Chile Update Part V

Trip Start Jan 19, 2011
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Trip End Apr 15, 2011


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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Monday, February 28, 2011

Heyo,

So I drafted this email days ago (when we didn't have internet access) and haven't been able to get online to send this until now. However, it is now a few days outdated and I don't have the time to bring you completely up to speed on our adventures.

--

Buenos Noches from Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile!

So where was I... Oh yes, I left you hanging at the end of a gnarly off-road drive down Ruta 40, Argentina (and subsequently arriving at El Calafate)...

Well, as a Uni graduate with a B.Comm in Tourism Management & Marketing, I have developed a tendency to critically analyze every destination I travel to, regarding the efforts of their DMO, service offerings, local peoples and various other stakeholders - I can't help myself now...

Anyways, El Calafate was the first destination visited down here, that truly impressed me. This was a destination that recognized the value of tourism (and the dollars that could be generated due to tourism activities). Street signs were in fine repair, well-marked and easily readable. Curb appeal of all businesses along the city's main drag (and city streets in general) were most impressive. And service quality was the best we'd experienced to this point in our travels. We found a nice secluded campsite in the municipal campground and immediately set to work finding an auto-shop to help out our tire situation after completing Ruta 40. After a couple failed inquiries, we found a local place willing and able to put new tires (albeit 1 size up) on our "little-mini" (as we've taken to calling our Chevy Spark). Parts and labor together cost $170 CAD and only took 23 minutes to complete - the maintenance fellow actually encouraged me to watch, to prove to me that no funny business was going on. Most impressive! After that, we went out for dinner and I had arguably the best steak I've ever sunk my teeth into. I had two 8 oz Argentinian tenderloin cuts, med-rare (perfectly grilled); the steak simply melted in my mouth! With a side of mash potatoes. Maria ordered Risotto with Lamb - which was also delicious! We topped it off with a bottle of local wine and the check came to ~$85 CAD (once converted out). Ha! An incredible meal for that price! Not in North America, my friends! The next day we spent in town was a lazy one. We scoped out the various service offerings, played tourist and looked through the shops and lazed around the camp site.

The following day, we left El Calafate in search of Chile... We drove south-east via Rio Gallegos and then crossed the border into Chile. Now, despite what you may read about the Chevy Spark and how fuel efficient it is.... it's all BS. I don't get much more than 450km to a tank and it costs me damn near $45 CAD (once you convert CLP into CAD) to fill the tank - and I rarely push the car above 105km/h on hwy. Shit! Anyways, we crossed the border back into Chile - this was (perhaps because it was a much smaller, less-busy port of entry) was much easier than previously... only took us 1 hour to get back into Chile! We drove to Punta Arenas and couldn't find a campground, so drove about 40km south of the city and found this beautiful, secluded campsite that (we discovered later) had no power, water, nor bathroom facilities, despite the owners' word.

The next day we slept in and got a late start, drove back into town and began to scope things out. I had originally envisioned this southernmost city to be a bustling tourism hub, but it didn't live up to my expectations. This odd destination was half-slumy/rundown-shithole, and half nice, bustling, well-to-do destination that feeds off of tourism, oil/gas, and shipping. We spent the afternoon at a chocolate and coffee place to use the internet and then found ourselves a tour operator with which to book a penguin tour. While Maria conversed with the fellow (I couldn't understand more than a few phrases - e.g. cost, time of departure, etc) I was impressed with the fellow's behavior (from a tourism standpoint). He was helpful, informative, and willing to go out of his way. So we booked 2 tickets for a boat cruise to go see penguins for the next day! After shuffling campgrounds in and around the city (we found camping at Eduardo's backyard campground (in the middle of the city - no space, nor camping amenities - he simply ran a hostel and rented out his backyard to campers, lol). But he was a most helpful, and friendly fellow. After setting up camp and grabbing a burger down the street, we made our way to the meeting-point for our Penguin Tour. They bused us to the pier and we boarded this run-down, dirty, semi-seaworthy looking vessel. Unfortunately, the crew had not received the go-ahead for the ride - I guess they had to get permission from the Isla Magdalena Park Rangers (the island where the penguins were - some 80 clicks northeast of Punta Arenas) before they could undertake their tour. So we sat at the pier for nearly two hours, then began to saunter towards our destination, still without confirmation that we could land. After a half-hour of putting along, on the slow-boat-to-china, we were denied access to the Island! So we turned around and were told that we could get a refund, or re-book for tomorrow. Needless to say, we rescheduled...

The next day, we started our early by visiting the local Regional Museum, which had an impressive display of taxidermy wildlife (especially birds), but was lacking in archaeological and and very poor anthropological displays (and the English translations were terrible). Nonetheless, it was neat to check out, prior to making our way to the rendezvous point for our 2nd attempt to see penguins. This time, everything was good to go. The bus picked us up, drove us the the Pier and we we departed within moments. A much more professional cruise this time around resulted in a pre-departure safety talk, followed by tea and snacks during the 2 hour cruise to Isla Magdalena. Upon arriving at the island, we moored up to this rickety old dock that ran out into the sea and stepped off the boat onto two 2x10's that were about 12 feet long spanning the gap from boat to dock, using a taught rope as a handrail. My sea-legs carried me across fine, but there was more than once when I looked back that I thought someone was going to take a spill into the drink! After disembarking, we were greeted by the ranger and then given free range (to follow a pre-determined and fenced path) to walk between the 150,000+ penguins still on the island! While the newly hatched, had long since taken to the sea, many parents were still on-shore and hanging out. We were told that some 300,000+ penguins call this island home from Dec-Jan. Absolutely incredible! The sounds of penguins squawking, accompanied by them waddling everywhere was neat. We also saw one digging out his nest further, two having a little "fun" in the sun ;) and some just lazing around. I'll have to show pictures later, because I feel my words just can't do it justice...

The next day, we broke camp early, drove south of the city again, to drive through Puerto Hambre (Port Hunger) and visit Fuerte (Fort) Bulnes, which is really the last real development on the physical continent (located further south than most everything else). We then drove from there, and continued north to Puerto Natales... A destination more tourism-inclined that anything else we'd seen in Chile (except perhaps Villarica and Pucon). Anyways, we found a nice campsite, did some laundry, made dinner and walked down the main streets. The next morning, Maria slept in and I got up early to walk along the coast and take some photos. There were black-necked swans (and another variety I'm not familiar with) all along the coast; each nesting pair had many babies following along! We then broke camp, stocked-up on supplies and drove northwest to Cueva del Milodon (the Milodon Cave). The Milodon was a Giant sloth that went extinct many years ago and whose remains were found in caves. Very cool! Unfortunately, there was no enforement of sustainable behavior by rangers, so visitors to the area simply walked where they wanted, touched and defaced things as they pleased. After that, we continued down a gravel road towards Nacional Parque Torres del Paine! Hiking this park has been one of my dreams for years now and I was stoked! The drive into the park was amazing! For those of you familiar with the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park, MT, this was South America's equivalent! Gorgeous mountain views, turquoise, aqua, and emerald lakes, blue skies and bird life like I've only seen in a few places around the world! We paid our dues at the park entrance and then drove into the first campground we saw. We made camp, had a fire, got drunk and watched the full-moon poke it's way between the clouds.

Today, unfortunately, I awoke around 04:00 to the rain. Shit! The clouds had socked right in and it was pissing rain. To make matters worse, Maria had come down the night before with a cold and was definitely not up to any kind of activity, so there went any hope of hiking or sightseeing. So I passed the day reading my book about Ferdinand Magellan's journey to find the Straight of Magellan (between continental South America and Tierra del Fuego). I hope that tomorrow the clouds clear, so we can take a hike, or go for a boat ride to check out the area's glaciers!

But enough for this email. I hope I didn't bore you too much. Ciao for now,

---

So that's that. We are currently sitting at a Pizza place in Puerto Natales and the Pizza just arrived (the music they are playing in the background is Old Crow Medicine Show's Wagon Wheel!). So, I will send another email soon to bring you up to date. Ciao for now,
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