Chile (& Easter Island)
The 4,300 kilometre-Long, Laid-Back, Colourful, Hospitable, Straitlaced, Isolated & Largely Remote South American Anomaly
Colourful Valparaiso, Chile. October 8, 2015
Chile & Easter Island
Chile was the last country I was to visit on my 6-month, June through December 2015 jaunt through South America. Things didn’t start well in the country meaning first impressions weren’t great. But it seems, and first impressions aside, I saved the best for last. I grew to really love Chile, especially its general air of laid-backness, its regional remoteness, its wonderful colourful wooden architecture, & its hospitable locals. Chile was to become my favourite country in South America.
Chile was different, is different. It’s something of a South American anomaly. Somewhat isolated from its neighbours by vast natural barriers – the Atacama Desert in the north along the border with Peru & the Andes & vast ice caps of Patagonia along its eastern & southern border with Argentina – Chile stands alone in the region in terms of its visual aesthetics (all that colourful wood-and-tin architecture) and its economic & governmental stability; the general lack of corruption in, & straitlacedness of, Chilean society is something you come to notice and appreciate when, like me, you visit the country having travelled through the rest of the region. As a result, and as I travelled south, I found myself drawn more and more to the Chilean side of the Andes mountain range as opposed to the Argentinian side; I crisscrossed the border between the two countries more than a few times (eight times actually). Although my South American itinerary meant I missed the whole northern part of the country, the areas I explored south of the capital Santiago more than made up for that. Ultimately I spent more time in Chile than any other country on the continent & I blogged most from the Chilean road than anywhere else. Here is a recap of my travels through the country as posted from the road at the time with, where applicable, links to dedicated location postings.
Read all postings from the road in chronological order or jump to specific postings using these links.
ARRIVAL – Introduction/Border Crossing
EASTER ISLAND/RAPA NUI – Easter Island
CAPITAL REGION – Santiago & Valparaíso
LAKE DISTRICT – Pucon
CHILOE – Chiloé
AYSEN – Canal Moraleda, Coyhaique, Carretera Austral/Ruta 7 & Cochrane, Caleta Tortel, & Cochrane To Chile Chico
PATAGONIA – Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine National Park, & Punta Arenas
Archived Postings From The Chilean Road (In Chronological Order)
ARRIVAL / BORDER CROSSING
Here is a list of things that I lost today on a day of highs & lows, a day of alpine cross border travel, and a day when I arrived in Chile, my tenth & final South American country.
• Travel mug.
• Canon camera battery charger.
• Sigma 30mm f1.8 lens.
• Lowpro Passport Sling bag.
• Three shirts.
• Toilet bag with electric toothbrush, 3 month supply of contact lenses, man smells & general grooming paraphernalia.
• Oakley microfiber bag (although not the sunglasses themselves).
• Bits-n-bobs bag with, among other items, socket adapters, cables, & coins I’d been collecting from each South American country.
• Sleeping shorts / PJ bottoms. Yes, even my PJs. I mean, c’mon.
• Any respect for cross border customs officials.
All the above were in the very top of my big bag. They were there when I put the bag on the bus leaving Mendoza, Argentina, earlier this morning but they were all conspicuously absent when I arrive here in Santiago, Chile, some 7 hours later. I’m not one to point fingers but the only people to handle the bag in the meantime were the Chilean customs officials during the stupidly long 2 hours I spent crossing the border today. I’m savvy enough by now so my big bag is never entrusted with the guardianship of items I deem essential to my day-to-day travels; I’ve always said were I ever to lose some or all of its contents it would be an inconvenience. Not the end of the world but an inconvenience. And an inconvenience it was spending the last 4 hours dashing around Santiago dropping the guts of €100 to replace most of what I was relieved of (needless to say that wasn’t how I planned on getting acquainted with the city, one of South America’s largest). There wouldn’t have been such an urgency to do so were it not for the fact that I’m flying to Easter Island early in the morning. And because I am that is why right now, & the bad start to my Chilean exploits aside, I’m still in a pretty upbeat mood.
Every time I stopped to remind myself today that I was on Easter Island brought a little smile to my face. It’s beyond super cool to be here on what is one of the remotest inhabited place on earth, a 23 kilometre-long triangular island out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 3,000 kilometres off the South American mainland & some 2,300 kilometres from the next inhabited island. Yes, it’s way beyond super cool.
Hanga Roa & Tahai
It was a long day today. Woe is me I know but even a 4:45 a.m. alarm call, a 3-hour flight delay (computer issues with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner) & a 5-hour flight didn’t in any way dampen my mood. A late afternoon arrival on the island meant I didn’t venture too far from my comfortable base for the 6 nights I’ll spend here, Residencial Vaianny in the village of Hanga Roa, the island’s only settlement & home to its 7000 population. I’ll be breaking out over various parts of the island beginning tomorrow but this evening I ventured 10 minutes outside of town to Tahai, my first Easter Island site and the nearest gathering of the famous moai statues.
There’s more to come from enchanting Rapa Nui. Lots more.
I spent the day today being awed some more by Easter Island. It was a pleasant day in these parts, at the end of which I was treated to a rather nice sunset.
I still have way more time left here than I have spent but I know already I’m going to miss this place.
Easter Island is small enough to explore by bicycle, assuming you have the time and energy. I have both so today saw me breaking out from Hanga Roa on my luminous green mountain bike to skirt the island’s 16 kilometre-long southern coast. Dotted with ahu, platforms for the once proudly erect moai statues that mostly now lay fallen in the vicinity, the coastal road ends at the island’s most spectacular sight, the awe-inspiring Ahu Tongariki.
One of the world’s most sensational sights & the largest ahu to be found on Easter Island, 200 metre-long Ahu Tongariki is home to no less than 15 moai. Completely destroyed by a tsunami in 1960, one so powerful it carried some of the 30-tonne moai upwards of 90 metres inland, a joint Japanese-Chilean restoration project to return Ahu Tongariki to its present form was completed in 1995.
There’s more of the island to explore beyond its southern coast which, admittedly, holds the bulk of Ester Island’s must-sees. I’ll tour the island again in a few days’ time when the pending hurt, mostly saddle sore & sunburn, has subsided (and I think I’ll hire motorised transport next time). I might just have to take it easy again until then.
It rained today on Easter Island. A few times. Just light showers. Nothing major. Apart from the drizzle it was a glorious day on this little Pacific high volcanic island. High volcanic islands are one of 4 types of Polynesian islands, islands created as a result of strong eruptions through fractures, or hot spots, in the ocean floor (the islands of Hawaii were created the same way, as I blogged about some time ago on my last visit to that particular corner of Polynesia). I know that little titbit of information because today I brushed up on my geology in the island’s excellent Museo Antropologico P. Sebastian Englert, somewhere I spent a good chunk of the day being further schooled on all things Easter Island.
I spent the rest of the day walking a bit of the coast, staring at more moai, & loafing around the leafy, fragrant streets of Hanga Roa – I stopped by the town church to say hi to someone who’s dearly missed (it reminded me of a typical community hall, boxy & functional) & had a few coffees in a few cafes. Oh, and I found time for a selfie.
All of today’s shenanigans brought me invariably to that time of day, sunset down at Tahai, about as ritualistic an event as you’re going to get on present-day Easter Island.
I’ll be back on the road tomorrow, this time on a scooter, touring the portions of the island I’ve yet to see (& maybe even revisiting places I already have). Here’s hoping the good weather of today has the decency to stick around for tomorrow, day 5 on the island. Wow, day 5 already. Time really does fly when you’re having fun & unfortunately there was never a truer word spoken on Easter Island.
By now I’ve navigated all the roads on Easter Island. There aren’t many. Any stretches of tarmac I didn’t cycle on day 3 were driven today, day 5, as I spent the day zipping around the island dodging cows and wild horses – Beep! Beep! – on my 100cc Yamaha. It got me to the parts of the island I had yet to see and even to parts of the island I’d already seen. There are some places you just need to visit more than once. Sometimes a lot more than once.
Today was a different kind of Easter Island day; despite the clear skies of the morning & afternoon, there was no sunset. Nope, not even a vague inkling that one was trying to break through the spoilsport blanket of clouds that seemed to come out of nowhere towards the end of the day – playing the Easter Island meteorology game is exhausting. There was also another surprise in store when, & for an hour or so mid-afternoon, I felt like I was back in the Caribbean.
You wouldn’t come to Easter Island for a beach holiday but were you to hanker for a swim when here then the sands of Anakena, on Easter Island’s mostly rocky northern coast, would be a damn fine place to do so.
Of the 7 moai originally mounted on Ahu Nau Nau, only 5 survive as complete statues to this day. They are some of the best preserved moai on the island thanks to the fact that they were submerged in beach sand until their restoration in 1978.
Things on this day were about to get real special.
On day 3 I visited Easter Island’s Rano Raraku, the tuff (compact volcanic ash) quarry on the east of the island where all Easter Island moai were carved. A gigantic megalithic workshop & the biggest monument from ancient times in the whole of Polynesia, Rano Raraku’s slopes are dotted with dozens of moai of various size, orientation & in various stages of completion – some are still attached to the bedrock while others are fully complete, laying here, there & everywhere in pits awaiting transport to their ahu. I revisited the site today in the hopes of getting better pictures than I did on day 3, when the conditions were dull & overcast. Not only did I get some pictures I like but getting up close to, & even on top of, some of my new Easter Island besties was one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve yet had.
Rano Raraku is a volcanic crater of tuff, the slopes on either side of which were used as an open-air moai carving workshop. Thanks to a designated trail, the outer slopes see the vast bulk of the visitors but moai are to be found on the inner slopes of the crater too, a beautifully peaceful place where seemingly few venture and a place that’s home not only to moai but also to a picturesque crater lake. I explored the crags & hills of the inner slopes today, making friends with a few of the permanent moai residents as I did.
My day was done once I came down, both literally & metaphorically, from my second visit to Rano Raraku. I’ve two sleeps, one full day, left on Easter Island. I’ll have my Yamaha for the duration. I’ll also have an Easter Island to-do list, now full of ticked boxes. Completing the list only took 5 days. It could be done quicker – a lot quicker – but this is no place to be rushed. Two sleeps. Umm, I guess it’s better than only one.
I was up before the sun this morning. Not only was I up before the sun but I had made my way, in the pre-dawn darkness & drizzle, to the other side of the island in a bid to get to Ahu Tongariki, the island’s de facto sunrise location, in time for the sun to show. I needn’t have bothered. It was a nasty, cloudy start to the day & even though my optimism en route convinced me that conditions would improve, they didn’t. Not for sunrise and not for any part of the day thereafter, day 6 on Easter Island & my last full day savouring its wonders. It wasn’t a total bust however as I did get to spend some time, 20 minutes or so, alone with the 15 Ahu Tongariki moai before others turned up to spoil the solitude, & to join me in being disappointed by the sunrise no-show. For those 20 minutes it was just me, 15 towering moai statues, darkness and the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing in the distance. It was surreal. My camera stayed in my bag.
The rest of today, between sunrise & sunset, was slow. I took another spin around the island, heading east again along the southern coast road and returning via the central road, a 40 kilometre loop. I drove it with very little urgency – if the Yamaha had gears she wouldn’t have been taken out of second.
The overcast conditions mirrored, or maybe even enhanced the somewhat melancholy demeanour I carried around the island with me today, the result of knowing the Easter Island end is nigh. I’m outta here tomorrow, but not before I give sunrise another chance to impress in the morning. My alarm is set & I’ve another drive in the darkness along the island’s southern coast to look forward to. Here’s hoping at the end of it that there’s something to see (at this stage I’m not even all that interested in photographing it). It’s been great so far so I can’t really expect too much more from Easter Island. That said, a sunrise over Ahu Tongariki would be a nice send-off.
Date || October 3, 2015
Location || En route to Santiago, Chile
And so it is done. This chapter is over. I’ve just taken my latest last bittersweet glimpse of Easter Island. It’s over my left shoulder, getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
I did get a nice send-off. There was a sunrise this morning, and it was pretty (as sunrises tend to be).
I’ll be honest, I was happy to just take in the spectacle this morning, happier to savour it than photograph it; I didn’t even bring the ‘big’ camera, opting only for the smaller one. But I did take a few pictures.
I knew pre-arrival that Easter Island was going to leave an impression. I just underestimated how much of an impression. I’m going to miss the island but god only knows I’m taking enough media – both in digital & print form – with me to remind me of a location like no other, certainly like no other I’ve ever experienced.
To see lots more photography & read more insights from my time on Easter Island, check out my dedicated Easter Island posting.
In hindsight, Santiago was always going to struggle. We, the city & I, didn’t exactly get off on the right foot, with me being forced to spend my first introductory hours here running around the busy multilevel Costanera Center, the largest of Santiago’s many flashy shopping malls, attempting to replace items stolen from me en route to the city. Of course that wasn’t Santiago’s fault but what is it they say about first impressions. Strike 1. That was last week & before, just before, my departure for Easter Island. Returning to Santiago from such a wondrous location didn’t help enamour me to the city either – I’ve explored the city while suffering through something of a post Easter Island downer. Strike 2. Add to the mix the realisation that there really is an absence of any must-see attractions in the Chilean capital – Strike 3 – not to mention the fact that it has been overcast & chilly – yes, it has been chilly in Chile (sorry) – since my return to the city from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Strike 4. So yes, poor Santiago never really stood a chance. But it gave it a go.
– Rough Guide to Chile
Santiago || Chile Central
I’ve spent the last three days here the Chilean capital, the cultural, economic & historical hub of the country & easily its largest city – the greater Santiago region stretches for over 40 kilometres & is home to 7 million of the country’s 17 million population. Three days is probably more time than it deserves. Actually it is more time than it deserves. But I’m in no particular rush & I was occupied for some of the time completing the course of retail therapy I began prior to my departure for Easter Island. Even allowing for shopping, three days is more than enough time to check out the city’s tree-lined central square, Plaza de Armas, the present-day nexus of the city’s Historic Centre and the symbolic centre of the Chilean nation; to stroll through a few parks; to visit a few of the various city barrios (neighbourhoods); to enjoy the scenery in the city’s unique stand-up coffee bars; to check out some of the city’s many museums; and to take the quirky funicular to ogle at all of the above from atop Cerro San Cristobal, the highest point in a relatively flat city. That’s what I’ve gotten up to over the last few days, all the while with a gloomy, grey blanket of clouds overhead – I haven’t seen the sun since I was on Easter Island, which seems so long ago now.
Cerro San Cristobal, Gran Torre Santiago & Sanhattan
At over 800 metres high, Cerro San Cristobal, a rogue 4 hill Andean spur that seemed to lose its way from the (much) larger Andes range nearby, is the highest point in the largely flat capital. It’s also, and despite being hilly, the city’s largest green space.
You’re never quite sure what to expect from Santiago architecturally – in that regard it’s a bit of a gallimaufry. Ugly shopping arcades sit beside churches & nicely preserved colonial buildings, all of which are overlooked by towering glass skyscrapers. This ragbag look is largely the result of earthquakes – hundreds have rocked the city, one of the most seismically active on earth, since its 1541 founding by Spanish conquistadors looking to expand south from Peru – & haphazard rebuilding coupled with large-scale building sprees, especially in the 60s & 70s.
Markets || Feria Municipal La Vega & Mercado Central
Cafés con Piernas || Cafes with legs
They have good coffee but Santiago isn’t really a café lounging kind of city. It does, however, have many Cafés con Piernas, literally, cafes with legs (legs indeed).
Barrios || Bellavista
In a city of many barrios, neighbourhoods, Bellavista, a warren of leafy streets, is probably Santiago’s best known, certainly among the travelling community – the vast majority of Santiago’s hostels are located here in what is regarded as the cultural heart of the city.
The Governmental Blip || The Pinochet Years
Ever since its independence from Spain in 1818, Chile has had a history of political stability & orderly government, a rarity for South America & a large part of the reason why today the country is developed, ordered, relatively affluent, and non-corrupt – Chile boasts the lowest levels of corruption in Latin America. However, the past hasn’t all been rosy.
It was good to get out of Santiago. Silly I know but I felt like I was travelling again. I didn’t go very far, only some 120 kilometres northwest of the capital to the city of Valparaíso. This is Chile’s only major seaport, an historic, colourful & ramshackle kind of place strewn over vast hills surrounding a major bay. But that rather compendious description falls well short of adequately describing what is Chile’s most unique & remarkable city, the closest you’re going to come to finding anywhere in the world a city-sized outdoor art gallery.
Valparaíso || History
While the Spanish chose present-day Valparaíso as the site for their new colony’s port way back in 1542, it wasn’t until after independence in the early 19th century that the good times came to the city, the result of it becoming the main maritime port of call on South America’s Pacific coast.
Valparaíso mushroomed as a result of its trading clout, its prosperity attracting European immigrants & foreign investment & businesses to the city; during its golden age it was known by international sailors as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. However, the constant scourge of looting by pirates, fires, the last as recent as 2014, & earthquakes dodged the city throughout its history; a tremor in 1906 was particularly destructive, razing most of the city. These ongoing hardships coupled with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 signalled the city’s inexorable decline. Enjoying something of a 21st century renaissance, Valparaíso, home to Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world, is today home to the legislative branch of the Chilean government & is still a vital working port, a somewhat rundown & shabby one complete with a typical port-city vibe – some parts of the city are in a more advanced state of decay than others and are downright dangerous areas to wander.
Ascensores || Antiquated Lifts
Riding into the hills on one of Valparaíso’s age-old funiculars are just as much a part of the Valparaíso’s experience as wandering its colourful alleyways or wondering how gravity hasn’t yet gotten the better of the dilapidated hillside dwellings.
Built between 1883 and 1916 to give easy access to the steep hillside neighbourhoods of the city, Valparaíso’s 16 remaining ascensores, 15 of which are Chilean National Public Monuments (1 is in private ownership), are nothing more than a shed on steeply-inclined tracks, one that is hauled up and down the short distances from top to bottom every few minutes. Collectively declared one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical monuments by the World Monuments Fund in 1996, & while looking, feeling, smelling & sounding every bit as antiquated as one would expect, they still serve the city with remarkable reliability, just like they have done for eons.
Valparaíso || Dwindling Dwellings
While exploring the city’s hillside residences, & with dilapidated hillside dwellings all around me, I was at a loss to explain how gravity hasn’t yet gotten the better of the wooden, brick & corrugated iron structures – although earthquake damage is all too evident in some areas.
– Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet-diplomat & politician
Valparaíso || Street Art
Vistas & funiculars aside, the undoubted highlight of Valparaíso for me was its labyrinth of colourful alleys in the residential hillside areas of the city. Everything from walls to lampposts to footpaths to steps have all received sprucing up from a bevy of local artists. It’s quite the colour overload & there’s no escaping it.
– UNESCO commenting on the Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaíso
But, and given its storied past, Valparaíso does boast some rather nice buildings, buildings that don’t look like they will topple with the next brisk breeze & slide down the hill to the port.
THE LAKE DISTRICT - PUCON & PARQUE NACIONAL HUERQUEHUE
OK Chile, now we’re talkin’. This is more like it. I like cities, their buzz, their conveniences, their museums, their architecture, colonial or otherwise. All that malarkey is grand but, and given the choice, I’d take a steaming, snow-draped, perfectly conical volcano set against a crystal clear blue sky any day.
The above was the view that greeted me a few minutes ago stepping off the overnight bus in Pucon, the lakeside adventure capital of the Chilean Lake District, from Santiago, about 800 kilometres to the north – most directions in Chile are either north or south given the country’s narrow topography. Volcan Villarrica, perched by the lake of the same name, is only 2853 metres high but its perfectly conical shape makes it look higher. One of the most active volcanoes in the world & the centrepiece of the Parque Nacional Villarrica, it last spat the dummy in March of this year and as a result its smoking summit is presently off-limits (dang… I can just imagine what the views are like from up there). However, another nearby volcano, a boring dormant one, is open for business. I’ll be hoping for good conditions again tomorrow when I’ll plan to tackle that but today is, and always was going to be, all about the rugby &, to a lesser extent the football. Come on Ireland.
It’s a day for ducks here in Pucon. I can see those ducks out the window in front of me but can barely see the lake for the rain, the same lake those same ducks haunt (in a non-phantasmal way). Needless to say the scenic, smoking, snow-cloaked Villarrica volcano that I know is out there is hidden from view too. I’m glad I saw this place at its best upon arrival a few days ago now because it has been downright miserable since; it was cold yesterday & today it’s both cold & wet, an indoorsey kind of day here in the Chilean Lake District.
Parque Nacional Huerquehue
As mentioned previously, this Chilean Lake District is a region of lush farmland, forests, lakes, & snow-capped volcanoes. I passed through lush farmland yesterday en route to Parque Nacional Huerquehue, and once there I walked through forests & around lakes while being treated to views of far-off snow-capped volcanoes. Well, one snow-capped volcano, that very same one & the region’s big Big Cheese – Volcan Villarrica.
Argentina || Take III
My plans for heading south, as beautifully conceptualised & committed to paper as they are, won’t come to be for a few days yet. Tomorrow I’ll be going east, not south, a short distance across the border back into Argentina. It’ll be my third time crossing a South American border into the country, and it won’t be the last before all is said & done. There’s a volcano over there, the 3776 metre-high Volcan Lanin, that I want to scale, not to mention a rugby game I’d like to take in while in Argentina. I’ve a little more planning to do regarding the nuisances of that particular outing, planning I’ll happily do in Argentina itself as I wait for the weather to improve. I ain’t scaling anything in this rain.
It would seem I need to be on an Chilean island in order to guarantee sun. That was the case on Easter Island some weeks ago now as it was here in Chiloé, an archipelago of islands (barely) off the Chilean mainland. Such was the driving rain that I didn’t even get off the bus a few days ago while it was parked on the deck of the ferry for the short trip across the Canal de Chacao from the mainland. However, a few hours later the sun was out, my mood was lifted, and I was getting acquainted with Ancud, my base for the last three days of rural Chilean tranquility, a pretty & surprisingly historic little seaside town on the tip of Isla Grande, the largest of Chiloé’s islands & the only one that’s populated.
Chiloé || Churches, Shingles & Palafitos
Although the all-conquering Spanish took control Chiloé in 1567, it remained relatively isolated from the mainland due to the fierce resistance the mainland Mapuche to European colonists. Tranquil & once-isolated, Chiloé is today as it was way back when – a picturesque rural haven of rolling farmland, forests, & traditional fishing villages full of shingled wooden architecture.
The slow life here on Chiloé has always revolved around fishing but increasingly tourism is making its mark. A place rife with myths & legends, people come here to ‘escape’ the mainland & to ogle at the island’s unique wooden-heavy architecture, mainly its astonishing collection of 18th & 19th century wooden churches, some UNESCO World Heritage listed, & its palafitos, waterside timber houses precariously propped up on stilts.
The only remaining example of such structures left in Chile, Chiloé is renowned for its palafitos, traditional shingled fisherman’s dwellings perched on stilts above the water. Old, rickety & downright dilapidated most of them may be, but that admirable trio of characteristics just makes them all the more picturesque.
The unique shingled architecture of Chiloé reaches its zenith when it comes to its collection of wooden churches.
The defining characteristic of the Chiloé landscape are the over 150 incredible wooden churches that dot the islands, a unique architectural feature of a unique archipelago. UNESCO has enlisted 16 of the churches on their World Heritage list, two of which I visited, the Iglesia San Francisco de Castro in Castro & the Iglesia San Carlos de Borromeo in the village of Chonchi. Generally built facing the sea and with either a beach or plaza fronting them, architecturally they didn’t vary much in style; although sometimes colourful & covered with walls clad with wooden tiles or shingles, they were largely rectangular & bare on the outside with a front three-tiered, hexagonal bell tower (or two) their defining feature.
– UNESCO commenting on the Churches of Chiloé
My time in Chiloé is up. I’m leaving the island via ferry in a few hours. A midnight departure for the 28-hour trip – from Quellon, in southern Chiloé & the official end of the Pan-American Highway, to Puerto Chacabuco in Chile’s wilderness Aysen region – equals the best part of two nights on a ferry, one without beds, just seats. I knew choosing Chile as my route south was going to be inconvenient so I guess the inconvenience starts now (but seemingly the fjord scenery en route is worth the jaunt). Two nights without a bed. I can do that.
AYSEN - CANAL MORALEDA
Fifteen hours I’ve now spent cooped up in the bowels of this vessel & I’m still really not too sure what to make of it. Built neither for comfort nor speed, it’s seem to be a kind of vehicle/cargo transport that just happens to have a seating area, but very little else. I get the impression they take paid foot passengers like me as a way of earning a little bit extra pocket money, although a quick scoot around tells me they don’t attract many and those who do embark on a trip are hardly going in debt to do so; at 16,200 Chilean Pesos (€22) for the 28-hour trip, it’s confusingly cheap, even allowing for the absence of facilities. The Queulat. A pleasure boat it surely is not.
Needs must & this vessel is one of the only options, maybe the only option, for getting south into Chilean Patagonia from the island of Chiloe, whence I came (that is without flying, chartering your own vessel, or backtracking to the mainland & sitting on buses for an equivalent length of time). As I type I’m en route south down the Canal Moraleda, passing the jagged, forested, fjord-rich coastline of the Aysen region of the country, Chile’s last frontier & the final region of the country to be opened up in the early 20th century.
I’m 15 hours in with 13 to go, assuming the schedule is adhered to. Chance would be a fine thing. When all is said & done I’ll be deposited, at stupid o’clock in the morning, in somewhere called Puerto Chacabuco. From there I’ll get to Coyhaique, Aysen’s capital, where I’ll decide what’s next. Until then I’ll continue to do laps of the Queulat; attempt to sneak into areas I shouldn’t; buy coffee from the vending machine, the only outlet the Queulat provides for spending money; watch a few more episodes of Mad Men; try to stop wondering why there are no other stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb travellers on this thing with me (maybe I should have ventured south through Argentina after all); & try get some sleep before disembarkation, impossible unless they turn off those damned TVs.
There was no 4 a.m. disembarkation as the trip actually took 33 hours, not the advertised 28, coasting in Puerto Chacabuco as it did shortly after 9 a.m. this morning. And yes, they did turn the TVs off & I did manage to sleep. On both nights.
AYSEN - COYHAIQUE, CARRETERA AUSTRAL/RUTA 7 & COCHRANE
Before the 27-seater bus pulled out of the bus station in Coyhaique earlier this morning the bus driver handed out doggy bags to all on board. OK I thought, this is going to be an interesting 6+ hours.
Home to some 50,000, half the region’s total population, Coyhaique is the largest settlement in this part of the world by some way. The capital of Aysen, the Chilean region that I – “Aye Aye Captain” – sailed into early yesterday morning, Coyhaique is a pretty place with a laid-back vibe, clean mountain air & a distinctive frontier town look and feel. Short on attractions, it is somewhere where you’ll struggle to find things to do or reasons to detain you. The rest of yesterday saw me recovering from 2 nights on a Chilean ferry – I visited a few central Coyhaique cafes & engaged in a spot of people watching in the town’s unusual five-sided Plaza de Armas, where I took the above picture, easily the prettiest part of town. After that it was time to hit the road. Time to hit the Carretera Austral, a.k.a. Ruta 7.
Ruta 7 || Carretera Austral || Southern Highway
Aysen is a big place. Narrow but big. 110,000 km² (or thereabouts) big. That’s 14% of Chile’s landmass. Of course a big chunk of that 14% is made up of uninhabited islands off the coast & vast tracts of inaccessible mainland wilderness. So it’s kinda remote, too. Cut-off. I sailed into it on a boat. Enough said.
– Detail as taken from the Route Map of Aysen I have in my possession
The so-called road network referenced above, such as it is, is really only one road – Ruta 7. Officially known as the Carretera Austral, it also answers to the name of the Southern Highway (liberties are clearly being taken calling it a highway). Billed as Chile’s most spectacular road, it stretches 1,250 kilometres from Puerto Montt in the north to the tiny isolated hamlet of Villa O’Higgins in the south. It’s the only road brave (or stupid) enough to venture south into Aysen, passing as it does through rural Chilean Patagonia & providing limited access to a large portion of Chile’s southern territory to its 100,000 inhabitants, half of which live in Coyhaique. Construction on the project, by the Chilean Army’s Engineering Command, only began in the mid 1970s – until then access to parts of the region was only possible via boat, air or via probing roads emanating across the border in Argentina. First opened in 1988, the last ferry-assisted stretch to Villa O’Higgins wasn’t complete until 2000 (there are 3 ferry assisted sections of the complete Ruta 7 in total). It’s there in Villa O’Higgins that Ruta 7 ends, finally halted by the topography & specifically Campo De Heilo Sur, one of two massive ice caps that sever this part of Chile from the other wilderness that is the very extreme south of the country (& the very extreme south of the South American continent).
The last ‘major’ stop on Ruta 7 heading south, Cochrane is a small sleepy ranching town laid out on a grid with streets of unkempt greenery fronting wooden houses. I didn’t see many locals on my ramble this afternoon but there were plenty of chickens running away from me as fast as possible.
Although there is only one road around here, there aren’t many locals subjecting themselves to it & thus buses depart in either direction infrequently – once a day at most. I’ll be on another bus tomorrow, continuing my jaunt south on Ruta 7 a further 130 kilometres to the town of Caleta Torel, the reason I’m heading south on Ruta 7 in the first place.
AYSEN - CALETA TORTEL
And now for something not just a little different but a radical break from the Chilean norm (or the South American norm for that matter). Caleta Tortel. I’ve never seen anywhere quite like this before.
I didn’t really have a reason for travelling this far south in inconvenient Patagonian Chile other than the fact that I wanted to see more of the country. I, and even accounting for my fastidiousness with regard to itinerary planning, wasn’t even aware of a place called Caleta Tortel before arriving in the region a few days ago off the ferry from Chiloe. But not long after arriving in the out-of-the-way logging settlement yesterday afternoon I knew the combination of its unique system of elevated walkways & its secluded setting was going to make this the highlight of the time I spent in Chile’s remote Aysen region.
Sitting in the middle of the Northern & Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, the modern-day remnants of the Patagonian Ice Sheet, a massive ice field which covered all of southern Chile during the last glacial period, & at the outflow of the Baker River to the Pacific Ocean, Caleta Tortel is a highly unusual logging town located at the end of a short, foraging branch off the region’s Ruta 7, one that eventually succumbs to the hostile topography. A scattering of houses on steep forested slopes running around a pale emerald bay or cove (caleta means cove in Spanish), the settlement boasts an oh so unique intricate walkway system of local cypress as built by the Caleta Tortel’s wood-loving inhabitants. In a town lacking any roads, the walkways provide the only means to travel between the different areas of the settlement & its houses.
There are many, many kilometres of cypress walkways & elevated boardwalks running from one end of Caleta Tortel to the other, not to mention off into the hills above; the settlement, with a population of a little over 500, is a surprisingly spread-out place. Over the past few days I have pounded most of those kilometres, ascending & descending thousands of steps in the process.
There’s nothing to see in this carpenters Shangri-la – no museums to visit, no colonial architecture to photograph, no cafes to lounge in or bars to drink in. But Caleta Tortel doesn’t need attractions – it’s the uniqueness of the place itself that is the attraction. Everything, from the streets to the plazas to the buildings, is wooden and the only means of motorised transport is via boat; even the seldom used community police car is a boat, moored peacefully for the whole time I was in town. The place will keep you enthralled for about as long as you give it. It did me.
Given the absence of a natural harbour or any obvious landing points, the density of vegetation & steepness of the hills around the cove, I couldn’t help but wonder how there came to be a settlement of any kind here at all. But there is & it’s a fully operational albeit sleepy settlement at that, one with a post office, schools, shops, a weather station, bank, guesthouses & restaurants, all of which hold very erratic hours. There’s even a central Plaza de Armas, a large elevated wooden veranda overlooking the bay in the middle of the settlement. No doubt about it, Caleta Tortel tries hard to be normal when it’s anything but.
As unique as Caleta Tortel is today, I can only imagine how it was say 15 years ago. It’s hard to fathom but back then it was even more isolated than it is today. Only as recently as 2003 was access to Caleta Tortel granted by road with the completion of the branch road off Ruta 7. Telecommunication access – phone & more recently Wi-Fi – to the outside world is an even more recent development. One, the road, got me here while the other is enabling me to blog about it.
The weather wasn’t great for the 2 days I spent here in Caleta Tortel. It was raining upon arrival yesterday. It was downright miserable. Today was slightly better; it was still bleakly overcast but at least it was dry, meaning the steps of the Caleta Tortel boardwalks & walkways were less hazardous than they were yesterday. I would have have loved to see the settlement bathed in sunshine, even for a few minutes & at any time of the day, but it wasn’t to be. I even got up today for sunrise, hopeful that the earliest part of the day would yield favouriable conditions, a safe bet in most cases. It didn’t. That said, & the conditions aside, I still found the place immensely photogenic; it’d be hard not to. Here are a few more captures to round off the last few days on the boardwalks of Caleta Tortel, about as unique a world location as I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting.
AYSEN - COCHRANE TO CHILE CHICO
Retracing my steps on dusty Ruta 7 brought me back from Caleta Tortel to Cochrane for one more night. Yes, sleepy Cochrane is something of a transport hub in these remote parts of Chilean Patagonia. And yesterday, on the evening I arrived back in town, the town’s central Plaza de Armas was busier than it had ever been on my previous visit a few days earlier.
I was killing time earlier today waiting for the once-every-two-days bus out of Cochrane east to Chile Chico on the border with Argentina, when I decided to pay a visit to the inviting-looking cafe on the corner of Plaza de Armas, somewhere that had been closed every time I’d sauntered past it over the previous 3 days; somewhat understandably, places in this unrushed part of the world seem to open on a whim.
SOUTHERN PATAGONIA - PUERTO NATALES
Chilean Patagonia’s second largest settlement, Puerto Natales is a small, charming waterside town which really has nothing going for it except for the fact that it’s the access town for the Chile’s famed Torres del Paine National Park.
Puerto Natales || Chile Take 3
The weather was good on the afternoon of my first full day back in Chile & Puerto Natales looked good as a result, especially its waterfront area.
The realisation hit shortly after taking to the grid-like streets of Puerto Natales that I much prefer Chile to Argentina, or more appropriately Chile to southern Argentina. The town is the first stop on this my 3rd bite of Chilean cherry & on all three occasions I’d entered the country from Argentina. Which country has the better sights is a debate for another day but right now I prefer being in Chile to being in Argentina. I’ve one more stop in the country, Punta Arenas, before crossing into South America’s most southern province, Tierra del Fuego (& Argentina again). The end is nigh. The end of the continent that is.
SOUTHERN PATAGONIA - TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
Yes I know the weather down here is fickle at best but it would seem that I used up all of my southern Patagonia national park good weather credits a few days ago now further north in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The rain held off today but it was still chilly & blustery when I was hoofing it up scree slopes, through woodlands & over loose boulders in an ultimately unsuccessfully bid to get to see the distinctive & famed peaks of the Paine Massif of Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine, one of the continent’s most famous national parks.
Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine
Located near the extreme south of Chilean Patagonia in the southern tiers of the Andes, Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine is a 2,400 km² protected wilderness of mountains, lakes, rivers and glaciers. A magnet for the outdoorsy type & the undisputed highlight of South America’s Southern Cone for many, the park can & does appease those coming here looking for good hiking/trekking, climbing, horseback riding, sailing and kayaking. Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 (it’s not one of Chile’s 6 UNESCO sites), the park’s undoubted draw is the majestic sight, if you can see them, of the park’s Paine Massif, specifically the three iconic sheer granite towers that give the park its name, the 12 million-year-old Torres del Paine, Spanish for ‘Towers of Paine’, ‘Paine’ being the old indigenous name for the colour blue. Towering to heights over 2500 metres, I first saw the towering granite trio a little over a week ago now from Ruta 5 in southern Argentina, about 100 kilometres to the north. Today was the day I was to get a closer view, a much closer view, thanks to undertaking the park’s 18 kilometre Base de Las Torres trek. The park’s most trekked trail & a single leg of the multi-day ‘W’ & Circuit treks, it deposits you at Laguna Torres, an aquamarine lake at the base of the famed Torres del Paine. I saw the lake, I just didn’t see the peaks looming behind it.
I got/needed two bites at the Torres del Paine National Park cherry, visiting for a second time while killing time waiting to embark on a trip to Antarctica from further south in Ushuaia, Argentina. Things were different on that second visit, 2 weeks after this initial brief visit, as I spent much more time in the park subjecting myself to its multi-day ‘W’ trek. This time the weather was great & the views unhindered (although the limbs were sore) meaning I did finally get to see the elusive towers, among many other natural park delights. Check out my dedicated Torres del Paine National Park posting for more on my W trek exploits.
SOUTHERN PATAGONIA - PUNTA ARENAS
It was yesterday when I was looking even further south beyond the colourful rooftops of a windswept Punta Arenas & out over the Strait of Magellan that I first felt like I’d really come so far south. Maybe it had to do with the hitherto absent chill that’s present in the air here. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I’d just completed the purchase of my very last southbound South American bus ticket. Or maybe it’s the fact that it has taken 5 months of overland travel to get here from a tropical Venezuela up north, over 10,000 kilometres & a hemisphere away.
Google tells me I’m at 53°10’S 70°56’W & that Punta Arenas is 1 of 3 settlements down here that claim, mainly for marketing purposes, to be ‘the southernmost city in the world’. It may not be end of the world here where I am right now but I have reached the end of the South American mainland; the Strait of Magellan, named after Ferdinand Magellan, the 1st European to discover these lands when in 1520 he sailed through the channel now bearing his name, separates mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego further south, a largely desolate archipelago that really is the end, the continent’s (very) southern frontier & my next stop.
I kept busy today in Punta Arenas. Yesterday too after stepping off the bus from Puerto Natales further north. Between then & now I’ve looked around the town, visited a museum (the Naval & Maritime Museum) & spent time in the city’s renowned cemetery, Cementerio Municipal.
The Punta Arenas Cementerio Municipal is an eclectic necropolis reflecting the turbulent history of this region of southern Patagonia. Crisscrossed by a network of gravel footpaths lined with immaculately clipped cypress trees, the 4-block cemetery’s rows of tombs & headstones tell the story of the town’s founding, with extravagant tombs of the town’s founders & ruling families hovering over more humble graves such as those of European immigrant labourers.
Punta Arenas & The Strait of Magellan
With a population of over 130,000, Punta Arenas is among the largest cities in the entire Patagonian region & the only city on the region’s Brunswick Peninsula. Capital of Chilean Patagonia, it’s a jumping off point for Chilean Antarctica expeditions. The settlement was founded as a penal colony in 1848, the 2nd attempt to settle the land overlooking the Strait of Magellan, 5 years after it was claimed by Captain John Williams, a British seaman in the service of Chile. The settlement prospered with the sheep boom of the 19th century in particular attracting many European immigrants. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the main route for steamships travelling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was often considered the only safe way to move between the two oceans as the Drake Passage, separating Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) from Antarctica, is notorious for turbulent and unpredictable weather and is frequented by icebergs and sea ice. Ships in the strait, protected by Tierra del Fuego to the south and the coast of continental South America to the north, crossed with relative ease, and Punta Arenas became a primary refuelling port providing coal for steam ships in transit. Sailing ships, however, partly because of variable winds and currents in the strait, generally preferred the Drake Passage, as they had more room to manoeuvre there.
Punta Arenas Titbits
I found these titbits of information somewhat interesting when learning all about my present surroundings, as I tend to do on occasion.
• Punta Arenas is an antipodal city with Irkutsk, Russia.
• Punta Arenas has been nicknamed “the city of the red roofs” for the red-painted metal roofs that characterized the city for many years. Since about 1970 the availability of other colours in protective finishes has resulted in greater variety in the characteristic metal roofs.
• Since 1986, Punta Arenas has been the first significantly populated city in the world to be affected directly by the thinning in the ozone layer. Its residents are considered to be exposed to potentially damaging levels of ultraviolet radiation.
• Among Chileans, the city is also known for its strong winds (up to 130 km/hour). City officials have even put up ropes between buildings in the downtown area to assist pedestrians with managing the strong downdrafts created in the area.
Today I took an afternoon trip up the blustery Strait of Magellan to the small island of Isla Magdelana to ogle at the comedic goings-on of its resident Magellanic Penguins, just in case, and as I’ve said already, I don’t get to Antarctica itself in the coming weeks.
Moving On || Antarctica Bound?
I’ll be on that aforementioned last southbound bus most of tomorrow, 12 hours or so, en route to Tierra del Fuego & Argentinian Ushuaia, a settlement most agree, & although only half the size of Punta Arenas, is actually the southernmost city in the world. It’s as far south as I’ll go, unless I succeed in wrangling a trip even further south across the infamous Drake Passage to the white continent of Antarctica. That’s a big if, one almost as big as the 7th continent itself, a big ‘will it happen, won’t it happen‘ that has been on my mind for a quite some time. Not long to wait now. I’m almost there. Almost at the end.