I really should have paid more attention in fifth-grade geography class, but until we got to Chile, it never really occurred to me that the entire country lies — longitudinally — to the east of Boston, in the next time zone actually. I thought it was more, you know, straight south, or even southwest.
So there's your first tip, in case you didn't remember that South America does not sit directly under North America.
The good thing about knowing this detail is that you then realize it takes a nine-and-half-hour flight to Santiago from Atlanta, not 10 and a half as I first thought when I looked at the arrival time on my ticket and mistakenly assumed we didn't change time zones. I could blame this lapse on a life spent paying attention to the wrong details. But in this instance there was another distracting factor. A suitcase rebounded off my head when a fellow passenger spied a space in the overhead bin above me but missed with her first free throw attempt. It was a hardside bag. It didn't seem to have been damaged by my head, but my skull was not as resilient. The flight attendant gave me a bag of ice to keep the swelling down. I was IWB (injured while boarding), kind of a lame start for a wilderness experience.
Even without the benefit of a blow to the head, I don't usually sleep well on planes. I had been thinking I would take some ibuprofen to make sitting jackknifed in a tourist seat overnight a little more zen. But after the luggage run-in, my brain moved immediately to worst-case scenario. I had this sudden vision that the blood-thinning effects of ibuprofen would accelerate the life-sucking effects of the subdural hematoma that most certainly must be growing inside my head now. And that would probably mean I'd be dead from a brain bleed by the time we touched down — and wouldn't that just totally take the edge off this adventure (even with good trip insurance)?
But after a while, the ice melted, the swelling went down, my panic passed. Soon, I was able to attain that oxygen-deprived state of semi-consciousness that is about as good as it gets on a red-eye flight.
Which brings me to my point. Patagonia is a long way away from North America, but even if you have to get hit upside the head on the way, it's worth the effort.
4 things to know about traveling to Patagonia
Our trip (me, my wife and our daughter who met us in Santiago from Melbourne, Australia), was a self-managed affair with the goal of exploring Torres del Paine, Patagonia's national park. There are some things we learned along the way that may be useful to others making plans to go there. So here they are:
1. Drink Pisco Sours early and often. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. Chile is great without Pisco Sours, of course, but it’s even better if you schedule them into your day. Pisco brandy, lemon juice, sugar, egg whites and ice. Blenderize it all and then add a touch of bitters. As good at 11:30 in the morning as it is at 3:30 in the afternoon or 8 o'clock at night.
2. Most visitors to Patagonia in Chile first fly into Santiago. Definitely stay in Santiago for a few days if you can. It's a great city, with great hostels (you can get your own room and bath), wonderful upscale hotels, lots of outdoor cafes, museums, green space, good (free) walking tours and really good food. My regret was not spending more time in the city, but we had signed on for a week of cycling along the coast and in wine country (also a great trip but another story), and we weren't able to hang around the city nearly long enough.
3. Your air destination in Patagonia is probably Punta Arenas. This means another four (or more!) hours of flying from Santiago, usually via Puerto Montt. Punta Arenas is a small city (125,000) that overlooks the Strait of Magellan. Once a penal colony, it's a very walkable town today that has benefited a good bit from the increase in visitors to Patagonia in recent years. This is the staging area for expeditions headed to Antarctica but also for visitors to Torres del Paine and other Patagonian destinations.
The airport is about a 20-minute ride from town. You can rent a car at the airport or have a driver meet you at the airport (~$24) and take you to town or get a cab (~$12). If you're spending a night or two in Punta Arenas, it may make sense to get a ride to town and then pick up a rental car later, when you're headed out of town. The car rental companies are all clustered near one another downtown.
4. About the weather in Patagonia. You may have heard it is windy. You may have heard it is variable. You would be right. Torres del Paine lies at a latitude of 50.94 degrees south, so it sits between two blustery zones — the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties — known for westerly gales caused by warm air from the equator that runs into cold air pushing up from Antarctica. Because there are very few land masses that far south in the Southern Hemisphere to slow things down, the ocean winds, well, they can be intense.
It is not uncommon in this area to have sustained winds greater than 50 miles per hour (when this happens, Punta Arenas becomes a somewhat less walkable city). And there doesn't have to be any storm attached. It can be an otherwise beautiful sunny day, except for a near hurricane-force breeze. It's also not uncommon for the weather to change dramatically from hour to hour. Weather here rarely ambles; it almost always gallops. Just watching the clouds and light change is part of the magic of this place, particularly within the national park where there are a bunch of micro-climates fueled by mountains, lakes and glaciers to add even more variability to the mix. It often seems like a symphony in the sky, with each 10,000 feet of altitude having its own set of cloud shapes going their own particular way. It speaks to the nature of this place that you will see posters for sale in stores to help identify different types of clouds, like those native birds or fish posters. Lenticular, cirrus, cumulonimbus, altostratus; the sky always seems to be moving at fast forward.
The weather when we visited in early March was quite good with strong winds at times but no major storms. If you plan a boat trip, or a backpacking trip or a charter flight to Antarctica, be forewarned that the weather can complicate things.
A lot to see just on the journey
Torres del Paine is often the destination for visitors to Patagonia in Chile. But before you head there, one of the things worth considering in Punta Arenas is a boat-trip detour to one of the penguin colonies in the Strait of Magellan. There are trips to see the large Empire penguins and trips to see the smaller Magellanic penguins.
The trips leave several times a day; we went early in the morning in early March to Magdalena Island and were back at the dock by a little after 11 a.m. Also known as Los Pinguinos Natural Park, the protected reserve has been a breeding site for Magellanic penguins for more than 30 years. In early March, the young penguins are plucking out the last of the pin feathers that defined their youth and getting ready to leave the nest, which is a penguin cave burrowed in the hard soil. The penguin population on the island is estimated at more than 50,000. After about four years, the youngsters tend to return to breed where they were born. A guide said they actually try to go straight to the old homestead. Often, the parents are still using the residence, and they aggressively tell their offspring to go dig their own condo. There is apparently not much interest in helping out with the penguin grandkids.
A lot of people who make the trip to Patagonia will book a tour that includes buses and hotels. But it is surprisingly easy to organize travel on your own, and quite a bit cheaper. Every hotel or local tour I inquired about online brought a helpful response in English. For planning, Google Maps is good up until you get to the area of the park and then it has trouble locating things. But I'm guessing that won't be true in another year.
To drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, the last town before you get to Torres del Paine, takes a little less than three hours, all of it on well-paved roads. There is a very good, modern grocery worth stopping at on your way out of town. You won't have so many options later. You head to the park on Route 9, also known as Ruta del Fin del Mundo ("road to the end of the earth"). It's a great ride, and you are likely to see small groups of guanaco — a wild variety of lama — and Rhea, which look like dun-colored ostriches, along the way. It's not heavily trafficked, so it is not unusual to drive for miles without seeing another car.
When you do get to Puerto Natales, if you are driving yourself, make sure to get gas there. There are no stations in or near Torres del Paine.
In Puerto Natales, you circle the roundabout and continue north towards Torres del Paine. About 9 miles out of town, you can take a left toward the "Cueva del Milodon;" this route is a shortcut to the park. So what's a mylodon, you ask? Well, you wouldn't want to run into one. It's in the sloth family. They weigh about 5,500 pounds and stand about 10 feet tall when they rear up on their hind legs. They also became extinct about 12,000 years ago, so no worries. Some of the best preserved remains were found in a cave in Patagonia that is now a national monument.
They do have pumas in Patagonia, and they do issue warnings about encountering them: "If you encounter a puma, remain calm. Do not approach, do not run. Move back slowly, looking into its eyes. Remain upright. Make loud noises." The guide maps also suggest that you do not "meddle" in the affairs of any puma you might encounter. We did not encounter any, but it seemed like wise counsel.
The shortcut to the park is 50 miles of dirt roads, but it's a drive where the scenery becomes more dramatic around every curve. Near the end of it, you can go one way to the entrance of the park or keep to the left to enter Rio Serrano, where there are several hotels and restaurants that nestle up next to the river and look out on the mountains. This is a great base camp area for exploring the park, by car, on foot or on a horse. If you are backpacking the "W circuit" around the park and up into several of the valleys, they estimate that you should plan for about 45 hours of hiking time, so it can be a five- or six-day trip.
Visiting a glacier
There are two hotels that are deep in the park, Lago Grey and Explora. Lago Grey overlooks a lake stained light gray with sediment. Floating on the lake you are likely to see boat-sized azure blue chunks of glacier ice that have broken from Grey Glacier and are pushed by prevailing winds towards the south end of the lake, creating kind of a modern sculpture exhibit of blue ice on the southern shore.
Explora overlooks Pehoé Lake and a small waterfall. The view from the restaurant dining room up at the mountains is very hard to beat.
There is also a hotel called Los Torres that sits at the edge of the park on the north side. The location intersects with the main W circuit trail, so it is used by a lot of hikers as a launch point.
We stayed by the river in the village at Rio Serrano and drove and day-hiked our way around various vistas and lookouts. There are a lot of great one or two hour trails throughout the park. They are well-marked and well maintained. (We climbed up one called "condor lookout," dubious about the likelihood of actually seeing condors, but we actually saw a bunch of them.) It is also worth noting that a number of the designated camping areas throughout the park have shelters that can help break the wind when it starts to get out of control.
Whether you hike there or take a boat, as we did, seeing Grey Glacier close up is both beautiful to witness and alarming to contemplate. Within the last 15 years, the rate of retreat has increased from 45 feet annually to more than 400 feet per year. Perhaps those who deny climate change can still fool themselves about what is happening, but it is not so easy here. Like the clouds and the forecast, the changes here are happening quickly, and they are impossible to deny.
Information on lodging, dining and logistics
In Punta Arenas, we stayed at a small inn called the Hotel Ilaia. It had a lovely enclosed rooftop room overlooking the city, a good breakfast and very helpful staff. And it was $195/night for a two-room triple. Also down the hill from the hotel is a restaurant called La Marmita that had great salmon, meats, desserts and Pisco Sours.
In Puerto Natales, we stayed at the Singulair Patagonia. The waterfront hotel was fashioned from a former meat-packing plant that used to ship lamb to Europe. That doesn't sound all that appealing, but it is truly a destination unto itself, with gorgeous rooms and a first class restaurant. Parts of the processing plant are preserved as a museum. If you want to splurge, this is a good place to do it. From this location, you are still an hour or two from destinations inside the park, so it is a more difficult base of operations, but even if you don't choose to stay here, you might consider stopping for lunch and checking it out. The hotel also helps guests arrange all sorts of tours, from hiking to kayaking to horseback riding.
In Rio Serrano, we stayed at Pampa Lodge. It has just 10 rooms, but it's in a gorgeous location, is reasonably priced and includes a very nice restaurant. One thing to know about some of the lodgings in this area is that they turn the electricity off during the day. If I was doing this trip over, and finances weren’t a limiting factor, I might have spent a night at Lago Grey and Explora. Both are in extraordinary locations. Also, if you take a boat trip to Grey Glacier, it is arranged through Lago Grey. For expeditions to see penguins, we had a very good experience with Solo Expeditiones.