The Glacier at El Calafate

South America

This is my first post from Argentina! We’ve hopped over the border from Chile and are in El Calafate, which I think people only visit if they plan to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. Oh, sure, there are options for seeing the glacier. You can go with a guide, see it up close from a boat or pay a lot more and hike on top of the glacier itself. We are counting our pesos and so did none of these things, but the simple bus and walking trip alone was well worth it, and so – fair warning – there are an awful lot of glacier photos in this post.

But first we have to start with our bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, where we stayed for one night and attended the ‘3 o’clock talk’ at Erratic Rock to prepare for our upcoming Torres del Paine trek. Ezra (from Chicago) was incredibly helpful and, I thought, very patient with some of the questions at the end, including “so, do I need to book the campsites in advance?”. Yes, yes you do. Months in advance. We had also reached a remote enough part of the country where prices become truly ridiculous (10,000 CLP for a small calzone in a bakery, which is currently $14.75 or £11.57) but thankfully Erratic Rock was adjacent to a pub with cheap and tasty pizza.

The next day we boarded another bus and crossed into Argentina. Naturally, this involved filing out of the bus and queuing up for our Chilean exit stamp in one building before driving down the road and doing the exact same thing to get new entry stamps. Eventually we arrived at our hostel in El Calafate. You can tell I’m not a real traveller because this is actually the first time I’ve ever stayed in a shared dormitory, but everything was pretty uneventful on that front (no murder, no theft, and best of all no waking up at 3am) and in fact it was us who ended up being the most antisocial idiots, locking my keys in my locker and requiring the lock to be cut through with a saw.

Anyway, the glacier!

Perito Moreno Glacier
Perito Moreno Glacier

It really was beautiful and photos are not going to do it justice. First of all, it’s huge, so it’s very calming to just stare at it from across the water. The cracks in the ice glow with a pale blue light and the air is frequently punctuated by loud thunderclap sounds as chunks of the glacier break off and fall away. Each time this happened we whipped our heads around to try and see it, normally failing but occasionally spotting the ice and snow tumbling down. Never fear, though, because the best thing about this glacier is that – for once – it’s actually not melting at a frightening, climate-change induced rate. Everything has been in “a quasi steady state with no major changes in its size during the last and present centuries”, at least according to the reassuring sign on the path. Though emphasis on quasi steady – don’t get too close or you might be sliced open by debris.

Walking paths around glacier
Walking paths around glacier
Close-up glacier
Close-up glacier
Glacier used as vanity photo opportunity
Glacier used as vanity photo opportunity
Coupley glacier
Coupley glacier
Dangerous glacier
Dangerous glacier

We haven’t really done much else in El Calafate and are riding the bus back to Puerto Natales tonight to rent all of our hiking equipment and stock up on supplies. As you can see below, El Calafate does have some nice marshland by the lake where you can see flamingos and other birds, and the main street has a bunch of shops and restaurants to justify a couple of days’ stay. It’s really all about the glacier, though.

Randi inches closer to the flamingos
Randi inches closer to the flamingos

For the last couple of days we’ve been pretty quiet and chilled in the city of Punta Arenas, which is on the Strait of Magellan and is a frequent jumping-off point for other far-flung destinations – including Antarctica. “We’re at the end of the world!” cried the owner of a lovely little café here where I had my first pastel de choclo*, and I’ve certainly started to make use of the jumpers which have otherwise just been taking up space in my backpack. It was also very strange when we walked home after midnight one night with light still visible at the edge of the sky.

Welcome to Punta Arenas!
Welcome to Punta Arenas!

This is the city where Carolina grew up, and the most important thing I did here was reunite with her and Francisco to share some truly excellent pizza, drink a rhubarb-flavoured Pisco at their friend’s bar and argue with Francisco about the logic of ice-cream cones. (In Chile, it is common to serve ice-cream in a cup with an upside-down cone on top. This is manifestly ridiculous, like putting an egg-cup on a plate of scrambled eggs.)

Oh man, this pizza was great
Oh man, this pizza was great
Francisco and I tried to look thoughtful, but came across as bored
Francisco and I tried to look thoughtful, but came across as bored

We also checked out the city’s cemetery, which (Wikipedia informs me) made it into CNN’s list of the top 10 most beautiful cemeteries in the world. It is very nice. It’s also filled with the most phallic trees you can imagine. I’m not offering that as a pro or con, just stating it for the record so you can make an informed decision about your cemetery visits.

Big fans of this cake
Big fans of this cake

Other than this, we didn’t do an awful lot of touristy stuff as we are saving our energy and money for the Torres del Paine trek which we start in a week’s time. Our economising last night with a stay-at-home dinner was almost ruined when we were unable to work the AGA-style cooker, but luckily one of the AirBnb owners turned up before we had burnt off our eyebrows. (Apparently this is exactly what happened to their very first AirBnb guest.) Tonight, however, we ate out and shared this rather incredible cake.

*The owner of the café later asked to take a photo of us so she could share that she had foreign diners on her Facebook page. “Suddenly your Russian relatives will arrive!” commented one person.

We’ve spent the last week in Chile’s Región de Los Lagos. The area gets marketed as the ‘Lake District’ which causes me a little cognitive dissonance (what do you mean another country has a district with lakes?) but the connection is actually fairly appropriate given the weather. Whereas Santiago reminded us both of California this region is much more similar to the UK, with cooler (but not cold) temperatures and short, unpredictable rain showers which confuse Randi.

For the first (and almost certainly only) time on our travels we rented a car from Puerto Montt and drove – via a car ferry – to the island of Chiloé where we spent our first three nights in a town called Dalcahue. While in Chiloé we had intended to visit Chiloé National Park but after missing the entrance and instead following Google Maps for far too long up a tsunami evacuation route which reminded me of Hugo III, Jungle of Doom we turned around and ate our sandwiches and beloved Cheezels on the beach instead, happy to have made it out alive.

Not where we should be
Not where we should be
Alive!
Alive!

Shortly afterwards we picked up three hitchhikers (a Chilean, a Colombian and an Italian – I have no idea what happens if they walk into a bar) who wanted to go to the Muelle de las Almas which seemed like as good a plan as any. Ultimately the hitchhikers abandoned this idea when they discovered the entrance fee, but Randi and I persevered and had a good walk culminating in an awesome view.

Today's Portrait Mode photo
Today’s Portrait Mode photo
Wonderful view at Muelle de las Almas
Wonderful view at Muelle de las Almas
Technically I think this odd walkway to nowhere is the attraction itself
Technically I think this odd walkway to nowhere is the attraction itself

The next day we eschewed driving and caught a local ferry to a neighbouring island, ending up in the seaside town of Achao. (I’m pretty sure you don’t pronounce this as a sneeze but it’s too good to pass up.) This is going to sound unflattering, but with its grey skies and rain Achao had that faintly miserable air of the seaside which is very enjoyable and rather invigorating, especially after a hearty local lunch. (You can tell it’s a local lunch place because there are no menus.) I can also confirm that the local bus service is much better than in the UK’s Lake District.

Side-note: Chilean breakfast television is terrible. I know this doesn’t sound like big news, but we watched the teenage son of a murder victim stood in the street for a full 45 minutes so that an in-studio panel could ask him questions and then debate the issue amongst themselves. 45 minutes! It was mesmerising.

Anyway, we left Chiloé and returned to the mainland for a further five nights in Puerto Varas. We’re staying in a nice hostel and I particularly appreciate the morning tea, although (and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet) it is slowly dawning on me that all of the milk on our travels will be UHT, and it may be many months before I lay my hands on fresh milk again. I have new gratitude for growing up in a country with dairy farms.

Kayaking on the lake in Puerto Varas
Kayaking on the lake in Puerto Varas
Rosa. (Not actually her name, but I confused it with the street.)
Rosa. (Not actually her name, but I confused it with the street.)
I like this photo
I like this photo

After some light kayaking on the lake (until we needed to go against the wind, at which point the paddling became a little less light) our first full adventure here was hiking the Desolation Trail. This name makes it sound a lot worse than it is as the hike is relatively flat – though at times frustratingly sandy – unless you choose to do the 4km tangent up the mountain to the viewing point. Naturally we got to this just as it started to rain, which made us feel smart for carrying raincoats and very accomplished for making it to the top but did rather mist up the view.

For some reason I was inspired to play dead in one of the canyons
For some reason I was inspired to play dead in one of the canyons
Mixed feelings at the viewpoint
Mixed feelings at the viewpoint
In our rafting gear
In our rafting gear

The next day we went whitewater rafting on the Petrohué River, which was insanely fun. I have to say that it made our rafting in Yellowstone feel rather tame, as the rapids here were much bigger and almost enveloped the whole raft. Highly recommended if you are in the area, and for a small additional fee we also got the best set of photos I have yet seen on this kind of tourist activity.

We got back in time to join our hostel’s New Year’s Eve barbecue, and while we did technically stay up until midnight this year (not always a given, especially when travelling) we were already in bed by this time and only heard, rather than saw, the town’s fireworks over the lake. I’m sure they were lovely.

Rafting!
Rafting!
Taking a plunge
Taking a plunge

With no New Year’s Day hangover we were free to rent bikes from our hostel and cycle their recommended route to the town of Frutillar. This proved more challenging than we anticipated, beginning with some very bumpy unpaved paths before joining cars on the road. In theory the total length was 32km, but you should discount the not insignificant length I spent walking my bicycle up hills and then sometimes down the other side again, not being a big fan of steepness in either direction. You can get a sense of our struggles by the fact that we had planned to have lunch in Frutillar but ended up eating dinner there instead. (Fortunately we were able to leave our bicycles there rather than riding them all the way home, which would have killed me.)

Hey Nolan!
Hey Nolan!

That said, as the pain/terror of the ride fades, I can say now that I’m glad we did it and it certainly felt like a healthy start to the year. After a very hearty meal we came home to watch the Doctor Who Special, which on the whole was rather a triumph. It’s not easy to do something new with the Daleks while keeping them frightening and I thought this was an excellent way of reintroducing them to the show.

Counting the kilometres left to go...
Counting the kilometres left to go…

As we waited for the bus home last night at 1am on Christmas morning, we got chatting to a woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina who has lived in Santiago for many years. She was pleased to hear that we really liked the city as apparently many foreign visitors find it “boring” compared to the party town of Buenos Aires. Well, maybe this just shows that we’re boring people (after all, we were catching the bus home rather than out) but Santiago definitely suits us. As Randi pointed out, it is harder to blog about a free-roaming city break compared to a series of tours with set destinations. So apologies (but not really) if this post unduly focuses on transport, but that is the first way that Santiago captured our hearts.

I knew it was a good omen when the guy sat behind us on the bus into town had the Doctor Who theme set as his ringtone.

I took so many Metro photos but I will restrict myself to just one
I took so many Metro photos but I will restrict myself to just one

Let’s start with the Metro! Ah, you know you’re in a proper grown-up city when there’s a real metro system. The Santiago Metro is fast and frequent, with a train arriving every few minutes, and we loved it and used it a lot to get around.

A cyclist enjoys the car-free street
A cyclist enjoys the car-free street

This is closely followed by Randi’s discovery that one of the major roads in the city is closed to all car traffic between 9am-2pm every Sunday for pedestrians, skaters and cyclists (#CompartamosLasVías). This is the icing on the cake for what is already a very walkable and pleasant city centre, and with the cars banished you can actually hear the sound of the River Mapocho flowing by. In the interests of balance, I should say that the River Mapocho is one of the brownest rivers I’ve ever seen. I hoped it might have been mud, but Francisco denies this.

View near the top of San Cristóbal Hill
View near the top of San Cristóbal Hill
On the teleférico down from San Cristóbal Hill
On the teleférico down from San Cristóbal Hill
One of our many lunch sources
One of our many lunch sources

Other than admire the transport infrastructure, on our first day we walked up the summit of San Cristóbal Hill – at which there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and great views of the city below – and then teleférico-ed down again. The next day we took another walking tour, of which one of the highlights was standing in the Plaza de Armas playing the “legal or not” guessing game for issues such as abortion and gay marriage. (Tour guides are young and liberal and they know their audience.)

That night we met up with Francisco for a tour of his old local neighbourhood and favourite restaurant. What he didn’t know was that we would see him again the very next day for his surprise homecoming party in the Parque Padre Hurtado. A word about this park. It is very nice inside, but for some reason they have decided to charge an entrance fee of 500 pesos, which means that most of the entrances are locked shut and you have to walk all around the park to get in. Amusingly, it’s another 500 pesos if you want to bring your dog in with you.

With Francisco and Carolina!
With Francisco and Carolina!

On Francisco’s recommendation, we also visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights which covers the period of dictatorship in Chile. Although it is largely about those who were tortured, killed and ‘disappeared’ during the rule of the military junta, one of the most striking exhibitions for me was about the 1988 referendum which (narrowly) ended Pinochet’s rule. It’s just so odd, because half of the exhibition looks like any normal election campaign (TV spots, badges, slogans) but alongside are the stories of the parallel vote-counting operation mounted by the opposition and the CIA reports on Pinochet’s preparations for violence if it looked like he was losing. Still, despite everything, it is incredible that the dictatorship ended and democracy was restored through this vote.

A ballot from Chile's 1988 referendum on Pinochet's continuing rule
A ballot from Chile’s 1988 referendum on Pinochet’s continuing rule

We were very honoured to be invited by Francisco and Carolina to join their family for Christmas, which in Chile (as in lots of places) really means ‘Christmas Eve’. (Yes, this means that children wake up on 24th December and have to wait all the way until midnight for Santa to bring their presents, which seems like it would require incredible patience.) At Francisco’s uncle’s house in the suburbs we took our seats in the garden and feasted on a traditional Christmas dinner of turkey, potatoes and ceviche, while asking all the questions about Chilean society which you can’t quite go into on a walking tour. For example, the rather long-winded and euphemistic English phrase “trying for a baby” is known here as being “in campaign”, which has slightly disturbingly violent connotations but I admire for being much snappier.

After dinner we gathered around the tree for Secret Santa. You think you know how Secret Santa works, right? Well, Francisco’s family have added a terrifying twist that if you can’t guess who your present came from in two guesses, your present is confiscated and held in ‘penitentiary’ until the end when you might be allowed to tango for its release. This is all accompanied by a lot of chanting in Spanish, which is all the more frightening if you don’t really understand what’s being said. Fortunately Randi and I were given strong hints about the identities of our gifters, along with incredibly generous (and useful!) travel-related gifts themselves.

It was really lovely to be allowed to gatecrash a family Christmas here, even if it winds up making Christmas Day itself feel more like Boxing Day. Tomorrow morning we leave Santiago and fly further south down this excessively long country, but we have really enjoyed our stay here, especially since we’ve had our own place for six nights with our own little balcony to sit, read, eat, drink and blog in the sun.

Feliz Navidad!

A brief post from Valparaíso, where we’ve been staying for a few days and which is about two hours by bus from the capital Santiago. An important port until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the touristy bits of Valparaíso are now purpose-built for Instagram, with artistic murals adorning walls and walls of colourful buildings in the hills which rise up over the sea.

The bohemian city of Valparaíso
The bohemian city of Valparaíso
In the hills
In the hills
I really like the view of this one building
I really like the view of this one building

The ‘offbeat’ walking tour we chose, from Tours 4 Tips, was led by the best guide we’ve had on our travels so far. It started with am unplanned and bracing introduction to the non-tourist side of the city as we all felt the residue of the tear gas used by the police yesterday against striking port workers. The strikers’ key demand is to include temporary workers in collective bargaining agreements, and last night this escalated into a violent confrontation. We saw some evidence of damage and broken windows, but it was obviously impossible to tell whether tear gas was really necessary and if we should be calling this a ‘riot’ or not (as our guide did). Suffice to say, walking around the hilly areas felt totally safe, but down by the port area it stung in the throat.

The faces of former political prisoners on the walls of the ex-prison
The faces of former political prisoners on the walls of the ex-prison
At the end of the world
At the end of the world

We also saw the former prison on Cerro Cárcel (now a cultural centre) where political prisoners, among others, were held and tortured during the Pinochet dictatorship. (And, side note, our guide pronounced the ‘t’ in Pinochet so I am now going to follow suit.) Altogether, the walk was a reminder of the different sides of Chile – past and present – as well as a perfect way to see a beautiful and bohemian city.

On a random note: in one of the supermarkets here I found Waitrose strawberry jam, which was a little baffling. Of course I bought one anyway.

One of my favourite pieces of street art, showing earthquake damage to a cemetery
One of my favourite pieces of street art, showing earthquake damage to a cemetery
One last mural, by the same husband-and-wife team
One last mural, by the same husband-and-wife team