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.

Puerto Natales, Chile

Punta Arenas is the southernmost city in Chile and one of the two most southerly in the world. It sits on the Straits of Magellan, where the breeze blows steadily, where the sky is filled with fast-moving, dramatically lit clouds and the people are as hearty as Alaskans, Canadians, residents of the Scandinavan north and other people who aren´t drawn to palm trees.

En route to Torres del Paine National Park, we detoured one hour to the south for an hour to Fuerte Bulnes, a reproduction of a mid-19th century wood fort that established Chile’s claim to this southerly lnd, literally days ahead of a French naval party with the same goal. Between Punta Arenas and the fort, in and along the water just south of the road, we saw an enormous sea lion perched on a rock that wasn´t much larger than the critter, a pod of a Magellanic dolpin called tonines (which I might be spelling wrong) and numous shore birds. My favorite Patagonian bird, the caiquen, is a long-necked bird that always travels in pairs. North of the road are small farms, where chickens, roosters, sheep (and their lambs) and attle were in evidence.

The main square of the lively port town of Punta Arenas is ringed with opulent mansions dating from the days of the wool trade. Between there and Puerto Natales to the north are long stretches of coastal highway with few trees, rolling scenery, more sheep and even a small lake inhabited by Patagonian flamingoes. We spent the night in Puerto Natales, a trekker/backpacke/cyclist stop, with more hostels than hotels. Soon, it’s off to the national park.

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.

Santiago, Chile – Initial Observations

I am in Santiago, Chile, for the Society of American Travel Writers annual convention, after which there will be no more meetings, no more banquets and no more speeches, but opportunities to visit outlying parts of the country. Chilean officials keep referring to the country’s climatic and geographic diversity. As an illustration, a map of Chile overlaid on a map of North America, with the southern end of Chile on top of San Diego, the northern tip would stretch all the way to Prudhoe Bay.

Chile, now led by Michelle Bachelet, a democratically elected woman prime minister, has emerged from the long, dark shadow cast by former (and still jailed) dictator Augusto Pinochet, is proud of its robust economy, growing sophistication and personal liberties. Nowhere is this more evident than in Santiago, where some 5.5 million Chileans live. It’s just the start of out visit, but here are some initial impressions of Santiago:

  • The official bird of Santiago is the construction crane. Buildings are going up all over. Many are dramatic. Most apartments sprout small balconies, and most balconies sprout flowers and greenery.
  • Civic improvements include a new airport terminal and a number of new roadways, including a lengthy tunnel literally under the Mapocho River. The river is a concrete-lined culvert, made more attractive by several parks along its banks. I’ve read that it has long been heavily polluted both with household and industrial effluent, but the government has undertaken clean-up efforts and built wastewater treatment plants.
  • The parts of the city that tourists are likely to visit are relatively litter-free, but graffiti blights many of the best old buildings.
  • At this time of year (October = spring), mornings are foggy, but the sun usual comes out in the afternoon. Perhaps this Mendocino-type climate is why the wines grown nearby in the Maipo Valley are so good.
  • Local chefs do not seem at all concerned with sustainable seafood harvesting. Salmon often come from fish farms. Chilean sea bass is served all the time, though someone has told me that the Patagonia toothfish that appears on US menus as Chilean sea bass is not the same as sea bass in Chile.

Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.