Punta Arenas is the gateway city to Chilean Patagonia. The city is the southernmost in Chile, and is the capital of the Magellanes district. It has the only airport in the region, making it the first stop for anyone flying into Chilean Patagonia. Puerto Natales is a much smaller town located just north of Punta Arenas, and is the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and the rest of the trekking opportunities in Chilean Patagonia.
I arrived in Punta Arenas after a three hour flight from Puerto Montt. Getting to my hostel, Hostal 53 Sur, was easy with the cheap transfer bus at the airport. The staff was really friendly and the hostel was wonderfully warm – much unlike the cold and windy weather outside. Since it was late, I cooked dinner and went to bed early, as I planned to see the city the following morning before heading to Puerto Natales.
I was pleasantly surprised by a pancake breakfast in the morning, apparently included in the hostel fee for the night. I also met up with a French girl who was also staying in the hostel and we ended up touring the city together. After we bought our bus tickets to Puerto Natales, we first headed toward the viewpoint of the city. We ended up missing the main viewpoint, but found a different one that was still really nice. From here we walked toward the cemetery, stopping in a cathedral along the way (where we accidentally let some stray dogs inside).
Punta Arenas is known for its interesting cemetery, which has a wide variety of families located inside. Interestingly, the main gate is closed permanently at the request of the woman who financed the cemetery – she wanted to be the last one to enter it when she died, so there is a side entrance now. Since the city was heavily populated with people from all over Europe, the names on the gravestones are extremely varied.
After the cemetery we went toward the seashore to walk along the coastal sidewalk. The wind was really intense there and was almost strong enough to hold you up if you fell into it. We walked along the water toward the city centre, where we went to escape the crazy wind and to see the last part of the city. The centre is a really nice area, with many statues and memorials scattered throughout its many plazas. The centerpiece of the Plaza de Armas is a large statue of Ferdinand Magellan, who the region was named after. I walked back to the hostel from here to make lunch, splitting from my friend who went to buy some food, and ended up finding the actual mirador along the way. The view was really nice as it was aligned with the streets, giving a better view of the buildings and the ocean. In the late afternoon, I caught the bus to Puerto Natales, located 3 hours to the north.
I made it to Puerto Natales fairly late in the evening and walked to my hostel, The Singing Lamb. The place was pretty empty the entire time I was there, which was kinda weird but the hostel was really nice so it was fine. The next day I set out to explore the town. There really isn’t much to it, other than the main plaza and the seaside walk. Most of the stores and hostels were closed for the off season, making it seem very dead during my entire visit. The waterfront, however, was absolutely stunning and worth spending a day there just to see. The wind was really strong (as in all of Patagonia) so the waves were quite large. The water is overshadowed by large snow-capped mountains and the ever changing sky. I spent hours along the water listening to music and relaxing, at least until I froze from the wind. Later in the afternoon, I managed to run into the German guys who were on my Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia a few weeks earlier – they were staying in the same hostel as the French girl from Punta Arenas, which was crazy. I ended up spending the evening having dinner at their hostel and chatting until fairly late.
Early the next morning I took a day tour to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most famous places in Patagonia. Unfortunately, just before my hostel pickup came, I had a catastrophic incident with my camera which left it unusable (in case you didn’t already know: DSLR + water = bad time for everyone). It wasn’t a very great weather day to visit TdP, so while the tour was incredible and the landscape gorgeous, I was only able to see the famous towers for about 5 minutes of the whole day we were there. The waterfalls and glacial ice were really great though, and the place we stopped to eat lunch had a spectacular view of a lake and the mountains. On the way out of the park we went to Mylodon Cave, which is a giant cave where they found remnants of the Mylodon (a giant sloth like creature that lived in Patagonia until about 10,000 years ago), as well as evidence of prehistoric human occupation in the region. The stop wasn’t too long but it was quite interesting nonetheless. As soon as we arrived back in Puerto Natales, I made supper and then had an intense conversation about archaeology, anthropology, and everything else with a girl from Germany – which is exactly one of the reasons I love traveling so much.
The following day I had planned on leaving to Argentina, but due to bus scheduling problems (i.e. there are no Sunday buses), I ended up doing nothing but rest and catching up on things like blog posts for the entire day. I had to book a tour to Perito Moreno glacier from Puerto Natales rather than taking the normal bus due to this problem, leaving me with an extra day and nothing to do (especially since literally everything else was closed since it was Sunday). It all worked out though, and the next morning I was on the bus to El Calafate, Argentina!
Puerto Varas is a charming little town on Lake Llanquique in the Lakes Region of Chile. This area is the beginning of Patagonia, and it’s a perfect place to begin a trip through the region.
I arrived in Puerto Varas after an overnight bus from Santiago. The weather was miserable when I arrived, and the walk to the hostel from the bus station was a very wet ordeal – which was made longer by the marathon taking place on the road I needed to use to get to the hostel. I made it eventually, cold and wet, and the Margouya Patagonia hostel was a welcome relief with its warm sitting area and log cabin atmosphere. After warming up a bit and waiting for the rain to subside, I took a walk around the thoroughly drenched town and along the lakeshore. The town was quaint, with a blend of authentic and touristy shops and restaurants. I didn’t get too much of a chance to walk around though as the rain came back with a fierce vengeance after about an hour so I made my way back to the hostel.
The following morning was a completely different story. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue. After breakfast I walked toward the bus stop to visit Vincente Rosales Perez National Park in nearby Petrohue. When I got the to bus stop, I ran into two Brazilian guys who were also at my hostel so we all went to the park together. When we arrived after the hour-long bus ride, we grabbed a quick lunch by Lake Todos Los Santos and went to the trail. The first few kilometers of trail was mostly forest walking, but after that it suddenly opened up to stunning views of Osorno Volcano, which is located at the edge of the park. Continuing further up the trail and toward the volcano, there was a magnificent viewpoint of Lake Todos Los Santos and the mountains surrounding it. We headed back down the trail and toward another mirador, with equally impressive views, before taking the trail down a dried alluvial river bed toward the lake. While the views from the first two miradors were impressive, the scene at the lake was outstanding. The blue water was crystal clear and waveless, causing the mountainous landscape surrounding it to reflect off the surface. It was very hard to leave the beauty of that place. However, we were running dangerously close to the time of the last bus back to Puerto Varas, and still had 4 kilometers to get back. We had so little time we had to run most of the final 2 kilometers in order to make it back by the time (we were told) the last bus left. We made it just in time, just to find out the bus didn’t arrive for another half an hour. It was nice to have time to crash after the run through the sandy trails, but it would’ve been nicer to avoid the entire run altogether. In any case, we got on the bus and made it back to Puerto Varas for a stunning sunset from the lakeshore.
The next day, I decided to visit the neighboring town of Frutillar. Frutillar is a little German inspired village located a short distance north of Puerto Varas, still along the lakeshore. The local bus cost $1 each way, so it was a nice place to take a cheap trip. The village is famous for its decidedly German architecture, as well as Teatro del Lago, a stunning theatre situated over Lago Llanquique. I spent some time wandering the streets and around the theatre; however, the town was mostly closed down as it was the off season so I didn’t find it especially interesting to visit. After about an hour and a half I headed back to Puerto Varas, where I had lunch before heading south to Puerto Montt.
Puerto Montt was also a $1 bus ride away, this time to the south and the Pacific Coast. The local bus arrived right to the bus terminal, which was very conveniently located along the shore in the downtown area. The city is much larger and industrial than Puerto Varas, and had a much more touristy atmosphere. There were tons of shopping malls and tourist shops in the downtown core, especially around the main plaza. There wasn’t anything especially appealing about the city, so I didn’t stay too long here either. I made my way back to Puerto Varas for dinner and ended up having a great conversation at my hostel with people from the UK, Germany, Austria, Peru, and Brazil until after 3 AM!
Since I was flying out in the afternoon, I didn’t have time to do anything else on my last day in Puerto Varas. I took the bus to Puerto Montt around noon and from there the bus to the airport for my flight to Punta Arenas – my first stop in Patagonia!
Santiago, Chile, is generally not at the top of any list of best cities, but I loved it. The city doesn’t really have any amazing sites nor is it very pretty, but it has some intangible spirit that makes it fantastic. The atmosphere of the city is addictive and draws you in. I regret only spending three days in the city, as it doesn’t do it justice.
I made it to Santiago after the short bus ride back from Valparaiso. I stayed in a hostel only a few metro stops from the bus station so it was really easy to get to. After I checked in and dropped off my stuff, I rushed to the centre for the 3 PM Tours4Tips walking tour, where I met up with another friend who I met in Bolivia that lives in Santiago. This tour went to all the traditional locations in central Santiago, such as La Moneda, the Ministry of Justice, the Plaza de Armas, and various central neighborhoods. When we reached La Moneda, the guide gave us a history of Chile and its coup d’état which occurred in the 1973. The country is still recovering from the decades of military rule under Pinochet, whose regime killed and tortured thousands. The tour ended soon after this talk, and my friend and I headed to her apartment to play Dutch Blitz and eat. Along the way we stopped at a sopaipilla stand, which is a disk of dough that’s deep fried and covered in sauces (spicy salsa and garlic sauce are the best). After playing cards we went to a sushi bar to have dinner which was a fantastic surprise after not having sushi in months.
The following morning I went to the 10 AM Tours4Tips walking tour, which went to the non-touristy parts of the city. This included visiting the various markets of the city, such as the Mercado Central seafood market, La Vega, and Little La Vega. After the markets we headed to the cemetery to hear the history of the city, see the grave of a local “animita,” and visit the grave of Salvador Allende, the president who was overthrown in the coup d’état in 73. Here again we had a history lesson about the past few decades. The tour ended here and I went with another person from the tour to have lunch at Mercado Central. The food here was spectacular – fresh seafood for reasonable prices. I had Machas a la Parmigiana, which was razor clams covered in parmesan cheese and baked. When we finished lunch we returned to the centre and parted ways, as I needed to return to my hostel. I attempted to go to Cerro San Cristobal a few hours later, but missed the last tram by 5 minutes. I had my second Chilean food staple on the way back though, the completo. This is a hot dog covered in generally obscene amounts of mayonnaise, avocado, and tomatoes. Thankfully the place I ate had a reasonable amount of all of the toppings so it was actually not too bad. Later I met up with my two friends again for cards that night and had more sopaipillas, before having to take the metro back to my hostel.
My last day in Santiago was the busiest. In the morning I walked from my hostel to the Plaza de Armas to visit the history museum, which described the early history of the country until 1970. After visiting the museum I walked across the river to Little La Vega to buy a fresh cherimoya-mango juice in the market and then walked to Cerro San Cristobal. This hill is the largest in Santiago and has the best viewpoint of the city. Since it was the weekend, the tram to the top was double the price and extremely crowded, so I chose to walk to the top. It took about an hour but the view along the way wasn’t too bad. The views of the city and the mountains from the top, however, were spectacular. The city was weirdly smogless that day, so the whole skyline was visible under the clear sunny skies. After climbing back down I walked to another hill, Cerro Saint Lucia. This hill is much shorter but has a great viewpoint from the castle-like building located on the top. From here I walked back to my hostel, stopping in the parks and interesting places along the way. I went to the bus station a little early to meet up with my friend one last time and have a churrasco, which is the third popular Chilean food. This is a beef sandwich with tomato, avocado, and mayo (very popular on everything here). We parted ways just before my bus left and I got on my overnight bus to Puerto Varas, located in the south of Chile in the Lakes District.
Valparaiso, Chile, is a seaside city with an amazing spirit. The streets are covered in stunning murals and street art that blend beautifully with the colorful architceture that distinguishes the city from its neighbours. The city is alive with an energy that is hard not to get absorbed into.
I arrived in Valparaiso in the late afternoon after a totally-not-awful 26 hours on a bus from San Pedro de Atacama. I had hoped to break the trip up a bit but was behind schedule after spending too much time in Bolivia. Thankfully, Valpo made up for it with its amazing atmosphere (and oxygen content!). I took a far too expensive cab to my hostel, Hostel Jacaranda, located on Cerro Alegre, which is the heart of the tourist centre. The hostel is in a well maintained old colonial house in a perfect location for accessing the city. Many of the people staying there were staying long term to study Spanish, one of whom offered to show me around the city.
We walked around for about 2 hours, wandering through the streets looking at all the amazing murals and art pieces painted on the walls. The downtown area of the city is fairly small so it’s not hard to get from one end to the other, so long as you don’t mind walking uphill. After going through the Open Air Museum, which features each year’s winning art pieces, we arrived at Pablo Neruda’s home, which is now a museum. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit it when I was in Valpo, but I heard from many that it was amazing.
When we returned from the walk, I found a nice cafe for dinner since I hadn’t really eaten in a few days after the Uyuni food poisoning incident. I splurged on a 3 course meal of salad, grilled whitefish with a lemon sauce and mushroom risotto, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had anywhere, and was only about $11 total.
The following morning I got up early to do the Tours4Tips free walking tour of the city, which started at 10 AM. The tours last 3 hours and take place in either English or Spanish, depending on your choice. The tour started in Plaza Sotomayor, the large plaza near the docks. It covered the history of the seaport, the colonial history, the financial district, and the two UNESCO World Heritage sites of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion. Along the way the guide talked about the history and symbolism in the street art which decorates the city, which I found really interesting. The tour is definitely a must do thing when visiting Valpo, especially since it’s based on donations!
The tour ended in the plaza near the docks, near a bunch of seafood restaurants, so obviously I ate at one. I had a 3 course meal which started with ceviche, then followed by fried sea bass and a not so good blue mousse (total price, $5). After lunch I went down to the docks to take a boat tour of the city, which went along the coast to give views of the city from the ocean as well as the large freighters in the harbor. For $5, it was quite a bargain.
When I finished I met up with a friend who I had met in Bolivia a few weeks prior who lives in Valpo. She took me first up an “ascensor” to a viewpoint of the city (ascensors are like elevators that go to the top of the many hills). After spending time at the top we headed to the flat part of the city to have some Chilean dishes. I ordered a personal sized Chorrillana, which is French fries covered in grilled onions, sausage, hot dogs, and steak. The pile was 4 inches deep and took up a full sized plate – I have no idea how a single person could eat one, I got full after a quarter. When we left I went back to the hostel and crashed for the night after the large plate of food.
The following morning I attempted to visit the cemetery before taking the bus to Santiago but it was closed. I attempted to take a public bus to the bus terminal, but since I didn’t know where it was exactly I missed the stop and ended up on top of a hill. Thankfully the driver took me to another bus (whose driver let me know when we were there) and I didn’t have to pay again. I got the next bus to Santiago and left about 30 minutes later.
Salar de Uyuni is probably Bolivia’s most famous tourist attraction, and for good reason. The area is located in Bolivia’s extreme southwest corner along the Chilean border. The Salar is the world’s largest salt flat, and is so white and flat it’s used to calibrate satellites! In order to visit the Salar and the stunning landscapes that surround it, you have to take a tour with a licensed guide. Most tours last for 3 days and 2 nights, with the option of ending in San Pedro de Atacama, just across the border into Chile.
I arrived in the little town of Uyuni at around 4 in the afternoon after taking a noon bus from Potosi. Once I found a cheap hotel for the night I went out in search for a good and reasonably priced tour agency. There are tons and tons of tour agencies in Uyuni, especially along the main street near the train station. A lot of agencies have had problems with drunk drivers so it’s best to get recommendations from other travelers or sites like tripadvisor before arriving in order to book with a good company. I used World White Travel, which was recommended to me by some friends that had used them a few weeks earlier (I’d recommend them as well). I paid 800 Bs(~$115 USD) for the 3d/2n tour with transfer to San Pedro de Atacama and a sleeping bag was included. Be sure to ask about the sleeping bag because neither place I stayed had heat it was really needed the second night. It is possible to bargain the price down a bit depending on your skills – I got 50 Bs for mentioning my friend paid 750 Bs for her tour, but others on my tour paid 850 Bs, so it’s always worth haggling a bit. All the tours are the same route and prices (except Red Planet, they are way more expensive but seemed to have really high quality services and English speaking guides from what I saw). All tours are conducted in Spanish by default unless you pay a lot more for English, and the quality of the guide seems to be mostly the same for everyone at the usual price range.
After booking, I had dinner at this amazing American-run pizza place in the Tonito Hotel, called Minuteman Pizza. The owner is from Boston and makes perfect American style pizza, which is impossible to find in South America. I had the Heart Attack special which is essentially a pizza shaped calzone stuffed with tons of meat. Every pizza also comes with a fresh salad, another impossibility in Bolivia. I chatted with the owner after eating and he ended up giving me a free piece of cake as a graduation present, which was awesome for breakfast the next morning before the tour began.
The tour started at 10 AM in the tour office, conveniently located around the corner from my hotel. Soon after I arrived, the American family I met in Potosi joined in the office as they had booked the same tour. I ran into them the previous evening when they were looking for a tour company and told them where I booked, so they joined so I could translate the tour (which sounds awful but was actually quite fun). Two German cousins joined our group and then we packed up the car and headed to the first stop with our driver/guide, Herman.
The first stop on every tour is the Train Cemetery, located on the edge of town. This is where the old and broken trains from the country have been put for decades, since Uyuni is the center of Bolivian railway. All the trains are rusted over but are solid enough to climb around on, which is pretty great for photos and stuff. The stop here is for about a half hour, which is really about all the time you need to see everything and take a bunch of pictures.
The second stop is the main attraction, Salar de Uyuni. We stopped first at a series of salt mounds set up for photos before continuing to a salt hotel for lunch. Just outside of the salt hotel were a giant salt statue for the Dakar Rally, which goes through the area, and a bunch of flags for every country that participates in the rally. Lunch was mediocre, but really every meal was and no company had anything different to eat – no one goes for the food anyway. At some point around this time we stopped at an “artisanal village” which sold generic tourist junk and some salt things but the stop was so short I barely remember it.
After lunch we headed to the middle of the Salar for more pictures, like the stereotypical “giant dinosaur” picture and general pics of the hexagons of salt. We then went to Isla Incahuasi, which is a giant cactus-filled “island” in the middle of the Salar. The place is called an island because the entire Salar used to be a sea, so it’s used to be an island. For some reason the island is full of giant cacti, which only grow 1 cm per year so they had to be really quite old. There’s a nice trail along the island with the option of going into a giant cave made of dead coral, which was really cool to go into. The island also had free bathrooms included in the ticket price (yay toilets!). When we finished at the island our driver took us back to the Salar for sunset, and we were seemingly the only group to do so, which was nice after spending the whole day with a bunch of other people who get into photos and are generally in the way. It was a bit too cloudy for a spectacular sunset, but it was still pretty.
After sunset we drove another 2 hours to our hotel. The hotel was on the edge of the Salar and was completely made of salt. The floor was ground salt, the table and chairs of salt bricks, even the bed and end table were both made of salt (thankfully the bed had a real mattress and pillow!). Since we stayed for sunset on the Salar, we were the last group to arrive and as such we had no room to plug our phones/cameras in as there were only 2 power strips for the whole hotel. Most of us managed to get stuff charged during dinner or after and then we went to bed early in preparation for the 7 AM breakfast the following morning.
Breakfast was the standard Bolivian fare not worth talking about, so I won’t. We headed first to the Ollagüe volcano. Along the way we stopped at a tiny village cemetery with a nice view of the volcano before heading to the proper “mirador.” The mirador was a crazy maze of bizarre rock formations, all overshadowed by the distant volcano. The wind there was brutally cold and the air had a tinge of sulfur to it from the volcanic activity. We left the mirador after about an hour and went to the first of a series of lagoons with wild flamingos.
The Hedionda Lagoon was a stunning dark grey lagoon full of wild flamingos wading through thick black mud. The surrounding landscape of snow-capped mountains and barren hills combined with the general existence of flamingos really made the visit feel otherworldly. After spending a while here we moved on to the nearby Cachi Lagoon, where we also had lunch. It was insanely windy here but the view was spectacular. Here the water was a light green-blue color and there were even more flamingos than the previous hill. At this point the trip got a bit less fun for me as I started feeling the symptoms of food poisoning. Suffice it to say that that is not pleasant on a day spent entirely in a car.
I honestly don’t remember most of the trip involving the desert as I was trying to sleep and avoid vomiting (did not succeed), but felt moderately better by the time we arrived at the arbol de piedra, a large worn stone randomly sitting in the middle of a desert landscape. Not far from here was the day’s final stop, Laguna Colorada. This lagoon is a deep red color due to algae which live in the water. There were flamingos at this lagoon too, and the general area was gorgeous. However I started feeling awful again so I spent most of the visit laying in the car. We spent the night in one of the coldest places I’ve ever slept (this is why the sleeping bag is needed) and started really early the following morning. This hotel had electricity for only 2.5 hours and no heat.
The last day of the tour began at 5 AM with a sunrise trip to a geyser field. The amount of geysers shooting out of the ground and giant pits of bubbling mud was incredible. The weather was bitterly cold, though the steam from the geysers made for decent hand-warmers. We stayed here a bit longer than expected due to a second case of sickness in the group, but then moved on the the natural hot springs. This lagoon was volcanically heated and a small pool was placed next to it for visitors to enjoy the warm waters in such a cold place. Half of our group got into the waters to get warm while the rest of us took some pics and went back to the car and out of the wind. Once we left, we continued south toward the Chile-Bolivia border. We drove by the Salvador Dali desert, likely named for its similarity to his works. We didn’t spend much time here as we were running late for the transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. We had to skip Laguna Verde because of that, though we got to see it driving by. We barely made it to the transfer in time, and thankfully the Bolivian exit process was super easy so we didn’t miss it. There was a 15 Bs”exit tax” to leave the country, which is clearly a scam because I only had 6 Bs on me and he took it and shoved it in is pocket anyway and said good enough.
Crossing the border into Chile is like crossing into a parallel universe. Right at the border the road goes from bumpy gravel to perfect asphalt and road signs. The trip to San Pedro de Atacama only took about an hour, and the Chilean border control was fairly easy to get through (just don’t have fruits or vegetables!). Right after we arrived the German guys in my Uyuni tour and I booked a tour of Valle de la Luna for later that afternoon before going to our separate hostels.
San Pedro de Atacama was so much warmer than Bolivia it was incredible. When I finally found my hostel I had to change out of pants and jackets to shorts and a T-shirt because it was so hot. It was a welcome change. The tour for Valle de la Luna left about 3 hours after we arrived, which was just enough time to charge everything up and walk around town a bit.
Valle de la Luna is located just outside of San Pedro and is an absolute must for anyone visit the town. I paid 9000 CLP ($13) for a 4 hour tour in English and Spanish. The guide was great and took us trekking around the valley for a few hours before watching the sunset over the Andes mountains. He described the history of the area and the various minerals in the valley and volcanic activity that shaped it. The views from the top of the peaks in the valley were amazing. By sunset, we were at the main viewpoint which allowed for a perfect view of the mountains for sunset. The colors gradually changed from pink to red to purple before the sun finally went below the horizon. When we returned to SPdA, I went back to my hostel to get some rest before the 24 hour bus journey that was to occur the following morning.
First thing in the morning I went to the bus station and bought a salon-cama ticket to Santiago ($60, 24 hours) and then had breakfast, which was my first meal since being sick on the Uyuni tour. By the time I had finished the meal and bought some supplies for the bus ride, it was time to head to the station and go to Santiago.
(The bus was actually quite comfortable, other than the baby in the seat next to me that screamed the entire night).