Category Archives: Chile

Chilean Volcano & Southwestern US Wildfires Impact Travel

Volcanic ash cloud drift affects Southern Hemisphere air traffic & wildfires are scorching the Southwest
Ash cloud over Cape Town. (Cape Town Tourism photo)

“It’s a Small World After All” are the lyrics to a cloying song played over and over and over at a Disneyland/Walt Disney World ride of the same name.  That’s what I thought when I received a press release from Cape Town, South Africa, that began, “Chilean Volcano Puyehue-Cordón Caulle that has been erupting since June 4 has reached Cape Town airspace, affecting flights in and out of Cape Town International Airport. The ash cloud has circled the globe and has, in the last 2 weeks, disrupted flights in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand.”

American news reports — obsessed with insurrections/upsrisings/revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, the growing financial crisis in Greece, flooding and tornadoes in our own country, a debate in New Hampshite by a bunch of 2012 Republican Presidential hopefuls in early June 2011 and the former Representative Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal — pays scant attention to air travel problems so far away. A United Airlines computer freeze in this country is one thing, buttravel  disruptions in the Southern Hemisphere have barely caught anyone’s attention hereabouts.
Arizona Wildfires
Then again, I get it — the cloud, not the political cycle or Weiner’s hobby — because Colorado weather has been affected by the smoke from the devastating wildfires that have been burning in Arizona since late May. These wildfires have been reported on in the American press.  Uneasonable cloud cover is, of course, trivial in light of the impact on Arizona itself, where nearly 700,000 acres have burned. The Wallow Fire, which broke out on May 29, has burned its way through much of the burning up much of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and has spread over nearly 800 square miles was reported 44 per cent contained — and “contained” does not mean extinguished.
The Monument Fire drove 3,000 residents of Sierra Vista from their homes. The Horseshoe Two Fire burned about 210,000 acres (nearly 330 square miles) and is now 75 per cent contained. These are sparsely populated areas, and  many of the scores of buildings reported destroyed are remote cabins.

Enough political hot air has been inserted into the catastrophic wildfires in the Southwest to ignite a wildfire on its own. According to a UPI.com report: “Illegal immigrants from Mexico are responsible for starting some of the huge  wildfires in Arizona, U.S.  Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., alleges. At a Phoenix news conference, the right-wing senator claimed illegal  immigrants light fires in the wilderness for warmth, to send signals and to  distract border agents, CNN said. ‘There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by  people who have crossed our border illegally,’ McCain said. ‘The answer to that  part of the problem is to get a secure border.’ However, he offered no evidence to substantiate his claim.”

New Mexico Fires

Pacheco Fire as seen from Santa Fe. (KRGE.com photo)

The Track Fire near the New Mexico-Colorado state line burned more than 27,000 acres and closed I-25 over Raton Pass for several days, while in the southern part of the state, Carlsbad Caverns National Park was closed for three days as the fast-moving Loop Fire scorched more than 30,000 acres within and outside of the park boundaries. Cacti were the main victims from the plant kingdom, but the Park Service reports that “Smoke and ash present; breathing/health issues – take precautions. Caves, bats, & buildings are OK!” Also in southern New Mexico, Ski Apache near Ruidoso has suspended summer operations at the ski area for the time being, while the opulent Inn of the Mountain Gods and in-town attractions are thus far unaffected.

Oddly, there are two Santa Fe fires burning right now: on, the 6,000-acres Santa Fe Swamp Fire in Florida’s Alachua County and the other, the Pacheco Fire raging in the southern Sangre de Cristo mountains east of Santa Fe and visible from New Mexico’s capital city.  I don’t think even John McCain could blame this one on “illegal immigrants” — or maybe he could.

And In Colorado

Crews are getting a handle on a wildfire near Westliffe in the beautiful Wet Mountain Valley. It rained for 12 overnight hours here in the metro Denver/Boulder area, and it has been snowing in the high country. The Bicycle Tour of Colorado is supposed to go over Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake today, but I don’t know what will happen, since the news reported this morning that it is closed due to snow.

This Blog Is Back

The return of Travel Babel, after a time out for a cyber-makeover

Did you miss me during this blog’s brief hiatus? And do you like the new look? Either my husband Ral or I took the photo at Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. We have have shared some marvelous travels, from underwater when we went diving off the islands of Roatan, Honduras, and Cozumel Mexico, to trekking up 19,334-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I picked the image above for the relaunch of this blog for both symbolic and aesthetic reasons. The visual is obvious, but the symbolic part is because my very first posts were from Chile nearly four years ago.

 After hearing Sree Sreenavastan speak about why writers should be blogging at an American Society of Journalists and Authors conference earlier in the year, I started a food blog. Then in fall, the Society of American Travel Writers had its 2006 convention in Santiago. There was Sree, again preaching the blogging gospel to SATW members. I listened to him and thought, “I”m a travel writer. I need a travel blog.”

So I went into the press room, picked a name and started blogging about travel.  That was three years and 11 months, and 800 posts ago. After the core convention in Santiago, my husband and I visited first Torres del Paine National Park and later Easter Island — both memorable destinations. And that, in the proverbial nutshell, is I selected this photo at the top of the home page.

Keep reading. Leave a comment now and again. And keep on traveling. Please.

Earthquake and Chilean Tourist Destinations

Reflections on Chile; broad-stroke news of current conditions

I created this blog in Santiago, Chile, during the 1996 Society of American Travel Writers convention there. The earliest posts are about the Santiago-Valparaiso area more or less in the center of this long skinny country, Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia in the far south and fascinating Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish) 2,300 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. Natural disasters (and man-made ones too) are heart-wrenching to begin with, but learning of tragendies in places I have visited adds a special poignancy.

It was with a mixture of sadness and relief that I read the following Chile Turismo summary sent to me by Gina Morgan who handles public relations and marketing for the Remota Lodges in the country.

Desert – The north of Chile was not affected by the quake and has not reported any damage.

Easter Island – Easter Island, which lies 2,300 miles off the cost of mainland Chile, a 5.5 hour flight from Santiago, was not affected by the quake. Initial tsunami warnings have been lifted and all operations are normal.

Santiago and Central Region – Santiago’s airport suffered structural damage to the passenger terminal, however no damage was reported to the runways and the airport is expected to reopen later this week. Electricity and phone lines have been restored in Santiago and the city’s public transportation including its metro is fully operational. Valparaiso and Viña del Mar have also reported damage. The annual Viña del Mar International Music festival which was underway has been suspended.

Lakes and Volcanoes – The northern part of the Lakes and Volcanoes region, around the city of Concepcion and the Bio Bio River, was most affected by the quake. Authorities are still working on assessing the full damage. Basic essential services including water, electricity and telecommunications are gradually being restored. The southern part of the Lakes and Volcanoes region was not affected by the quake. Operations in popular tourist towns including Pucon, Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt are normal.

Patagonia – The far south of the country was not affected by the quake and has not reported any damage.

Chile is a country with a history of seismic activity. The country’s preparedness, including its strict anti-seismic building codes, the rapid emergency response from the government as well as the help from a number of organizations can be credited for managing the situation and help minimize the damage. The country’s tourism infrastructure has, overall, fared well, reporting little damage.

Author Wayne Bernhardson, who has written Moon Guidebooks about Chile and Argentina and therefore has good contacts down there, has posted some more detailed news here and here on his blog, Southern Cone Travel.

When I visited briefly in 2006, Valparaiso, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still showed evidence of a catastrophic earthquake a century earlier. The quake that struck in August 1906 killed nearly 3,000 people, and many buildings still bore cracks and scars. The fatalities appear to be far fewer, but I cannot imagine how an even more powerful quake might have affected the colorful buildings of this beauitfully located and very historic harbor city. I also wonder about the vineyards and whether the vines will be adequately watered and the wineries whose cellars are stacked with barrels and bottles of wine. I wonder whether the ski lifts at Portillo and Valle Nevado were affected. And of course, I am concerned about the Chileans who lost their homes and their livelihoods, for whom the effect on tourism is of relatively minot concern. The world reached out to Haiti with aid. The casualty toll was higher, CNN was there 24/7 for weeks and the country far more impoverished to begin with. I wonder what the world has in its reserves for Chile.

Give the Chileans a bit of time to take care of basic infrastructure needs and get aire service back to normal, and then put this beautiful country on your to-visit list. It’s late summer in the Southern Hemisphere now. Harvest season is coming. And ski season will follow. Donate to relief efforts if you can, plan on visiting — or at least buy some Chilean produce and order some Chilean wine to help the economy.

Patagonian Luxury Resort Offers February Value Packages

Remota’s 4-for-3 and 7-for-4 packages offered during the Southern Hemisphere summer

I am in the Lake Tahoe area right now, reveling in abundant snow. But if I wanted to go to South America, now would be the time. Remota, a specatular luxury resort lodge on the outskirts of Porta Natales near Chile’s even more spectacular Torres del Paine National Park, is offering February specials at hard-to-beat prices — especially considering that this is during the summer season. En route to the national park in 2006, I visited Remota just for a look at this breathtaking place with a philosophy of luxury and comfort against a design backfrop of Zen-like simplicity and some of the best scenery on the planet.

I don’t know whether it is a slowdown in the world economy that instigated such a generous, last-minute offer, but guests can get four nights at Remota for the price of three (US $1,548, regularly $1,980 per person, double occupancy) or seven for the price of four ($1,980, regularly $2,988) for lodging, meals and daily excursions. Hurry up, because this value deal is valid for travel during February 2010. The fine print: “subject to availability upon booking” and “some restrictions may apply.”

If you’ve got a lot of frequent flyer miles, now might be the time to try to use them up. LAN Chile Airlines is a partner on American Airlines’ OneWorld frequent flyer program. Current roundtip air fares to Punta Arenas start at $1,363 from Los Angeles, $1,468 from New York and $1,486 fom Miami.lus taxes. It’s counter-intuitive that fares would be higher from New York than from Miami, but in this age of yield management, LAN probably has more passengers from Florida. If you’re traveling that far, check about a stopover in Santiago, Chile’s fascinating capital.

In the unlikely event that you want to write to Remota, the address is Ruta 9 Norte, km. 1.5, Huerto 279 / Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile. You are more likely to contact them or book online or even more likely, to call their tollfree number, 866-431-0519.

"Confessions of a Travel Writer"


Travel Channel premiere of a program that’s a bit about my life

Many of my travel writer colleagues are totally fabulous: smart, curious, adaptable, genuinely nice. But some are less so: demanding, complaining, self-centered, condescending. And a few are particularly unpleasant to travel with. “Confessions of a Travel Writer,” which was shown on the Travel Channel on August 10 but which I just watched, alluded to both. Fortunately, the show didn’t feature the worst of the travel writer species or I’d be embarrassed by association.

Cameras followed five travel writers hosted by the Chilean Tourist Office on a one-week press trip last February (I think) to Santiago, San Antonio Valley wine country, Valparaiso and Patagonia (including the totally spectacular Torres del Paine National Park). And I finally watched, thanks to the magic of DVR. Charles Runnette hosted the show, with Shira Lazar, Chantal Martineau, Jimmy Im and Andrew Evans comprising the rest of the guests. Some of them represented publications that I thought did not accept “sponsored trips” — but that’s a topic unto itself. I could totally identify with it: a packed-full itinerary, private van transportation (and flights to/from Patagonia) between stops and lavish hosted meals that everyone seems to be hungry for.

On camera, Runnette sported the been-everywhere-seen-everything shaggy traveler look. He complained on camera about trivial inconveniences such getting the worst room in a Valparaiso hotel, about sitting in the last row on the flight to Punta Arenas, about penguin poop at the Isla Magdalena penguin rookery and about mosquitoes elsewhere in Patagonia. I can testify that press trips rarely give guests much of a chance to spend much time in their rooms other than take stuff out of their bag(s) and put it back in, shower and sleep. Runnette was enthusastic about a couple of big soaking tubs, but I’ve rarely had time to fill, let alone soak, in one of them on a press trip.

What the TV show failed to convey is the real work involved in gaining some insights and getting an interesting story despite the grueling schedule and the fact that even a group as small as five has different interests. Plus the host’s desire to show off very specific things. The Society of American Travel Writers‘ 2006 convention was in Santiago. About half of us stayed at the same hotel that this press group did and the rest in a different high-rise hotel distant from the historic town center. Many of us ate at one of the Bellavista restaurants that this group did upon arrival. Many of us went to Valparaiso fof a day. And a few of us lucky ones selected a post-convention trip to Patagonia, including Torres del Paine National Park. Unlike a press trip, however, which is hosted, members pay to attend SATW conventions — and in some cases, pay more than other groups but often get more for our meeting money. That said, we had slightly different versions of many of the experiences that this group did.

Like most reality shows, “Confessions of a Travel Writer” was not really real. All five of the guests were rather young, trim and telegenic. In truth, many travel writers have many decades on their odometers and aren’t nearly as telegenic as this quintet. The women clearly were not members of the Patagonia/North Face/REI tribe. They wore the New York version of active outdoorwear, city-style makeup and glowing smiles. But even five people can be a microcosm of the travel writer experience. Charles and Shira hung together a lot. Jimmy misplaced his notebook in Valparaiso. Andrew was interested in photographing things that did not necessarily captivate the others — especially Charles. But on balance, they seemed to get along. And that, on any press trip, is sometimes an accomplishment.

In an interview with WorldHum.com, which is owned by or affiliated with The Travel Channel, Runnette described the tightrope that we travel writers walk. He told interviewer Michael Yessis, “Any job is difficult to summarize in 43 minutes on TV, and, frankly, this show only scratches the surface of what it takes to be a travel writer. The funny thing about this job is that when you tell anyone you’re a travel writer, nine times out of 10 the first thing out of their mouth is: ‘That’s my dream job.’ I would say this show lays waste to that popular myth. Yes, it’s better than many jobs, but after watching this show viewers will understand the down side of travel writing. Dealing with morons, bad pay, long days and nights. And, frankly, it can be lonely at times.”

The program was promoted as a “premiere,” but according to a Facebook entry, it is a pilot — so there may be others. If there are, I’ll be watching.

2008 is the Year of the Volcano in Chile

Two major volcanoes eruptions since January impact national parks and resort towns

In January, the central Chilean volcano called Llaima began breathing fire, sporadically emitting lava flows that turned the snow that covered upper slopes into steam and sending an ash column more than 10,000 feet into the sky, as was dramatically captured in filmed reports from National Geographic and CNN. The 10,252-foot volcano is reportedly one of the country’s most active, having erupted as recently as 1994. It is some 422 miles south of the capital of Santiago. The nearest town, Melipueco, was evacuated, as were visitors and rangers in Conguillio National Park.

Chaiten, some 400 miles farther south near the Chile-Argentina border has been erupting since May 2, forcing evacuations first from the nearby eponymous town of Chaiten, then the larger and then more distant community of Futaleufo and even moving out military personnel. This was far more surprising. “The long dormant 3,280-foot (1,000-meter) Chaiten volcano began erupting on Friday for the first time in thousands of years, and the huge plume of volcanic ash is clearly visible on satellite images cutting a swathe across South America’s southern tip,” according to a Reuters report. Airlines have canceled flights to southern Patagonia, because of the potential danger of volcanic ash being sucked into jet engines.

Chaiten’s eruption is still going strong (NASA satellite, photo right). It is located in what vulcanologists refer to as the Andean Arc that stretches from Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. “It is home to 2,000 volcanoes, 500 of which experts say are potentially active. Around 60 have erupted over the past 450 years,” Reuters noted. While Argentina is not usually listed as part of the arc, ash has been reported in the Argentine resort of Bariloche in Nahuel Huapi National Park and even as far away as the capital of Buenos Aires. The region is famous not only for skiing at Bariloche but also for Tahoe-blue mountain lakes. As ash, which soared into the stratosphere, continues to fall over a wide region, it could impact the ski season that begins in June, and the lakes might no longer be so pristine.

Glaciers Up Close and Personal


Article about Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier stirs up my own memories of a hike down Switerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier (left).

A Touch of the Arctic in Argentina, ” a front-page feature about an Argentine glacier in today’s Denver Post (originally published in Newsday), set off a torrent of memories. The headline writer’s cavalier use of the word “Arctic” to describe the Magellanic region of Patagonia, a whole lot closer to the Antarctic than the Arctic zone, notwithstanding, I was taken by writer Ann Givens’ tale of being stranded (air traffic control issues with domestic flights) in inland town of El Calafate. It is located near Lago Argentino, an enormous lake at the Argentine-Chilean border fed by Andean snow and ice, and Givens and her husband made the most of the situation by visiting Perito Moreno Glacier.

Givens wrote, “There are glaciers all over the world, of course, ranging from Africa to New Zealand. But there are a few things that make the Moreno glacier unique, as we learned from our English-speaking tour guide. The first is its accessibility: You can get to it by car, without hiking for miles through ice and snow or traveling for days on an ice-breaking boat. Second, the Moreno Glacier is dynamic, meaning that it is constantly forming at one end, while it is breaking off into the water at the other at the same rate.”

Regarding her first point, Perito Moreno is far from unique. Numerous compelling glaciers are easy to reach. Just think about Juneau, Alaska’s drive-to Mendenhall Glacier and fly-to Juneau Icefield, the Columbia Icefield right off the route between Banff and Jasper, and numerous Alpine glaciers that you can reach by cable car from a resort town in the valley below are among those that come to mind. Ice breaking boat? Some but not even most Antarctic trips are by icebreaker, but otherwise, visitors can get close to numerous tidewater glaciers there and elsewhere on everything from a cruise ship to a Zodiac. Mountain glaciers like Perito Moreno are reached in other and often easy ways.

Regarding her second point, at the present time, Perito Moreno not unique either, but it is definitely unusual. It is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is not retreating, which also makes it a worthy pilgrimage site. In any event, Grimes’ description of their two-hour guided hike on the glacier captured her thrill.

“We were each outfitted with crampons, cleats for climbing on ice and
snow,” she wrote. “From the inside, the glacier’s terrain is beautiful: icy
hills and valleys, separated by deep crevasses and tiny streams of bright blue
water formed by newly melted ice. The walking wasn’t easy, and our guides were
there to help us over some frighteningly deep canyons, and down some steep
grades. People who had been smart enough to bring water bottles filled them up
in the glacial streams, and the rest of us sucked on small chunks of
million-year-old ice, a surprisingly delicious treat, which we were assured was
perfectly safe.

“After a couple of hours, we came over a peak and saw our guides ahead of
us, standing around a table that had been set up on the ice. On the table was a
glass of scotch for each of us, each with a chunk of glacier ice in it, and a
bowl full of chocolate truffles. Standing on a glacier near the southern tip of
Argentina, it seemed to me a delicious indulgence. My husband and I beamed at
each other and clinked our glasses.”

It might seem like quibbling on my part to note that one doesn’t hike “inside” a glacier, but rather “on” a glacier. Only in Alpine resorts where man-made caves are carved into the heads of large glaciers does one actually enter inside one. A glacial maze, if indeed the group was led through one, might feel like being inside the ice. But maybe that’s just envious me writing, because I too would like to see this rare glacier that is not shrinking even when those around it are.

Chilling drinks with glacial ice is a popular feature following a tourist experience to or near various glaciers, it seems especially in South America. I enjoyed a pisco sour on a sightseeing boat called the “Lady Grey II” that motors to the foot of the Grey Glacier in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, close as the condor flies to the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is also an easy-access glacier. You can drive to the Hosteria Grey and board a boat to the foot of the glacier that feeds the lake.

Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier: One Great Hike

Of the several glacier experiences I’ve had — Antarctica, South America, Alaska, the Alps and even on the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa — the most epic glacier by far was a hike down Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier 2004. We rode the train from Kleine Scheidegg through the Eiger to a saddle called the Jungfraujoch, with its mammoth structure holding the train station, numerous restaurants, viewing platforms, a humongous gift shop and an observatory.

From there, we walked through a short tunnel and stepped onto the glacier. With veteran guide Bernhard Stuckey, we roped up and hiked more than 10 miles (of the the glacier’s approximate 14 1/2-mile length) with an overnight at the Konkordia Hut perched high on a cliff above the shrinking glacier. The “hut” is not an Appalachian Mountain Club-style lean-to but a substantial stone structure built to house, shelter and feed hikers, touring skiers and climbers. You can see it poking out above the sloping rock shoulder of the cliff in the bottom photo, which was taken from the surface of the glacier.

We climbed up a series of ladders and zigzagging metal steps bolted into the rock from the glacier to but. The view from the terrace next to the hut was beyond breathtaking. Below was the vast Great Aletsch Glacier, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. We looked right down at the Konkordia Platz, an amazing confluence of the glacier we hiked down and side glaciers that meet right there. It is surrealistic to gaze at his scene of rock-rimmed, ice-filled valleys where human evidences seem very far away — even though we had left the Jungfraujoch just a few hours earlier and though the hutkeepers were just inside, preparing hot meals and pouring wine and beer for hungry, thirsty trekkers.

While the glacier surface at the beginning of our route was covered soft snow that became mushy in the afternoon snow and did not require crampons, as we approached the hut (two bottom images) the snow began to give over to crust. The second day, we were on ice, and we did need crampons. When we left the hut, we descended to the crenelated surface of the glacier, put on our crampons and kept on hiking. The farther down we went, the rougher the glacier surface and the more crevasses we encountered. We left the glacier and climbed up big rocky surface, unbuckled our crampons and followed a long trail through alpine meadows to the village of Bettmeralp.

Whenever I read about hiking on glaciers, standing on glaciers, looking at glaciers or making a drink with glacial ice, I want to be there too. So thanks, Ann Givens, for sharing your experience and resurrecting memories of some of my own.

Between a rock and a hard place

Writing from Santiago, a brief stop between the rock (the Torres del Paine, a trio of soaring granite towers in the eponymous national park, a designated World Biosphere Reserve, in Patagonia) and a hard place (Easter Island, with its monumental stone figures of mysterious creation). First Internet access in days, and perhaps the only computer I’ll touch for several days more.

We were welcomed to Patagonia with howling (and not atypical) winds that blow strongly from Antarctica each spring. The weather pattern has something to do with the seasonal break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf and how it affects winds. We traveled from Puerto Natales on mostly paved roads (being widened into a divided four-laner as far as Cerro Castillo) and then drove deep to the park along largely unpaved roads. In all, the area largely resembles central Nevada, with big valleys set against distant mountains and lots of grazing sheep in the foreground.

In the park, we stayed in an insulated, but unheated and unelectrified dome in Eco-Camp Patagonia just below the Towers themselves — simple accommodations and simply magnificent scenery, but not a lot of fun walking along boardwalks to the bathroom/shower tent in the wind.

The first day was spent riding between touch-and-go attractions: a fabulous waterfall just a short stroll from a parking area but a formidable walk beating against the wind, and a wild boat ride to pristine, triple-headed glacier at the head of head of a lake called Lago Grey. We donned lifejackets and walked to the end of a pier, where we boarded a small open craft that transported us over bouncing waves to the ‘Grey II,’ the tour boat.

For an hour, we motored into the wind and waves. Each wave crashed over the bow and the well-sealed windows. In the sheltered lee of the glacier, the boat stopped rocking and rolling long enough for the crew to serve pisco sours, allegedly made with glacial ice. One wit on the boat said, “If I ever want to recapture this experience, I’ll make myself a pisco sour and drive through the car wash.”

The following morning — our last full day in the park — we went on long hike for a close-up view of the iconic Torres del Paine themselves. Eleven miles, plus the 1.5 kilometers each way between the Eco-Camp and the trailhead. We walked down the hill from the Eco-Camp and crossed a broad meadow where the Hosteria Las Torres (campground and resort) is located. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Ascencio, whose valley we would follow for the next 6.2 kilometers (about 4 miles). This modest river carved an impressive canyon. The first part of the trail parallels the river but high up the canyon walls. Much of it is steep, and in parts are deep troughs from horses hooves.

After a while, the trail gentles in grade but drops into side valleys and ascends out of them. A bit past the half-way point, we reached the Albergo y Camping Chileno. This large European-style hut offers rustic accommodations and some food and beverage service. It is also as far as horses are permitted for people who don’t want to hike the whole way.

From the Albergo, the trail is generally closer to the river and passes through deep woods. It has more rises and falls until it reaches a clearing. The steep Accarreo Moraine ascends sharply to the left to a small lake offering the best in-your-face view of the towers. Anyone not interested in the final 1.5 kilometers (almost 1 mile) and 750 vertical feet on scree and talus, can follow a small trail to a funky ranger station. Beyond it is another viewpoint to see the towers.

The next morning, we left the Eco-Camp and drove all the way back to Punta Arenas. Park roads are not paved and hopefully will not be, but as noted above, the government is undertaking an ambitious road-widening project as far as a crossroads called Cerro Carillo, something of a gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and also to the nearby border with Argentina.

Valparaiso

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most beautifully situated, most rundown cities I have ever seen. Located around a gorgeous crescent-shaped harbor with homes clinging to steep hills, Valparaiso thrived from the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, when ships that had rounded Cape Horn re-provisioned in its lovely hardbor, until the Panama Canal rendered it obsolete. It began a slow decline that was not helped by an earthquake in 1904 and subequent tremblors.

Houses — ornate, ramshackle or both (above right) — cling to hillsides. One of them belonged to Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, and is now a museum filled with his personal objects. He wrote in a tower room with large windows taking in a commanding view. Today, the city looks better from afar than close-up. Cobblestone streets, broken sidewalks and steep slopes are filled with brilliant wildflowers, dog droppings and litter. One major road contours over the hills, with many small streets, alleyways and staircases. Too many walls are graffitied. Locals don’t seem to notice or care. Fifteen funiculars, called elevadors, make it easier and more direct for people to move from the seaside port level to the neighborhoods above. The tariff is 100 pesos — roughly 20 cents.

Elaborate public buildings, including the national parliament and the Chilean version of the Pentagon, are located in Valparaiso. So is the military memorial, like an unknown soldier’s tomb with an eternal flame. Souvenir vendors set up stalls anywhere of possible touristic interest. A small, crowded covered food market displays beautiful produce and other products near the center of town. On Sundays, like today, a flea market occupies the median of one of the main streets. Used clothing, cheap shoes, a lot of this and that is laid out on blankets or rugs. There are a few canopies for shade, but no stalls. A couple of Chileans told me that Valparaiso really rocks at night, but by day, alas, it’s still the warts that show.

It is a city with a past and hopefully a future. With UNESCO loans, the city is undergrounding the rat’s nests of overhead wires. Light rail now runs along the waterfront linking the cargo port to the cruise port and even the nearby high-rise resort of Vino del Mar. Maybe the sidewalks will be fixed. Maybe the litter will be picked up. Maybe more of the houses will be restored and repainted. Valaparaiso is something of a cross between San Francisco and Hooverville — still too much of the latter and too little of the former.

Valparaiso is an easy day trip from Santiago, by frequent public bus for about $6 or with one of the tour operators that not only provides transportation to the city by the sea but also up to the hillside neighborhoods.

Cool new hotel in Santiago

This is a newborn blog, so far without any bells and whistles, but I’ve already discovered a very cool (and very new) 10-room hotel in Bellavista, Santiago, Chile’s liveliest neighborhood. The Hotel del Patio occupies the second floor of a traditional courtyard that is filled with neat little shops and restaurants. The hotel’s furnishings are minimalist and oh-so-stylish. Bright sateen quilts provide the single blast of color amid the dark furniture and light walls. Each room has a private bath (shower only, no tub) and big windows. There’s also a fab deck for breakfast or hanging out and, did I mention the location? Rates for standard rooms are US$62 per night, single or double, including continental breakfast and complimentary Internet access. E-mail them at hoteldelpatio@gmail.com.