A Travellerspoint blog

Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: A rugged oasis in the desert

sunny 21 °C
View South America 2014 on DeeandZarius's travel map.

Saturday 29th - Monday 31March 2014

It was another scenic bus journey. More climbing narrow winding roads carved out of the mountains. We travelled some of the road we would have had we rented a car and the scenery was beautiful. The colours! Incredible.

This next leg was going to be our first experience of Altitude. To put things into perspective, the highest mountain in Ireland is 1,038 metres and as we drove we watched the climb on Zarius' watch, hitting 4, 600m at the highest point. Only to dip straight over the mountain and descend again. But not for long. The border crossing is incredible. A small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It was absolutely freezing. All the officials were bundled up in layers, their jaws never stopping with the coca leaves they were chewing to ward off altitude sickness. As we queued to get stamped out of Argentina at one counter and into Chile at the next we noticed our breathing was laboured. The first signs we felt. It's odd, feeling breathless from doing nothing.

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Steadily climbing
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Another border crossing in the middle of nowhere
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First class my foot
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And there it is in the distance
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San Pedro de Atacama
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Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama was like nothing we have experienced before. It appears from nowhere, in the desert, this small dusty town. Some of the streets are unpaved and the white houses all look a little unfinished and unkept. It's places like this, that are so different to what we know (or expect) that get us excited. We wandered the unmarked streets with a group of guys from the bus all trying to find our hostels. Ours, Aji Verde, turned out to be on the outskirts of this tiny town. The room was minute with low ceilings and weird angles and random steps and I can't tell you how many times Zarius banged his head off something or other (including the sink?!) and we both tripped on the killer step. We couldn't wait to get out of the place in the end! Another weird thing, while we're talking about the room, was the static electricity because of the dry air. I woke Zarius up one night because the sheets were actually sparking. Or so it seemed. Every time I moved, the room lit up with explosions of static. Mad. But the best thing about the intensely dry air was my hair. It just dried, frizz free, 100% straight and for the first time I could wear it down. Amazing!

The town itself is packed with travellers and lined with shops selling tours to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), and to visit Geysers, and of course the reason most of us were there, the 3 day salt flats tour in Bolivia. But despite the fact that this is such a touristy place we loved it. Firstly the food was amazing, expensive like everything else here, but so good. So we feasted. It was a welcome break from chicken, steak or fish with chips.

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Another town with an amazing backdrop...
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It was safe to eat the greens
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So I made the most of it. As soon as we left Chile there was to be no more salads...
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We booked our Valle de la Luna tour through our hostel, the first and last time we give the responsibility to someone else. They got the collection point wrong and even when we had been waiting 10 minutes and went back to ask they insisted it was correct. And after 30 minutes they insisted it was 'Chilean time' but I made them call the agency and of course we had missed the collection. It was our last day so our only chance and it's something I had wanted to do since the outset. Zarius was MAD. And ordinarily under such circumstances its best to steer him clear of the intended recipient of his anger but I really really wanted to do this tour so I stood back, not a tactic I use lightly, but on this occasion it had the desired affect and we were quickly bundled into the back of a paid for taxi zooming across the desert chasing the bus which had an hour head start on us. When we caught up they had stopped and were waiting for us at the entrance of the valley. Perfect timing and well worth fighting for. The second part of the tour is Death Valley, equally as impressive and we were dropped off to watch the sunset.

Where we finally caught up at the start of the canyon
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NASA used Moon Valley as a testing ground for the Mars rover because of the similarities in terrain
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We all stood silently listening to the sound of the rocks contracting after a day in the desert sun
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Moving on to Death Valley
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Warming up after watching the sun set in the desert
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Another amazingly clear sky
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In between eating and exploring we had our salt flats tour to book. We had read endless, I mean endless horror stories about this 3 day, two night tour. Every review you read slates some element of it. Be it drunk drivers, food poisoning, or sub par living conditions. It's enough to make you not want to go through with it. But then in the same breath, all these people claim it's life changing, the most beautiful and otherworldly scenery you will ever see. It would seem that despite the drunkeness, bad food and bad board, everyone had a ball. From the get go, this was the 3 days of the 3 months that I was most looking forward to. The largest salt flats in the world. It was hard to comprehend or even imagine what that would be like.

We reviewed agencies offering this tour to within an inch of their life and quickly established that for every one good review, there were 5 bad. We knew this in advance, I had done some research, written down company names that hadn't been completely slated, only to discover in San Pedro that none of the chosen ones started the tour in San Pedro, so it was back to the drawing board.

We wasted HOURS trying to decide what agent to go with, even though we both knew it really didn't matter. You could have the slickest, nicest sales person ever, waxing lyrical about the tour but at the end of the day it came down to the driver, and the sales person would be nowhere to be seen at that stage. Other than the driver and the car, they all took the same route, all stayed in pretty much the same hostels and served the same food. We ended up going for the slickest, smoothest salesman ever. Haha, well that combined with the fact that we saw the list of people who had already signed up and we saw two Germans, two Swedes, one Irish, one American, two French and a Brazilian. The Brazilian never materialised but the others did. Our thinking was, at least in a mixed car, the likelihood of people speaking English was high. Simple as that. And as confident as that. That all the mainland Europeans would speak English! And they did!

The agencies make it clear that the first night will be spent in a shelter with limited electricity and no hot water never mind showers. At least they tell you. Still, for someone like me, it's hard to picture. Actually impossible. I had no point of reference, having never even camped in my life. So it would definitely be an adventure.

San Pedro was somewhere that we both could have spent another few days but we would have had to move hostels (too much head bumping) and also...I had that nervous feeling where I just wanted to get the tour over and down with. I was excited but dreading it all at once. And that is why people who do no research in advance are often in a much better position...

Posted by DeeandZarius 12:49 Archived in Chile Tagged san_pedro_de_atacama valle_de_la_luna atacama_desert Comments (4)

Vicuna, Chile: Star gazing in the Elqui Valley

sunny 27 °C
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Wednesday 19th March - 23rd March 2014

It was a loooooong bus journey but we eventually arrived in La Serena in the early evening.

The Elqui Valley is well known for it's clear night skies. It's the ideal location for some star gazing and the hills are dotted with observatories. It was also the birth place of Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to win the Noble Prize in Literature.

Researching it beforehand it sounded like La Serena, at the start of Valle del Elqui, was a good town to base ourselves in and it's on the coast and apparently had a nice beach. We were sold. As we drove from Santiago the sun continued to shine until about 10 minutes before we arrived at our destination when the clouds set in and the temperature dropped and we couldn't help but think, typical! We checked into a German run hostel, Hostal El Punto, if you're going to choose any nationality to run a hostel you would expect the Germans to do it efficiently and we weren't disappointed. Our room was clean and had a lovely outside terrace and of course lots of lists and instructions on what you can an can't do. They get a bad wrap online for being too strict but it didn't bother us. And we only had one night. We went exploring in the dark and decided we didn't really like the town so we were glad we only had the one night. Then we headed down to the beach and our opinions started to change. Anytime we see water we're sold! So we popped into the reception of some chalets on the waterfront and it turns out they had one free and we could just pop by in the morning to take it. But when we woke up the next morning it was cold and grey and we decided it would be miserable on the beach so we packed up and set off to find a bus to take us deeper into the valley to small town called Vicuna.

This was a complicated morning. We had read that we could go directly from La Serena to Mendoza where we were heading next so we decided to book our tickets for a few days time. We lugged our backpacks to the bus terminal only to be told that buses only leave on Sunday nights. Hmmm..we wanted to leave on Saturday. There was another bus company who apparently had daily buses but their office was downtown not in the station. So after a lot of faffing about we hopped in a taxi that had no meter and got completely ripped off but arrived at the office of this bus company only to be told that yes they should have daily buses but they don't anymore. I couldn't understand her explanation why, but she advised us to try the bus station. We decided to leave it. We couldn't be bothered so instead went to find a collectivo to Vicuna. After more wrong directions and endless walking about we asked a lovely driver who pointed us in the right direction (completely opposite to where we had been told) and we shortly found ourselves whizzing through the countryside and ten minutes out of La Serena, the sun was back!

We didn't have a place to stay in Vicuna but had a name, Hostal Aldea del Elqui, and a street and it's a very small town so we found it easily without a map. They had a room free overlooking the gorgeous garden with a small pool, hammocks, a double swing and tables and chairs and we decided to do little and instead enjoy the sunshine.

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Later we walked up the street to book a trip the the observatory and the person in the tourist information office recommended a short hike from town to watch the sunset. Cerro de la Virgen. We enjoyed the garden for the afternoon and then set off on our walk. It wasn't as clearly marked as we had expected and after a few wrong turns and some help from the friendly locals we were back on track. The immediate difference with this trail to others we have done, apart from the complete lack of signage, is the litter. The sides of the road are almost knee deep in rubbish. It's sad to see it in such a poor condition.

Although the walk was very short, it was steep. Not helped by the fact that we went wrong and took a gravel route straight up instead of the winding road! But the views were amazing and the sunset beautiful.

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The halfway mark
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A shrine to the Virgin Mary alongside the town's communication towers!
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One of the observatories in the distance
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The next day after breakfast, which was in fact a dessert table, I kid you not, we set off to explore the town. It's definitely not bustling. It's pretty, but slow. The main square, Plaza de Armas, is very pretty and it has some interesting buildings around it. We planned on walking out to the Pisco Brewery that afternoon but once we got back to that tranquil garden there was no shifting us.

Torre Bauer, apparently commissioned by a former German town Mayor, who had it shipped over from Germany. Sounds very extravagant so it might not be true. It now houses the tourist information office.
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A sculpture of the face of Gabriela Mistral
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We managed to drag ourselves away as the sun went down to join a tour to The Mammalluca Observatory. And what an experience that turned out to be. I have never seen a sky like it, with so many stars. It was incredible. The Milky Way was completely visible and the guide used a 2km laser to show us the other constellations. Wow. All I wanted to do was lie on the ground and look at the sky all night. They had other plans though. The tour includes a short film about astronomy and the constellations and some mad facts about the biggest telescope in the world, currently residing in Chile, and the plans for the next biggest one, also to be housed in Chile and the costs...80 billion dollars! They are still trying to get it approved. And then we got to look through a couple of telescopes to see Mars up close Saturn with its ring. Impressive as it was, I still preferred what I saw with the naked eye. There were just so many stars! The sky was matted with them, it was incredible, I have never seen anything like it.

It felt like something out of a movie, looking up at the sky through the open roof
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The super duper 2km laser in action
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Capturing the night sky with a camera is not easy. I took one pic, it was a black screen, so I gave up. Zarius had a bit more success and managed to get some of the Milky Way...
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The next day it was time to leave, in hindsight we should have stayed longer but with so much still to come we didn't know what the impact would be later on, whether we'd have to skip other places. This is the first and only time during the trip that we made this mistake. So I guess we're doing pretty well!

We had decided to skip the direct bus, it was working out far too complicated and instead opted to take a lunchtime bus back to Santiago, stay the night and get an early bus the next day to Mendoza. The journey to Santiago was uneventful and it meant we had one more lovely dinner in Bellavista. It felt like arriving home, if just for one night. Then the next day we were up early again to catch our bus to Mendoza, the long awaited Argentinian wine region.

Posted by DeeandZarius 07:47 Archived in Chile Tagged vicuna_chile the_elqui_valley la_serena star_gazing_elqui_valley Comments (1)

Santiago, Chile: Painting the town green

sunny 27 °C
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Friday 14th March - Wednesday 19th March 2014

We arrived in Santiago in the early afternoon and hopped in a taxi to take us to Happy House Hostel. A pretty cool hostel. It's a huge old house, perfectly restored with original features, vintage decor and a huge outside area with a plunge pool.

We set out walking and within less than 5 minutes we were both thinking the same thing, 'we're going to like this city'. It's got a really nice feel to it. It's big but manageable, the metro is easy to use, the architecture is impressive and it's divided up into really cool little barrios. That night we ended up in the Bellavista neighbourhood, which as it happens is one of the best places to hang out.

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The next day top of our list was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. We got the audio headset which made a massive difference because not a lot of it is in English. We weren't familiar with the history of Chile so this museum was like a shocking 3 hour history lesson. They've had a tough past and the museum has done such an amazing job laying it all out and taking you through it year by year, blow by blow.

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Over the 5 days we visited multiple parks (the best being the Sculpture Park), the Museum of Fine Art, the very modern shopping centre (with H&M and Topshop where I got my shopping fix!) and got the Funicular (cable car) up Cerro San Cristobal with the 14 metre statue of the Virgin Mary at the top. The views over the city and of the Andes are incredible.

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The Museum of Fine Art
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A local dog chilling at the bottom of the steps of Cerro San Cristobal
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On our third day we moved to Castillo Surfista Hostel, home of Duke, the skate boarding dog! A giant, slobbering hyperactive dog who caused havoc over the 3 days we were there. I had a love/hate relationship with Duke. I loved him from afar but when he got too close with his drooling jowls, whooshing tail and eager puppy-ness I wasn't so keen.

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We had moved to be closer to my cousin Damien and the bar he owns, Fiddlers Irish Bar. The best Irish bar in Santiago! That night we watched a Chilean band play Irish music and Chilean dancers dressed in full Irish dancing costumes doing the jig. It was brilliant! And then we sat on the roof terrace catching up on the last 5 years of life with Damien, until way to early the next morning!

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On St. Patricks day Damien had a few surprises in store at Fiddlers and overlooking Fiddlers, or Santiago to be more precise. He had been planning for a year and had managed to convince the city council to let him turn the statue of the Virgin Mary on Cerro San Cristobal green for the weekend! He invited Zarius and I to do the honours. But before we did, we watched a flash mob of 25 Irish dancers appear in front of his bar. One lone dancer firstly appeared, placing a wooden platform on the ground and without music started dancing, the only sound were the shoes against the board. Then slowly 24 others materialised, each with a wooden platform of their own and then the sound of Irish music filled the air as 25 sets of synchronised feet performed an incredible dance. And then as suddenly as they had appeared, they dispersed into the cheering crowds that had gathered. They had literally stopped traffic!

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But there was no time for us to hang about and drink green beer we needed to get to Mary! We all hopped in a cab and raced to the hill before it shut its gates for the night. The taxi driver weaving his way through the what seemed like hundreds of cyclists making their way to the top of the hill. The sun was setting behind the city and it was truly beautiful. As the crowds left and Damien skilfully set up the lamps, we looked down on the city and thought, yup, we could live here. And then it was dark. Zarius and I took our places and at the count of three plugged in the lights and there she was in all her green glory, Mary, with her arms outstretched over the city. What a sight. What an experience. Thanks Damien, what a great wedding gift, it's a memory we will never forget.

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The race is on. Damien and Zarius carrying the lamps the last leg of the journey
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TAH DAH!
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On the way down to top it all off we had the most perfect 'moonrise'
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Of course it was back to the bar later that night to join the throngs of people from all over the world celebrating St. Paddy's day at Fiddlers bar. We were joined by Phillip, an Irish guy we had met at our hostel, the first Irish person of the trip to date! We drank outside and soaked up the atmosphere until the local police arrived and dispersed the crowd!

On our last day in Santiago Damien recommended we take the metro to the end of the line, Los Dominicos, where there's a handicraft village. What a lovely way to spend our last day. It was a welcome break from the city, a little haven tucked away and bursting with art and crafts and little eateries. It reminded us both of South Africa actually.

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That night we joined Damien and his girlfriend Daniella in Bellavista and ate Chorrillana (chips topped with egg, beef, sausage, onions...) which they washed down with Fanschop (beer mixed with Fanta Orange) while we stuck to plain old beer. We had such a wonderful 5 days in Sanitago, it was great hanging out with Damien and Daniella, they really made our stay. I don't think it will be our last visit, we definitely want to go back.

But no matter what, I'll always be the little cousin!
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The next morning, nursing somewhat sore heads, we headed for the bus station to catch our bus to La Serena in the Elqui Valley.

Posted by DeeandZarius 12:26 Archived in Chile Tagged santiago cerro_san_cristobal fiddlers_irish_bar_santiago st_patricks_day_santiago best_irish_bar_santiago fiddlers_irish_bar Comments (1)

Maitencillo, Chile: Sun chasing halted in its tracks

overcast 12 °C
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Tuesday 11th - Friday 14th March 2014

The next morning we got some instructions from the friendliest receptionist ever on where to catch a collectivo to our next destination. Collectivos are a mix between a taxi and a bus. A mini-bus that has a set route but seems to pick people up and drop them off anywhere on that route. We were in luck and as we arrived on the designated street, so did our collectivo. And we were off. After our Bariloche experience I wanted to make sure that the driver knew we needed him to tell us where to get off, poor man. But fair play to him, just over an hour later he did. He made a wide sweeping motion with his arm tracing the endless stretch of white sand in front of us and declared that we were in Maitencillo and asked where we wanted to get off. Hmmm...I don't know. The centre? He nodded. But as the bus meandered along the beachfront we decided to hop off and continue on foot. In case we found a cabin we wanted. He pulled over, took our money and sent us on our way. Later, when we had walked the full length of the beach I was curious to know where he would have dropped us, because as far as we could see, there was no centre.

The sun was shining and the beaches were empty. It was off season so we'd have the place pretty much to ourselves. Yay! We pulled our packs on and started walking. There were indeed many cabins for rent but they all required you to phone a number to enquire. Not great. Forgetting the whole Spanglish issue, it meant we'd have to wait for individuals to come and meet us to view the place and what if we didn't like it? It could be a very long day! So we continued walking, mulling over our options. We then spotted a place that had a reception, aha! That was more promising and there must be more. So Zarius was left manning the bags while I went in to find us a cabin. The first place was very disheartening. She showed me two cabins and they were dark and pokey and depressing and had no views because the beachfront ones were fully booked. We carried on and found another place with beachfront cabins and this time we both went in. There was an old man running the place who informed us that he didn't have a beach facing one available but could show us something else. It had a braai outside, positive, the braai had some old chicken and an onion on it, not so positive...he opened it up and let us in. Bad. Really not good. We smiled, nodded and said we really did want beachfront so we'd have to pass on it this time. He told us to wait while he made a call and came back and offered us one closer to the road that was bigger but he'd give it to us for a special price. We knew it would just be more space to have more bad so we declined and went on our way. We tried a third, again no beachfront available and no outside area. We were out of receptions for beach cabins. We decided to grab a coke and weigh up our options.

There was a hostel that we knew had space but it was ridiculously expensive but we could go there for one night and at least leave our backpacks while we continued our search. It was miles away in the complete opposite direction, so we started walking. And that's when we found it. Our little cabin in the trees. Behind closed gates, surrounded by dense shrubbery so that they were almost hidden, we spotted some cabins dotted up a hill. Beside the gate there was a restaurant with a reception desk and the woman saw us looking longingly up the hill and waved us in. She turned out to be the receptionist for the cabins. They were self-catering but included breakfast in the restaurant. Would we like to view one. Yes please! Zarius stayed with the bags and I hopped, skipped and jumped up the steps behind her to the very top cabin that had the best views of the beach. She hadn't even opened the door and I loved it. It was hidden away surrounded by trees, stood on stilts, had a big braai on the terrace and a massive table. And then she opened the little wooden door and let me in and I was sold. Gorgeous! When I got back down to Zarius he took one look at my face and said 'so I take it we're staying here then'. They only had three nights available and we wanted 5 but we took it all the same. Which was probably a good thing because it was slightly over budget...

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Although it was a little, ahem, small for Zarius, it was perfect for me :-)
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The restaurant was pretty cool
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While all this was going on the sky was changing. Clouds were moving in. The wind was picking up and it was getting cold. Interesting. We pulled on an extra layer and went exploring. It really was chilly. So different to that morning. The place was like a ghost town but there were clues to how busy it must get in high season. Closed market stalls and huts, boarded up beach restaurants, signs for all sorts of water sports but absolutely nothing was open.

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The receptionist had given instructions on how to get to the closet supermarket and we set off to get some meat for a braai. The supermarket turned out to be a store that looked like it's shelves contained the original stock from when it first opened way back when. It was big and dark, everything had a thick layer of dust and the fruit and veg section was covered in flies. Of course I was delighted by all of this as I'm sure you can imagine. But, we had little choice and amongst the hardware and dusty shelves they had a very old butchers counter which Zarius declared to be fit for purpose. I personally wasn't so confident but he directed the lady to cut two huge steaks for us and wrap up a de-boned chicken too. We had meat along with some veg to go on the fire (I declared salad off the menu) and we were set.

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The next day we needed a chemist to get eye drops and asked a different receptionist where we would find one. Oh there's one beside the big Lider supermarket just over the hill he said. The big Lider supermarket. Really. 20 minutes later we arrived at a huge supermarket, a cafe and the chemist amongst other shops....

Weather wise it never improved. It remained overcast and cold for the duration, so much for chasing the sun! And the cabin was cold. Luckily they gave us a gas fire which I pretty much sat on top of for the three days and seeing as we had gone there to lie on a beach there wasn't actually anything to do without a car so we used the time to plan and write the blog and sort photos etc. It was actually really nice and every night we went to sleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. One of my favourite sounds.

My 'winter' work station
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Zarius' 'summer' work station
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Although he did concede that it was cold at night and lit the fire
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View from the window
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When the three days were up we decided not to find another place but instead head to Santiago two days earlier than planned. We were meeting up with my cousin Damien to celebrate St. Patricks day in his Irish bar!

Posted by DeeandZarius 19:08 Archived in Chile Tagged chile chile_beach maitencillo north_chile_beach_destination chile_relaxation Comments (2)

Valparaiso, Chile: A visual sensation

sunny 19 °C
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At this point we are very behind with the blog. We're in Bolivia at the moment and the wifi has been poor to non-exisitant. This post is about Valparaiso, one of our favourite cities to date. It was written weeks ago, long before the tragedy of the wild fires that have been raging through the city since Saturday. From what I have read, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed and the very things that make the city such an amazing place to visit, the wooden houses, hills and long narrow roads are making containing the fire a hugely difficult challenge. We can only hope, that it is nearing the end now and that Valparaiso will be able to pick itself back up again because it truly is a very special place.

Valparaiso, Chile: Sunday 9th - Tuesday 11th March 2014
The bus from Pucon to Valparasio is 12 hours, our longest bus journey to date so we decided to treat ourselves to some comfort. Unfortunately, to get said comfort it meant changing in Santiago because we were booking very late (a re-occurring theme) but with the words 'cama suite' being dangled in front of us we decided to do it. And we were so glad we did. There are three or sometimes four types of seats; classic (exactly what it says on the tin), semi-cama (reclines to 40 degrees and includes a pretty useless fold out legrest that is meant to support your legs from the knee down) and cama (all the above but the seat reclines slightly further to 55 degrees and has a wider seat), these are the norm, then occasionally there's the elusive 'cama suite'. The ultimate in bus luxury. Or so we had been told.

We got on the double decker bus and we were directed to the left, through another door rather than up the stairs. When we opened it, we saw what 'suite' meant. There were only 6 seats on the bottom level, all fully reclinable. Lie flat beds! Cue many a photo! I think it's the closet we'll get to first class travel. We were given blankets and pillows and various snacks and bottles of water throughout the night. In hindsight, if we were ever going to get champagne, it really should have been then. I was delighted though and slept VERY well. Zarius seemed less excited about the whole experience it must be said.

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The connection was easy and we arrived in Valparaiso before 11am the next morning. We started walking from the bus station, in our usual aimless fashion. Guessing the direction that we thought the hostel might be in but soon realised this wasn't the place for aimless wandering and backtracked and hopped in a taxi. Our hostel, La Colombina, was located at the top of a very winding hill, Cerro Concepcion. Which, as luck would have it, is one of the best hills to be located on. The streets near our hostel reminded us of Shoreditch in London. Bursting with independent shops and art galleries. It's all a little bit quirky and cool.

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The hostel recommended a place for breakfast, El Desayunador, you could tell it was where the cool kids hung out. Original tiled floor, a huge mural on the wall, plants hanging from the ceiling and a very un-Chilean menu. And please don't judge me, but I was delighted. Sorry. I crave variety and choice. The menus in Chile and Argentina are pretty much identical no matter where you go, and breakfast doesn't really exist, so to find a place offering simple things like scrambled eggs and toasted granary bread and a fruit salad is amazing. 'Real' travellers wouldn't dare admit to such a thing, claiming that eating sweet cakes and sweet croissants and dulce leche (essentially soft toffee) for breakfast is all part of the experience but in that sense, I am not a 'real' traveller! Give me a bread roll and butter any day, I won't complain about that, but I can't cope with a sugar rush first thing in the morning! I think it's because when I was very young our mom told us that if we ate chocolate before having a proper breakfast we were 'feeding the worms'. The thought was terrifying. I never questioned why we would have worms inside us in the first place, but it was enough to put me off for life!

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We had heard mixed things about Valparaiso, it had a question mark beside it on our itinerary because it has a bad reputation and a lot of people said to give it a miss. I'd love to meet those people now. How they could possible say not to go there?! I don't understand. We loved it. It's rough and ready and a little bit scary in places but it has a real charm to it that we fell for immediately. The city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a maze of winding streets and hills. The buildings are unique and beautiful and combined with the impressive array of murals on every single useable space, it makes for a wonderful place to simply walk and enjoy. Walking and looking. Soaking up the sights and the sounds and the smells! And that's pretty much how we spent our two days there. Wandering and enjoying the many murals and graffitti and street art.

Even this one!
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This post is really a picture post because essentially that's what Valparaiso is all about. We have hundreds of photos, but here are some of our favourites.

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It's a port city and when we were in town so were the Chilean Navy.

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There is a unqiue way of getting to the top of some of the steep hills if your legs turn to jelly at the thought of another steep ascent, using one of the many funiculars. A new word for me but we also came across it in Santiago. Some of them date back to the late 1800s which is impressive. It's like a cable car I guess. But not really...

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There were lots of places to sit outside and enjoy the sun and the views, something we have found hard to find in other places. So we took advantage of it and wiled away a few hours making plans, eating cake and sampling the 'Barro Lucas' which in Chile, is a steak sandwich with melted cheese named after a former president. It was pretty damn good.

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We really enjoyed our short visit to Valparasio and because we have loved Chile so much, we know we'll visit it again in the future.

But the weather, although sunny, was chilly. We felt like we hadn't had proper heat since Buenos Aires and decided to go chasing the sun for some beach time. We went online, looked at a map and then Googled all the little towns along the coast north of Valparaiso and settled on a place called Maitencillo. A small town with 5km of beach, lined with cabanas to rent. We decided to leave the next day and for the first time not book accommodation in advance, but instead turn up and find a cabin that we liked. Such a simple plan...

Posted by DeeandZarius 17:45 Archived in Chile Tagged chile street_art valparaiso bus_travel_chile Comments (2)

Pucon, Chile: Climbing Volcan Villarrica

sunny 21 °C
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Wednesday 5th - Saturday 8th March 2014

The bus pulled into Pucon in the early evening when the sun was still shining and as we walked from the station to our hostel (wondering how everyone else seemed to have a map) we immediately knew we were going to like this town. And we did. It's got such a lovely feel to it, despite the number of tour operators offering this excursion and that as you walk down the street, it still feels like a real, live-able town. If that makes sense!

We found our hostel, The Princesa Insolente, with little effort and we were very happy. It was recently taken over so everything is new. A nice clean room with new towels and bed linen and a lovely big outdoor garden area. We set off on our usual exploration and loved what we found. A really nice beach on the lake, a cute town with faux alpine log cabins and plenty of great restaurants serving...wait for it...vegetables and other vegetarian dishes! Yay!

There is loads to do in Pucon if you like being active. Hiking, rafting, kayaking, paragliding, sky diving, canyoning and of course one of the biggest reasons people visit, to climb the famous Villarrica Volcano. Now I had mixed feelings about this. I had been advised not to bother. But the more we read, the more keen we were. Until of course being me, I found the one and only super negative review on Trip Advisor. Two people on the same tour died in 2012 and others in the group were badly injured. And not from a single incident, but multiple accidents throughout the day. And then I read that out of every group that goes up, not everyone makes it to the top, they have to quit halfway because it's super difficult and hardcore and tough and blah blah blah. So I was worried. I wanted to do it, but I didn't. So we asked around and all the shops made it sound easy. Hmmm...then we got talking to a girl at the hostel who had done it and she claimed it was horrendously difficult but she got to the top and she wasn't that fit. Her words not mine. During this conversation we got talking to a Canadian girl, Kira, who wanted to do it the next day too so we eventually thought, sure why not, we may as well all sign up together. And we did. And then we went to the beach. And if you stayed lying down it felt pretty warm!

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The view while we had sundowners at the beach
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It turns out that the climb was not as horrendously difficult as everyone made out, BUT, it was surprisingly terrifying, which I had not banked on. And that is definitely a side effect of getting older. I now get 'the fear' more often and climbing this particular volcano took the fear to a whole new level.

We got up the next morning at 5am and as we drove to the base of the volcano the sun was rising and the views were beautiful. When we got out of the van we were above the clouds I decided that those views alone made the day a worthwhile event, even if I didn't make it to the top!

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We took a ski lift first, which cut out an hours walking. Not to be sniffed at when you have 4 hours of upward climbing to go even with the lift. Not everyone availed of this 'cheat' but they lived to regret it later.

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Our guide was very chilled and set a steady ( if not a tad slow) pace going up. We zig-zagged across the mountain making the steeps a lot more bearable. And the walk wasn't a problem at all for most. The pace and the zig zagging really helped. We did lose two of our group along the way. One older lady who I don't think knew what she was getting herself into and tried her best but had to eventually give up. And a young girl who had the worst attitude ever and from the word go dragged her feet, slumped over, huffing and puffing her way up. She was the type of person I knew Zarius wouldn't be able to handle and I laughed silently to myself as I watched him getting more and more worked up. She eventually admitted defeat and both ladies were escorted down the mountain by one of our guides.

The views looking down were breathtaking. We stopped regularly for breaks and took lots of photos.

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The climb really was beautiful. We couldn't stop looking around to soak up the views. Until we reached snow that is. And the rest of the ascent would be done wearing crampons and carrying ice axes. Scary. And this is where everything changed for me. As we strapped our feet into the crampons and looked up the mountain 'the fear' set in. 2 hours 50 mins to the top. We had a safety lecture on how to walk properly, how to carry the axe and most importantly what to do if we fell. How to stop ourselves from sliding down the mountain and off the edge of the cliff. Reassuring as it was meant to be, it was not. Especially because he gave such clear and precise instructions and then called first Zarius out and then me to drop to the ground and then stop ourselves and get up. Everything he said went out the window. I dropped to the ground, screamed, slid, forgot about my axe, remembered, dug it in, forgot to bend my knees, forgot to do everything he told me to do basically and there was only 2 metres of snow below me and then gravel. Not a mountain load and a crevice! But off we set. We continued with the zig zagging but this time I couldn't look down and enjoy the views. The views became my enemy. I was at times frozen with fear. A new experience. Luckily we had to concentrate so much on putting our feet one in front of the other and keeping the axe mountain side that I didn't really have much time to think about anything else. Thankfully.

The guide brought us around a long, deep crevice. Walking with it to our right so that it was mountain side and let everyone look in. Of course I didn't. In my head I was screaming 'just bloody move!!' I wanted to keep walking. We then, walked up to the end of said crevice and around it so that now it was valley side i.e. you slip now, that's where you're going. Why? Why, oh why did he do that?! So for the rest of the hike I was absolutely petrified that I was going to lose my balance, slip, slide down the mountain and either go off the edge completely or end up at the bottom of that crevice. The fear...oh the fear. It's steep. We took breaks which were just standing breaks. You couldn't sit, you just stopped walking. I hated those breaks. I was too nervous to try and take my bag off to get to my water so I just stood frozen. Willing them to move again. When we did eventually get a sitting break, the views were stunning. I have never in my life seen anything like it, the mountains stretched out in front of us. Peak after peak...beautiful. But if my eyes averted slightly and I caught sight of the edge of that cliff....

What lay ahead of us
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Zarius getting back on his feet from his practice fall
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The crevice...one of many
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To the right we could see where we would be sliding down!
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It just felt so steep! We decided we will never be mountain climbers
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At least one of us could keep smiling
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A sitting break
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You could tell this wasn't their first time!
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As we climbed the last stretch to the top the smell hit us. Not a rotten egg smell as you might expect but a poisonous gas smell that you can taste and you don't know whether to breath it in or eat it. And weirdly as soon as we smelt that I noticed a wheeze started. My asthma kicked in. Random. The fumes are seriously toxic though. Everyone is coughing and trying to cover their mouths. It can't be good for the guides breathing that in everyday. But being at the top was impressive. It wasn't what I expected, there was a glacier for starters! And I thought we'd see a big gaping hole with only a narrow walk way around it and we'd have to hang on to the edge to look in and a tiny bit of me hoped for lava! Haha but it's not like that at all. There is a hole of course, bellowing out toxic gas and putrid smells but it feels unreal. Almost far away. Our guide gave us the opportunity to get a look into the crater by walking up to the edge and digging his crampons into the ground and them letting us lean on him peering over his shoulder into the abyss. Amazing. And also nauseating. My eyes pumped tears, my throat and lungs screamed and I had to retreat.

The final leg
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Nearly there...
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Success!
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We were told to put our hand into this hole. The heat!! Wow. Incredible.
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I was also dreading going down! We were to use a plastic sled like contraption that you sit on, but once we started it was definitely the most fun part of the day! You were meant to use the ice axe as a break but I never managed to master that and instead threw caution to the wind and let myself go. Why 'the fear' didn't seem to effect us on the way down we really don't understand, but we loved flying down the mountain on our slides crashing to a halt at the bottom of each tunnel in a pile of snow.

Geared up and ready for some sliding!
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Zarius showing us how it's done
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Wheeeeeeeeeee....
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They got steeper and steeper and our smiles grew bigger and bigger
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And then the snow stopped and the chairlift was off and it was a looong walk down to the bottom. We skidded the whole way down on loose gravel. And of course I fell again and hurt my knee again. But not badly at all this time.

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We was such an amazing feeling afterwards. We were so happy to have not only made it to the top but to have made it back down again too! And in one piece! We were all wrecked, a lovely, tired from exercise wrecked. We originally planned on leaving that night and getting the overnight bus but arriving back feeling like we did we begged for our room back! Luckily we got it and after nice hot showers the three of us treated ourselves to some gorgeous Mexican food at Mamas & Tapas and I had my first glass of champagne of the trip. Happy.

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The next day it rained and there were no tours going up the volcano. We had been very lucky. We cosied up in the common room next to the wood burner and wiled the day away. We did pop out for lunch, back to a lovely restaurant where we had eaten the night we arrived only to have the worst experience to date. We ordered home-made empanadas, which were huge and freshly baked and gorgeous and as we discussed how wonderful they were and what a great chef he was, Zarius bit down and there was an almightly CRUNCH. I thought it was the stone from an olive, traditionally they leave one olive in, stone and all but Zarius' face told me this wasn't the case. He spat the food out onto his plate and it turned out to be a huge piece of glass!! And there was more inside the warm gooey parcel. I was shaking and so angry, Zarius was in shock and there was little we could do. We brought the plate up the chef and showed him and the waiter and then got our coats and walked out. Zarius really thought he had cracked a tooth but luckily he didn't. So with our appetites gone we went back to the hostel and sat it out until dinner time.

That night we left for Valparaiso on an overnight bus in 'Cama Suite' class. A truly different experience.

Posted by DeeandZarius 10:02 Archived in Chile Tagged chile pucón climbing_villarrica things_to_do_pucon Comments (3)

Puerto Varas: The start of the Chilean Lake District

sunny 20 °C
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Tuesday 25th to Thursday 28th February 2014

We landed in Puerto Montt to blue skies and sunshine. We were facing a couple of weeks of exploring with no big activities and it was hard to shift our mindset into just relaxing. We both felt like we needed to be on the go, doing and seeing! We had booked two nights at Hostal Melmac Patagonia in Puerto Varas, 20 minutes away, but on the itinerary we had 5 nights down. After looking around and discovering water, and sand we decided to stay 3 nights in the end.

Our first sighting of Osorno Volcano
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Shorts weather again!
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The town itself is small and compact and has a beach town vibe to it. It's very pretty, sitting on the lake with Osorno Volcano as the backdrop. But neither of us were really taken by it. We took a stroll along the lake the first night and the beach was packed with people enjoying the evening sun. We rented bikes on our second day and cycled 10km out to another beach on the lake which was pretty and quiet and nicer than the beach in town. The lake was of course, like ice, but that didn't stop Z from going in. Just me!

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We ate what is possibly the biggest burger I have ever been served
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And the best pizza we have ever tasted!
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We read about the nearby Petrohue Waterfalls and Todos Los Santos Lake in Rosales National Park and decided to do a day trip. We took the public minibus for the 1 hour journey, which turned into 2 hours because of road works. We picked up all sorts of people along the way and carried all manner of cargo. They're not too fussed about where you sit on the busses so the bus driver always had company with people sitting on the dashboard happily chatting away while others sat on the floor in the doorway making and then eating their lunch!

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The waterfalls weren't what we expected. In that they weren't tall, more wide and gushing but the water was the most amazing colour.
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It was busy so we queued to take our photos and then hopped back on a bus and went another 6km to the lake. Which was gorgeous. It's very close to the volcano and has amazing views. We fantasised about living in a little cabin on the lake and the kind of lifestyle we could have! It really was beautiful. We wanted to do one of the trails along the side of the volcano but after bumping into two Italians and together speaking to the park ranger, we were advised not to because we wouldn't make the last bus back. Which was a shame. The Italians were lovely though and we gave them some tips on Torres del Paine and they gave us their thoughts on where to go next in Chile and then we said our goodbyes. It's a funny one travelling, all these fleeting encounters and then you never see the person again.

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You can camp in the national park so the bus back was rammed full of backpackers who had been camping out for a few days. The bus driver piled their bags up high in the seat beside him. Up and up and up. I was very impressed that he managed to get us all the way back without one of them moving an inch!

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We tried a fish platter that night in a restaurant that had an American tour group in. Before we had ordered our drinks we considered quickly walking out because the restaurant was empty except for them and yet we couldn't hear each other speak! Luckily we stuck it out because it was great to taste so many different types of fish, even if they were all cooked in a huge quantity of butter!

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And our first Pisco Sours
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We enjoyed out time in Puerto Varas but we felt 3 nights was plenty. Our hostel wasn't great which didn't help, it had a weird atmosphere. The owner, although very nice, made us feel uncomfortable and it wasn't the kind of place where you wanted to hang out. We didn't really know what next, we thought maybe we would go to Valdivia for one night to see the sea lions but chatting on the bus on the way back from the lake we decided that because we now had extra days we could go back into Argentina to San Carlos de Bariloche. Not on our original itinerary but everyone raves about it and it was only 6 hours away by bus. So on a whim we went straight to the ticket office from our bus and got ourselves tickets for the next morning. Of course, because everyone raves about it, it's clearly where everyone was. We spent the night online trying to find a hostel but could not find a room. When we eventually found a cheap hotel we booked for 4 nights, despite the garish 1970s decor in the photos. It will be the last time we commit to anywhere for such a long time without seeing the town first...

Posted by DeeandZarius 20:26 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Punta Arenas, Chile: End of the world

semi-overcast 14 °C
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Sunday 23rd - Tuesday 25th February 2014

Leaving Puerto Natales to travel further was strange. We both felt like we had seen and done so much that it was like the end of an incredible holiday and it was time to go home. Not go on! But that wasn't the case and we felt very lucky!

We took our first double decker coach of the trip and got to experience what 'executiva' class meant. Nice big comfy seats that recline very far back and have a fold out leg rest. Our seats were upstairs and I was hoping for front row but it wasn't to be. Four Germans who we keep seeing had nabbed them. They are super organised with their 'Chile' folder filled with maps and guidebooks and print outs. So I'm sure they had those seats booked months in advance. My goal is to get front row seats upstairs for one journey on this trip. My obsession stems back to my childhood. I've always loved the front seats on a double decker bus!

Punta Arenas doesn't have a great reputation but we were keeping an open mind. It's a naval town and people go there to catch planes or boats to go elsewhere so it's not a tourist attraction in its own right. Although it is famed for it's boat trips to Isla Magdalena to the penguin colonies. Whether it's the end of the world or not depends what your definition of that is. Tierra del Fuego, is further south but it's an island so withoutt crossing water this is as far as you can go.

As we arrived in the town we passed lots of sculptures and pieces of art which we took to be a good sign. Turns out that stretch coming into the town is pretty unique. We didn't see anymore.

We had read that the standard of accommodation was really bad but we had booked ourselves into a cheap hotel which looked good in the photos. When we arrived I was in my element. After double decker buses I love hotels. Karen will vouch for that. We had a lovely spacious white room, with a lovely hotel bed and lovely white hotel bed linen and a nice new and clean bathroom and I thought, how bad, if there's nothing in the town I'm happy to stay right here :-)

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We had 2 nights, 1.5 days there. It's not a pretty town and it didn't have a very nice feel to it. We wandered around a bit and went up to the cemetery which is one of the main tourist attractions. It's like a smaller version of Recoleta in Buenos Aires. But with cooler trees.

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Main square in Punta Arenas
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More graffiti that we are coming accustomed to in this part of the world
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Tempted to pick up a couple of pigs heads with our waters
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We did have one of our worst and one of our best local meals of the trip to date here. The best we found when we wandered into a run down looking restaurant at lunchtime. It was packed with people who all seemed to know one another and were clearly regulars. Always a good sign. There was a 'meal of the day' special which the waiter quickly explained to us and we caught that there was a soup of some sort and a main dish that contained egg. Everything comes with an egg so it could have been anything. And juice. He wasn't too happy to be dealing with people with such a poor grasp of his language so he quickly handed us over to his younger colleague while he headed to the bar to read the newspaper. This was not the kind of establishment where smiles and apologies were going to cut it so we ordered two of the specials and waited to see what we got. It turns out the soup also had egg in it, but just the egg white, floating around in a some unidentified tasty liquid. It was nice. We were happy. The main course turned out to be a type of stew but with lentils and sausage meat and a fried egg on top. It looked awful, a black slushy dish, the image I would conjure up of prison food, but it tasted Really good. And pretty much filled us up for the day. We didn't get a photo. I had my camera but I felt way too self conscious to take it out and start clicking away in this place!

The worst was in this very nice looking restaurant. It was such a shame. We had such high hopes. But the food was bad :-(
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The beer was good though :-)
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And that was Punta Arenas. Next on the itinerary was a flight to Puerto Montt to stay down the road in Puerto Varas, which we had heard very good things about. The short flight meant we avoided a 30 hour bus trip. Always a good thing. Even if I got a front row seat, upstairs, I don't think it would have made up for 30 hours on a bus.

Posted by DeeandZarius 18:32 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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