sulphurous. Standing at the top of the crater and looking into see the lava was amazing.
However the view down below was even better.
Then came the best bit. We put on waterproof trousers, attached a plastic ‘seat’ to ourselves and slid down the mountain! We followed tracks that had already been carved (think a luge-bobsleigh type track but far less sophisticated) and used our ice picks to slow ourselves down- Sam did not quite master this and kept crashing into me, which pushed me into the slow coach tortoise in front of me. The snow was quite soft in places which meant we could stop and take the plastic seat away (not the most comfortable thing in the world- I have bruises to prove it.)
It took 5 hours to walk up to 2874m and only 1.5 hours to come back down. Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Tomorrow we leave Pucon and travel 4 hours south to Puetro Varas for 1 night only. From here, we’ll go to Puetro Montt airport and fly down to Patagonia- yippee! We’ll be down there for around a week, hiking and (presumably) feeling cold. Then we’ll make our way back up north past Santiago- the desert and salt plains await!