Chile – Pt 3.

Daydreaming in the desert.

The third and final part of my holiday in Chile was a week in San Pedro de Atacama. This was the relaxing part of my vacation after 8 days on horseback. San Pedro is an oasis in the desert, and is a real tourist hotspot. As such it is well set up for those who want to take bus trips to see all the big attractions, and there are numerous companies all offering basically the same tours to the same places.

So I took a bus up to 4300 m to see the El Tatio geysers at sunrise (you have to see them at sunrise otherwise the steam doesn’t really show in the heat). These are nice, but not a patch on Yellowstone, and the circus of hundreds of buses is a little, well, offputting. On the way down all the buses stop at Machuca Village where you can get an overpriced lama kebab… or not.
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I also took a bus tour of the valle de la luna (valley of the moon) and mars valley, to view the impressive rock and salt formations and the great dune. This one involved a fair bit of walking around so was quite enjoyable. A lot of people do rent bikes cycle up to the valle de la luna from town, but it was awfully hot, so I was actually really happy to pay for the air conditioned bus!

Finally I took a bus tour to Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques, which stopped to see the flamingos at Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama on the way back. IMG_3645 IMG_3665

I did manage a couple of things that weren’t bus tour based. A lovely couple I met in the hostel I was staying in invited me to join them on a day trip down to Laguna Tuyajto, a totally amazing place. Turned out to be a very eventful trip as their rental car blew a tire on the dirt road going down there, but we made it, and lived to tell the tale. Tuyajto is almost at (or above depending which website you believe) 4000 m in the Altiplano, so it was cold despite the clear skies and bright sunshine.

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I also went mountain biking in the Quebrada del Diablo, which was pretty amazing (and the only active thing I did all week). Hot hot hot, and so short of breath exercising at altitude!

Something I don’t have a photo of is the night sky, I never saw so many stars!

San Pedro was a really easy place to be alone, because there were so many organized tours and also many other travelers around. That said, I was missing R by this point, and looking forward to being home. Some tense moments on the final day as a strike by airport workers threatened to ground me in Calama, but that was resolved and I was on my way home.

Chile – Pt 2.

Riding horses in Patagonia

Part Two of my holiday saw me join a tour of Torres del Paine national park and surrounding area on horse-back. I spent one night in Punta Arenas and had a very quick look around the town in the morning before catching the bus to Peurto Natales.

The bus winds its way through miles and miles of nothing, pampas grassland, with a huge sky arching overhead. I nodded off, warm in the sunshine steaming in the window, waking as we turned the corner into the town. I was met at the bus station and driven to the hostel, which was a welcome change from finding things myself!

That first evening I met the rest of the group: two French, one Swiss, one American, and our Chilean guide. We had a trail briefing and went to dinner together. Up early the next morning we spent several hours on a boat traveling up to Glacier Serrano, where, after a really quick look at the glacier itself, we met our horses and the adventure began.IMG_3194

The first day follows a narrow trail through the forest alongside the river Serrano, and past Lago Brush. The pace was very sedate due to the narrowness of the trail and some steep sections. Unfortunately I became violently ill shortly after lunch (stomach upset), so I couldn’t enjoy the afternoon, and missed the next days ride (apparently Glacier Grey is spectacular!). Fortunately the scenery from the campground gave some relief as I waited to feel better.
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The next day I was back in the saddle for the ride from Rio Serrano to Estancia Laguna Amarga. Pitufo was a lovely horse, really solid & reliable feeling but easy to move into a gallop, and not too bouncy when doing that endless jog trot that Patagonia horses are trained to do – it covers a lot of ground but my god it can hurt!

This was a mixed day, some fast riding in open grassland just inside the national park administration station, some more calm sections up among the lakes, and then more hard galloping down to the estancia. The sun shone on us still, we had a lovely picnic, and some of the wildlife even deigned to pose for photos!

Again we were treated to a campsite with a wonderful view of the Torres, it was wonderful to lie with a cold beer after a long day in the saddle and look at this:

The next day was the beginning of the wild-camping part of the adventure, two nights in a gorgeous flower meadow at Lago Paine, with an excursion to view lake & glacier Dickson. The ride in was another very fast day and the famous Patagonian wind picked up as we galloped, blowing great clouds of dust into our eyes. Unfortunately the day of the excursion was wet and wild, especially at the lake Dickson end of the trail, so the glacier was only a grey blob in the clouds.
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Emerging from the wilderness we changed horses to those owned by our next hosts, Estancia Tercera Barranca. The horse I got felt very tall and a bit fidgety after the completely solid Pitufo, ‘un poco loco’ as the guide said. But we navigated the river crossing and technical terrain up onto the pampas without incident. Another campsite with gorgeous views but very very exposed to the wind and the cooking shelter was very drafty.
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The final two days riding took a slightly different format. We drove to meet horses at Estancia Las Chinas in the Sierra Baguales and took a ride high into the mountains, a crazy moonscape of rock and sand. This was the coldest day so far, I was in my down vest all day…

… But the next day topped that, we got SNOWED on while visiting the condor lookout at Laguna Sophia. Definitely all 4 seasons in one week given that I was riding in a t-shirt at the beginning of the trip!

All in all I had a wonderful time, there is something really special about seeing wild country from horseback, a connection to the way things might’ve been in years gone by, and a good balance between being able to see all the interesting plants and animals while covering more distance in a day than you would on foot.

Chile – Pt 1.

In which I ramble on about the holiday I took last year…
I left Norway as the first snows of winter finally arrived after a long, miserable, and very wet autumn, and oh boy, was I ever ready for a holiday. Landing in Santiago to dry heat in which the distant mountains shimmered was just the tonic my weary soul needed. Sunshine, warmth, all the hustle and bustle of a big city.
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Now a confession: I don’t speak Spanish. Not one word. I took two years of Spanish in secondary school, umpteen years ago, no chance of remembering that now! Armed with only a phrase book, the city map on my phone (thanks openstreetmap!) and a really good line in meaningful gestures and miming stuff, I set out to find my hostel.

The hostel turned out to be gorgeous. Big backyard, pool, the works. It was too early to check in, so I left my luggage and went exploring. I just walked aimlessly that first day. I didn’t know where I was or what i should try to see, I just tried to get a feel for the place.

Confession nr 2: Of course I got a really bad sunburn, jet lagged me didn’t think to get the sunscreen out of my bag before I went walkabout. That was stupid. I know better!

I only had a couple of days in Santiago. One of them I booked onto an organised tour of a winery, which was really nice, we biked around in the sunshine between the vines & tried some very fine wine.
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The other I tried to see some of the museums and a bit of the city. I also took the funicular railway up Cerro San Christobal to admire the view of the city and the distant mountains (and in the hope of finding some breeze to dispel the heat – no such luck!) then walked down through the forest.
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Confession nr 3: I didn’t eat out at all in Santiago, I know, i know, terrible missed opportunity. But the shyness that stemmed from my total language useless got the better of me here. I also wasted a lot of mental energy worry about whether I would be able to buy a bus ticket to Pucon; of course that worked out fine, lots of nodding & smiling & pointing at the computer screen. At least bus-ticket-selling dude thought my lack of Spanish was hilarious rather than insulting!

The overnight bus was about as horrible as one might expect, but dawn came with the promise of a release from sweaty bus hell into fresh air, lush green landscape passing outside the windows. Pucon was nice and cool at 8am. Again I planned to leave my bag at the hostel and go walk around… slightly confused when the hostel owner greeted me with a huge hug… all becomes clear when it transpires that its his birthday & he’s already on the sauce! He decides that we must be cousins (both our surnames mean the same thing in our respective languages), I am plied with coffee (declining to have it adulterated with whiskey) and introduced to a revolving cast of guests, friends and employees. Somehow I am so happy to be among talkative people that I am still on the terrace there at lunch time, listening to the traveling tales of others who are on far greater adventures than my own, having taken years off to ‘do’ South America and what-not. Sometimes its the people that make a place, and Pucon was definitely like that for me, I walked right into a party that went on all week and it was just what I needed!
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Pucon is also a totally gorgeous place, with a volcano visible from the main street, and every possible adventure sport on offer. I decided not to sign up to climb the volcano on this trip – he had his head in the clouds until my last day and reports from those who did sign up to go were of cancelled trips or turning back due to bad weather, so it just didn’t seem like the right time. I did visit the national park Huerquehue, and hike the peak San Sebastian, getting a wonderful view of the famous lakes and encountering only one other couple, despite how jam packed the bus was to get up there! I also went for an afternoons riding (thought I better remind myself how that felt before getting on a horse for 10 days!) which was lovely.
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From Pucon I took the bus to Puerto Varas, another town where you can see volcanoes from the end of the street.
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Again I took a small, overcrowded bus to a national park – Vicente Perez Rosales national park, the oldest in Chile. Here I took a hot hot walk from Petrohue through the sand to a viewpoint in the foothills of Volcan Osorno (if a volcano can be said to have foothills!). I met some more nice people on this hike, so had someone to have dinner with that evening, including my first Pisco Sours (the classic drink of Chile).IMG_2987

The next day saw me at the airport in Puerto Montt, waiting for my plane south to Punta Arenas and the next stage of my adventure…