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Review: South America - Argentina and Chile


Five weeks in Argentina and Chile

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2372 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • Nov 2008
  • Husband

83 people found this review helpful

We both hit 60 and started thinking about places we would like to see but never thought we would ever get to. The list got longer and more exotic. Patagonia was high on Michael’s list, Eleanor fancied Tierra del Fuego. We bought the guide books and soon realised Patagonia is big – very big. Parts of Chile sounded very attractive too (but Easter Island was banned by Michael.) This wasn’t a holiday we could arrange by ourselves. Pre-packaged tours didn’t appeal as they either took us to places we didn’t want to go or didn’t take us to places we did.

We wrote to three UK Travel Agents specialising in tailor made holidays to South America with our list of ideas now whittled down to Ushuaia, Los Glaciares, Torres del Paine, Navimag, and the Chilean Lake District.

The only one who seemed to be listening to us and prepared to arrange what we wanted was Audley Travel based in Witney. We went to talk to them and spent several hours talking through what was possible and the different options. We had initially dismissed the Atacama Desert (hot and we don’t like heat) but it kept coming back to intrigue us. We decided we would probably never be in that part of the world again and as it would be different to anything we had seen before, we decided to add it on and were very glad we did.

We wanted to take our time, planning several nights at each place. We had time to explore by ourselves and had a car, driver and guide for day trips. In the Chilean Lake District we hired a car for a week.

We flew to Buenos Aires, with the intention of flying straight to Ushuaia. We don’t ‘do’ big cities and the thought of Tango dinners did not appeal. We were recommended to spend a couple of nights there to recover from jet lag and to experience the city. Apparently you’ve not lived if you’ve not been to BA.

Buenos Aires is big and brash and we enjoyed it more than expected. Our hotel was close to the city centre and we enjoyed walking and looking at the architecture. Streets are narrow and busy with traffic. We loved LA Boca with its brightly coloured houses and La Recoleta Cemetery is like a small town with huge mausoleums in every architectural style imaginable gently mouldering.

We flew to Ushuaia – the end of the world which is a lot more civilised than we expected. We went for a cruise on the Beagle Channel and saw penguins. We went for a ride on le Tren del fin del Mundo to Tierra del Fuego National Park and had a day trip to Lago Fagano which gave us chance to see something of the countryside inland.

From Ushuaia we flew to El Calafate where we did a day trip to the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier. There are walks on the glacier for the more adventurous and you can do a boat trip to view from below. We were happy to view from the walkways which give you close up views of the glacier snout. Lumps of ice are breaking off regularly along the length of the ice face. You can hear the ice creaking and then it suddenly breaks off with a whoosh, sliding down into the lake with a huge crash.

From El Calafate we took the bus to the Chile Border and were taken by car and driver to Torres del Paine. Customs at the border is slow as they check everyone’s passport, papers and luggage. You are not allowed to take any fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese or honey into Chile and penalties are heavy.

We did a full day mini bus trip to see the highlights of the park and spent the rest of the time pottering along the road and footpaths. The scenery was amazing with huge great jagged peaks, snow on the tops and lakes. We were lucky and had three glorious warm days with brilliant blue skies and plenty of sunshine.

One of the walks everyone does is to the ‘Towers’- the three great big peaks on all the postcards. The path crosses a dodgy suspension bridge and climbs steeply up the side of a deep gorge before running across the slope of the gorge before scrambling up 300m of moraine and rocks to the view point. The path along the gorge was about 24 inches wide with a very steep drop into the gorge. It acted as a wind funnel with the wind blasting down the gorge so you could hardly stand against it. We struggled for about 25 yards before deciding it was too dangerous to continue.

After Torres del Paine we were taken to Puerto Natales as we wanted to catch Navimag, the ferry up the coast to Puerto Montt, as this would give us chance to see part of Chile which has no road access. The weather let us down and was cloudy and damp. We sailed through wide channels with low green hills and mountains. Pleasant scenery but lacking the ‘wow’ factor we had expected. We were glad we had gone on the ferry but wouldn’t bother with it again.

Navimag is a working vessel carrying passengers, lorries and cargo. We had seen pictures of it with the cargo deck full of lorries with sheep and cows and were disappointed when there weren’t any for our trip. There was little cargo on our trip which meant the boat bounced about like a cork for the 12 hour trip across the Gulfo de Penas, well out into the Pacific Ocean. We had warned our fellows and the steward that we might not make dinner, a nicety, which proved unnecessary as dinner didn't happen. Our berth was near the galley and we could hear crockery falling off shelves and rolling around throughout the crossing. There was one huge crash from the kitchen and a few minutes later came an announcement that it was too rough to cook dinner so sandwiches would be served in the bar instead.

We had a week based in Puerta Varas, a pleasant tourist town on the edge of Lago LLanquihue and a good centre for exploring the area. We did all the touristy things in the Lake District. There are lots of National Parks with short walks to viewpoints, waterfalls etc through the forest.

We visited Fruitillar Bajo, a delightful small town on the edge of the lake, which was settled by Germans and still has a strong cake making tradition. We found a small baker’s shop with a cafe. There were about 20 different cakes to choose from. The cakes were about 12" diameter and about 4" deep, made of layers of sponge, meringue, cream, fruit, nuts … slices were huge.

We spent a full day on Chiloe, which was a 90 minute drive from Puerto Varas and then a short ferry crossing. The scenery was very different to the Lake District with gentle rolling farmland. It is still very traditional and ox carts are still used. Chiloe is famous for its wooden churches. Each one was different and we enjoyed them all. This was a well worth while though long day. We had asked about spending a night on Chiloe but understand that accommodation can be basic…

The highlight of the week was the day we decided to head west away from the lakes towards the coast. Tourists don’t get into this area – it doesn’t figure in the guide books and there is nothing on the internet. There was a network of gravel roads on the map with few settlements. Signing was non existent. It was the kind of area you could get lost in for months and perhaps never be seen again… The empanadas at Paga are something we will remember for a long time.

After the Lake District we flew to Calama and spent several nights at San Pedro de Atacama. The flight along the Andes was stunning with the jagged snow covered peaks. As we approached Calama we could see the huge areas of the salt lakes glistening in the sun.

We loved the Atacama – it was seriously brilliant. Parts of it are completely dry and there has been no recorded rainfall. These areas are just stone, sand and dust with no plants. As you get nearer the mountains there are a few streams with trees and vegetation. This is where the small settlements are. If they are lucky they may get a some rainfall during the summer months – assuming there is some still left in the air as the main air flow is across the Andes from Argentina. Temperatures were 30 (ish) during the day but dropped to below freezing at night.

San Pedro is a tourist hub and there are a large number of travel companies running tours. It has an excellent small museum covering the history of the area.

We did the compulsory trip to the Tatio Geysers, which leaves at 4:30 as it is a two hour drive to the geyser field. You arrive just as dawn is breaking. The temperature was -12°C and even with all our layers you could feel the heat being drawn out of your body. We could see the steam hanging over the geysers. Then the sun came up and there was a magical moment as it lit up the steam and the glorious feeling of warmth gradually soaks through you. The geysers are best seen at dawn as the water vapour and steam from them hang in the cold air. Once the sun comes out the temperature goes up and the water vapour evaporates so you can't see it.

The full day trip to the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama with the Miscanti and Miniques Lagoons was the highlight. We loved the high plateau at 4,000+ meters. The grass is golden in colour, making the hillsides glow against the deep blue sky and lakes of blue water with very white edges.

Santiago was a culture shock after the Atacama. We preferred Santiago to Buenos Aires. It is a much newer city. The roads and pavements were wider and all the streets were lined with trees, especially Jacaranda, which were covered with beautiful mauve flowers. It is a pleasant city to wander round.

The pictures to go with the trip can be seen here: 

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